Thursday, July 13, 2017

Jerusalem's Traitor by Desmond Seward (Book Review #22 of 2017)


Jerusalem's Traitor: Josephus, Masada, and the Fall of Judea

I picked up this book after reading an advance copy of Ben Witherington III's A Day in the Fall of Jerusalem (3 stars), a historical fiction narrative of days in 70AD complete with factual tidbits in sidebars. I also recently read William H. Marty's The World of Jesus (4 stars) that looks at the timelines, political intrigue, and family trees of first century Palestine as well.

If you don't want to read Josephus in the original, then Seward's work will suffice. He retells Josephus' works in an engaging fashion and adds some commentary as well as context. He supplies commentary to the reliability or possible motives behind certain passages. There is also a little bit of what is known from recent archaelogy or anthropology, and the latest of what historians believe about Josephus' life. It is not for an academic audience, it is entertaining.

Some bits that I gleaned:
Josephus was a follower of John the Baptist and probably like his father, who was likely of the party of the Pharisees, most likely in the lineage of priests. He also hung out with stoics. Josephus famously testifies to Christ (the Testimonium Flavianum) and that particular passage's authentication is debatable but Seward comes down on the side of it being plausibly authentic and moves past it fairly quickly.

We underestimate today how threatening and subversive monotheism was to Roma and its culture. This is the primary reason why Jews and later Christians were persecuted, either locally or widely. People familiar with the New Testament also underestimate the sheer brutality of living in that age, the frequency of wars, rebellions, and political intrigue that could lead to mass-slaughter. We can gloss over that today. Josephus, for example, wrote of the cruel Gessius Florus, who was procurator over Judea from 64-66. Florus would antagonize the Jews, desecrating their synagogues and removing money from the Temple treasury for the Emperor. The Jewish protest led to a Roman crackdown and many deaths. Josephus records that Samaritans, erstwhile rivals, joined in Florus' soldier's activities and the spark of rebellion quickly spread into a fire. While King Agrippa, who considered himself a Hebrew, tried to make peace the growing series of reprisals between Greeks and Jews became basically a civil war, even places like Galilee. This culminated in an outright pogrom in Caesarea. (Witherington's narrative ignores any part of this civil war runup in his text, which looks at areas in Galilee just after 70 AD, it's like nothing ever happened and there is no tension and no mention is made of Josephus having actually been a one-time governor of Galilee.)

Josephus may not have been actually acquainted with Nero, but apparently knew his wife, Poppea. Poppea was allegedly instrumental in getting Gessius Florus his position, but Josephus writes of her as a God-fearer who had sympathy for the Jews. Agrippa frowned on Nero and Seward writes of what is known or surmised about Nero's behavior.

Josephus was a capable commander of men but was a terrible governor of Galilee in peacetime. At the outbreak of the Jewish War, Josephus fought the Roman army in Galilee and led his men to a cave, allowing some to commit suicide before he himself went over to the Romans to help Vespasian. Josephus became useful as a translator, negotiator, and recorder. But historians differ as to whether Josephus actually got the lands and patronage that he writes about. He prophecied that Vespasian would become Emperor, and this apparently gained him the favor he needed and he enjoyed a good relationship with Titus Vespasianus, the next Emperor.

The true enemy in Josephus' works become the Zealots, telling his fellow Jews that the Zealots had betrayed the peace-loving Romans who had at least allowed them to maintain their Temple and worship. Therefore, "you are not just fighting Romans, but God." According to Josephus, the Zealots set off a class warfare that was brutal. He claims they were butchering or starving people inside Jerusalem's wall and them throwing them over. Josephus maintained a spy network of some sort within Jerusalem and encouraged surredner. However, Roman legionnaires were also ripping open Jewish captives after one captive was found to have swallowed some gold to smuggle it out of the city. This gruesome act discouraged surrender and just made matters worse. In Josephus work, both Jews and the Romans were at fault for destroying the Temple.

Titus, commanding the Roman seige of Jerusalem, reportedly absolves himself of guilt after hearing of atrocities and cannibalism inside Jerusalem. (Titus also had an affair with Bernice, daughter of Herod Agrippa, and he later dismisses her after he becomes Emperor.) Joseph accredits all of the actions and destruction to the hand of God and as punishment on the Jewish people. Masada would fall years later, and Josephus records Eliazar and the Masada suicide pact. After the destruction of the Temple, the Torah would be the center of Jewish worship and culture. Josephus wrote "Our Law will live forever."

The author also provides a brief summary of the later Bar-Kokhba War and the fate of Palestine as well as Josephus. Titus eventually became Emperor for only two years and his nephew, the insane Domition, succeeded him. Josephus had to defend his work and reputation at points in his life. Jews and Christians were increasingly heavily persecuted as the Emperor went mad.

One weakness of Seward's work is that he does not examine all the manuscript evidence of Josephus' work. My understanding from other sources is that there are some differences in the manuscript fragments and issues in translation. Josephus claimed Titus and Vespasian as sources and offers a letter from Herod Agrippa II testifying to the good quality of his book.

I give this book four stars out of five. You're likely better off to read, or listen to, the entirety of Josephus' works since they're freely available. But this is an in-depth summary and easy to enjoy. If you are more interested in understanding the context of the time in Palestine in which the New Testament was written, then check it out.

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