Lessing’s Biography of Josephus (1802)

Dr Lessing was a Jewish intellectual, probably from Prague, and otherwise unknown to us, who in 1802 published the first modern biography of Josephus written by a Jew. The second and fourth issues of the short-lived Prague periodical Jüdisch-deutsche Monatschrift (Adar to Tamuz 5562, i.e., February to July 1802) contained Lessing’s ‘Lebensbeschreibung des jüdischen Geschichtschreiber Josephus Flavius’ (life story of the Jewish historiographer Josephus Flavius) that is signed with Lessing’s Hebrew initial Lamed. Lessing’s identity is revealed only indirectly, through a reference by the Bohemian teacher, textbook writer, and historian Peter Beer, who referred to this article on various occasions. Like most articles in the Monatschrift, Lessing’s biography of Josephus is written in standard (high) German, but printed in Hebrew letters. Apart from the 25 pages of his Monatschrift article Lessing has not left any historical (or other) writings. Yet Lessing’s Josephus biography reveals his genuine interest in history and reflects certain trends within Jewish historiography in Bohemia.

Lessing’s colourful description of Josephus’s life story is deeply inspired by the project of Jewish embourgeoisement as well as the romantic and nationalistic values of German Sturm & Drang literature. Lessing introduced Josephus as a historiographer who faithfully recounts Jewish history until the destruction of the Second Temple and he ascertained Josephus’s moral integrity in his biography. Closely following Josephus’s own Life, Lessing meticulously described Josephus’s secular and religious studies; he endowed his protagonist with the foremost bourgeois virtues, namely righteousness, diligence, discipline, modesty, common sense, and moderation. His moderate spirit caused Josephus to oppose the illegitimate popular upheaval and his common sense rejected resistance against the numerically and militarily superior Roman occupiers. But when called upon by his people, he displayed the national fervour of a romantic hero. After his arrest by the Roman forces, he established his own reputation along with his people’s fame by writing his exquisite history books.

According to eighteenth-century conventions, Lessing ended his biography with a list of Josephus’s works, including scholarly editions and translations into Latin and German. Despite the difficulties posed by his hero’s image and character, Lessing delivers a convincing – though not always coherent – portrayal of the Jewish historiographer, dependent on Josephus himself and never apologetic. Lessing’s biographical narrative is inclined to both nationalism and tradition, thus perfectly conforming to the fabric of Prague Haskalah.

L[essing], ‘Biographien großer Männer unserer Nazion: Lebensbeschreibung des jüdischen Geschichtschreibers Josephus Flavius’, Jüdisch-deutsche Monatschrift (1802): 33-46, 97-107. The article is signed L. [ל’].

Beer, P., Geschichte der Juden von ihrer Rückkehr aus der babylonischen Gefangenschaft bis zur Zerstörung des zweyten Tempels; nach Josephus Flavius. Vienna, 1808: Vorrede, xxvii.

Hecht, L., ‘Re-evaluation of the Jewish Pantheon: Josephus Flavius and Jewish Historical Writings in Bohemia’, in: Jewish Studies in the 21st Century: Prague – Europe – World, ed. Marcela Zoufalá. Wiesbaden, 2014: 95-111.
Hecht, L., Ein jüdischer Aufklärer in Böhmen: Der Pädagoge und Reformer Peter Beer (1758-1838). Cologne, 2008: 211-16.

JRA entry contributed by Louise Hecht