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Sculpting Idolatry in Flavian Rome: (An)Iconic Rhetoric in the Writings of Flavius Josephus, by Jason von Ehrenkrook.  Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011.  226 pp.  $29.95.


This book is a revision of Prof. von Ehrenkrook’s Ph.D. dissertation, submitted to the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan. It tests the general impression that there was a change in the Jewish attitude toward figurative art after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.  Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, it is proposed, Jewish attitudes stood against all artistic images, reflecting a strict interpretation of the second commandment of the Decalogue. After the destruction of this Temple the attitude softened. Reflecting this softening, the author perceives in Josephus’ attitude toward images a barometer of Jewish attitudes generally in his time. Josephus was far from a Roman lackey, but the fact that he owed his situation to Flavian patronage in Rome had an effect on the way he wrote. The author perceives hidden in Josephus’ writing a rhetorical undercurrent favorable to Rome where statuary was everywhere. The author is aware of the currents of scholarship for and against Josephus’ trustworthiness and character down through the ages but seems willing to take him on his own terms.

              Our author builds on the opinions of Joseph Guttman and John Barclay that Josephus, in the words of Barclay, “skilfully [conveys] his disdain for non-Jewish religious practices without offending his Roman (or Romanized) audience” (p. 4). In his moderation Josephus gives evidence of the convergence as well as conflict of view between the Jews and the Greco-Roman culture of his day.

              Von Ehrenkrook argues that Josephus’ and Jewish attitudes in his day generally, rather than being in principle aniconic, opposed only images with cultic associations. Corollary to this is the author’s perception that other than in cultic use of images “Jews in antiquity were full participants in this ubiquitous facet of their visual landscape” (p. 17). A third conclusion von Ehrenkrook offers is that Josephus provides an example not only of Jewish appreciation of visual art but of Jewish functioning in the social and cultural dynamics of Flavian Rome as well (p. 18).

              It is an important question about Josephus and Judaism in late antiquity that the author has in mind. Did the Jews’ ancient aversion to idolatry soften in order to fit into Greco-Roman society? Did Josephus reflect this softening view? Did they have an aniconic past? Did they see the absence of images in a place as a characteristic of sacred space? There was great variety among the Jews. Even the most strict Jew might reason his way out of a difficult halakhic situation. As David Goldenberg showed some years ago (JQR 70, 1979–80, pp. 78–82), Josephus provides evidence of halakhic reasoning deviating from the Bible. His thinking about the main aspects of Judaism was often in direct line with the story of his forbears set forth in the Hebrew Bible, but he too was under the influence of the age in which he lived.

              The two examples the author cites as examples of Josephus’ more nuanced interpretations of the second commandment, Antiquities 3, 91 and Against Apion 2, 190–192, do not seem to me to support his argument. In the former Josephus uses two synonyms to make clear that God alone is to be worshipped (here Josephus has an alternate spelling of the infinitive of the verb sebazomai, sebesthai) and that adoring (proskunein, meaning to do obeisance to) an image of any other living creature was forbidden.

              One element I looked for but did not find in von Ehrenkrook’s approach to this study was recognition of the profound historical roots of the Jews’ antipathy to idolatry found in the Hebrew Bible. The ancient Israelites had from the first flirted with idolatry and their prophets responded vigorously and harshly. The sin of idolatry was one of two themes the Israelite prophets denounced most. This must be the background of any study of Jewish responses to images in the Second Temple period.          

              The issue that the author addresses is important. As things changed with the Jews in later times, how did they perserve their religious identity forged in earlier times? It is because his method apparently approaches the Jews midstream in their story, indeed, later than midstream, that I see problems. The author states: “This book problematizes the widespread claim that Jews during the Second temple period, including Josephus, were uniformaly against figurative images in toto, regardless of cultic function” (p. 17).

              A prior question I think important is from what foundation did they loosen up culturally, for example, in allowing decorative images that did not have a cultic function in their homes as they mingled in Greco-Roman society where statuary was popular? Indeed, how did third-century synagogues in the Galilee ever come to have the zodiac in mosaics on the floor of their worship space? How did at least some Jews move in this direction, in particular after the destruction of the Temple, apparently rejecting a central feature of their history, its rejection of even the semblance of image worship?

              While observing that the Jews did have a prior history, von Ehrenkrook does not bring this early monotheistic, anti-iconic story to his study adequately. It would have sharpened the issue if he had. Were this defining backing in mind I don’t see how the author could have proposed with Guttman that Jewish iconoclasm constituted “a refusal to submit to Roman hegemony, and not a religious commitment to strict aniconism” (p. 4). He here cites Josephus’ Against Apion 2: 75, which he turns on its head so that it becomes a cryptic admission that Jewish rejection of idols was actually a rhetorical rejection of Roman authority. Josephus wrote: “Our legislator, not in order to put, as it were, a prophetic veto upon honours paid to the Roman authority, but out of contempt for a practice profitable to neither God nor man, forbade the making of images, alike of any living creature, and much more of God.”

              But I think the author undersells Josephus’ purpose that his peoples’ Scriptures be rightly understood, both by non-Jews and by fellow Jews, particularly with regard to cultic use of images, and without an undertow of political reasons. To attribute to Josephus essentially rhetorical concerns having to do with the politics of living under Rome is not, it seems to me, a fair reading of Josephus’ intent. Josephus might have found in the Bible illustrations to exploit in favor of his forbears’ lack of antipathy to images. For example, in Antiquities 3, 98–102, he omits the golden calf episode; he also might have used the cherubim on top of the Ark of the Covenant as an illustration of a role for images in Jewish worship, or the prophecy of Ezekiel, which included Temple imagery exceeding that found in the Tabernacle. But he did not.

              The value of Ehrenkrook’s book is in calling attention to the issue of images in Second Temple Judaism, and his widespread drawing on modern and ancient authors who wrote about images in one way or another. I think his book could be improved if he acknowledged ancient Israelite monotheism and its prohibition of making images before which they would bow, and the latent ambiguity of the second commandment, which can be interpreted as prohibiting either all images or just those of other gods. In this case, a loosening of ancient aniconic tendencies that went beyond the clear meaning of the second commandment might reflect a close reading of it in this pivotal period of Jewish history.

Stuart Robertson

Purdue University