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Antiquities of the Jews
(Venice : Rinaldo de Novimagio, 1481)

About The Book

Around 75 CE, Josephus wrote De Bello Judaico (“The Jewish War”), one of 5 primary sources available on the first Jewish-Roman War (55-73 CE). The first 2 of its 7 volumes summarize Jewish history from Antiochus IV Ephiphanies’ capture of Jerusalem to the War’s first stages. Subsequent volumes detail the War’s events and conclude with the death of the last Sicarii (Jewish Zealots), whose stealthy yet very public attacks with small daggers on Romans and Roman sympathizers boldly proclaimed their fierce opposition to Rome’s occupation of Judea.

Josephus opens De Bello with a derogatory salutation to his native Jewish community as “upper barbarians”. He then seems to try countering his evident bias by claiming he merely wants to refute anti-Roman narratives about the War, and even assigns Judea’s corrupt and incompetent Roman governors some responsibility for the conflict. However, he ultimately blames it on Zealots instigating the masses against him and other aristocratic leaders. He opines that Jews should peacefully accept Roman rule because it was God-given. Unlike the Josephus who composed Antiquities of the Jews 20 years later, the Josephus of De Bello makes no attempt to reconcile Jewish and Roman world-views.

Although the earliest extant manuscript, in Greek, of Josephus’s work forms the basis of all early translations, scholars generally agree that the original manuscript was in Aramaic, although none survives. Therefore, though Josephus supposedly supervised the Greek version, the Grecian translator’s interpretation colored that version. Several subsequent translations based on the Greek indicate a more liberal interpretation than do others. For example, the Slavonic version — apparently completed in Rus nearly a millennia after the author’s death — contains what is described as a “very free translation”, with a considerable amount of text found nowhere in any Greek version. An early Hebrew version also exists, with a similar number of textual disparities versus the Greek version. Both the Slavonic and Hebrew exemplify a lengthy history of translation, interpolation, and modification of Josephus’s original text.

About The Author

Jerusalem-born Titus Flavius Josephus, né Yosef ben Matityahu (37 CE -100 CE) left behind a body of historical writings that, even today, make him a controversial figure. While they include a unique, valuable contemporaneous record of both the 1st-century Jewish rebellions against Roman rule in the Holy Land region known as Judea – as well as of Jesus of Nazareth – they also contain many autobiographical details that still remain as disputed and suspect as Josephus’s true loyalties. Regardless of one’s verdict about that, his works give readers a sense of the competing influences that his native Judaism and emerging Christianity had upon him.

Josephus and his brother had parents who represented the era’s transition between Jewish and non-Jewish control in Judea. His mother descended from the Hasmonean royal dynasty, the territory’s last Jewish rulers; his father, a high-ranking Kohen (Jewish priest), became known for his tactfulness towards the Roman Empire-backed Herodian dynasty that conquered Judea and supplanted the Hashmoneans in 37 BCE. Josephus later recounted his growing up in a privileged, wealthy lifestyle that included a full education.

At 16, Josephus apparently traveled on a 3-year long spiritual trek in the wilderness with a member of an ascetic Jewish sect. After his return to Jerusalem, he joined the Pharisees – another Jewish faction that, crucially, had no issue with non-Jewish rule of the Holy Land as long as they could practice their religion. On this point, as with many more to come, there exists much scholarly speculation as to whether Josephus actually believed in Pharisee dogma – or merely associated himself with the group as an opportunistic move in anticipation of what he may have considered an inevitable end: the defeat of Jewish revolt against Roman rule of Judea.

Despite overthrowing Judea’s Jewish kingdom 60 years earlier, the Roman regime still fought to consolidate their power against ongoing, if scattered, Jewish rebellions. The hostilities increased, and in his early twenties Josephus traveled to Rome to negotiate with Emperor Nero for the release and return of several captured Kohanim. While Josephus succeeded in his mission there, the Roman culture and sophistication he encountered apparently deeply impressed him – as did the Empire’s military might.

He returned to Jerusalem on the eve of the First Jewish War (66-70 CE), a general Jewish revolt across Judea led by the nationalist and militaristic Zealots who set up a revolutionary government. Josephus – a self-proclaimed moderate, at least in his memoirs –argued for conciliation with Roman forces. One could suggest that one or several factors motivated his stance: his alleged Pharisee beliefs, or his knowledge of Rome’s armed forces, or his elite background. However, in this instance the most logical explanation might again be simple expediency, which also might explain his subsequent actions.

