Jewish Wars, Then and Now

Monday, January 11, 2010

A masterwork of historical writing, The Jewish Wars by Yosef ben Matityahu, better known by his Roman name of Flavius Josephus (37–ca. 100 C.E.) is a massive and indispensable chronicle of Jewish fortunes from the Hasmonean Revolt in the second century B.C.E. through the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Masada in 73 C.E. It is also the autobiography of an extraordinary and extraordinarily conflicted man.

Military leader, historian, biblical interpreter, negotiator, diplomat, neither martyr nor traitor but something in-between, Josephus traversed a route from battlefield commander in the war against Rome to Roman citizen and favored beneficiary of imperial patronage. Two millennia later, his dilemmas and his flaws remain fresh and familiar. A new and much-praised Hebrew version of The Jewish Wars, a work first composed in Greek, bears its own marks of youthful longevity, its octogenarian translator having learned Greek in her forties and begun this great labor in her mid-seventies.

Josephus has been mined for centuries by readers hungry for knowledge of Second Temple Judaism, the failed Jewish revolt against Rome, and the historical backdrop to the emergence of Christianity. A large scholarly industry devotes itself to fact-checking him, a task made easier by advances in archeology and our knowledge of ancient history. Yet many questions still remain, one pregnant example being whether a passage about Jesus in his The Jewish Antiquities (93–4 C.E.) is authentic or a forgery. A festschrift in honor of the dean of contemporary Jewish Josephus scholars amply demonstrates the range of issues illuminated by The Wars, as well as the work still to be done.

For all its antiquity, The Wars still provokes us today. Was Josephus, as a leading reviewer of the Hebrew translation contends, a model for a proud Jewish nationalism wedded to political realism? Alternatively, should his military surrender to the Romans be seen as a shameful sellout? Or, in light of his later and lastingly vigorous defenses of his people and their civilization, should it be viewed in uncanny parallel to another legendary act of abandonment and reclamation by a rabbinic sage of the time?

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