Cutting edge research on Josephus and his reception


As conference presenters submit their research, abstracts of the papers to be presented will be posted on this page.



Yonatan Binyam (PhD, Florida State University) is President's Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Society and Genetics and the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California - Log Angeles.

This paper presents an introduction to the reception of Sefer Yosippon among Coptic and Ethiopian Christians in the medieval period. Early versions of the Hebrew Yosippon are translated into Arabic sometime in the eleventh or early twelfth century, appearing in both Judeo-Arabic and Arabic scripts. The translation into Arabic script is later expanded through Christianized interpolations before an Ethiopic translation of this Copto-Arabic text is produced in the latter half of the fourteenth century. Although it is sometimes referred to in the manuscript traditions as Maṣəhafa Yōsēf Wäldä Kōryōn (or “The Book of Yosef ben Gorion”), this Ethiopic translation is more commonly known today as Zena Ayhud (or “The History of the Jews”). Medieval Coptic and Ethiopian scribes believed the author of Yosippon to be a certain Yosef ben Gorion, to whom they also ascribe authorship of the books of Maccabees. The Greek books of Maccabees are largely absent from the Arabic and Ethiopic manuscript traditions of the medieval period. As a result, Sefer Yossipon fills a crucial literary gap in these northeast-African ecclesiastical history traditions. Beyond its utility as a historiographical source, moreover, the text serves as a source for rhetorical attacks against heretics and Jews in medieval Ethiopia. While the Ethiopic Zena Ayhud is a quite literal translation of its Arabic Vorlage, it would have been read in a very different socio-cultural context than its predecessor. This paper thus outlines the relevant social, historical, and cultural factors in medieval Ethiopia that shed light on how the Zena Ayhud would have been received by medieval Ethiopian readers given the distinct history of Jews and Judaism in the Ethiopian highlands.

Thursday, August 26, 17:45 - 18:30


David B. Levenson (PhD, Harvard University) is University Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Carson Bay (PhD, Florida State University) is Postdoctoral Researcher in the Institute for Jewish Studies at the University of Bern, Switzerland.

Taking the story of the death of Aristobolus as a test case for understanding the precise form of the Latin Josephus tradition used by Sefer Yosippon (SY), we explore two questions relating to SY’s relationship to his two major sources, the sixth-century Latin translation of the Antiquities (LAJ) and the fourth-century De excidio Hierosolymitano, a Christian historical work based largely on Josephus’ Jewish War.

Part One of our presentation addresses the question of the LAJ text used by SY. Given the lack of any printed editions that include variants from the vast and diverse manuscript tradition of the Latin translation of the Antiquities, what Latin manuscripts can we use in the analysis of SY that might offer a text it might have used for one of his two primary sources? Our starting point is David Flusser’s widely accepted hypothesis that SY used a single manuscript containing AJ 1-16 + the De Excidio Hierosolymitano that belonged to a manuscript family represented by five Italian manuscripts. Testing this hypothesis using a Latin text of our passage listing all variants from sixty manuscripts we collated, which can be divided into nine groups corresponding to the Levenson-Martin groups for AJ 13, we conclude that while there is evidence elsewhere of SY’s use of a manuscript from this family, in our passage a large lacuna and two variant readings make it clear that SY’s source(s) could not be solely a manuscript from the manuscript tradition to which Flusser’s manuscripts belong (grC). Neither the manuscripts identified by Flusser nor the group to which they belong, therefore, should ever be used as the only source for a Latin text that can be used in the study of SY. While not able to identify a specific manuscript group to account for the features in SY not found in the large manuscript group C, we are are confident that more probes like ours will enable us to identify a manageable group of manuscripts that can be reliably used in the analysis of SY.

Part Two of our presentation addresses SY’s use of both of his major sources together in one passage. Given the clear dependence on the Latin Antiquities for this section of SY, what evidence is there for the supplementary use of DEH in our passage and, if present, how are the DEH elements combined with elements from the Latin Antiquities to produce SY's own distinctive and original narrative? Following the observations of Flusser and Saskia Dönitz that both sources can be found in this part of SY, we identify DEH elements in our passage and demonstrate how SY uses them to substantially change the focus of the narrative in his major source, the Latin Antiquities.

Tuesday, August 24, 16:45 - 17:30


Ruth Nisse (PhD, University of California Berkeley) is Professor of English and Jewish Studies at Wesleyan University.

My paper will compare the curious midrashic version of the Aeneid that appears at the beginning of Sefer Yosippon (before it draws mostly on Josephus and Ps.-Hegesippus) with Adso of Montier-en-Der’s almost contemporary imperial apocalypse, the Letter on the Antichrist. The “Hebrew Aeneid,” while only about 150 lines, is nevertheless, like its source, filled with adventure. In this text, two heroes, the biblical-midrashic Zepho ben Elifaz ben Esau and the King of Carthage Agneus both play the role of Aeneas, and Zepho founds the Italian kingdom that ultimately becomes Rome.  Adso’s Letter is the first Western treatment of a “Last World Emperor” figure, a renewed Frankish-Roman ruler who appears before the end time. Both texts––and Yosippon as a whole––are deeply concerned with a new Roman Empire and its trajectory in an era where Virgil was central to Latin historiography and literature. The two works are also messianic interventions that complicate the ubiquitous idea of Rome as the “fourth empire” derived from the Book of Daniel. Adso’s Letter, which became particularly influential in the Crusade era, puts the current Roman Empire at the center of his apocalyptic program and imagines a new version of its end. The midrashic “Aeneid” constructs inextricable biblical and Virgilian origins for the “empire without end” which is ultimately Josephus’, Hegesippus’, and Yosippon’s subject. The Hebrew account reworks its Latin sources to signal Rome’s absolute end. Eleazer ben Asher Ha-Levi subsequently includes and positions it in his thirteenth-century anthology/chronicle The Book of Memory, making its historical and messianic role explicit.

