Baker Academic

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

So You Need a Dissertation Topic, Installment VI: Josephus as Trickster

“Every good story deserves a bit of embellishment.” So says Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s retelling of The Hobbit (blaspheming at a theater near you). Of course, Gandalf’s words are uttered to meta-narratological effect, of which Tolkien was no stranger.  In other words, the story-teller has placed these words on the lips of the story-teller in the film to justify the creativity that will be employed in the film.  So the character, in this case Gandalf, has transcended the narrative to address the audience directly (sort of like an uber-aside and wink).  Quite clever for a cleaver.

In this installment of “so you need a dissertation topic,” I will suggest a look at Josephus’ autobiographical accounts (in this case, mostly Life and War) from a comparative-mythology perspective.  Much of the work of Steve Mason over the last decade has been to nuance the category of “history” as it is demonstrated by Josephus.  It seems absurd that this is true, but for much of 2000 years, historians have taken Josephus at face value except at points where there are contradictions or “interpolations”.  In other words, we have just assumed more often than not that Josephus is more facts and less revisionist history.  Notice the chief indicator of historical positivism here (I don’t think I’m building a straw-man here, but I can always revise this later if I find out that I am).  But what if Josephus has framed his own story in legendary categories?

For example, Josephus is a boy genius who is schooled in several different religious programs on an accelerated track.  He becomes a brilliant military mind.  He then gets caught on the wrong side of a battle and convinces his countrymen to willingly except slit throats rather than commit suicide.  Only the last person to die will commit the dishonorable act of suicide.  Turns out that Josephus draws the short straw and agrees to die last.  But he and a friend decide simply to surrender in the end. In short, he avoided death and the dishonor of suicide.  He then betrays his country and becomes the prophetic counselor for Vespasian.  Josephus tells the Roman governor that he will someday rule the world and that he, Josephus, will be Vespasian's right-hand man.  This saves his life and he ends up quite comfortably situated as a Roman apologist who attempts to “reason” with his countrymen in Judea.  These details have long been viewed as “tainted” by embellishment.  But here is a good question: is Josephus a villain? an anti-hero? is he heroic because he is a survivor?  This last of these is generally preferable. 

Or, perhaps, Josephus is a trickster.

Tricksters are present in several mythologies. One can find them in Native American and West African myths, in Norse mythology, etc. Tolkien's Bilbo has much in common with the Norse trickster “Loki”.  The film tries to clean this up to make the Hobbit more sympathetic (e.g. Bilbo doesn't pick the pockets of the trolls, etc). Tricksters are like the court jesters of the gods.  They often (but not always) change shape.  And, most importantly, they “trick” those more powerful than them, often to personal expediency.  Please understand, I’m not saying that Josephus is drawing from trickster mythology.  I’m saying that there are some very interesting parallels to be had, including his shifting allegiances and Jedi-mind tricks.  Of course, this thesis does not need for the autobiographical elements in Josephus to be read as mythology.   It just requires a bit of flexibility with the genre of “history”.



  1. Good topic.

    Josephus we know, was tricky enough to be a turncoat or traitor. As I recall he was originally a Jewish zionist general, governor of Galilee; on his defeat by Rome he went over to the Romans. And became a fulltime collaborateur/Hellenized Jew.

    Jewist culture and/or Jerusalem, was full of collaborators with Greco-Roman overlords. Like Herod; Philo (in Egypt); Josephus; and no doubt thousands more.

    Such persons were not above a few sly tricks now and then; and speaking out of both sides of their mouths (cf. "double-tongued" speaking in the Bible). Especially I would suggest, in saying equivocal things that would sound reassuring to both Romans, and Jews.

    Paul - the also very Hellenized Jewish citizen - sometimes seemed to explicitly make a virtue out of this; noting that he spoke as a Jew when speaking to Jews, but as a Roman when speaking to Romans (roughly).

    1. Again with the polysemantic speech. I think you've made your point Brett. I'm convinced that this is deserving of further reading. Reading list, please.


    2. Thought you'd NEVER ask!

      No strong published/publishable material on this known to me; just my online voluminous notes, looking for a rewrite and then partial publication: "God's Science v. 3.7 Old Testament: The Two Voices." This uncovers two competing voices in the Bible: one emphasizing "faith," vs. the one emphasizing science. The scientific voice of the Bible telling us to follow only those who show real physical "fruits," "works," "signs," "deeds," and "proofs."

      Not fully noted there: this demand in the Bible, was partially turned into polysemic metaphors by Paul and his Platonism; metaphors for "fruits of the spirit" and so forth. So now the words of the Bible have two meanings; they are polysemic. You don't know which one holds. And they are therefore, tricky! Peter rightly mentions problems with "twisting" words, just before speaking of Paul.

