Hebrew Voices #31 – Josephus, Theocracy, and Devaluing Freedom

Nehemia Gordon voting in Texas 2016.

In this episode of Hebrew Voices, Josephus, Theocracy, and Devaluing Freedom, Nehemia Gordon speaks with Dr. Michael Kochin, an Israeli professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University, about how to live a Torah-life when ruled by pagans. They look at the 1st Century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius who coined the term "theocracy" to describe the rule of Judea by a council of self-appointed Priests and Pharisees. After the Roman conquest, Josephus struggled with the collision of Jewish Torah values with Greek Philosophy that "deliberately and explicitly sets out to devalue freedom". Josephus ultimately argued that it was still possible to live by the Torah despite the tyranny of Roman rule. Looking forward to reading your comments!

"For God is King of all the earth…” Psalms 47:8[7]

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Hebrew Voices #31 - Josephus, Theocracy, and Devaluing Freedom

You are listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon. Thank you for supporting Nehemia Gordon's Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at NehemiasWall.com.

Benjamin Netanyahu: Le ma’an Zion lo ekhesheh, u’l’ma’an Yerushalayim lo eshkot. (For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest. Isaiah 62:1)

Nehemia: Shalom, this is Nehemia Gordon of Hebrew Voices, and I am here at Tel Aviv University with Professor Michael Kochin. He is a professor of Political Science with a PhD from the University of Chicago. He has been a visiting researcher and professor at Toronto, Princeton, Yale, Claremont. He’s written two books - one on Plato and the other on political rhetoric, and he is an expert on political science. We’re going to be talking to him today about the political science of Josephus Flavius. Shalom, Professor Kochin.

Michael: Hello, Nechemia.

Nehemia: Tell us about Josephus Flavius. Who was he, what did he write, and why is he important for us?

Michael: Josephus was a Priest. He was related to the highest priestly families, including the Hasmoneans. At the time of the Great Revolt, he was apparently one of very few people who had any kind of Greek education.

Nehemia: The Great Revolt began in the year 66 AD, or CE as you say?

Michael: Since he was one of the very few people who had some education into what the wider world was actually like, he becomes fairly important despite his youth. In particular, he gets sent to the north as a military commander to try to organize the resistance against the Romans.

Nehemia: Correct me if I’m wrong, wasn’t he the general over Jodapata, Yodfat…

Michael: Yodfata.

Nehemia: …and he lost. [laughing]

Michael: He recognized that resistance to the Romans was futile, and supposedly they decided that they were going to kill themselves rather than be enslaved by the Romans. He claims he manipulated the lot, so that he and one other guy were left, and then he ran away and deserted to the Romans.

Nehemia: So a lot of Jews look at him today as a traitor. It’s really interesting, because in your article you mention that he condemns the traitors who allied with the Romans from the very beginning, meaning he surrendered and was forced - I guess he could have killed himself – but other than that, he was forced to join the Romans. You mention that there was one Jewish leader who sided with the people of Scythopolis, which was Bet Shean, a Greek city at the time, and that Josephus condemns them, which is ironic, because a lot of people today look at him as a traitor.

Michael: He was a traitor, but according to him he was a traitor at exactly the right moment. Anyone that was a traitor before him is despicable, and anyone who continued fighting the Romans after him probably was unrealistic about what you could accomplish.

Nehemia: We have an interesting parallel to Josephus, from what I know of Jewish history, with Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who also went over to the Roman side just at the right time. I guess, from his perspective and the perspective of his followers, he would have continued then he would have… Why did he go over to the Romans?

Michael: Because he wanted to preserve the Jewish law and its adherence.

Nehemia: Okay. So if he would have continued to fight on he would have been wiped out, and you mention this about the people of Masada, that their martyrdom wasn’t viewed the same, meaning the people of Masada killed themselves en masse rather than surrender to the Romans, and Josephus looks down on that, as opposed to people who individually were martyred, whom he actually admires.

Michael: Right. Josephus wants to claim that it is possible to keep the law under Roman rule.

Nehemia: The law meaning the Torah?

Michael: The Torah. It is possible to keep the Torah under Roman rule. God will protect us, at least to that extent. Therefore, unless and until the Romans order you to defy the Torah, it’s better to live even as a slave under Roman rule, as long as he can obey the law of the Torah.

Nehemia: So what happens when they command you to violate the Torah? What are you supposed to do, according to Josephus?

Michael: According to Josephus, you just have to stick with the Torah.

Nehemia: And get martyred.

Michael: A martyr in Greek is someone who bears witness. That is a term that Josephus uses. He’s not the first to use it in Greek. You bear witness to the law, to the truth of the law and to the truth of God’s revelation. That’s what you have to do. You might be killed, but since the Torah is actually true, God might very well intervene and save you and allow you to continue to obey the law.

