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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; nor … adhere[s] to any kind of codified morality [as in the Torah]" nor "believe[s] that the Jews (or anyone else) have some privileged connection with any kind of supernatural power." Along with the foregoing negatives, his "neither seek[ing] nor shun[ning] Jewish company" links him with other Jews who have been "pitched," as he has been and as Josephus was, into non-Jewish settings. Though he and other Jews have traveled farther into apostasy from Judaism, Josephus' "errant footsteps" set the direction. Raphael himself subscribes to such an analysis when saying, "Yet this book reflects on me and I on it, to a degree that others will judge" and "No one—especially, no Jew—can read Josephus without a certain apprehension that Josephus is also reading him."

Josephus never apostatized from Judaism. Why then does Raphael call him "the archetypal turncoat"? We might have expected a classicist like Raphael to think of Brutus that way. A Christian would have fingered Judas Iscariot as the archetypal turncoat. But Raphael is no Christian—is anti-Christian, in fact—and references the progression of Judas from turncoat to "victim of undeserved malice" in "the recently discovered manuscript of the so-called Gospel of Judas." This progression reverses that of Josephus from a would-be protector of his fellow Jews to a "guilt-laden pariah" for having defected to the Romans, gone to Rome after the Jewish War of AD 66-73, and spent the rest of his life there under the largesse of Roman emperors. Representing this latter progression is the change of his name from the Semitic Joseph ben Mattathias to the Latinized Titus Flavius Josephus.

Raphael seeks to justify Josephus the turncoat by stressing his brilliance and bravery as a leader in the Jewish revolt against Rome, his realism and reasonableness (over against the fantasies and fanaticism of the rebels) in urging fellow Jews to yield to Rome's over-whelming force, and his finesse in writing the revolt's history so as to highlight the Romans' cruelty without incurring his own elimination. Thus, "Joseph was able to smuggle brutal truths about the conduct of the [Roman] legions into his history only by appearing to excuse those who commanded them …. To call him collaborator underrates his subtlety and simplifies his practice. He was more devious than a turncoat—and more consistent."

By now, readers of this review previously unacquainted with Josephus (as Raphael was largely unacquainted with him till a few years ago) will have picked up something of his role in the Jewish revolt and of his subsequent surrender to the Romans and ensconcement in Rome, where he finished out his life as a writer. The Jewish War gives a detailed account of the revolt. Much of his Jewish Antiquities paraphrases historical portions of the Old Testament. Against Apion defends Judaism. And Josephus' Life presents us with world literature's first extant autobiography.

Despite Raphael's criticism of Josephus' interpretation of history as "sorry" (because of a "determination to see God's hand in the affairs of men"), he lauds Josephus and portrays him in terms that—given what we know of Raphael's credits—look and sound like something of a self-portrayal. As Josephus' books were "apologies for himself," then, you gain the impression that this book by Raphael is an apology not only for Josephus (against the attacks on him by other Jews, such as Uriel Rappaport and Yigael Yadin) but also for Raphael himself and other similarly disaffected Jews. Thus, as Raphael cites Josephus' "precociousness," "quick mind," "inventive panache," "mental agility," "ingenuity," and "intellectual and diplomatic education," so in many asides Raphael broadcasts his own such abilities. Similarly, the abundantly evident and varied breadth of Raphael's knowledge puts you in mind of this statement: "Joseph entertained many ideas, and they entertained him, but the breadth of his intelligence worked against single-mindedness" and his "cosmopolitan tastes" would have made him "much more at home as a citizen of Alexandria" than of Jerusalem. The equally evident rhetorical skill of Raphael also smacks of Josephus' "rhetorical elegance" and "[s]killful verbosity."

Most apparent of all, when we recall Raphael's career as a writer of screenplays, is the way he casts Josephus as a thespian, a showman with a flair for the dramatic. In talking about Josephus' ability at "springing surprises," Raphael comments, like the screenwriter he is, that "Joseph both cued and confused his listeners …. [He] was able to control the show" by "relying on surprise and showmanship" as an "actor." Again:

From the moment when he crossed the lines [to the Roman side], he'd committed himself to being a performer [emphasis original]. No longer a Jew among Jews, he was conditioned by his alien audience: it played with him; he played to it. He was, in a literal and theatrical sense, cast among strangers.

