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  • Pain and Pity in Two Postbiblical Responses to Joseph’s Power in Genesis
  • Donald Lateiner

Josephus’s first-century rewrite of ancient Jewish biblical legend and “history” (Ant. 1.17: “neither adding nor omitting anything”) and the brief, anonymous, somewhat chronologically unanchored Testament of Zebulun both address Joseph and his brothers. Both attribute unforgiving and compassionate responses by Joseph and his many brothers to others’ pain in the original biblical narrative. Françoise Mirguet’s essay innovatively pairs these two works conceived in different genres and flowing from divergent cultural expectations.

The Jewish historian wrote his narrative in Aramaic, then translated it with help into Greek for the educated, wealthier Mediterranean classes thriving under Roman rule (War, praef.; cf. Ant. 20.11). This was two decades after he had promised an “archaeology” and finished his polemical Jewish War. On occasion, Josephus foregrounds pity and presents examples of the emotion in a manner familiar to readers of Aristotle’s Rhetorics and Poetics. There, pity (if an emotion at all, as Mirguet notes [p. 843]) follows someone’s appraisal from safety and emerges from a sensed superiority to the situation of the pitiable person. In contrast, and possibly enriched by Christian contaminations, Testament of Zebulun (Jewish or Jewish-Christian in origin and apparently written in Greek), foregrounds human vulnerability as an unavoidable, universal trait, and compassion, consequently, as a universally desirable response. The relatively insignificant sixth son of Jacob narrates events of his life that invite or require his deathbed meditation on mercy and compassion (surely motivating early Christians’ interest).

Josephus’s Joseph, desperately appealing for supportive action and practical assistance, evokes pity in a situation far from any Hellenic theatrical stage but in the context of postclassical Hellenic values and expectations. In Testament of Zebulun, however, the pitier who is helpless to help can still show pity (emotional support) by intensifying his or her emotional display, however ineffectual. The self in these two texts calibrates its reaction toward others’ suffering differently, depending [End Page 863] on one’s own situation and on one’s view of the extent to which cognition and judgment of suffering are essential to feeling pity.

Hellenists will worry that Mirguet inadequately explains or explores the vague and capacious Hellenic “rhetorical tradition.” Just what was “the influence of Aristotle’s Rhetoric on [Josephus’s] historiography” (p. 847)? Mirguet looks no further than Herodotus for the literal meaning of σπλάγχνα, the inner organs of sacrificial animals, but the noun appears earlier, in both the Iliad (1.464) and the Odyssey (3.461). She then traces the metaphorical meaning, “gut-felt compassion (root σπλάγχν-)” (p. 839)—whether anger, anxiety, or love—to its appearances in the dramatists and Theocritus, the poet of love idylls (p. 851). There the word provides the seat of erotic passion (7.99), part of the Hellenistic poets’ eroticization of all sorts of figurative vocabulary.

Josephus, like previous “Hellenistic” historians, features emotions in his accounts—characters’ feelings and passions that agitated susceptible readers supplement, if not displace, dryer accounts of battle strategies, assembly debates, and partisan bickering. Such matters of state earlier filled more of the pages of Thucydides, although Herodotus’s narrative before, and Xenophon’s later, found greater room for scenes of pathos. Like these distant fifth-century congeners, Josephus claims a dedication to truth, not to entertainment or distortion from prejudice (Ant., praef.; War, praef.). Nevertheless, he also proudly proclaims himself the successful deceiver in tight quarters of many contemporaries (Ant., praef. 3.14, 26), so his own words call into question this rhetoric posturing about his dependability. Meanwhile, he faults those scurrilous compatriots who write garbled accounts designed to flatter or abuse, or who commemorate, he alleges, from ignorance, zealotry, or hearsay.

If one wishes to evaluate properly Josephus’s emotional or dramatizing quotient in narratives, the better comparand would be his own lively account of the Roman war with the Jews. Otherwise, one might compare contemporary historiographers such as the Romans Tacitus or Pliny the Elder (mostly lost) or the biographers, both Greek Plutarch and the nearly contemporary North African Latinist Suetonius, who had access to the Roman imperial archives. The severely senatorial and savage critic of the emperors, Cornelius Tacitus, is...


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