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A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus
A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus
Frederic Raphael
Pantheon, 2013
368 pp., $28.95

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Robert Gundry


Josephus as a Pre-Raphaelite

The life of a "Jew among the Romans."

Okay, neither Josephus nor the author of his biography, A Jew Among Romans, was/is a painter, poet, or critic like the Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century. So I've cheated a little in giving this review of The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus the title, "Josephus as a Pre-Raphaelite." The title makes a point, though—namely, that the biographer, Frederic Raphael, portrays Josephus, a 1st-century Jewish historian, as the first in a long line of Jewish intellectual misfits in settings dominated by non-Jews. Since Raphael sees himself mirrored to a large extent in Josephus, that line has culminated, so far as Raphael is concerned, in himself. But since it goes back to Josephus, we can count Josephus as a Pre-Raphaelite.

First to consider is Raphael, whom the biography's dust jacket and interior notices justly herald as "a Fellow of The Royal Society of Literature since 1964," "a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement," and the "acclaimed" author of "more than twenty novels, five volumes of short stories, biographies of Byron and W. Somerset Maugham, and five volumes of his personal notebooks and journals"—plus translations of several Greek and Latin classics, numerous further books of nonfiction, and a dozen screenplays (among them Darling, for which he won an Oscar, Two for the Road, which garnered an Oscar nomination, and Eyes Wide Shut, his memoir of which raised a ruckus). In volume and variety, then, Raphael's published work compares well with that of Josephus, to whose histories, apology for Judaism, and autobiography the Loeb Classical Library devotes ten volumes, what Raphael calls "Josephus's enormous literary output."

What does Raphael say about himself that can be related more or less to Josephus? He identifies himself as a Jew, but says he has "never subscribed, except for politeness's sake, to any God, including that of the Jews," and therefore "neither pray[s] nor abstain[s] from [Mosaically] forbidden foods" nor "go[es] to synagogue; ...

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