2009.11.40. Mason, Josephus, Judea, and Christian Origins

Steve Mason, Josephus, Judea, and Christian Origins: Methods and Categories
Reviewed by Sean Freyne


  1. In the fourth paragraph of his review, Professor Freyne claims that I make my position "quite clear" and quotes me to prove it. But there is an ellipsis in his quotation, curious because the omitted words express what he then says (after the quotation) is missing from my analysis! What he omits: "That [citing Josephus as though he provided ready-made historical facts] would be cheating. There is no way around the historian's arduous work of seeking to understand each kind of evidence contextually, constructing and testing hypotheses, and admitting when the evidence is insufficient to permit proper demonstration of these hypotheses." Omitting these words, Freyne renders a verdict that would make no sense if he'd included them: "This summary but sweeping statement will distress those who have believed that writing ancient history ... is an exercise in evaluating various hypotheses and judging their probability in a critical dialectic."
    In that first of eleven essays, to which Freyne's review is almost exclusively dedicated, my main concern (as I repeatedly stress) is the common situation in which Josephus is our only 'authority' (notice the chapter title), especially for the personalities and motives that drive history forward. We cannot, I'm afraid, take over his narrative as though it were factual. Why is that controversial? Much of the essay is a review of the way Josephus has been used historically, as an authority, and the problems with those uses. But I emphasize that where we have other independent evidence we are in much better shape (and I give examples).
    Later chapters, notably those on 'Judaism/Judaeans' and the three on Christian origins, move from interpreting literary evidence to historical proposals. Professor Freyne does not mention any of those. Strange.
    Otherwise, he offers a brief lament that my chapters on Pharisees and Essenes *in Josephus* are disappointing because I don't undertake full historical investigations of those groups there, comparing Josephus with other sources. He thinks that this is because I am so committed to my new perspective that I would consider historical investigation a blind alley. But this says more about the reviewer's response to what I am saying than about what I actually argue. I offer those analyses of Josephus' Essenes and Pharisees precisely as prolegomena to further historical research: the kinds of things I point out should be explained by any historical hypothesis. That is the opposite of a moratorium on history. I don't undertake a full investigation because, to treat each source on the Pharisees with equal care would require a book. If Professor Freyne wishes to see a book on the Pharisees he is free to write one. It is odd that he should expect me to write it and suspect that my failure to do so reflects a reluctance to engage in history. Those essays on Josephus' Pharisees were written for a book in which others were dealing with Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, etc.
    Professor Freyne thinks that I should at least mention the archaeological evidence for Essenes. I am unaware of such evidence.
    In sum: I don't call for an end to history (I'm one of the few SBL members who works in a history department and teaches history per se), but only ask that the history of Judaea be done responsibly, taking into account the character of Josephus' work. My current project is a book on the Judaean-Roman War of 66 to 74, a book in which I try to illustrate the principles I have been advocating for two decades. Not for the first or last time, I am baffled by a review.

  2. Professor Freyne is not the only one to question Steve Mason's approach to Josephus on Essenes, one which minimizes, e.g., the role of sources used by Josephus. I also question that approach.


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