Josephus, Paul, and the Fate of Early Christianity

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F. B. A. Asiedu
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , March
     2019.
     404 pages.
     $120.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781978701328.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Josephus, Paul, and the Fate of Early Christianity, F.B.A. Asiedu undertakes a challenging task: probing the silences in historian Josephus’ extensive body of written work from the 1st century, in particular his neglect of Paul in Jerusalem and later Christians in Rome. The analysis argues that Josephus’ silences are intentional strategies and that they result from how he wanted to depict Judaism in his day.

The neglect of Paul in Jerusalem is extremely strange, because Josephus’ father, Matthias, a prominent Jew in Jerusalem, was “an exact contemporary of Paul” (22), implying that their social networks would have likely intersected. What’s more, Josephus’ writings demonstrate an evident interest in the Pharisees, their origins, and their role in society. To ignore Paul, who claims to have been affiliated with them (and to have been rather prominent among them), “boggles the mind” (36). Josephus’ silence about the emergence of the Jesus movement in Galilee and Judea is also peculiar, because he was clearly aware of the movement later on, which we know by his discussion of the death of James the brother of Jesus. As is well known, Josephus spent his later life in Rome in the orbit of the Flavian court; yet, he appears to have carefully and strategically curated his writings from that period too, for instance, avoiding nearly all discussion of the Jewish community in Rome in order to, Asiedu argues, avoid having to discuss Christianity.

A central claim of the book is that Josephus was purposefully silent about Christianity in Jerusalem and Rome in order to deny it legitimacy as part of Second Temple Judaism. This silence was a “deliberate attempt on his part to write the Christian Jews out of his archives of Jewish life in the first century” (60). Against Josephus’ silences, Asiedu marshals 1 Clement as a witness to a Christian community thriving in Rome in precisely the period that Josephus was there—a community he says absolutely nothing about in his writings. It is also curious that Josephus never mentions fellow Roman writer Martial, who wrote about the destruction of Jerusalem with ridicule. Instead of responding to Martial, Josephus targeted Apion, a long-deceased opponent of the Jews in Alexandria. All of these glaring gaps in Josephus’ writings seem especially odd, given how critical he is of other historians who omit aspects of their narratives.

This study is a creative, thoughtful effort to read between the lines of one of the most extensive literary sources from the 1st century. Even so, it operates on a number of problematic assumptions about emerging Christianity. Many readers will take issue with Asiedu’s uncritical confidence in Acts of the Apostles throughout this discussion. It is on Acts, for instance, that he relies so strongly when he writes that Paul was “almost certainly arrested by the authorities in Jerusalem” (32) during Josephus’ day. Yet Paul is vague on and sometimes probably exaggerates the legal consequences of his behavior.

Later Asiedu argues that “Paul modeled his initial activities on synagogue practices (Acts confirms this)” (298). As with Paul’s infamous arrest in Jerusalem, there is little evidence of this modus operandi of missionizing within Paul’s own writings. If anything, Paul’s letters suggest something quite different: that he moved within household or occupational networks. This means that Asiedu’s understanding of Paul’s travels and how visible they would have been on the social landscape to an elite writer such as Josephus is built on an Acts-ian construction.

In my view, the primary concern about this study, however, is that it relies far too strongly on the assumption that Christianity was prominent and visible in the 1st century, and in doing so, it simply takes as historically accurate the myth-making within Christian texts themselves. When it comes to Paul, for instance, Asiedu accepts Paul’s own styling of himself as a prominent Pharisee, such that he cannot fathom how Josephus could be unaware of his comings and goings. “Paul’s life as attested in his writings,” he supposes, “was exemplary, even if we don’t believe what he believed” (88). How can we be certain of that, though? Of course, from today’s vantage point, Paul appears to be a crucial and indispensable figure in 1st-century Christianity. But, it is possible that Paul was not the singular authority figure that he makes himself out to be, especially given that early Christian letters in the New Testament witness to all manner of other mobile religious specialists (who probably thought that they were the most important figures of this movement and that Paul was the minor or peripheral one). To treat Paul as indispensable in this way buys into Paul’s and Acts’ propaganda. To be sure, Asiedu anticipates these critiques about the visibility of the Jesus movement in the 1st century. In response, the author marshals the events of 62 CE (the death of James the brother of Jesus), as the primary evidence that Christianity was visible in Jerusalem in the mid-1st century: “The group of Christians (mostly Jews) were an identifiable group with a recognized leader” (50).

Asiedu’s book lacks a solid landing point—save for the suggestion that Josephus knows more about Paul and early Christian groups than he tells. This study is a political project: the task of the modern historian is to expose silences and excavate what they omit. To neglect what Josephus similarly neglected would make one “complicit” in his silences (141). I applaud Asiedu for defining the scholarly enterprise in a way that does not subordinate scholars’ work to the interests and agendas of the historical sources. Interpreting silence is always challenging, but this book makes a commendable effort. Such a study is exceptional in its handling such an enormous body of literature and thinking thoughtfully and creatively about the gaps in an author’s narrative.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah E. Rollens is the R.A. Webb  assistant professor of religious studies at Rhodes College.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

F. B. A. Asiedu is a visiting scholar at Duke University.

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