Friday, August 17, 2012


Steven H. Wander, The Joshua Roll. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2012. Pp. 205; 15 p. of plates. ISBN 9783895008542. €98.00.

Reviewed by Jeffrey C. Anderson, George Washington University (

Version at BMCR home site

In the concise preface to his monograph on the Joshua Roll (Rome, BAV, Pal. gr. 431), Steven H. Wander writes that the scholarship devoted to the manuscript over the last century "is for the most part wrong" (p. 15). He declares that his approach to the Roll will be through the text and its relationship to the images. The first chapter surveys, again concisely, what has been written about the text, emphasizing the degree to which it has been ignored, misunderstood, or even dismissed as a later addition. The author accepts the identification of the scribe as Basil the Calligrapher, who was active in the third quarter of the tenth century. He also acknowledges the view that the few lacunae in the text must mean that the scribe worked from an earlier roll that had grown difficult to read owing to wear over time, and when copying he left conspicuous spaces for the illegible words.

In the second chapter Wander compares the images with their accompanying text, doing so methodically, scene by scene. In keeping with his basic argument, the author first reproduces the text and then discusses the images that accompany it; for the latter he has the Octateuchs and a handful of ivory casket fragments as a comparative base. His position is that the text represents a version of the Septuagint edited specifically for the original roll and copied in the Joshua Roll. In order to follow the editor's work Wander uses the text of the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus (B 03) as his base. Passages from the Codex Vaticanus are reproduced at length and the parts that agree with the Joshua Roll are printed in bold. Variants that appear in the Roll are signaled by underlining and controlled against seven other uncial codices; the reader thus has some evidence on which to judge whether or not departures from the text of the Codex Vaticanus are likely to be attributable to the editor of the first roll. The author corrects orthography within square brackets and normalizes accentuation, but gives almost no punctuation (the Roll itself is lightly punctuated). Although not a traditional text with critical apparatus, Wander's adaptation conveys how the editor worked. Following the Greek is an English translation, but only of what is written in the Roll; the work of the editor will thus be considerably less clear to the reader who has no Greek. Translating the Bible can be tricky business, since so much of it is familiar to many readers; furthermore, the author must contend with a slightly edited version. Occasional missteps occur. For example, in his treatment of Jos 5:15 (p. 42) Wander translates λέγει with unnecessary literalness as "he is saying to him," instead of simply "he says;" use of present progressive risks creating the impression that the phrase is a comment on what is happening in the miniature rather than the scriptural basis for what the illuminator depicted. A few phrases later the addition of the pronoun σύ before the second person singular verb is needlessly rendered as "you, yourself," and the verb ἕστηκας is translated as "you have stood," rather than the familiar "(the ground on which) you stand." Following each passage and translation, the author turns to the miniature and compares its content to that of the text. As he points out, a number of scenes have confused art historians, who have interpreted their content in divergent ways. Wander takes pains to show how the depictions follow the text, and generally his readings are unobjectionable.

Wander has made a considerable effort to show how the text of the Joshua Roll represents an edition of the Septuagint, and it is interesting to follow and observe how the editor shortens passages, although in the end the editorial process is of little concern. Important is how variants or unusual passages correspond with the images. For instance, the author notes (pp. 70-73, with regard to Jos 10:16) that a verb change unique to the Roll may have been prompted by the plan to coordinate text and images, and may account for the use of an irregular aorist plural (ἀπήγγειλον for ἀπήγγειλαν). But word and image are not invariably coordinated. In both the biblical account and the Roll (Jos 6:1-24; sheets IV-VI) the battle for Jericho culminates in the soldiers putting what remains of the city to the torch. The verse that tells us this (Jos 6:24) was not copied into the Roll, and the author's attempt to keep text and image locked together (p. 46) strikes me as inconclusive at best. In comparing words and images the author can take advantage of the narrow conventions of Byzantine visual culture, the poses and gestures used to convey actions and even states of mind. His treatment of the two representations of the men of Gibeon carrying out their deception is a good example exploiting the Byzantine use of conventions (pp. 63-67). Still, one questions the limits of a methodology that insists on the literal translation of words into pictures, particularly in what must surely be recognized as a work of art, not a picture book with didactic imagery. The author thinks that the depiction of the Amorite kings dragged before Joshua (sheets XIV, XV) is out of place, and he offers a reconstruction of where it should go in order to preserve the left to right movement of the episodes (Diagram 1). Yet like the battle scene that precedes it (sheets XII, XIII), the capture, humiliation and execution of the kings is a grand set piece in which the designer took advantage of the roll format to create a monumental composition. The kings' retreat into the cave at the left and their being produced at the right bracket the central judgment, rendered by the triumphant Joshua who first sees them coming into his presence and then prostrate at his feet.

