After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Josephus went to Rome. Vespasian gave him lodging in the house which Vespasian had occupied before he became emperor, assigned him a pension and gave him Roman citizenship.
In his first decade in Rome, he composed “The Jewish War,” about the war between the Jews and Romans over the years 66-70 CE. Thereafter, he wrote “Jewish Antiquities,” a 20-book narrative covering the history of the Jews from Creation down to the outbreak of the war against Rome. He added a biographical work, “Life,” as an appendix.
Thereafter, around 100 CE, he composed his final work. It is known today as “Against Apion.” (It seems that the original title was: “On the Antiquity of the Jews.” See Encyclopaedia Judaica 10:262.) This work is divided into two parts. Whenever I saw citations to this work over the years, they were always to part I. Here, Josephus cites to non-Jewish writers from ancient times and their absurd views of the Jews and he rebuts them. He also tries to prove the antiquity of the Jews. Part I of this work is also well-known for its citations to the 3rd century BCE. Egyptian historian, Manetho, who records two different strange stories possibly related to the Israelites and the Exodus. (For example, in the first story, Manetho tells of the Hyksos nation which attacked Egypt and ruled it for 511 years. Forced out of Egypt, they went to Syria. But terrified by the Assyrians, they decided to live in Judea and build the city of Jerusalem.)
I never really focused on the fact that there was a part II of this work. Even if I had, part II begins with more of the same, with refutations of a famous ancient writer named “Apion.” But recently, I became aware of the rest of part II. Starting with section 145, the rest of this work is of a different nature altogether. Josephus decides to advocate for Judaism and explain its beauty.
This is how Josephus begins this new section:
“Seeing, however, that (certain ancient writers) partly from ignorance—mainly from ill will—have made reflections, which are neither just nor true, upon our lawgiver Moses and his code … I desire to give—to the best of my ability—a brief account of our constitution as a whole and of its details. From this, I think, it will be apparent that we possess a code excellently designed to promote piety, friendly relations with each other, and humanity towards the world at large … In reply to the numerous false accusations which are brought against us, the fairest defense which we can offer is to be found in the laws which govern our daily life… We are the most law-abiding of all the nations.”
I am now going to quote some selections from the rest of part II:
- “Each nation endeavors to trace its own institutions back to the remotest date, in order to create the impression that, far from imitating others, it has been the one to set its neighbors an example of orderly life under law … I maintain that our legislator is the most ancient of all legislators in the records of the whole world. Compared with him, your Lycurguses and Solons and Zaleucus … and all who are held in such high esteem by the Greeks appear to have been born but yesterday … Our legislator, who lived in the remotest past … proved himself the people’s best guide and counselor; and after framing a code to embrace the whole conduct of their life, induced them to accept it, and secured—on the firmest footing—its observance for all time.”
- “God’s will governed all his actions and all his thoughts, he regarded it as his primary duty to impress that idea upon the community; for to those who believe that their lives are under the eye of God all sin is intolerable.”
- “To Him, he persuaded all to look, as the author of all blessings … He convinced them that no single action—no secret thought—could be hid from Him. He represented Him as One, uncreated and immutable to all eternity; in beauty surpassing all mortal thought, made known to us by His power, although the nature of His real being passes knowledge. That the wisest of the Greeks learnt to adopt these conceptions of God from principles which Moses supplied them, I am not now concerned to urge; but they have borne abundant witness to the excellence of these doctrines, and to their consonance with the nature and majesty of God.”
- “Starting from the very beginning with the food of which we partake from infancy and the private life of the home, He left nothing, however insignificant, to the discretion and caprice of the individual. What meats a man should abstain from, and what he may enjoy; … what period should be devoted respectively to strenuous labor and to rest—for all this, our Leader made the law the standard and rule, that we might live under it as under a father and a master, and be guilty of no sin through willfulness or ignorance.”
- “He appointed the law to be the most excellent and necessary form of instruction, ordaining … that every week men should desert their other occupations and assemble to listen to the law … a practice which all other legislators seen to have neglected … Should anyone of our nation be questioned about the laws, he would repeat them all more readily than his own name. The result, then … is that we have them, as it were, engraved on our souls. A transgressor is a rarity; evasion of punishment by excuses an impossibility.”
- “To this cause above all we owe our admirable harmony. Unity and identity of religious belief, perfect uniformity, inhabits and customs, produce a very beautiful concord in human character. Among us alone will be heard no contradictory statements about God, such as are common among other nations … ”
- “In the eyes of the world at large there is something fine in breaking away from all inherited customs … To us, on the other hand, the only wisdom consists in refraining absolutely from every action, from every thought that is contrary to the laws originally laid down. This may fairly be claimed as a proof of their excellent draftsmanship; codes which are not of this character are proved by experience to need amendment … What could one alter in it? What more beautiful one could have been discovered?”
- “Practices which—under the name of mysteries and rites of initiation—other nations are unable to observe for but a few days, we maintain with delight and unflinching determination all our lives.”
- “The duty of sharing with others was inculcated by our legislator … We must furnish fire, water, food to all who ask for them, point out the road, not leave a corpse unburied, show consideration even to declared enemies … He would not suffer us to take the parent birds’ with their young … In every particular, He had an eye to mercy, using the laws I have mentioned to enforce the lesson … ”
I could quote much more. But my point has been made. Josephus here—writing in Rome—writes as a Jew completely committed to his people and to the wisdom and beauty of his religion.
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. In his opinion, these passages from Josephus are as inspiring as some of the best writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Norman Lamm!