Athaliah in Josephus is rarely studied. This paper thus seeks to build on Christopher Begg’s text-critical work by discussing the literary effect of Josephus’ embellishments to the Athaliah narratives. Athaliah in Josephus is shown to be more explicitly foreign and illegitimate than in the biblical texts, but also a more dynamic, rounded character.
In the HB, the northern Israelite princess Athaliah married into the southern kingdom of Judah as part of an alliance between the two kingdoms (2 Kgs 8:18).1 Following her husband, king Joram’s death (2 Kgs 8:23–24) and that of her son, king Ahaziah (2 Kgs 9:27–29), she apparently went on a murderous spree, killing “all the royal seed” of Judah and installing herself as queen (2 Kgs 11:1). Although the HB presents Athaliah as a corrupting (2 Kgs 8:18, 26–27) and murderous (2 Kgs 11:1) presence in Judah, most modern scholarship views her portrayal as polemical, rather than historically accurate.2 Whether the biblical polemic was motivated by her foreignness, her gender, or general political shifts is unclear.3 In a similar vein, Josephus’ portrayal of women has been a focal point of scholarly attention, yet his adaptation of the Athaliah narratives (Ant. 9.140–156) has often been overlooked.4 When scholars discuss queens in Josephus, the Second Temple period queens Alexandra and Esther dominate (despite the latter being a consort rather than a monarch), while studies of Josephus’ biblical women tend to either gloss over Athaliah briefly or focus their attention solely on other characters.5 Christopher Begg’s extensive text-critical commentaries on the passage are the exception rather than the rule.6 Therein, Begg identifies many of Josephus’ embellishments to the Athaliah narratives, some of which come from rewritten sources, and some which are only known from Josephus himself.7 The purpose of this article, therefore, is to discuss the literary effect of Josephus’ changes to the Athaliah narratives, and their impact on the reception of Athaliah and the formation of this tradition. The following utilises Begg’s four-fold division of the Athaliah narrative (Preliminaries, Jehoiada’s Measures, Athaliah’s End, Sequels) and analyses the implications of Josephus’ additions in each.8 In Preliminaries we demonstrate that his additions render Athaliah more foreign and explicitly illegitimate than she is in the biblical texts, while in Jehoiada’s Measures they dramatise the story and increase the tensions for the audience. In Athaliah’s End, we show that Josephus expands Athaliah’s entrance to the temple, associates her with a force of soldiers and has Jehoiada order her destruction at the Wadi Kidron. Finally, in Sequels, we argue that Josephus returns to the theme of Athaliah-as-foreigner and presents her as intimately involved with the construction of the Baal temple. Ultimately, Josephus presents Athaliah as more foreign, negative, and unambiguously illegitimate than she is portrayed in the HB. The biblical authors’ polemic is amplified in Antiquities, which has implications for scholarly views of women in Josephus and the reception of Athaliah.
