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Did Josephus Really Have A Big Nose?

In the last issue of The Jewish Link, Joel Davidi Weisberger reproduced a sculpture with a big nose as an “alleged” bust of Josephus (“Claiming Descent From the Maccabees,” December 2, 2021). Mr. Weisberger is correct to describe this identification as “alleged.” It is based upon antisemitic stereotypes that we as a community must guard against. This statue in no way represents Josephus.

In 2011 I wrote about this unacceptable identification in an academic article called “How Do You Know a Jew When You See One? Reflections on Jewish Costume in the Roman World.” *

While staid in tone, that article followed upon a Wikipedia war, in which my Yeshiva College students and I struggled to remove the offending image from Wikipedia, while others fought back vigorously to keep it. We lost. Today the offending image has, in fact, been removed—though being Wikipedia, it could return tomorrow. Below is an excerpt from my 2011 article:

“Recently [2011 —SF] I opened the American Wikipedia page for Josephus, to find a sculpture at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen at the top of the page, identified as ‘Josephus.’

“Soon, I found that this bust appears in a broad range of Wikipedia articles on the first century author, from French to Spanish, Arabic to German. Oddly, a different image, an early modern print, illustrates the Esperanto and Russian pages, and the Danish language article is un-illustrated. This sculpture is well known, and appears in a number of scholarly and popular publications as ‘Josephus.’ Most recently, a guide to the excavations at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, written by noted archaeologist Eilat Mazar, contains a drawing of this ‘Josephus’ portrait bust.

“The bust was ‘identified’ as ‘some unidentified Jew’ in a 1925 Ny Carlsberg collection catalog. In 1930 Austrian Jewish art historian, biblical scholar, and follower of the psychology of Carl Gustav Jung, Robert Eisler, identified this ‘Jew’ as Josephus. This identification has mostly stuck, especially—but in no way exclusively—in antisemitic discourse. What is it that prompted the identification of this sculpture with the Jewish historian Josephus? It was certainly not his haircut or the styling of his facial hair, which are standard Roman fare. Rather, Eisler suggested a physiognomic reason, particularly the unusually large nose of this statue.

“Since the Nazi era, this kind of racial interpretation is, of course, (mostly) out of vogue. We tend to downplay physiognomic distinctiveness of European populations—and particularly of Jews. What is perhaps most interesting about the Copenhagen ‘Josephus’ is the way that a stereotype about large Jewish noses—not altogether out of place when Ashkenazi Jews are compared as a group with more Nordic populations—was retrojected into antiquity as a kind of racial type and ascribed to a bust that in fact does have a prodigious nose. It was accepted as a given, and appears in no scholarly volume published by non-Jews, who were cognizant of the stereotype. Mazar, perhaps unaware of the issues, willingly accepted it. The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek long ago dropped the ‘Jewish’ identification. It is likely not coincidental that a Danish scholar, Per Bilde, already unpacked the underlying racism inherent in this identification in 1988, which today is mainly purveyed over the internet (though not the Danish Wikipedia), and is no longer taken seriously by scholars.”

* https://www.academia.edu/5488823/How_do_you_Know_a_Jew_When_You_See_One_Reflections_on_Jewish_Costume_in_the_Roman_World

Steven Fine
Churgin Professor of Jewish History; director, Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies
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