The author of The Jewish War—our sole account of the 70 CE destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans—has always been one of the Ancient World’s most controversial figures. Born Joseph ben Mattathias to a Judean priestly family, Josephus was a leading Jewish general during the first years of the doomed rebellion, but, unlike so many of his contemporaries, he did not die either in battle or—like the martyrs of Masada—by his own hand. Instead, Josephus survived a brutal siege and passed into the hands of the Roman general Vespasian and his son Titus, both later emperors, and so became Titus Flavius Josephus, Roman citizen and adviser to the imperial family. Small wonder two millennia of commentators, Jewish and otherwise, have mostly seen him as an apostate and traitor.
But in the multitalented and prickly Raphael—novelist, classicist and Oscar-winning screenwriter for Darling (1965)—the ancient survivor has found his ideal judge, a man as certain of being a Jew as he is uncertain of the meaning of that fact, much as Josephus himself was. (“There is comedy of a kind,” the 81-year-old Raphael writes, “that the only people who might now insist that I am not really a Jew—since I neither pray nor abstain from forbidden foods—are other Jews.”)
The result is a mesmerizing study that evaluates Josephus’s choices within the context of internecine Jewish strife (both real and polemical) and overwhelming Gentile power. Josephus was the first, Raphael argues, of a long line of Diaspora Jews, from Maimonides to Spinoza, balanced on a similar knife-edge between internal suspicion and outside hatred. Who has the right to judge Josephus, whose works are one long defence of his people and his God (and filled with necessarily subtle denunciations of their persecutors)? asks Raphael. Exile, witness, reluctant loyalist who argued against a suicidal war, less than dependable propagandist for the victorious enemy: Josephus deserves respect.