History of the historian: Josephus’ story makes for compelling reading

“A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus” By Frederic Raphael, Pantheon Books, 368 pages, $27.95.

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

If we had to rely on only one account of the American Civil War or the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944, we might well be wary of drawing our conclusions too sharply. Historians are well known for debating the causes of wars (think of World Wars I and II) and then revising what has become conventional thinking (think of the atomic bombing of Japan).

So why do we hang so much on the account of one man, Josephus, and his telling of the Jewish rebellion that led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and the Diaspora that lasted nearly two millennia?

The short answer is that his account of this great enormity to the Jewish people is the only one we have. However, Frederic Raphael, a Jewish writer of many novels, screenplays and biographies who lives in the United Kingdom, has produced quite an interesting account of Josephus’s time and place.

Raphael, incidentally, displays typical contrariness in his introduction when he explains a bit about his own credentials: “I have never subscribed, except for politeness’s sake, to any God, including that of the Jews. In my youth [during the World War II era], I blamed Him for failing to prove that He existed by doing the right thing more often than history showed. And yet, by no brave decision, I am a Jew…. There is a comedy of a kind in the fact that the only people who might now insist that I am not really a Jew – since I neither pray nor abstain from forbidden foods – are other Jews.”


Many book introductions are ho-hum and boring. Raphael’s is razor sharp, a prelude to his writing and scholarship in this wonderfully readable and informative book about a key figure in what Jews and Gentiles know about the catastrophic times of the Jewish revolt. I found myself wanting to read on and on, in part because Raphael brought so much insight and context to fill in around Josephus, a man whose personal history could cause one to wonder what kind of morality he followed – or if he followed any moral standard at all.

By today’s standards, we could see Josephus as a turncoat, someone who switched sides in a time of war to save his own hide. He was, however, during the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire, a leader of one group of Jews who rebelled.

He fought hard and with great cunning, but in the end, the Jews lost disastrously, Herod’s Temple was smashed into million pieces, many people were slain and the Temple’s wealth plundered, as was the custom in those times.

So Josephus joined the Romans, shed his Jewish name, Joseph ben Mattathias, and became Titus Flavius Josephus, a citizen of the very Roman Empire that murdered and scattered his people.

What do we make of this behavior, this overwhelming instinct to live? No martyr, this Josephus. Of course, had Josephus not lived, we would be all the poorer for that. Only myths could attempt to explain the end of Jewish Temple and community life in Jerusalem.

Yet, as Raphael shows us, what’s not to like about this guy? Who wouldn’t want to know much more about this man, who to all appearances and speculation was a very artful survivor. Was he the kind of revolutionary against Rome who would have chosen death on, say, Masada to capture? Perhaps not. And I see nothing wrong with that, given his gift to posterity.

Any reader of Raphael’s interpretation of Josephus’ writings and his time will come away with a better notion of the early post-Second Temple centuries. Raphael traces anti-Semitism from its Christian roots and puts seminal figures like Jesus into historical context without in any way lionizing them, as we would expect him to do. He ranges up to the present, noting that disaffected Jewish writers like Arthur Koestler, who wrote “Darkness at Noon,” “Scum of the Earth” and “Thieves in the Night,” owe a certain intellectual heritage to Josephus, also a disaffected, critical observer of his time.

I can say this of few books these days, but Raphael’s “A Jew Among Romans” is a learned work in which I found concepts linked across centuries and ideas explored for their genesis and their implications for today, as well as through 2,000 years of (mostly) Western civilization.

Raphael writes: “Whatever posture of resigned ruefulness he adopted, Josephus never shed the assumption that God was the literally overall explanation of what happened in history. The God of the Jews was still in control; if He had punished His people, they would have to wait for, and first deserve, His forgiveness. Josephus’s view of God as an active, judging agent in the world was alien to the Greeks and the Romans but, in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem, no longer uniquely Jewish.”

Thus, one could be left to wonder on this thought: Did Jews have to finally discover Zionism, then suffer the Holocaust before they could reclaim Jerusalem?

Raphael has much to say, with wit, scholarship and fine prose, and don’t overlook his often acerbic footnotes.

Here’s one of many, reason enough to read this book: “Elie Wiesel was tactless enough to point out that the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, poorly armed and outnumbered, resisted for longer than the French army after the German breakthrough in the Ardennes in May 1940.”

Take that, France. Such caustic delight on just about every page.