Monday, May 26, 2008

Josephus and the προφηταί: An Argument

At the beginning of this month I posted the abstract for the paper I am to present at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies Annual Meeting next Tuesday. Researching and writing the paper has been a lot more difficult than I anticipated. What I expected to find is not there, I have waffled back and forth on a number of other issues, the paper is now too long, but still incomplete, and I am running short on time. Sound familiar? On the positive side, I have learned a lot, and it has been fun to get back into Josephus!

Here is what I plan to argue, as of this evening: (1) Josephus restricts positive uses of the term “prophet” to the biblical prophets, (2) he did not regard John Hyrcanus as a prophet even though he says Hyrcanus "prophesied" and had "prophecy," and (3) apart from the label (and the time period to which they belong) there is no significant difference between the biblical prophets, Hyrcanus and later inspired figures such as Josephus himself.

If you are (still) interested, I have posted the rest of my introduction below. Any and all feedback is most welcome!


In 1974 Joseph Blenkinsopp could take for granted that Josephus, along with the Tannaitic rabbis, believed prophecy had ceased with Haggai and Zechariah. As an indication of how much has changed in the intervening years, the published collection of essays from the 2003 meeting of the “Prophetic Texts and their Ancient Contexts” group at SBL takes as its starting point that prophecy did not cease. Lester Grabbe’s article in the same volume concludes confidently “For Josephus, prophecy definitely had not ceased, for he was himself a prophet!” Grabbe is not alone, but neither has the view he represents carried the day. Contrast, for instance, Steve Mason’s emphatic reassertion of the cessation view: “If there were prophecy in his day, he [Josephus] would be a prophet, but of course there is not and he is not.”

The issue is disputed in large measure because Josephus’s self-characterization seems to tell a different story than the labels he uses to refer to inspired figures in the ancient past. On the one hand, there are widely acknowledged similarities between Josephus’s depiction of himself and his presentation of those whom we regard as the “biblical” prophets. Like Jeremiah, Josephus summoned his fellow-Judaeans to repentance and exhorted them to capitulate to the foreign power besieging Jerusalem. Like Daniel, whom Josephus describes as “one of the greatest prophets” (Ant. 10.266), Josephus had “ which God had foretold to him the impending fate of the Jews and the destinies of the Roman sovereigns” (War 3.351). We learn from the Against Apion that the Judaean chronicles are superior to those of other nations because they were written by prophets, who learned about the “ancient past” “by inspiration from God…and recorded plainly events in their own time just as they occurred” (Ap. 1.37). But as we read on we discover Josephus means to convey that, like the prophets of old, he also recorded the history of his own people truthfully and accurately. On the other hand, although Josephus employs προφήτης, the standard Septuagintal translation for נביא, with great frequency when he refers to the biblical prophets, he never refers to himself as a προφήτης, and, except for Haggai and Zechariah, he almost never applies words of the same root as προφήτης to anyone who lived after the return from exile.

In the end I agree with Grabbe that there are more continuities than discontinuities between Josephus’s self-understanding and his conception of the biblical prophets, but it will not do to disregard or discount Josephus’s use of terminology if one wishes to approach the cessation question from an emic perspective—to determine not simply whether or not prophecy ceased, but whether or not Josephus thought it did. Of course, it is also necessary to take seriously Josephus’s characterization of inspired individuals who are not referred to by the label προφήτης. In my view, the pressure to decide whether or not Josephus believed prophecy ceased with a simple yes or no answer tends to obscure either Josephus’s distinctive use of “prophet” terminology or his prophetic characterization of contemporary inspired figures. It is more fruitful, I think, to recognize that prophetic characterization and terminology stand in tension with each other, and to explore what this tension suggests about Josephus’s understanding of the relationship between the present and the past.

In this paper, I will try to get at Josephus’s self-understanding by way of the historian’s inspired kinsman and hero, the Hasmonean high priest John Hyrcanus I, who, Josephus claims, was considered worthy of “prophecy.” I will begin by examining whether Josephus’s depiction of Hyrcanus is consistent with his use of “prophet” terminology in other contexts. I will then evaluate proposed differences between Hyrcanus, the biblical prophets, and other later inspired figures. To anticipate my conclusions: I am going to argue that Josephus restricts positive uses of the term “prophet” to the biblical prophets, that he did not regard Hyrcanus as a prophet, and that apart from the label (and the time period to which they belong) there is no significant difference between the biblical prophets, Hyrcanus and later inspired figures such as Josephus himself.

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