Josephus’ Galilee and Spatial Theory


Taking a fresh look at Josephus’ writings through a deliberately spatial lens can yield new observations.  If Josephus’ history is laden with his own ideologies, is there any reason to assume that his geography is not? 

See Also: Mapping Galilee in Josephus, Luke, and John (Brill, 2016).

John M. Vonder Bruegge, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Religion
Northwestern College
Orange City, IA

            I must begin this article with a confession:  I am not a “theory guy” by choice.  I began studying Josephus in earnest a number of years ago because I was interested in 1st century Galilee—the one about which Sean Freyne once succinctly stated, “The quest for the historical Jesus is quickly becoming the quest for the historical Galilee” (1994: 76)  The historical Galilee.  That was indeed my starting point.  In fact, it has been the starting point for many scholars.  The dominant ethos of the past 40 years of research on Galilee might be aptly summarized in this way:  it remains a historical endeavor.  Freyne’s magisterial tome from 1980 serves as an example.  It was entitled Galilee—and subtitled not something like from the regions around Ptolemais to the Jordan River, but rather from Alexander the Great to Hadrian.  The proper way to study Galilee, in other words, is through time.  But isn’t Galilee a space?  And with that simple realization, I began wondering whether a spatial approach to 1st century Galilee might actually be fruitful.

           The phrase “the spatial turn” (Soja 1999:  262; Massey 1999:  11; see also Gregory et al. 1994: 3) has become a virtual terminus technicus for the insertion of “theory” into spatial disciplines and the insertion of spatial theory into broader intellectual discourse.  Just as the “spatial turn” cut directly into the scientific underpinnings of physical geography and the historicist hegemony of social theory, it is similarly poised to intersect with any ancient text when it is read geographically, producing similar, disruptive results.  The Galilee of our ancient texts is, after all, a spatial concept.  For the purposes of this article, however, it will not suffice merely to assume that geography, like the “history” of historical criticism, has been misrepresented and should be recast in an effort to recover a lost original.  The geographical criticism employed here assumes not that there is a map to be stripped away in order to reveal true territory, but that all territory is inescapably mapped and should be analyzed in terms of how maps both reflect and shape socially constructed spaces.  As much as any other “area” currently under the scrutinizing gaze of scholars, first century Galilee is ripe for the methodological picking.

            After learning more about theoretical approaches to the study of space and place, I developed a more critical eye with regard to the way in which most scholars approach geography.  We look for geographical information in our ancient texts to match up with what is “on the ground” so to speak.  When it does, we move on.  When it does not, we go into one of two default modes:  A) the author must be ignorant; or B) the geography must be symbolic.  Spatial theory is far from unified—it is a panoply of different approaches—but it does reveal that there are far more nuanced ways to look at space.

            The primary evaluative lens chosen for this particular study is the critical geography of Edward Soja (1989; 1996; 1999) with noticeable overtones from the spatial theory of Henri Lefebvre (1991).  Soja’s main contribution to geographical theory is his notion of “Thirdspace,” and as the term implies, its definition necessarily draws upon the related concepts of “Firstspace” and “Secondspace.”  If Firstspace refers to “real” space, the territory as it is measured and mapped, and if Secondspace refers to “imagined” space, the representation of that territory not only pictorially but also, and maybe especially, imaginatively in social discourse, then Thirdspace is “realandimagined,” a position of understanding and experiencing space that draws upon both First- and Secondspace. Thirdspace is a deliberately constructed platform for “the translation of knowledge into action” (1996: 22).   The crucial influence of Lefebvre cannot be overlooked in this regard.  Soja’s trialectic of space is a deliberate echo of Lefebvre’s own triad of “perceived,” “conceived,” and “lived” space (Lefebvre 1991: 40).  Thus, for Soja, Thirdspace “can be mapped but never captured in conventional cartographies; it can be creatively imagined but obtains meaning only when it is practised and fully lived” (1999:  276).  Soja’s approach is, above all else, a method of reasserting spatial categories in critical discourse, a recognition that the deliberately scripted historical drama that unfolds before us takes place upon a willfully constructed stage.

        Taking a fresh look at Josephus’ writings through a deliberately spatial lens can yield new observations.  If Josephus’ history is laden with his own ideologies, is there any reason to assume that his geography is not?  For the remainder of this article, I would like to discuss Josephus’ Galilee through the lens of Firstspace, Secondspace, and Thirdspace.  The lion’s share will actually go to Secondspace; hopefully, the ramifications for Thirdspace will become clear at that point.  

