How to read Josephus in Greek like a boss

It is inevitable that every student of ancient Greek will find a time when they feel out of their depth. Greek literature, as with literature in any language, ranges from relatively easy to read to frustratingly complex. And, since literary Greek syntax is anything but intuitive to native speakers of most modern languages, there will come a time when every student stares at a sentence in a text without even knowing where to start.

For students of the New Testament, however, this moment of desperation is typically delayed. Many beginning students of NT Greek stay within the New Testament, perhaps venturing into the LXX, but they never come into contact with literary Greek syntax beyond the straightforward adaptations found in Hebrews and Luke-Acts.

This delay is problematic: after a few years in the New Testament one becomes used to Greek functioning in a certain way that is particular to a very small subset of the corpus of Greek literature. This is especially true if one moves from the New Testament to an author who intentionally wrote in a sophisticated style, such as Josephus.

Why Read Josephus?

In many ways, it makes sense for NT students to move on to Josephus. He lived through the time period in which the books of the NT were written, he was a Jew who lived in the areas in which the Gospels were set and was associated with the Pharisees, and yet he also came to know the Roman imperium from the inside and became a patronised author of the Roman emperor. His overlaps with the social, ethnic, religious, and political contexts of the New Testament are numerous and worth studying. And yet, he is not read (particularly in Greek) by NT students nearly as much as he should be, because his Greek represent a significantly more difficult register of the Greek language.

Just take the opening line of Contra Apionem, his defence of Judaism as a religion:

Ἱκανῶς μὲν ὑπολαμβάνω καὶ διὰ τῆς περὶ τὴν ἀρχαιολογίαν συγγραφῆς, κράτιστε ἀνδρῶν Ἐπαφρόδιτε, τοῖς ἐντευξομένοις αὐτῇ πεποιηκέναι φανερὸν περὶ τοῦ γένους ἡμῶν τῶν Ἰουδαίων, ὅτι καὶ παλαιότατόν ἐστι καὶ τὴν πρώτην ὑπόστασιν ἔσχεν ἰδίαν, καὶ πῶς τὴν χώραν ἣν νῦν ἔχομεν κατῴκησε, πεντακισχιλίων ἐτῶν ἀριθμὸν ἱστορίαν περιέχουσαν ἐκ τῶν παρ᾿ ἡμῖν ἱερῶν βίβλων διὰ τῆς Ἑλληνικῆς φωνῆς συνεγραψάμην (Cont. Ap. 1.1).

Now compare Josephus’ opening words to those of Luke’s Gospel:

Ἐπειδήπερ πολλοὶ ἐπεχείρησαν ἀνατάξασθαι διήγησιν περὶ τῶν πεπληροφορημένων ἐν ἡμῖν πραγμάτων, καθὼς παρέδοσαν ἡμῖν οἱ ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς αὐτόπται καὶ ὑπηρέται γενόμενοι τοῦ λόγου, ἔδοξεν κἀμοὶ παρηκολουθηκότι ἄνωθεν πᾶσιν ἀκριβῶς καθεξῆς σοι γράψαι, κράτιστε Θεόφιλε, ἵνα ἐπιγνῷς περὶ ὧν κατηχήθης λόγων τὴν ἀσφάλειαν (Luke 1:1-4).

Even from the outset, we are met with greater complexity, length, and variation. So what should we do? What can we do? The rest of this post will give a few tips for 1) Making the transition to harder forms of Greek in general and 2) reading Josephus in particular, and then will circle around again to that opening line and attempt to give some guidance through a worked example.

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Tip 1: Commit

There will be a payoff. There will be a time when you can pick up an edition of Josephus (or Philo, or 1 Maccabees) and be able to read it with relative ease. But that will not come immediately. And, like most things in life, it requires commitment before you get to where you want to go.

You can’t learn an instrument by picking it up once a month and strumming away until you get frustrated. You can’t develop your Greek reading instincts by picking up a text of Josephus, staring at the first paragraph for thirty minutes, then tossing it aside for another month.

Expect difficulty up front. Welcome it as a challenge that you know you will conquer with time.

Commit.

Tip 2: Know the resources available

You will need more than BDAG and Wallace. Most lexical and grammatical works used by those who learn Greek through biblical studies are aimed at the NT corpus, and just won’t contain all the relevant information you’ll need in the wider world.

For lexical work, the new Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek and the classic Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ) will accommodate the larger vocabulary you’ll find in Josephus. LSJ is also available to search at tlg.uci.edu and logeion.uchicago.edu.

