Review of

The Brill Josephus Project,

Volume 9:

 "Life of Josephus"

Translation and Commentary

by Steve Mason


  The second volume to be published in the Brill Josephus Project is Josephus' Life, translated and with commentary by Steve Mason, who is also the series' editor. (For a review of the first volume and an introduction to the series, see the Review of the Brill Josephus Project )

This volume, which although second to be published is assigned the place of Volume 9 in the series, maintains the format of the first published volume Louis Feldman's version of the first books of the Judean Antiquities . There is the same large format, with a literal translation at the top of each page and extensive commentary filling the page below. As Josephus' autobiography is of great interest to students of first-century Judea, Steve Mason has supplemented his volume with archaeological findings related to locations mentioned by Josephus. Appendix A, "Galilean Archaeology", is a valuable summary of current knowledge, arranged encyclopedia-like by location and topic. Thus, for the town of Jotapata (Yodefat) where Josephus was captured by the Romans one learns that excavations took place "from 1992 to 1999 and uncovered the remains of the town wall, residential areas includig a large mansion with fresco walls in the Second Pompeian Style. Clear evidence of a heavy battle as described by Josephus was found all over the site: some nails from the Roman army sandals (caliga), more than a hundred arrowheads and catapult bolts, and many ballista stones..."

Valuable appendices have also been added for other areas of particular interest to readers of  the Life, including  a table showing Josephus' travels and a synopsis comparing episodes found both in  the Life and in the Jewish War, making similarities and differences in those descriptions apparent.

The commentary is preceded by Mason's extensive introduction to the Life, beginning with the arguments for the date of composition. For some time the prevailing view was that the Life was composed after 100 CE, and thus at least eight years after the Antiquities. Mason examines the evidence for this -- that Josephus states the Life was written after the death of Agrippa II (Life 359) and that Agrippa died about 100 CE ("the third year of Trajan") -- but argues it is weak. Agrippa's date of passing was based chiefly on a very late note by Photius, which Mason suggests is simply in error, through a conflation of data from Photius' source Jerome. Mason furthermore studies internal textual evidence as well as coins and inscriptions to determine Agrippa likely died around 92 CE. Thus Mason supports the view that the Life was originally written as an appendix to the Antiquities, as indeed the last sentences of the Antiquities seems to suggest.

Mason's introduction also sets out themes that are carried through in the subsequent commentary, including an examination of Josephus' choice of structur and, use of narrative devices, and  the Greco-Roman literary context of the Life. Earlier scholarship on the life is reviewed, with Shaye Cohen's extensive theorizing summarized with respect but, the reader feels,  thereafter gently set aside; Mason rather takes as his point of departure Per Bilde's view that "the Life should be read first and foremost in its literary context, which presents it as an autobiography aimed at demonstrating the unique credentials of the author." (p. xxxiv).

The review of prior literature makes apparent, at least to this reviewer, a stylistic difference between the Mason and the Feldman volumes: Mason puts so much effort in giving a fair hearing to various viewpoints that the result  is often a rather subdued and formulaic reference guide rather than a lively debate. We often cannot tell where Mason stands on an issue, or if he has a stand at all. In contrast, Feldman is ready to weigh in on one side rather than another.

An example of both the usefulness and mildness of Mason's approach is his comment on Josephus' intriguing encounter with a popular Jewish actor in Rome, through whom Josephus managed an introduction to Nero's wife Poppea. Josephus wrote:

"After we had come safely to Dicaearcheia, which the Italians all Puteoli, through a friendship I met Aliturus; this man was a mime-actor, especially dear to Nero's thoughts, and a Judean by ancestry. Through him I became known to Poppea, the wife of Caesar, and then very quickly arranged things..." (Life 16; trans. Steve Mason)

All readers of this passage must have their curiosity aroused by this ancient celebrity. Who was this Aliturus? Is he mentioned by other authors? What sort of acting did he do? Were there a lot of Jewish actors in Rome (and how is that related to the intense participation of Jews in modern theatre and film)? Just what was the relationship between the celebrity and the Empress?

