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Josephus And Yosippon

BaronPhilip's Photo BaronPhilip 08 Nov 2004

A recent thread on this site discussed the ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. I noticed some confusion about him and his writings, and their relationship to the medieval Hebrew work known as Sefer Yosippon, which are not the same thing. I write the following to clarify things a little.

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Yoseif ben Mattisyohu, “Josephus”, was a kohein and descendent of the Chashmonoyim who was born in Eretz Yisroel in the year 37 C.E. He writes that of the “four philosophies” that were circulating among the Jews of his time, the one he himself was most inclined to believe was that of the tzedukim. He rose to leadership, was dispatched as an envoy to Rome at one point, and eventually was chosen to be the general of the Jewish army in the Galil during the great Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire that culminated in the destruction of the Beis HaMikdosh in the year 70.

When the Roman general Vespasian defeated his army, he and his men went into a cave, where a suicide pact was made. Each man was to stab another until one man was left, who was then to kill himself. Lots were drawn to see who would be the last man, and Josephus was chosen. But when he was the only one left, he chose instead to betray the pact and surrender himself to the Romans. (This is, at least, Josephus' version of what happened. I think some have speculated that he rigged it or is lying about what happened.) He was taken back to Rome as a prisoner, where he praised and generally “kissed up” to Vespasian. When Vespasian became Emperor, he rewarded Josephus and became his patron. In honor of Vespasian’s dynasty, Josephus added the name “Flavius” to his name.

Josephus became like an official “Jewish consultant” to the Romans after that. He assisted the Roman commander Titus in a failed attempt to convince the Jews to surrender peacefully during the siege of Jerusalem. He later wrote The Jewish War, a history of the rebellion in which he flatters his Roman patrons, trying to make them appear less cruel and to justify their actions to the Jews a bit. Josephus’ agenda also included trying to convince other conquered nations to not rebel foolishly like the Jews. So he was kind of a Roman propagandist. But he also advocated the Jews and their religion to the Roman people, defending them against anti-semitic libels in his many books, and trying to assuage the anger of a Roman people still licking their wounds from massive casulties at the hands of the Jews. The Jewish War was written in Aramaic, and Josephus later collaborated on a translation into Greek. The original Aramaic version has not survived. Some people like to read this book on Tisha B'Av.

Josephus also wrote Antiquities of the Jews, a vast and positive history of the Jewish people from their beginings and up to his day. Josephus wrote this book originally in Greek, and about half of it is just a retelling of the narrative in Tanakh. In some places his accounts differ with that of Tanakh, although it for the most part corresponds. A description of the avodoh in the Beis HaMikdosh, which Josephus had witnessed in his lifetime, is included in this work.

Josephus also wrote an autobiography, and the work Against Apion.

For 2000 years, Jews have been divided on whether Josephus should be viewed as a hero or a traitor. Josephus and his works were preserved by the Christian Church as the most valuable historical record of the time and place the founder of their religion emerged in. The Church seems to have tampered with and expanded and embellished what was originally just a very plain and unremarkable description of Yoshke found in Antiquities.

Josephus’ life and writings are the subject of thousands of books and essays. The world’s leading authority on Josephus is Dr. Louis Feldman, Professor of Classics at Yeshiva University. Feldman, who is frum and has semicha, lives in Forest Hills and davens in the old Chofetz Chaim building on the Yomim Noroim. He is retranslating Josephus’ works for Harvard’s Loeb Classical Library. To get an idea of how much has been written on this man, look at the bibliography Feldman compiled of Josephus scholarship published during the period from 1937 to 1980. This bibliography is 1055 pages long.

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Now to the Sefer Yosippon.

The Sefer Yosippon was written in in the year 953, someplace in southern Italy, which was one of the world's great centers of Jewish learning at the time. We do not know the name of the author, but we know he was a Jew, although he doesn’t seem to have been all that frum. (Professor David Flusser speculates that he was a physician to an Italian duke.) He had a very advanced secular education and had access to the classical learning traditions preserved by the Church. He was disappointed with and concerned by the fact that the Jews of his day lacked basic historical knowledge.

The author of the Sefer Yosippon could not read Greek, but he was fluent in Latin. He had read Josephus in Latin, as well as the Latin Vulgate Bible, which contained the books of the Apocrypha. (e.g. the Books of the Maccabees, the Books of Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the Letter of Aristeas, etc.) The Latin version of Josephus he had in front of him included sixteen out of the twenty books of the Antiquities, and the Hegesippus. The Hegesippus was a reworked Latin version of the Jewish War that had been written around the year 375 by a Jew who had converted to Christianity. The author of the Sefer Yosippon, like many of his day, mistakenly thought that Josephus himself had composed the Hegesippus.

With these Latin books in front of him, the author of Sefer Yosippon composed a history book for the Jewish people in classical, Tanakh-style Hebrew.