For grammar, a classic reference work is Herbert Weir Smyth’s Greek Grammar, which covers the majority of literary ancient Greek. Sadly, there are no specific grammatical works for Hellenistic literary Greek, but the style aimed at by Josephus will be covered by works like Smyth which had an eye towards Attic Greek literature.

Next, for the text itself, the Loeb series on Josephus is always helpful. While the Loeb volumes are not commentaries, they run the Greek and English text on facing pages. If you are stuck on a particularly difficult passage, you can just look across the spread and see how the translator handled it. While you could read the English of difficult parts instead of the Greek, I don’t recommend that. Use the English to make sense of the Greek.

Finally, Brill has a series of translations and commentaries on Josephus which are very helpful, all of which have the title Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. If you want to have a physical copy of the series, you may need to pray that your library has them or that you come into a sudden small fortune; but a side-by-side format, with commentary, is made available online by the Project on Ancient Cultural Engagement (https://pace.webhosting.rug.nl/york/york/texts.htm).

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Tip 3: Climbing the mountain of vocabulary

Now that you know the resources available to you, you come to the text itself—and you are met with a wall of unfamiliar words. There are simply more words in the works of Josephus than in the NT, and so you are bound to meet words you have never seen before.

More than that, since Josephus was deliberately trying to show that Judaism was intellectually respectable, he would be more likely to use more obscure words and to vary his vocabulary more frequently (much in the way academics tend to obfuscate the significations of their argument through sesquipedalian terminology and esoteric diction). Unfortunately, this is where one of the ways in which NT Greek is taught will betray those who want to read Josephus.

Often, prowess in reading the NT, especially in the early stages, is measured by how much of the vocabulary you know. After a few years, you are used to knowing all of the words, or at least most of them that occur more than 10 times. And so when you get to Josephus and you are met with page after page of unfamiliar vocabulary, it will feel like this text is impossible to read.

But it isn’t. Not knowing vocabulary is normal. You don’t even know all the words in your native language. Throughout my classics degree, I expected to not know a good number of the words I would meet on every page in any author. The problem is expectation.

And yes, it is tedious at first to have to look up every term (though double-clicking in Logos and online lexica make this much simpler than it was before). But that is why lexica exist. You will not know every word. That is fine. That is normal. It’s only a part of your training that is telling you otherwise.

Also, do not feel any particular pressure to memorize by rote every word you come across. You are bound to run into the word again. If you don’t remember it, you will look it up again. After a while, though the timing is different for everyone, you will remember it when you run into it again, and it will be more solidly in your mind than if you had devoted a flash card to it.

The first main hurdle faced by readers of Josephus is the sheer amount of new vocabulary. But do not let this discourage you. It is part of the learning process. And this mountain of words is climbed like any mountain: one word at a time.

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Tip 4: Facing down complex syntax

The second and more significant hurdle in reading Josephus is that his syntax is more complicated than that of the New Testament. It is not intuitive to modern English speakers. This is true of all literary Greek, and in all likelihood it wasn’t particularly intuitive to many native ancient Greek speakers either.

Even if you know all the words, there will be times when it takes a while to figure out how they relate to each other at all. It will be slow going at first. But slow does not mean hopeless. And no matter how complex any sentence becomes, there will always be patterns that can be used to find the meaning in the labyrinth of words.

I. Stick to your fundamentals.

Cases remain cases. Verb endings remain verb endings. The more solid on these you are, the easier it will be to find which words relate to each other, which verbs control the clause. While word order may not help you, in fact, while Josephus may consciously play with word order to achieve his desired effects, the real building block of Greek syntax, morphology, will not leave or forsake you. Let these be your guide.

II. Know how to find the skeleton of a clause.

  • Do you have a nominative? Do you have a verb? If you can find these, you can begin to anchor your understanding of the sentence around it.
  • If you have a nominative, is it modified by anything? Look for adjectives, for genitives.
  • Is your verb transitive? Does it usually take direct objects? If so, you know to look for accusative direct objects. Does it usually introduce content clauses or indirect discourse? Look for infinitives.

Then ask some questions about other types of phrases and clauses that can appear:

  • Are there any prepositions? If so, their phrases have to be modifying something, and are therefore supplementary to the core of the clause.
  • Are there any relative pronouns? If so, they form separate clauses that modify something in the clause to which they are subordinate.
  • Are there any participles? Though they can introduce long phrases, their job remains the same, to modify.

You can block out all of these and then find what they attach to.

