Doing Justice to Josephus, Ancient Jewish Archetype

Though recognized universally today as the most important historical source about life in Second Temple-period Judea, not long ago Josephus was the black sheep of the Jewish family. Frederic Raphael tells his story, and finds added meaning in it.

A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus, by Frederic Raphael, Pantheon, 368 pages, $28.95

For most of Jewish history, Flavius Josephus was the odd man out. While his writings are recognized today to be the most important sources for our understanding of Jewish life in the Second Temple period, and in particular regarding the revolt against Roman rule that led to the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., until relatively recently Josephus was little known in Jewish circles, or even scorned as a traitor.

The reasons for this disregard ultimately lie in the vicissitudes of Josephus' own life and fate. The son of a Jerusalem priestly family, Josephus defected to the Roman side during the revolt and returned to the Judean capital with the victorious army. He lived out his days in Rome in the orbit of the imperial court, where he wrote his books “The Jewish War,” his account of the revolt; “Jewish Antiquities,” a history; "Against Apion," his polemical defense of Judaism; and the autobiographical “Vita.” However, because he wrote in Greek, Josephus' work was preserved by the Church, and until modernity, had only an indirect impact on Jewish literature. He was read by Christians of all stripes, just not by Jews. With the Jewish Enlightenment, even as he was recognized as a crucial historical source, Josephus' defection and his perceived assimilation into Roman culture remained black marks against him.

Frederic Raphael's new book, "A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus," is an energetic response to centuries of bad press, answering Josephus' critics and restoring his reputation. However, Raphael aims to do more than just rehabilitate Josephus' name through a retelling of his biography. "A Jew Among Romans," as is clear from its very first pages, argues that Josephus should not only be considered an object of research in Jewish history, but should also be seen as a Jewish archetype. Raphael presents Josephus as the unrecognized forefather of a lineage of mainly latter-day secular Jewish intellectuals, and as the measure against which to judge those intellectuals' politics, faith and skill in juggling their fractured, diasporic identities. While Raphael ultimately stumbles in his attempt to gather a diverse crowd of Jewish thinkers under a "Josephan" banner, which often makes "A Jew Among Romans" a cumbersome and confusing read, the book provocatively offers a new genealogy of cultural Judaism.

As much as its focus is modern, "A Jew Among Romans," true to its title, does not ignore Josephus or his historical context. The first half of the book is a narrative retelling of the historian's life and career. Titus Josephus Flavius was born Yosef ben Matityahu in Jerusalem in 37 C.E. Trained as a priest of the Jerusalem Temple, as a young man Josephus experimented with several of the schools of Judaism of his day, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. He even spent a period in the desert with an ascetic named Banus before aligning himself with the Pharisees, a group also known from rabbinic writings and the New Testament.

At the outbreak of the revolt in 66 C.E., Josephus was appointed military commander by the rebels in the Galilee, but was soon captured and defected to the enemy side. Serving as an adviser and translator in the Roman camp, he watched the final siege and destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 C.E. After the war, Josephus became a Roman citizen – thereby acquiring his Latin name – and a client of Titus, son of and successor to the then-Emperor Vespasian. He died in Rome around the year 100 C.E.

In presenting Josephus' life, Raphael, an American-born screenwriter, novelist and translator of Greek and Latin long resident in England, draws on his extensive knowledge of Roman history and literature. The account gains depth and substance through digressions on the political leaders, intellectuals and court functionaries whose paths would have crossed Josephus' in Judea and Rome. For instance, a few years before the outbreak of the revolt, Josephus was sent as an emissary to Rome to argue for the release of a group of priests from the Jerusalem Temple, who were being held for what Josephus refers to as “trivial offenses” against the Roman governor. In his autobiographical “Vita,” Josephus records that at upon landing in Italy, he was befriended by a Judean actor, a favorite of then-Emperor Nero, named Aliturus. Raphael provides the reader with an interesting and colorful aside on the connections between actors, playwrights and Nero's imperial court, and how Josephus used his association with Aliturus to secure the release of the captives.

