Rev. Henry Stebbing, D.D.
Valuable as are the remains of classical antiquity, the Works of Josephus may be placed, at least, on a level with the most esteemed monuments of ancient learning. While the historians of Greece and Rome inform us of events connected with perishable states and polities, the annals of the Jewish people enable us to trace the progress of dispensations, the importance and stability of which, instead of diminishing, are perpetually on the increase.
The writings of Josephus may be classed under the two heads of historical and controversial; the former comprehending the Antiquities, and the Wars of the Jews; and the latter, his treatise against Apion, and some essays of minor character. His earliest production was the history of the memorable and terrific war which ended in the downfal of his nation.This work seems to have been commenced with no higher view than that of giving a general and popular account of the scenes in which he had been engaged. It was, therefore, originally written in Syro-chaldaic, or in the common language of the Jews inhabiting Palestine. When Josephus arrived at Rome, he found numerous accounts of the war in circulation. Some of these narratives were by persons who had but limited means of learning the truth. Others were the production of men who wrote in a spirit of bitter prejudice. Even among those who had some portion of the ability and information necessary to such an undertaking, none, perhaps, could be found so thoroughly well prepared for the undertaking as Josephus. Greatly to the benefit of posterity, therefore, he employed his first days of repose in the preparation of his work for a more extended circulation. The Greek language was, at that time, understood by most persons of even an ordinary degree of intelligence. It was read and spoken commonly among a large portion of his own people. The Septuagint translation of the Bible had rendered it venerable in their eyes, and must have obliged the priestly order, to which Josephus belonged, to cultivate it with more than ordinary diligence. In this popular and elegant language, therefore, he put forth his work, and the admiration with which it was received confirmed, at once, the opinion of his genius and merit entertained by the greatest men of his time. His qualifications were the better estimated from the candour which circumstances, as well as nature, taught him to cultivate. Faithful to the duties of patriotism, he was yet sufficiently awake to the vices, to the folly and obstinacy, of his countrymen. This enabled him to view and speak of things with a liberal mind. He manifested a tender regret for the fall of his nation, well calculated to conciliate the affections of the people whose sufferings he shared; but he had too much gratitude not to refrain from violating the dignity of those by whom they had been conquered, for he was in the daily habit of experiencing their bounty and their tolerance. The real defects of his work, moreover, were not such as could be readily detected by popular readers. They consisted chiefly of errors in the early part of the narrative, and were confined to a period of Jewish history, the interest of which would be greatly diminished by the awful grandeur of that which described the fall of the commonwealth.
The second great work of Josephus occupies the first place in the modern editions of his writings, but was not composed till about eighteen years after the History of the Jewish Wars. This interesting production of his matured mind was undertaken with the desire of giving to the world a narrative which might remove the prejudices entertained against his nation. He was evidently ambitious of imitating the celebrated classical historians, and of relating the events, so dear to the memory of his people, in a style which might render the subject acceptable to the learned and accomplished of all nations. This feeling was natural, and in many respects laudable. But it exposed him to dangers peculiar to the matters of which he had to treat. There was one grand and authoritative source of information. It bore the seal of Divine inspiration, and had been received, from generation to generation, as the sublime record of God's dealings with his people. To this primary fountain of information an honest historian must necessarily have turned with profound reverence. From this he must have felt it his duty to draw the most important parts of his narrative; nor could he regard it as allowable, we should have supposed, to place any other source of intelligence in competition with one so superior to the ordinary foundations of historical truth.
But Josephus had designed his work for the use of Gentile readers. He was anxious to inspire them with respect for a faith hitherto despised. In order to effect this, he deemed it necessary to modify certain parts of his narrative, lest the naked facts might strengthen, rather than allay, the prejudices which it was his object to overcome. Such, at least, is one of the supposed reasons of those discrepancies which exist between the history of Josephus and that of Scripture. That he was justified in even the minutest departure from the plain statements of the Bible, few believers in revelation would venture to assert. But he has had many apologists; and it has been suggested that, in his time, there were other sacred books existing, besides those received into the canon of Scripture, and which, though not of equal authority, were notwithstanding held in great reverence by the Jewish people. It is also observed, that the Rabbinical traditions were regarded, at this period, as of indisputable weight; and, still further, that it is not known whether he took as his authority the original text of the Hebrew Bible, or a version, or paraphrase.