If you found your understanding of sentences on these basic building blocks, even if you have to go hunting for them, you will be able to orient the clause around them. Do not always grab on to the first words that come your way. Read all the way to the end of the clause, to the sentence, and suspend judgement until you have all the evidence. Use your fundamentals to find the skeleton, and then begin hanging the rest of the bits upon it.

III. Scribble.

If you have a physical copy, or if you have a digital copy that supports mark-up, show your work. Block off descriptive phrases. Separate clauses from one another. Show subjects and verbs prominently. Make a system that works for you. If you do this, you’ll make sure you don’t lose the flow, and you won’t accidentally forget what clause you’re really dealing with.

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A Worked Example

Let’s go back to that beginning line of Contra Apionem:

Ἱκανῶς μὲν ὑπολαμβάνω καὶ διὰ τῆς περὶ τὴν ἀρχαιολογίαν συγγραφῆς, κράτιστε ἀνδρῶν Ἐπαφρόδιτε, τοῖς ἐντευξομένοις αὐτῇ πεποιηκέναι φανερὸν περὶ τοῦ γένους ἡμῶν τῶν Ἰουδαίων, ὅτι καὶ παλαιότατόν ἐστι καὶ τὴν πρώτην ὑπόστασιν ἔσχεν ἰδίαν, καὶ πῶς τὴν χώραν ἣν νῦν ἔχομεν κατῴκησε, πεντακισχιλίων ἐτῶν ἀριθμὸν ἱστορίαν περιέχουσαν ἐκ τῶν παρ᾿ ἡμῖν ἱερῶν βίβλων διὰ τῆς Ἑλληνικῆς φωνῆς συνεγραψάμην.

So what should we do? Let’s ask those two basic questions.

  1. Do we have a nominative? Well, no.
  2. Do we have a main verb? Yes, right near the beginning (lucky us) ὑπολαμβάνω.

Well, what kind of verb is ὑπολαμβάνω? “I suppose.” It introduces indirect discourse, because you need to show what it is that you suppose. Indirect discourse leads us to look for an infinitive, which we find in πεποιηκέναι. So now we have a kernel of the clause. “I suppose that I have made.”

Now we ask another question: are there any accusatives that could serve as the object of πεποιηκέναι? The only accusative not caught inside of a prepositional phrase is the adjective φανερὸν, “clear.” So now we can string these together, “I suppose that I have made it clear.”

But what has been made clear? Here, Josephus could either continue with indirect discourse, which might lead to ambiguity, or introduce the content with a ὅτι, which is exactly what we find: “I suppose that I have made it clear.”

Now, you may notice that we’ve skipped quite a lot of the sentence so far, and to understand the meaning, we will need to go back. But as it is, we already have the main idea of this first clause.

Let’s go back to the part we have covered so far and block out all phrases that aren’t part of what we have translated:

[Ἱκανῶς] μὲν ὑπολαμβάνω καὶ [διὰ τῆς περὶ τὴν ἀρχαιολογίαν συγγραφῆς], [κράτιστε ἀνδρῶν Ἐπαφρόδιτε], [τοῖς ἐντευξομένοις αὐτῇ] πεποιηκέναι φανερὸν [περὶ τοῦ γένους ἡμῶν τῶν Ἰουδαίων].

In turn, those are:

  • Ἱκανῶς, “Sufficiently.”
  • διὰ τῆς περὶ τὴν ἀρχαιολογίαν συγγραφῆς, “Through the account about the antiquities.”
  • κράτιστε ἀνδρῶν Ἐπαφρόδιτε, “O Epaphroditus, most excellent of men.”
  • τοῖς ἐντευξομένοις αὐτῇ, “For those who will read it.”
  • περὶ τοῦ γένους ἡμῶν τῶν Ἰουδαίων, “Concerning our race, the Jews/Judeans.”

Now, the part of reading that is more a practiced skill than a science, is figuring out how these attach. Usually, proximity and sense govern the reading. So we have, “I suppose that for those who will read it, I, O Epaphroditus, most excellent of men, through the account about the antiquities, have sufficiently made it clear about our race, the Jews, that…”

Then, in the content of what he has made clear, we are given three straightforward clauses. And it is clear that they are parallel because they all have 3s verbs: καὶ παλαιότατόν ἐστι καὶ τὴν πρώτην ὑπόστασιν ἔσχεν ἰδίαν, καὶ πῶς τὴν χώραν ἣν νῦν ἔχομεν κατῴκησε (“That it [the race of the Jews] is most ancient, and had its own character from the beginning, and how it settled the land which now we possess”).

