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Was Josephus a hero or a traitor?

The man we know as Josephus (the Romans called him Flavius Josephus ), was an aristocratic Judean, born in Jerusalem in 37 CE and died in Rome somewhere around 100 CE. He was a highly controversial historical personality. His book The Antiquities of the Jews was the first history of the Jewish people after the Bible. It was written primarily for a Roman audience in Greek. Against Apion was a response to an antisemitic polemic written by an Alexandrian called Apion. Another important book was the history of the Roman conquest of Judea, The Jewish War.

As the son of a prominent Judean priestly family, he rose to be the military governor of Galilee as the Romans began their campaign against Judean rebels. Initially, Josephus’s military success kept the Romans at Bay. In 67 CE Josephus was in charge of the town of Yotapata. As the Roman General Vespasian conquered the town, Josephus encouraged the remaining soldiers to commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Romans who would torture them to death. They took lots. Josephus, and a companion were the last left standing. Instead of committing suicide, Josephus went over to the Romans.

According to Josephus, he predicted that Vespasian would one day become emperor, and, on that basis, Vespasian took him under his wing. He gave him a Roman name Flavius and used him both as an interpreter and a military advisor in the campaign to destroy Judea. Unlike the Talmudic version that it was Yochanan Ben Zakkai the head of the mainstream Jewish community who met Vespasian and predicted he would be elevated to emperor, which enabled him to set up a center of Jewish life in Yavneh after Jerusalem fell.

When Vespasian returned to Rome, Josephus stayed on to assist his son Titus in his final assault on Jerusalem and the Temple. After the war, Josephus went to Rome as Part of Titus’s entourage, where he was given a villa and a pension, a Roman wife and became a significant historian. Given that at that time all historians had little notion of objectivity or historical accuracy.

Josephus’s works, particularly The Antiquities, were preserved primarily by the Christian world and ignored by the Jews. In some Christian denominations, they are part of their canon. Josephus was valued because his history supported the Christian belief that the Jews were punished for betraying their religion and a failure to adopt Christianity as the new Israel. Josephus actually did not mention Jesus of Nazareth. But he did refer to somebody called Yeshua  (Jesus in Greek ) Ben Ananias. Who, as he says, was a simple man who entered the Temple and publicly declared that it would be destroyed as a punishment for Jewish sins. He was brought before the Procurator Albinus who declared him mad and released him. But it seems that much later, a reference to Jesus of Nazareth was inserted into the text to further bolster Christian theology.

From a Jewish point of view, Josephus was always a highly controversial character. He played a part in the Roman victory and destruction of Judea. However much he tried to justify his actions by blaming Jewish intransigence and internecine conflict he sent his comrades in the Galilee to their death by encouraging them to commit suicide and making sure that he was the last person left alive so that he could escape. His closeness both to Vespasian and Titus enabled him to advise them in the conquest of Judea while he found favor in Rome.

Yet others regarded him positively, arguing that he understood that the divisions within Judea were destructive and could only end in chaos. He saw his role as trying to salvage what could be from the disastrous war and to make sure that the events were recorded for posterity. He became an apologist for Jews and helped the Jewish communities established themselves throughout the Roman Empire who carried the banner of Judaism after the homeland was slowly degraded.

Martin Goodman has written an excellent overview of Josephus’s career and also goes in detail to the different attitudes to him over the years both by Christian and Jewish scholars and shows how his reputation has fluctuated and remains controversial. Martin Goodman. Josephus’s The Jewish War: A Biography: Martin Goodman. Published by Princeton University Press.

Josephus is particularly relevant now as we see how the Jewish community, both in Israel and the Diaspora incudes such disparate voices. As indeed it did two thousand years ago. Each side absolutely convinced of the correctness of its own position. Both the extremes of left and right believe that it would be best to negotiate a capitulation. But by far the majority of Jews know full well that in a very different world to two thousand years ago, Rebbi Akiva’s philosophy that we must fight for our survival, regardless is the correct one. Precisely because Judaism has flourished, culturally and religiously, under a homeland of our own, as never before since his day. And given that no one is prepared to guarantee our security. As Jew hatred continues to represent an existential threat, survival depends both on strengthening our heritage and our defense. I just wish I had more confidence in our politicians.

About the Author
Jeremy Rosen is an English born Orthodox rabbi, graduate of Mir Yeshivah and Cambridge University. He was a lecturer at WUJS Arad, and former headmaster of Carmel College, Professor and Chairman of the faculty for Comparative Religion in Antwerp and Rabbi in Scotland London and now in New York. His weekly blog is at jeremyrosen.blogspot.com
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