Josephus: On why Moses is Superior to Greek Legislation

Below is Josephus’ comment on the superiority of Moses’s legislation to the Greek laws:

The reason why the constitution of this legislation was ever better directed to the utility of all than other legislations were, is this, that Moses did not make religion a part of virtue, but he saw and he ordained other virtues to be parts of religion; I mean justice, and fortitude, and temperance, and a universal agreement of the members of the community with one another; (171) for all our actions and studies, and all our words [in Moses’s settlement] have a reference to piety towards God; for he hath left none of these in suspense, or undetermined; for there are two ways of coming at any sort of learning and a moral conduct of life; the one is by instruction in words, the other by practical exercises. (172) Now, other lawgivers have separated these two ways in their opinions, and choosing one of those ways of instruction, or that which best pleased every one of them, neglected the other. Thus did the Lacedemonians and the Cretans teach by practical exercises, but not by words: while the Athenians, and almost all the other Grecians, made laws about what was to be done, or left undone, but had no regard to the exercising them thereto in practice.

Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987).

This is a remarkable observation of human nature. We’re naturally religious and superstitious. And while the logical arguments for virtue seem to hold, they are hardly capable of overcoming our superstitious desire to base our lives on our feelings and to expect a logical result. So Moses, instead of teaching religion as a part of virtue, Moses taught virtue as a part of religion and taught a religion that demanded virtue. Josephus goes on to argue that with respect to the two types of instruction in virtue, the law of Moses is superior because, “But for our legislator, he very carefully joined these two methods of instruction together; for he neither left these practical exercises to go on without verbal instruction, nor did he permit the hearing of the law to proceed without the exercises for practice…”

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