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A New Approach to the Jewish Antiquities: Flavius Josephus' Philosophy of Monarchy

Jacob Feeley

Most scholars have viewed books 1-10 of Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities as a retelling of the Bible (e.g. Wiseman, 1991; Feldman, 1998; Spilsbury, 1998), yet doing so simplifies the text, flattening out its interesting and sophisticated aspects. In contrast to this traditional reading, this paper argues that the themes in books 1-10 pervade the rest of the work (books 11-20). To illustrate this point, I show that reading these books alongside Classical texts, rather than just the biblical text, indicates that Josephus was familiar with Greek and Roman discourse on monarchical rule, and had a fully formed philosophy of kingship. Understanding this philosophy is crucial for Classicists using Antiquities; it informs Josephus’ attitude towards the reigns of the Hasmonean kings, the Herodian kings Herod and Agrippa I, and Caligula, which occupy much of Antiquities books 11-20.

The case study I present comes from Josephus’ version of King Saul’s brutal murder of a high priest and his family, an episode which few scholars have closely examined (Feldman, 2005). Josephus’ version generally adheres to the Bible’s account (1 Sam. 22.6-23). Yet, whereas the biblical text proceeds immediately to the next narrative unit, Josephus interrupts his narrative with an excursus on the corrupting nature of power. Using the language of exemplarity (Roller, 2009), and drawing on typical Greek kingship discourse, Josephus illustrates through Saul’s actions the common pitfalls facing sole rulers (Ant. 6.262).

Josephus explains that as long as men maintain a “private” (ἰδιώτης) and “lowly” (ταπεινός) status, they are unable to express their true natures; accordingly, they adhere to “leniency” (ἐπιείκεια), “moderation” (μετριότης), and “justice” (δικαιοσύνη) (Ant. 6.263). As soon as they obtain royal power (δυναστεία), however, they abandon precisely those virtues which are most necessary for sole rulers (Ant. 6.264). They eschew piety (εὐσέβεια) and justice (δικαιοσύνη), fall under the influence of slander (διαβολή), and execute their friends out of envy or fear (Ant. 6.265-267).

The virtues discussed by Josephus are drawn from the standard Greek and Roman repertoire of royal virtues deemed essential for “good” kings (Schubart, 1937; Aalders, 1975; Walbank, 1984; Noreña, 2006), and attested in Classical texts on ideal kingship, such as Xenophon’s Hiero and Agesilaus; Isocrates’ Nicocles, To Nicocles, and Evagoras; the Hellenistic-Jewish Letter to Philocrates; Philo’s the Life of Joseph, Against Flaccus, and Embassy to Gaius; Dio Chrysostem’s four On Kingship orations; Pliny’s Panegyricus; and Seneca’s On Clemency (Haake, 2013). Moreover, Josephus’ stress on the dangers facing men transitioning between “private” (ἰδιώτης) and royal status has an antecedent in Isocrates’ remarks that kings as opposed to “private men” (ἰδιῶται) are especially prone to corruption (To Nicocles, 4-6). Finally, in describing the consequences of the corruption of power, Josephus draws extensively from the Greek “discourse of tyranny” (Luraghi, 2015), which attributed a standard set of features to “bad” rulers, such as: impiety, cruelty, and susceptibility to slander—all of which were amply demonstrated in the behavior of Saul.

There are many other cases in Antiquities books 1-10 in which Josephus draws on Greek and Roman concepts of good and bad kingship to present biblical rulers as positive and negative examples of kingly rule. These occur elsewhere in his account of Saul, and frequently in his accounts of David, Solomon, and the lesser known biblical kings. They also constitute significant sections in his accounts of non-royal rulers like Moses and Nehemiah. His discussion of all of these figures demonstrates that Josephus, like other Greek and Roman historians, used the past to express his general political philosophy of kingship. Thus Josephus’ attitude towards rulers like the Hasmonean kings, Herod the Great, Agrippa I, and Caligula is informed not only by his evaluation of each individual ruler, but also by his general philosophy of kingship, which fused Jewish, Greek, and Roman ideas about royal government.

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Ancient Kingship

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