Archive for July 21st, 2010

Titus Flavius Josephus – The Jewish War

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Titus Flavius Josephus, originally named Joseph, is a rare Jewish historian from ancient history, and as such the only pure and named source of the old Jewish history. As he lived in the later part of the 1st century AD, he was able to recount of important events as an eye witness to the Great Revolt of the Jews which ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. With the Great Revolt, the Jews lost the last bit of autonomy they had within the Roman Empire and subsequent Emperors chose to disperse the Jews so that they could not cause another revolt in their Holy Land. This was the event that marked the beginning of their final diaspora, until they reclaimed the land in 1948.

It is because of this reason that this history is important to read. Although the Jews had been banished before, some or many could remain and later they had managed to return. This time it would be different. It gives one insight in the how and why.

Although this book is rather unknown these days, it has been quite popular since its publication around the year 74. When the bookpress was invented in Europe this book was one of the most translated works next to the Bible. One might explain it because it described the fall of the Jews shortly after the death of Christ, for which the Jews bore a large responsibility, according to the gospels. Besides that it was a detailed and vivid account of the world of the time when Christ lived, as Josephus did not just described the actual events of the Jewish War, which took place between 66 and 70, but started around the year 170 BC, giving full details of biblical persons like Herod the Great. About 1/7th of the book treats this rather lengthy introduction. I have to admit that I skipped this part, as I read the prequel of this book, Antiquities of the Jews, which Josephus wrote after it, earlier, and described the history of the Jews as it is mostly written in the Old Testament of the bible. As he ended that book before the events of the Jewish War, I thus had already read this introduction. Josephus is not that great a writer to reread it all almost immediately after.

Most interesting about Josephus is that he was not an outsider in the war, but actually played a fairly important part. In the beginning he joined the revolt and became one of the rebel generals as he was from a noble priestly family. Early in the war he was defeated after a hard and long fight and taken prisoner. It was at this moment that he changed sides. On meeting his victor, Vespasian, he declared him to be emperor, which he wasn’t at the time. Josephus would however be the first to do so before anyone thought it possible. As the Emperor Nero committed suicide and the Roman Empire turned into civil war, Vespasian became victor and emperor. Josephus was thus redeemed and joined the side of Vespasian’s son Titus, who had taken over the lead in the Jewish War. He joined him in the Siege of Jerusalem, trying to get his countrymen to give up battle against the supreme Romans, with little success. After the war he went to live in Rome, where he held a priviliged position in the Flavian dynasty for the rest of his life. Most Jews considered him to be a traitor, but some might say he saw the doom the Jews were leading themselves to, as they never had a chance to win.

Did I just spoil major plot points? I’m not telling much more than is written on my book cover. This is afterall history. The most important events are usually known already. One reads history to discover the details of the events that occurred and the how and why. The many twists and turns are usually not mentioned. Telling all this is also necessary to explain my review and how this book was written.

As Josephus was a rebel, he is a proud Jew and the history of his people is important to him. As he switched sides to the Romans and he writes for a Roman audience, he is also pro-Roman. They are always the just ones, rarely doing the wrong thing. Persons might be corrupt, but in general Romans are the best. This is also how the book is written. He is harsh on the rebels, but also tries to explain their views, as he had the same ones, so that people had an idea of why the revolt happened or how they were deluded by certain leaders. At the same time he gives positive remarks where possible. Bravery, honesty and humility is praised. It is because of those things that this history is not one-sided but related accounts from both sides. Josephus spoke with refugees and survivors of the war and could thus described events in the Roman and the Jewish camp to great detail.

With this I conclude the part of why this book is an interesting read and important to current events. It is also a reason why I like to read historical books or histories. One gains great insight and understanding.

The next question is if this book is a good read. On this part I have to say that this is not really the case. I have read better historians than Josephus. He can be a tough read, going into certain details without it really going anywhere and lacking structure when that happens. At times he also like to write long speaches by certain persons. It is a style often used by classic historians, but Josephus’ ones can be rather longwinded and repetitive. The often do not give any information or viewpoints that is not already known.

His sometimes poor writing is compensated by some very horrific tales he writes about the Siege of Jerusalem and how the populace suffered by the hand of extremist leaders, who basically terrorized the people they should be protecting. The tales he recounted actually gave me the shivers. As such they were the best parts of this history.

Another plus is the personal nature of the history. Many on Roman and Jewish side are named for certain acts. Most historian stick to the important persons in history, but Josephus makes sure many are commemorated till this day.

To finalize the review, I have to add that to the book a short one was added titled My Life. Josephus in this tells about his background and recounts certain events in the Jewish War. I read only short parts of it. Most of it was a repeat with some different views and details which, according to the translator, were to give a better view of his own standing.

Is this a book to be read? It certainly is, as I explained in my introduction. However, it also a rather tough read. Some parts will go easy, others not, even for someone with my experience of reading these kind of books. So some core of pure interest is required.