Nehemia: So in his case, when he surrendered to the Romans, that wasn’t in violation of the Torah. It was militarily - he lost. You made this statement in your article which I thought was absolutely fascinating, and I’m going to read it. You said, “The whole philosophical encounter with political life…” and here, you’re not just talking about Josephus, you’re talking about philosophers from the Greek philosophy all the way up until even pre-modern times, right?

Michael: Basically, until the 18th century pretty much.

Nehemia: “The whole philosophical encounter with political life deliberately and explicitly sets out to devalue freedom and to find a way of going on together after freedom is lost.” I’m going to read that again. “It deliberately and explicitly sets out to devalue freedom. That’s what philosophy is about.” Tell us about that.

Michael: Well, because philosophy, in terms of thinking about human life, it’s thinking about what to do. Freedom is valuable, say Plato and Aristotle and a whole bunch of people who follow them, if you actually know what to do. If you don’t know what to do, better to follow someone who does know, even if that means being enslaved to them.

Nehemia: And your main area of expertise is actually in Plato and Aristotle, right? You mention you wrote a book on Plato in Greek. What was your doctorate on?

Michael: On Plato, on gender and politics and Plato’s republican laws.

Nehemia: Okay, we’re not going to talk about that. [laughing] That sounds like a whole other discussion. Then you mentioned Jerusalem falling to the Romans, according to Josephus, in your article. How did Jerusalem fall to the Romans?

Michael: You find similar stories from the Rabbis. There was internal strife. They burn the food.

Nehemia: Who burns the food? My listeners don’t know. Tell us the story, what happened?

Michael: There are a bunch of armed factions in Jerusalem, and they compete both for leadership and resources, and to see who’s more defiant to the Romans.

Nehemia: These were what were known as the “zealots”.

Michael: They’re multiple factions, and the factions don’t want any food to be under the control of the opposite factions, or of the rich people in Jerusalem who are not themselves necessarily with any particular faction.

Nehemia: The story is that Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans, and these cities were prepared for multi-year sieges. The Romans were prepared to carry out a multi-year siege, but up to a point. Meaning, at some point, the Roman army would have said, “This is too expensive. We’re going home.” What that point is, nobody knows.

Michael: I don’t know if they would have said that, but they would have tried to take the city or died.

Nehemia: Okay. Or maybe a foreign power would have intervened. Meaning, if a nation like Parthia, which we’ll talk about in a second, would have seen, “Well, the Jews have held out for six years, it’s time for us to intervene.” So what one of the zealot factions did is, they burned the storehouses, and part of that might have been - according to some explanations, it’s my understanding – is that they were expecting a deus ex machina, that God would swoop in and save them if they had no choice but to fight. What happened is they burned the storehouses and they started to starve to death.

Michael: Right. Insofar as the fall of Jerusalem was due to Jewish sins or mistakes, you could say that it’s not impossible that Jews could be free of Roman rule.

Nehemia: Meaning that’s what Josephus…

Michael: It’s important to Josephus.

Nehemia: In other words, it wasn’t that the Romans were so powerful, it was the Jews were internally divided and fought amongst themselves, which as you said, Josephus says that and the rabbis say that. The rabbis have a caricature of that in the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa.

Michael: Yeah. But that’s not their only story like that. They also have…

Nehemia: Okay, so it was this internal division. That’s actually a Greek concept.

Michael: The Greek word is “stasis”.

Nehemia: What does that mean?

Michael: It means “civil strife”.

Nehemia: Like within the city?

Michael: Yeah, we stand here, you stand there, and then once we’re each standing in opposite places, then we fight it out to see who wins and who controls things.

Nehemia: You had mentioned to me that there was actually maybe an ideological reason for Josephus describing it in those terms.

Michael: Like I said, it shows that Jewish freedom is still possible, even in Roman rule. “Someday, the Jews will be free of the Romans,” Josephus says more or less explicitly in the Antiquities.

Nehemia: He does?

Michael: Yes.

Nehemia: Wow. How was that received in Rome when he wrote that? We don’t know, but how do you think it was? Or did they just not notice he wrote that? [laughing]

Michael: There’s been a crisis of Roman belief in themselves for decades.

Nehemia: Josephus was writing sometime in the 90s or something like that?

Michael: Right. Even going back to Cicero’s time, 150 years before, the Romans who were serious about life tend to think in terms of philosophy or Judaism, or maybe some other religious cult. So the idea that Rome isn’t where it’s at, and devoting your life to Roman greatness, is kind of pointless. That’s something that would have resonated somehow with a lot of educated Romans.

Nehemia: So he’s kind of tapping into that.

Michael: He’s definitely tapping into that.

