Review: Jewish-Roman figurehead of antiquity subject of admirable new biography
A JEW AMONG ROMANS. By Frederic Raphael. Pantheon. 317 pages. $27.95.
Titus Flavius Josephus is not a prominent figure in the classical curriculum, though efforts have been made to restore the reputation, and acknowledge the significance, of this most intriguing of men from antiquity.
Born Joseph bin Mattathias in 37 A.D. to a prominent Jerusalem family, and deeply opposed to a ruinous war with imperial Rome, Josephus provided the sole existing account, “The Jewish War,” of the Great Revolt (66-73 A.D.) of Judaea against the empire, culminating in the fall of Masada.
Arguably he is unique, in that no previous losing general in a war ever “crossed the lines” to describe the defeat (by the forces of Vespasian and Titus) of his own side.
Retained by the Flavian emperors, first as a negotiator, and renamed Titus Flavius Josephus, he was destined to become one of the more notable historians of the age, and a target of scorn for centuries.
Biographer and memoirist Frederic Raphael (“Ifs and Buts”) assumes the considerable task of countering previously malign accounts involving Josephus, and succeeds admirably.
Like his subject, Raphael is “vaccinated against orthodoxy.” A secular Jew, he does not subscribe to the idea that Jews, or anyone else, have some privileged link to a supernatural power. And as he is largely concerned with Josephus’ character and writing, his voluminous references are almost entirely literary and biographical, many dealing with Jewish writers and intellectuals who resemble Josephus in being an alienated observer.
His book is informed by scrupulous, if exhaustive, footnotes and addenda. It is not merely an arresting biography, but a treasury of aphorisms and an expansive history of human duplicity extending into the 20th century.
Josephus’ work takes the form of testimony, a “lament” for his people and an apology for himself. Indeed, apology (if not self-justification) of one kind or another is at the core of his history, though Josephus did not shrink from presenting the case against his own conduct.
At the same time, as Raphael points out, Josephus’ writings offer no analysis of his motives, and we depend almost exclusively on Josephus for what we know of many of the events he recounts. Josephus was the first Jew to present an overview of the world’s history and evolution that was not Judeocentric.
Raphael, who is inclined to support Josephus’ veracity, recovers the character of a man accused of treachery against the cause he once served, reviled as a Judas by ancient and modern detractors alike. But Josephus appealed repeatedly to his countrymen not to risk all in a war with Rome, and pleaded with them to surrender after his own capture or face the consequences of siege.
He was first and foremost a survivor, having charmed his Roman captors (not least Roman women) as a “sacred herald” and having learned at an early age to “adapt his manner to whatever audience he hoped to win” over. His show of conformity (and adroit, cautious writing) was an actor’s masquerade that gave him elasticity as an historian and “a secret room to be himself.”
To dismiss this exile, this witness, as a traitorous collaborator underrates not only his desire to save Jewish lives but his subtlety as a secular historian who “smuggled brutal truths” about Roman conduct into his work, and who wielded “a knife concealed in the folds of his style.”
Josephus also was one of a great many notables of upper-class foreign birth who had no compunction about reconditioning themselves as Roman citizens. His literary life was solitary; his topic “was the world he had left behind in Judaea.”
Though a polemicist in defense of Judaism, Josephus was consistently hostile to the belligerents of Judaea who, in his view, provoked the Romans to commit the atrocities he had observed. Yet his work also exhibits a marked ambivalence.
There was little sense of “national” unity among the Jews of the era, and to couch the Jewish war as an assertion of political solidarity is mistaken, Raphael writes.
For the first “modern” Jewish historian, and the first to write in the first person, facts and divine judgments were conjoined in the narrative. Josephus makes it clear in “The Jewish War” that the Jewish rebellion also involved a brutal civil war between rival fundamentalist factions, not least the militant Zealots.
As with Josephus, Raphael’s breadth of intelligence works against single-mindedness. Throughout, he quotes the conclusions, often opposed to his reading, of other historians. Raphael is clear-eyed and (largely) even-handed. There is exacting scholarship with provocative speculation, though Raphael presupposes a degree of knowledge the casual reader may not possess. Things get a bit arcane from time to time.
Stylistically, Raphael is imposingly erudite and at pains to demonstrate it, but there is nonetheless a remarkable clarity to the writing, elegant turns of phrase and, not infrequently, a compost of witty comment and sly humor.
The latter chapters of the book are (encapsulated) exercises in comparative religion, philosophy, the Jewish intellectual tradition and, above all, the persistence of human folly.
Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer based in Charleston.