Thus he had to be "his own writer [read 'screenwriter'?] and his own producer," "his performance" comparable to that of "a method actor." Raphael even imagines an actor's pregnant pause in Josephus' predicting that Vespasian would become emperor.

Finally along this line, Josephus came to have "no furious commitment to Jewish exclusivity," so as to depict himself as "dispassionate and humane," without "political or religious zeal," and thus "the first Jew to offer an overview of the world's history and evolution that was not Judeocentric," a man who valued "common sense" and "decency" over "fanaticism." If Josephus was "a traitor, it was to a reckless nationalism he never favored," just as Raphael deplores "the aberrations of Zionism and its lobbyists" while at the same time defending the right of Israel's existence against both Jewish and other anti-Zionists. Is it that Raphael sees himself in Josephus, or that he projects himself onto Josephus? Maybe both. This much is sure: What Raphael calls the "gossipy detail" in Josephus' Jewish Antiquities finds its match in A Jew Among Romans; and Josephus' elaborations of the Old Testament text find their match in Raphael's elaborations of his subject's works, as when, to take but one example, he dons his classicist's hat to compare Josephus with Odysseus in regard to "the attributes of charm, durability and double-dealing." The two authors are of a kind.

Raphael's elaborations sometimes take the form of speculations: the possibilities, for example, that Josephus became a strong swimmer as a result of "workouts with Bannus [a hermit]" in "a survival course" that was "based on a Greco-Roman curriculum, including marathon swimming"; that the Joseph of the Old Testament inspired Joseph ben Mattathias "to keep calm in the face of important aliens"; that the knives of fanatic Jewish assassins "brought them kudos on the street and, no doubt, allowed unscrupulous capi to exact 'protection' from prosperous targets"; and that there is "small likelihood" some of the Roman legionaries did not "hold out their arms and loll their heads in mimic crucifixion" after taking custody of Josephus.

Other elaborations by Raphael consist in a dizzying array of references that put on exhibit his polymathy. As a reader you learn, if you didn't know it before, that the photographer Leo Friedlander "broke precedent by allowing his shadow to fall into the frame of his photographs." You also learn of an ancient belief, recorded by an incredulous Herodotus, that a race of "Hyperboreans" ("Extreme Northerners") wore their heads below their shoulders. Did you know that when still an aedile responsible for keeping the Roman streets clean, Vespasian happened to meet up with Caligula the emperor on a filthy stretch of road, so that Caligula "had his bodyguard shovel the shit into the folds of the aedile's toga"? Now you know. After becoming emperor, Vespasian slapped a tax on urinals, whose contents were used by tanners for ammonia. His son objected that it was inappropriate to get revenue from piss. But Vespasian replied, "Nothing smelly about money," so that in the 1800s Parisian pissotiers became known as vespasiennes. Or take Nero's empress, Poppaea Sabina. She kept a stable of five hundred she-asses to provide milk for her bathtub.

Raphael's knowledge of poetry also comes into play, starts with Archilochos, a Parian soldier of fortune who wrote poems in the first person in the seventh century BC, proceeds with anecdotes about Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats, and takes in 20th-century poetry by Constantine Cavafy. Nor are philosophers missing from Raphael's purview. Not only do Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle make appearances. So too do Descartes, Nietzsche, and Heidegger among others. We learn of André Malraux's observation that eroticism is "a way of escaping one's era," and of Raphael's own view that "the ecologists' quasi-deification of Gaia is a metastasis of monotheism." Other examples of semi-philosophical reflections appear in references to Stanley Kubrick's definition of paranoia as "understanding what's going on" and Dryden's calling Augustus a man who "kills and keeps his temper."