These suggestions are worthy of attention, but they do not completely exonerate the historian from the charge of having either weakly yielded too much to the desire of conciliating his readers, or made a bad estimate of the value of the materials before him. It has been thought by some that he might frequently write from mere memory. This could only be excused on the supposition that he could not, at times, get access to the necessary documents, a notion which seems plainly contradicted by the fact, that he was the keeper of the sacred books, the possession of which must have enabled him readily to correct any error admitted into the first impression of his work.
It would be difficult, indeed, to advance an argument sufficiently strong to clear him from the charge of not having given that constant attention to the simple narrative of the Bible, which might have prevented those discrepancies, and therefore errors, to be found in his Antiquities. But while it must be acknowledged that his apologists have scarcely succeeded in their plea, it is almost equally clear that he has been criticised by others with too great strictness and asperity. "Baronius," says Casaubon, "never omits any opportunity of abusing Josephus. But if all his errors, I do not speak of those in which he departs from Scripture, and for which he cannot be excused, were put together, they would scarcely amount to a hundredth part of those admitted by Eusebius alone, either into his Chronicle, or other portions of his works."* Whatever construction, however, may be put upon the fact, that the uninspired writer is wanting in a close adherence to the Bible narrative, there is this valuable lesson to be drawn from such discrepancies, Scripture remains alone, in its separate and sublime authority. Apart from, and infinitely exalted above, all other sources of information, the very pride and imperfections of those who would imitate or rival it, serve but the more to prove its Divine excellence. But for the variations in Josephus, he might imperceptibly have been set up as equal to writers chosen by God to describe his ways and doings. The Antiquities would have become a substitute for the Bible; and some men would probably have rejoiced to exchange the plain and succinct account, the exquisite beauty of which is only completely visible to spiritual understandings, for the classical and brightly-coloured style of the mere historian. It is, perhaps, in the simple circumstance, that he aimed only at being an historian, that he sought to imitate models framed in a spirit, and fitted for materials, wholly different to those peculiar to his subject, that we may most readily find the cause of the errors with which his work may be fairly charged. He paraphrased and adorned the general statement of facts, not with the desire of falsifying, but by yielding to his literary tastes, and to those of the people for whom he wrote. The temptation under which a writer labours, when detailing sublime and mysterious occurrences, and which, though convinced of their truth himself, he trembles lest others may doubt, is of no ordinary kind. He fears lest the mode of his relating the facts should be wanting in earnestness and dignity. They have appeared to him bright and noble under the shining light of his own imagination; and he easily yields to the flattering suggestion, that by its use he may make the record, in this its somewhat modified structure, more acceptable than it was likely to be in its simpler form.* Fabricii Bibliotheca Græca, Art. Jos.So far was Josephus from being regarded by ancient Christian writers as a wilful offender against the veracity of history, that he is commonly honoured in their treatises with the name of Philalethes, or, the lover of truth.* That he was not ignorant of the importance of fidelity, as the first characteristic of a good historian, is evident from his own remarks. Speaking, in his Life, of one who had violated the truth, he says, "I have a mind to say a few things to Justus, who hath himself written a history concerning these affairs; as also to others who profess to write history, but have little regard to truth, and are not afraid, either out of ill-will or good-will to some persons, to relate falsehoods. These men do like those who compose forged deeds and conveyances, and because they are not brought to the like punishment with them, care not for the truth." At the conclusion of the eleventh chapter of the tenth book of the Antiquities, he says, "Now as to myself, I have so described these matters as I have found them and read them. But if any one is inclined to another opinion about them, let him enjoy his different sentiments without any blame from me." But the personal character of a writer must not be passed over in the estimate taken of the honesty of his narrative. In this respect Josephus may claim honourable attention. The predominant sentiment of his writings is veneration for God and his providence, nor does he omit any opportunity of showing the value of integrity, or the supreme beauty of holiness. His faults may, therefore, fairly be ascribed to somewhat of timidity on the one side, and of literary vanity on the other. Most of the errors with which he has been charged are clearly referable to these sources. Of the others, which cannot be so accounted for, there are some that appear to have originated in the different opinions which prevailed among the Jews of his time, and threw no small obscurity over portions of the Scripture narrative; while the remainder, whether omissions, or statements plainly opposed to the inspired history, must be left without conjecture, and are better disposed of by the acknowledgment that such discrepancies cannot be accounted for, unless by suppositions which involve us in new difficulties.