The real name of the father of the Josephus, Mattisyohu, is mentioned nowhere in the Hegesippus. But there is mentioned a certain “Yoseif ben Gurion”, who was a leader of one of the Jewish armies. So the Baal Sefer Yosippon got confused and assumed that this was the same guy as the famous Josephus. So he incorrectly referred to his source as the “Book of Yoseif bin Gurion”.

Unfortunately, the pristine, original version of the Sefer Yosippon never made it to press. It was first printed in a carelessly restyled and abbreviated form in Mantua, Italy, around the year 1480. Later in Constantinople, another edition was published in the year 1510. This Constantinople edition was based on an expanded and restyled version of the Sefer Yosippon, composed by another anonymous Jew no later than the year 1160. (This author added fictitious elements, including a baloney description of the coronation of Vespasian that was obviously influenced by some of the coronations of kings in Europe at the time.)

Because everyone—both talmidei chachomim and non-Jewish scholars—were reading one or another of the corrupted or incomplete versions of the Sefer Yosippon, a major misconception spread. Almost all the later manuscripts and editions left out the beginning, where the Italian Jew of 953 refers to himself in the first person. (It could be that printers and copyists thought that that part was just an unimportant note from a copyist.) Since it was obvious that Yosippon was not a Hebrew translation of Josephus, everyone regarded the book as a pseudepigraphon—a book that claims to be written by someone who didn’t really write it. They thought that some medieval Jew was pretending that he was Josephus and that Josephus wrote a Hebrew version of his histories, which never happened. Now, thanks to the work of Professor David Flusser of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the original Yosippon from the year 953 has been recovered from manuscripts and published. We see that the author clearly states that he is not pretending to be Josephus, but writing a brand new book with stories and data he got out of Josephus’ various books and the Apocrypha.

Sefer Yosippon had an immense impact on Torah scholarship. Without it, the rishonim would not have known much of the history of Bayis Sheini. For example, Rashi, in his peirush on Sefer Daniel 11:2 quotes the tannaitic midrash Seder Olam as saying that there were only three kings of Persia. Then Rashi quotes the Sefer Yosippon as mentioning at least one more king, “Bambisah”. Rashi is clearly referring to the Persian King Cambyses, a historical figure unknown to Chazal. Indeed, because of the Sefer Yosippon, the rishonim knew more than Chazal about the details of the story of Chanukkah. Chazal had no access to (refused to read?) any of the Greek historical sources of their day, so they had no knowledge of the contents of the Books of the Maccabees. (Professor Lawrence Schiffman always points out that Chazal seem to have never even heard of the name Judah Maccabee.) The Books of the Maccabees were not the only Apocryphal books used in Sefer Yosippon. Information from I Esdras, and the apocryphal version of Megilas Esther are also utilized. Information harvested from the Sefer Yosippon can be found in the peirushim of many rishonim on Tanakh and on Shas.

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As always, I can be reached for questions and comments at GeschichteMan@aol.com
Quote

Sweet's Photo Sweet 08 Nov 2004

Now to the Sefer Yosippon.

<{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Fascinating! What are your sources for the Yosippon part?
Quote

BaronPhilip's Photo BaronPhilip 08 Nov 2004

Fascinating!

I'm glad you chapped hano'oh.

What are your sources for the Yosippon part?

Sources? I just make it up as I go. ;)


:ספר יוסיפון
8º 41280 הנוסח המקורי, צילום כתב-יד ירושלים
ערך והקדים מבואות דוד פלוסר
(מרכז זלמן שזר, תשל"ט)

:ספר יוסיפון
,סדור ומוגה על-פי כתבי-יד בלווית מבוא, ביאורים וחילופי גרסאות
;כרך א: גוף הספר ופירושו
כרך ב: מבוא, חילופי גרסאות, מפתחות
דוד פלוסר
(מוסד ביאליק, תשמ"א)
[This is the now standard critical edition.]

"Josippon: A Medieval Hebrew Version of Josephus", by David Flusser
in Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity; edited by Louis H. Feldman and Gohei Hata
(Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987)
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Sweet's Photo Sweet 08 Nov 2004

Thanx!
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Pure Myrrh's Photo Pure Myrrh 08 Nov 2004

Finally, I can sleep at night! :clown:
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politico's Photo politico 08 Nov 2004

Finally, I can sleep at night!  :clown:

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does this mean we won't be seeing any more polls about goat ownership?
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Pure Myrrh's Photo Pure Myrrh 08 Nov 2004

Finally, I can sleep at night!  :clown:

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does this mean we won't be seeing any more polls about goat ownership?

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I'm afraid so. All other farm animals are still fair game, though...
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politico's Photo politico 08 Nov 2004

Finally, I can sleep at night!  :clown:

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does this mean we won't be seeing any more polls about goat ownership?

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I'm afraid so. All other farm animals are still fair game, though...

