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Josephus' Menorah and Readers of History

Danielle J Perry

University of Pennsylvania

Josephus’ mention of the golden menorah from the Jerusalem temple - an artifact whose detached description has led to much unease among scholars - stands out in his passage on the Flavian triumph in the Bellum Judaicum. This lampstand held an important position in both Jewish history and Roman representations of the Jewish people. The former point is highlighted by Josephus himself in book twelve of the Antiquitates Judaicae, a text detailing Jewish history up to the revolt (66-73 CE) and written at the end of the Flavian period. The latter point can be glimpsed in the Arch of Titus, a monument erected by Domitian to commemorate the Flavian suppression of Judea and featuring the famous candelabrum as the centerpiece of the spoils. The menorah, an artifact that comes to be imbued with double meaning depending on the perspective of the audience, becomes, in this passage, a tool through which Josephus can communicate his own double-vision.

Recent scholarship has considered the role of vision and audience in the triumph scene and has even used the language of spectacle to make sense of Josephus’ distant tone throughout the passage (Ash 2014, Chapman 2009). This interpretation is in direct response to the general sense of disquiet felt when reading an almost mechanical passage about Jewish oppression written by a Jewish historian (Chapman 2005). While the lens of spectacle is a useful entry point into a more nuanced understanding of what Josephus is doing in this passage, it only gets us part of the way to reconciling the ambivalence of this section of text. As spectators, the readers of Josephus’ text become naturally complicit in the Roman triumph - we see what the narrator tells us to see, are impressed by the gold and silver taken from the Jerusalem Temple, and, as Josephus himself remarks, the magnificence of the spoils reveals the entirety of the Jewish Revolt to those who were not there to witness it, as if they were (B.J. 7.147). However, the triumph changes from uneasy spectacle to something wholly different with the introduction of the menorah. With one word - ‘our’- Josephus throws a wrench in both the view of the triumph as pro-Roman and the view of it as an anti-Roman spectacle. When the historian says that the lampstand is different from those found in ‘our use’ (τὴν ἡμετέραν χρῆσιν) he forces the reader into an unsettling position. This ‘our’, which I argue refers to the Jewish people, abruptly re-inserts the Jewish perspective back into this seemingly pro-Roman triumph and demarcates the role of the audience with respect to the author.

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