The Brill Josephus Project

Translation and Commentary

Edited by Steve Mason




The most significant event in Josephus studies in many years is the publication of "the first comprehensive English commentary to Josephus," the nine-volume translation and commentary of the Brill Josephus Project, written by ten scholars and edited by Steve Mason. Two volumes have now been published, with the rest to follow over the next four years.

In his preface to the series, Steve Mason discusses the need for a commentary on Josephus, noting that "By the accidents of history, his narratives have become the indispensable source for all scholarly study of Judea from about 200 BCE to 75 CE." Yet it is only in the past two decades that "Josephus studies" have taken on a life of their own, so that the "time is right" to produce this commentary.

The necessity of a new English translation is also discussed. There are two main English translations, the 18th-century rendition of Whiston and the 20th century Loeb Library version, with Whiston by far the more widely read despite its antique language -- no doubt because it is far less expensive (free on the Internet).  The Loeb failing of expense is not one that is being corrected by the Brill series, which in this printing costs approximately seven times as much as the Loeb, and around 100 times as much as a print copy of Whiston.

While expressing admiration for the Loeb edition, Mason lists several reasons why it "does not suit the needs of the commentator." Principally, the translation was somewhat more free than one would want, not enforcing consistency in the way various words and phrases are rendered into English, altering parts of speech, and using a homogeneous style. The goal of the Brill translators is to maintain as much consistency as possible in these matters. Mason discusses the inevitable difficulties in getting ten scholars to agree on the manner of translating certain terms, such as the frequent Ioudaios: does this mean "Judean" (the nationality) or does it mean "Jew" (the ethno-religious group)? In this case there was no agreement, and uniformity was not enforced in favor of each scholar's experience and intuition.

Although initially it was planned that a new Greek text be included, this has not happened, one supposes due to size and cost; although the text used is essentially that of Benedictus Niese (as in the Loeb edition), the translators have made use of modern research to provide what are expected to be better readings. This makes it difficult to analyse or debate the translations where they differ from Loeb, as the reader does not know what text is actually being translated. One depends on the commentary for discussion of textual variants.

The pages measure approximately 10.5" (27cm)  tall by 8" (20cm) wide. The commentary takes up about three-quarters of each page, with the translation taking up the rest, as the accompanying illustration shows.

  Page 1 of Book 1 of The Judean Antiquities, the first volume published in the Brill Josephus Project.
Click here for larger view (File size 300 KB)
The first volume to be published (although labeled as "Volume 3") is Louis Feldman's new translation and commentary of Books 1 through 4 of Josephus' Judean Antiquities (known also as Jewish Antiquities or Antiquities of the Jews).

These initial books of the Antiquities are Josephus' retelling of the five books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy, for the beneift of a non-Jewish readership. They do not cover the history of Josephus' own time, and do so not excite most readers of Josephus. After all, one can read the Bible itself, so why bother with Josephus' version?

But reading Louis Feldman's commentary will give a different perspective. There is the evidence Josephus gives of alternate Biblical story traditions known in Josephus' day but which have not survived, and evidence that teachings existed at the time that otherwise are not evidenced until the Talmud hundreds of years later. And there are the echoes of debates about the place of Judaism in the Roman world that find their way into the work. Feldman makes crystal clear Josephus' attempt to influence prevailing attitudes towards Jews.

Drawing on work he has published over the past several years on Josephus' "rewritten Bible," Professor Feldman identifies each change Josephus has made to the Bible, demonstrating the falsity of Josephus' assertion that he "would set forth the precise details of what is in the Scriptures according to its proper order...neither adding nor omitting anything."  These changes regularly involve playing down and even omitting miraculous events, offering rational explanations for each step of the behavior of Biblical characters, and emphasizing the role played by Jews in ancient cultures. The gap between Romans and Jews is bridged through Josephus' presentation Jewish culture as a philosophy in full agreement with the principles of reason and a nation based on a sound written constitution.  It is easy to take this as evidence of the psychological need Josephus had to repair relations between the cultures after the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome.

