Questions of trust and authority are inherent in the historian’s craft. They have been matters of explicit concern at least since Thucydides raised them near the beginning of his history of the Peloponnesian War. But perhaps no major historian has faced such scrutiny on these questions as Yosef ben Matityahu, known to the world as Titus Flavius Josephus.
Yet Martin Goodman’s Josephus’s The Jewish War: A Biography is, as the title indicates, not a biography of Josephus, but of his most famous work: a seven-volume history of the war between Rome and Judea that took place from 66–70 A.D., culminating in the sack of Jerusalem and the termination of Second Temple Judaism. As Goodman makes clear, however, the story of this work and its reception down through the centuries is inseparable from the question of how Josephus himself is viewed.
For Josephus was not merely a recorder of momentous events, but also a participant in them. He was a politically connected member of Jerusalem’s priestly elite who became a general after the outbreak of the rebellion and was charged with the defense of Galilee during the first year of the war before being taken prisoner at Jotapata.
His involvement in the events he chronicled is not itself disqualifying. If it were, we would then be compelled to disregard the writings of Thucydides, Caesar, Grant, de Gaulle, Churchill, et al. The trouble has to do with the very reason that his book exists. Josephus only survived the forty-seven-day siege and capture of Jotapata by breaching the suicide pact he and his comrades had made, rather than taking his own life and that of the other remaining survivor. He then ingratiated himself with the victorious general, Vespasian, by (accurately, if improbably) prophesying that the latter would become emperor of Rome.
After his captivity and release, Josephus lived most of the remainder of his life as a Roman citizen and a client of the Flavian dynasty. It was their patronage that allowed him the freedom and leisure to write The Jewish War and his other works, most notably Jewish Antiquities, which provided an almost Herodotean account of the history of the Jews since creation, and Against Apion, a political defense of Judaism (in which he coined the term “theocracy”).
Josephus thus comes to us as both oath-breaker and turncoat, mistrusted by his erstwhile Jewish and his Roman compatriots (as well as subsequent readers). At the same time, he is himself the source of our knowledge of his perfidy, as well as a crucial source concerning both the events of the war and its backdrop. As with the man from Crete who claims that all Cretans are liars, trusting Josephus and his work is no simple matter.
Few, if any, living historians are as qualified to treat the context of The Jewish War and its reception as Martin Goodman, whose magisterial Rome and Jerusalem (2008) details the larger history of the First Jewish–Roman War and its legacy, making thoughtful use of Josephus’s work in the process.
As befits its author, who moved between such different worlds in his own lifetime, The Jewish War’s legacy proves complex. It owed its initial dissemination (and, arguably, preservation) to the early Christians, whose own purposes differed vastly from Josephus’s. Though both Josephus and his early Christian readers were concerned with accounting for the destruction visited upon the Judaeans, Josephus attributed it to a combination of elite corruption and imprudent radicalism, as opposed to their rejection of Christ. Early Christians, such as Eusebius and Cyril of Alexandria, were primarily interested in demonstrating the terrible punishment the Jews incurred through their complicity in the martyrdom of Jesus Christ. (One especially gruesome episode of a starving Jerusalemite eating her own child was a favorite.) These and later pages of Josephus’s work can be profitably read alongside David Nirenberg’s Anti-Judaism (2014) as reflections upon the complex reception of Jewish themes by Christian readers.
It would take nearly a millennium for The Jewish War to be rediscovered by Jews themselves, albeit as only one source for a composite narrative of the destruction of Jerusalem which entered the medieval rabbinic canon under the name Sefer Yosippon. Ironically enough, this latter work would eclipse Josephus’s text among pious European Jews for centuries thence.
Like much else, the original Greek text gained new life in the Italian Renaissance, first among Christian humanists, then among Sephardic Jewish scholars. Latin versions and eventually vernacular translations were enthusiastically received by early-modern Protestant communities, many of whom saw strong parallels between their situation and that of the ancient Jewish kingdoms.
As Goodman notes, however, the work has received more attention in the last two centuries than at any time since its composition. This is due partly to the rise of more sophisticated philological scholarship, particularly in Germany. But the most consequential development was a political one, namely, the emergence of modern Zionism, which simultaneously brought to the work broader recognition and intensified scrutiny.
For early Zionists, The Jewish War, written in Greek and aspiring to the scholarly rigor of other classical historical texts, offered authoritative proof of the ancient Jews’ status as a people with rooted attachment to the Levant. At the same time, the Zionists were (and in some cases still are) perhaps uniquely concerned with the controversial status of the historian who wrote it. How far could a work by such a man be trusted?
As he navigates the constellation of interpretations of Josephus’s ambiguous work, the line Goodman takes is judicious, avoiding harsh critiques of past writers while still noting where their claims vary from the actual content of the text or from the historical record. In the process he deftly manages a dizzying cast of (often minor) characters, spread across vastly different historical landscapes.
Though Goodman does not belabor the point, one can see how much past readings of The Jewish War have been mediated by political and exegetical concerns. He wisely makes no claims about what future readings of the work will entail, instead concluding his brief history by focusing again upon the text itself. After twenty centuries of interpretation and misinterpretation, the book’s narrative itself still stands, in all its horror and pathos.