Thematic Concordance to the Works of Josephus

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur

in the Works of Josephus

                                                by G. J. Goldberg



In modern Judaism, he two holiest days of the year of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the New Year and the Day of Atonement. Yet neither holiday is mentioned by Josephus, except for paraphrases of Biblical passages. If Josephus were are only evidence, we might conclude the holidays were not even celebrated in his day. But we do have other evidence, such as the Mishnah, compiled a century after Josephus, which does describe the rituals performed in the Temple during these holy days. 

What obscures these holidays is Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, which falls a week after Yom Kippur. 

For Josephus, there are three great holidays: the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, when all Jews were enjoined to travel to Jerusalem to perform the necessary sacrifices and rites at the Temple. It is these that are mentioned in conjunction with momentous events, the battles and uprisings that punctuate Josephus' histories. 

But on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur there was no command to gather in the Temple, hence no opportunity for mass demonstrations or military recruitment. Moreover, to celebrate all three holidays in Jerusalem, a pilgrim would need to remain there almost the entire month of Tishri (September/October); more practical would be to celebrate the first two holy days (if at all)  in one's own town, and afterwards to travel to Jerusalem for Sukkot. From the farthest points of northern Galilee, such a journey would take seven or eight days (E.P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, p. 130). 

With the destruction of the Temple, the pilgrimage festivals could no longer be observed in their prescribed forms. The shift in worship that the Rabbis would effect, which would increase the importance of the holy days that weren't centered on the Temple, was only beginning in Josephus' time. His comments on the necessity of pilgrimages can be seen as a lament at the uncertainty he felt over the future of the Jewish people. Without the Temple pilgrimages, he feared, the people "will appear as mere strangers to one another." 

In the New Testament
The Day of Atonement is referred to once in the New Testament, when Paul sails as a prisoner to Rome:
"Since much time had been lost and sailing was now dangerous, because even the Fast had gone by, Paul advised them, saying, "Sirs, I can see that the voyage will be with danger and much heavy loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives." 
(Acts 27:9)
"The Fast" is  the Day of Atonement, the only fast day prescribed by the Bible. It corresponds roughly to the time in September or October when sailing the eastern Mediterranean becomes  dangerous due to the stormier weather.
     In various letters, the concept that Jesus' death provides an atonement or reconciliation of humankind with heaven (e.g., Romans 5:10) may carry an echo of the scapegoat sacrifice. The Letter to the Hebrews 8-10, in particular, explicitly proposes that the blood of Jesus substitutes for the blood of future atonement sacrifices. It is possible this letter (which is not by Paul) was written after the war, in which case it would have been an attempt to persuade Jews who felt lost without the yearly atonement sacrifice that an alternative existed. The iconography isn't perfect,  in that Jesus cannot both be the scapegoat and the sacrifice whose blood is sprinkled in the Temple, as these are two different, albeit paired, animals.
Rosh Hashanah - The New Year  
Antiquities 3.10.2 239 

But on the seventh month, which the Macedonians call Hyperberetaeus, they make and addition to those already mentioned [on the first day of each month], and sacrifice a bull, a ram, and seven lambs, and a kid of the goats, for sins.


      This passage is derived from Numbers 29:1. (The parallel in Leviticus 23:23 does not list the sacrifices.) The seventh month, Hyperberetaeus, corresponds to the Hebrew month of Tishri, which usually begins  in September. Josephus does not identify this as the start of a new year, and says nothing special about it aside from the extra sacrifices.

Yom Kippur - The Day of Atonement  
Antiquities 3.10.3 240-243 

     On the tenth day of the same lunar month [Hyperberetaeus, Tishri] they fast till the evening; and on  this day they sacrifice a bull, and two rams, and seven lambs, and a kid of the goats, for sins. 
     And  in addition they bring two kids of the goats, one of which is sent alive out of the limits of the camp into the wilderness to be a propitiation and an intercession for the sins of the whole people; the other they lead to a place of great cleanliness just outside the camp, and there burn it, with its skin, without any sort of cleansing. 
     With this goat is burnt a bull, not brought by the people, but by the High Priest, at his own expense; which, when it is slain, he brings some of its blood into the sanctuary, together with the blood of the kid, and with his finger sprinkles it toward the ceiling with his finger seven times, as also on the floor, and again as often onto the sanctuary and about the golden altar. The remainder he brings into the open court, and sprinkles it about the great altar. In addition, they set the extremities, and the kidneys, and the fat, with the lobe of the liver upon the altar. The High Priest also presents a ram to God as a burnt offering.