And then, finally: πεντακισχιλίων ἐτῶν ἀριθμὸν ἱστορίαν περιέχουσαν ἐκ τῶν παρ᾿ ἡμῖν ἱερῶν βίβλων διὰ τῆς Ἑλληνικῆς φωνῆς συνεγραψάμην.

The syntax is not quite intuitive here, but the rules still apply. No nominative, so is there a verb? Yes, all the way at the end, συνεγραψάμην. “I have written.” Written what? Is there an accusative? ἱστορίαν, “an account.” That’s the main idea, “I have written an account.

Are either of those two words modified? ἱστορίαν has περιέχουσαν, a participle meaning “containing” or “spanning.” Containing what? Genitive of content, πεντακισχιλίων ἐτῶν ἀριθμὸν, “5,000 years in number.”

And then the rest are prepositional phrases: ἐκ τῶν παρ᾿ ἡμῖν ἱερῶν βίβλων, “From our holy books,” and διὰ τῆς Ἑλληνικῆς φωνῆς, “Through the Greek language.”

All together, it’s “I have written an account in Greek, drawn from our holy books, spanning 5,000 years.”

The whole introduction, then:

“I suppose that for those who will read it, I, O Epaphroditus, most excellent of men, through the account about the antiquities, have sufficiently made clear about our race, the Jews, that it is most ancient, and had its own character from the beginning, and how it settled the land which now we possess. I have written this account in Greek, drawn from our holy books, spanning 5,000 years.”

You can follow this worked example for the rest of Josephus’ entire corpus. Good luck.

Tip 5: Read

You will only get better by reading. All the grammar books, all the vocabulary lists in the world will not help you until you actually try reading the texts.

Read often. Read consistently. Read with a sense of discovery. Read to find out what the author says. Don’t just read to get better at Greek, your motivation will be weaker. Read the book to actually read the book.

At first it will be slow, but you will get faster. At first it will be difficult, but it can become a joy. Phrases that once seemed opaque will eventually seem creative, funny, engaging, clever. You will, eventually, get used to the style.

Especially, the more you read a single author, the more their way of writing will become familiar to you. You will gain a sense of the way Josephus writes things, and the somewhat mechanical process described above will drop more and more into the background.

Do the work, and there will come a point where you are no longer hunting, no longer translating, no longer guessing, but actually reading sophisticated, literary Greek.


Daniel Stevens is a PhD student in New Testament, and a Gates Cambridge Scholar, at the University of Cambridge. His thesis research is on the role of promise as a theological concept in the Epistle to the Hebrews, with a broader interest in early Jewish Christianity, Second Temple Judaism, and patristic reception of Hebrews. Previously, he was an adjunct professor in New Testament at The Master’s Seminary where he had earned his M.Div. after studying Classical Greek at UCLA.


Ready to begin reading Josephus in Greek? In addition to a selection of the Josephus Loeb series, Logos has the entire Josephus in Greek: Niese Critical Edition with Apparatus, which is the first and only edition of this work to include English translations of Niese’ original Latin prefaces.

Be sure to watch this video by the Logos Pro Team, which demonstrates how to use ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman texts in your study of the Bible, only in Logos:

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5 comments
  • I should have added: I encourage my own Greek students to start taking steps beyond the NT by looking to the Apostolic Fathers and to the LXX, neither of which are particularly more complex than the NT, but both of which do expand vocabulary and introduce a wider variety of styles. I especially encourage them to delve into books like 2 and 4 Maccabees which, “M for violence” ratings aside, do kick up the syntactic complexity a good couple of notches without becoming too chaotic. Epictetus is a great starting point for texts outside the Jewish and Christian streams, I think.

  • Daniel, I thoroughly enjoyed this, even though I have no intention of picking up Josephus again, in Greek or in English translation. After all, I’m a thousand years old and the last connection I had with the Greek language was undergraduate Koine Greek. I wish I had had this advice when I was in undergrad Greek class!

  • Very good advice. Previous generations of NT greek readers were used to reading a broader range of Greek, and that broader knowledge has many implications for discovering the probable meaning of many disputed passages and doctrines. Present NT knowledge suffers from a lack of depth and breadth thereby.
    And new authors are often very difficult
    No shortcuts work. Reading is the most vital part of mastering or even dealing poorly with a new author in any language. The rest is secondary. CS Lewis was taught to read the classics mainly by being required to read them cold aloud in chunks and then to attempt a go at a verbal translation, and only then allowed to do other work. And amazingly it worked.
    Well presented. Well thought through. Thank you

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