Nehemia: That’s really interesting. When I read Josephus, one of the themes that I picked up on – or what seemed to me – is that on one hand he’s trying to convince the Jews, “Don’t rise up on the Romans because it’s pointless. Don’t fight them. Look, they’re not that bad, they didn’t destroy our Temple. It was our own people who messed up and destroyed our Temple. So you might as well submit to Roman rule. You can’t fight it.”

It seems to me like there’s an internal purpose of his works, but you’re saying there’s also a message directed at the Greeks, at the gentiles, at the Romans.

Michael: Yes, I think he’s not really writing for a Jewish audience.

Nehemia: Primarily, you think he’s writing for a…

Michael: He’s writing for people who read Greek, which means in his case, almost certainly educated Romans, because at this point nobody really cares what the Greeks think.

Nehemia: Okay. [laughing]

Michael: He would have written in Latin if he could but educated Romans all read Greek anyway.

Nehemia: I see. You mentioned something really interesting in the article, that the first time in Greek literature - really in any literature - that we have the word “theocracy” or “theocratia” in Greek, is actually in the writings of Josephus. What does Josephus mean by “theocracy?” What’s the application of it in his writing?

Michael: Theocracy, literally in Greek, means “the rule of God”. But in Josephus it means “ruled by men who are dedicated to God’s law”, and in particular, ruled by the Priests with the help of other allies who are similarly dedicated to the observance of God’s law.

Nehemia: And priests, specifically, that’s the Aaronic Priests, or the Kohanim?

Michael: Right.

Nehemia: So you’ve got Kohanim along with allies who aren’t Kohanim who are running the country, and that’s the definition of theocracy according to Josephus.

Michael: That’s one of the words he uses for this regime. Sometimes he calls it “aristocracy” and sometimes he calls it “democracy.”

Nehemia: Wow. So he used three different terms for basically the same thing. Define “aristocracy” in his terms. Actually, we had an interesting case recently in the news, where there was something proposed by the British government, and it was voted down by the House of Lords, who are unelected aristocracy. It became a constitutional crisis, or whatever they have in England, because who are these people who aren’t elected to overthrow the decision of the elected officials. So what is aristocracy in Josephus’ writings?

Michael: Aristotle says in the rhetoric what people understand by aristocracy is rule of those people educated from birth in the laws of the community and upholding the ways of the community. “Educated from birth” means that your parents when you were born had enough money to educate you properly, which means you’re pretty comfortable. You’re born into comfortable circumstances. But it means that you’re educated to rule in conformance with the traditions of the community.

Nehemia: And so in this case, aristocracy wasn’t necessarily Kohanim, it could have been other people as well.

Michael: Right. So ideally, Josephus says aristocracy includes not just priests, Kohanim, but also anybody who’s like-minded with them in seeing obedience to God’s law as the…

Nehemia: You gave the example in Josephus’ description of the history Matityahu, or Mathias, who was the father of the Maccabees, of the Hasmonean dynasty, and what did he do?

Michael: He himself is a priest, but he tells his sons to make sure to recruit from anybody who is going to similarly be faithful to God.

Nehemia: Not just the priests?

Michael: Not just the priests.

Nehemia: Not just the Kohanim. Here’s what you wrote. You wrote, “The High Priest governs the most important things with the help of those priests, Levites, and Israelites who excel in the virtues as the Jews conceive them.”

So that’s one model, and basically you were saying that’s what was enforced from the time that the Jews returned from Babylon all the way up until Antiochus III, I believe it was. Then things went through a shift with Antiochus IV. Tell us about that.

Michael: That’s Josephus’ picture.

Nehemia: Okay, so now that raises a really interesting question that my listeners might not be familiar with, is the difference between history and historiography.

Michael: When we professors talk about history, we usually mean what actually happened. But for a lot of periods, our access to history is mediated by historiography. That’s to say, we don’t have the records, by and large, we don’t have maybe relevant archaeological evidence. All we have is what people at some point, maybe centuries later, wrote about what happened, and historiography means history as it was written, or historical writings.

And so when Josephus wrote the Antiquities, he wrote a history of the Jews from the beginning of the Bible, basically, until near his own time, and then he supplemented this with history support. Actually, first he wrote a history of the Jewish war, perhaps other things that we don’t have. So he told the Jewish history from the earliest times, from the creation of the world down to his own time.

Nehemia: And that’s historiography?

Michael: That’s historiography. He wrote that for particular purposes, for a particular audience. In general, I’m more interested in understanding what Josephus wanted than what actually happened. If you are interested in what actually happened, then you have to try to weigh that against other sources.

Nehemia: There was a really interesting example which I thought was fascinating and inspired me to contact you and do this interview, which was that when he tells the history of Israel in the desert, he skips the story of the Golden Calf. And that’s a clear example of what happened versus, “I’m going to decide how to tell the story, and I have maybe a very specific agenda of what I decide to tell, and what I decide not to tell.” That’s historiography.

