Timmermann on Goodman, 'Josephus's The Jewish War: A Biography'

Martin Goodman
Josh Timmermann

Martin Goodman. Josephus's The Jewish War: A Biography. Lives of Great Religious Books Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. Illustrations. 200 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-13739-1.

Reviewed by Josh Timmermann (University of British Columbia) Published on H-War (February, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55214

All of the two dozen (and counting) entries in Princeton University Press’s Lives of Great Religious Books series feature the subtitle A Biography after the title of the religious text under consideration in a given volume. But the question of what exactly it means to narrate the “biography” of a book—to tell the story of its “life”—allows, in practice, for a high degree of interpretative latitude. To this ambiguous end, different scholars have adopted different approaches. For instance, Gary Willis, in his contribution on Augustine’s Confessions, focuses most of his attention on the formative periods of Augustine’s life that are recounted in his work and on Augustine’s purposeful, aesthetic reshaping of those earlier experiences in composing the Confessions. By contrast, Timothy Beal’s study of Revelation is mainly concerned with that biblical book’s later permutations, not so much on the New Testament text itself but, rather more loosely, on how certain ideas or scenes from Revelation have osmosed into various cultural forms, particularly in American art and popular culture. Bruce B. Lawrence delimits the scope of his volume right from the outset, titling it The Koran in English: A Biography. These short studies—each engaging and eminently readable—are products of personal selection, distinctly revealing of what one scholar finds to be the most important, or most interesting, or most representative moments in the gestation or (after)life of their “great religious book.” Given that most of the books that have merited entries in this series are ancient or medieval texts, there are a staggering number of such moments to choose among, often with no obvious, predetermined path to follow.

Martin Goodman’s biography of Josephus’s nearly two-thousand-year-old Jewish War is certainly no exception to any of the above. Inevitably, there is much in Josephus’s text and in its long “life” that is passed over in silence, or with only a terse, allusive sentence or two. In a mere 140 pages (excluding its appendix), Goodman’s biography covers a lot of ground, moving steadily forward from the first century AD to the twentieth and back and forth between Jewish and Christian cultural contexts. After an initial chapter on Josephus himself and his direct involvement in the fateful conflict that he later famously recounted, Goodman devotes a chapter to The Jewish War’s early years—considered as 100–1450! In just twenty-six pages (broken up with three images), Goodman navigates between the Latin West and the transmission of the late antique “Pseudo-Hegesippus” “paraphrase” of The Jewish War, sometimes attributed to Jerome, Ambrose of Milan, or Rufinus of Aquileia; the post-Second Temple Jewish reception of Josephus, in conjunction with the rise of Rabbinic Judaism; and the place of the Greek text, as well as Syriac and Slavonic versions, in Byzantine and other eastern Christian contexts. This is a truly dizzying amount of complex, important, and often contested information condensed into a single, fairly short chapter. To Goodman’s credit, he manages to carve out a mostly cogent through line, while gesturing toward the scholarly debates that still surround many of the topics he sketches out here.

The next chapter traverses three centuries (circa 1450–1750) of Christian and Jewish engagement with Josephus’s work. During this period, coinciding with early printed editions of the Greek text and new vernacular translations, Josephus’s authority as a historian, the reliability of his narrative, its literary style (or lack thereof), and the problem of Josephus’s “temporizing” and possible betrayal of his people and creed in “favor of his Roman masters” emerged as points of contention among humanist readers (p. 61). Notably, the last point was not raised initially by Jewish critics of Josephus but, in Goodman’s narrative, by the English evangelical Christian poet and hymn writer William Cowper. More serious criticisms, particularly among Jewish readers of Josephus, are the subject of the fourth and final chapter, titled “Controversy,” by far the book’s longest (at sixty-three pages, nearly half its total length) despite covering only the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Goodman follows chapter 4 with a brief epilogue on the recent study and creative adaptations of Josephus’s work and an appendix providing English translations of several key scenes from The Jewish War (“Passages with a Life of Their Own”).

As I have suggested above, composing a biography for an ancient text is always necessarily a matter of personal selection and discrimination. Goodman has opted to foreground the last two hundred years of The Jewish War’s “life,” after a hyperspeed survey of its “early” and formative years. All considered, Goodman’s story is a decidedly fascinating one, and well told throughout, but it is heavily back-loaded and thus, perhaps, of greater interest to scholars of modern intellectual history than to readers concerned with the ancient and medieval transmission and reception of The Jewish War.

Citation: Josh Timmermann. Review of Goodman, Martin, Josephus's The Jewish War: A Biography. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55214

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