Saturday, March 5, 2011


Mason on Zollschan on Olson, Tragedy, Authority, and Trickery. Response to BMCR 2011.02.33

Response by Steve Mason (

Version at BMCR home site

Linda Zollschan's review of Ryan Olson significantly misrepresents the content, context, and implications of the study.

Although the book is about "the poetics of embedded letters in Josephus," Zollschan's nine-paragraph review focuses laser-like on the author's brief comments concerning Josephus' audiences (40-44). She closes her topic paragraph thus: "Olson maintains that Josephus' audience … was comprised of elite Romans in the city of Rome itself. (37-44)." She next concludes a cursory sketch of the book's contents (para. 3) by adverting to Olson's alleged concern with "exactly who was Josephus' audience." The next paragraph highlights the same issue. "Central to Olson's argument," we are told (para. 4), is his view that Josephus' audience is "the Roman elite in Rome, a position that is by no means uncontested among scholars. Olson's stance on this question owes a debt to the work of Steve Mason." Zollschan then mentions other views (suggesting a Diaspora audience) and chides Olson for barely acknowledging them. The next two paragraphs summarize essays by Tessa Rajak (that Josephus had Diaspora contacts and interests) and Jonathan Price (that "Josephus' elite Roman audience may have extended beyond the confines if [sic] the city of Rome"), to illustrate what Olson ignored. In her penultimate paragraph, Zollschan takes issue with Olson's putative claim that Josephus was fully involved in Roman society, on the ground that Cotton and Eck have argued for his extreme isolation "from the socio-political elite." So important is the question of audience for her that she concludes the entire review with this verdict: "His work reflects the scholarship of Feldman and Mason. For countervailing views the reader will have to look elsewhere." For Zollschan, then, the book's focus is Josephus' audience, and Olson's main fault is his myopic agreement with me (and puzzlingly, Louis Feldman, whom she appears to cite only in support of her charge against Olson [below]).

This is highly perplexing, in whole and in part. Before trying to disentangle the confusions, I should explain that I have never published a word about Josephus' poetics, embedded letters, or anything of that sort. Olson's questions, framework, and approach are his own. Following are the specific errors.

1. Though acknowledging that the book is about "the reading of letters in narratives" (para. 2), Zollschan has Olson aiming to answer "the question of exactly who was Josephus' audience. (218)." (para. 3). In that small part of his conclusion, however, Olson contradicts her claim, viz.: "But the identity of some of that audience remains an open question [examples follow of different readers' interests being met]. …. As to letters, then, there appears to be 'something for everyone,' as Josephus refracted Greek practices and signaled Jews' cultural sophistication and value." He rejects the possibility of finding an exact audience, and dismisses the notion of a Roman elite one.

2. Olson's preparatory discussion of audience (40-44), which Zollschan configures as a reflection of my views, comes near the end of his 49-page "Introduction." It is part of the prolegomenon only, and not the most important part of that. Even in this byway, however, Olson mentions my work not out of fidelity---much less fealty---but mainly to disagree. Supposing that I argue "for an entirely Roman audience for the Bellum Judaicum" he offers pages of critique (albeit focused, he notes, on point 2 of my 5). Conspicuous there is such language as "Mason asserts/argues," followed by his challenges ("doubtful," "curious," "one must wonder," "no evidence," "Jewish rather than Roman"). Olson stresses his rejection of the notion that Josephus' audience was "exclusively" or "only" Roman—the very position that Zollschan attributes to both of us. He concludes: "Thus regardless of the precise composition of the audience, we can take the sum of Josephus' own statements about his intended audience to mean they were who he said they were: Greeks, Romans, and Jews" (44). See also p. 48, where he emphasizes his open view of Josephus' audiences: Jews, Greeks, and other Roman subjects.

3. Olson's DPhil was co-supervised by Chris Pelling and Martin Goodman in Oxford. I became involved for a while at Martin's request when a research leave took him away from normal duties (see Olson p. xi). So the dissertation had its basic shape when I stepped in, and it would be completed under those Oxford supervisors. As far as I recall, our discussions were mostly about the real content of the study---not the ancillary question of Josephus' audiences.

