Thursday, February 21, 2008

2008 Lenten Read-a-Thon Day 16



More Josephus than you can shake a stick at.

New Complete Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston and edited by Paul L. Maier. Kregel Publications (Grand Rapids): 1999. ISBN: 0-8254-2924-2. 1142 pages. $24.99.

In my copy of Josephus, I have just this morning completed Book 10, Chapter 7 of Jewish Antiquities, which falls on page 344, putting me slightly behind for our Lenten Read-a-Thon due to a flurry of writing I was engaged in over the last few days. I now must play catch-up.

So far in the Antiquities, Josephus has been using mostly biblical texts as his sources, but has drawn a few embellishments from other places, particularly Herodotus's History. Some embellishments are, as far as I know, of unknown origin. One of my favorites is in the story of King Uzziah. In the biblical text of 2 Chronicles 26, Uzziah goes into the Temple to burn incense and is stricken with leprosy for his presumption. The same story in Antiquities 9.10, however, is more dramatic: when Uzziah enters the Temple, an earthquake cracks the Temple's roof and sunlight shines through, striking Uzziah in the face and causing the leprosy. William Whiston mentions in a footnote that Zechariah 14.4-5 refers to an "earthquake in the days of Uzziah." It's likely that passage gave rise to the version of the story we find in Josephus.

Sometimes, Josephus alters details, probably because he would find them embarrassing if they were known to a gentile readership. One of these I most readily noticed was in the story of Samson. In Judges 14.5-9, Samson kills a lion and, upon returning to the carcass later, finds a beehive inside it. He eats some of the honey from the hive and also gives some to his parents without telling them where he got it. Josephus, apparently realizing that eating from an animal's torn carcass violates Jewish law, says instead that Samson only gave the honey to his Philistine wife and her relatives (Antiquities 5.8.5-6 [5.287-289]).

This incident with the lion and the honey gives rise to one of my favorites of Samson's exploits: in revenge for an insult from the Philistines, he captures 300 foxes, ties torches to their tails, and releases them in the Philistines' fields. I'm sure every energetic young boy has dreamed of doing something similar.

And that passage always reminds me of one of the odder verses in the Song of Songs, "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes" (2.15). In his commentary in The HarperCollins Study Bible, Michael V. Fox suggests "foxes may be a metaphor for lusty youths, vineyards for nubile girls," and I suppose that's as good an explanation as any.

And the Song of Songs puts me in mind of an embarrassing incident that occurred a few years back when I was still a catechumen. I was hangin' with my Catholic homies when one of them came up to me and said, completely serious and apparently much shocked, "Did you know there's erotic poetry in the Bible?" How do you answer a question like that? I considered replying, "I've annotated mine," but eventually I just said, "Uh, yeah." When commentators note that Americans today are quite interested in religion but at the same time religiously ignorant, they ain't kiddin'.

Speaking of religious ignorance, the book description for the above-cited HarperCollins Study Bible claims that the revised edition of this Bible includes an essay on the "literary history of the Pentateuch (those books between the Old and New Testament that Catholics include in their Bible)." Man, if the editors of a study Bible don't know the difference between the Pentateuch and the Deuterocanon, I definitely don't want their Bible.

Speaking of the Bible, I notice Josephus has a habit of taking certain independent books and sticking them into the course of his narrative where he feels they belong. So, for example, the story of Jonah is inserted into the history of the Kings and the story of Ruth is inserted into the history of the Judges. Speaking of Ruth, an old acquaintance of mine who is author of an obscure little book entitled Notes from the Margins of an Old Preacher's Bible refers to Naomi as "the picture of a backslider" (p. 15), which I don't think is very nice. But also speaking of Ruth, you know who Ruth reminds me of? Kyoko Otonashi from Maison Ikkoku. But now I'm getting out of line.

Who else is reading? Where you at?
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