2 Preliminaries (Ant. 9.140–142; 2 Kgs 11:1–3//2 Chr 22:10–12)
Athaliah enters events in dramatic fashion: “now when Athaliah, Ahaziah’s mother, saw that her son was dead, she set about to destroy all the royal seed of the house of Judah” (2 Kgs 11:1//2 Chr 22:10).9 While the biblical sources are similar, Ant. 9.140 makes some significant changes which emphasise Athaliah’s foreignness:
The biblical sources evidence confusion over Athaliah’s parentage, calling her daughter of Ahab (2 Kgs 8:18//2 Chr 21:6 MT) and daughter of Omri (2 Kgs 8:26//2 Chr 22:2 MT), but Josephus states clearly that she was daughter of Ahab.13 Historically speaking, whether she was the daughter of Omri/Ahab is not particularly important—either way, she was related to both. Literarily speaking, the connection to Ahab was likely a weightier rhetorical tool for it was he whom the biblical authors vilified, and his mention forms an inclusio in Ant. 9.140, 154, emphasising Athaliah’s relation to him. The death of “her brother Joram” and “of the royal family” also emphasise Athaliah’s Israelite roots—and thus, foreignness to Judah—as the motivation for her murderous actions.14 While the biblical texts associate Athaliah’s connection to the house of Ahab with doing evil in the eyes of Yhwh (2 Kgs 8:18, 27//2 Chr 21:6; 22:3–4), their accounts of her slaughter and reign cite only her son’s death (the Judahite king) as the catalyst (2 Kgs 11:1//2 Chr 22:10).15 In all likelihood, by the time she became queen, Athaliah had lived most of her life in Judah, yet Josephus views her foreign allegiances as the driving force in her actions throughout her life.16 Furthermore, the biblical texts state that Athaliah “set about to destroy the royal seed”—an odd phrase that may suggest allusion to the irony of a mother destroying children or, perhaps, an obfuscation of the fact that she did not kill all (any?) of the royal house.17 Josephus formalises this conflict, however, stating that Athaliah attempted to destroy the “house of David … in order that there be no king from it” (Ant. 9.140b).18 This portrayal renders Athaliah more directly comparable to (and worse than) the male usurpers in biblical history, who also eradicated a royal house, leaving no surviving heir.19 Begg also notes that the verb used of Athaliah’s extermination (
3 Jehoiada’s Measures (Ant. 9.143–149; 2 Kgs 11:4–12//2 Chr 23:1–11)
Jehoiada’s organisation of the coup is the longest section of the biblical Athaliah narratives, which Josephus embellishes to dramatise the events for his audience. Chronicles gives more detail than Kings, including the names of the commanders and their travel throughout Judah, repeated mentions of the priests and Levites, and a specific note that the Levites were to guard the king.22 Josephus’ version contains a number of elements unique to Chronicles with a few changes. He portrays Jehoiada persuading the commanders to “be part of an undertaking against Othlia and to secure the kingship for the boy” (Ant. 9.143) and receiving oaths of loyalty so that, “he was confirmed in his fearlessness … he was encouraged in his hopes regarding Othlia” (Ant. 9.143).23 Similarly, once the priests, Levites, and chiefs of the tribes had been gathered, Jehoiada made them swear “that they would keep secret what they would learn from him” (Ant. 9.144–145).24 The explicit mention of secrecy and potential betrayal in these embellishments heightens the narrative tension and indicates a subtle difference in the portrayal of Athaliah. While the biblical texts depict Athaliah as a lone agent with no support, Josephus’ dramatisation relies on a recognition that she may have had support; Jehoiada’s safety depends on the surety of these oaths.25
Josephus’ presentation of Joash following the oaths is modelled on Jehoiada’s line in 2 Chr 23:3 and describes Joash as “from the family of David [
Josephus’ embellishments here continue to dramatise his story, emphasising the need for secrecy, the risks the conspirators take, and Joash’s Davidic heritage. Athaliah is absent from the passage in person (as she is in 2 Kgs 11:4–12//2 Chr 23:1–11), but Josephus’ additions suggest a powerful persona in absentia. Jehoiada’s refusal to speak until he has sworn those present to secrecy (Ant. 9.143, 145) attributes potential support and power to the queen, not seen in the biblical sources.31 Whereas Josephus’ tweaks to the “Preliminaries” section created a much more foreign and illegitimate Athaliah, his changes here ensure that her presence continues to be felt in the backdrop of the coup. These additions create a sense of danger for the conspirators and implicitly acknowledge the power Athaliah held.
