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Josephus' Remarks on his Greek and Elite Identity in the Second Sophistic

Sarah Teets

University of Virginia

It was a commonplace in scholarship of an earlier generation to assert that Flavius Josephus was not a particularly competent Hellenist (Laqueur 1920 and Thackeray 1929). Such pronouncements seemed to be invited, or at least justified, by Josephus’ own claim to have struggled to attain precise Greek pronunciation at Jewish Antiquities 20.263 (τῶν Ἑλληνικῶν δὲ γραμμάτων ἐσπούδασα μετασχεῖν τὴν γραμματικὴν ἐμπειρίαν ἀναλαβών, τὴν δὲ περὶ τὴν προφορὰν ἀκρίβειαν πάτριος ἐκώλυσεν συνήθεια.), as well as his statement that he employed συνεργοί (Thackeray’s “assistants”) for the Greek language while composing the Jewish War at Against Apion 1.50 (χρησάμενός τισι πρὸς τὴν Ἑλληνίδα φωνὴν συνεργοῖς οὕτως ἐποιησάμην τῶν πράξεων τὴν παράδοσιν). While more recent scholars interpret Josephus’ claims in these passages less harshly, and generally hold that Josephus’ skills in Greek are no worse than his contemporaries (Rajak 1983 and Mason 2009), many nevertheless maintain that Josephus’ remarks at Antiquities 20.263 and Apion 1.50 constitute straightforward claims of linguistic incompetence, regardless of whether these claims are sincere. This paper dispels this notion by situating the passages in the context of the nascent Second Sophistic. In this context, such self-conscious statements of an author’s purported shortcomings as a Hellenist are a form of posturing and identity performance, and are found among other contemporary or near-contemporary authors who, like Josephus, express bicultural identities, such as Favorinus and Lucian. I argue that Josephus presents himself in these passages as an author deeply engaged in the elite Hellenophone culture of his time, an active participant in rather than an outsider to this culture.

The Greek language itself, and specifically the use of Attic Greek, became arguably the primary site of Greek cultural identity during the Second Sophistic (and a trend already in evidence in the late first century CE), even for non-ethnic Greeks (Swain 1996 and Whitmarsh 2001). In this context, Josephus’ display of Atticizing tendencies in his Greek (Pelletier 1962, Feldman 1998, Redondo 2000,) itself takes on new meaning, and shows a degree of participation in Greek cultural identity (despite Josephus’ overt protestations to the contrary throughout Apion), which gives us grounds for situating the remarks at Antiquities 20.263 and Apion 1.50 within the milieu of the Second Sophistic.

Mason, in his analysis of Josephus’ remarks on his Greek, gestures toward the context of the Second Sophistic milieu of hyper-criticism of others’ Greek, specifically toward Lucian’s Pseudologista and Pro lapsu inter salutandum. Yet Lucian in these works seeks to satirize not only the culture of Atticism, but the anxiety purportedly experienced by would-be Atticists. If we compare Antiquities 20.263 and Apion 1.50 with these works by Lucian as well as with Favorinus’ remarks in his Corinthian Oration (Dio 37.25-6) on his laborious attainments in Greek culture, a picture emerges not merely of a self-consciousness regarding one’s use of Greek, but a pattern of asserting the difficulty involved in achieving proper (Attic) Greek. In a world in which there had been no native speakers of Attic for centuries, and in which composition of Attic prose was always an artificial exercise (Swain 1996, Horrocks 2014, Kim 2014), these remarks constitute further markers of elite cultural identity. In this regard, Josephus was hardly at any major linguistic disadvantage by the time of his composition of Antiquites and Apion, but like his (near-)contemporaries used such statements about the difficulties involved in his attainment of Greek language and learning in the construction of his identity as a member of the Hellenophone elite.

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Ethnicity and Identity

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