Thomas Gorey: Josephus and the Rebels’ Cry of ”The Son Comes!” in A.D. 70 (2003)

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The implication is that Josephus reported the watchmen’s cry based on their mispronunciation of “ha-eben” (“the stone”) as “habben” (“the son”). 

 Josephus and the Rebels’ Cry of ”The Son Comes!” in A.D. 70

By Thomas Gorey

The report of Josephus, the great 1st-century Jewish historian, that the Jewish rebels cried “the Son comes!” during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 has caused angst for many scholars. It has done so despite the fact that all the ancient manuscripts of Josephus’ text of “The Jewish War” contain that very phrase.

The passage at issue, as translated from Book 5, Chapter 6 of Josephus’ Greek text by William Whiston, reads as follows:

“…Now, the stones that were cast [by the Roman catapults during the siege of Jerusalem] were of the weight of a talent, and were carried two furlongs and farther. …As for the Jews, they at first watched the coming of the stone, for it was of a white color, and could therefore not only be perceived by the great noise it made, but could be seen also before it came by its brightness; accordingly the watchmen that sat upon the towers gave them [the Jewish rebels] notice when the engine was let go, and the stone came from it, and cried aloud in their own country language, “THE SON COMETH:” so those that were in its way stood off, and threw themselves down upon the ground: by which means, and by their thus guarding themselves, the stone fell down and did them no harm. But the Romans contrived how to prevent that by blacking the stone, [an effective action by the Romans] who then could aim at them with success, when the stone was not discerned beforehand, as it had been till then; and so they destroyed many of them at one blow.”

Many scholars, unable to make sense of “the Son comes,” have resorted to “correcting” the Greek word “huios” (“son”) with a speculative substitute word that improves the reading for them. Or they have claimed that an alleged mispronunciation of Hebrew words by the rebels explains why Josephus, writing in Greek, supposedly misreported “the stone comes” as “the Son comes.”

The Greek Manuscripts Say “The Son Comes”

In his detailed note on this passage (p. 710 of “The Works of Josephus, Complete and Unabridged,” published by Hendrickson Publishers [1987]), the 18th-century translator Whiston writes:

“What should be the meaning of this signal or watchword, when the watchmen saw a stone coming from the engine, ‘The Son Cometh,’ or what mistake there is in the reading, I cannot tell. The MSS [manuscripts], both Greek and Latin, all agree in this reading: and I cannot approve of any groundless conjectural alteration of the text from ‘huios’ [‘son’] to ‘ios’ [‘arrow’ or ‘dart’], that not the son or a stone, but that the arrow or dart cometh….” Whiston points out that “ios” is a poetical word that Josephus never uses elsewhere (nor even here, as the manuscripts show), and that the word is not even suitable for the context, as the Roman engine is throwing large stones, not darts or arrows.

“Baby on the Way”?

A modern version of Josephus’ work, translated by G.A. Williamson, translates this crucial phrase — strangely enough — as “Baby on the way!” (See p. 309 of the 1981 edition of “The Jewish War,” originally published by Penguin Books in 1959 and re-issued in revised editions by E. Mary Smallwood.) “Baby on the way!” — which takes the word “son” in the sense of “child” — is closer to the mark than the speculative correction of “son” to “arrow” or “dart,” but the Williamson translation shows no awareness of the Jewish rebels’ cry as possibly referring to Jesus coming in judgment on Jerusalem.

Williamson’s Speculation on Why “Son” Rather than “Stone” Turned Up in Josephus’ Text

In fact, the footnote on this passage in Williamson’s version of “The Jewish War” stumbles badly in suggesting that sound-alike Hebrew words account for why Josephus used the Greek word “huios” (“son”) rather than “petros” (“stone”). The Williamson footnote (p. 449) contends that the Jewish watchmen were probably using the Hebrew words “ha-eben” (“the stone”), but pronounced this as “habben” (“the son”). The implication is that Josephus reported the watchmen’s cry based on their mispronunciation of “ha-eben” (“the stone”) as “habben” (“the son”). He then translated “habben” into Greek as “huios” (“son”), resulting in the phrase “the Son comes” instead of the expected “the stone comes.”

