Jerusalem’s Traitor

Josephus, Masada, and the Fall of Judea


by Desmond Seward

Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2009, xxii + 314 pp.
$28 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Louis H. Feldman
Josephus’s soul-stirring account of the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 C.E.), titled The Jewish War, has recently been translated from Greek into Hebrew by Lisa Ullman. In a review in Haaretz, Hebrew University political scientist Shlomo Avineri recalls a mock trial in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence in which Josephus was the defendant: Was Josephus a hero or a traitor? For many years such trials of Josephus were common in Israel. The unusual feature of the mock trial that Avineri recalls, however, is that there were two defendants: Josephus and Yohanan Ben Zakkai, the rabbinic leader who fled a besieged Jerusalem to the camp of the Roman Tenth Legion to ask the Roman commander Vespasian to spare Yavneh and its sages, a request that was granted.

Both defendants, however, were acquitted in the mock trial. Professor Avineri recalls that the argument that won the day was that the harm caused by their respective choices to cross the lines and to go to the enemy was not as bad as the good that they did for the Jewish people.

In Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s case, the survival of the rabbinic academy at Yavneh enabled the sages to create an alternative framework for Jewish identity after the Roman destruction of the Temple.

Josephus, too, defected to the Romans. He went to Rome and returned with Titus and the Roman forces to witness the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, after which, living in Rome, he wrote The Jewish War. Josephus’s arguments against the revolt were his effort to preserve the identity of the Jews as a nation. In his review, Avineri calls Josephus the first Zionist in the sense that Zionism is an expression of Jewish nationalism.

To judge from the title of the book here under review (Jerusalem’s Traitor), one would expect that the author would make a case depicting Josephus as a prejudiced historian and as a traitor to the Jewish people. Actually, Seward argues that Josephus, far from being a quisling, did his best to save Judea from the inevitable catastrophe. Seward agrees with St. Jerome, who ranked Josephus on a par with the great Roman historian Livy, though Seward recognizes that, as a human being, Josephus was vain and unscrupulous. Moreover, Seward admires Josephus for his unwavering belief in the destiny of his faith and his nation. If he was an opportunist, he was nevertheless loyal in his own way to what he considered the best interests of his people. If we may judge from the Talmud, Josephus’s viewpoint was shared by many of the rabbis.

At Masada a small group of rebels held out against the Romans for three or four years after the fall of Jerusalem. Although Josephus was not there, Seward goes so far as to say that Masada inspired Josephus to write two more books?the Jewish Antiquities, relating the history of the Jewish people from the beginning to the outbreak of the revolt against Rome, and the essay Against Apion, which defends the Jews against anti-Semitic charges leveled by one Apion. As far as I am aware, Josephus never states that the incident at Masada inspired him to write these works, contra Seward.

When Josephus surrendered and obtained a meeting with the then Roman commander Vespasian, Josephus predicted that Vespasian would become emperor. Seward tells us that upon investigation, Vespasian learned that Josephus had turned out to be a veracious prophet in other matters and eventually freed him. Josephus then proceeded to urge the Jewish defenders of Jerusalem to surrender, because God was on the Romans’ side. Does this make Josephus a traitor, or was he sincere in trying to save Jewish lives and the Temple?

As noted by Seward, several of Josephus’s actions might well lead a reader to suspect Josephus’s loyalty. When Josephus was commanding rebel troops in Galilee early in the revolt, a fellow revolutionary, John of Gischala, asked Josephus for permission to make off with grain lying in some villages. Josephus refused, replying that he wanted the grain either for the Romans (actually the Jewish king, Agrippa II, who was a faithful ally of the Romans) or for his own use. Seward does not mention this episode, although it reflects badly on Josephus.

In his autobiography Josephus admits that after his defection, he was often in danger of death, both from the Jews, who were keen to have him at their mercy for the sake of revenge, and from the Romans, who had imagined that whenever they suffered a defeat, this resulted from his betrayal. Strangely, his autobiography is utterly silent on the last 20-odd years of his life when he was in Rome regarding specific incidents of this nature.

Finally, we may wonder why Josephus is never mentioned in the literature of the Talmud or the Midrashim. Is this because he was regarded as a traitor? Or was it because of his undue regard for Greek wisdom?

In assessing the Jewish revolt against the Romans that ended with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, history must have a vote. Seward is well aware of this and is even-handed in his treatment. On the whole, with some exceptions, the Jews in Judea were well treated during the first century B.C.E. and the first century C.E. The Romans realized that they themselves were a minority within their empire. The majority of people in the empire did not speak Latin. The key figures during this period were Julius Caesar and Augustus, both of whom were favorably disposed toward the Jews. When questions arose, the Jews of Judea would send delegations to Rome and generally presented their case successfully. Hence, Josephus would seem to be right in opposing rebellion, at least at this time.

Louis H. Feldman is the Abraham Wouk Family Professor of Classics and Literature at Yeshiva University in New York. An authority on Josephus and Josephus scholarship, he has written or edited 18 books (the most recent is Flavius Josephus, Judean Antiquities 1–4: Translation and Commentary [Leiden: Brill, 2000]) and more than 170 articles.

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