Wednesday’s Book Review: “Jerusalem’s Traitor: Josephus, Masada, and the Fall of Judea”

9780750946537Jerusalem’s Traitor: Josephus, Masada, and the Fall of Judea. By Desmond Seward. Philadelphia: DaCapo Press, 2009.

This life and times biography of Josephus does several important things. First, it tells what there is to know about the life and career of the most important chronicler of Judea in the first century C.E. Second, it brings together the dramatic history of the Jewish uprising in Judea, including the sack of Jerusalem and the dramatic siege of Masada. Finally, it tells how Josephus gained access to Vespasian’s records and recorded a remarkably useful history of these events. His account of the deaths of more than 600,000 people and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem ranks as one of the great narratives of the classical period.

Jewish aristocrat Flavius Joseph witnessed many of the events of the Jewish War, including the destruction of Jerusalem in 66-70 C.E., and was himself a general fighting the Roman leader, Vespasian, for some of that period. He was captured, nearly executed, but found favor with his prophecy that Vespasian would someday become the Roman Emperor. Such did take place, and Josephus gained both Roman citizenship and status in Judea and later in Rome. Josephus aided Vespasian by serving as an adviser to the Roman legions, and by developing a network of spies aiding the Roman cause.

Josephus has been remembered as a Jewish traitor working for the Romans. Indeed, his histories have suggested that the brutal Roman response to the Jewish uprising was the result of Jewish declension. He wrote: “God then, God himself, is using the Romans to bring his purifying fire down on the place.” He might have possessed an apocalyptic perspective on the events of the day, but he also pragmatically understood that the Jewish people’s best hope of survival lay in accommodating to Rome. Such a perspective, of course, was anathema to Zealots intent on overthrowing Roman rule. It was also a bitter pill for even those not firmly in the Zealot camp; hence his reputation as a traitor.

This is a remarkably accessible history of Judea in the first century, emphasizing the dramatic events of the Jewish uprising and the brutal Roman response. Written by preeminent historian Desmond Seward it offers a compelling tale of politics and plunder, love and war in the classical era.

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