The Problem With Williamson’s Explanation: 1st-century Jews Spoke Aramaic, Not Hebrew

But the problem with this theory is that the Jews of Jerusalem at this time did not speak in pure Hebrew, and thus would not have used the Hebrew word “ben” for “son” but rather the Chaldean or Aramaic word “bar.” As Whiston writes in his note on this passage: “Had Josephus written even his first edition of these books of the ‘War’ in pure Hebrew, or had the Jews then used the pure Hebrew at Jerusalem, the Hebrew word for a son is so like that for a stone, ‘ben’ and ‘eben,’ that such a correction [from ‘son’ to ‘stone’] might have been more easily admitted. But Josephus wrote his former [and no longer existing] edition for the use of the Jews beyond Euphrates, and so in the Chaldee [Aramaic] language, as he did his second edition in the Greek language; and ‘bar’ was the Chaldee word for ‘son,’ instead of the Hebrew ‘ben,’ and was used, not only in Chaldea, etc., but in Judea also, as the New Testament informs us….” The bottom line is that no mispronunciation of Hebrew words would account for Josephus reporting the cry as “the Son comes” rather than “the stone comes,” because the rebels, like their fellow 1st-century Jews, spoke Aramaic. Thus, the presumption must be that Joseph reported this Aramaic cry correctly.

(There is no possible issue of a mispronounced Aramaic word, as the Aramaic “bar” [“son”] is nothing like the Aramaic “kepha” [“stone” or “rock”] or “shua” [“massive rock”].)

So Why Did the Rebels Shout “The Son Comes!”?

So the question is: what did the Jewish rebels mean by their shout of “the Son comes!” when the Romans shot their heavy stones at them? In his note on this passage of Josephus, Whiston quotes a scholar who took note “that many will here look for a mystery, as though the meaning were, that the Son of God came now to take vengeance on the sins of the Jewish nation.” Whiston writes that while this “is indeed the truth of the fact,” it is “hardly what the Jews could now mean: unless possibly by way of derision of Christ’s threatening so often that he would come at the head of the Roman army for their destruction. But even this interpretation has but a very small degree of probability.”

Whiston, however, offers no explanation of why he regards the interpretation of Jesus coming in judgment as having only “a very small degree of probability,” especially since it is the only one that does not resort to “correcting” Josephus’ text with a speculative alternative reading. Surprisingly, Whiston goes on to offer what he calls an “emendation by mere conjecture” that the Greek word “petros” (“stone”) would make a better reading than “huios” (“son”) in this passage — even though he has already acknowledged that all the ancient manuscripts of Josephus support the reading of “the Son comes.”

Russell: Pressing Forward to the Logical Conclusion

James Stuart Russell, in “The Parousia,” boldly presses forward to the logical conclusion that Whiston shrunk from reaching. Russell writes (p. 482): “It could not but be well known to the Jews that the great hope and faith of the Christians was the speedy coming of the Son. It was about this very time, according to [the historian] Hegesippus, that St. James, the brother of our Lord, publicly testified in the temple that ‘the Son of man was about to come in the clouds of heaven,’ and then sealed his testimony with his blood.” Thus, Russell concludes, “[i]t seems highly probable” that the Jewish rebels, “when they saw the white mass [of stone] hurtling through the air, raised the ribald cry, ‘The Son is coming,’ in mockery of the Christian hope of the Parousia [Christ’s coming], to which they might trace a ludicrous resemblance in the strange appearance of the missile.”

Book of Revelation Supports Russell’s Interpretation

That Russell’s interpretation is correct is buttressed by a remarkable parallel between the Book of Revelation and Josephus’ report that the stones shot by the Romans at the Jewish rebels weighed a “talent” (about one hundred pounds). Revelation 16:21, part of a passage that describes the effects of the seventh bowl of God’s wrath, reports that hailstones weighing “about a talent” fell on defiant men who “blasphemed God because of the plague of the hail; for the plague thereof was exceeding great” (King James Version). The cry of “the Son comes!” by the rebels, who were being bombarded with stones weighing a talent, appears to be a virtually literal fulfillment of this verse in Revelation. This prophetic book, fittingly enough, focuses on the imminent return of Christ, whose coming would be witnessed by Jesus’ own generation — “even those who pierced him” (Revelation 1:7).

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