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then we might have to rename you old macdonald
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Pure Myrrh's Photo Pure Myrrh 08 Nov 2004

then we might have to rename you old macdonald

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I am yet young.
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politico's Photo politico 08 Nov 2004

then we might have to rename you old macdonald

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I am yet young.

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"yet" being the operative term.
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BaronPhilip's Photo BaronPhilip 11 Nov 2004

Bumping this up...

No more comments on the Sefer Yosippon?

I spend an hour writing an essay for you guys, and I get no feedback! :bigcry:
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mosheshmeal's Photo mosheshmeal 11 Nov 2004

are u saying that the "sefer yoisifin" i have at home was written in 953?

i'm seriously confused.

mosheshmeal
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politico's Photo politico 11 Nov 2004

Chazal had no access to (refused to read?) any of the Greek historical sources of their day

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which do you think is the more likely reason?
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BaronPhilip's Photo BaronPhilip 11 Nov 2004

are u saying that the "sefer yoisifin" i have at home was written in 953?

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Correct. What you have at home is some version of a book written by an Italian yid in 953. It is not Josephus. (And Josephus never wrote any book in Hebrew.)

The guy who wrote the book you have at home just copied most of the information out of some Latin translations of Josephus and also got some material the sforim chitzonim, like the Sefer HaMakabim. Then he put it into his own words. It differs so much from the real Josephus that you can't even call it a translation.
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mosheshmeal's Photo mosheshmeal 11 Nov 2004

are u saying that the "sefer yoisifin" i have at home was written in 953?

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Correct. What you have at home is some version of a book written by an Italian yid in 953. It is not Josephus. (And Josephus never wrote any book in Hebrew.)

The guy who wrote the book you have at home just copied most of the information out of some Latin translations of Josephus and also got some material the sforim chitzonim, like the Sefer HaMakabim. Then he put it into his own words. It differs so much from the real Josephus that you can't even call it a translation.

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i'll have to check the hakdama there and maybe scan it in.

mosheshmeal
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BaronPhilip's Photo BaronPhilip 11 Nov 2004

Chazal had no access to (refused to read?) any of the Greek historical sources of their day

which do you think is the more likely reason?

Chazal seem to have relied on their own traditions for historical data, and weren't interested in reading Greek history books like Herodotus or Josephus. Perhaps they weren't even aware these books existed. It's kind of like asking why people in Bnei Brak aren't aware what a Jewish historian at Harvard writes. It's just very far removed from them.

What's interesting is that information that Chazal did not know, became known to the rishonim through the Sefer Yosippon. So Rashi's knowledge of specific incidents in Jewish history was superior to that of Chazal's.
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mosheshmeal's Photo mosheshmeal 11 Nov 2004

... and who is the yoisifin that the ramban, rashi, chassam sofer etc. quote?

mosheshmeal
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BaronPhilip's Photo BaronPhilip 11 Nov 2004

i'll have to check the hakdama there and maybe scan it in.

If the information in that hakdama contradicts what I wrote above, it is wrong.

The whole reason I wrote the essay is because most of the frum velt doesn't know the truth and all sorts of misconceptions are floating around and printed in seforim.

The oldest kisvei yad of Sefer Yosippon explicitly say that they were written by a Jew in the Middle Ages. I gave a full explanation above for how the misconception spread that Sefer Yosippon was written by Josephus.


... and who is the yoisifin that the ramban, rashi, chassam sofer etc. quote?

I thought I already made that point clear in the essay. They are quoting the book written in 953. This is clear, because they call it "Sefer Yosippon ben Gurion", which is the title of the 953 book, based on a mistake about the name of Josephus' dad. (Josephus' real name was really Yosef ben Mattisyohu.)

Until modern times, no Hebrew translation of the real Josephus was available.

Note: One of the things the Vilna Gaon wanted for the sake of secular studies was that one of his talmidim should do a translation of the real Josephus into Hebrew.


(BTW, thank you for reading my essay and commenting.)
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grend123's Photo grend123 11 Nov 2004

i'll have to check the hakdama there and maybe scan it in.

If the information in that hakdama contradicts what I wrote above, it is wrong.

The oldest kisvei yad of Sefer Yosippon explicitly say that they were written by a Jew in the Middle Ages. I gave a full explanation above for how the misconception spread that Sefer Yosippon was written by Josephus.

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Nothing really to comment here Baron. Your facts are correct... what more should we say?


Well, ok, just a FEW corrections:

1) Josephus implies he's as much a perushi as a tzeduki (he's neither, really, but somewhere in between).

2) In the Arabic version (the best known text, since the Church didn't touch it) Josephus is quite open and admits to fixing the lots.

3)Feldman's translation is of course the best, but it predates the Arabic discovery, and so he doesn't include the best version of the Testimonium Flavionum where Josephus's original comment about Jesus (quite unremarkable, as you mentioned) is preserved.


So, aside from being slightly out of date, your info is quite good.
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Guest_jake7484_* 16 Nov 2004

interesting
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