       We begin with Firstspace, the space most closely associated with conventional cartography and traditional geography.  It is the geography of not only delineated borders, but also of quantitative analysis and data collection.  In Josephus’ case, we might look at his discussion of the boundaries of Galilee or the observations he makes about Galilee’s topographical features, its cities, villages, and landmarks, or its productivity in terms of natural resources, agriculture, and industry.  When he discusses these things, he is doing precisely what the conventions of ancient Greco-Roman geography called for.  Yuval Shahar, in a study on Josephus’ geography, has shown how neatly Josephus falls in line with writers like Polybius and Strabo in this regard (2004; 2005).  Both emphasized the importance of discussing such topics when explaining a given region.  What is important to realize about Firstspace, however, is that it is still an epistemology, a way of knowing about space.  It is not tantamount to objective reality; it is space—measurable and mappable—as it is perceived (to use Lefebvre’s term) by the geographer.  When applying this principle to Josephus’ Galilee, therefore, the goal is not to distill the accurate geographical information from the inaccuracies in his account and call it Firstspace.  The goal instead is to identify those aspects of his description of Galilee that are largely neutral with regard to his own theorization about that space, regardless of accuracy.  Josephus may be inaccurate when giving the measurements of the Lake of Gennesar (War 3.506) as approximately 5 miles wide and 18 miles long, and he does seem to be off even when taking into consideration the ancient shoreline, but it is difficult to argue that his error is due to an ideological bias, whether intentional or unintentional.  Though his perception may be off, though it may not match precisely what is “on the ground,” it is still Firstspace.

            When looking at Josephus’ Galilee as Secondspace, ideology becomes an important component.  If Firstspace refers to “real” space as it is perceived, then Secondspace is “imagined” space, the characterization or even the production of space in the mind of the one working with space (Soja 1996: 10-11).  The goal of evaluating Josephus’ Galilee as Secondspace, however, is not only to identify how Galilee becomes a vehicle for Josephus’ ideology, but also to recognize that Josephus’ ideology needs a space.  Secondspace also involves another key component:  it is subject to broader social discourse about space.  Since it is explored inevitably via its connections with “prevailing representational discourses,” it is simultaneously an individual conception and a social product (Soja 1996: 11).  When Josephus talks about Galilee, he is entering into a broader conversation about space in general and that space in particular.

            A good illustration of this can be found in Josephus’ geographical excursus on Galilee in War 3.35-44.  Josephus starts the digression with a recounting of Galilee’s borders, which, in and of themselves as guidelines for mapping, present few problems, in part because defining boundaries seems so directly relevant to Firstspace.  But the way in which Josephus conceives of those boundaries is better characterized as Secondspace.  According to James Romm, “Perhaps the most fundamental act by which the archaic Greeks defined their world was to give it boundaries, marking off a finite stretch of earth from the otherwise formless expanse surrounding it” (1992: 10).  Rivers, including “Ocean,” were commonly viewed as borders, whether at the level of the entire oikoumenē (cf. Homer, Il. 21.190-99; Herodotus, Hist. 2.21-3; 4.8, 36; Strabo, Geog. 1.1.3, 8; Polybius, Hist. 3.37.3) or the smaller scale of a specific region (Romm 1992: 12).   With this in mind, coupled with the fact that Josephus cites the Jordan River as a border for both Perea and Judea (War 3.47, 51), the minimal role that it plays as a border for Galilee may be significant.  He explains that the southern boundary of Galilee extends as far as east as the Jordan (War 3.37), but the eastern boundary itself is defined by the territories of Hippos, Gadara, and Gaulanitis and not the waters of the Jordan River which, as he explicitly states later, bisect the lake (War 3.515).  By citing these three locales on the eastern border, along with Ptolemais to the west, Samaria and Scythopolis to the south, and Tyre to the north, it also allows Josephus to define Galilee as first and foremost an area that is “surrounded by such powerful foreign nations” (War 3.41).  We may not agree that those were powerful nations, but this is Josephus’ Secondspace.  He is careful to define the borders of Galilee by referencing its powerful neighbors, not its natural features.

      Following his discussion of borders, Josephus takes the next step in developing his representation of Galilee by discussing three important aspects of the territory in War 3.41-3.  First, he explains that Galilee has “always resisted any hostile invasion” not because the terrain is rugged or inaccessible (though in some places such as Jotapata it was), but because the inhabitants, whom he lauds for their courage and mettle, were “from infancy inured to war.”  Second, the land itself is extremely fertile, “rich in soil and pasturage” and capable of supporting such a wide variety of agricultural pursuits that even the laziest among the population felt compelled to work every last parcel (cf. War 3.44 on Perea).  Third, the region is densely inhabited, replete with numerous cities and well-populated villages, all due to the area’s general productivity.  Surrounded by powerful nations, well-populated with an indomitable and industrious people, and abundantly productive, Josephus’ representation of Galilee is beginning to take shape in a way that goes far beyond the placement of its borders.

      In crafting this conception of Galilee, Josephus shows that, as a geographer, he is actually well aware of what he’s doing.  Polybius’ description of Media serves as an intriguing parallel to Josephus’ excursus on Galilee.  It is productive, containing vast amounts of horses, cattle, and corn; it is surrounded by formidable foes such as the Persians and Parthians and including the Cossaei, Corbrenae, Carchi and other “barbarous tribes with a high reputation for their warlike qualities”; and, it is crisscrossed by mountains and plains that are “full of towns and villages” (Hist. 5.44.1-11).  Furthermore, Media just so happens to be at the center of a revolt, having rebelled against Antiochus the Great under the instigation of his former satrap, Molon, whom Polybius describes as “master of this country…absolutely terrible and irresistible to all the inhabitants of Asia” (Hist. 5.45.1-2).  Each of the major elements of Josephus’ Galilee is also present in Polybius’ Media.

