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Thomas Lewin: Historical Detective and Josephus Scholar Extraordinaire

Updated: May 11, 2022

From Vanity Fair 1870: A London Barrister

Thomas Lewin was an extraordinary investigative historian of nineteenth century London whose works have been, in my view, underappreciated. This is in large part because his most seminal work (1)—parsing out Herod’s Temple Mount—was published not in a book, but in the prestigious journal Archaeologia. As a result of this outlet, it was not seen by the broader public without a specific visit to a library that held these volumes. I believe this final paper was virtually lost to history, for since that time it has not (to my knowledge) been cited by scholars or listed with his works. It is only with the recent advent of Google’s e-books venture that old dusty volumes of journals have become searchable on the web. It is in this way I came upon Lewin’s remarkable paper. The paper was read before the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1871 within months from Lewin gaining access to the results of Wilson’s and Warren’s surveys of the Temple Mount (2). Unfortunately, I do not have room enough in this blog to elaborate on Lewin’s evidence for the layout of the Temple Mount, so I will save that summary for next week. Many may argue his conclusions are nearly 150 years old and many other excavations and discoveries have superseded his description. Much excavation has indeed been done around the edges of the Mount, but no one else has mapped its interior and bedrock surface beneath since Lewin’s 1873 paper (1). In this blog I will continue to introduce you to Thomas Lewin so you can fully appreciate the skill set and experience of the man who put his carefully thought out conclusions on paper.

Thomas Lewin was born the fourth son of a vicar in Sussex County, England in April of 1805. In 1827 he graduated from Oxford with high marks and exceptionally good skills in Latin and Greek and received a Master of Arts from there in Classical Literature in 1831. He was soon afterward admitted to the prestigious Lincoln’s Inn law school, where he passed the bar in 1833. He stayed on working for that institute for 40 years, where he mentored students and worked cases for the Lord of the Chancellery, specializing in trusts. He quickly rose to the rank of barrister—one who could wear the wig and argue cases before the royal court. He was well known professionally for writing the seminal reference book on trusts, which has eight volumes and has gone through 94 editions from 1839 to 2016 (3). But Lewin’s other passion was New Testament era history, of which he wrote papers that included the life of Saint Paul (4), finding the landing spot of Julius Caesar in Britain (5), the authenticity of the Holy Sepulchre (6), the origin of the Mosque of Omar (7), refining the dates of New Testament events (8), and books on the topography of Jerusalem (9) and its destruction by Titus in 70 CE (10). His second book was written following a visit to Jerusalem he made in 1862 after the critics of his first book in 1861 claimed he had no authority without having visited the Holy Land. His final seminal paper (1) was his last before his death in January of 1877. His writings got him elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaires (F.S.A.) of London. He was a bachelor most of his life but married Mary Emily Brock (nee Schreiber) in 1865, who survived him.

Lewin stated in his final paper (1) that he had studied the works of Josephus for a quarter of a century, and the detail in which he cites him in the original Greek leaves the reader little doubt of his expert knowledge. Sir Charles Warren in his final book gives a view of Josephus that many hold to this day:

“His testimony, so far as descriptions are concerned is always valuable, but his figures contradict each other very much. (11)”

Lewin on the other hand had studied Josephus with the delicate care of a barrister and fluent Greek reader stating that:

The topography of the Holy City is not to be determined by the actual exploration exclusively, but by a careful study also of the text of Josephus. The two guides must go hand in hand, or rather must be pitted against each other until they are made to agree. (12)

Lewin placed weight on Josephus having been a living eyewitness (like a good barrister would) to Herod’s Temple, and carefully parsed Josephus’s temple numbers until they made sense. Indeed, in his memoriam the writer concluded of Lewin that

“The care with which he sifts and collates evidence, the clearness with which arrives at his conclusions, are largely due, as I believe, to those habits of thought which are acquired and fostered in the prosecution of legal studies. (13)”

I must admit I feel a kindred-soul connection with Lewin. It stems, I believe, from seeing a fellow professional who, like me, sifted and collated evidence, and on the personal side possessed a passion for the history of Jerusalem who couldn’t help but apply his habits of thought to that latter endeavor.

References Cited:

(1) Lewin, Thomas, Esq., M.A., F.S.A. (1873) Observations on the probable sites of the Jewish Temple and Antonia, and the Acra, with reference to the results of the recent Palestine Explorations. Archaeologia, vol. 44, p. 17-62.

(2) Wilson, Charles, R.E. Capt., and Warren, Charles, R.R., Capt., (1871) The Recovery of Jerusalem—A Narrative of the Exploration and Discovery in the City and the Holy Land. Richard Bentley, Publisher, London, 554 p.

(3) Lewin, Thomas Esq. (2016) A Practical Treatise on Trusts and Trustees. Wentworth Press, 852 p.

(4) Lewin, Thomas Esq. (1851) The Life and Epistles of St. Paul. Vol. 1, Francis and John Rivington, London, 528 p.

(5) Lewin, Thomas Esq. (1859) The Invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar. Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, London, 131 p.

(6) Lewin, Thomas Esq., M.A., F.S.A. (1867) The genuineness of the holy sepulchre. Archaeologia, vol. 41, p. 116-134.

(7) Lewin, Thomas, Esq., M.A., F.S.A. (1867) The Mosque of Omar. Archaeologia, vol. 41, p. 135-150.

(8) Lewin, Thomas Esq., M.A., F.S.A. (1865) Fasti Sacri or a Key to the Chronology of the New Testament. Longmans, Green, and Company, London, 429 p.

(9) Lewis Thomas, Esq., M.A., F.S.A. (1861) Jerusalem a Sketch of the City and Temple from the Earliest Times to the Siege by Titus. Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, London, 275 p.

(10) Lewis Thomas, Esq., M.A., F.S.A. (1863) The Siege of Jerusalem by Titus, with a journal of a recent visit to the holy city, and a general sketch of the topography of Jerusalem from the earliest times down to the siege. Longman, Green, Longman and Roberts, London, 499 p.

(11) Warren, Charles (1880) The Temple or the Tomb. Richard Bentley and Son, London, page 85.

(12) Lewin (1873) page 19.

(13) Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London, April 24, 1876 to December 12, 1878. Second Series, Volume VII, page 203.

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