Also coming into view are historical trivia: "Poor von Thoma! I too have dined with Montgomery," said Churchill, who lived by the bottle, when told that the British general, who banned the bottle from his table, had invited the German Panzer general to dinner after defeating him at El Alamein. We learn of a phone call that Stalin made to Pasternak and of the 19th-century French politician Ledru-Rollin's saying about a militant mob on the march, "I am their leader, I must follow them" (contemporized as leading from behind), and of George Walden's having heard Henry Kissinger say, when asked what he thought about the Iran-Iraq war, "Pity only one side can lose." Raphael himself compares a 17th-century Spanish belief that male Jews menstruate to Arnold Schwarzenegger's "girlie men" and speaks of "[t]he willful illegibility and esoteric terminology of medical prescriptions" as carrying "a vestige of medieval abracadabra." There is more, a lot more. In their numbers, Auden, Shaw, Racine, Proust, Pound, Trotsky, Dreyfus, Foucault, Hobsbawn, Marcuse, and many others of their like crawl in and out of Raphael's text like ants in and out of an anthill. What do all these fellows and factoids have to do with the life and legacy of Josephus? Not much. But like a peacock in full train, Raphael dazzles with the many-colored splendor of his vast learning; and therein lie the delights of his book.

Dazzling and delightful, too, is Raphael's ability to turn a phrase. In regard to Sabbath law, "It is nice to think that everybody's weekend owes something to the Torah." "The High Priest Jonathan … was only the most distinguished cadaver done to death by the Sicarii." "Prophets were to the ancient Jews what economists are to the modern world: they dealt in futures." (You could add a comparison of the "dismal science" with scriptural prophecies of doom.) Nero "was the first ruler for whom the X factor of showbiz trumped statesmanship." (Who of more recent vintage might Raphael have in mind?)

"Jotapata [a town under attack] was a small nut, but not easy to crack." "The Romans advanced … crouched under their shields, like a rectangular, articulated tortoise." When scalded with outpoured boiling oil, "[t]he tortoise disintegrated." "Fadus had him [a popular Jewish rebel] arrested and beheaded, which reduced his charisma." "Joseph's tears at the heartlessness of the Zealot leaders were those of a sincere crocodile: he wept for a fate he now stood every chance of escaping." "If he was now in a lonely limbo [ensconced in Rome], it was a limbo with cushions." "[A]lien intellectuals … provided great families [in Rome] with their academic house pets." "Sub/versions [as in irony] are the catacombs in which writers can embalm secret sentiments." "Freud put his patients on the couch; modern philosophers [like the hedonists A. J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell] have shown an aptitude for joining their pupils there."

In a way Raphael, too, puts people on the couch, namely, his aforementioned fellow Jewish misfits throughout history, whom he usually praises but sometimes pillories. Josephus' legacy of living as a Jew among Romans provides the couch or, perhaps better, the Pro-crustean bed by which those Jews ("who, in one way or another, resemble him in having been alienated") are judged.

Raphael pillories Hannah Arendt for her "sentimental moralizing," as opposed to Josephus' "practical politics" (compare the "similar moral zealots," Noam Chomsky, Jacqueline Rose, and Harold Pinter, who according to Raphael "tend to regard Israel, in particular, in the light of universal virtues that have nothing to do with the contingent circumstances of their advocates"). Likewise, Heinrich Heine and Benjamin Disraeli get pilloried because unlike Josephus, who did a balancing act, they capitulated to their non-Jewish surroundings. Disraeli, in fact, capitalized on his capitulation—flamboyantly. On the other hand, Walter "Benjamin … furnishes a [different kind of] counter-Josephus, a man incapable of renouncing what was no longer ever going to be available to him, the old country. He lacked the nerve … to remake himself [as Josephus did]."

On the commendatory side, Michel de Montaigne, who descended on his mother's side from Sephardic Jews, earns praise because like Josephus he wrote in his second language, "took a dispassionate and dismayed attitude to the sectarian violence of his times," and "has been regarded, by severe critics, as a trimmer and even as a coward." Trimming can take the form of ambiguation, so that "[i]n a mutation of Josephan ambiguity [presumably in reference to Roman treatment of the Jewish rebels in AD 66-73], Maimonides offers a cryptic version of the cryptic" in taking "the [Old Testament] text's disjunctions" as "purposeful irregularities, intended to hide and betray deeper order, nay, divine meaning." As Josephus indicted the ruthlessness of Roman emperors only in passing, so "Freud indicted the dominant form of Christianity only en passant"; and "[i]t could be said that Freud's emphasis on the neurotic consequences of, roughly speaking, sexual repression was a Josephan ruse" (emphasis original). The Vienna Circle of the 1920s and 1930s "also had a Josephan aspect" in that "it, too, attacked the dominant religion by indirection." In its reticence and lack of overt declaration, the famous concluding line of Ludwig Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one should keep silent," could similarly "be said to acquire a Josephan ring."