       We see some of the same commonplaces in Strabo.  The most notable application of this principle in Strabo can be found in his representation of Italy as a whole.  Its balanced and favorable position within the oikoumenē—defensibility, moderate climate, fertile soil, plentiful water (including both cold and hot springs), abundant natural resources—makes it a fitting place from which to rule:

[B]eing situated in the very midst of the greatest nations, I allude to Greece and the best provinces of Asia, [Italy] is naturally in a position to gain the ascendency, since she excels the circumjacent countries both in the valor of her population and in extent of territory, and by being in proximity to them seems to have been ordained to bring them into subjection without difficulty (Geog. 6.4.1).

           In other words, place is an important factor in determining the character and even martial quality of a people (cf. Vitruvius, De Arch. 6.1.6-11).  Josephus conveys the same idea, particularly when comparing his portrayal of Galilee to the other districts in the region.  Perea, being too rugged and too wild, is less productive than Galilee (War 3.44).  Josephus makes no mention of its inhabitants.  Judea and Samaria, on the other hand, are quite productive, and both have a dense population (War 3.50).  To be clear, however, it is only with respect to Galilee that he talks about the military prowess of the population.

        The point is not to imply that Josephus deliberately patterned his Galilee after Polybius’ Media or Strabo’s Italy, but to show that the elements of his portrayal are common to other Hellenistic geographers and historians.  When he depicts Galilee the way he does, he is first and foremost participating in the broader social discourse about space and following well-known conventions.  But when it comes to the character of Galilee itself, Josephus ventures into uncharted territory.  A Secondspace analysis of Josephus’ Galilee reveals that while he is heavily indebted to the Hellenistic geographical tradition for his method of presenting Galilee, he is not always following in those footsteps with regard to the characterization of Galilee. The Greco-Roman authors who discuss Judea and Galilee (Diodorus, Pliny, Strabo, Tacitus, scattered others) have a tendency to extol the productivity of the land while at the same time disparaging the inhabitants (the Jewish people are unsavory, of questionable origins, have strange worship practices, characterized as brigands and robbers).  Josephus offers his appraisal as a gentle correction to the broader social discourse about the region, reminding his readers that land and inhabitants mirror one another.  Josephus’ Galilee emerges from Secondspace not as a troublesome backwater, but in its own humble way as a military stronghold and a military man’s dream.  In fact, at a fundamental level Josephus’ Galilee has more in common with Polybius’ Media or even with Strabo’s Italy than it does with any other ancient representation of Galilee (including Jewish texts).  As he goes outside the bounds of that discourse on Galilee, he enters Thirdspace.  And how does Josephus do this?  Put very simply:  unlike every other first century author who writes about Galilee, Josephus actually lived there.

            It is when we get into Thirdspace, the space of personal posturing and politicking, of positioning for action, that Josephus’ “apologetic geography” (to paraphrase Gregory Sterling’s “apologetic historiography” [1992: 16]) comes to full force.  Hopefully it is becoming clear that we aren’t just now arriving in Thirdspace, but Josephus has been dabbling here all along even within this simple geographical excursus.  By depicting Galilee in such Spartan terms in War book 3, it is clear that Josephus has willfully constructed a stage upon which to play out his role as the story’s protagonist:  the military general commissioned to lead Galilee heroically in its revolt against Rome.  In fact, the Jewish War is acted out on several stages, each one acknowledged at the time of its subjugation:  Galilee (4.120), Perea (4.431), Idumea (4.555), Jerusalem (6.435-42), and finally the rest of the country (7.408).  Of all of these summary statements, it is only Galilee that receives praise, being commended for “affording the Romans a strenuous training for the impending … campaign.”  The echo of the geographical digression in 3.35-58, where Galilee alone is described as a bulwark against invasion, is unmistakable.  The reader should keep in mind where it all started:  with Josephus’ simple description of Galilee’s borders and how its inhabitants, “from infancy inured to war,” were surrounded on all sides by such formidable powers.  There is more to that description than what you can see on a conventional map.

            When we approach space and geography in ancient texts, we have not left the world of theory behind.  We theorize about space today as much as Josephus’ did then.  If a modern (or in this case a post-modern) spatial theory can result in a helpful interpretation of Josephus’ geography, then so be it.  In his dissertation a number of years ago, Harold Attridge summarized Josephus’ approach to apologetic historiography as follows:  “Herein lies the basic achievement of [Josephus’] apologetics…   Greek materials have been made the vehicles of a…forthrightly Jewish interpretation of history” (1976: 183-84).  But we shouldn’t stop there.  I would add, Greek materials have also been made the vehicles of a forthrightly Josephan interpretation of geography, and that’s something we mustn’t overlook.  In other words, space also has its place.


[Author’s Note:  This article has been adapted from material in chs. 1 and 2 of my book Mapping Galilee in Josephus, Luke, and John: Critical Geography and the Construction of an Ancient Space (AJEC 93; Leiden, E.J. Brill:  2016) with the permission of the publisher.]



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