Judean wisdom: Josephos’ self-presentation as the optimum wise Judean (late-first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Judean wisdom: Josephos’ self-presentation as the optimum wise Judean (late-first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 1, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=16390.

Ancient author: Flavius Josephos (late-first century CE), Judean Antiquities 20. 259-267  and Life 1-12 (link).

Comments: As Josephos finishes off a work (Judean Antiquities) in which he presented Hebrews, Israelites, and Judeans as the most ancient and superior people and explained ancestors of the Judeans as key contributors to wisdom and civilization, Josephos turns to his own self-perceived status as among the most wise of Judeans in his own time. In this way, the readers or hearers of this Greek version of his work are meant to take him as the optimum wise “barbarian,” despite – or perhaps partly due to – his accent.

Josephos also alludes to a similar presentation in his own autobiographical Life, a passage that is also included here. In that passage, Josephos pictures himself having tested all the sects of Judean philosophy before adopting the best one, in this case Pharisees. For other passages in which Josephos discusses the so-called Judean philosophies, go to this link.


Judean Antiquities

(20. 259-267) This will be the end of my Antiquities, after which begins writing about the war. The present work contains the tradition from the origin of man up to the twelfth year of the reign of Nero regading events that happened to us Judeans in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. It also includes everything we experienced at the hands of Assyrians and Babylonians, and the harsh treatment that we received from the Persians and Macedonians, and after them the Romans. I think that I have arranged everything completely and accurately. I have also tried to preserve the record of the line of the high priests who have served over a span of two thousand years. I have further noted without error the succession and conduct of the kings, reporting their achievements and communal organizations, as well as the period of rule by the Judges. All of this is as it is recorded in the sacred writings. For this was what I promised to do at the beginning of my history.

Gaining confidence from the completion of my proposed work, I assert that no one else – whether a Judean or anyone from some other tribe (allophylos) – would have been able, even if willing to try, to produce such an accurate account as this for the Greeks. For those among my own people (homoethnē) admit that I far exceed them in our native learning. I have also tried hard to participate in the area of Greek prose and poetry, after having gained a knowledge of Greek grammar (even though the habitual use of my ancestral language has prevented me being precise in the pronunciation.) For we [i.e. Israelites / Judeans] do not favour those persons who have mastered the speech of many peoples (ethnē), or who deck out the subtle words of their speech, because they consider that not only is such skill common to ordinary freemen but that even household slaves who want to can acquire it. But they ascribe wisdom only to those people who have an exact knowledge of the law and who are capable of interpreting the meaning of the sacred writings. For this reason, even though many have worked hard to do this training, hardly two or three have succeeded and have quickly reaped the benefit of their work. Perhaps it will not seem envy-causing or awkward to many readers if I recount briefly my ancestry and the events of my life [referring to his accompanying work on his Life], while there are still people living who can either disprove or corroborate my statements. With this I will conclude my Antiquities, contained in twenty books with sixty thousand lines.



(1-12) My family is not without distinction, tracing its descent far back to priestly ancestors. Each people bases the claim to nobility on different grounds. With us a connection with the priesthood is the hallmark of an illustrious line. However, not only were my ancestors priests. Rather, they also belonged to the first of the twenty-four courses [i.e. that of Jehoiarib, according to 1 Chronicles 24:7] – a peculiar distinction – and to the most eminent of its constituent descent groups (genē).

Moreover, on my mother’s side I am of royal blood. For Hasmoenan descendants (among whom she was born) were kings for a very considerable period, as well as being high-priests of our people (ethnos). I will say the succession: My great-grandfather’s grandfather was Simon surnamed Psellos (Stammerer). He was a contemporary of the high-priest Hyrkanos [I, ca. 134-104 BCE], the first of the name to hold that office, previously held by his father Simon. Simon Psellos had nine children, one of whom, Matthias, known as the son of Ephaios, married the daughter of Jonathan the high-priest [ca. 152-143 BCE], who was the first of the line of Hasmonaios to attain to the high-priesthood, and brother of Simon who also held that office [ca. 142–135 BCE]. Matthias, in the first year of the reign of Hyrcanus [ca. 134 BCE] had a son Matthias, surnamed Kyrtos. In the ninth year of the reign of Alexandra [ca. 70 BCE], Matthias had Joseph. In the tenth year of the reign of Archelaos, Joseph had Matthias, to whom I was born in the year in which Gaius Caesar became emperor [ca. 37 CE]. I have three sons: Hyrkanos, the eldest, born in the fourth, Justus in the seventh, and Agrippa in the ninth year of the reign of Vespasian Caesar [ca. 73–78 CE]. With such a succession, which I cite as I find it recorded in the records of the people, I can refute potential detractors of my family.

Distinguished as he was by his noble birth, my father Matthias was even more esteemed for his upright character, being among the most notable men in Jerusalem, our greatest city. Brought up with Matthias (my own brother by both parents), I made great progress in my education, gaining a reputation for an excellent memory and understanding. While only a boy, about fourteen years old [ca. 51-52 CE], I won universal applause for my love of letters. The chief priests and the leading men of the city used to come to me constantly for precise information on particular items in our ordinances.

At about the age of sixteen [53-54 CE], I decided to gain personal experience of our sects (haireseis). These, as I have frequently mentioned [see other passages below], are three in number: the first is the Pharisees, the second is the Sadducees, and the third is the Essenes. I thought that, after a thorough investigation, I should be in a position to choose the best one. So I submitted myself to hard training and laborious exercises and passed through the three sects. However, as I was not content with the experience gained, on hearing of one named Bannos, I became his devoted disciple. Bannos lived in the desert wearing only the clothing that trees provided, feeding on whatever grew naturally, and bathing frequently (both day and night) in cold water for the sake of purity. I lived with him for three years and, after accomplishing my purpose, returned to the city [Jerusalem]. Now that I was nineteen years old [56-57 CE], I began to regulate my life by the rules of the Pharisees, a sect having points of resemblance to what the Greeks call the Stoic sect.


Source of the translations: H.S.J. Thackeray and R. Marcus, Josephus, volumes 1-7, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1926-43), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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