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Fake news, circa 70 A.D.: The Jewish War by Josephus

Concern about fake news is nothing new. Readers have long doubted the truth of Josephus’ contemporary history of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. to the Roman general Titus. Many have assumed that any author who could accept a post as a general on the side of the Jewish rebels in the war against Rome but abandon his comrades and end up writing an account of the war from the Roman side as a self-proclaimed friend of the Roman emperor could not be trusted.

It does not help that Josephus himself described in detail the process by which he swapped sides. According to his own account in The Jewish War, when he found himself trapped with forty comrades in a cave on the fall of Jotapata in Galilee, where he had been the rebels’ commander, he arranged that they would kill each other in turn, throwing lots to fix the order in which they should kill each other. But when, “by chance or divine providence,” he found himself alone with just one companion in a sea of corpses, he persuaded his fellow survivor to surrender with him to the Romans.

Why should anyone trust an author who so blatantly transferred his allegiances and tricked his fellow Jews?

The real answer lies in the fact that we owe our knowledge of Josephus’ tortuous political career entirely to Josephus’ own writings. Other ancient authors who refer to him know him only as the Jewish prophet who correctly predicted the rise to power of the future emperor Vespasian at a time when it would have been inconceivable to more or less anyone in the Roman world (including Vespasian himself). We may still debate whether Josephus was a traitor to his people—and the debate has been common among Jewish readers of his history for at least the past two centuries—but bad men can write good history, and it would be quite wrong to think of the Jewish War as Roman propaganda.

On the contrary, there was plenty in Josephus’ remarkable history which ran counter to the official message of the imperial regime in Rome in the seventies A.D., when Josephus was writing, not least Josephus’ reiterated claim that Titus had not wanted to destroy the Jerusalem Temple and that the conflagration which had consumed it had been an unplanned accident.

The public statements of the Roman state, as expressed on coins and in architecture (such as the Arch of Titus, which still stands above the Roman forum), revelled in the defeat of Judaea and the humiliation of the Jewish God. Josephus, by contrast, claimed that the whole course of the war, including the defeat of the Jews, had been brought about precisely by the Jewish God as a way to punish the Jews for their sins—a theological explanation for world events familiar from the biblical book of Deuteronomy. Indeed, it had been on the direct instructions of God that, so he claimed, Josephus himself had chosen to transfer his own allegiance to the Roman side.

In many respects, among the most surprising features of Josephus’ history was thus his decision to write it. He is explicit that he owed his life and his livelihood to Vespasian and Titus who had destroyed Jerusalem, but he does not disguise his own heartfelt passion at the disaster which had befallen the Jews. He draws his readers into every twist and turn in the fortunes of war, constantly reminding them that there was nothing inevitable about the dreadful climax in which the hills groaned with the cries from Jerusalem as the city and its famous Temple were burned to the ground.

Roberts_Siege_and_Destruction_of_Jerusalem
The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70, by David Roberts (1796-1864). Oil on canvas. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

We do not know whether many of Josephus’ contemporaries read his book, but we do know that there was enough dissent for him to feel the need to respond to his critics in his later works. But, so far as we know, these critics were all fellow Jews (who accused him of being keener on rebellion and more opposed to Rome at the start of the revolt than in retrospect he felt he had been), although Josephus’ book was aimed primarily at Roman readers – hence the title “The Jewish War,” which was Josephus’ own title for his history.

For the original Roman readers of Josephus’ eyewitness account of the war, interest in the violent suppression of an uprising in an obscure province in the southern part of Syria lay almost entirely in the role of the Roman commanders, Vespasian and Titus, who had used their victory over the Jews as the springboard to power over the Roman Empire: two thousand years ago, just as in the present, events in this small corner of the Middle East had huge political consequences for the wider world.

For readers in the 21st century, the literary force of Josephus’ testimony, with set piece descriptions such as the mass suicide of the Jewish defenders of Masada, has ensured that his narrative continues to draw readers to his dramatic narrative of these tragic events through which he had lived.

Featured image credit: “Wailing Wall, Jerusalem” by BRBurton23. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Yerich Salles

    If we disagree with Josephus we must also disagree with the biblical texts. The reports follow the same pattern of attributing divine punishment against the losers. We see today a frightening parallel when radical Protestants justify the destruction of Syria and the annihilation of Syrian Christian communities using biblical texts. Perhaps the guilt of this is the very schizophrenic core that permeates Abrahamic monotheism.

  2. Baruch Spinoza

    I have other places to tell my perspective. You claim to uphold “free expression,” but exclude any reflection outside the boundaries you have outlined. It is good to know that your shallow thinking is being contested. Not only by me, but by many.

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