THE subject of this contribution to a series of books on the fortunes of books is The Jewish War by Flavius Josephus, our only extant record of a calamity that transformed the character of Judaism. Cited with Schadenfreude by Eusebius as a witness to the veracity of Christ’s prophecies, it was paraphrased in Latin under the name of Hegesippus. In the early modern era, it enjoyed a new popularity, being read at Good Friday services in Leipzig in the time of Bach and inspiring a number of tragic dramas in England.
Translators worked unabashedly from Latin versions, sometimes creating the title Jewish Wars, perhaps by analogy with Caesar’s Gallic Wars; scholars were more concerned to discover whether Josephus cited the Old Testament in Hebrew or in the Greek of the Septuagint. Anglophone readers have not been well served by the popularity of Whiston’s version, still published with the appendices that perpetuate his own heresies; only libraries can afford the superior translations of Traill and St John Thackeray.
Jews were less likely to cherish a book in which the author reveals himself as a turncoat who, as leader of the rebels in Jotapata, survived a collective suicide and surrendered himself to the Romans, acclaiming the Emperor Vespasian as Messiah. Nevertheless, the story of Yohanan ben Zakkai’s escape from Jerusalem is modelled on his defection, and much of his narrative (now ascribed to Joseph Ben Gurion rather than to Joseph Ben Matthias) was digested into a fanciful compilation, the Sefer Yosippon, which sometimes passed for the Hebrew original of The Jewish War.
His integrity and his merits as a historian were fiercely disputed by Jews of the enlightenment, though his admirers included Zionists as well as proponents of cultural miscegenation. In the 20th century, his star has waned, and neither the advocacy of Louis Feldman nor the excavations of Yigael Yadin have convinced the academy that he can be read as an accurate chronicler of facts. Discrepant statements in his own autobiography would suffice to injure his credit even if he were not addicted to biblical stereotypes and the composition of manifestly fictitious speeches.
To call The Jewish War a work of literature, on the other hand, masks the poverty of its style, as, of course, do the recent adaptations for stage and cinema in which Israeli authors have mirrored the current troubles of their native land.
Professor Mark Edwards is Lecturer in Patristics at the University of Oxford, and Tutor in Theology at Christ Church, Oxford.
Josephus’s ‘The Jewish War’: A biography
Princeton University Press £20
Church Times Bookshop £18