I mentioned circumcision once, but I think I got away with it.

It’s part of human nature to try and hide away embarrassing details about our lives or about what we believe. Whether that’s the baby photos your mum shows your girlfriend or boyfriend, or the awkward thing you did on holiday in Spain when you were 15 – you know which one I’m talking about. If you find it embarrassing, just hide it, or if it’s common knowledge mention as little of it as you can. Easy.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus was no different. In the late first century AD, he wrote a book (or rather 20 books) called Antiquities of the Jews. It’s basically a story of the Jewish people all the way from creation to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. It’s a long read, but for us geeks it’s actually really interesting (just doing my job!).

Josephus is writing for Roman readers. He is a beneficiary of the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty, Caesar Domitian (he’s a bad guy, by the way). His aim is to try and show the Romans that the Jews are pretty awesome people. So he writes their history. It’s based mostly on the Bible, but with some serious additions (did you know that Moses was a General in the Egyptian Army, or that Abraham was an Astronomer? I didn’t, and I doubt they were), and omissions.

People usually get rid of things they are embarrassed about. One of those awkward things, for Josephus, is Circumcision. Romans and Greeks thought circumcision was nothing less than mutilation – a gross thing those nasty Jews did; no flint knives please, we’re Roman. Josephus had a problem. On the one hand, the Romans knew about circumcision. He couldn’t simply just say: ‘circumcision? noooo, we don’t do that. Who would do that kind of thing?’ The Romans would simply respond my mentioning the time they used communal showers after a football game with the local synagogue team. Josephus couldn’t just cut circumcision (pun intended), which is why he mentions Abraham’s covenant of circumcision from Genesis 17.

On the other hand, Josephus wanted Judaism to be respectable (Josephus himself wasn’t very respectable in other Jews’ eyes, but that’s another story). So what he could do was mention circumcision as little as possible. Briefly mention it when Abraham is told about it, and then try and brush it under the carpet. Don’t mention circumcision! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it… Like an embarrassed teenager who changes the awkward details in a childhood story, Josephus changes and gets rid of embarrassing mentions of circumcision in the Bible. I’ve only got through the first six books of Antiquities (give me time!), but here are some significant instances where absent foreskins are conveniently erased from the story:

  • The (genius) plan of Jacob’s sons in Genesis 34 is changed. In Genesis 34, Jacob’s sons somehow convince the men of Shechem to get circumcised. Whilst they are still in pain, Simeon and Levi wipe them out. Josephus, instead, claims that the men of Shechem were celebrating a festival.
  • The weird passage in Exodus 4, where Moses’ son (or Moses himself? The Hebrew isn’t clear) get’s circumcised is left out of Josephus’ account. No weird stories about angels and flint knives, thank you very much!
  • In Joshua 5, the Israelites go through a mass circumcision before destroying Jericho. That didn’t get past Josephus’ editor.
  • When Saul offers his Daughter Michael to David, he asks for 100 Philistine foreskins as a prize. David is a little over-enthusiastic about marrying a king’s daughter and brings him back 200. Two-for-One foreskin marriage deals? No thanks, say Josephus. Let’s replace it with 600 Philistine heads. That’s much more politically correct.

All of which seems to show that unless he really needed to, Flavius Josephus didn’t like mentioning foreskins.


Josephus and “smoothing-over” History

Josephus is a fascinating read, whether his Wars of the Jews, vividly describing the invasion and subjugation of Judea in 66-70AD, or his Antiquities of the Jews, in which he tells the story of the Jewish people. He is also quite helpful, as well, for finding out what people in his days may have done with Scripture and with history.

In Antiquities 11.68, Josephus omits a bunch of names from the biblical account of Ezra 2. Josephus’ warrant for doing so?

I do not think it proper to recite particularly the names of those families, that I may not take off the minds of my readers from the connection with historical facts and make it hard for them to follow the coherence of my narration.

Basically, Josephus wants the story he is telling to read well; so, unlike modern historians (though some could learn a lesson from this), he passes over particular details in order to make his account more readable. History, for Josephus, has to be readable as a coherent narrative (I can almost hear the squirming of post-modern deconstructionists…)

It is not only omitting details that Josephus, and I assume many other ancient historians, did. It is also “smoothing over” things and rearranging thing that aren’t straightforward in his sources. A couple of examples:

Josephus’ source for the story of Cyrus the great sending the Jews back in 539-38BC to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem is patently Ezra 1. In Ezra 1.2-3, the author writes:

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.

