Selina O’Grady’s fascinating 'Kings, Cults and Conquests at the Time of Jesus' (Atlantic, £20), focuses on identity and the interrelationship between politics and religion in a wide spectrum of societies around the outset of the Common Era. From the Jewish perspective, it throws light on personages and themes that not only were prominent in the Jewish world at that time but can be seen to foreshadow elements of contemporary Jewish life.
O’Grady emphasises how the exclusive monotheism of the Jews aided their survival in the diaspora of the period while making it impossible for them to accommodate themselves to the emperor cult of their Roman rulers.
Here, she cites the inner conflicts experienced, among others, by Herod, a client king who was never accepted as a good Jew; Saul/Paul, a dedicated Pharisee and good Roman citizen; and Josephus, a former military leader who defected to Rome.
Disputes between different factions of Jewish society also feature strongly and were to lead eventually to the Jewish wars and the destruction of the Temple. The Antiquities and The Jewish Wars recording this period were written by Josephus for his friend, the future Emperor Titus and Titus’s beloved Berenice, the Jewish queen.
Issues raised range from conversion to Judaism — which had been enforced on whole regions — to the eruv, and the first instance of a Jewish ghetto, when persecuted Jews in Alexandria were hounded into one area.
This is a well-researched, beautifully written work of scholarship that is also easy to read.