  While this passage is mostly a retelling of the two Biblical passages Leviticus 16:3-34 and Numbers 29:7 -11, Josephus adds some details which presumably describe actual Temple practice in his day.  
   The numbers of sacrificed animals is, with one exception, the sum of those found in the two passages, which otherwise would contradict each other in their specifications of the sacrifices. We see this method of resolving a contradiction also in Josephus' account of Shavuos (Pentecost), and was supported by evidence from the Mishna. In the present case of the Day of Atonement, Leviticus specifies 1 bull, 1 ram, and the atonement or "scapegoat" offering of the two goat kids; Numbers specifies 1 bull, 1 ram, 7 lambs, and 1 goat, besides mentioning the atonement offering. Josephus combines these, and although staying with only one bull, the rest is summed, with 2 rams, 1 goat, 7 lambs, besides the two goats for atonement. The Mishna, however, follows Leviticus only here.  
  Josephus has the priest sprinkling it seven times toward the ceiling and seven toward the floor, while Leviticus requires seven sprinklings apparently just downward. However,  (as Thackeray notes in the Loeb edition) the Mishna states the blood was sprinkled "once upwards and seven times downwards" (Yoma 5.3).  
   Does the passage convey the meaning of atonement, i.e., a repayment for an injury or wrong? The two words Josephus uses to describe the scapegoat are apotropiasmos and paraitesis (earnest prayer, intercession). The former appears in other Greek literature as "a sacrifice to avert evil", and appears only in one other place in the Antiquities with the meaning of "talisman" (Ant. 1.3.6 93, quoting the Babylonian historian Berosus). This does not clearly distinguish the significance of the atonement offering from that of the daily sacrifices or ordinary sin-offerings. Perhaps Josephus is reluctant, as he is in other parts of his history, to discuss some aspects of Jewish belief. 

The Necessity of Pilgrimages - The Three Great Festivals  
 Antiquities 4.8.7 203  
     Let those that live even as remote as the bounds of the land which the Hebrews shall possess come to that city where the Temple shall be, three times in the year, that they may give thanks to God for his benefits and may entreat him for what they shall want in the future; and let them, by these meetings and feastings together, maintain an affectionate connection with one another. 
     For it is a good thing for those that are of the same stock, and under the same institution of laws, not to be unacquainted with each other; which acquaintance will be maintained by thus conversing together, and by seeing and talking with one another, and so renewing the memories of this union; for if they do not thus converse together continually, they will appear like mere strangers ot one another.

    Note the view that Jews living outside the borders of the land need not make the pilgrimages. Besides this, Josephus has added considerably to Deuteronomy 16:16. (See also Exodus 23:17 and 34:23.) The Biblical passage states: 

"Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Festival of Unleavened Bread, at the Festival of Weeks, and at the Festival of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed; all shall give as they are able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you." (Deut. 16.16-17) 
The Antiquities provides some natural expansion, clarifying "the place he will choose." But the repetitious emphasis on the social need for these gatherings has no parallel. Unless it is derived from a variant of the Bible we know, it would seem to be Josephus' own editorial comment -- despite the fact that just a few sentences earlier he promised his readers that he would "add nothing by way of ornament, nor anything besides what Moses left us" (Ant. 4.8.4 196). 
   These are signs that the concept was particularly important to Josephus. Three times in this short passage he repeats the concept that the meetings maintain social ties. But when he wrote this passage, the Temple had not existed for about twenty years, and so the pilgrimage festivals could not be celebrated. How can Josephus help not feeling anxiety about future Jewish society? I suspect this passage hits on a theme that Josephus spoke about with his contemporaries -- the need to  unify the Jewish people by re-establishing the Temple. But if that cannot be done, what "meetings and feastings" can replace the pilgrimages? The answer was already being considered by the Rabbis who would create post-Temple Judaism. 
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