If it is a verbatim quote from Cyrus (there are good reasons to think that it at least in spirit goes back to Cyrus – cf. the Cyrus Cylinder) then Cyrus claimed that Yahweh had told him to rebuild the Temple. Most likely, this is simply Persian political propaganda (he does the same kind of thing with the Babylonian God as well). This is all the more clear from Isaiah 45.4-5, the prophet claims (of Cyrus):

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you [i.e. Cyrus – cf. 45.1] by your name, I name you, though you do not know me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me

Historically speaking, it is unlikely that Cyrus was a Yahweh-worshipper. He simply had good political skills (which were, of course, ordained by God). Isaiah 45 supports this – Cyrus does not know Yahweh.

Josephus, though, in a brilliant smoothing-over of history, combines that two accounts and claims that Yahweh had been reading Isaiah and realised that it spoke of him:

This was known to Cyrus by his reading the book which Isaiah left behind him of his prophecies (Antiquities 11.5)

Cyrus turns from (most-likely) a shrewd, divinely-yet-unconsciously-guided ruler to an avid reader of Israel’s Scriptures. Josephus seems to have reworked a few details together to produce a coherent readable narrative.

A second and final example. In Ezra 4 there is an account of how the first exiles who returned from Babylon met opposition when they were rebuilding the temple; their opponents frustrated their work until the reign of Darius (519BC). In Ezra 4.7-23, the author includes a letter in which Judea’s enemies denounce their building work to the Persians. The problem? The letter is written to Artaxerxes, who reigned from 465BC, not Cyrus the current ruler. Also, there is only mention of the walls being rebuilt, which is not what happened in the late 6th century BC. The letter in 4.7-23 is clearly from the time of Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls (in 445BC), not Zerubbabel’s rebuilding of the Temple (538-516BC).

Josephus, though, is trying to write a nice, coherent and easy-to-read account. So he simply claims that the letter was written to Cambyses (Cyrus’ successor) and keeps adding references to the temple. Compare Ezra 4.12 and Josephus, Antiquities 11.22:

be it known to the king that the Jews who came up from you to us have gone to Jerusalem. They are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are finishing the walls and repairing the foundations. (Ezra 4.12)

It is fit, O king, that you should know that those Jews who were carried to Babylon are come into our country, and are building that rebellious and wicked city, and its market places, and setting up its walls, and raising up the temple (Antiquities 11.22)

Spot the difference. Josephus has simply changed a few details in the text to make it fit with the flow of the narrative much more. A very tempting thing to do when you are trying to write a readable narrative.

Wright on the Bible for First-century Jews

Brilliant quote from Paul and the Faithfulness of God:

The Bible was not merely a source of types, shadows, allusions, echoes, symbols, examples, role-models and other no doubt important things. It was all those, but it was much, much more. It presented itself as a single, sprawling, complex but essentially coherent narrative, a narrative still in search of an ending. And one of the central features of the implicit story in the mind and heart of a first-century Pharisee, sectarian or revolutionary was the weight of that continuing narrative, the responsibility to take it forward, the possibility that all its threads might now come together, that the rich tapestry of Israel's history would disclose its full pattern at last, that the faithfulness of the one true God would be revealed to them but also through them. (p.116)

The Persians and Esther

I’m reading through the Histories of Herodotus and the moment. Herodotus is often called the ‘Father of History’ and lived in the 5th century BC. His histories deal in detail with the Persian Empire and is very useful reading for understanding the books of Nehemiah, Ezra and Esther (as well as Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi).

Even a superficial reading of the book of Esther will suggest that the author thinks the Persians made a lot of important decisions whilst they were drunk. It turns out the author of Esther is not the only one to think this. A few minutes ago I stumbled across the following quote in Herodotus:

It is their [the Persians’] general practice to deliberate upon affairs of weight when they are drunk; and then on the morrow, when they are sober, the decision to which they came the night before is put before them by the master of the house in which it was made; and if it is then approved of, they act on it; if not, they set it aside. Sometimes, however, they are sober at their first deliberation, but in this case they always reconsider the matter under the influence of wine. (Herodotus, Histories 1.133)

That last sentence is pure gold!

