The real and the ideal in Josephus.

Direction of traditional development: A test case.


Demonstrating the validity of the principle of the real and the ideal.

This essay is an experiment in proving a proposition that needs no proof, a case study in exposing the blatantly obvious.

There is no doubt that Josephus, the Jewish historian of the late first century, depended upon the Old Testament for information for his own opus, Antiquities of the Jews. We know historically that the former was written centuries before the latter, and the first eleven of the twenty books of the Antiquities follow the historical sequence of the Hebrew scriptures, frequently calling those writings out by name (such as the books of Moses).

Nevertheless, I intend to prove in this essay that the historical traditions discussed both in the Old Testament and by Josephus developed in the direction of the former to the latter. That is, the Old Testament represents the tradition in an earlier form than do the works of the Jewish historian. I intend to offer proof for the manifest.

One may wonder why anyone would engage in such redundancy. My purpose is to bear out the validity of a principle that I like to use for determining the direction of traditional development in the historical Jesus or apostolic tradition. I call it the principle of the real and the ideal, and I encourage the reader to familiarize himself or herself with the particulars of that principle before continuing here, mainly because the wording that I have chosen is abstract. One must know what I mean by real and what I mean by ideal before studying an application of the rule.

With that caveat in mind, allow me to state the principle up front for clarity:

The historical Jesus or apostolic tradition tends to develop from the realistic to the idealistic.

I rephrase this principle in two ways in order to account for two different kinds of cases. The first case is the availability of two or more instances of the same tradition:

Given two or more parallel instances of historical Jesus or apostolic tradition, it is more likely that what is relatively realistic has developed into what is relatively idealistic than that what is relatively idealistic has developed into what is relatively realistic.

The second case is the availability of only one instance of a tradition:

Given only one instance of historical Jesus or apostolic tradition in which a tension exists between what is relatively realistic and what is relatively idealistic, it is more likely that the piece has been developed from an already extant tradition than that it has been invented for the occasion.

But anyone can state a rule or principle. The trick is demonstrating its validity. Since I intend to use my stated principle for studying the New Testament and apostolic fathers, I cannot very well turn to those writings to demonstrate the validity of my rule. They are the variables. My experiment needs a control.

Which is why I turn to Josephus. Since we can know historically that he based his Antiquities on the Old Testament before we even begin, he affords a perfect test case for the rule of the real and the ideal.

In order to use Josephus, however, we must rephrase the principle slightly:

The Jewish historical tradition tends to develop from the realistic to the idealistic.

For with Josephus, of course, we are no longer dealing with the historical Jesus or apostolic traditions. Theoretically it may be possible for two different traditions to bear two exactly opposite tendencies. But such a possibility would have to be tested and retested and proven beyond a shadow of a doubt before scholarly suspicion could ever properly be laid to rest. The strength of an historical criterion is in its applicability to a wide variety of historical situations. If the principle of the real and the ideal works with Josephus and the scriptures, then we have every right to expect that it will work with Jesus and the apostles.

We must take special care with Josephus and his sources. Because he often refers to his sources explicitly, we must mentally block out those explicit references. We must pretend either that they are not there, or that they read as more of a generic allusion to common opinion. We must never let on that we already know what sources Josephus is using.

Keep in mind that the principle of the real and the ideal is not intended to prove literary dependence necessarily, a direct connection between two texts. It is intended to prove only that the tradition as presented in one text is more original than that same tradition as presented in another, whether the connection be oral or written or some combination of the two. So, while we know that there is a direct literary connection between Josephus and the scriptures, we are not out to demonstrate such a direct connection here, only that the scriptures represent the tradition closer to the root than does Josephus.

All historical rules admit of exceptions. Finding one case in which the rule works does not mean very much. Historical proof is approached as the cases multiply. On the other hand, given that most authors strive for clarity and prefer to use sources with which they find themselves in agreement, as much as possible, discovering cases of internal or external tension is not always easy. It is a scavenger hunt. But the longer a work is, the more raw material for such tension there is.

Finally, let me enunciate clearly what is at stake. If sound application of the real and the ideal tends to demonstrate that Josephus represents a more developed form of the traditions of the Old Testament, then that stated principle is probably on the right track, and it is safe to move on with it to New Testament studies. If, however, it tends to demonstrate that the scriptures represent the more developed form, then we ought to rethink the principle, and probably discard it.

