How to portray a Roman authority: lessons from both Josephus and the evangelists

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by Neil Godfrey

Josephus’s portrayal of the general then emperor Titus reminded me of the gospels’ treatment of Pilate:

That Josephus intended such safe criticism is likely because he employs other techniques from the same manual, such as hyperbolic praise of current rulers. His Titus is endowed with so much πρόνοια (“forethought”) and έλεος (“gentle commiseration”) that he appears an improbable humanist and even incompetent general, frequently tricked by the wily Judaeans (BJ 4.84-120; 5.316, 329; 6.12, 29-32, 78-9, 152-6, 183-4, 190, 214-28, 356).

Mason, Steve. 2009. “Of Despots, Diadems and Diadochoi: Josephus and Flavian Politics.” In Writing Politics in Imperial Rome, edited by W. J. Dominik, J. Garthwaite, and P. A. Roche, 347–48. Leiden ; Boston: Brill.

Just as Josephus portrayed a thug as a saint so the evangelists portrayed another thug, Pilate, as so good natured, so innocent, that those “wicked Judaeans” pressured him into crucifying Jesus against his will.

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6 thoughts on “How to portray a Roman authority: lessons from both Josephus and the evangelists”

  1. I agree but someone does also the case that Pilate was introduced to remember as even a so “good” gentile Governor had need of an expiation by killing the Son of God. Whereas the tradition of a Herod having Jesus killed is to remark the not-expiation (and therefore the final condemnation) of the Jews as killers of Jesus. So in Luke the fact that Herod doesn’t kill Jesus (even if having the possibility by Pilate himself) is sign of the his not-expiation, while the fact that Pilate was the final killer goes to purify just the gentile Pilate (=the Gentile world is purified by the blood of Jesus and not the Jews).

  2. Neil writes:

    “Just as Josephus portrayed a thug as a saint so the evangelists portrayed another thug, Pilate, as so good natured, so innocent, that those “wicked Judaeans” pressured him into crucifying Jesus against his will.”

    I think this is because Josephus can’t help doing the same thing he accuses other writers of doing (which I think might even include the gospel of Mark):

    “… some men … have gotten together vain and contradictory stories by hearsay, and have written them down after a sophistical manner; and while those that were there present have given false accounts of things, and this either out of a humor of flattery to the Romans, or of hatred towards the Jews; and … their writings contain sometimes accusations, and sometimes encomiums, but no where the accurate truth of the facts …”

    Isn’t this what you point out (citing Mason) in another post, that the difference between Josephus’ account and others is that he sometimes did NOT flatter the Romans? You write there:

    “Josephus, on the other hand, did point out certain failings of the Roman soldiers and the courage of his own countrymen. His own Judaeans … gave the Romans their money’s worth in order to win their victory.”

    And ask:

    “Why would Titus have ordered more widely disseminated a work that did not ostensibly flatter the Romans or denigrate the Jews?”

    I think on the whole Josephus does flatter the Romans. While he may sometimes not, in the big picture he most certainly does. Take what he says near the ending of the Jewish War (7.8.5), for example:

    “Now, at the very beginning of this fire, a north wind that then blew proved terrible to the Romans; for by bringing the flame downward, it drove it upon them, and they were almost in despair of success, as fearing their machines would be burnt: but after this, on a sudden the wind changed into the south, as if it were done by Divine Providence, and blew strongly the contrary way, and carried the flame, and drove it against the wall, which was now on fire through its entire thickness. So the Romans, having now assistance from God, returned to their camp with joy…”

    And while Josephus lauds Jews and Judaism, in the big picture his work most certainly denigrates the Jews who revolted, who he describes as having “a great many followers” and infecting the nation “to an incredible degree” in his summary of the revolt in Ant. 18.1.1:

    “All sorts of misfortunes also sprang from these men, and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree; one violent war came upon us after another, and we lost our friends which used to alleviate our pains; there were also very great robberies and murder of our principal men. This was done in pretense indeed for the public welfare, but in reality for the hopes of gain to themselves; whence arose seditions, and from them murders of men, which sometimes fell on those of their own people, (by the madness of these men towards one another, while their desire was that none of the adverse party might be left,) and sometimes on their enemies … nay, the sedition at last increased so high, that the very temple of God was burnt down by their enemies’ fire. Such were the consequences of this, that the customs of our fathers were altered, and such a change was made, as added a mighty weight toward bringing all to destruction, which these men occasioned by their thus conspiring together; for Judas and Sadduc, who excited a fourth philosophic sect among us, and had a great many followers therein, filled our civil government with tumults at present, and laid the foundations of our future miseries, by this system of philosophy, which we were before unacquainted withal, concerning which I will discourse a little, and this the rather because the infection which spread thence among the younger sort, who were zealous for it, brought the public to destruction.”

    But I do agree with your citation of Mason in another post regarding why the Romans preferred Josephus over other writers:

    “Would not such a mature political analysis by one of the region’s prominent aristocrats, written from realist premises, help everyone to settle down? Titus’ endorsement and broader dissemination of Josephus’ War could help to tamp down lingering hostilities and unproductive reprisals as in Alexandria and Antioch (cf. Ant. 12.122-24).”

    That seems like the answer to me, that Titus preferred Josephus because he was “one of the region’s prominent aristocrats” and offered “a mature political analysis” and wrote “from realist premises” (and while of course flattering them).

    1. There is a difference, I believe, between flattering the reigning emperor for the sake of self-preservation and maintaining one’s standing in society on the one hand, and giving a more “neutral” account of Roman military actions in Palestine on the other hand. In the case of the latter Josephus can be understood as demonstrating that his fellow Judaeans are “up to” the Romans and can hold their heads high despite ultimate defeat, a defeat that was really said to be the fault of wicked extremist elements.

      1. But isn’t Josephus’ account of the Jews being “up to” the Romans another facet of his flattery of the Romans? As Josephus says of other writers, “they still diminish and lessen the actions of the Jews, as not discerning how it cannot be that those must appear to be great who have only conquered those that were little.”

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