Josephus's Second Temple Period

Wednesday, July 14, 2021
Jewish general and Roman historian Yosef ben Matityahu (1st century), also known as Flavius Josephus, remains an enigmatic figure in Jewish history. A military leader during the First Judeo-Roman War (66-73), he was enslaved by the Romans, and became a favorite of the Emperor Vespasian, ultimately earning his freedom and entering Roman service as a historian. He is perhaps best known for the following works: De Bello Judaico (The Jewish War) about the fall of Jerusalem—one of the all too painful events memorialized during Tishah be-Av; Antiquitates Judaicae (Jewish Antiquities) covering all of Jewish history through the destruction of the Temple in an attempt to offer a positive view of the Jews to the Roman public; and Contra Apionem (Againt Apion), a Jewish apologetics in the face of anti-Jewish polemics circulating at the time. His various works offer one of the clearest contemporary views of Jewish life and thought in the Second Temple Period and he is still relied upon as one of the premiere primary sources in the study of that period.

Despite the hefty grain of salt with which modern historians take Josephus’s accounts, his histories have long been treated as an almost obligatory commentary to Biblical historical texts, especially of Second Temple events. Indeed, by some estimates Josephus’s works in Latin were the most widely copied historical texts before the advent of print. These first appeared in 1470, a mere twenty years after the development of movable-type printing. Over the next seventy years, until the first edition (editio princeps) of the Greek version appeared in 1544, some twenty-four editions were produced. If the Bible was considered de rigueur for home libraries in the modern period, Josephus ranked a very close second. Consider, for example, the numerous editions of Josephus’s works “adapted to the capacities of young persons,” or “pour server à l’education et à l’amusement de l’enfance.” Such books, offering digests of the especially gripping scenes from Josephus’s martial accounts, often amply illustrated, testify to the ubiquity of Josephus.

The Klau Library, Cincinnati, has an exceptional collection of Josephus imprints, including incunabula (that is, books printed prior to 1500), beginning with the Venice editions of 1481, 1486, and 1499, as well as the Florentine edition of The Jewish War in Italian translation from 1493. Encompassing hundreds of volumes and at least fifteen different languages, including Welsh, the Klau’s collection offers a remarkable window into how Josephus was mediated and translated into the modern world.

A curious feature of these printed works when viewed as a collection is how relatively few of them are illustrated. One would expect historical works depicting dramatic events, especially in Palestine—the subject of intense visual scrutiny in the print world—to garner the lavish attention of illustrators. For Josephus’s first few centuries in print that seems largely not to have been the case. There are some exceptions, including a French translation of The Jewish War from 1533, which offers an anachronistic overlay of late medieval warfare onto the ravaging of Jerusalem. Despite the SPQR (Senatus Populusque Romanus = “The Senate and the People of Rome;” the Roman government’s motto) on one of the plunderer’s skirts in this image, the Imperial Eagle on the standard indicates a Roman Empire more “Holy” and Hapsburg, than that of Vespasian and Titus.

For all the plunder and destruction, the images do offer more affective moments, too. Indeed, in one of the most storied of accounts in Josephus, the fall of Masada—about which we still rely almost exclusively on Josephus—the illustrations serve to heighten the reader’s attention to the text to an almost melodramatic degree, as seen in this image published in the 1830 edition from Philadelphia.

However we encounter Josephus today, both his text and their illustrative interpretations remain an inescapable lens through which to view the history of the Second Temple period.

Contributed by Dr. Jordan Finkin, Rare Book Librarian

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