February 20, 2021

Why Josephus is not "Reliable"

Steve Mason's work on Josephus displays a mastery of two crafts: literary analysis and historical inquiry. In concluding the second chapter of his magnum opus, A History of the Jewish War: AD 66-74, Mason briefly sums up the (general and preliminary) results of his literary analysis, which serves to prepare for the subsequent historical inquiry. That conclusion (p.136-7, exerpted below) happens to offer a world class survey of Josephus's compositional setting. That alone makes this blogpost worth your time.

More importantly, the following excerpt also provides clear and helpful reasoning as to why we cannot merely read Josephus's text critically if we wish to extract historical judgments. Rather, our use of Josephus requires a skillful execution of both crafts (again, literary analysis and historical inquiry), with the primary task serving our subsequent efforts. 

The most important point of this chapter is the distinction between real life, in our case the boundless complexity of lives interacting in the 60s and 70s of the first century in southern Syria, and the meagreness of any survivals from that period. This distinction holds even for the best possible case: a seemingly detailed and full ancient monograph written at the time by an intelligent eyewitness to all sides. That happy situation, for which we can only be grateful, does not change the reality that a narrative is an entirely different thing from real events.

Josephus’ War was not immaculately conceived. It was incubated in the quotidian reality of Flavian Rome. There, in a lively but unforgiving literary culture, Josephus wrote as the spokesman of the defeated nation. Judeans had been humiliated in the  Flavian triumph and local scribblers were now converting the themes of Flavian propaganda into historical prose. Josephus, a prominent aristocrat from Jerusalem with unique knowledge of the subject, wrote to stake his claim. Dismissing the others as cheap polemicists, he could reasonably posture as a statesman of uncommon gravitas and moral-political insight. Authoritatively tracing Roman-Judean relations from their origins until the recent conflict, he sought to elevate the character of his nation and such leaders as himself in Roman esteem. Rather than advancing a thesis, he worked to create an atmosphere of understanding among like-minded elites concerned with polis affairs. His literary character together with his flesh-and-blood presence in Rome provided the medium and chief moral exemplum.

It should now be clear why this literary effort could never be reliable for us. We might as well ask whether a song or a mountain is reliable. When scholars declare Josephus unreliable, they usually do so to complain about him. They mean that his War is biased or tendentious, sloppy and careless, filled with gaps. The criticism assumes that he should have written with either no biases or better ones. I hope to have shown that such a longing for safe, unskewed data is not only a mirage but a recipe for misery. A realistic approach to Josephus' work is far more interesting.

Josephus, like Tacitus or Dio, did not write for us. We could not share his values and interests even if we wanted to. We cannot meaningfully speak of curses incurred by polluters of Jerusalem's sanctuary, about the moral quality of various ethne, or about his degree of insight into polis leadership. We can only try to understand his work as a product of its time. Our task is different: to formulate and investigate our problems, such as: Who was Cestius Gallus and what did his expedition intend? Or, what were the Flavians' aims in Galilee? No ancient historian formulated these problems as such; much less did they methodically investigate them. We must conduct our inquiries and let Josephus rest in peace. Although we should be pleased that he wrote as much a he did, so well and so durably, our historia is our responsibility.

If you wish to understand more thoroughly, there is no better way that to work through and digest the brilliant craftswork on display in this utterly delightful doorstop, now in paperback for only $40. I also highly recommend the companion book, Orientation to the History of Roman Judaea ($10 on Kindle). The chapter on methodology alone is worth ten times that price, quite easily.

Finally, for today, here is my own relevant bit of advice. As Momigliano famously said, "To see how the historian transforms sources into the life of the past, it is easier to learn from Herodotus, Guicciardini, Burckhardt, and Marc Bloch than from any manual of historical method." That is, we learn how to do history by reading actual histories written by skillful historians.

If you work in Gospel studies, and you want to do history critically, then you should absolutely move Steve Mason to the top of your reading list.


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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton