THE REAL MESSIAH BLOG: Steve Mason's response (part 2)

Steve Mason's response (part 2)

Dear Dr. Boid:

Thanks for your detailed comments. They do highlight some areas of misunderstanding. It's entirely possible that you and Stephan have corresponded otherwise about this, because you draw upon extra-textual knowledge that I do not have. I was responding, and could only respond, to what Stephan wrote that I received.

> I thought the question was whether what is given in numerous sources about Agrippa I and Agrippa II actually referred to a single person. The veracity of the evidence from multiple sources, including Philo, that there was an Agrippa that did what Josephus says was done by the first Agrippa neither proves nor disproves the hypothesis that there was only ever one Agrippa. The argument is circular, unless I have missed something.

I'm not sure which argument you consider circular. I'm not making any arguments about Agrippa; I am responding to whatever Stephan has offered of his arguments.

My concern is with understanding and explaining evidence, which he (or anyone who presents a new hypothesis) will need to do, and trying to show where the pitfalls lie. Of course, only a narrative that purports to offer a detailed political history of Judaea through much of the first century, which focused on the affairs of these men, would have any need to clarify Agrippa I and II. To say that only Josephus does this and the other sources for Agrippa don't, as if that were a meaningful distinction requiring investigation, would be pointless. Philo was either dead or on his last legs before (Josephus') Agrippa II had done much and Agrippa's well known family life was not obviously germane to the In Flaccum or Legatio. Tacitus and Dio mention men named Agrippa at different times, in different generations, and in very different contexts. They do the same with other eastern rulers (as Josephus also does when he is not dealing with central figures -- one must often check which Sohaemus or Antipater or Alexander he has in view). We are not entitled to assume that there was only one Antipater or one Sohaemus or one Juba because the ancient narratives don't stop to distinguish them from others of the same name, or that the onus rests with anyone who wants to separate them; clearly, that would make no sense. The contexts in which Dio mentions figures named Agrippa, for example, and quite incidentally (for the historian, all the more valuable because not programmatic evidence), cannot easily be explained by the hypothesis that they are all the same person. Perhaps all that evidence can be so explained, but it will certainly need explaining. That has been my point all along. The onus is on the one making the case, who in this case is Stephan.

The methodological issue is simply this: anyone, any historian, launching a new hypothesis (and all hypotheses are welcome in principle) is required to show how it explains all the evidence. The evidence does not speak for itself (else history would not be necessary). If one wishes to make any case about Agrippa(s), one needs to gather all relevant evidence and work through it systematically, explaining how this hypothesis would put the pieces together better than any other one. That's what's required. We can't take massive shortcuts and declare that because texts except Josephus don't see the need to label this father and son explicitly (just as they don't with other characters in their narrative), there's no problem of multiple Agrippas in those texts. That would beg the question. One still has to explain all the evidence. IOW, the method has to be the same for all similar phenomena. Stephan's particular interest appears to be in Agrippa. Mine is not: I must publish on all aspects of the period, using the same kind of criteria and the same sorts of evidence for all cases. I am only responding to what he proposes from that vantage point.

There is still the Rabbinic tradition that there was only one Agrippa. This is a statement in a systematic treatise of early date based on older tradition, as well as the implication of all relevant pericopes or notices in early texts. The fact that this datum is left out of the handbooks neither proves nor disproves its truth or falsity, but it does illustrate the sloppiness of much historical writing. I won’t name the systematic record, or cite the main loci in other texts, because all are as accessible and familiar as Josephus’s Against Apion.

I'm reasonably familiar with the rabbinic lit., and with its anecdotes involving a King Agrippa (sometimes evidently called Yannai -- a name used confusingly for a wide range of different Hasmonean-Herodian rulers).

So I was aware that rabbinic lit. mentions 'King Agrippa' without any attempt at clarification. That's not surprising and it doesn't trouble me, given the nature of the corpus. Rabbinic lit. also sometimes conflates the war of 66-70 with that of 132-135, and makes all kinds of statements that are hard to credit. But it does not purport to be historical, and as you know even its earliest codifications are in the early third century -- the same distance from 70 CE as I am from the confederation of Canada. There is no reason to credit any purely oral tradition, in the absence of corroboration, concerning things that happened well over a century -- some 4 centuries in the case of Bavli -- before the anecdote was recorded. No historian would give much weight to purely oral traditions about our founding prime minister in 1867 (or even about much more recent ones), being committed to a traditional book of some kind just now.

At any rate, if rabb. lit. somewhere insists that 'there was only one Agrippa', as you say, I would be pleased to learn of the passage. That it speaks of 'King Agrippa' without elaboration is very different, of course, from claiming positively that there was only one. Are you thinking perhaps of the passage in which R. Abbaye claimed of the Hasmoneans that Yannai and Yohanan were the same person (in b Ber)? But that is demonstrably incorrect -- and symptomatic of the ahistorical character of rabbinic lit.
> As for Josephus’s clear assertion that there were two Agrippas, this is close in form to his duplication of Simon the Just. In the same way as he has nothing much to say about one Simon, he has nothing much to say about one Agrippa.