Mason in his commentary on this passage supplies every fact a reader could desire. He informs us that Aliturus is an unusual name that "is not clearly attested otherwise." Two scholars have guessed that it may actually have been a Greek name, Halityros, meaning "salt-cheese" (although Mason does not describe what salt-cheese is!). He notes that name would resemble other names taken from food, articles of clothing, etc. Mason's next note explains what a "mime-actor" was -- it was not a silent actor, like today's mime, but rather a sketch actor who worked in a troupe of various sizes, often in a group of three (think "the three stooges"), and conducted often-impromptue skits on adultery, kidnapping, shipwreck "filled with crude, abusive language, which the crowd loved." The position of show-people in Rome is next described (with ample references), with Mason noting that while the theater was usually looked down upon by the aristocracy as lower-class, Nero loved the theater and acted in it himself, much to the disgust of the nobility. The commentary is rounded out by a  lengthy account of Poppea and some speculation on Josephus' literary intent. 

Thus the commentary provides an invaluable service to the reader, supplying material that is hard to come by in one place. The reader may have a vague sense of wanting more, however: perhaps some statement from Mason about what he thought the encounter may really have been like. This may be more than one should expect; but in treating the passage soley as a literary construct, Mason distances himself and the reader from some interesting historical inquiry. He suggests that Josephus is speaking here with self-deprecating irony, and is winking at the audience, and possibly even invented the Judean actor. It is hard to see this as the thrust of the passage, which has an air of authenticity to it (really, why go to the trouble of inventing a Jewish actor named Salt Cheese?), and instead one would like to hear, say, some speculation on what "friendship" might connect the priestly Josephus to an actor, or some learned opinion on the place of  "court Jews" in the time of Rome and the Jewish ability as outsiders to span the social classes of the dominant culture.

Mason's translation, according to the mandate of the Brill series, concentrates on accuracy and consistency in translation over literary style. The following table gives a comparison of the first sentences of the Life as rendered by Mason and the previous Loeb and Whiston translations:

Three translations of the opening paragraph of Josephus' Life
Steve Mason 
(Brill, 2001)
H. St. J. Thackeray 
(Loeb Library, 1926)
William Whiston
1. Now in my case, my ancestry is rather distinguished, having originated with priests long ago. Just as the basis of noble birth is different among various [nations], so also among us membership in the priesthood is a certain proof of an ancestry's brilliance.
2. Now in my case, my ancestry is not merely from priests; it is also from the first day-course of the twenty-four -- an enormous distinction, this -- and indeed from the most elite of the divisions within this [course].  Further, I have a share of  royal ancestry from my mother beause the children of Asamoneus, of whom she was a descendant, for a very long time served as high priests and exercised the kingship of our nation.
My family is no ignoble one, tracing its descent far back to priestly ancestors. Different races base their claim to nobility on various grounds; with us a connexion with the priesthood is the hallmark of an illustrious line. Not only, however, were my ancestors priests, but they belonged to the first of the twenty-four courses -- a peculiar distinction -- and to the most eminent of  its constituent clans. Moreover, on my mother's side I am of royal blood; for the posterity of Asamonaeus, from whom she sprang, for a very considerable period were kings, as well as high-priests, of our nation.
The family from which I am derived is not an ignoble one, but hath descended all along from the priests; and as nobility among several peple is of a different origin, so with us to be of the sacerdotal dignity, is an indication of the splendor of a family. Now, I am not only sprung from a sacerdotal family in general, but from the first of the twenty-four courses; and as among us there is not only a considerable difference between one family of each course and another, I am of the chief family of that first course also; nay, further, by my mother I am of the royal blood; for the children of Asamoneus, from whom that family was derived, had both the office of the high priesthood, and the dignity of a king, for a long time together.

Pointing out the difference in translation philosphy, Mason notes that in these passages the Greek word genos appears four times, which is rendered by Thackeray by different English expressions: "family", "line", "blood", and once it is omitted (two of these were taken from Whiston). In contrast, Mason renders all four cases by the same word, "ancestry."  Mason does diverge from literalness on occassion, but when he does so he explains why in his commentary; for example, at the beginning of this passage Whiston and Thackeray describe Josephus' family as "not ignoble", an accurate rendering of the litotes "ouk asemon" in the Greek original, but Mason calls it "rather distinguished", explaining in a note his feeeling that it was better suited to American English. Maintaining consistent translation of words and parts of speech throughout the text is one of the strong points of the Brill series  translation. (As with all the Brill volumes, the Greek text is not included; the Greek is available on line at The Perseus Project's text of Josephus .)

As expected, this volume in the Brill series is as indispensable as it is expensive.


Life of Josephus
Translation and Commentary by Steve Mason
(E. J. Brill, Leiden, 2001)
287 pages (including 60 pages of bibliographies and indices)
Price: $141

Review by G. Goldberg 

For more information on the series, see Steve Mason's page on the Brill Josephus Project and Brill Academic Publishers .  

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