Tuesday, August 24, 17:30 - 18:15


Saskia Dönitz (PhD, Freie Universität Berlin) is Research Associate at the Seminar for Jewish Studies at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt.

This lecture will present the state of the art regarding the manuscript tradition of Sefer Yosippon. Since the edition published by David Flusser in 1980/81, several new and extremely important manuscript witnesses have been found. Research on the fragments in the Cairo Genizah has made much progress in the past 40 years, which is relevant because there are many Genizah fragments containing portions of Sefer Yosippon. The lecture will discuss Flusser’s edition against the background of these recent insights, present a selection of the new manuscripts, and discuss their importance for the transmission history of Sefer Yosippon. The focus will lie on the textual version presented in the Cairo Genizah fragments, its character, and its role in comparison with the printed versions. The differences between manuscripts and texts will help to show how Yosippon was treated as an 'open book', changed and expanded according to the needs and views of its copyists in their times and various cultural environments.    

Tuesday, August 24, 14:00 - 14:45


Carson Bay (PhD, Florida State University) is Postdoctoral Researcher in the Institute for Jewish Studies at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and part of the SNF Research Project Lege Iosephum! Ways of Reading Josephus in the Latin Middle Ages.

The late-4th century Latin Christian text called On the Destruction of Jerusalem (De excidio Hierosolymitano), sometimes dubbed 'Pseudo-Hegesippus,' is a Christian rewriting of Flavius Josephus' Jewish War into five books. In that work, an interesting thing happens in Book 5, Chapter 22: for only the second time in the entire narrative, the author puts a speech into the mouth of one of his characters which has no corresponding speech in its Greek source text (Josephus' Jewish War). The early-10th century Hebrew history called Sefer Yosippon, for which De excidio is the most important source, then retells this story half a millennium later. This paper examines and helps explain the invention and transformation of this interesting episode.

The narrative character who gives the speech mentioned above is a certain Matthias (in the Latin; Amitai in the Hebrew), a nobleman of Jerusalem who, when John of Gischala starts making trouble in the city toward the end of the Roman Jewish War (70 CE), invites another 'tough guy' into the city to counter John's violence against fellow Judeans (namely Simon, or Simeon). This would-be savior turns out to be executioner, as he puts Simon and three of his sons to death summarily upon their being accused of treason. Before they die, Matthias/Amitai makes a long, final, and conceptually loaded speech, bemoaning his fate and that of the Jewish people. 

In this paper, I argue that De excidio's version of these events presents Matthias as a guilty party who had betrayed his country. Yosippon's version, however, is quite different: Yosippon infuses the speech and story with the language of the Hebrew Bible, mentions the Jewish God (Yahweh) throughout the speech, and mitigates Matthias' (Amitai's) guilt. As such, Yosippon in this section betrays its overall rhetorical penchant of exalting the Jewish people, reframing the destruction of Jerusalem in covenant and theological terms, and casting the later Second Temple Period as an epilogue to biblical history. In making this arguments, this paper contributes to important trajectory of research -- barely existent as of yet -- which will examine in detail Yosippon's relationship to its Latin sources as a way of explaining what Sefer Yosippon was doing as the earliest and most important piece of medieval Jewish historiography, and what it represents as such.

Tuesday, August 24, 15:30 - 16:15


Nadia Zeldes (PhD, Tel Aviv University) is Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Study of Conversation and Inter-Religious Encounters at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

My main areas of interest focus on intercultural encounters in the Mediterranean world in the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. I became interested in the diffusion of the Hebrew Book of Yosippon among Jews and Christians as part of my study of inter-cultural encounters in Sicily. This trajectory resulted in two articles that focused on the use of the Book of Yosippon: “The Last Multi-Cultural Encounter in Medieval Sicily: A Dominican Scholar, An Arabic Inscription and a Jewish Legend,” Mediterranean Historical Review 21 (2006): 159-91 and “Christians, Jews and Hebrew Books in Fifteenth Century Sicily – Between Dialogue and Dispute,” in Conflict and Religious Conversation in Latin Christendom: Studies in Honour of Ora Limor, ed. I. J. Yuval - R. Ben Shalom, (Turnhout: Brepols, 2014),191-220.

More recently, while working on my book Reading Jewish History in the Renaissance I realized that while there is research on the diffusion and reception of the Book of Yosippon among Jews in all periods, the Christian interest in this work is mostly ignored. Since one of the reasons Christians sought the book out was the identification of its author with Flavius Josephus, I felt it necessary to try and distinguish between the reception of Josephus' works proper that of Yosippon among Christian audiences. I wanted to trace the process by which it became evident that the Hebrew Yosippon was not been written by the same author as the Josephan corpus. In my paper for this conference, I examine the reception of the Hebrew Yosippon by Christian readers from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period. This examination consists in tracing the earliest Christian mentions of Yosippon, the uses made of it by its readers, their criticism of the text, and finally, the polemics that arose around the book itself.

Wednesday, August 25, 16:30 - 17:15