Michael: Yes. Right. He wants to present the Jews as people who use their freedom to obey the law.

Nehemia: The law is the Torah.

Michael: The Torah. So when the Jews are free, in particular when they’re free of foreign rule or they’re free of their own despots, they obey the Torah, and therefore, they don’t commit idolatry. Therefore, there can’t be any idolatry. It’s better to leave out any stories of idolatry that happen when the Jews were not under foreign tyranny or their own tyranny.

Nehemia: Because that doesn’t fit his expectation of what’s supposed to happen.

Michael: He’s presenting it, I think, to a Roman audience that at least, even though they’ve been living under emperors for a long time, in principle is committed to republican rule. That’s to say, there’s certain conception of political freedom, and at the same time, the people he’s talking to are people who are interested in Jewish tradition and it would be better to present the Jews as completely faithful to their…

Nehemia: I’m going to ask you to rephrase that and explain that in maybe more depth and in plain English. When you say, “They’re ruled by emperors but they’re committed to republican rule,” what is that in plain English?

Michael: The Jews have been living under foreign rule for a long time, and under Persian rule, Greek rule, they have a brief interlude of their own independence, and then they live under Roman rule in one form or another. For Josephus, the Persian rule was pretty good because there weren’t any local Jewish despots, and therefore, the Jews were free to worship God and the Torah.

Nehemia: And “despot”, even in Greek, is a tyrant, right?

Michael: A tyrant, yes.

Nehemia: What’s the definition of a tyrant, or one of the signs of a tyrant?

Michael: One of the clear signs of a tyrant is going around with a bodyguard. Republican officials don’t need a bodyguard because they obey the law and the citizens obey the law.

Nehemia: And “republican” is not the big R like in modern English. What is a republic?

Michael: A republic is a form of government where many share and rule, and ideally, that which affects all is decided by all, in some sense.

Nehemia: So examples of a republic today would be the United States. Would the United Kingdom, or England, be a republic?

Michael: The United Kingdom is a monarchy. It’s a democratic monarchy of a certain type, but you’d have to ask what difference does it make that there is a queen? That’s very complicated.

Nehemia: Let’s not get into that. France is a republic.

Michael: France is a republic. China is a republic.

Nehemia: China’s a republic. [laughing]

Michael: But China’s not a democratic republic.

Nehemia: Okay. Wait a minute - when you say “republic”, do you mean democratic republic?

Michael: In a modern sense, we would make a distinction. Josephus, oddly enough uses the Greek word “democracy, democratia”, is to mean republic, what the Romans meant by republic.

Nehemia: Which was…?

Michael: Roman republic.

Nehemia: In other words, would China be considered a republic in the sense of Josephus and the Romans? I’m asking. I don’t know.

Michael: I think so, because there is no king, many people participate in rule, there isn’t one-man rule, there’s no tyranny, there’s not one-man rule in any sense. There’s a body of people who participate in rule.

Nehemia: [laughing] There’s no tyranny in communist China?

Michael: There’s the tyranny of the Communist Party over everybody else, but in ancient democracies like Athens, there’s the tyranny, a despotism, of the slave owners over the slaves. In China, somehow, the political participation and maybe even the political rights of people in the Communist Party is greater than that of people not in the party. The party does, in fact, lead society and it claims to lead society. But the party itself is not one guy, and itself, it isn’t by any means an egalitarian institution, but it operates on the basis of discussion…

Nehemia: Republic doesn’t mean “egalitarian”, where any farmer can become the king, or the ruler necessarily. It means that there’s a lot of people involved, and in the sense of Josephus, I guess, it’s the Kohanim, together with other people who are dedicated to the Torah and qualified, who the Kohanim choose to help them, or who join them.

Michael: Yeah, who join them.

Nehemia: That’s what you mean by “republic” in that sense. He calls it a “democracy” and also a “theocracy”, I’m going to use the term “democratic theocracy”. But you’re saying it’s not democracy in the sense of the United States today - or at least what the United States officially is [laughing] – where… I don’t know, is it?

Michael: Well, it’s democratic in the sense that…

Nehemia: Meaning, there aren’t elections.

Michael: There might be. We don’t know exactly. You need a whole bunch of people to collect taxes and share the water and all that stuff. Josephus is not really so interested in that. He’s interested in the very top leadership that sets the tone, and teaches the people the Torah, and gets them to obey the Torah.

Nehemia: You had mentioned – and this isn’t just your opinion – that one of the ancient definitions of a tyrant was somebody who needed protection from his own people. You gave the example of Herod, who built fortresses to protect him not just from foreign invasion, but from his own people in case there was an uprising, and there were other examples of Jewish leaders…

Michael: So it’s disturbing, because Josephus is careful to note that this goes back to Solomon, at least.

Nehemia: That even Solomon was a tyrant, because he needed protection from his own people. Wow. And we were talking before we started about how in the United States there was a time when anybody could approach the president. What was that like?

