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Book Review: The Roman Wars-Was Josephus a Jewish hero or traitor?

Jerusalem’s Traitor: Josephus, Masada, and the Fall of Judea by Desmond Seward, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA; ISBN 978-0-306-81807-3, ©2009, $28.00, p. 275, plus maps, endnotes, and selected bibliography

By Fred Reiss, Ed.D.

Fred Reiss

WINCHESTER, California — Desmond Seward, noted historian and author, in his newest book, Jerusalem’s Traitor provides us with a biography of Joseph Ben Matityahu, known to the world as Josephus. A biography of Josephus is equivalent to an eye-witness history of the First Jewish War against Rome (66-70 CE).

During much of the first century of the Common Era, the land that we call Israel today, Judea, Samaria, and the Galilee, was a place of religious infighting as well as political and military turmoil with Rome. In 4 BCE, as Herod lay dying, two Jewish nationalists led their followers to the Temple where they tore down the Roman eagle from its gate. Herod ended the revolt and burned the ringleaders alive. Soon after Herod’s death, the people demanded a reckoning for this deed. One of Herod’s sons, Archelaus, now king, refused. A revolt broke out, which ended only after much bloodshed on both sides.

Archelaus died in 6 CE. Consequently, Rome ended Judea’s semi-autonomous status and it became part of the greater Roman Empire, as a sub-province of Syria.  The Syrian authorities conducted a national census on behalf of the Roman government for the purpose of taxation. This created immediate hostility as the head count brought home the people’s humiliating subjugation by Rome. In the Galilee, Judah the son of Hezekiah gathered an armed band of patriots from among the Pharisees, and began a campaign of terror against the Romans stationed there. They called themselves the Zealots.

Most Roman rulers had little regard for Jews and their sensitivities. Emperor Tiberius (14-37 CE) placed Pilate in charge of Judea. The ruthless Pontius Pilate ruled there from 26-36 CE. During his administration Zealots were summarily executed. He also attempted to expropriate the Temple treasure for secular construction projects, and he allowed Roman troops to bring imperial images into Jerusalem. The Jerusalemites fought back. Though they were brave in their efforts, they were no match for the well-trained Roman soldiers.

The new emperor, Caligula (37-41 CE), appointed a Jew, Agrippa, to be a king, On his arrival in Alexandria, a city of about one million Jews, the Alexandrian Greeks mocked him and demanded that the Jews place imperial statues in their synagogues. Flaccus Avillius, the Roman Perfect of Alexandria, supported the Greeks. When the Jews resisted, he issued an edict declaring the Jews to be aliens, and turned mobs of Greeks loose in the Jewish quarters.

The next emperor, Claudius, in 52 CE named Antonius Felix (52-60 CE), a former slave, to be procurator of Judea. Felix demonstrated extreme wantonness. As a result of his debauchery the Zealots gained more and more adherents. Even the devoutly religious joined. Whenever he captured Zealots, Felix would crucify them, which only added to the turmoil and the people’s hatred of Rome.

Nero appointed Porcius Festus (60-62 CE) as the new procurator. Although just in his actions, he was unable to reverse the passions stirred up against all that was Roman. On the death of Festus, Nero appointed Claudius Albinus (62-64 CE), who likewise offended the Jewish people with his unsavory actions and tactlessness. The final procurator, Gessius Florus (64-66 CE), was the worst. He robbed whole cities and annihilated entire communities. When he attempted to appropriate seventeen talents of gold from the Temple treasury, the Jerusalemites rebelled. Florus retaliated by letting loose a detachment of soldiers. Once again, the Jews fought bravely, capturing the Temple mount, and eventually, the citadel known as Antonia. In the meantime, a group of Zealots seized Masada. The Jewish war against Rome had begun.

Seward begins his narrative with the birth of Josephus, about 36 CE. Josephus, a scion of a notable Jewish priestly family, could trace his family roots back to the Maccabees.  Family members recognized his impressive intellect and provided him with a first-rate education.  As a young adult, he travelled to Rome to secure release of Jewish prisoners. While in Rome, he gained the favor of many important Romans, with the result that he lived there for many years, and traveled in the rarified air represented by the coterie to Emperor Nero and his wife, Poppaea. On his return, the Sanhedrin first appointed him the Governor of the Galilee, and as the storm clouds of rebellion appeared on the horizon, subsequently appointed him General of the Galilee.