When the Zealots achieved an early War victory in overrunning Jerusalem’s Roman garrison, Josephus pragmatically aligned himself with them. They appointed him their military commander in the Galilee region, although he still inclined towards conciliation with the Empire. His outlook conflicted with that of John of Giscala, a Galilean who had organized a private militia of peasants. Josephus and John wasted considerable time fighting for control of the rebel operations while the forces of Roman general – and future emperor – Vespasian prepared to attack. While Josephus later wrote that he assumed sole leadership of the Galilean rebels, his newfound status became a moot point.

In 67 CE, Vespasian’s army overwhelmingly destroyed most of the Galilean resistance within a few months. In his memoirs, Josephus recalled the Romans had him and around 40 fellow Jews under siege. Rather than surrender, the rebels chose to draw lots to determine the man who would kill the others and then commit suicide. Josephus claimed pure luck or divine intervention allowed him to ‘win’ this draw; whatever the true circumstances, he instead surrendered. Brought before Vespasian, he apparently avoided execution by yet another expedient action: predicting the former’s ascension as Emperor. This impressed Vespasian enough to spare the captured general’s life.

Josephus spent the next two years imprisoned in a Roman camp, while his forecast gained credibility after Nero’s death in 68 CE. The following year, Vespasian’s troops proclaimed him Emperor – and he gratefully freed Josephus. In turn, Josephus proclaimed allegiance to the Empire, adopting Vespasian’s family name Flavius as his own.

By 70 CE, Josephus joined the Roman forces under the command of Titus, Vespasian’s son and eventual successor as Emperor, as they began the War’s final battle: the siege of Jerusalem. Over 7 months of brutal fighting, Josephus attempted to act as a mediator between the Empire and the rebels, but his history of shifting alliances led both sides to mistrust him. When Jerusalem fell to the Empire, Josephus went to Rome where, granted full citizenship and a pension, he spent the rest of his life devoted to his literary pursuits. Besides a Spanish translation (1536) of his Jewish War, our collection includes a Latin translation of Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews from 1481, making it our earliest-dated item.

About The Printer

Rinaldo de Novimagio (active 1477-1496),most probably Netherlands-born, began printing in Venice in 1477 as partner to Theodor von Rynsburg, a German. In 1479 he established his own press, likely funded due to his marriage to Paula de Messina. De Messina had already outlived 2 successive husbands, both expatriate German Venetian printers: Johann of Speier – Venice’s first printer – and Johann of Cologne.

De Novimagio, using the 2 same Gothic typefaces as his former partner Rynsburg, released only 38 books during his 19 year career, mostly printed between 1477 and 1483. His wife’s death in 1480 may account for this sporadic output: De Novimagio and his 3 sons each inherited a considerable 500 ducats’ worth of gold and goods, and therefore he could afford to suspend his business with little financial worry.

Another explanation posits De Novimagio’s primary interest in creating typefaces — particularly a music typeface — rather than printing books. Contemporaneous and subsequent scholarly reviews of his press’s sole published music book suggest his efforts were regarded as incredibly flawed.

De Novimagio’s press ceased operations in 1496, although it is unknown if his death coincided with this instance. Other printers subsequently used his typefaces.

The JPL’s Copy

This is the JPL Rare Books collection’s earliest printed book, produced in Venice a mere 31 years after Johannes Gutenberg first successfully tested his revolutionary invention, the printing press. As one of our collection’s largest books as well – measuring at 30.5 x 21 x 8 cm and originally printed in two separate volumes – its size and weight definitely compel the reader to place it on a solid, sturdy table for perusal.

Its cover consists of red marbled paper with beige leather half binding, likely calfskin. A great deal of the paper’s colour has faded, while the center has considerable scuffing. The leather is in moderately good condition, though the corners are bumped. Unfortunately, while the bulk of the volume is perfectly intact, the binding has completely detached from it in three parts: the front cover, back cover, and spine. The spine has two red leather cases, one each at 11.4 cm from its top and bottom. Each also include gold decoration along the leather’s top and bottom edges. The top case indicates, in gold, “Josep. Flavio / Antiquitatis Judaice”, while the bottom case states “Venetiis” along with a date beneath it obscured by damage. The fore edge has “JOSEPHUS” written along it.