Michael: It used to be that the president had a reception every year on New Year’s Day, and if you were dressed decently and clean, you got in line and you got to shake the president’s hand.

Nehemia: What happened? What changed?

Michael: What changed was, Hoover became very unpopular with the Great Depression, and they were worried that somebody might do something to him.

Nehemia: And so ever since then, people haven’t had access to the president.

Michael: Right. You can’t just line up and go see the president.

Nehemia: So by the ancient definition, that would make every president since Hoover a tyrant?

Michael: It raises serious questions. Yeah, it raises serious questions.

Nehemia: Meaning, a republican ruler shouldn’t need protection from his own people if he’s not a tyrant?

Michael: Right. On the other hand, the US is a big country with a lot of crazy people. It’s a problem. It’s not so easy.

Nehemia: [laughing] Okay. I see what you’re saying.

Michael: It’s not so easy.

Nehemia: We live in a different world. I wonder if the access to certain types of weapons hasn’t changed things. Meaning, when the way to kill the president – not that I’m in favor of that – but back then, the way to kill the president if you wanted… Well, no. Even Lincoln was shot.

Michael: Lincoln was shot.

Nehemia: Meaning, I was thinking, if it’s a sword, then the president just pulls out his sword. But no, they shot Lincoln. And we have this story of Ehud, who assassinated the King of Moav because he was allowed in with a sword, and he was left-handed and they didn’t notice.

Michael: Yeah, you bow down before a king, this makes you helpless. You don’t bow down before a republican leader. You approach him upright, and he’s upright too, and you meet on the level, and he has to trust that you’re a good person and obey the law, or at least you’re going to defer to the law and not mess with the…

Nehemia: And now you don’t mean “law” in the sense of Torah, you mean “law of the land”?

Michael: Right, sure.

Nehemia: That’s interesting, a tyrant needs protection from his own people. The Jews said something that you quoted here from Josephus, I guess, who when they sent a delegation to Pompei, who was the Roman General, when he conquered Syria they sent a delegation in 64 BCE. Here’s the quote, “We do not like to be ruled by a king.” Whether they said that or not, what was Josephus’ reason for quoting that? What was he trying to show the Romans?

Michael: He wants to show they shared the Roman hatred for kings and the Roman value of freedom, and that the Romans, if they want the Jews to behave, they can do it the same way the Persians did - by putting them under a local leadership committed to Jewish law, to the Torah, and such a leadership would have to not to be kingly, obsessed with its own privileges, prerogatives and power.

Nehemia: In other words, he’s trying to send the message to the Romans, “If you give the Jews some degree of autonomy, they’ll pay your taxes. But other than that, let them decide internal matters, then they won’t be so rebellious.” Is that what you’re saying?

Michael: That’s part of it. And of course, the Romans had their own…

Nehemia: The Romans did that with Yavne, didn’t they?

Michael: It’s how you govern people around here.

Nehemia: [laughing] Say that again? It’s hard to govern people?

Michael: It’s how you govern people.

Nehemia: Oh, it’s how you govern people around here.

Michael: Yes. Another way to look at it is, the Romans had had an experiment with these kingly, Jewish allies, like Herod, and Josephus, despite the fact that some of these people, like Agrippa II, he seems to have liked…

Nehemia: Tell people who Agrippa II was.

Michael: He was Herod’s grandson?

Nehemia: He was some person who claimed…as we say, “yichus”, he claimed to have a lineage going back to the Hasmoneans through one line.

Michael: Yeah, I’ve heard that. He was a relative of Herod, I think a grandson, but he lived most of his life in Rome, and Josephus presents him generally in a positive way. In particular in Josephus, he intervened to help save the Jews from Caligula.

Nehemia: Caligula wanted to put up… tell the story about that.

Michael: Caligula wanted to put up a statue of himself in the Temple and have the Jews worship him. He wanted everybody to worship him, but also the Jews. And as Josephus tells it - and Philo tells it too, so the stories presumably happened - the Jews would have preferred to die rather than worship Caligula, and Caligula is perfectly prepared to kill them all. [laughing]

Nehemia: [laughing] Caligula, if I remember correctly, was completely crazy. Wasn’t he eventually deposed by the Roman senators?

Michael: He was deposed around this time, partly with the help of Agrippa. Claudius was put in, and Claudius did not try any of these things, according to Josephus and Philo. So according to Josephus and Philo, God intervened to save the Jews.

Nehemia: So if you want to rule the Jews, let them have this degree of autonomy, and just keep kings out of it, because the kings didn’t work. The Romans, if I remember correctly, they imposed Herod upon the people, meaning, Herod first started out as some kind of ruler which wasn’t a king, and he was overthrown. He actually had to flee for his life in the year 40 BCE. I think some of that had to do with Parthian intervention. Then he went to Rome and said, “If you want me to rule, and the Jews only respect kings, make me a king,” and he returned with the Roman army and then conquered Judea in 37 BCE. He was a tyrant. He really was a horrible human being. Tell us about the Parthians, who were they, and why were they important?

