Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Other History Of The Jews

I've only read bits and parts of the works of Josephus until now. I already knew there were several things in his Jewish Antiquities which were slightly different from the history of the Jews as given in the biblical books, and that there were some details which were exceedingly different. Historians, however, probably turn to Josephus more often than not for the stories he gives that are nowhere to be found in any bible or any other piece of writing. Now there are other Jewish writings such as the Talmud which also give a somewhat different version of biblical writings here and there, but those works generally deal with a very different kind of information centered almost exclusively on religious rituals and the spiritual life rather than a historical outline of a nation.

At any rate, I've finally decided to read all, or most of Josephus' Antiquities although I'll probably skim less interesting parts, and I'll not read much of his other volume on the Jewish War with Rome. I thought I would share some observations that might wet your appetite to read Josephus yourself.

He begins much as the bible does, with the creation, followed by stories about Adam, Eve, and their children. He then moves on to Babel, the flood, and the patriarchs etc. The Gospel of Luke starts out with the author sounding as though he intends to write a more accurate history of Christ than some of the other writings about him which had already surfaced (whether he is referring to Mathew, Mark or apocryphal gospels is unknown, and of course John's Gospel hadn't been written yet). Luke states this in quite diplomatic tones however. But Josephus is not nearly so subtle. He starts by saying, "...I intend to refute those whose writings were falsifying the truth...."

In his retelling of the tempter in the Garden he mentions a tree of wisdom (knowledge?) which Adam and Eve were not to touch, but he says nothing about a tree of life. One of the more astounding claims he makes here is, "At that time, all living creatures spoke a common language, and a serpent maliciously lured the woman into tasting of the tree of wisdom..." So he believes that every animal, bird, fish etc. spoke and communicated. How fish were able to speak underwater is difficult to comprehend. And how larger creatures such as men or horses were able to hear the tiny voices of lice, dust mites, and fleas is beyond understanding.

His take on the story of Cain and Abel is that Cain was "depraved and greedy". He goes on to say that God preferred Abel's offering because it was "produced by nature, not human ingenuity." This is interesting because the bible doesn't tell us why God preferred Abel's offering. There's also the fact that God does in many instances seem to have little use for the human capacity in using our intellects while building things. Many times the Jews were told to build objects like altars without the use of tools, as though a tool would defile the rocks or wood. I realize the tree of knowledge was symbolic of something by which mankind tapped into imagination, but I've often wondered if our use of imagination in order to make tools, smelt metals, and build things was something God was angry about. In fact, the book of Enoch says that it was some of the fallen angels who taught men the use of the first tools, medicines, sorcery, astrology and so on. Later God appears to have relented and even gave specific instructions on building-projects. Josephus also says this about Cain: "Indulging in every form of vice and violence, he grew rich and ended the simple life by inventing weights and measures." We can come up with all kinds of scenarios concerning Cain having inventing weights and measures (something not mentioned in Genesis) and how he might have cheated people (think of the butcher's thumb on the scale) to get rich by them; however, it's Josephus' line about how Cain "ended the simple life" that's more interesting to me. I think Josephus believed that eating from the tree of wisdom/knowledge was the beginning of the end of a more simple kind of existence mankind was originally meant for--probably not so different from the Neanderthal who ate what he could find and lived wherever he found shelter in his natural surroundings. If Josephus was right, it must make us wonder why God would bother to make man such an uninteresting creature in the beginning?

Josephus says of Seth's descendants, that they, "...discovered the science of astronomy. To prevent their findings from perishing in the destruction by fire and deluge predicted by Adam, they inscribed them on two pillars, one of brick and the other of stone. The latter exists to this day in the land of Seiris."

If those two pillars ever actually existed, no one else seems to have written about them or knew where they were. We have no ancient records of Adam having predicted the flood or another kind of destruction by fire. Josephus often mentions and quotes historians from other nations and equates them with certain old testament writings. It may be that he believed something another historian wrote about a man predicting a deluge and a fire was actually about Adam and incorporated that into his own Antiquities. He also quotes from questionable sources from time to time. For instance, he makes mention of some writings by the Chaldean historian, Berosus, where the famous historian supposedly talks about the location of the ark, but many of the works attributed to Berosus are thought to be later forgeries. Josephus also says (as do other ancient historians in regards to the flood) that there were other people besides Noah's family that survived by fleeing to the mountains.

I've barely scratched the surface concerning Josephus' work. Even though his writing isn't always trustworthy, he'll give you things to think about, and in the process, you may find yourself with a whole new perspective on biblical figures such as Abraham and Moses, both of whom he makes out to be very smart and brave military men rather than just the humble prophets most of us generally think of them as being. (He confirms, or perhaps just borrows, what the earlier Jewish historian, Artapanus, said about Moses leading an Egyptian military campaign well before the Exodus in which the Ethiopians were defeated). If you can read his works with an open mind, neither believing too much nor too little, (and how rare those individuals are) you may find yourself making connections within ancient legends that will change your outlook on the history of both the Jews and the peoples of the Mesopotamia Valley.

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