Josephus goes online

Initial showing a tall man standing on a contorted man

The latest medieval manuscript at Trinity Hall to be digitised is a twelfth century copy of Josephus’ Historiae Antiquitatis Judaice (The Antiquities of the Jews), Ms. 4. The Latin translations of Josephus were incredibly popular throughout the Middle Ages and the Antiquities is claimed to have been ‘the single most often copied historical work of the Middle Ages’ [1]. Despite this, an ongoing project by the University of Bern [2] has identified just over 300 manuscripts containing the Latin translations of the works of Josephus. Many of these are incomplete copies since the text is comprised of twenty books, which because of its length, were usually split into two parts.

The author, Flavius Josephus (AD 37/38-AD 100) was born in Jerusalem into a Jewish family. He became a general at the start of the First Jewish-Roman war (66–73 CE), but was captured by the enemy Roman general Vespasian, and then threw in his lot with the Romans who had occupied his homeland, and advocated Jewish surrender. He moved to Rome where he became the official historian of the imperial family.

The Antiquities was completed in around AD 93 and was originally written in Greek. It is intended to give an account of Jewish history and culture from the creation to the revolt against Rome of AD 66-70. It is most likely written for a Roman (gentile) audience, to demonstrate that the Jews are an ancient people with great traditions and a great culture, although his narrative supports the Romans’ side of things.

The reception and use of the Antiquities is very interesting. Josephus was for a long time, one of the most popular authors of Christian Europe. Christian scholars embraced him for providing impartial evidence of the accounts in the gospels and the existence of Jesus. A passage found in Book 18, Chapter 3, 3 (Testimonium flavianum) of the Antiquities, for example, describes the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of the Roman authorities:

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.

This passage in the Testimonium is probably the most discussed in Josephus because it contains references to Jesus. However it is much disputed whether it is a later addition and it is considered to be a forgery by most modern scholars.

Reception of the Antiquities among Jewish people was more ambivalent. It was only widely read in the renaissance, and considered by some as the work of a traitor because Josephus had swapped sides. It was only from the 19th century that it began to be considered an important source of Jewish history.

Josephus’ works were originally written in Greek, but the Latin translations became extremely popular and influential during the Middle Ages. The first Latin translation was printed as early as 1470. This popularity continued when William Whiston (1667-1752), professor of mathematics in Cambridge, translated Antiquities into English in 1737. [3] From the 18th century Josephus’ works were almost as widespread in Britain as the Bible.

The inscription at the front says that this manuscript belonged to Brother William of Monkland in Herefordshire, which was a small cell of the Benedictine Abbey of Conches in Normandy, France. He was confessor to his relative, Humphrey de Bohun, 6th Earl of Hereford (1309- 1361). The manuscript’s later provenance before its arrival at Trinity Hall is unknown. The decoration (including the decorative use of small circles) is typical of Herefordshire production in the second quarter of the 12th century. It includes some striking initials featuring dragons.

The full manuscript is available on Cambridge Digital Library.

References

[1] O’Donnell, James J., Cassiodorus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 246.

[2] Josephus Latinus, University of Bern: https://legejosephum.ch/en

[3] Whiston, Wiliam, The Works of Flavius Josephus. London, 1737. Online at: https://sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/index.htm#aoj

Other Digitised Manuscripts of the Latin Josephus