In the third chapter, Wander takes up the question of the purpose the manuscript served; this, of course, is two questions that may not have the same answer: the purpose of the original roll and that of the subsequent copy in the Vatican Library. Here the two are treated as one. Wander argues that the Roll is a full-scale cartoon for a historiated column reminiscent of those of Theodosius and Arcadius. He does so on the basis of a perceived increase in Joshua's height over the course of the Roll and what he sees as a number of instances in which the represented or implied groundline rises upward from left to right, approximating the appearance on a column like that of Arcadius of figures moving uphill as the narrative progresses. Unsatisfied by the traditionally loose comparison of the Roll and Roman triumphal columns, Wander sees not simply a cartoon but also an object. Using the dimensions of the Vatican manuscript and the rise of the groundline between seven and twelve degrees, he calculates that the column based on the Roll would have had a diameter of a little more than half a meter with a frieze consisting of six and a half windings; sheets are missing from the beginning and end of the Roll, but adding two or more would do little to change what would have been an inelegantly proportioned object. Wander draws a comparison with the eleventh-century bronze column bearing scenes from Christ's life that was commissioned around 1000 by Bernward, bishop of Hildesheim. The comparison is a direct one, since he cites Liudprand of Cremona's stay, in 968, in Constantinople, where the Latin emissary met with the high official Basil the Nothos (or Parakoimomenos, chamberlain) when seeking a marriage alliance with the Byzantine imperial family. He suggests that Liudprand may have seen the Joshua Roll and learned of its relationship to a "Joshua Column;" this knowledge is then presumed to have been passed to Bishop Bernward via the Byzantine princess Theophano, wife of Otto II. Wander speculates (p. 91): "'Joshua' and 'Jesus' are the same word in Greek (Ἰησοῦς), and it is easy to see how in conversation across cultures a native Latin speaker might first think a 'Joshua Column' was one depicting 'Jesus.'" The argument strikes me as highly speculative.

Wander then turns, in chapter three, parts B and C, to Basil the Nothos, who, he argues, was the patron of the Joshua Roll. The rich documentation of Basil's life includes his patronage of important liturgical and devotional objects, as well as of manuscripts. The author treats Basil's patronage in great detail, and then, in subsection C, he composes a detailed biography of Basil, a well-known and towering figure in tenth-century history; in his biography of Basil, Wander reproduces at length and unnecessarily the many references in the primary literature. He also includes a long discussion of castration in order to connect Basil's with the scene (sheet III) in which Joshua orders the circumcision of the Israelites (p. 114). Basil was, among other things, a field officer and he took part in the Byzantine push into Syria and the Holy Land. Serving under the generalship of John Tzimiskes, Basil captured Samosata, for which he was awarded, in 968, a triumph in the Hippodrome. For Wander, Basil's military exploits in the East, his lavish patronage of the arts, and his connection with the scribe of the Roll, from whom he commissioned a manuscript, make him the sponsor of the tenth-century Roll. The identification of Basil the Nothos as patron is plausible, but must remain as only a plausibility, and one in no way buttressed by the chain of inferences that leads from Bernward's column to the Empress Theophano, from Theophano to Liudprand (who seems to have died by 973), and finally to a conversation between Basil the Nothos and the Bishop of Cremona.

In the final chapter and conclusion, the author argues that the first roll was made in the seventh century for the Emperor Heraclius and was likewise a cartoon for a triumphal column. The evidence for both date and purpose is the Cyprus (or David) Plates and their supposed origin in the eastern triumph of Heraclius. (If so, did the scene of circumcision have meaning as it did for Basil the Nothos?) The monograph contains appendices on provenance and the Octateuch subjects that parallel the Roll, a bibliography, but no index.

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