When the rebellion first broke out, the rag-tag Jewish army held out against the Romans and their general, Vespasian. Vespasian and his soldiers advanced from Antioch, in Turkey, to the Galilee. There, he assembled between 45,000 and 60,000 troops. Josephus, on the other hand, depended on a rag-tag army and the citizens of each city to make a defense.

Vespasian began his conquest of northern Israel with the city of Gadara. As he marched, the Roman fifth, tenth, and fifteenth legions destroyed much of the countryside and killed thousands of defenders. Josephus and the rebels withstood the assault on the city of Jotapata for six weeks before being forced to surrender due to lack of food and water. Josephus hid in a cistern, but was eventually captured. He saved his life by telling Vespasian that he was a prophet, and predicted that one day in the not too distant future Vespasian would become the Emperor of Rome. Vespasian, who believed that Jews did have the power of prophecy, spared Josephus’ life and Josephus became an advisor to Vespasian.  Later, after the Roman Senate named Vespasian the Emperor, he advised the newly chosen general, Titus, who was Vespasian’s son.  That Flavius Josephus is a traitor to the Jewish people is well-established belief. Yet, belief is not fact, nor is it truth. Through Seward’s account, the reader comes to understand the fear with which Josephus lived in the Roman camp. Were it not for the protection of the future emperors, Josephus would have been killed by the chiefs-of-staff.

To present Jerusalem’s Traitor, Seward synthesizes the major works of Josephus—The Jewish War (in five volumes), Jewish Antiquities, and Vita. He also draws on The Histories and the Annals by the Roman historian Tacitus. Josephus is considered the Benedict Arnold of the First Jewish War by first ill preparing the defense of the Galilee and second, at the brink of defeat at the Battle of Jotapata, offering his services to the Romans. Yet, because so much of Jerusalem’s Traitor is from the perspective of Josephus, one gets the impression that it is not Josephus who is the traitor. Indeed, Josephus portrays himself as an oracle and prophet who predicts the defeat of the Jews. On more than one occasion Seward quotes Josephus pleading with the Zealots to abandon the rebellion.

Josephus writes about the mercy that both Vespasian and Titus were willing to offer the rebels even up to the last moment—the capture of Jerusalem. Seward argues that since the Emperor funded the publication of The Jewish Wars, and surely read the manuscript, it is quite likely that Josephus placed the two generals in a flattering light. Seward also notes on numerous occasions when he suspects that Josephus is exaggerating his claims.

The real enemies, according to Josephus, are the Zealots, whom he calls sicarii, meaning assassins who kill by knife because they killed wealthy Jews and dissenters that way, and their leader John of Gischala (Jonathan of Gish-halab). Josephus tells of the brutal civil war taking place among the Zealots in Jerusalem even as the Romans were literally at the gates. There, murder and starvation at Jewish hands were the handmaidens of the Romans. Sward relies on Josephus who wrote proudly of the unrequited bravery of the Jews throughout the war, but especially in Jerusalem.

Seward recounts the tale told by Josephus of the awe and shock of the Romans soldiers at the courageousness of the Zealots at Masada. Historians did not accept Josephus’ story of the events at Masada, until the completed excavation of the sight in 1966. Now that we know the truth, it is no wonder that Rome celebrated the final defeat of the Jewish nation.

Jerusalem’s Traitor is a compelling read, and if one can get through the gore of the battles and the brutality of Jew against Jew, then what remains is a feeling of pride at the heroism and resourcefulness of the Judeans. What other tiny nation took on the mightiest army in the western world at the time, and held them at bay for more than five years.

Jerusalem’s Traitor is an excellent account of the First Jewish War as seen through the eyes of Josephus. Whether or not he is a traitor or a hero remains for the reader to decide.  One wonders how first century Jewry might have acted had they known the two thousand year consequences of their ill-conceived rebellion. What is certain is that the Jews contributed mightily to their own defeat and the destruction of the Temple. At the conclusion, there is the gut-wrenching feeling that King Solomon was quite astute when he wrote in his Book of Proverbs that one who troubles his own house inherits the wind.


Dr. Fred Reiss is a retired public and Hebrew school teacher and administrator. He is the author of The Standard Guide to the Jewish and Civil CalendarsAncient Secrets of Creation: Sepher Yetzira, the Book that Started Kabbalah, Revealed; and Reclaiming the Messiah. The author can be reached through his website, www.fredreissbooks.com.

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