I don't follow you. First, it's not an assertion (like Abbaye's): it is both asserted many times and assumed and explicated throughout his complex and detailed narratives. These are not at all the same in form as his few references to the Simons. Both Agrippas are much more prominent throughout his narratives -- War, Antiquities, and Life -- than either Simon, as a glance at Feldman's indices will show. 'Nothing much to say about one Agrippa'? Which one? He says a lot about both characters, though more about his contemporary (Agr II), and vastly more than about the Simons. As he says pointedly in Ant 17 (with echoes throughout 18-20), he has a great interest in the descendants of Herod in Ant., as part of that work's general moralizing programme. In War too, both men are conspicuous in the intertwined stories of Judaea's and Rome's political histories.

There were many family connections, with other eastern kings, with Philo's family, and with prominent families in Rome -- including those with roots in Claudius' court such as the Flavians. As everyone knows, Berenice was reportedly Titus' lover, and Agrippa received praetorian ornamenta under Flavian sponsorship. None of this is remotely like the situation with 'Simon the Just'. These are not meaningless names to Josephus' Roman audience. There were many members of local elites throughout the eastern Med. who knew the Herodian family very well, especially its main figures from Herod to Agr II. The prospect that Josephus, writing in Rome (where Agrippa II also seems to have spent much of his time post-war), and within the whole social-networking context of ancient 'publication', could simply fiddle around with the Herodian family tree and add an Agrippa as the current king's father: well, almost anything's possible, but it will need careful and detailed argumentation if one wishes to show that it was more likely than the story Josephus tells. (It's not enough to observe problems with Josephus' stories: there are loads of problems with them, and with most ancient narratives. But the historian who wishes to advocate a hypothesis must still show its explanatory power in relation to the evidence.)

> Historians of the period often disagree about recent events. To take a salient example, Josephus warns against accepting what Justus says, but regardless of who was more accurate, both were read. Splitting one figure into two is not something that would readily be picked up, if the facts recorded were otherwise true or plausible.

I rather think that it would be readily picked up, given my observations above. Books in antiquity were not written in vacuo, but very much with the authors high-powered friends and their circle in view. My point from the beginning has been that these things cannot be settled in the abstract (X could happen; Y might happen; who knows?). Historians who wish to advocate hypotheses need to explain all the evidence. Other historians critique the hypothesis according to how well it explains the evidence. The default position is that we do not know, until someone makes a convincing explanation of the evidence.

> None of this proves there was only one Agrippa. I merely point out that the evidence that there were two reduces to Josephus, since no-one else ever says “this Agrippa that I’m telling you about was the second”. Josephus has nothing distinctive to record about the second Agrippa. He says that what is distinctive about the second Agrippa is that there was nothing distinctive about him, whereas the first one was distinctive, so they were distinct from each other. The Rabbinic tradition therefore has equal weight. What the answer is I don’t know. I only say that presenting a situation as being simple by ignoring some of the evidence is not the way. If even the existence of the evidence is not known, that is worse. So macht man nicht Wissenschaft.

That it reduces to Josephus has not been shown -- not until one works through the other evidence (Philo, Tacitus, Dio, Acts, coins...) and shows that it is all best explained on the hypothesis of a single Agrippa. Only then would be we be left with Josephus.

Josephus has compelling narrative reasons to separate the two Agrippas, which none of the other writers had. He is writing a comprehensive history of Judaea in the first century, and they are not. Where you think he says that there was nothing distinctive about the second Agrippa I can't imagine. In fact, everything he says about Agrippa II distinguishes him, surely, beginning with his explanation of the man's ancestry, youth, and political and military activities. There is not one passage alone in which he asserts the distinction. Even in the most unexpected places (such as Justus' speech to the Tiberians in Life), the two Agrippas are contrasted, as they are with respect to allegedly striking differences of character in the Antiquities. To say that Josephus makes Agr II not distinctive -- I can't follow your meaning.

What I tried to explain to Stephan from the start was that these two different Agrippas are intricately woven into the narratives that surround them, which involve many other lives and careers -- their family members, other Judaean politicians, and Roman military and political leaders. And many of these people or their children formed Josephus' ongoing circle of friends and acquaintances, including the people to whom he read, gave, or sold his volumes. Any hypothesis about a single Agrippa will need to explain all of that evidence (as well as the non-Josephan), showing why this makes better sense of the evidence than the hypothesis of father and son.

The proposition that Josephus' intricately connected historical narrative to 75 CE (for all its limitations) should be put on the same level as 3rd to 6th century halakhic and haggadic literature for evidence of pre-70 realia would not find many takers among historians of this period. This has nothing to do with defending Josephus; it has to do with what will need explaining in each case, which is very different in character/genre and date.