* Fabricii Bibliotheca Græca, Art. Jos. Eusebius, the ecclesiastical historian, speaks of him as worthy of all credit, lib. iii. c. 9. Sozomen names him as equally celebrated among the Romans and the Jews, Hist. Eccles. lib. i. c. 1. And Evagrius speaks of his history as copious, and highly valuable, lib. v. c. 24.It is somewhat curious that the two severest critics of Josephus should be the Romanist historian Baronius, and the sceptic Bayle; the one little attentive to the rules of historical evidence, and readily admitting into his work whatever the flood of common tradition cast up; the other anxious only to discover differences in the language of those who acknowledged the divinity of revelation, that he might, by attacking them separately, destroy the treasure equally dear to both. The latter, in a pretended fit of zeal, observes, "I have been long indignant against Josephus, and those who spare him on this subject. A man who made open profession of Judaism, the law of which was founded on the divinity of Scripture, dares to recount things otherwise than he read of them in the book of Genesis. He changes, he adds, he suppresses circumstances; in a word, he puts himself in opposition to Moses in such a manner that one of them must be a false historian." This statement involves a gross injustice, and is as illogical as it is unjust. Two writers may assuredly disagree in some points, without exposing themselves to the sweeping charge of falsehood as their general character. If disagreement in a few instances should oblige us to consider, that of the writers so differing only one can be worthy of credit, and that, consequently, the rest ought to be regarded as undeserving of any attention, the number of historical references would soon be diminished to such a degree, that the next step would be the annihilation of history altogether. The fact is, that wherever human inquiry begins, human error will be introduced, in greater or less proportion. There will, accordingly, be discrepancies in the statement of witnesses; but, except in the points where they precisely differ, they may be in such general harmony, that each may strengthen the cause of each, and neither the one nor the other, notwithstanding their occasional contradictions, merit the charge of injustice or dishonesty. A very slight comparison of the most esteemed historians will afford ample illustrations of this fact. The experience gathered in the collection of evidence of any kind tends to the same purpose, and plainly shows that several witnesses to a narrative may differ in many minor points, yet be highly deserving of credit as to the main and more important facts.
Such are the two great historical works of Josephus. They are followed by his celebrated treatise on the Antiquities of the Jews, a production not less admired than his former volumes for elegance of style and copiousness of learning.* Jerome speaks of it with astonishment, and declares himself unable to tell how a Jew, confined as the learned of his nation were to the study of their own books, should have become so extensively acquainted with Grecian literature. The object of the work was to defend the Jews against the scorn of Gentile philosophers and infidels. Apion, and others, had attempted to throw ridicule on their high pretensions to antiquity. Their history, it was said, occupied no place in the records of those great writers to whom the world looked for information. It was almost unknown; while that of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and others, filled the volumes of authors read and admired in every corner of the earth. Josephus produced facts, as well as arguments, in confutation of this species of attack. The nations, he contended, to whose writers the appeal had been made against his own, were indebted for all their learning to those more ancient countries with which the Jews had early intercourse. They were known, moreover, to have been singularly inattentive to the careful chronicling of events. This is abundantly proved by the contradictions existing in the works of their most popular authors; while, on the contrary, in regard to the Jews, there were but twenty-two books acknowledged by the nation, and these had the seal of remote antiquity, and the authority of works written by men in high public offices, and endowed with the richest gifts of Divine wisdom. The whole argument is worked out in a masterly and lucid style; nor could even the modern reader find a more powerful statement in favour of the authenticity of the ancient Scriptures, or of the great truths of Jewish history.* Eusebius speaks of this work as worthy of great esteem, and as containing answers to the calumnies of Apion, the grammarian, and others who had endeavoured to cast doubts upon the origin of the Jews. Eccles. Hist. lib. iii. c. 9.In the second part of the treatise, the writer enters upon the task of answering those more general accusations against the Jews, which contributed so greatly to render them objects of hatred among the proud and ignorant Gentiles. Their laws and customs, the ordinary conduct of their affairs, the most conspicuous features of their personal character, had all afforded topics of insulting comment. Josephus answers his assailants with a keen and comprehensive view of the odious follies of which they were themselves guilty, and then shows that the customs which had provoked their scorn rested upon principles which merited the most profound respect.
