Friday, February 29, 2008
Hasmoneans! I can't remember my Hasmoneans!
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.
Well, here we are. Because of Leap Year, I actually have one more day to read than I had calculated. This might save my bacon.
We are now a little over halfway through Lent, and so, appropriately, I am now a little over halfway through Josephus. Not yet out of the Antiquities, I should have gotten through the death of Herod the Great (Book 17, Chapter 8) by the time my head hits the pillow tonight.
Much study does indeed weary the body. The push to get through this volume is beginning to wear on me, but it wouldn't be a challenge if I didn't pick a formidable work, would it?
It was tough getting through the Hasmonean Dynasty. Somewhere around Book 12, Josephus's major source is 1 Maccabees. As a work of history, 1 Maccabees is probably one of the best in the Bible, but it is also one of the driest and densest books in the Bible. Josephus's work keeps going in this vein after 1 Maccabees is finished. There are too many wars and rumors of wars, and too many people named John, Jonathan, Alexander, and Ptolemy. I can't keep it all straight.
Things get interesting again when we get to the Herods. In partcular, Josephus spends a good long time with the life of Herod the Great. The Herods were the ultimate dysfunctional family. The tree of this family didn't fork much, if you know what I mean, and they spent most of their time trying to assassinate each other. Herod the Great's favorite pastime was torturing people he suspected of plotting against him; after a long life, he eventually died in a hideous manner, the medical explanation of which is still open to some debate. Intestinal blockage is the only explanation I remember off-hand.
For our purposes, one of the most interesting stories of Herod the Great related in Josephus involves the tomb of Kings David and Solomon. According to Josephus, these two monarchs of the United Kingdom had a large and richly decorated sepulcher in Jerusalem. A certain Hasmonean, Hyrcanus, had previously opened the tomb and retrieved money in a time of need. Herod later despoiled the tomb himself; after entering it, he took out the lavish furniture he found there, but, upon an attempt to proceed further into the tomb and find the very bodies of David and Solomon, "two of his guards were killed, by a flame that burst out upon those that went in, as the report was" (Ant. 16.7.1 [16.182]).
What do we learn from this? Probably very little, as it is unlikely that such a rich tomb would have survived intact from the time of David until the first century, so whatever tomb was there probably wasn't really David and Solomon's. Also, this story in general appears fantastic and is likely only legendary.
Nonetheless, what we do learn from this is that ancient tombs full of rich treasures do indeed have booby traps, just as you have seen in the movies. Also, we learn that it is always the expendable workmen who fall prey to these booby traps and not the principal hero.