Michael: The Parthians are a Persian people, and they are the largest power that bounds the Roman Empire in the east. They are a constant threat to the Roman power in the east at this time.

Nehemia: That’s important, because a lot of people, when I learned western civilization about Roman history, I learned that the main enemy of the Romans was the Germanic tribes, the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, and the Vandals, and that’s really a very small part of the story. The bigger enemy of the Romans for a much longer period of time and a bigger threat was the Parthians, who were the Persian Empire of the time. There was a constant threat of them intervening, especially on behalf of the Jews, because there were so many Jews living in Babylon under Parthian rule. For example, even Hillel haZaken, who came around 30 BCE, came from Babylon. He’s actually known as “Hillel haBavli”, Hillel the Babylonian, which meant he came from Parthian rule to see the Jews being treated the way they were being treated by the Romans.

Under Parthian rule, they actually did have a degree of autonomy, it seems, and there was a constant concern that the Parthians would intervene, and they actually did at one point invade Israel - what was in, 614 or something like that?

Michael: Earlier.

Nehemia: Or even before that.

Michael: No, in Josephus it tells about an earlier Parthian invasion. But they were the contestants with the Romans all the way down to 614, when they conquered Palestine again. In fact, it was Persian groups of various kinds. If the Jews are alienated from the Romans, then those are the people they would naturally side with.

Nehemia: In other words, if you didn’t know about the Parthians you’d think, “Yeah, the Jews are going to throw off Roman rule and be completely independent and autonomous, and not trust any human empire,” so-to-speak. They’ll trust entirely in God. That may be true or it may not be true – meaning, they may have thought and hoped that the Parthians would intervene during the Great Revolt.

Michael: We don’t really know.

Nehemia: We don’t know.

Michael: Josephus, who’s our main source on these things, was not that high in the circles of the revolt, and if there was any real strategic thinking, we don’t actually know what it was. It’s possible there wasn’t any - that they put their trust in God and didn’t calculate militarily very carefully, and they didn’t really have promises from Parthia, or reasonable hopes.

Nehemia: Okay, but there had been previous occasions, like I mentioned, in the year 40 BCE, when Herod rose to power, that the Parthians did intervene on some level. So it wasn’t so far-fetched that the Parthians would get involved.

Michael: It wasn’t completely far-fetched, but in the event, it didn’t actually happen.

Nehemia: That’s too bad. Let’s go back to the issue of Josephus’ historiography and omitting the Golden Calf. He also omits the Idol of Micha, which is in the Book of Judges. He even omits the reference to the teraphim in the story of David, which is a very controversial event, where David is hiding from Saul, and he tells his wife, who’s Saul’s daughter, “I’m going to slip out the window,” I’m paraphrasing, “put my teraphim in the bed,” which was some kind of human-shaped idol.

Josephs omits these references to idols, but then when it comes to Solomon… First of all Jeroboam, he describes the Golden Calf, but even more interestingly, when it comes to Solomon’s throne he describes that there’s this calf on Solomon’s throne, a bull.

Michael: Right. He wants to claim that there’s an association between kingship and transgression of the most important law of the Torah, the law against idolatry.

Nehemia: Whereas, when there aren’t kings and when there is this so-called “aristocracy” or “theocracy” in Josephus’ terminology, then there isn’t idolatry.

Michael: There isn’t idolatry.

Nehemia: Even though it’s not true, he just selectively omits it.

Michael: Yes. Those stories don’t help him in getting the message he wants to get across.

Nehemia: And a very interesting side note I’d read in your article about the calf on the throne of Solomon. I went and looked it up. It doesn’t say that in the Hebrew. It does say it in the Greek. The interesting thing is, in the Hebrew description of Solomon’s throne it describes it as a “rosh agol”, a round head. There was some kind of pillow or some kind of thing by the head that was round. But if you take that same word and you change the vowels, it’s “rosh egel”, the head of a calf.

Apparently, someone read that Hebrew, possibly Josephus or the Septuagint, or both, and they read that as “egel”, as calf, and maybe there was an agenda there to try to describe this calf. It’s interesting, because he leaves out the calf in the desert, but then he puts the calf in with Solomon, which isn’t really there – and of course, with Jeroboam it is – and it’s interesting, because there’s some ancient Jewish sources who, when they describe the golden calves of Jeroboam, who was the first king of the Northern Kingdom after Solomon died and the kingdom split.

