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In the Tracks of Josephus: Reading Jewish History and Belief in the Early Modern Hispanic and Lusophone Worlds, 1492-1687

The early modern reception of the writings of the Romanized Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Yosef ben Matityahu, 37-100CE) opens up multiple perspectives onto Christian/Jewish relations in the Spanish and Portuguese speaking worlds. Julian's project traces the history of Spanish translations and adaptations from 1492 (Alfonso Palencia’s Castilian version of the Jewish War and Against Apion) to José Semah Arias’s new translation of Against Apion published for the Sephardic community of Amsterdam in 1687.

In these two hundred years, Josephus figures as an authority for Christian, crypto-Jews and Jews alike. For Christians, his writings were an indispensable source of information about Judaism, the Holy City of Jerusalem, Jesus Christ, the constitution of the Hebrew Bible. As such, theologians, Inquisitorial censors, and printers, were concerned to ensure that lay readers of vernacular Josephus read him appropriately. This anxiety is graphically attested by the paratexts of the 1554 translation of the Antiquities, which reconcile Josephus to the Christian Bible and theology; a few years later, fear of crypto-Judaism led to all vernacular versions of this work being placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in Spanish and Portuguese territories.

In the early modern period, the Jews of Europe and the New World began to use his works for their own historical and polemical purposes. Samuel Shulam adapts Against Apion in Hebrew (Constantinople, 1556); Inquisitorial records show that crypto-Jews of Mallorca were reading him in the early seventeenth century; Luis de Carvajal, ‘el mozo’, acknowledged as the first Jewish writer of Mexico, turns to Josephus in an attempt to recover and affirm his Jewish identity before being burned at the stake in 1596;  Josephus is a fundamental authority and inspiration for such defenders as the Jewish faith as Saul Levi Mortera (Tratado da verdade da lei de Moisés, Amsterdam, 1659) and Isaac Cardoso (Las excelencias de los hebreos, Amsterdam, 1679). It is hardly surprising that in 1687,  José Semah Arias would retranslate Josephus’s apologia for Judaism and dedicate it to the great intellectual Isaac Orobio de Castro, whose polemics with Spinoza and Protestants draw on Josephan themes and ideas.

From the Church Father onwards, Josephus’s testimony (which was sometimes embellished by apocryphal interventions) was exploited to demonstrate the superior truth of Christianity; he became a literary character, figuring in early modern European drama as a witness to Jewish sectarianism and obstinate resistance to Christianity and Roman rule.  The Spanish example, Los desagravios de Cristo by Álvaro Cubillo de Aragón (d. 1661), makes Josephus a protagonist in the retelling of popular legends about the destruction of Jerusalem in divine retribution for Jewish deicide.

Josephus set out both to critically interpret and to defend Jewish belief and history for his Roman patrons and for diasporic Jews. Scholars have recently underscored the ambiguities in his writings, and these ambiguities are crucial for understanding his place in early modern Christian/ Jewish relations. He could be used as a ‘hinge figure’, marking out where Judaism and Christianity overlapped and where they differed. But his significance extends beyond religious themes: he was a model for a new mode of writing vernacular history and illustrated the nature and scope of Imperial power and the place of minorities within the State. When Diego Hurtado de Mendoza wrote his history of the morisco rebellion, the Guerra de Granada, which attempted to convey the pathos of the defeated Muslim converts, he was influenced by Josephus, manuscripts of whose works he acquired in their original Greek. Josephus mattered for the early modern Hispanic empire because, amongst other things, he offered the vision of the vanquished.

To explore the ramifications of Josephus’s significance in early Spain and its dominions requires multiple methodologies: material bibliography (the format of printed books and their paratexts; the readers’ marginalia and personal indexes); print history and patronage; translation theory and practice (including how key terms, such as to ‘Judaize’, changed meaning); ideological and rhetorical analysis of selected passages (e.g. the iconic scene of cannibalism in the Jewish War); archival research (inquisitorial records). The project is thus a bridge between academic disciplines: Jewish Studies, Spanish and Portuguese Studies, history and historiography, bibliography, and translation studies.