4 Athaliah’s End (Ant. 9.150–152; 2 Kgs 11:13–16//2 Chr 23:12–15)
Athaliah re-enters events hearing a cacophony of sound in the biblical narrative, whereupon she follows it to the temple. Josephus, however, dramatically embellishes this entrance:
Whereas Kings and Chronicles describe the people’s actions and noise—
While Athaliah’s entrance into the temple is “greatly embellished”38 by Josephus, the description of the scene that she encountered is compressed. The people and their noisy actions in Kings//Chronicles are replaced by a quieter spotlight, recording only that “Othlia saw the boy standing on the platform and wearing the royal crown” (Ant. 9.151).39 Begg argues that the elimination of other persons in Josephus’ account keeps attention focussed on Athaliah and Joash, though it seems rather that Athaliah alone has the spotlight.40 Whereas the biblical narratives call Joash “king,” depict him standing in a location of significance, and ascribe him legitimacy through the acclamation of his people, in Ant. 9.151a, the scene is viewed through Athaliah’s eyes; Joash is merely a boy wearing a crown.41 While the biblical accounts afford Athaliah only two words at this point—
5 Sequels (Ant. 9.153–156; 2 Kgs 11:17–20//2 Chr 23:16–21)
Following Athaliah’s death, the narratives focuses on cultic destruction and restoration, thus framing Athaliah’s death in cultic terms. 2 Kings 11:17 states that Jehoiada mediated two covenants, between Yhwh—king—people and between the king—people. 2 Chronicles 23:16, meanwhile, records only one, between Jehoiada—people—king. Josephus offers an expanded version, stating that Jehoiada made the people take an oath to “be loyal to the king and take care for his safety and ongoing rule.”48
6 Athaliah in Josephus
Athaliah is rarely studied in Josephus because most commentators conclude that Josephus mostly follows the biblical narrative with only minor, logical additions.56 Yet, it seems to us that this conclusion only comes if the reader already presumes that which Josephus adds. For example, if one assumes that Athaliah was (after twenty-three years) still so foreign that the driving force of her ascension was her loyalty to the Omrides then Josephus’ additions of “her brother Joram” (9.140) and the connections to Ahab (9.140, 156) seem small and logical. Indeed, if we assume that she was a Baal worshipper, then the note that she built the Baal temple is to be expected. The lack of attention to Athaliah in Josephus may, therefore, convey as much about our own views of Athaliah as it does of Josephus’ views. While Begg is certainly correct that Josephus dramatises the story, in our view, he dramatises Athaliah in particular.57 While Josephus changes the male characters’ actions only slightly, Athaliah appears much more developed than she is in the biblical texts. Her opposition to the Davidic line and Yhwh is emphasised, fear of her drives Jehoiada’s oath-making, she is accompanied by soldiers, her emotional state is mentioned, she is given more speech than in the biblical texts (albeit not direct), and she is said to have built a Baal-temple. Josephus thus actively creates important elements of Athaliah’s character where it was absent in his sources. Some of these suggest influence from other literary women that Josephus wrote on. Athaliah’s confusion of mind (Ant. 9.150) recalls the wife of Jeroboam’s reaction to Ahijah’s words and her force of soldiers is better attested with later women, especially Alexandra.58 Liebowitz notes that Hellenistic society and literature permitted royal women more freedom and recognition than was previously attested.59 Indeed, 2 Kgs 11 is uncomfortable with Athaliah’s reign, denying her a regnal formula, changing the usual formulaic verb form
We are grateful to Merton College, Oxford and AHRC Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership for their support of our research. We are also grateful to Stéphane Oppes, Hindy Najman, and Christopher Begg for their assistance in accessing various resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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. “ Sergi, Omer Queenship in Judah Revisited: Athaliah and the Davidic Dynasty in Historical Perspective.” Pages 99– 111in Tabou et transgressions: Actes du colloque organisé par le Collège de France, Paris, les 11–12 avril 2012. Edited by . , Jean-Marie Durand , and Michaël Guichard Thomas Römer . OBO274 Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, . 2015
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This is mostly because the length of her reign (six years) would have been impossible without internal support (see Kuloba, “Athaliah,” 148–150; Park, 2 Kings, 146–148; and note Jehoiada’s command [2 Kgs 11:15] that “any who follow her” should be put to death), but also because she may have needed a male heir if she ruled as a regent (see Sergi, “Queenship,” 105–109). In addition, the claim that she killed “all the royal seed” (2 Kgs 11:1) sits awkwardly with the claim that Jehu killed forty-two brothers of king Ahaziah at Beth-Eked (2 Kgs 10:13–14). For discourse analysis of the Athaliah narratives (2 Kgs 11:1–20//2 Chr 22:10–23:21), see Bench, Coup of Jehoiada. For literary-historical approaches, see Solvang, “A Woman’s Place”; Naʾaman, “Queen Athaliah”; Sergi, “Queenship”; Knauf, “The Queens’ Story”; and, earlier, Levin, Königin Atalja. For rhetorical approaches, see Dutcher-Walls, “Athaliah”; idem, Narrative Art; Barré, Political Persuasion, and on queen mothers, see Brewer-Boydston, Queen Mothers. Branch, “Treacherous Queen,” and Kuloba, “Athaliah,” offer close textual readings while Lipka, “Jezebel’s Masculinity”; MacWilliam, “Illicit Masculinity,” highlight the importance of gender studies for the portrayal of queens in Kings.
