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A Jew Among Romans
The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus
By Frederic Raphael
Pantheon Books, 368 pages, $28
IF you betray your people in dramatic, devastating fashion but then somehow also become identified with that people by outsiders, where do you fit?
That is what American-born but British-trained Frederic Raphael tackles in this expansive, sometimes frustrating, often fascinating boundary-crossing book. In his early 80s, Raphael is a prolific and Oscar-winning scriptwriter and author of more than 30 books of fiction and non-fiction.
His subject here is Flavius Josephus, the famous ancient Jewish military commander, historian, biographer, and imperial sycophant.
Josephus was born into a wealthy priestly family in Judea in AD 37 and died around 100. He is studied for a wide variety of things but most especially for his writings about the war between the Roman Empire and its Judean subjects from AD 66-73.
This war took decades to percolate and was almost triggered outright many times. Ultimately, the Romans decided marching in was the only option.
Thereafter, they did Roman things like besiege, torture, bombard and destroy. It took longer than anyone then or now would expect, but it was an unstoppable force meeting, unfortunately, a movable object.
The most crushing and thereafter symbolic event of the war was Rome's stomping into Jerusalem and levelling of the great Herodian Second Temple of Judaism.
Josephus had earlier gone to plead with Emperor Nero for some captive Jewish priests and had seemed positioned to be an effective negotiator. But he returned to his homeland only to find himself thrust into the role of military leader in the Galilee as the legions loomed.
It is a long story — and Raphael tells it all! — but his group was surrounded, he tried to convince them to let him step out and negotiate as the only one with cachet with the Romans, they said fight, and he said die instead of suffer humiliations of defeat.
His arguments won the desperate day, a suicide pact of sorts was made (as always with these pacts, there actually was a lot more murder than suicide to it), and he somehow snared the lot to be the last of two standing.
As you can imagine, he had little trouble convincing his lone comrade to walk away.
Traitor. This is his legacy. He went on to be a kind of imperial favourite, and wrote, in Greek, voluminously on two things: the ancient history of his now-betrayed, defeated people and the final war itself.
Raphael is gripped by Josephus' story and he explains this upfront and well. He self-describes as an atheist and announces "yet, by no brave decision, I am a Jew." He is therefore, in ways somewhat like Josephus, both Jew and non-Jew.
It is difficult to label the genre of the book that results. It is not a work of scholarship but it can look like one at times. It has all the big-names of Josephan scholarship in play and he handles them fairly and lightly critically but he is not adding to their discussions at all.
He concedes outright that he is really only interested in the story and its grander ramifications.
But it is not a work of historical fiction either.
It is perhaps a work of historical and literary reflection. Raphael has a lovely habit of noting that "this is just like Camus" or "that is just like Thatcher in the U.K." or "there's a lovely poem about this written 500 years later" and the like. This quirk both breaks up and propels the massive narrative.
In the end, with its sprawling topic, rich visual prose, and obsession with odd characters, it reads like a thick description of an epic film that Raphael sees in his head. It is moving, fun, and sure to linger.
Laurence Broadhurst teaches in the departments of religion and culture and classics at the University of Winnipeg.