Without further ado, I offer three test cases for our consideration.

The king and the temple.

Imagine for a moment that neither the Old Testament nor the Antiquities had survived the years. Imagine that suddenly we found scraps of them in some desert cache, and were thus able to study them, however partially, for the first time. Imagine that only one piece of the scriptures was found, namely either 2 Samuel 7.1-17 or 1 Chronicles 17.1-15 (which are virtually identical with one another), and that two scraps of the Antiquities were found. The first of these two Josephan scraps is the story of Abraham and Isaac at Moriah, the mount on which Abraham intends, by the command of God, to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. This scrap ends with Josephus informing us of the significance of that very mountain in 1.13.2 §226:

Και δυο μεν ημερας αυτω συνωδευσαν οι οικεται, τη τριτη δε ως κατοπτον ην αυτω το ορος, καταλιπων εν τω πεδιω τους συνοντας μετα μονου του παιδος παραγινεται εις το ορος, εφ ου το ιερον Δαβιδης ο βασιλευς υστερον ιδρυεται.

And for two days the household servants journeyed with him, but on the third day, when the mountain was visible to him, he left those who were with him on the plain and with the child alone approached the mountain, upon which David the king later constructed the temple.

The other Josephan scrap in our hypothetical scenario is the story of king David building an altar on the same mountain, Moriah, in order to stave off a divinely decreed pestilence. Our scrap breaks off at 7.13.4 §334a:

Ορων δ ο βασιλευς Δαυιδης της ευχης αυτου τον θεον επηκοον γεγενημενον και την θυσιαν ηδεως προσδεξαμενον, εκρινε τον τοπον εκεινον ολον βωμον προσαγορευσαι του λαου παντος και οικοδομησαι ναον τω θεω.

And when the king David saw that God had heard his prayer and sweetly accepted the sacrifice, he judged to address that whole place as the platform of all the people and to build a temple to God.

2 Samuel 7.1-17 and 1 Chronicles 17.1-15 tell us that it was not David who built the temple on the mount called Moriah; it was his son. Yet Josephus says that it was David in that first passage from his Antiquities above. Could we, from these three fragments alone, reconstruct which person the original tradition probably named as the builder of the temple?

I think so. Josephus tips his hand in that second fragment, indicating that it would have been ideal if David built the temple. The fragment from either 2 Samuel or 1 Chronicles agrees that David building the temple was so natural and expected that Nathan the prophet urged him to build it before he actually even heard from God on the matter; God had to correct Nathan that night. Yet this latter fragment, despite the ideal connection of David with the temple, insists that it was his son who really built the temple.

Our principle of the real and the ideal, then, enables us to conclude that 2 Samuel 7.1-17 or 1 Chronicles 17.1-15 represents the more original story, while the first fragment from Josephus represents wishful thinking on his part. It seems more probable that Josephus (or even a later copyist) accidentally fulfilled a wish in this tangential phrase in the story of Abraham and Isaac than that the original story had David building the temple, and later it was changed to Solomon.

To put the matter another way, if Solomon actually built the temple, we can easily account for king David appearing (accidentally) in Antiquities 1.13.2 §226. But if David actually built the temple, we cannot very easily see why 2 Samuel 7.1-17 and 1 Chronicles 17.1-15 would have changed it to his son. The external tension between the scriptures and Josephus, then, points in only one direction of development.

Stepping back out of our imaginary scenario, we know that Josephus knew that it was Solomon, and not David, who built the temple. He describes its construction under Solomon in 8.2-3, just as 1 Kings 5-7 and 2 Chronicles 2-4 record. The Davidic reference in 1.13.2 §226 is merely a Josephan slip. It is a slip, however, best explained by his wishing that it had been David who actually built the temple.

Since we know that Josephus is indeed secondary to the Old Testament, we can see that, so far, our principle of the real and the ideal is holding true.

The death of Moses.

Imagine now that we knew nothing at all of the Old Testament, that it was utterly lost to us. Imagine that we therefore did not have any access to the story or tradition that lies behind Josephus, Antiquities 4.8.48 §326a, about the passing away of Moses:

Ασπαζομενου δε και τον Ελεαζαρον αυτου και τον Ιησουν και προσομιλουντος ετι, νεφους αιφνιδιον υπερ αυτον σταντος αφανιζεται κατα τινος φαραγγος.