In truth the catalyst could have been any of these factors, or due to other reasons unknown to us today. While it is highly likely that Athaliah’s gender played a part in the polemic against her (see, e.g., Quine, “Masculine Queens”) recent work on polemical reinterpretations of 9th–8th century BCE dynastic politics (see Sergi, “The Omride Dynasty”; Quine, “Theopolitics”) demonstrate that viewing the Athaliah polemic as purely motivated by her gender may be too simplistic and, notably, the only other woman to rule Judah/Judaea as monarch—Alexandra—does not receive the same level of polemic (though Josephus affords her a mixed legacy; see Liebowitz, “Ambivalent Attitude”; Scales and Quine, “Athaliah and Alexandra”). While gender may inform the polemic against Athaliah, the situation is complex, and it may be better to view the cause of the polemic as potentially related to a developing spectrum of gender-ideologies in conjunction with other political views.
See especially, Halpern-Amaru, “Portraits”; Feldman, “Hellenizations”; Ilan, “Flavius Josephus”; Ilan, “Josephus and Nicolaus”; Ilan, “Josephus on Women”; Liebowitz, “Ambivalent Attitude”; Mayer-Schärtel, Frauenbild des Josephus.
E.g., Liebowitz, “Esther and Alexandra”; idem, “New Perspective”; Lambers-Petry, “Shelomzion ha-malka”; and especially Ilan, Silencing the Queen, 43–46, 47–60; Liebowitz, “Ambivalent Attitude,” 192; Halpern-Amaru, “Portraits,” 165–166; Mayer-Schärtel, Frauenbild des Josephus, 62.
See Begg, “Athaliah’s Coup”; idem, Later Monarchy, 167–187; Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 159–162.
See Begg, Later Monarchy, 185–187. His sources include the MT, LXXB, and LXXL versions of Kings and Chronicles. Some of the embellishments that do not match the known textual sources may come from other, unknown sources, but this cannot be verified. Further, when examining the language of the closest parallel texts (2 Kings and 2 Chronicles LXX), it appears that Josephus rarely adopts the exact language or terminology of his known sources—specific verbs and nouns parallel to 2 Kings//2 Chronicles LXX are as follows:
Due to limitations of space, we focus only on major additions which are of ideological, theological, or historical significance; for minor additions see Begg, Later Monarchy, 167–187.
Chronicles adds the
Josephus consistently uses
The online edition of Josephus, Ant. 9.140 (Marcus, LCL) reads “her wicked son Ochozias,” though “wicked” there seems to be an error caused by the transition from hard copy—online material.
Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 159; cf. Begg, Later Monarchy, 167–168.
Some Greek manuscripts record
Although the “royal family” could refer to the Judahite royal family killed in 2 Kgs 10:13–14 (Ant. 9.130–131), the reference to Joram suggests that the seventy sons of Ahab killed by Jehu are in view (2 Kgs 10:1–11; Ant. 9.125–129).