The writings of which we have given this brief account must have exercised, in ancient times, no slight degree of influence on the minds of inquiring men. This is sufficiently evidenced by the high position which their author continued to hold, for many years, in the court of the most accomplished of Roman emperors.* The style again in which he writes shows not only his confidence in the importance of the subjects handled, but his expectation of the most profitable results from his labours. Rome, at the period when he wrote, was filled with men deeply engaged in religious speculation. The spirit of the ancient times, when war only furnished employment for active minds, was rapidly departing, or submitting itself to the influence of a change destined to present every principle of society under a new form. Superstition and philosophy had joined hands. Hosts of theories, of creeds, and rites, from the farthest corners of the earth, had begun to establish themselves in the midst of cities and provinces celebrated for their refinement. It was no longer beneath the dignity of the sternest man to inquire, if not openly, yet secretly, into the pretensions of these novel systems, and to try whether they might not present some hitherto neglected means of warding off approaching ills.* He was, says Sozomen, as highly honoured, ipidoxotatoV, by the Romans as the Jews. Hist. Eccles, lib. i. c. 1.In such a state of the public mind, the common rumours afloat respecting the religion of the Jews could scarcely fail to attract attention. However despised the people, and despised especially they were at this period, so ancient a faith, and one the fundamental doctrine of which was in accordance with the most approved philosophers, must still have claimed at least a share of the awakened curiosity. But as yet no work existed from which information might be gained as to the real origin and institutions of this remarkable nation. The notions commonly entertained respecting them were derived from sources utterly undeserving of credit. Some portions of the Scriptures had been brought before the notice of a few diligent students; but they were altogether a sealed volume to the great mass of those who might, notwithstanding, have a very sincere desire to become acquainted with Jewish antiquities. There were, moreover, floating traditions which had no small weight with the mass of the people, and the origin of which could easily be traced to Palestine, and the mysterious oracles of its inhabitants. This would furnish still stronger motives for inquiry into their real doctrines and history. That a mighty Deliverer, a lofty Renovator of the human race, was to arise out of the East, had long been a well-known report among heathen nations. The boastful claims of the Jews, whose devotion and patriotism would never allow them to keep silence on this point; the increasing importance of the Christians, speaking a similar language, and referring their own hopes and triumphs to a Leader sprung from this race; would yet further increase the curiosity of mankind respecting the Jews, and render the want of some work of authority every day more perceptibly understood.
Josephus had thus an open field for literary exertion. There was scarcely a subject in that age better calculated to excite attention, or reward the writer for his labour. It is not, therefore, as an obscure author, known only to his own people, and owing his limited success to the accidental interest taken in his work by Christians, that Josephus is to be viewed; but as a writer highly esteemed and popular in his age through a vast portion of the civilized world, and most probably, therefore, exercising considerable influence on religious opinion. It is almost impossible for us in these days to estimate the value or assign the rank of such a writer in times and countries like those in which he lived. Our Bibles make us intimate from childhood with the sublimest passages of ancient lore, with the most wonderful manifestations of Divine power and grace. We become familiar with the possession of this wealth, and can scarcely persuade ourselves to think of periods when the smallest portion of such spiritual treasures would have been viewed as a benefaction of marvellous worth. The information supplied by Josephus is now, as far as his Antiquities are concerned, already given to the most unlearned from the first and purest source of sacred erudition; but when no such means of instruction were open, and men had been left for ages in the dark perplexities of heathen fable, the publication of a work like his on the origin of the only religious system that could secure the admiration of thoughtful men, must have tended materially to stimulate, while it in part satisfied, the new desire of intelligence.
