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.

Josephus on the Servile Origins of the Jews

in Journal for the Study of Judaism



See for example Louis H. FeldmanJosephus’s Interpretation of the Bible (Berkeley: University of California Press1998) 74-131 and Feldman Studies in Josephus’ Rewritten Bible (JSJSup 58; Leiden: Brill 1998) 546-51.


Samuel E. LoewenstammThe Evolution of the Exodus Tradition (Jerusalem: Magnes Press1992) 24-25.




Henry ChadwickOrigen: Contra Celsum (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1965) xxiv–xxvii dates Celsus’ Ἀληθὴς λόγος to 177-180 c.e.


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: Brill1994) 329-38at 338.


See the discussion by Moses I. FinleyAncient Slavery and Modern Ideology (ed. Brent Shaw; 2nd ed.; Princeton: Markus Wiener1998) 188.


Benjamin H. IsaacThe Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press2004) 193.


CiceroResp. 3.37 (apud Augustine C. Jul. 4.12.61).


FinleyAncient Slavery187; 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.


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


Peter GarnseyIdeas of Slavery from Aristotle to Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1996) 145n29.


Keith SeddonEpictetus’ Handbook and the Tablet of Cebes: Guides to Stoic Living (London: Routledge2005) 5.


ArrianEpict. diss. 4.1.131.


ArrianEpict. diss. 2.23.23.


EpictetusEnch. 14.1 (Oldfather lcl).


Alan WatsonRoman Slave Law (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press1987) 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.




See Fergus MillarThe Emperor in the Roman World (31 BC–AD 337) (London: Duckworth1977) 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.


TacitusAnn. 2.12 (Jackson lcl).


TacitusHist. 2.92 (Moore lcl).


TacitusHist. 5.9 (Moore lcl).


Pliny the YoungerEp. 8.6.14 (Radice lcl).


Pliny the YoungerEp. 7.29.3 (Radice lcl).


Pliny the YoungerPan. 88.2 (Radice lcl).


FeldmanJudean Antiquities 1-4187.

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