More than an artless copyist

Here and elsewhere, Raphael bucks the long-standing scholarly trend, only recently challenged by historians, that considered Josephus to be little more than an artless copyist, recording traditions and facts lifted from earlier sources. Raphael treats Josephus as a commanding writer who strove to give an honest account of the revolt for its own sake, not for the sake of his ego – but who knew as well that superfluous honesty would offend his Roman patrons. However, in taking Josephus seriously, "A Jew Among Romans" often falls into a different trap. The narrative is unduly credulous, accepting unquestioningly Josephus' recounting of events and his descriptions of Judean life and religion. Raphael's evident lack of familiarity with important ancient Jewish sources – rabbinic literature and the Dead Sea texts chief among them – that might have tempered this credulity aids his reliance on, and trust in, Josephus' version.

Despite the space Raphael devotes to Rome, Judea and the war between them, this exposition serves primarily as a prelude to modernity. Raphael tells the story of Josephus as that of a Jewish writer trapped between languages and cultures in order to establish him as a model for Jewish intellectuals in later history. In the second part of the book, Raphael presents the lives of several Jewish intellectuals in short, interconnected vignettes, and evaluates them according to their adherence to Josephan characteristics, among them bravery, cunning, secularism and exile. These intellectuals include some of the major figures in Jewish modernity: Arthur Koestler, Stefan Zweig, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt and others. While earlier writers such as Maimonides, Michel de Montaigne (of Sephardi ancestry on his mother's side) and Spinoza are also given attention, Raphael's principal focus is on the 20th century. He is particularly interested in those modern Jewish thinkers who, like Josephus facing the Judean defeat and the destruction of the Temple, confronted the Holocaust and its aftermath.

"A Jew Among Romans" had the potential to be a bold and provocative reinterpretation and recuperation of the figure of Josephus, from ancient traitor to exemplar for modern Jews. Unfortunately, Raphael's often muddy prose, unwieldy expository footnotes and lack of a clearly articulated argument weigh him down. The book never makes explicit how Josephus fits among his modern descendants, or what constitute the qualities of a Josephan intellectual, or if being Jewish is even one of them. While Montaigne is a borderline case – and who wouldn't want to have him in the club? – Raphael also cites T. S. Eliot's Josephan characteristics.

Nevertheless, Raphael's main thrust comes through: He offers a new genealogy for a secular, intellectual and proud Judaism that adopts Josephus as its ancient forebear. Foremost among the Josephan qualities Raphael looks for in Jewish writers is that same motto Spinoza chose for his own personal seal: caute, Latin for "carefully" or "be cautious." When "A Jew Among Romans" praises the subterfuge Josephus used to win over his Judean rivals as a general in the Galilee, or his care in not offending his Roman hosts and masters – even as he writes, as Raphael says, with "his knife concealed in the folds of his style[D1] ” – it is this cunning, trickster nature that the book lauds.

Though he never says so explicitly, Raphael's embrace of caution and cunning also has a political side, namely the advocacy of quietism over speaking truth to power. This is best illustrated by one notable absence from the book's panoply of modern Jewish thinkers: Isaac Deutscher, the Jewish biographer of Stalin and Trotsky, who, like Raphael, was also a staunch advocate of a secular Jewish identity. In “The Non-Jewish Jew,” his 1968 collection of essays, Deutscher argues for a Judaism that pivots not on cautebut social justice. Deutscher defined his Judaism this way:

"Religion? I am an atheist. Jewish nationalism? I am an internationalist. In neither sense am I therefore a Jew. I am, however, a Jew by force of my unconditional solidarity with the persecuted and exterminated."

What's missing from "A Jew Among Romans" is just this kind of outspoken commitment to justice, which calls on the biblicalProphets as much as it does onMarx and Engels. Putting Josephus' own perspectives on the matter, whatever they might have been, to the side, the sentiments Deutscher expresses are an indisputable part of the modern Jewish experience, and Raphael does a disservice by excising them from his idealized portrait of the Josephan Jew. Bereft of the ethical obligation to stand with and advocate for the oppressed, for Raphael, the best Jews can be is clever writers, no more than cunning scribblers in the emperor's court.

Samuel Thrope is a Golda Meir postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University. He has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Report, Tablet and other publications.

Tomer Appelbaum