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.