Monday, August 16, 2010

Understanding the Grandfather Text Behind Jewish War as a Second Century Document Written Just After the Bar Kochba Revolt

t takes a while for discovery to really sink in but I just want to say that the more I think about what I uncovered in this post the more that I think that I found a key that unlocks the underlying context for the Jewish War tradition being written in 147 CE.

Let's start again at the beginning.

Scholars have always scratched their heads when Josephus tells Vespasian that 'the law of the Jews' says that a Jewish commander has to kill himself rather than be captured. As I noted in the post there is nowhere in the Torah where such a demand is made to Israelites.

Nevertheless we uncovered in the chapter 16 of Book Three of Pseudo-Hegesippus the underlying scriptural context of this statement - the example of Saul in 1 Samuel chapter 31 when, surrounded by a hostile foreign army:

Saul said to his armor-bearer, "Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me." But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day. [1 Sam 31.4 - 6]

The forty Jews who argue against Josephus's surrender to the Romans do so with the example that the 'god of the Hebrews' put forward Saul as an exemplar for how Jews should live their lives. They should die as inflexible martyrs.

I explained all of this already but I want to reinforce that when our received text of Jewish War has Josephus say that the law of the Jews demands that generals die rather than be captured it can only point to this chapter. The problem of course is that someone excised the material from our received text. In our version of the Jewish War the forty Jews never bring forward this scriptural explanation so scholars like Whiston are left scratching their heads about why Josephus makes these 'unfounded claims' about Jewish law.

What crossed my mind as I was getting into the car an hour ago was the rest of Whiston's footnote (cited in the last post). The point is that the curious understanding about 'what the Law of the Jews demands' - i.e. falling on one's sword - isn't isolated to the seemingly stupid statement made to Vespasian by Josephus.

It is one of the central doctrines of the Jewish War.

Whiston notes that the high priest Eleazar will come forward and echo the same ideas as being the demands of God and the law. The idea also appears at the beginning of the narrative in relation Phasaelus. And when I looked up the context of these references it was especially linked with one of the most controversial narratives in the Jewish War - the story of the mass suicide at Masada (which a number of scholars have noted is completely unhistorical).

What took so long to gestate in my brain is why Jewish War would have erased the original speech where the understanding of "what the law teaches about divinely sanctioned suicide" is fully expounded.

And then I figured it out.

The key to making sense of everything is that Josephus turns his back on this sort of extremism. The Jewish law teaches the example of Saul but Josephus decides to go over to the superior ways of the Romans. This is the key to unlock the purpose of establishing the highly theological grandfather text to our Jewish war in 147 CE a little over a decade after the great Jewish revolt of bar Kochba and seventy seven years after the anniversary of the destruction of the temple in the first Jewish war.

The purpose of the narrative was to provide an example of a Jew who turned his back on this central demand 'of the law of the Jews' toward extremism and zealotry. The same characterization of Judaism permeates Celsus near contemporary account. Judaism reaches an irrational logos which led to the Jews loosing everything i.e. not having a patch of earth to call their own.

First century Josephus being developed as a repentant Jew who turns his back on the example of Saul and goes over to a more 'civilized belief' is the whole purpose of the narrative. The only reason people haven't seen this before is because they were too busy pretending that it was a historical text.

And this also explains why the speech by the forty Jews to Josephus spelling out that the example of Saul is the essence of the law of the Jews had to be removed. First of all, it's stupid - Saul was envisioned as a rejected king, hardly the exemplar of virtue but more importantly the presence of this long and highly theological declaration (something more at home in rabbinic literature than in a Greek history book) taints the whole historical narrative.

Masada never happened. But the invented story of Jews falling on their swords in a mass suicide is immediately explainable as a literary creation when you realize that the original narrator - 'second century Josephus' - is using 1 Samuel chapter 31 and the example of the bad king Saul - as a paradigm for what is wrong with Judaism and why it leads to political extremism.

Josephus's surrender to Vespasian now can now be seen to be a paradigmatic decision to turn one's back on the extremism which ravaged through Judea and left the province looking like a nuclear blast had hit it. The point is that Masada wasn't originally conceived by 'second century Josephus' as a historical event at the end of the first Jewish War (which really ended in 70 CE with the destruction of the Jewish temple) BUT rather a prelude for the para-suicidal extremism which would continue into the future and culminate with the much bigger catastrophe which was the bar Kochba revolt.

Whatever appeared in Josephus's original hypomnema about his role in the first Jewish War, however it attempted to excuse his war crimes a second century editor writing a decade after the much bigger catastrophe - the bar Kochba revolt - was developing the traitor Josephus into a paradigmatic figure who embodied the metanoia from traditional Jewish extremism.

As such the story of Josephus capture at Jotapata and his discussion in a cistern with forty Jews about the demands of the Jewish god for falling on one's sword, Josephus's speech to Vespasian which references this same demand of the 'law of the Jews' no less than the climactic conclusion at Masada where thousands upon thousands of Jews take up Saul's example quite literally - i.e. falling on their swords - ARE ALL LITERARY INVENTIONS developing from that passage in Book 3 Chapter 16 of Pseudo-Hegesippus.

None of these things happened. Josephus was not captured at Jotapata. Masada never happened. They were all invented to go beyond the historical circumstances of the Jewish war which culminated in the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of victims behind the walls of Jerusalem to a profound 'spiritual' critique of the failings of the Jewish religion.

Josephus effectively turns his back on the way Judaism was being interpreted in the age to a belief system which was compatible with being a good citizen of the Roman Empire. But the only way we can get there as if we stopped trying to follow the example of Saul (who incidentally was supplanted by king David the forerunner of the messiah for those keeping track at home).

For our present purposes it is enough to reinforce that we can go beyond merely saying that the speech in chapter 16 of Book Three of the Hegesippus not only MUST HAVE BEEN in the original grandfather text behind Jewish War - it is nothing short of the Rosetta Stone which makes sense of the whole narrative - but that we can also understand why the fourth century editor decided to take it out and replace it by new material.

When the speech of the forty Jews about everything in Judaism coming down to the misapplication of the example of Saul THE NARRATIVE SEEMS FAKE - like a bad movie with a 'hit over the head' message that no one takes seriously.

It's better to just have the Jews acting inflexibly and irrationally attempting to resist a Roman onslaught they can't possibly defeat than making it seem staged as part of some overarching 'lesson from history' written by someone after the bar Kochba revolt.

And for those who don't believe me when I say that Jewish War was developed as an explicit warning against those who might want to revolt from the Empire again JUST READ WHAT THE TEXTS OF JOSEPHUS THEMSELVES DECLARE.  It doesn't get more obvious than this but then sometimes the best place to hide something is to put in plain view ...

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