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  • The Sicarii in Josephus's Judean War: Rhetorical Analysis and Historical Observations
  • Stuart Robertson
The Sicarii in Josephus's Judean War: Rhetorical Analysis and Historical Observations, by Mark Andrew Brighton. Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009. 184 pages. $132.00.

This book is a revision of the author's doctoral dissertation under the direction of Prof. Steve Mason. It provides a careful "literary/rhetorical analysis" of Josephus' account of the Sicarii, the dagger-men among the Jewish insurgents against the Romans in the latter days of the Second Temple period.

Here we find two views of "the mind of the maker," to use Dorothy Sayers' term. First we see into the mind of Brighton and see that unlike many modern scholars studying Josephus, he trusts this ancient author. Second, Brighton looks into Josephus' mind, perceiving that he subtly negotiated his way between the problem of denying to Rome the credit for ending the reign of terror of the Sicarii, and branding these assassins of their fellow Jews as without redeeming features. Josephus argues that the Sicarii got what they deserved, death for their actions that led to the destruction of the Temple. Yet, they gave evidence of some of the nobility of the Jewish martyrs who in other circumstances preferred death to either losing their freedom or denying their God. It was God rather than Rome, Josephus subtly argues, who deserves the credit for the way the Sicarii at Masada met their end.

Brighton shows that Josephus does not always use the term Sicarii to refer to perpetrators of every violent criminal act of Jews hostile to Rome. What was unique about the Sicarii is that they killed fellow Jews. They are usually being referred to when Josepus uses the terms lestai (bandits), stasis (civil unrest), or tolmé (daring). Josephus states that the Sicarii took this name for themselves because the daggers they used in their assassinations were like the Roman siccus, a short sword, easily hidden in one's garments. It was unclear to me if Josephus meant they earned this epithet, or that they composed the title [End Page 178] for themselves. Why would Jews so zealous for freedom and purity of religion choose such a negative appellation?

In the end, Brighton is convinced that the zealots that fortified themselves and laid down their lives at Masada were Sicarii, even though Josephus does not refer to them as such. Those that died at Masada merited this name for their periodic raids in which they killed fellow Jews.

The author perceives a chiasmic structure in the Judean War as it reports rebellious movements at the beginning and at the end. Towards the beginning, War 1.32 tells of stasis during the latter days of the Maccabees, when dissension erupted among some of the "Jewish nobles" so that followers of Tobias actually plundered the temple and interrupted the sacrifices, causing Onias, his rival for the high priesthood, to retreat to Heliopolis in Egypt, where he built a temple like that in Jerusalem. At the end of the story, in War 7.426, Onias' temple is described as unlike the Jerusalem Temple, but with an altar like that in Jerusalem. After this temple was destroyed by the then governor, the Sicarii carried on their violent deeds elsewhere in north Africa, in Cyrene—as the Sicarii at Masada did away from Jerusalem. Their ringleader, Jonathan, like Eleazar who had led the Sicarii at Masada, did not succeed, but his lack of success was more inglorious because Jonathan died in monumental agony, whereas Eleazar had died nobly at Masada. Josephus reports that he was exonerated when the Sicarii in Cyrene tried to implicate him in their misdeeds. Perhaps this too is part of the chiasm, the coming around again of this tragic element in the story of the Jews in the latter days of the Second Temple. Despised by many fellow Jews as a parvenu after his capture and support by the Flavian emperors, at the end Josephus is freed from blame, at least on the account of complicity with the Sicarii (7,448).

This excellent book is organized succinctly so as to keep in focus the author's objective...


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pp. 178-180
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