A striking and puzzling example of the changes Josephus makes to the Bible is the lengthy rendition he provides, in Book Four of the Antiquities, of rebellions against Moses' authority. The opponents of Moses are given lengthy and quite reasonable speeches with which to challenge him, speeches mostly invented by Josephus. Concerning the Korah rebellion, Feldman notes: "Not only is the speech of Korah expanded from a mere 14 words in the Hebrew (19 in the LXX, Num. 16.3) to 194 words (Ant. 4.15-19), but its rhetoric becomes considerably more violent." (Book 4, note 33). Later a confrontation between Zimri (of Numbers 25:14)  and Moses is wholly invented by Josephus, who provides a speech by Zimri in praise of freedom:

    "But you [Moses] will not get me to be a follower of the orders which you give tyrannically. For up until now you have wickedly done no other thing than to contrive slavery for us and headship for yourself under the pretense of laws and of God, removing from us sweetness and the self-determination in life, which belongs to men who are free and who do not have a master.
    And I sacrifice to gods to whom, according to my thinking, it is proper to sacrifice, considering that it is right to take the trouble to arrive at the truth for myself from many people, and not to live as if in a tyranny, dependent for all the hope of my entire life upon one person. And let no one take joy in proclaiming that he has more authority over what I do than my own opinion."  (Antiquities 4.6.11 146, 149)

One cannot help but feel that Josephus has put into the mouth of Zimri debates of his own day regarding the place of Judaism in the Roman world. There are parallels to the letters of Josephus' contemporary, Paul. How is it that Josephus adds such a speech to the Scriptures (which he promised not to alter)? And why does he let it stand rather than be answered by a counter-argument? Instead, Zimri is simply answered by Phineas' spear.

Without a commentary, the reader who is puzzled by such things has few options for finding out what others have thought of this. One must search bibliographies in the library (or on the Internet), or try to find an expert to ask. But in the erudite Feldman commentary one can immediately read a good deal about each passage, discovering the parallels with Philo, Rabbinic literature, Greek authors and Christian writers, and be given references to modern scholarship for further reading.

In the commentary on the Zimri passage, for example, Feldman notes "The speech of Zimri artfully summarizes arguments that assimilated Jews of Josephus' day might have used," referring to a 1974 paper by Willem van Unnik and Seth Schwartz' 1990 book Josephus and Judean Politics,  in which this concept is explored. Feldman cites Philo and Talmud Sanhedrin on the same subject, and learn that in the Talmud an exchange between Moses and Zimri does appear, even though there is no direct confrontation in the Bible. The use of the word "tyranny" in the speech is compared to other uses of the word throughout Josephus, with the conclusion that it is a term of "particular opprobrium to Josephus."

Feldman's translation follows the precepts of the Brill series of translating accruately for the purposes of commentary. For comparison, here is the opening of the Antiquities as rendered in the new Brill and the previous Loeb and Whiston translations:

Three translations of the opening paragraph of Josephus' Jewish Antiquities
Louis Feldman 
(Brill, 2000)
H. St. J. Thackeray 
(Loeb Library, 1930)
William Whiston
1. I see that those who wish to compose histories do not have one and the same motive for their zeal; rather, their reasons are many and very different from one another. 
2. For some, exhibiting their cleverness in discourse and hunting after the reputation to be derived from it, rush headlong into this branch of scholarship; whereas others, bestowing gratitude upon those to whom the report has perchance happened to relate, have undertaken the toil for this purpose even beyond their ability.
3. Then there are some who were compelled by the very straits of events in that they happened to participate to set these forth comprehensively in a clear account. Again, the magnitude of useful events, that currently lie in a state of ignorance, has induced many others to bring forth the history of those events for common advantage.
4. Of these aforesaid motives the last two happen to have applied to me also. 
Those who essay to write histories are actuated, I observe, not by one and the same aim, but by many widely different motives. Some, eager to display their literary skill and to win the fame therefrom expected, rush into this department of letters; others, to gratify the persons to whom the record happens to relate, have undertaken the requisite labour even though beyond their power; others again have been constrained by the mere stress of events in which they themselves took part to set these out in a comprehensive narrative; while many have been induced by prevailing ignorance of important affairs of general utility to publish a history of them for the public benefit. Of the aforesaid motives the two last apply to myself.  Those who undertake to write histories do not, I perceive, take that trouble on one and the same account, but for many reasons, and those such as are very different one from another; for some of them apply themselves to this part of learning to show their skill in composition, and that they may therein acquire a reputation for speaking finely; others of them there are who write histories, in order to gratify those that happened to be concerned in them, and on that account have spared no pains, but rather go beyond their own abilities in the performance; but others there are, who, of necessity and by force, are driven to write history, because they are concerned in the facts, and so cannot excuse themselves from committing them to writing, for the advantage of posterity; nay, there are not a few who are induced to draw their historical facts out of darkness into light, and to produce them for the benefit of the public on account of the great importance of the facts themselves with which they have been concerned. Now of these several reasons for writing history, I must profess the two last were my own reasons also...
In this comparison the difference between the three styles is clear. Whiston, besides using an older form of English, adds words and repeats previous phrases whenever he sees fit. Thackery's translation is literary and tightly composed, and of the three perhaps the most pleasurable to read. Feldman's new translation seems to me stilted  in comparison, and sometimes must be read more than once to grasp the sense; however, the knowledge that this is done in order to give a strict rendering of Josephus is a relief. For in neither Thackeray nor Whiston can we know, without checking the Greek, if the expressions being given are those of Josephus or of the translator.

In Whiston, for example, we see a metaphor of bringing facts from "darkness into light," and we wonder if Josephus used that term (e.g., one might be aware of the use of darkness/light metaphors in the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Gospel of John and be prompted to wonder if Josephus is working from the same background). Josephus does not, using a verb, exenenkein,  meaning "to bring forth", as Feldman has it, but which can also be rendered "publish", as Thackeray does. In one sense Feldman's translation is the one most directly related to the origin of the word, and so if consistency is desired then that is the way the word should be rendered  throughout the Brill series; but every word has multiple uses, so Thackeray's is arguably a better rendering of the sense.

A notable difference is the separation into sentences. Feldman's rendering, which is conveniently laid out with the Greek section numbering for easy reference, contains five sentences, while Thackeray's has only three, the other phrases artfully combined using semi-colons. Whiston only has two (and the second one is cut short in the above citation)! Which did Josephus actually have? The Greek text used by each is not available to the reader, except for the Loeb edition to which Thackeray's punctuation corresponds. One problem is that ancient Greek punctuation followed different rules from that of modern English, the latter also differing from the punctuation of Whiston's day (Whiston's use of commas is breathtaking by today's standards). A sentence in Greek does not necessarily correspond to what we would today think of as a sentence, and there is some freedom among translators to do as they think best. (For those who wish to further study the Greek are recommended, see The Perseus Project's text of Josephus.)

The Brill volume ends with  references and indexes of subjects, ancient authors and references to commentary on words in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, etc. When the series is completed a volume just containing these indexes would be a valuable research tool in itself.

The series is invaluable to anyone seriously interested in Josephus. However, it's price and format are designed for ownership by institutional libraries, not private individuals. When completed, the series will cost about $1,350 and take up a couple of feet of shelf space. One can only hope that an electronic version will eventually be published for significantly less. In the meantime, individuals should check the reference section of their nearby libraries and make use of this series if at all possible.

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


Judean Antiquities 1-4
Translation and Commentary by Louis H. Feldman
(E. J. Brill, Leiden, 2000)
615 pages (including 100 pages of bibliographies and indices)
Price: $141

Review by G. Goldberg

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