"Like Joseph ben Mattathias, [Karl] Kraus thought his countrymen [Austrians] mad, and bad, to go to war [a reference to World War I]." Julien Benda's "call for the educated to tell the truth, rather than to bend to ideological cant, echoes Titus Josephus, who claimed to rise above partisanship in his account of The Jewish War and of himself." Like Josephus, "he neither denied his origins nor, in his social and intellectual stance, attached importance to them." Raul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) "resembled The Jewish War in that it mounted no explicit polemic …. Hilberg chose to work as if he were [like Josephus] under an embargo imposed by Gentiles"; and Claude Lanzmann, who made the monumental film Shoah, was "a modernized mutation of Flavius Josephus" in his unflaggingly persistent "retrieval and recording of painful memories."

Though Raphael does not make the comparison explicit, Walter Lippman resembled Josephus to a degree through "effac[ing] his Jewishness by a show of urbane righteousness" during "his long heyday as the leading thinker at the New York Times." "Leo Strauss … was another modern mutation of Joseph ben Mattathias" in that "Strauss made duplicity the emblem of integrity." The two were "men not quite at home, albeit formally enfranchised." "If he [Josephus] was safe in Rome, he had no future there, only his past." Likewise Isaiah Berlin "turn[ed] his rootlessness into the kind of Archimedean point outside all the world, the better to assess them from" (so Raphael's quotation of Michael Ignatieff).

On and on go Raphael's comparisons of Jews—Theodor Adorno, Marc Chagall, Yehuda Halevi, Arthur Koestler, Primo Levi, Romek Marber, Irène Némirovsky, Karl Popper, Joseph Roth, Arthur Schnitzler, Gershom Scholem, Otto Weininger, and still others—with Josephus. But Raphael's Josephan hero of all Josephan heroes is obviously Spinoza. Of course Spinoza apostatized outright, as Josephus did not. But Raphael notes that, like Josephus, Spinoza displayed precocity at a young age; that as Joseph ben Mattathias became the Romanized Titus Flavius Josephus, Baruch Spinoza became the Romanized Benedict Spinoza; that Spinoza lived solitarily, "somewhat as Joseph did in Rome—in a ghetto of one," and consequently adopted Josephus' rubric of caute, "be careful"; and that as Josephus failed to return to Israel, though the emperor had given him estates there, Spinoza failed to emigrate from the Dutch republic to Israel with other Jews "as a result of the messianic pretensions of Shabbetai Zevi in 1666." Finally, and apart from any parallel with Josephus, Raphael likes Spinoza because in his opinion Spinoza's disdain for his fellow Jews who believed in miracles and resurrection applies "with even greater force" to believing Christians. Though Spinoza said nothing against Christians, Raphael says a great deal against them, and against their beliefs and practices.

In particular and with painful accuracy, Raphael details Christians' verbal, social, and physical persecution of Jews. No contest there; and he dutifully records the occasional sheltering of Jews by Christians, though he might have highlighted both the significantly large amount of current support for Jews and the Jewish state among evangelical Christians and the apostle Paul's having wished himself accursed if it would do any good for the salvation of his fellow Jews (Rom. 9:1-5). What needs contesting, however, is Raphael's explanation that persecution of the Jews grows out of Christian theology almost necessarily. Though he usually prefers an economic over a theological explanation, his theological explanation of Christians' persecution of the Jews goes like this: Christians believe that Jesus was God's one-and-only Son; that the Jews had Jesus killed (hence deicide); that as punishment for the killing, God had the Romans destroy Jerusalem in AD 70; and therefore that it is incumbent on Christians to continue the visitation of divine retribution on the Jewish people. To undermine the foregoing set of Christian beliefs, Raphael avers that Jesus made no claim to divine sonship; that his first followers did not consider him God's one-and-only Son; that the belief in Jesus' divine sonship arose later under the influence of Greco-Roman mythology and Oriental mystery religions; that the Jews had nothing to do with the killing of Jesus—rather, the Romans, particularly in the person of Pontius Pilate, bore sole responsibility; and that the modern Israelis' recapture of Jerusalem disproves divine retribution on the Jews in AD 70.

