Saturday, November 11, 2006

Origen and Josephus, Part 2

When we ask what Origen can tell us about Josephus, an important issue is whether Origen provides actual citations, or some other witness to the text of Josephus.

It’s an open question whether Origen actually had a copy of Antiquities. He tells us that it was composed of twenty books and that the 18th book contained a passage about John the Baptist (Ant. 18.5.2). But he does not purport to quote that passage and his summary does not contain much detail; in fact what he does say of it seems to contradict the passage as it currently stands. He refers twice to the “two books on the Antiquities of the Jews”, but the content that he refers to is actually found in another work by Josephus, the two-volume Against Apion (see Against Celsus 1.16 and 4.11). And he imputes to Josephus a view about the destruction of Jerusalem that does not appear in Antiquities. The passage about James contains nothing, of course, about the war, but many other passages in Antiquities do contain the Jewish historian's view about what caused that calamity (see e.g., Antiquities 20.8.5).

What is going on here? Could Origen have had a copy of Antiquities and still imputed that view to Josephus? What kind of reason would he have? Some scholars have suggested that Origen confused the account of James’ death in Josephus, which mentions a small punishment, with that of the second-century church historian Hegesippus, who wrote around the year 170 that Jerusalem’s destruction followed “immediately” upon the death of James. But that seems unlikely to me if Origen was familiar with the latter text or simply knew that it, or other Christian texts, contained the tradition about the war as punishment. Likewise, if Origen had a copy of Antiquities, he would have been even less likely to attribute the Christian traditions to Josephus, a Jewish historian.

Some have argued that Origen knew of or possessed a copy of one of Josephus’ works in which said views about James and the war had been inserted. But I doubt that new views were added to copies of Josephus’ works, partly because the copies we have show no sign of such an insertion, and chiefly because I do not see why many Christians at this time period would have bothered copying an immense work that was available through other means; this was not yet the time when all of Europe’s manuscripts were in Jewish or Christian hands and monks copied them.

I don’t know how many scrolls a work like Antiquities would have filled, or how long it would have taken anyone to transcribe or research it. Christians coming across references to Christian figures in large works would be less likely, I think, to copy the works whole than to copy the references and/or hand out their contents from memory.

Even today on Google you can find innumerable instances of the Christian references in Josephus’ works sooner than you will find the works in their entirety, though of course the latter is nonetheless very easy due to modern technology. That would not have been true in antiquity.

It would be the rare Christian who was interested enough in the entirety of Josephus’ works, and wealthy enough, to own full copies. Origen does not appear interested – in all his works he mentions Josephus only those few times already mentioned.

I think it’s likelier that Christians copied both Ant. 20 and, in their own manuscripts, imputed Christian views to Josephus; the Christian community must have talked and written about what non-Christians were saying just as interestedly as it does today. Origen, rather than working entirely from memory when reporting Josephus, probably had Christian manuscripts in front of him in which he found both references to Antiquities 20 and original commentary.

Origen might or might not have been able to confirm that such views were absent from Josephus’ known works. Perhaps he simply believed what the Christian writings implied or stated, namely that Josephus at some point in his life, and not necessarily in the works still known to Origen over a century later, had written such things. Origen does not, after all, state that anyone could look up Josephus’ views on James and the war, though he encourages his readers to look up what Josephus does say in Against Apion.

A similar process seems to have occurred in the next century, when Eusebius reported that Josephus attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the execution of James. Eusebius purports to quote Josephus, but against his usual practice he does not name the work or chapter:

Josephus at any rate did not hesitate to testify this also through his writings, in which he says: But these things happened to the Jews as vengeance for James the just, who was the brother of Jesus who is called Christ. For the Jews killed him even though he was a most just man. (Eusebius, History of the Church 2.23.20)

This is a very close match with Origen’s words in Against Celsus 1.47, quoted in Part 1 of this blog series. It seems that Eusebius is using Origen as a source. Eusebius then reproduces the Ant. 20 passage directly, naming the correct work and chapter; in this way, he preserved both Josephus and what Origen said about him. This would be in keeping with a common human tendency to harmonize and preserve (inoffensive) traditions rather than choose exclusively among them. And he, like the Christians of the second century (as I argue), copied Ant. 20 and transmitted in his own manuscripts the other traditions about Josephus.

Whatever Origen is referring to, he probably had it in front of him, if only for the general reason that writings about James and Jesus would not have escaped being passed around the Christian community. But there is a more specific indication that he is quoting rather than paraphrasing from memory, and we'll get to that in Part 3.

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