I can’t see how it could be thought that it had been proposed that Josephus had made up a second Agrippa as an amalgam of different people. What was proposed was that the components of the account of the death of one person could have been taken from existing accounts.

I was merely responding to Stephan's own (apparent) claims:
> I always knew that ancient writers couldn't have simply invented stuff up about people. If you are going to create a person named 'Agrippa I' you have to take known stories from Marcus Agrippa and Herod the Great (i.e. real historical figures) and adapt them so that someone reading it in antiquity would say 'I heard something about Herod Agrippa dying from the appearance of a bubo.'

That sounded like an amalgam to me: borrowing elements from other characters to build or 'create' this one. I can only respond to what I read.

The answer to the question of which is right, the Rabbinic tradition or Josephus, will have to come from the coins.

The coins are crucial, it is true. But it's not a question of an assertion made in rabbinic lit. (is there really such an assertion: only one Agrippa?) over against an assertion in Josephus (where these two figures and their many personal connections dominate important stretches of the narrative -- so, not an assertion). Any hypothesis will need to explain all the evidence for a Judaean king Agrippa, showing how that evidence makes best sense if there was only one.
> As to Agrippa’s symptoms. Either there never was an Agrippa I, and Josephus made the symptoms up; or otherwise there was an Agrippa I, but Josephus has embellished the symptoms of his fatal ailment. The list of symptoms fits no known ailment, according to my inquiries.

It's a given that Josephus made up his narratives as they stand, their structure and language, embellishing them with all sorts of dramatic features, and especially the deaths of men who had displeased God. That's common in Graeco-Roman literature. I don't see what the problem is.

Anyone suffering from kidney failure will not have the other symptoms listed, and what is distinctly missing from the list is the skin discolouration and the lassitude. Adding gangrene to the list still does not cover all the symptoms.

Josephus does not give an empirical medical assessment. I mentioned renal failure, quite incidentally and FYI, as the diagnosis of Herod's death (not Agrippa's), as I remembered it, from a high-level panel of American medical specialists who meet annually to discuss the death of some great ancient figure based on reported symptoms. A few years ago they did Herod.

I have no horse in this race; again, I was simply responding to Stephan's unqualified statement -- he seemed to be inviting a response by mailing it to me -- that Herod (not Agrippa) was said to have died of syphilis, from which he made a connection with Agrippa's bubo. 'Was said' by whom, I asked? (Not by Josephus.) But the problem with all such medical analyses (akin to the problem of psychoanlyzing, which Schalit had attempted for Herod) is that it depends on highly rhetorical, tragically influenced, colourful narratives, not on observed facts. In general, there is little point in getting into discussions of 'all the symptoms', which we have no way of recovering.
> Now we come to something really serious. The triple question marks against the reference to Agrippa having had the title of Christ really perturb me.

There's no need to be perturbed, or to read so much into question marks. I never doubted that Agrippa (or any number of others -- some Hasmoneans, Alcimus, Herod, JBap, Jesus, some 1st-cent prophets) had been considered a Messiah by some. That was not the reason for my ??? Yet again, I was merely responding in puzzlement to Stephan's statement:

> In short the bubo disproves that Agrippa was Christ.

That's all he said on the matter. Since I could see no logical connection with what preceded or followed, I supplied ??? to my equally brief observation that the bubo was surely not needed, or even obviously relevant, for such disproof. This intensive-interrogative symbol ??? does not mean 'I reject proposition X as nonsense', as you gloss it. If I had meant that, I'd have said it. I meant something like: this is confusing on several levels, and I don't see the connection.

The reason for going into this last point at such length is that it is not sound scientific method to reject a proposition as nonsense before you know what it is that is being said.

I would never pretend to be a scientist. But I am a historian. Sound historical method requires that the one advocating a hypothesis show how it would explain all of the relevant evidence, better than other hypotheses. The onus lies only on the one making the case. When the hypothesis fails to explain a given piece of evidence very well, or actually generates problems that the advocate seems not to have noticed, it is not only my right but my professional responsibility to point that out. I can't be responsible for what the advocate doesn't tell me, and I have been very careful (a) to respond only to what Stephan does disclose while (b) endlessly pointing out that, to be formulated as a hypothesis for scholarly interaction, it will need to say much more -- and explain the whole range of relevant literary and material evidence.

If Stephan publishes a book on this subject, we may expect that historians will respond to him much as I have been responding to the small bits that he has disclosed. Since my own publishing schedule is rather heavy, among other duties, I thought that I was doing him a courtesy in pointing out problems in advance of publication. (Why else did he bring it to me, if not for critical feedback?) But perhaps I misunderstood that too. There's no reason other than trying to help for me to have spent time in this discussion.

Although grateful for your efforts to clarify and supplement, which I have tried to honour by responding at some length, I now have no time at all to continue this; I hope that what I have said is helpful for whatever purposes Stephan first invited it for, and for your own scholarship.


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