The cities of the ancient Mediterranean lands often had traditions about a particular founder or “lawgiver” who established the city and/or laid down its constitution. Athens could claim men such as Theseus, Draco, Solon, and Cleisthenes. Sparta had Lycurgus. Rome had Romulus and Remus, Lucius Junius Brutus, and (latterly) Augustus Caesar. The Hellenistic cities of the Near East had Alexander the Great and his Diadochi (successors) as founders, cities such as: Alexandria, Seleucia,  Antioch, Ptolemais, and so on. Across the Mediterranean there were the older colonies of the Greeks founded during their so-called “Dark Age” between the end of the Bronze Age, when the Mycenaean civilization collapsed, and the beginning of the Archaic period, when our historical knowledge becomes more sure. These cities could be found in Asia Minor, North Africa, Sicily, southern Italy, Spain, and Gaul (Marseilles is a corruption of the Greek “Massilia”).

Into this picture of founders and lawgivers, Josephus and Philo placed their version of the story of Israel. Thus Moses enters the hall of fame alongside Lycurgus and Solon. Moses is described as giving Israel a constitution to keep in perpetuity. This constitution is to be understood not merely as a set of laws and institutions, but, more than that, as a way of life. Thus Israelites can take this “constitution” with them throughout the Diaspora as colonists from the “metropolis”: Jerusalem. Using language of this kind allowed Josephus and Philo to make the case that the Jews should be accorded the same kind of rights as the Greek cities within the Roman Empire. Furthermore, in a period when they were under suspicion, it was important to restore their image and to distance the “law-abiding” Diaspora Jews from the events that had occurred in Judea. The rights of communities and synagogues could be revoked at any time by the emperor, and in living memory the Emperor, Claudius, had expelled the Jewish population from Rome.

These ancient lawgivers were also viewed as sages. Herodotus tells the story of Solon in the court of Croesus, where the king asks him who the happiest man is. Solon does not give the king the answer he hoped for: Croesus hoped to be named the happiest man in the world. Instead, Solon gives the king a typically Greek answer: “Call no man happy until he is dead.” At the time, the king does not like this answer, but he grasps its wisdom when he is about to be burned to death by Cyrus the Great. Moses in the accounts of Philo and Josephus is to understood in this light: a wise man who taught Israel how they should live. It is for this reason (amongst others) that Josephus describes the constitution of Israel as a theocracy – a term that he himself may have coined. At any rate, Josephus provides us with the earliest record of this term.

For the people of Israel, there can be no law higher than God’s. Whereas human laws may be poorly framed or may become obsolete, God’s laws are perfect. In keeping with the concept of divine immutability, the divine laws must also be immutable. For this reason, Josephus, while tweaking the constitution to make it intelligible to his Greco-Roman audience, does not suggest that it will ever be superseded. Nor would one expect him to make such a suggestion given his context. The emperors did not openly claim that Augustus had created a new constitution for Rome; Augustus presented himself as the restorer of tradition, of the mos maiorum. Likewise, the Athenians were proud of their democratic traditions, as the Spartans were of their community of warriors (although by this stage it was probably much reduced compared with the fifth century BC). Furthermore, as a priest, Josephus expected to have some standing within the Jewish community under the constitution. Redefining or abolishing it  could mean a loss of prestige and influence.

 

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