Monday, May 16, 2011


Zollschan on Mason on Zollschan on Olson, Tragedy, Authority, and Trickery. Response to 2011.03.17

Response by Linda Zollschan (

Version at BMCR home site

In my review Tragedy, Authority, and Trickery: The Poetics of Embedded Letters in Josephus by Ryan S. Olson, I devoted most of the coverage to a summary of Olson's thesis in as fair manner as possible. In addition, I followed the apt advice that Professor Lucio Troiani always gave, namely, that a review should include some comment on future directions for research on the topic under consideration and that the reviewer should contribute an original idea of his/her own.

Mason is fully entitled to restate and clarify his own views on the audience for whom Josephus intended to write. I offer the following points in order to clarify several points in the review I wrote.

I responded to the views of Mason as presented in Olson's own book. On p. 41 one learns that 'Mason asserts that the Jews to whom Josephus sold his work were "distinguished Roman citizens, they spent much of their time in the capital, and they were fully conversant with Greek culture. We have no reason, then, to imagine massive sales of the War to Judaeans around the Mediterranean – a technically implausible project in any case." (Here Olson quotes 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, p. 87) The question of Josephus' intended audience and the feasibility of large-scale sales of Josephus' work are not peripheral issues. In fact to quote Mason himself 'To neglect the fundamental question of his [Josephus'] expected audience would therefore be irresponsible.' (p. 77) The questions of audience and book circulation go to the heart of the purpose of Josephus' writings, his style and the use of cultural references. Because Mason rejects the technical possibility of Roman commercial book production and therefore 'massive sales', he confines Josephus's audience to a small circle. Starr, in an article cited by Mason, (R.J. Starr [1987] 'The Circulation of Literary Texts in the Roman World' CQ N.S. 37/1, 213-223) devotes the latter part of his paper to the Roman book trade. His conclusions are that the book trade became more important in the first century A.D., that by Pliny's time it seemed to have become an accepted method for the circulation of literature though no means the only one. The private circulation of manuscripts through private donations within the Roman aristocracy was not the sole method. (p. 221-222)

I touched on the subjects of Josephus' intended audience and book production as two examples of a recurring problem in the book, namely, that divergent views on a subject had not been mentioned by the author. I found that this was my deepest reservation about the book in general. Other examples could have been mentioned had space permitted. On the issue of parallels between passages in Josephus and the works of classical Greek authors mention of the body of scholarship that considers any parallels between Josephus' work and other Greek authors as merely superficially similar or stereotypical is absent. [See P. Bilde (1988) Flavius Josephus between Jerusalem and Rome, Sheffield, pp. 204-205 and U. Rappaport [2007] 'Josephus' Personality and the Credibility of his Narrative' in Z. Rodgers, Making History: Josephus and Historical Method, p. 79.]

There are far too many instances where a statement is made followed by a citation of only one work. A few examples are Josephus' account of the last stand at Masada (p. 216), the diplomatic contact between Rome and the embassy of Judas Maccabaeus in 161 BCE (p. 190) and the spolia opima (p. 199). The author should have stated that there is a vast literature on that subject and indicated where a bibliography on the modern and earlier literature might be found.

On pages 94-95, there is an over-reliance on one modern source.

In presenting the readers with some possible suggestions as to the means by which Josephus' writings may have been distributed around the Diaspora, I most definitely presented them as my own and not Olson's.

Mason criticized my reference to works from 2009 in my review, stating that Olson's thesis was completed before this date. Since there is no mention in the book as to the dissertation completion date and because in his bibliography Olson includes items from 2009, I referred also to works up to and including that date.

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