Jeroboam set up two golden calves, one at Dan and one at Bethel, one in the northern end of his kingdom and the southern end of the kingdom. And it explicitly says that he said to his people, “You don’t need to go to Jerusalem. Come and worship these calves.” Why golden calves? Because they had worshipped a golden calf in the desert. It’s interesting, maybe there was a calf on Solomon’s throne, and so it was this symbol that was there the whole time. Some of the Jewish sources suggest that the golden calf, that was his understanding of the cherubim, the keruvim that were on top of the Ark of the Covenant. It wasn’t that he was trying to say, “this is your God,” but “This is the symbol that appears on top of the Ark, and therefore it’s associated with the God.” I don’t know if that’s correct or not, but that’s what’s been suggested by some ancient Jewish sources from the Middle Ages. It wasn’t that he was making an idol of God, he was making the idol of the keruvim, of the cherubim.

Michael: Right. Now, of course, Josephus, when he describes the Ark, he doesn’t mention the cherubim.

Nehemia: Talk about what he describes in the Ark. That actually really interesting.

Michael: This whole issue is so sensitive and it doesn’t fit with the presentation of the Jews as faithful to their law, as long as they live under the right kind of rule. So since in the desert under Moses they lived under what was called “aristocracy”, he doesn’t want to go into this thing that there were these things... He says they were there, but they don’t look like anything else. They’re not really graven images.

Nehemia: They don’t look like anything any human’s ever seen.

Michael: Right.

Nehemia: That’s amazing. Wow. That’s really interesting, because we, of course, all have this picture of these women with wings, possibly faceless women in the Jewish description, or modern Jewish art. But Josephus says it looked like something that nobody else has ever seen, and hence, it doesn’t violate the commandment which says, “Don’t make an image of anything in the heavens above, or the sea below, or on the earth,” because it’s not like anything else. It’s something that’s unique, sui generis. That’s very interesting.

You had talked before we started about how there was this paradox in what Josephus is trying to do, in the way he’s trying to present what he’s trying to present with the Romans, versus… Talk about the paradox.

Michael: He wants to show that the Jews are worthy people according to the Roman standards of human worth, and in particular, that they hate kings and value freedom. And because the Romans are having trouble with their own commitment to the greatness of Rome, which is pretty much the only thing they had believed in in the past, they’re looking around for alternatives, and one of the most salient alternatives in Josephus’ time is in fact, Judaism, so he wants to show that the Jews were actually good Jews, and faithful to the Torah.

The freedom thing poses certain difficulties for Josephus, because insofar as the Jews are committed to freedom, then they’re committed to freedom from Roman rule, [laughing] and the Romans might not be so keen on that. On the other hand, if the Jews are willing to be enslaved to the Romans, then they’re really not such wonderful people.

Nehemia: So the very thing that makes them good people in the Roman eyes is the very thing that makes them difficult to rule, and that’s the paradox.

Michael: Right, that’s the paradox. Josephus’ proposed temporary solution is that the Jews should accept Roman rule, as long as the Romans don’t ask them to do things that violate the Torah.

Nehemia: Okay. And you had mentioned that Josephus talks about that eventually the Jews can be out from under Roman rule?

Michael: Yeah, he accepts the kingdoms in Daniel. He hints in the Antiquities that the fourth kingdom in Daniel is Rome and they’re going to be destroyed, and that God will restore the Jews to freedom and power.

Nehemia: So he hints, he doesn’t come out and say, “One day, Rome will be destroyed,” because that wouldn’t have gone over very well.

Michael: But if you’re the kind of reader he intends, I think, which is a Roman who’s sympathetic to Judaism, or interested in Judaism, then if you read the Book of Daniel in Greek, you might eventually figure out what… He doesn’t make it hard to figure out what he’s getting at.

Nehemia: One last thing. You talked out how he talks about the Shabbat, the Sabbath. In his day, there was this concept that the very dedication to the Shabbat made the Jews invalid as masters of an empire, because their understanding at that time, according to Josephus, which is kind of shocking – you also read about this in Maccabees – but even in Josephus’ time, the idea was that you’re allowed to defend yourself on Shabbat, but you’re not allowed to proactively carry out military operations.

Michael: You do see a similar idea in the rabbis. Therefore, you could imagine a modus vivendi between the Jews and an impending…

Nehemia: In plain English, what’s a modus vivendi, for my listeners?

Michael: Even if the Jews were to become independent, they wouldn’t necessarily be a threat to Roman rule everywhere, because they’re not capable of indefinite expansion. Because they’re not capable of carrying out aggressive war fully, because they can’t do it on the Sabbath. But you mess with them, and they’re pretty tough.

Nehemia: [laughing] The Jews.

Michael: Even on the Sabbath - they’ll defend themselves.