And as he was taking leave of both Eleazar and Joshua and still conversing, a cloud suddenly stood over him and he disappeared into a certain chasm.

In this passage Moses is translated in a cloud. Yet only a sentence or two later, in Antiquities 4.8.49 §327 Josephus describes his passing rather differently:

Εβιωσε δε τον παντα χρονον ετων εικοσι και εκατον, ων ηρξε το τριτον μερος ενι λειποντι μηνι. ετελευτησε δε τω υστατω μηνι του ετους, υπο μεν Μακεδονων Δυστρου καλουμενου, Αδαρου δ υφ ημων, νουμηνια.

And he lived out all of his time, one hundred twenty years, a third part of which, less one month, he was ruler. And he came to his end on the last month of the year, which is called Dystrus by the Macedonians, but Adar by us, on the first day of the month.

(The Greek verb τελευταω most commonly meant to die at the time that Josephus wrote. It always, for example, means to die in the New Testament.)

This is one of those cases in which we find an internal tension within a work. We therefore need no other text in order to make a judgment as to the direction of traditional development. Was the more original tradition that Moses was translated (much like Enoch in Genesis 5.24 or Elijah in 2 Kings 2.11) or that Moses simply died?

It takes no great mental effort to discern that Josephus has set Moses up as the paradigmatic leader of men. Josephus eulogizes him immediately after that latter passage above, in 4.8.49 §328-331, as a great general, a great prophet, and greatly virtuous. A translation, then, would seem to be the ideal destiny of such a great man, as it was for Enoch and Elijah, while his death was probably the grim reality of the situation.

(Note that this observation in no way implies that all great men are eventually blessed with a legendary passing. Rather, given two stories already composed, one of which is all too fitting, the other being quite mundane, the more mundane passing is probably what the original death account recorded.)

Of course, as we step out of our imaginary loss of the Old Testament, we see indeed that Deuteronomy 34.5-8 recounts a perfectly ordinary death for this great leader. We also find that Josephus himself, in Antiquities 4.8.48 §326b, refers explicitly to the scriptural account of the death of Moses, claiming that it was thus written up out of fear. But we are pretending in these exercises not to be aware of any explicit Josephan references to the Old Testament.

In proving independently that Josephus represents a further development of the scriptural traditions, our principle of the real and the ideal has once again held up to scrutiny.

Rahab the harlot.

In Antiquities 4.8.9 §206a, citing the law of Moses, Josephus lets us know in no uncertain terms how God looks upon harlots:

Εκ μισθου γυναικος ηταιρημενης θυσιας μη τελειν, ηδεσθαι γαρ μηδενι των αφ υβρεως το θειον, χειρων δ ουκ αν ειη της επι τοις σωμασιν αισχυνης.

From the wage of a woman who offers companionship do not complete sacrifices, for in no way is the divine pleased by things of hubris, and there is nothing worse than this shame against bodies.

(We need not long wonder what kind of companionship this hypothetical woman is offering.)

Now, Joshua 2.1-21 recounts how a prostitute (LXX πορνη) named Rahab helped hide two spies sent by Joshua, and thus procured safety from the invading Israelites whenever they should take the city by force. Rahab is further honored for her deed in Joshua 6.25.

Josephus, too, recounts this story in Antiquities 5.1.2 §5-15. But he nowhere calls Rahab a prostitute. Instead, he says that she ran an inn (καταγωγιον); she was an innkeeper.

Granted that being an innkeeper seems a more noble profession than being a harlot, and that Josephus does not condemn innkeeping as he does harlotry, which tradition would we regard as the more original if we had only Joshua 2.1-21 and Antiquities 4.8.9 §206a and 5.1.2 §5-15 to work from? I would say that Rahab was really a prostitute in the original story, and that Josephus has found that profession a little less than ideal for a woman honored in such a way amongst the Israelites, and has for that reason toned her way of life down from harlot to innkeeper. He has exercised a gentle censorship, as it were.

Once again the principle of the real and the ideal points us in the right direction.

I submit, then, that this principle...:

The historical Jesus or apostolic tradition tends to develop from the realistic to the idealistic.

...is worth our time implementing in our study of the traditions surrounding Jesus and the apostles. With all due caution, and with an eye out for the exception to the rule, I intend to follow leads that this principle suggests in pursuing the path of development of historical Jesus and apostolic traditions.