Missing from Raphael's discussion is the New Testament record of massive Christian efforts to evangelize Jews and to weld Jewish and Gentile believers into loving, peaceful unity, efforts which disprove any incumbency of persecution. Also missing from Raphael's discussion is the non-Christian Jews' early persecution of Christians, not only well-documented in the book of Acts (which he might take as unhistorically biased) but also suffered by the Apostle Paul according to an undisputed letter of his (2 Cor. 11:24-26; compare 1 Thess. 2:14-16, though this latter passage is sometimes disputed). Prior to his conversion, of course, Paul persecuted Christians, as he confesses in other undisputed letters of his (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13, 23; Phil. 3:6). Raphael does accept this activity of the pre-Christian Paul as historical; but instead of treating it as a fly in the ointment of his argument, he passes it off as the "revolutionary zeal" of an infiltrative "double agent" who "becomes half-infatuated with the cause he has been commissioned to sap." Taken seriously, Paul's early persecution of Christians and later suffering of persecution at the hands of non-Christian Jews should have made it less easy for Raphael to wave away as an unhistorical accretion the Jewish element in the Gospels' accounts of Jesus' crucifixion. For Jewish persecution of Christians most naturally grew out of Jewish persecution (to the death) of Jesus himself, the object of their faith. Uncited by Raphael, moreover, that repository of rabbinic tradition called the Babylonian Talmud—more particularly, Sanhedrin 43ab—even exacerbates some 1st-century Jews' responsibility for Jesus' death by having him stoned (a Jewish rather than Roman mode of execution) under the charge that he had seduced Israel into idolatry (a matter of no concern to the Romans, since they themselves were idolaters).

Raphael's attribution of belief in Jesus' divine lordship to late borrowing from Greco-Roman mythology and Oriental mystery religions recalls the old view, now largely discredited, of Wilhelm Bousset and needs correction from the early Christian and Semitic "Maranatha" ("O [our] Lord, come!" [1 Cor. 16:22]), not to mention other considerations, such as Jesus' exercising the divine prerogative of forgiving sins, the weaving of Old Testament language into the warp and woof of accounts of Jesus' virgin birth and later public ministry, and the differences between a virginal conception and conception by means of a god's having carnal intercourse with a human female, and between a full bodily resurrection and a slain god's revival in the underworld. By not going into detail in these regards, Raphael lets himself off easy. Suffice it, then, to quote Daniel Boyarin, an orthodox Jew and internationally renowned Talmudic-cum-New Testament scholar who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley: "It won't be possible any longer to think of some ethical religious teacher [Jesus] who was later promoted to divinity under the influence of alien Greek notions, with his so-called original message being distorted and lost; the idea of Jesus as divine-human Messiah goes back to the very beginning of the Christian moment, to Jesus himself."[1]

Raphael does not devote his biography to Jesus, though. So back to Josephus. Given the hellenization of many Jews long before his lifetime—as, for example, at the time of the Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century BC—the question arises whether Josephus started or only continued a trend of turncoating. As Raphael well knows, some Jewish men went so far as to undo their circumcision by means of epispasm. On this point, however, we should cut him some slack, because he is concerned with Jewish intellectuals, not with brainless young jocks ashamed to have their glans exposed when exercising Greek-fashion in the nude. (Never mind the contradiction between "jocks" and complete nudity.)

Given also Raphael's aforementioned, longtime ignorance of Josephus, the further question arises whether the many Jews whom Raphael canvasses were consciously carrying on or, in some cases, consciously casting off a Josephan legacy of behavior. Whatever the answer, which might determine the appropriateness of "Legacy" in Raphael's subtitle, the comparisons between Josephus and later Jews who like him found themselves in societies dominated by non-Jews—these comparisons remain valid, though arguably strained at times. So let Raphael have the last word on his subject:

Josephus, the exile, the traitor, the witness, the reasonable patriot, the pious Jew, the alienated solitary, the sponsored propagandist, melts into and disappears into his textual persona as if it were an alibi. Words supply his coat of many colors.

1. Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New Press, 2012), p. 7.

Robert Gundry is scholar-in-residence and professor emeritus at Westmont College.

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