      More in "God's Science 5.5; No Miracles, Metaphors"

      Neither quite gets to my present thesis as fully as I would like; the way that Old Testament physical promises of "water" and so forth, were turned ("twist"ed) into mere metaphors for spiritual/insubstantial promises. Jesus at times give us literal physical "bread," but other times suggests that his bodily sacrifice, giving us his spirit, is "water," and "bread indeed."

      My thesis follows the widely-known fact that the NT metaphoricalized, "spiritualized" (Greco-Romanized; Platonized) the OT. Though with my own notion that this was not quite entirely legitimate; it was tricky; it "twist"ed the original meanings. Giving everything a double and triple meaning. And thus destabilized the Bible. Giving it no firm meaning whatsoever, perhaps. Now you see it; now you don't. Semantic sleight-of-hand.

      My larger thesis is that if there is a final stable meaning, it is that God wanted us to follow only preachers, leaders that were materially, physically - not just "spiritually" - "fruit"ful. So that God wanted us to follow a kind of material Science of God in fact. But tricky Hellenized Greeks, like Paul, "twist"ed the key words into polysemes; with two and more meanings.

      Some classic theologians and biblical scholars have hinted at parts of this before; Bauckham calls the Bible "literary"; others "poetic." Many have hinted at a "subtext" beyond the spiritual one however. Perhaps the Bible is a sort of "Roman a clef." One possiblity I sugggest: the "Day of Judgement," is the day you attain better "judgement," and notice all this.....

      Thanks! Maybe that'll get it out of my system!

      Blogged notes online: The Bible Supports Science Over Faith by "Woodbridge Goodman"

    3. Clarification:

      Most have thought that the "spiritualization" of the Old Testament by the New, was a vast improvement. Many present it as getting past the crass materialism of wanting just physical "water," and literal food; by teaching us to seek metaphorical, spiritual "water." But amazingly, the Bible itself contains a criticism of spirituality (James 2.14-26; Isa. 29.8). James began to note that we are not just spiritual beings, but also physical ones. And a religion that only gives us spirit, but not the physical things we need to survive bodily, leaves us physically starving to death.

      The origin of spiritualization, some suggest, was apologetic. The OT often promised very material rewards for following God; but likely priests found it hard to produce all the material miracles it promised. So Platonist priests turned it all into metaphors for spiritual "wonders." But as it turns out, there are problems with spirituality itself. (See "empty wind" or empty spirits, etc.). As James noted.

      The metaphoricalization, spiritualization of the OT by the NT, therefore - giving all the old material promises a semantic twist, to present them as promises of not physical things, but spiritual or mental ones - was not quite the great leap forward as has been thought. Instead, it just took the valuable material, proto-scientific, empirical realism out of much of the OT. And began to turn the language of God, into vague "wind," rather than substantial promises. Leaving us with words, but not food. As St. James began to see.

      Turning the old promises of physical rewards, into polysemes, into possible metaphors for possibly material things, but also for possibly only spiritual ones, was less of an advance than has been thought in the past. Giving us only "empty words," "dreams," "illusions," "false spirits," hot "air" or "wind," instead of substantial nourishment. As the Bible warned of some kinds of religion.

      Finally spiritualization was a kind of debasement of the OT and of language and empirical reality; though it presented itself as the very essence of all that was holy and true (cf. 1 John 4.1; 2 Corin. 11.4).

  2. Tricksters delight in their trickiness. Josephus seems ashamed of his; otherwise, he wouldn't have to justify it so elaborately. Of course, you back away from the trickster hypothesis in your last paragraph. That itself seems a little tricky to me.
    Joel Marcus

    1. ...and I'm not proud of it either.

  3. I just happened to read this post because I just found out that Richard Carrier had a peer-reviewed paper published proving that the references in Josephus to Jesus aren't authentic. And what do I find? You're calling me a trickster and comparing me to Loki? Trying to pick the pockets of the trolls was surely the strongest indication that I am anything but a trickster. A stupid, clumsy, foolhardy attempt that no experienced trickster ever would have committed. I haven't seen the Hollywood version of me, yet. Must I? They didn't even bother to ask me to advise them on the set. If they left the pickpocket scene out, it's probably because they were trying to paint me as a professional trickster, not because they were trying to "clean up" my image. The only thing I did that I feel ashamed of is lying to the dwarves about how I obtained the Ring. But if you must portray me as a trickster, who am I to argue with such acute minds? No doubt you'll be portraying Jesus as a magician next.

    1. Why should I trust anything you say?