Avishai Margalit contrasts the legacies of a historian and a prophet
Titus Flavius Josephus is best remembered as an unparalleled chronicler of first-century C.E. Jewish history. His legacy also includes a military record marked by the betrayal of his peers and capitulation to the Romans. As a commander in the Jewish revolt, Josephus attempted to persuade his companions to open the gates of Yodfat for the Romans, and when the city fell, he reneged on the group’s suicide pact and personally surrendered. After the destruction of Jerusalem, Titus Flavius Josephus lived as a Roman citizen in the emperor’s palace, enjoying the luxurious life of a dignitary and scholar.
Josephus’s repeated calls for surrender to the Romans have been labeled as betrayal. In the September/October 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, distinguished scholar Avishai Margalit contrasts the historian’s tarnished reputation with that of the prophet Jeremiah. The prophet Jeremiah also urged total surrender to a militarily superior foe, the Babylonians. He tried to escape Jerusalem, and, much like Titus Flavius Josephus, was accused of trying to defect. Avishai Margalit asks: how is it that the Biblical prophet Jeremiah is revered while Josephus is criticized?
Avishai Margalit writes that “Josephus offers two kinds of defenses: defense of creed and defense of his people.” Josephus portrayed the zealots as irrational while defending the majority of Jews and the Roman dynasty, conveniently omitting the widespread support for the revolt and the atrocities committed by the Romans. Margalit writes that Jeremiah is also a historian, but “his appeal to history is not out of an interest in human affairs as such, but rather in history as a source of obligations to God. The religion of the Bible is, broadly speaking, a historically based religion; the primary arena of the Bible is history; the divine manifestation is set essentially in history.”
Neither Titus Flavius Josephus nor the prophet Jeremiah considered the creation of a Judean vassal state to be idolatry, and both took it upon themselves to warn their people of the superior military force of their enemies. Yet Avishai Margalit states that, “Josephus was tainted by his relation to power; Jeremiah was willing to risk everything. Josephus’s relation to power should not disqualify him as a witness in the court of history but it does disqualify him as a moral witness: a moral witness is never in the service of the ruling power.”
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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in September 2012.
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