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JOSEPHUS: NOT YOUR ORDINARY JOE

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This portrait of Queen Salome Alexandra from 1553 CE may or may not resemble her. There are no portraits from her time. The only information we have about Queen Shalom-Zion’s reign comes in a few paragraphs by the first-century C.E. historian Josephus.

Josephus himself was rather an odd duck. He was a Jewish commander in first-century Galilee during the Jewish revolt against Rome. When the Romans over-ran the citadel he commanded in 67 CE, he hid in a cave with forty of his men. He persuaded them that since Judaism forbids suicide and they did not want to surrender, each should kill one other of their troop until all were dead. He did his calculations well. He was the sole survivor. He did not kill himself.

Captured by the Romans, Josephus ended up marching with Roman general Titus against Jerusalem in 70 CE. While Josephus served as a negotiator for the Romans during the siege, his wife and parents died in the siege. Afterwards, he became a Roman citizen, added Roman names to his own, and was given a pension. He recounts these actions in four books in Greek, his autobiography (Life of Flavius Josephus), The War of the Jews, Jewish Antiquities (the history of the Jews from Creation to his own day) and Against Apion.
Whatever his personal faults may have been, Josephus was a great and painstaking historian. Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer followed Josephus’ description and was able to locate and unearth Herod’s tomb. Yet the books of Josephus reveal him as caught in the middle — defending the worth of Jewish religion and culture to anti-Semitic Romans and his own worth to Jews who considered him a traitor. He bragged about being loved by the Galileans, yet described their many plots against him. He boasted of descent from the highest rank of Temple priests on his father’s side. On his mother’s side he claimed to be related to the Hasmonean dynasty – the dynasty that brought Shalom-Zion to power. He described the pursuit of peace as the motive of all his actions.

The comments Josephus made about Queen Shalom-Zion are so contradictory that I’ve had to work hard to piece them into a coherent whole. Perhaps Josephus was ambivalent about women. After all, his first wife died in the siege while he worked for the besiegers. His second marriage ended in divorce after four years (though his third marriage was happy).

Josephus described Shalom-Zion as pious but ruthless. He accused her of framing her brother-in-law, General Mattathias Antigonus, causing him to be killed. She was imperious, Josephus said, and “had no regard to what was good or right.”

On the other hand, Josephus accused Shalom-Zion of being a mere pawn of the Pharisees.  “She governed other people,” said Josephus, “and the Pharisees governed her.”

Yet he also commented that she “showed no signs of the weakness of her sex.” She increased the army by half, hiring many mercenaries, “till her own nation became not only very powerful at home, but terrible also to foreign potentates.”

She “preserved the nation in peace,” said Josephus, but left it on the brink of calamity.

I began to reconcile these contradictions by realizing that in the Hellenistic era, a woman ruler had to embody a lot of contradictory qualities. This was the age of Cleopatras. I’ll tell you more about them next week, in the next installment of my blog.

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