15 March 2015

Josephus and the Jews

I teach Josephus’s The Jewish War every year in one of my classes, and I was excited to get my hands on this book to give me some further insight into the character and work of Josephus. Unfortunately, I was ultimately disappointed in Josephus and the Jews by F.J. Foakes Jackson.

Many of the book’s primary problems are due to the fact that it was written in 1930. The edition I read had 1978 on the copyright page, and did not indicate that it was a reprint of an earlier book. It was only as I was reading the book and noticing some seriously outdated terminology that I began to suspect the book was much older. A quick Google search confirmed the fact.

The first effect of reading a book about Josephus written in 1930 is that a huge amount of the information is outdated. The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered between 1946 and 1956, changed the way we think about Jewish sects in the first century A.D. Masada, which plays a large role in the ending of the war between the Romans and Jews was not excavated extensively until Yigael Yadin undertook the task in the 1960s. Another effect of reading a book written during this time period is that the author continually makes reference to Zionism as a movement. This was, of course, prior to Israel gaining statehood in 1948. Jackson identifies modern Zionists with the Jewish rebels in Josephus which colors his vision of the first century events.

There are three particular qualities of this book that prevent it from being very useful today. First, I was surprised at how uncritical the book was, especially when it needed to be. The author does talk about Josephus’s sources to some extent, but in many places is content to simply summarize what Josephus wrote. I was looking for some more in-depth commentary and criticism about Josephus’s history.

Second, Jackson offers some strange moralizing in various parts of the book. He also displays a good bit of antagonistic and ethnocentric attitude toward the Jews and all eastern nations. He talks often of Oriental savagery and/or fanaticism and opposes it to Roman and Western civilization and rationality. He has almost nothing good to say about Jewish leaders who fought for independence, but attempts to continually defend the Jews who embraced the Romans. This was especially interesting in the fact that he tried to paint the Herodians as magnanimous and civilized and downplays the cruelties of the members of Herod’s family.

Third, while he starts with a discussion of Josephus’s autobiography and his book Against Apion, and though he ends with a very brief discussion of the Jewish Antiquities, he spends the majority of his time on The Jewish War. It’s a good historical overview, but that can be had in many books about the time period.

So, in conclusion, though Josephus and the Jews may have been a useful book for the time in which it was written, its lack of criticism, odd moral judgments, and unbalanced emphasis on one of Josephus’s works coupled with the outdated information makes this book pretty well obsolete for the study of Josephus today.

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