Josephus’s stated preference for an aristocratic form of government in Antiquities 4.223 is often understood in terms of the priestly aristocracy of Josephus’s early life in Jerusalem. Yet while Josephus’s description of first-century Judean political life and his other forays into Greco-Roman political discourse are important evidence for his political philosophy, interpreting Antiquities 4.223 merely as a reference to priestly aristocracy overlooks the function of 4.223 in its immediate context. Josephus’s claim that “aristocracy is indeed the best” contrasts rule by kings—criticized in Deuteronomy 17 and by Josephus in Antiquities 4.223-4—with a different form of government summarized in Antiquities 4.214-218. This passage, the first direct comment about rulers in Josephus’s account of the Jewish politeia (4.196-302), describes local leaders who judge legal cases in local cities (4.214-7), and what amounts to a court of appeals in Jerusalem, comprising “the high priest and the prophet and the council of elders” (4.218).
Sarah Pearce (2013) has argued convincingly that the “council of elders” corresponds to the Israelite “elders” who appear in leadership positions elsewhere in the Pentateuch, and that within the narrative context of Antiquities, the high priest represents Eleazar, and the prophet, Joshua. However, Pearce proposes that the members of the high court are left anonymous in 4.218 because Josephus wanted to depict the court as an “ideal constitution,” “valid for a timeless present” but instantiated only in Moses’ immediate successors. Pearce does not connect 4.218 with the reference to “aristocracy” in 4.223 and she denies that Josephus “is concerned … with an interpretation of distinct elements of the biblical text through a process of one-to-one substitution.” In this paper I will argue that in Antiquities 4.214-218 aristocracy is defined as supreme rule in the holy city by high priest, prophet and council of elders, that this formulation represents an interpretive paraphrase that abbreviates and combines Deuteronomy 16-17 with the description of the “prophet like Moses” in Deuteronomy 18, and that this aristocratic pattern—including the “prophet”—recurs elsewhere in the Antiquities and functions as a standard by which other forms of government are measured. While Josephus draws on contemporary Greco-Roman political discourse, his political philosophy—at least as it appears in the Antiquities—is also informed and shaped by his reading of Torah, including the description of the “prophet like Moses” in Deuteronomy 18:15.