Doing justice to Josephus

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.

Read the full review of Frederic Raphael’s A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus from 2013 in Haaretz.