Better than Baal

Certain expressions are pregnant with meaning. When Barak Obama was elected as president of the USA, it was almost impossible to say “yes we can” without thinking of Obama’s pretty epic inaugural speech. The phrase “I am your father” is now very rarely used to mean what it actually means. It’s all about Star Wars. That being said, those two sayings will probably be completely devoid of all allusions in a few hundred years time. Given the right context though, a particular phrase can have an explosive effect though.

What if I was to tell you that Psalm 29 says loud and clear: Yahweh is better than Baal? That’s not the immediate impression a modern reader gets from reading this song. Here it is in full:

Ascribe to the Lord, O sons of the gods
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over many waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon to skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth
and strips the forests bare,
and in his temple all cry, “Glory!”
10 The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
11 May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Can’t you see it? Of course we can’t because we don’t live in the 10th century BC in Canaan. If we had been living then though, as the biblical writers were, then this Psalm would send out a powerful message: Yahweh does everything Baal is supposed to do and does it better!

Baal was the Canaanite storm god and a very powerful one at that. He was in control of the rain and fertility of the land (which is why the Israelites, who were farmers, would have been tempted to follow him). We know about him mostly from the religious texts discovered in the ancient city of Ugarit (in modern-day Syria) where he was the principle god worshipped. Baal controlled the rain, the thunder and in fact his kingship was down to his defeat of the god of the sea – yam. (Those of you who are into Hebrew will notice that the name of that god is the same as the Hebrew word for sea).

Interestingly, as Old Testament scholar John Day has pointed out, Baal has seven thunders in the Ugaritic texts. Count how many times Psalm 29 refers to the voice of the Lord (the Hebrew for voice qol can also mean thunder). Seven times! God is obviously in control of the thunder and rain in this Psalm, something which Baal was widely believed to be in control of in Canaanite culture.

Moreover, in this Psalm (and others), Yahweh is sovereign over the waters and that is associated with his kingship. Very similar to Baal who was enthroned as a result of his dominion over the sea! Coincidence? I don’t think so.

In the first half of the century, it was not uncommon for scholars to assume that the Psalmist had simply taken a Canaanite hymn (probably to Baal) and simply substituted Yahweh for Baal in a fairly mindless way. That’s just what scholars did at that time. Of course the Israelites couldn’t come up with their own stuff! Sheesh! It is less common to think like that now. Rather, what seems to be going on in this Psalm is that language which is used to speak of Baal, the storm God, is being used to speak of Yahweh. This is subversive language! It is tantamount to saying: Yahweh does what Baal is supposed to do. Or maybe in more familiar terms: Yaaboo sucks to Baal, Yahweh is better!

Read the Psalm again and think: Baal is supposed to control thunder, lightning and rain in addition to being king over the waters. Can you see it now?

Let us make mankind in our image – Philo’s take

God’s assertion in Gen 1.26: “Let us make mankind in our image” has long puzzled interpreters. Why does God, who so clearly speaks of himself as being the only God elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, exclaim “let us make mankind”? A few suggestions have been made over time: God may be using an ancient form of the royal we; Elohim (God) in Hebrew is technically a plural although it is mostly used as a singular in the Hebrew Bible so this may be reflecting the grammatical agreement between create and the plural Elohim; Some Christians suggest that this may be an early reference to the trinity, although I remain to be persuaded on that interpretation; It may simply be God speaking to the heavenly court (i.e. angels) rather than an assertion of either plurality within God of even the plurality of creator gods. That final interpretation is my personal favorite.

I found a fascinating interpretation of this passage by the ancient Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Philo asserts that God made everything apart from man on his own because they were by nature perfect. Mankind, however, had a potential to perform what is evil. Therefore when God created them, he created what was perfect and left other beings to create what was imperfect, thus creating a creature with the potential for evil whilst remaining perfect himself:

Now it was a very appropriate task for God the Father of all to create by himself alone, those things which were wholly good, on account of their kindred with himself. And it was not inconsistent with his dignity to create those which were indifferent since they too are devoid of evil, which is hateful to him. To create the beings of a mixed nature, was partly consistent and partly inconsistent with his dignity; consistent by reason of the more excellent idea which is mingled in them; inconsistent because of the opposite and worse one. It is on this account that Moses says, at the creation of man alone that God said, “Let us make man,” which expression shows an assumption of other beings to himself as assistants, in order that God, the governor of all things, might have all the blameless intentions and actions of man, when he does right attributed to him; and that his other assistants might bear the imputation of his contrary actions. (Philo, De Opficio Mundi 74-75)

Interesting to see what kind of things the ancients came up with.