In Chronicles, the connection between the “house of Ahab” and Athaliah is particularly strong and appears more dynamic and pervasive. Thus, 2 Chr 22:3 states that Ahaziah “walked in the ways of the house of Ahab” because of Athaliah’s counsel (
Athaliah lived in Judah’s royal house for twenty-three years prior to becoming queen (her son’s age at time of accession plus his one-year reign). In reality, it is unlikely that this had no impact on her life and loyalties.
See comments on
Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 159. Josephus changes the mention of the “house of Judah” in 2 Chr 22:10 to the “house of David” in an attempt to be consistent with the later reference to the “house of David” (cf. Ant. 9.145; 2 Chr 23:3).
E.g., Baasha destroyed the house of Jeroboam and left “not one that breathed” (1 Kgs 15:27–29), Zimri in turn wiped out the house of Baasha and “did not leave him a single male of his kindred or his friends” (1 Kgs 16:10–11), and Jehu explicitly had “the seventy sons” of Ahab killed (2 Kgs 10:1–8) and left him no survivor (10:11). Athaliah’s violence against “all the royal seed” is portrayed as worse than male monarchs, even when they executed family members to secure the throne; see Brenner-Idan, Israelite Woman, 30. The phrasing of the threat is also unparalleled in the HB, which underscores the propaganda of Jehu’s slaughter of the Judahite royal family in 2 Kgs 10:13–14.
See Begg, Later Monarchy, 168 n. 6.
On the difficulties of reconstructing anything of the truth surrounding Athaliah’s ascension to the throne, see especially Sergi, “Queenship,” 105–109. Ilan notes that the biblical accounts of Athaliah’s reign are politically motivated to present it as illegitimate, despite small hints that female monarchical succession—in the absence of a male heir—might have been legitimate; see Ilan, Silencing the Queen, 45–46.
All the names of Chronicles’ commanders appear in Priestly or Levitical lists (see Williamson, Chronicles, 315), though Josephus omits them for his audience; see Begg, Later Monarchy, 170 n. 21. The travel through Judah explains how “all the people” validate and support Joash’s kingship (2 Chr 23:3) while Japhet explains the Levites guarding the king, not as a magnification of the Levites’ roles per se, but as the Chronicler’s attempt to resolve the difficulties in Kings. The Levites are given control of temple matters and “all Judah” oversee military activity; see Japhet, I & II Chronicles, 832–833.
Translation from Begg, Later Monarchy, 170; Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 159–160. The usual term for covenant (
Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 159–160.
Similar concerns may underlie the account of covenant—oaths—revealing of Joash in 2 Kgs 11:4 but if so, it is left unspoken, perhaps deliberately so.
Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 160. Italics ours.
2 Kings 11:2; 2 Chr 22:11 state that Joash was son of Ahaziah (and thus grandson of Athaliah and part-Omride). The texts down-play Ahaziah’s fatherhood of Joash, however, through the lack of any formal regnal notices connecting their reigns. Instead, Jehoiada seems to fill the vacant father role, particularly in 2 Chr 24:3, where he provides Joash with wives.
Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 160. Cf. David’s weapons stored in the temple 2 Kgs 11:10//2 Chr 23:9—Begg notes that this change likely results from Ant. 8.259 following the LXX of 1 Kgs 14:26, wherein Shishak took weapons from Rehoboam that David had dedicated; see Begg, Later Monarchy, 175 n. 60.
Begg, Later Monarchy, 174 n. 51 observes that this pre-empts 9.150 wherein the guards allowed Athaliah to enter, but not her soldiers.
Begg, Later Monarchy, 176 n. 67 notes that Josephus shows no awareness of the Rabbinic tradition seen in b. ʿAbod. Zar 44a that identified this crown as being the crown that David took from the Ammonites in 2 Sam 12:30//1 Chr 20:2 = Ant. 7.61.
