A JEW AMONG ROMANS: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus.
By Frederic Raphael.
Pantheon, 336 pages, $28.95, hardcover.
Who was Flavius Josephus? His name is not particularly familiar to most people. If one goes into a well-stocked Christian bookstore or peruses the catalogs of Christian booksellers, the works of Flavius Josephus will be present for sale in inexpensive editions. He was the author of “The Jewish War,” “The Antiquities of the Jews,” an autobiography, and “Against Apion,” a defense of Judaism against the attacks by a Greek of Alexandria. His works are important sources for the history of Judaea during the first century A.D. and the early years of Christianity. “The Antiquities of the Jews” was the first book to use of the Bible as a source for writing a secular history.
Born about 38 A.D., Josephus is thought to have died around 100 A.D. He was born Joseph ben Mattathias into a well-to-do and well-connected Jewish family. At that time Judaea was a restive province of the Roman Empire. He is best known for his Jewish War which tells the story of the Judaean revolt of 66-73 that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the last stand and mass suicide of the defenders of Masada in 73 AD.
In 64 A.D. Josephus traveled to Rome of Nero as an emissary successfully seeking a pardon for some rebellious Jewish priests. After his return to Judaea, tensions continued to mount and in 66 A.D. the Roman garrison was driven out of Jerusalem by Jewish Zealots. The problem was that the stability of the Roman Empire demanded that Judaea would have to be reconquered.
A large Roman army under the command of the steady general Titus Flavius Vespasian invaded Judaea in 67 A.D. Vespasian faced a badly divided Jewish society. While the Zealots were eager for war, the priestly class and well-to-do Jews, including Josephus, favored surrender.
As the suppression of the Judaean revolt ground on, Nero’s grasp on the office of emperor was failing. Rivals began to arise. Possessing command of a formidable army, the cautious Vespasian was a potential candidate. Tapping into the Jewish tradition of prophecy, the captive Josephus predicted that Vespasian would eventually become emperor, which he later did toward the end of 69 A.D., the tumultuous year of the four emperors. Meanwhile, an intrigued Vespasian and his son Titus used Josephus as an interpreter during their campaign to reconquer Judaea. This collaboration with the enemy earned Josephus a permanent reputation as a traitor among his fellow Jews. It also placed him in the position of being witness to many of the events of the Judaean revolt including the fall and destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. This included seeing the demolition of the Second Temple of Herod with only the western — or Wailing Wall — surviving. Once the revolt was suppressed, Josephus travelled to Rome with Titus. There he lived as an exile from his Judaean homeland and wrote his histories.
Raphael’s book tells the story of Josephus’s life and his participation in the Jewish revolt which formed the basis of his first book, “The Jewish War.” After Josephus moved to Rome, he became part of the Jewish diaspora. Raphael then proceeds to tell the story of other diasporic Jews up to the foundation of the modern state of Israel. This latter third of the book contains much interesting material about various Jewish intellectuals, but compared to the tighter focus of the first two thirds of the book on Josephus’s life, it is somewhat rambling. As a result, “A Jew Among Romans” is one of those books in which the sum of its parts is greater than the whole. But despite that defect, it presents a large amount of fascinating information and insights.
Unfortunately, Raphael’s publisher could have spent a little more time on fact checking. Raphael places the story of Joseph and his brethren in Exodus (p. 117), rather than Genesis, which is a rather troubling error, and there are others. These errors do not mean Raphael is not an erudite writer, but it makes one wonder what else he might have gotten wrong.
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