The tone in which such of the early Christian writers as speak of Josephus allude to his works, afford fair reason to conjecture that their circulation had been found useful to the general cause of religion. It must indeed have been difficult for a Gentile reader, of an active and honest mind, to have studied his pages, and not felt disposed to inquire for the sequel of the history. The Jew had his fatal prejudices to combat, his present, literal, earthly patriotism, pointing to the soil where his beloved city lately stood, and bounding even the farthest future with visions of its recovered glory. The Gentile, on the other hand, as he read Josephus, was free to inquire, whether the sublime plans of Jehovah might not contemplate an end commensurate with the happiness of universal man. His ignorance of conventional interpretations was an advantage to him; and learning from the uninspired historian the simple facts connected with the mightiest dispensations of Providence, he had new motives for searching the original records, and for employing his best efforts in securing to himself a name among the people of God.
But the writings of Josephus have not lost their use, notwithstanding the vast advantages now enjoyed in the general circulation of the Bible. They may still be read with profit by the careful inquirer. Little need be said respecting that portion which refers to the period subsequent to the destruction of Jerusalem. In regard to this, it is evidently of great importance to possess the account given by a contemporary and credible witness. The knowledge of what took place in an age succeeding that in the events of which we are more particularly interested, is often powerfully illustrative of the earlier epoch. Thus what Josephus tells us in the narrative of the Wars throws no small degree of light upon the character of his countrymen, not only of the period when he wrote, but of that also when every mode of thought, every custom and passion, derived unspeakable importance from its connexions, near or remote, with the awful complication of influences that brought the Redeemer to the cross. The mind of the people is exhibited in many parts of the history with a terrible distinctness of delineation. Its most striking features at that time were evidently not impressed by any sudden convulsion. The lines which an age of suffering and remorse had more deeply furrowed had been traced long before by struggles of heart and spirit, by pride and fear, by mysterious hopes and apprehensions, the fruit of those inwardly understood warnings which, finally despised, left them to unutterable misery.
The account which Josephus gives of the Jewish wars has, therefore, a manifest use beyond that of merely satisfying our curiosity as to facts. It opens the path to inquiries closely connected with the history of our religion, and brings to light many of the secret causes which operated most powerfully to the degradation and ruin of God's ancient people.
Nor has time diminished the interest attached to other parts of this author's writings. "The Antiquities," though of little value as history, when compared with the authoritative accounts of Scripture, is a work eminently calculated to assist an inquiring mind in the general investigation of ancient mysteries. Traditional evidence, traditional interpretations, and the new facts which may be supplied from the full storehouses of national memory, will never be despised by those who know how often an obscure point is cleared up when it is discovered what were the ruling sentiments of the period when the narrative was written. While, therefore, it is utterly subversive of the authority of the Bible to place tradition upon the same level, nor less inconsistent with sound reason to modify plain declarations, clearly stated doctrines, according to the uncertain temper of human wisdom, it is surely unwise to reject those helps for the confirmation or illustration of sacred history which are known to be profitably used in the study of records of every other species. Hence the value of Josephus. He was intimately acquainted with whatever had been taught by the learned of his nation. He had been familiarized in childhood to its superstitions. The spirit of popular Judaism was the chief instructor of his later years; and as a man of education, he knew well through what revolutions and by what various trials his countrymen had been proved, instructed, and warned of God. Though from his pages, therefore, it is not often that we can add to our stock of positive knowledge, we may in many cases trace by their help the progress of error, discover its origin, and estimate the relative force of those deplorable corruptions whereby it became at last so indissolubly bound up with the national constitution.
However cautiously, moreover, we receive information from sources not of the highest authority, where our doing so may modify our notions in respect to the surer communications, it would be unreasonable to reject the knowledge which, not coming within the intention of a divine witness to render, may have been fairly the subject of interest to a human observer. It is evident that there must have been numberless very curious circumstances perpetually occurring in the period alluded to, but which were not essential to the completeness of that succinct narrative of God's proceedings which the Bible gives. From these the uninspired historian might readily gather an abundant store of remarkable incidents, and such as would confer no slight value on his work in those distant ages when it would be impossible to recover, through other means, any fragment of the past.