Interestingly, there is only a hint of such concern for secrecy in 2 Chr 23:3, where the people make a covenant with the king (rather than an oath to Jehoiada). 2 Kings 11:4 implies more secrecy, but this is evidently amplified in Josephus and 2 Kgs 11:4 is careful not to explicitly connect its covenants with any notion of betrayal and thus, loyalty to Athaliah.
Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 161; cf. the brief entrances in 2 Kgs 11:13//2 Chr 23:12.
Sound/hearing is an important narrative device in the Athaliah story: events begin when she hears (
Begg, Later Monarchy, 178 n. 77.
From Sennacherib onwards the Neo-Assyrian queens seem to have had command of their own military units and Sammu-rammat is uniquely recorded as having gone on a campaign with her son Sennacherib; Svärd, Women and Power, 49–50, 53, 83–84.
See comments in Ilan, “Josephus on Women,” 214–215; Mayer-Schärtel, Frauenbild des Josephus, 62–63, 139–140, 184–185.
Scales and Quine, “Athaliah and Alexandra.” Halpern-Amaru, “Portraits,” notes that Josephus regularly models his women on five types of female characters, three “heroines,” two “villainesses”: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Potiphar’s Wife, and the Midianite women. Although Athaliah does not fit these models, some intra-female influence amongst Josephus’ characters seems likely.
Begg, Later Monarchy, 178.
Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 161.
See Begg, Later Monarchy, 178 n. 80.
2 Kgs 11:13–14//2 Chr 23:13. That “standing by the pillar” (
Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 161; cf. Begg, Later Monarchy, 179. Josephus may be building from 2 Chr 23:13 LXX, which changes the Hebrew cry of “conspiracy, conspiracy” to a command to “attack, attack” (
Which suggests that the addition of her forces creates more tension for Josephus than it solves.
Halpern-Amaru, “Portraits,” 155, cites direct speech as a mark of a “villainess.” Whereas the biblical Athaliah is very much a villainess, Josephus’ removal of her direct speech adds to the sense that his Athaliah does not fit any of Halpern-Amaru’s categories.
See Marcus, LCL (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities), 83, for textual corruption; Begg, Later Monarchy, 179 n. 88, for an ideological reference.
1 Kgs 15:13; 2 Kgs 23:4, 6, 12. For comments on ritual destruction in Kings, see especially Monroe, Dynamics of Defilement.
Although the biblical authors claim that the items destroyed in the Kidron were idolatrous, their presence in the temple and Jerusalem implies that they were viewed as legitimate at one point by the kings and people.
Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 162.
See Begg, Later Monarchy, 181 n. 101.
Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 162.
See Begg, Later Monarchy, 182.
Less convincingly, Long, 2 Kings, 153, states that it forms part of Jehoiada’s reorganisation of the “geography of holiness.”
The closest the biblical texts come to an anti-Yahwistic Athaliah is 2 Chr 24:7, an authorial interpolation stating that Athaliah’s children had “broken into” the temple (
Begg and Spilsbury, Antiquities, 163. In the biblical accounts the people simply “rejoice” (2 Kgs 11:20//2 Chr 23:21).
The term is most commonly connected with Succoth but does appear with reference to other festivals. See Ant. 8.100, 125, 225, 230; 9.16, 270–271; 11.66, 77, 109, 154–157, 292, 295; 12.98, 324–325; 13.52, 241, 252, 304–305, 372; 14.21.
See Ilan, “Josephus on Women,” 211.
See Begg, “Athaliah’s Coup,” 209–210.
Begg, Later Monarchy, 177 n. 76 notes the comparison with Jeroboam’s wife (Ant. 8.273). Parallels with Alexandra are especially interesting, as both were widows, mature women, and monarchs in their own right, though Josephus seems to distance the two; see Scales and Quine, “Athaliah and Alexandra.”
See Liebowitz, “Ambivalent Attitude,” 185–186.
See Liebowitz, “Ambivalent Attitude,” 192–193; see further comments on Josephus, women, and power in Mayer-Schärtel, Frauenbild des Josephus, 59–79.