Josephus on the Servile Origins of the Jews

In: Journal for the Study of Judaism
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The story of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt and subsequent redemption is the central narrative element of the Pentateuch. Josephus’ claim that he was providing an accurate account of the Jews’ ancient history in Jewish Antiquities thus meant that he had to address the Jews’ servile origins; however, first-century Roman attitudes toward slaves and freedmen would have made this problematic for ideological and political reasons. Although Josephus added references to Jews’ slavery to the account of Jewish history in Jewish Antiquities, he appears deliberately to downplay the Jews’ servile origins at key parts of the narrative, including God’s promise to Abraham in Gen 15 and the account of the Jews’ enslavement in Exod 1. Josephus also demonstrates a concern with the servile status of Jacob’s secondary wives Zilpah and Bilhah. The account of Joseph’s life in Jewish Antiquities emphasizes his non-servile qualities and his chance enslavement. Roman hostility to slaves and freedmen, Josephus’ own personal experience of captivity, and the likely presence in Rome of Jewish freedmen might explain Josephus’ sensitivity to the Jews’ servile origins.

  • 2

    See, for example, Louis H. Feldman, Josephus’s Interpretation of the Bible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 74-131 and Feldman, Studies in Josephus’ Rewritten Bible (JSJSup 58; Leiden: Brill, 1998), 546-51.

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  • 3

    Feldman, Studies, 552.

  • 4

    Samuel E. Loewenstamm, The Evolution of the Exodus Tradition (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992), 24-25.

  • 6

    Loewenstamm, Evolution, 30.

  • 14

    Ducat, Les Hilotes, 1.

  • 20

    Henry Chadwick, Origen: Contra Celsum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), xxiv–xxvii dates Celsus’ Ἀληθὴς λόγος to 177-180 c.e.

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  • 24

    Tacitus, Hist. 5.3.

  • 25

    Tacitus, Hist. 5.4.2.

  • 26

    Tacitus, Hist. 5.4.2.

  • 34

    Martin Goodman, “Josephus as a Roman Citizen,” in Josephus and the History of the Greco-Roman Period: Essays in Memory of Morton Smith (ed. Fausto Parente and Joseph Sievers; StPB 41; Leiden: Brill, 1994), 329-38, at 338.

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  • 36

    See the discussion by Moses I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (ed. Brent Shaw; 2nd ed.; Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1998), 188.

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  • 53

    Benjamin H. Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 193.

  • 54

    Cicero, Resp. 3.37 (apud Augustine, C. Jul. 4.12.61).

  • 55

    Augustine, Civ. 19.21.

  • 56

    Cicero, Phil. 6.7.19.

  • 59

    Finley, Ancient Slavery, 187; see also Geoffrey E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 417 and Isaac, Invention of Racism, 225.

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  • 61

    Seneca, Ep. 31.11 (Gummere, lcl). A similar remark is found in Ep. 47.17.

  • 63

    Peter Garnsey, Ideas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 145n29.

  • 64

    Seneca, Ep. 47.11.

  • 65

    Keith Seddon, Epictetus’ Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes: Guides to Stoic Living (London: Routledge, 2005), 5.

  • 67

    Arrian, Epict. diss. 4.1.131.

  • 68

    Arrian, Epict. diss. 2.23.23.

  • 69

    Epictetus, Ench. 14.1 (Oldfather, lcl).

  • 70

    Alan Watson, Roman Slave Law (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 35 and William W. Buckland, The Roman Law of Slavery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1908), 439. This was unusual in antiquity; Athenian slaves, by contrast, became merely resident aliens after manumission. See A. M. Duff, Freedmen in the Early Roman Empire (Cambridge: Heffer, 1958), 12 and Henrik Mouritsen, The Freedman in the Roman World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 69.

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  • 73

    Mouritsen, Freedman, 92.

  • 74

    Ibid., 93.

  • 75

    See Fergus Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World (31 BC–AD 337) (London: Duckworth, 1977), 60 and Werner Eck, “The Growth of Administrative Posts,” in The High Empire, A.D. 70-192 (ed. Alan K. Bowman, John B. Bury, and Averil Cameron; 2nd ed.; cah 11; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 238-65, esp. 253. The view of Duff, Freedmen, 9, 188, 205, that members of the elite were concerned lest Rome be tainted by servile blood, probably reflects a literal reading of passages such as Suetonius, Aug. 40, and his own prejudice.

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  • 76

    Tacitus, Ann. 2.12 (Jackson, lcl).

  • 77

    Tacitus, Hist. 2.92 (Moore, lcl).

  • 78

    Tacitus, Hist. 5.9 (Moore, lcl).

  • 79

    Pliny the Younger, Ep. 8.6.14 (Radice, lcl).

  • 80

    Pliny the Younger, Ep. 7.29.3 (Radice, lcl).

  • 81

    Pliny the Younger, Pan. 88.2 (Radice, lcl).

  • 106

    Feldman, Judean Antiquities 1-4, 187.

  • 123

    Cicero, Phil. 8.32.

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