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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Jerusalem’s Traitor: Josephus, Masada and the Fall of Judea, by Desmond Seward.  Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2009.  314 pp.  $28.00.


Perhaps the title of this book is a lure to readers that have heard Josephus was a traitor and want to see Seward’s take on the lurid details.  If that be the case, such a reader will be disappointed. 

Instead, if she stay till the end, the reader will realize that Josephus lived in a moment when the events seemed to be on the threshold of the apocalypse if not indeed in the thick of it.  He was a survivor, not by any means passive, at a time when his people living in Judea were torn with internal strife largely prompted by different responses to revulsion at Rome’s heavy, often brutal hand. In the ferocious war that was the result, Josephus somehow emerged from personal defeat to become its historian. 

Such histories are usually written by the victors, spelling out the glories of the winners and the faults of the losers. Though Josephus writes scathingly of the most vehement of the zealots that insisted on pursuing their path to destruction, and though he had as patrons the generals that were raised to the purple in the course of the war, his chiding of the zealots was tinted with praise where it was due, and with obvious personal sorrow at their violent end. He does not write the kind of history a conqueror writes because he was a captive, a victim too of this war.

He wanted to be other than this. In the last days of the war he hoped to salvage something for his people. It was because of this, as he tried to make something less than total destruction come about for his people, that he came to look like a traitor. After all, how does a person escape from such a desperate struggle to live in the emperor’s former villa unless one is a traitor? Desmond Seward tells this story remarkably.

Yet he is not a member of the Josephus-guild. He has also published books on Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Hundred Years War, and the involvement of monastic orders in the Crusades. Of these I have only become acquainted with The Monks of War. There, in an entirely different quarry, he digs out detail and brings to light a vivid picture of another immensely tragic epoch in human history.

 Whereas Seward draws on a few of the eminent Josephus scholars of our day, he did his own spade work. It is no slur to say that here is a book that may not be quoted in the research of Josephus scholars because it does not unearth new facts. This is not its purpose. The author offers to the thoughtful reader unacquainted with the Jewish War with Rome a vivid, fair and disquieting reflection of what Josephus tried to explain of his peoples’ war with Rome. 

This is to say Seward accepts without skepticism Josephus’ account. Not only that, but the author feels the pathos of the human beings caught up in this chaotic time and comments on the reasons why players on this violent stage acted as they did. He sympathizes with the men and women who were thrown into the apocalyptic crucible of the last days of the Second Temple and imagines what they thought, how they faced their fears and accepted their destinies. Thus he draws the reader into the story.

Seward here essentially distills the contents of Books 2–7 of Josephus’ account of the war, offering a narrative easier to read than what Josephus provides. He also weaves in information from Seutonius and Tacitus, contemporary historians of the conquerors.

I doubt that the author finds pleasure in being compared to other writers, but reading this excellent history of the Jewish War written by a non-specialist in this history, I thought of Murieille Hadas Lebel’s Flavius Josephus; Eyewitness to Rome’s First Century Conquest of Judea (1993). She too dug deeply into the sources for the purpose of writing a story unknown to many in France. Those that enjoyed reading the English translation of Lebel’s book will also embrace Seward’s.

This is a needful kind of history writing, the work of non-specialists, exacting in their research and masters of the craft of writing. Because when all is said and done, it is such writers that can clasp the imagination of the general public that needs to know of what they wrote. Perhaps it is because they do not begin with a detailed knowledge of Josephus’ works and the scholarship that has been done on them, they bring a fresh mind, a fresh view. 

Seward’s Jerusalem’s Traitor is surely destined for a wide readership. And if this is the case, he will fan the flames of interest that I have noticed is on the increase in the life story and writings of Flavius Josephus.

Stuart D. Robertson

Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures

Purdue University