We cannot now tell whether Josephus employed to the best purpose the advantages which his position afforded. It is fair to presume that his good sense and ability led him to such an examination of evidence as prevented the introduction of any thing into his narrative which had not the best support that tradition could bestow. If in any case, therefore, we can consult an ancient historian with respect and confidence, Josephus will be read as a valuable guide to a most important branch of knowledge. Separating him from the inspired writers by that impassable barrier which a true reverence for Scripture will infallibly create, we may yet refresh ourselves with his vivid descriptions, his often eloquent harangues, and his not unfrequent detail of affecting incidents, which almost make us feel and hear the strong pulsations of Israel's proud and breaking heart.
The Memoir of this eminent writer, as given by himself, leaves us nothing to desire in respect to his biography, but some authentic account of his latter days. There is only a very vague tradition the he died in the reign of Domitian, and shared the fate of his beloved friend and patron Epaphroditus. But of Epaphroditus himself too little is known to give any certainty to this report. It is possible, therefore, that Josephus was allowed to spend the close of his life in some safe retreat, and in the enjoyment of that ample provision for his wants supplied him by the liberality of his earlier patrons.
Josephus, we have already seen, was esteemed in the first ages of Christianity as an author deserving a high degree of respect for research and integrity. Pious and learned men of later ages have continued to view him in the same light. The care bestowed upon numerous editions of his works in the original Greek proves that they have been deemed worthy of the attention of the most erudite of modern scholars. Some passages in his writings have engaged the attention of several acute critics, especially that in which he distinctly refers to the actions and character of Jesus Christ. The controversy thence excited is one of more than ordinary interest, but, like many others of a similar character, it is so intimately connected with questions of history and opinion, that few persons are competent to form a judgment of the relative worth of the arguments employed.
The works of Josephus were early translated into English. Thomas Lodge, who combined in himself the several characters of poet and physician, was the first who attempted the task. His version was published about the year 1602, and another in the year 1609 and 1620. He died of the plague in 1625, and appears to have enjoyed among his contemporaries some reputation both for talent and learning. His translation, however, did not, it appears, satisfy the next generation, as at the beginning of the following century Sir Roger L'Estrange, a name better known by its connexion with that of Seneca, published a new translation, which obtained sufficient favour to secure the circulation of five editions in less than forty years. The first of these was published at Oxford in 1700, and the second at London in 1702. The last edition of this version appeared in 1733; but was followed in the space of four years by the first edition of Whiston's translation, a work which speedily set aside the former versions, and obtained for its author not only the approbation of mere general readers, but the praise of the learned as well on the continent as in England.
That this translation is free from errors, or the best which could be made, few competent judges will venture to affirm. But it would be an equal violation of fair criticism to deny that it has great merits, or that it is equal, on the whole, to any of the translations from ancient authors which are most popular among us. It has been well observed by an elegant and acute scholar, that, whatever may be the faults of Whiston, he has in most cases caught the tone and feeling of his author, and that the want of this merit would be but badly atoned for by a much superior degree of grace and smoothness.
Readily allowing, however, that an improvement might be made in some parts of Whiston's translation, he richly deserves the gratitude of the English reader for having put him in possession of an author so valuable as Josephus, and with so little loss as to the more important objects of such a writer. Through his version Josephus has been made familiar to tens of thousands, who would otherwise have remained ignorant of some of the most awful and edifying portions of Jewish history. The fulfillment of our Lord's prophecy respecting Jerusalem, and of earlier predictions setting forth the lamentable events which would attend the final apostacy of Israel, is portrayed in the pages of Josephus with terrible exactness. We may, perhaps, without presumption ascribe the existence of his works to Divine Providence; for there are few persons who have read his narrative that have not felt themselves more deeply impressed than even with the solemn truths of Scripture, and the tremendous certainty of the Divine judgments.
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