Josephus’s The Jew­ish War: A Biography

  • Review
By – September 29, 2019

Jose­phus has fas­ci­nat­ed read­ers for thou­sands of years. He wit­nessed the last days of the Sec­ond Tem­ple as a Jew of the priest­ly class, and described its van­ished rites in Jew­ish Antiq­ui­ties. He com­mand­ed a brigade in the Jew­ish revolt against Rome, which pro­voked the Temple’s destruc­tion, and wrote about it in The Jew­ish War. Jose­phus ulti­mate­ly became a promi­nent cit­i­zen of Rome, after con­clud­ing that vic­to­ry by the Romans was inevitable.

Mar­tin Good­man sur­veys how The Jew­ish War has been var­i­ous­ly under­stood over the twen­ty cen­turies since it was writ­ten. There’s no one bet­ter qual­i­fied — Mar­tin Good­man is the lead­ing schol­ar study­ing Jews of the Roman peri­od, and he com­bines clear prose with a com­pre­hen­sive knowl­edge of pri­ma­ry sources. This is a biog­ra­phy, but not of Jose­phus; it’s part of a new series from the Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press which focus­es on the lives” of great reli­gious books like the Analects of Con­fu­cius and the Sufi clas­sic, Mas­navi, by Rumi.

You may be sur­prised to learn that Jews didn’t pay much atten­tion to Jose­phus until eight hun­dred years after he died. The rab­bis who cre­at­ed the Tal­mud dur­ing that times­pan were cer­tain­ly inter­est­ed in Jew­ish life in Pales­tine dur­ing the first cen­tu­ry CE. But they relied entire­ly on Hebrew and Ara­ma­ic sources rather than the Greek in which Jose­phus (like Phi­lo) cir­cu­lat­ed. Mean­while, the Chris­t­ian church was eager­ly using Jose­phus’ account of the destruc­tion of the Tem­ple as evi­dence that God had deci­sive­ly aban­doned the Jews in favor of Christianity.

Josephus’s work came to be used as val­i­da­tion for what­ev­er its dis­parate read­ers want­ed to believe. A Yid­dish ver­sion, based on an inau­then­tic text in Hebrew called Sefer Yos­sipon, high­light­ed the glo­ries of the Sec­ond Tem­ple. The Jew­ish heretic, Uriel da Cos­ta, used Jose­phus to argue against rab­binic Judaism in favor of the more noble” Sadducees.

More recent­ly, the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Ger­man Jew­ish reformer, Leopold Zunz, found a mod­el in Jose­phus’ assim­i­la­tion to Roman ways. Ortho­dox his­to­ri­ans looked to Jose­phus’ defense of tra­di­tion. Ear­ly Zion­ists saw a prece­dent for Jew­ish self-deter­mi­na­tion in his role in the revolt against Rome. The sto­ry of the mass mar­tyr­dom at Masa­da, a foun­da­tion­al nar­ra­tive in mod­ern Israel, was tak­en indi­rect­ly from Josephus.

In short, the mean­ings of The Jew­ish War over the course of cen­turies were most­ly in the eyes of the behold­er. To fol­low those var­ied read­ings with Good­man is to take an epic jour­ney through time. And his mas­tery of sources, from clas­si­cal texts to obscure news­pa­per arti­cles, gives his fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry an unchal­lenged authority.

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