Review: Josephus’s The Jewish War, a Biography

Goodman’s work is clear, precise, and a pleasure to read, writes David Ruben


Josephus’s The Jewish War, a Biography by Martin Goodman (Princeton University Press, £20)

Flavius Josephus, son of Matthias haKohen, better known as Josephus, was well known to many earlier generations of Jews through a popular book wrongly attributed to him, probably written in the latter half of the first millennium. Passages from that book made their way into some of the kinnot said on Tisha B’Av. Today, we know him, if we know of him at all, as the author of The Jewish War (and other writings), an eye-witness account of the revolt of the Jews against Rome, from 66 CE until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE (and afterwards, the siege of Masada in 73-74). Professor Martin Goodman’s fine, erudite Josephus’s ‘The Jewish War’ offers a thorough, scholarly history of that book, its reception, its editions, its translations, and the various controversies surrounding it.

What should we as Jews think of Josephus? He had command of the anti-Roman Jewish forces in the Galilee but, when presented with the alternative of fight to the death, he surrendered, made his peace with the Romans, witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem from Vespasian’s camp, and ended his days on a state pension in Rome, as a fully fledged Roman citizen. He tells us that he had seen the futility of the fight against Rome.

Was he a traitor? Once in Rome, he served as a spokesperson for his people. His book serves as the primary source of contemporary information about the war against Rome. He wrote not only an account of the Jewish War, but other books, explaining and defending to the wider public the religion and philosophy of the Judaism of the turn of the millennium. Was he a hero?

Goodman argues that the way in which Jews understood Josephus across the ages was a function of their own particular historical location. In an age in which Jews needed to ingratiate themselves as good citizens of a host nation, Prussia being an example, Josephus can serve as something of a model to be emulated. On the other hand, in situations in which Jews are struggling to assert their own identity, as Zionists for example, the model of Josephus is more ambiguous and fares less well.

Perhaps Josephus was both traitor and hero. The contemporary Jewish reader can surely appreciate the dilemma he faced. After all, it was the uncompromising stand of the Zealots in Jerusalem that led to the final destruction of the city and of the dream of Jewish sovereignty. If we can approve of the actions of Yochanan ben Zakkai and the setting up of Yavneh, why not Josephus and his retreat to Rome?

Martin Goodman, steeped in both Jewish and classical sources, is the most significant historian of Jews and Judaism writing in the UK today, and one of the most significant in the world. As always, Goodman’s work is clear, precise, and a pleasure to read.

David Ruben is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of London

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