4. The position that both Olson and his would-be critic both attribute to me is one that I would also reject. It would indeed be absurd to claim that Josephus wrote exclusively for Romans or that he did not want his works travelling beyond the city limits. In case anyone cares, my actual proposal was this (emphasis added):1 "we should conclude that Josephus wrote in the first instance—without precluding secondary and tertiary readerships—for sympathetic or at least tractable audiences in his adopted home city of Rome, who shared with him an elite education and world of discourse. These groups included some fellow-Judeans (Ioudaioi) in Rome (C. Ap. 1.51), though he wrote with special concern for Greeks and Romans in the capital." With the aid of detailed studies of ancient "publication," that is, I had set about investigating clues in Josephus concerning his method in composing and disseminating his work. No one had done this before, to my knowledge. For example, I noted indications in the prologue of a lively give-and-take, and mutual criticism, in his immediate environment (B.J.1.1–8, 13–16, 22). In keeping with well-attested norms, I concluded that Josephus had real, local audiences where he lived. There was nothing exclusive or restrictive in this, however, much less any limitation on later copying or reading. In earlier studies (including the Brill commentary on his Life, 2001) I had rejected the possibility that Josephus was among the Flavian amici or anything of that sort. The elite in question was, as I said, of Josephus' own kind: Greek-speaking, cultivated men living in the capital, who were interested in the same sorts of issues as he, who would have been able not only to get past but positively to enjoy, for example, the 264-word period that opens his first work. Why the very idea of initial local audiences should seem controversial or narrow-minded I do not know. The suggestion that I restricted his readership to Rome, or to the city's Flavian elite, is a mistake.

5. Olson chose my essay as a departure point not because he agreed with it, as Zollschan claims, but because it was the study he needed to challenge (he thought) in order to open the way for his own exploration of the embedded letters and their wider-ranging resonances. He did not cite the views of Rajak, Price, and others, I assume, because: (a) he already had the dissertation (defended in 2007) largely written when they appeared in 2005; (b) he basically agreed with them about the breadth of Josephus' intended readership; and (c) they did not deal with the issues that he needed to address (such as the Josephus-Agrippa correspondence and possible collaboration, which I raised and he doubts). Anyway, the scholars in question sometimes point out that they are asking different questions from mine (so Eck and Cotton, who agree that Josephus was not in high Roman politics, and Price). As for Rajak, it is telling that Zollschan has to extrapolate from her argument about Josephus' Diaspora contacts, with a bold new proposal that Josephus "personally distributed his works over this large area of the ancient world" (para. 6). Needless to say, Olson could not have considered that idea.

6. Zollschan's preoccupation with audience and publication, which have little to do with Olson's argument, lead her to devote one of her two longest paragraphs (no. 5) to the latter question: "What both Olson (following Mason) and Winsbury have in common is the overturning of the classic work on the topic, Birt, on the basis that he is accused of extreme anachronism. I am not sure that one may completely throw out Birt's view that there existed a commercial distribution of works in Rome and hold that publication only consisted of the recitation of a text in public." Although it sounds here as though Olson and I both have it in for Birt, neither of us mentions either him (1907) or Winsbury (2009). Therefore, neither of us accuses Birt of anything---certainly nothing extreme. Why not engage the plentiful scholarship we do cite? To Zollschan's point, neither of us holds 'that publication only consisted of the recitation of a text in public.' That bizarre proposition would undermine Olson's argument, and for either of us it would be infra dig. Interested readers may consult pp. 78 to 84 of my essay (e.g., "partial drafts" [80], "circulation of drafts" and "manual reproduction" [81], "gift copies" [81, 82], "rolls copied from exemplars" and "further distribution of books" [82], "orally and in draft copies" [84]) for an obvious corrective.

7. Finally, Zollschan homes in on another point incidental to Olson's argument when she charges him with making statements without documentation about Josephus' use of the Septuagint. (She cites pp. 2, 4, and 24 n. 112.) Further, "Olson only once states that Josephus knew the Hebrew text and never mentions that Josephus had use of an early Aramaic Targum."

This is all seriously misleading. First, Olson hardly deals with Josephus' paraphrase of the Bible. Second, the page numbers should be 3-4 plus the footnote mentioned. Third, without trying I noticed three places (not one only) in which Olson mentions Josephus' knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic (7, 72 n. 84, 133). Fourth, although Zollschan appears to take Josephus' use of a Targum as a known fact, the jury has been out for a long time on the subject. Louis Feldman, whom she cites in support, is actually a model of caution. He opens that section by mentioning the Targum as "a third possible source," concluding that "The number of such instances [of possible use] is not great, however, and may reflect a Greek version which is now lost to us." Moreover, none of the few suggestive examples listed by Feldman relates to Olson's one passage from the biblical paraphrase. Fifth, in the only significant example of a letter from Josephus' biblical paraphrase that Olson deals with (129-133; he makes this point on p. 129), he does in fact compare the Aramaic biblical text with the Greek, point by point, to argue (not assume) that Josephus used the Greek 1 Esdras.

This rather polemical review rests on a string of misapprehensions. I hope that I have been able to clarify some of the issues.


1.   See S. Mason (2005) "Of Audience and Meaning: Reading Josephus' Bellum Judaicum in the Context of a Flavian Audience," in J. Sievers and G. Lembi (eds.) Josephus and Jewish History in Flavian Rome and Beyond, Leiden, 77.

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