Sefer Yosippon

Sefer Yosippon was evidently written in southern Italy. One manuscript has an internal colophon dated 953, the date claimed by its modern editor David Flusser. The book contains five themes: an initial chapter based on Genesis chapter 10 contemporizing the late ninth- and tenth-century nations known to the author or editor; a survey of Roman antiquities probably following Josephus’s model; a brief history of the Maccabaean Revolt and the Hasmonean rulers; the rule of Herod and his successors; the war with Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple; and ending with Masada and the Zealots. The author used Latin sources: Maccabees I-II, the New Testament, Josephus’s Antiquities [Books 1-16], the works of Jerome, Hegesippus’s De excidio Hierosolymitano, and other sources. Sefer Yosippon is the longest and most popular secular text to survive from the Middle Ages and it has been a major influence for Jews, Christians and even Muslims through the intervening centuries.  The book was generally understood to have been authored by the first-century historian as a version produced for his fellow Jews.  A Coptic version was translated by Ibn Khaldun for his historical masterpiece. The Ethiopian, Coptic, and Jacobite churches still treat their versions of the Yosippon as canonical.

Sefer Yosippon [or Josippon] received a new life in the twentieth century, after a millennium of influence on Jewish scholars and among a broad reading public. Both Micha Bin Gorion and David Ben Gurion changed their names possibly in honour of the purported author. The book’s superlative Hebrew style was scoured by Eliezer ben Yehudah during his compilation of a thesaurus for the reborn Hebrew language. During WWII, Abba Kovner cited repeatedly Yosippon’s newly created call of Matityahu Hasmonai ‘We shall not die as sheep led to the slaughter’, which there touched off the revolt against Antiochus IV, to initiate his 1942 New Year’s call to Jewish resistance against the Nazis.  At the Hebrew University, despite Joseph Klausner’s disparagement of Yosippon as an historical source, its importance as a medieval text was defended and analyzed by Itzhak Baer. The two-volume edition of the book was based on hitherto unstudied and unknown manuscripts by Baer’s student David Flusser.

Traditional readers of the medieval Hebrew Yosippon are still being served. Abraham Hominer published several editions of a scholarly rabbinic version of Yosippon based on Judah ibn Moskoni’s medieval compilation which included all the later interpolations the latter had found during his travels that added about a third to the length of Flusser’s text. The introduction to Hominer’s fourth edition (1967) still argues that Yosippon was indeed written by Josephus, representing the original Aramaic version of which the author speaks.

One important change from Josephus’s tale of Masada by the author of Yosippon is that he does not have the males commit suicide after the sacrifice of their wives and children, but rather attack the Roman troops who broke through the defensive wall; after killing a great number all succumbed to the superior Roman forces leaving no prisoners or booty for the victor’s triumph. There is little doubt that this different version of the ending stimulated Jewish self-sacrifice along the model of the Aqedah from the Crusades through the Shoah, throughout the millennium of Yosippon’s influence upon its Jewish readers.

Flusser, D., The Josippon [Josephus Gorionides], edited with an introduction, commentary and notes. 2 volumes. 2nd edition with corrections, Jerusalem, 1981 [Hebrew].
Hominer, H., Sepher Josippon of Yoseph Ben Gorion Hacohen. 4th edition, Jerusalem, 1967.
Sela, S., The Arabic Josippon. 2 volumes. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 2009.

Bowman, S., ‘Josephus in Byzantium’, in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity. ed. L. Feldman and G. Hata. Detroit, 1987: 362-385.
Id. ‘Sefer Yosippon: History and Midrash’, in The Midrashic Imagination. ed. M. Fishbane. Albany, 1993: 280-294.
Id. ‘Dates in Sefer Yosippon’, in Pursuing the Text: Studies in Honor of Ben Zion Wacholder on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday, ed. J.C. Reeves & J. Kampen. Sheffield, 1994: 349-359.
Id. ’Yosippon’ and Jewish Nationalism’, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 56 (1995): 23-51.
Id. ‘In Memoriam: David Flusser”, Bulletin of Judeo-Greek Studies 27 (Winter 2000/2001): 27-29 (with bibliography of Flusser’s work on Sefer Yosippon).
Id. ‘Aqedah and Mashiah in Sepher Yosippon’, EJJS [European Association for Jewish Studies] 2.1 (2008).
Doenitz, S., Ueberlieferung und Rezeption des Sepher Yosippon. Tübingen, 2013.
Feldman, Y. and Bowman, S., ‘Let Us Not Die as Sheep Led to the Slaughter’, Haaretz (December 13, 2008). [Hebrew and English versions].

JRA entry contributed by Steven Bowman