Upon opening the front cover, one sees a piece of paper taped into the water damaged pastedown. It displays a typewritten ownership statement: “FROM. M.C. Cole, Esq. Flat 16, 25 Cheyne Place, London, S.W.3.” The front flyleaf’s outer edge shows water damage as well as minimal tearing. About 2.5 cm from its top, repair work appears to have been done in a 9 x 2 cm section, perhaps where previous ownership had been indicated and subsequently removed. Newer than the following edge, it was possibly added when it was rebound with the marbled cover, which is not sympathetic to the original time of production, although it is possible the original calfskin binding was used for the half-binding.

The original end page has a distinct upside-down crescent watermark with vertical chain lines, visible without aid at its center. This leaf is more damaged than its predecessor, though the water damage is identically placed. The work’s prologue begins on the next leaf, stating the work’s author and title. An illegible black ink stamp appears at both the bottom of the text and along the spine in the upper inner corner. The stamp seems to contain a crest, and there is transfer on the verso of the leaf preceding it.

The text proper begins with an empty case for an illuminated letter, in which a small letter ‘b’ has been printed in the center as a rubricator’s note. The type is elegantly cut in what appears to be Schwabacher blackletter, an early German form. The margins are very large by today’s standards, measuring 7.5 cm at the bottom, and 6 cm on the outer edge. The inner and upper margins, each a modest 2 cm, are more similar to today’s printing style.

Marginalia appears as early as the verso of the first printed leaf, and immediately two different hands are identifiable. On the verso of a2, a small hand in dark brown ink has made brief but legible notes in Latin, and added a manicula – a small illustration of a pointing hand – near the halfway point. In the inner margin of the recto of a3, a second writer, writing in much lighter brown ink has made nearly entirely illegible notes, also in Latin. This hand appears to have added a large “T” in an empty case on the verso of a3 in lieu of rubrication. Together, these two hands make notes throughout the prologue, though the smaller hand is more prolific.

What appears to be a third hand appears on the verso of a6 in a nearly black ink, less clear than the first hand but clearer than the second. The heavy marginalia continues through Liber Primus, but the second hand disappears nearly entirely halfway through it, making only very sporadic appearances afterwards. The first hand continues to make notes steadily throughout, including the charming manicula, and then appears to stop entirely at leaf i. Furthermore, the marginalia by the third hand stop with only very minor appearances afterwards at leaf q5, halfway through book 12. There is almost no marginalia between q5 and the end of book 20 in any of the identifiable hands.

Book 20 ends with a colophon in which De Novimagio takes responsibility for the printing of the work in May 1400 – though this is a printing error, as we know it to have been printed in 1481. The leaf’s verso is blank, and visible is a watermark unlike that at the work’s beginning: a circle which circumscribes two adjacent triangular shapes, with a star-topped staff above it. This is followed by an entirely blank leaf. Beyond this is appended Josephus’ The Jewish War, preceded by a prologue and in 7 books, from a2 to n5. Of interest, at least two of our three previously identified unknown writers’ inscriptions recur, as well as perhaps a fourth, who has taken pains to fill in most of the empty cases that should have been rubricated with the appropriate letter. At n5, the heading at the top that indicates the particular book of De Bello Judaico disappears, and it appears that Josephus’ Against Apion has been appended. The work ends on p5 with another colophon in which de Novimagio takes responsibility for the printing at Venice in March 1481. They have been bound in reverse order to preserve the chronology of events, rather than that of the writing.

The volume’s final two leaves are blank. A stamp identical to those on the first leaf has been placed at the bottom of the verso of p5 beneath the text. Unfortunately, its lack of legibility mirrors its counterparts. Some of its ink has transferred to the blank leaf, which is moderately more damaged than the front flyleaf. On its verso, “Momento di David [?]” is written in faded, elegant script ; the final word is illegible and appears to have been scrubbed out. The final flyleaf is minimally damaged, with some tearing along the top edge and the top corner folded, along with the corners of the three previous leaves. Located near the leaf’s center, there is a clearly-visible watermark of a circle in which a curved diamond has been drawn. Each of the circle’s five segments contains a six-pointed star, with the largest in the center segment. Of interest, p4 has visible the upside-down crescent watermark from the beginning of the work. The back pastedown is blank.

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