Nehemia: That’s really interesting, and many of my listeners are coming from a New Testament Christian perspective. One of the issues that comes up in the New Testament is Jesus healing on the Shabbat, and that’s really a problem in Jewish history, because every Jewish modern historian, they look at this and they say, “We know in Jewish law you’re allowed to heal on Shabbat.” They bring the example in the Talmud, if you look what it actually says in the Talmud, it talks about - if I remember correctly - it’s a woman who’s pregnant, and the baby’s crowning and she’s going to die. Are you familiar with this?

That’s where they get the idea of “pikuah nefesh”, that you’re allowed to do anything to save a life, even cut up the baby in order to save the life of the mother. Then they apply that to all kinds of other situations, that whatever you need to do medically to save life, you do it. As I was reading your article it made me think, “Wait a minute. If someone was in imminent mortal danger and Jesus came, or Yeshua came, and healed them on the Shabbat, everyone would agree that was okay,” I think, according to Rabbinical law.

But if somebody has been blind for 40 years and he was blind yesterday, and he’s going to be blind on Sunday morning too, then maybe that was the issue - that he was doing something proactively that really didn’t need to be done on Shabbat, and maybe that’s why he was criticized. I don’t know, I’m just thinking out loud.

Michael: The other thing you have to keep in mind from the point of view of history is that all of these testimonies to Jewish law, whether the New Testament or Josephus, they’re not the same as the Rabbinic texts that we have, and they sometimes represent views that are either not mentioned in Rabbinic texts or are rejected in the end by Rabbinic laws that developed.

Nehemia: When you say “rejected”, meaning there were a lot of different opinions in Rabbinical history, and it happened to be that one opinion won out, and that might not be the opinion that’s… In other words, there might have been somebody back in the 1st century, even in Rabbinical Pharisaical circles, who said, “No, you’re not allowed to heal on Shabbat,” and later that was overturned, but we have a vestige of that in the New Testament.

Michael: Josephus claims to be a Pharisee, and the Jewish legal material that he presents is consistent with the views that the actual Pharisees seem to have held. But it’s not surprising that in some ways not everything he reports is what, in the end, came to be the mainstream view of the Pharisees, of Jewish life.

Nehemia: Okay. Very interesting. This has been a fascinating discussion. Thank you, Professor Michael Kochin. Guys, go on the website, nehemiaswall.com. There’ll be a link to his books and his articles. Share your thoughts - go and post and share your thoughts and tell us what you think Thank you. Shalom.

Michael: Thank you, Nehemia.

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Jewish Freedom in America
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Guest's Bio
Michael S. Kochin is a political science professor at Tel Aviv University. and has held visiting appointments at Toronto, Princeton, and Yale. He is the author of “Five Chapters on Rhetoric: Character, Action, Things, Nothing, and Art, Gender” and “Rhetoric in Plato's Political Thought”, which won the Outstanding Academic Book award in 2003, and has written many academic articles. Dr. Kochin holds a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics from Harvard University, a Master of Arts from the University of Chicago, and a Doctorate of Philosophy in Political Science from the University of Chicago.

Further Reading
The article discussed in this episode is Education After Freedom. Dr. Kochin's other articles include Empire and Freedom in Josephus. Dr. Kochin has also written two books “Five Chapters on Rhetoric: Character, Action, Things, Nothing, and Art” and “Gender and Rhetoric in Plato's Political Thought”.

Josephus - The Complete WorksFive Chapters on Rhetoric Gender and Rhetoric in Plato's Poltical Thought

Verses Mentioned

References in Josephus

Other references

  • CJ Cotter says:

    Jacob’s son Joseph and the prophet Daniel also had to practice their religion on a daily basis in pagan societies. What did they do and how did they do it? I’d like to hear more on this subject.

  • Larry C Trombitas says:

    Theocracy/Freedom audio was like sitting in at one of Benjamin Franklin’s philosophical junta gatherings. Great job.

  • joel ensinia says:

    Awesome, awesome, awesome, show!
    I would say in healing on the Sabbath story was made up myself, since Jesus challenged them…which is legal to do good or evil to save a life or take a life on the Sabbath? Surely someone woulda been like “nah! Of course you can do good and stuff what you thinking Jesus!?.”..but, eh who knows great show!

  • Sheila Price says:

    Thank you Nehemia for bringing new information to us. I remember my grandmother talking about Josephus, but I was only taught that he was ‘a historian’ and had the understanding he was very thorough in the accuracy of his writings. The information you provide today helps me see that Josephus was like so many today… writing ‘history’ with an agenda, albeit,Josephus’ agenda was to present the Jews as totally pure, which of course they were not.
    Oh for a society/world that speaks the TRUTH even if it puts someone or some group in a bad light. Who knows but what truth spoken would be the catalyst to said person or group actually changing behavior to be more in line with Torah. Living life without accountability or going unchecked is what leads to people being so far away from Yehovah.

  • Anonymous says:

    “The U.S. is a big country with a lot of crazy people” – boy, you can say that again! Lol