Josephus, the priestly historian who divided critics

Josephus’s The Jewish War, Martin Goodman, Princeton, £20


Josephus’s importance to our understanding of the period of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans is hard to exaggerate. He was born in 37 CE into a priestly family. As a rebel against Roman rule, he was imprisoned in 67 CE after the siege of Jotapata, but released in 69 CE, just one year before the destruction of the Temple, to join the entourage of the Emperor Vespasian, and his son Titus. The Jewish War is Josephus’s history of that period, composed about a decade after the war itself, from the safety of the Roman side.

Martin Goodman’s scholarly focus has been the Judaism of antiquity, but his book is not an account of the Jewish War itself, but a short and fascinating history of the book’s reception, and Josephus’s image through time. Early Christians saw the Jewish War as evidencing the end of the old covenant and the Jews’ punishment for not accepting the new.

The rabbis ignored The Jewish War along with other Jewish Greek literature, but the tenth century saw the appearance of Sefer Yossipon, a Hebrew work containing aspects of Josephus’s history, albeit reworked. Josephus’s work describes the mass suicide at Masada as one of the final events of the war, but Yossipon, reflecting rabbinic attitudes on martyrdom, describes only the killing of women and children.  The men fought the Romans to their death. 

In the modern period, Josephus comes to epitomise the Jewish reaction to persecution even more strongly. Early 20th-century Zionists tended to see Josephus as a traitor to his people for siding with the Romans. While those who wanted a vibrant diaspora, saw Josephus as a citizen of the world. Artists have wrestled with his image in novels, poems, plays, and more recently films, sometimes without resolution. Yitchak Shalev’s poem on "Yosefus” describes the poet wanting to seal Josephus’ sfate but concluding “The verdict has been suspended to a later date”.

We suspend no such verdict on this book, which provides a wonderful lesson on how history takes on a life of its own in the hands of its interpreters.

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