Monday, July 16, 2018

Biblical Leadership according to Josephus

In the first half of Flavius Josephus’s twenty-volume Jewish Antiquities, composed in the 90’s CE for a non-Jewish audience, the Jewish historian rewrites the narrative parts of the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament in his own words. Although he claims not to have added or omitted anything, much has changed in the telling. There are entirely new episodes, like Moses’ conquest of Ethiopia at the head of an Egyptian army—the back story, if you will, of the strange biblical reference to Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman in Numbers 12. There are also major omissions. The golden calf, for instance, has entirely vanished from Josephus’s account. As a Greco-Roman historian, Josephus also follows convention by inventing speeches and attributing them to characters in his narrative.

One such speech that may at first appear to be entirely Josephus’s own creation is Moses’ final address to the Israelites on the eve of their entry into the promised land. In the Bible, Moses’ final speech consists primarily of a review of the wilderness wanderings and a series of laws that take up most of the book of Deuteronomy. Josephus omits the review of events because it duplicates what he has already described; much of the legal material appears in a separate summary of the Jewish national “constitution” that, according to Josephus, Moses presented to the people in a book. This gives Josephus freedom to innovate with the speech itself. The result is a shorter, punchier version that focuses on leadership—a topic that would have resonated with his Roman audience. Here is my slightly paraphrastic attempt at an idiomatic translation of part of the speech:
Now I am leaving you, rejoicing in your good things and entrusting you to the temperance of the laws, to the order of the constitution, and to the virtues of the governors who will take thought for what is profitable for you. And God who has been your ruler until now—and, really, it is a result of his decision that I have been of any use to you—God, I say, will not at this point stop providentially caring for you. No, you will continue to benefit from his thoughtful care as long as you wish to have a benefactor in the ways of virtue—provided, that is, that you remain in the ways of virtue. And the high priest Eleazar, Joshua, and the council of elders, as well as the tribal leaders, will propose the best counsels to you. If you follow their direction, you will experience true happiness (eudaimonia). Listen to them without causing trouble, knowing that all who know well how to be ruled will also know how to rule if they ever come to a position of authority. (Jewish Antiquities 4.184-6)
One might object that Josephus’s focus on human leaders obscures Deuteronomy’s overwhelming emphasis on God, that Josephus’s Moses resembles a Stoic philosopher, and, of course, that the words Josephus attributes to Moses never actually appear in the Bible in this form. Nevertheless, the speech deserves consideration as an interpretation of Deuteronomy, not just as an invention inserted to appeal to Josephus’s first-century audience.

Josephus rarely simply makes stuff up. His rewriting of his biblical source is a thoughtful interpretation that attempts to explain the text (or texts) he had in front of him, often in a surprisingly conservative way. With a few exceptions, Josephus’s imaginative conclusions about what biblical figures must have done and said are matched, I suspect, by popular contemporary interpretations of the Bible. If his revisions to the Bible seem strange, it is because his assumptions are foreign enough for us to notice them, while we tend to ignore the ways our own cultural assumptions influence what we think the Bible says. Indeed, the value of reading Josephus lies in part in his attention to details our own cultural blinders keep us from seeing. As a first-century interpreter, Josephus can also help us understand the basic assumptions and worldview of his contemporaries, including the writers of the New Testament.

I would suggest that the passage I quoted actually distills much of what Deuteronomy says about leadership. In Josephus, as in Deuteronomy, God is presented as the supreme ruler. And Deuteronomy does, after all, have quite a bit to say about human leadership, both directly in instructions about tribal leaders, judges, kings and prophets (Deut 1:9-18; 13; 16:18-20; 17; 18:14-22), and indirectly in its depiction of Moses as a model for other leaders, like Joshua, who will follow him (Deut 3:28; 4:22; 31:23; 34:5-12).
  • Good leaders are characterized by virtue. 
  • Virtue comes from fearing God and following the “temperance of the laws.” 
  • Good leaders, therefore, are those who have learned to follow.
Note that Moses does not encourage the Israelites to become leaders; he exhorts them to follow. As the speech continues, Moses reminds the people of their previous leadership conflicts in the wilderness. Examples of this conflict—including Korah’s revolt, jealousy about the choice of Aaron as high priest (Num 16-17), and the opposition of Zambrias (based on Num 25)—would be fresh in Josephus’s readers’ minds because Josephus has just described them in detail. Leaders are necessary, but in Josephus’s world, too many aspiring leaders results in civil strife.

While the language of “virtue” is obviously influenced by popular Greek philosophical thought, it is well-suited to what Deuteronomy says about the character qualities of leaders. In Deut 16:18-20, for instance, the cardinal Greek virtue of “justice” is given pride of place. Although the term is rare, the same concern for virtue emerges even more clearly in the New Testament, for example in the list of the fruit of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, in Phil 4:8 where the word “virtue” (aretê) actually appears, and in the qualifications for church leaders in 1 Timothy and Titus. In the Bible as well as Josephus, leaders are known by their virtue—not their mission, vision, and values. (For an example of why virtue—or “goodness”—is relevant in today’s context, consider Scot McKnight’s reflections on the recent problems at Willow Creek Community Church, which is known to many as the home of the Global Leadership Summit.)


Zachariah Kenney said...

In the world of the Royal Canadian Army Cadets, the first lesson in leadership we give to junior cadets is "A good leader is first of all a good follower". We train them to follow direction before we can teach them to give direction.
Certainly not a new idea if Josephus was talking about it! Rather, a timeless truth of leadership.

d. miller said...

Thanks for your comment, Zachariah! For all I know, the idea was a Greek commonplace, but in his commentary on Antiquities 1-4 Louis Feldman notes only that the statement is "Josephus' editorial comment."

d. miller said...

On the commonplace, here is Cicero, Laws 3.2.5: "For the man who rules efficiently must have obeyed others in the past, and the man who obeys dutifully appears fit at some later time to be a ruler." (LCL)