AN ABRIDGMENT OF AN ADDRESS TO THE MILITARY CLASSICS SEMINAR, FORT MYER, VA.
September 19TH, 2OOO
by Jim Bloom
NOTE: The original presentation ran to 45 minutes and the paper comprised about 7000 words. The seminar’s format requires a book review of a military history classic. I paired Josephus Flavius’ Jewish War (no particular edition) with Shaye Cohen’s Josephus in Galilee and Rome: his Vita and Development as a Historian. The latter was chosen because it is just about the only monograph that is totally devoted to Josephus’ likely actions as a "general" in Galilee, the most crucial phase of the revolt.
Josephus’ Jewish War is replete with detailed descriptions of the Roman army on campaign. Yet military historians have consulted it to interpret Roman warfare in every place except Palestine. A comparison between the neglected Judaean operations of 66-73 CE with the much-studied Claudian and Neronian skirmishes in Britain, shows that the Jewish uprising engaged over double the number of legionaries for a much more sustained period of conflict. So why is there no military history of the Jewish revolt based on Josephus?
The Judaean insurrection and Josephus are studied primarily for the light they shed on the milieu of Jesus. They also set forth the cataclysmic transformation of the Jewish faith from a hierarchical cult based on animal sacrifice to a universal faith. Finally, they demonstrate the nature of classical literature. The preeminence of these peaceable disciplines has overwhelmed the study of the Judaean revolt as a military event.
Josephus’ works were initially preserved because they glorified the Flavians, and thereafter because they "bore witness" for the Church fathers. The only other ancient military campaign that has been described in such detail by an eyewitness/participant is Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. A least that work, when not being employed by classical philologists and grammarians, has been used to study the battles of the Celts against the Romans.
There are some complications in using Josephus to reconstruct the Roman campaign in Judaea. First, like his models, Thucydides and Polybius, Josephus embellishes, distorts and invents for the purpose of enhancing the dramatic effect. He uses stock Greco-Roman literary devices, called topoi. Additionally, he alternately exaggerates and obfuscates his own controversial role. These filters can be pierced through a critical reading. However, there’s another problem. There appears to be a discrepancy between Josephus’ two different accounts of his period as "general" in Galilee, 66-67 CE. In the Jewish War, he portrays himself as a strategos, a general commissioned by the revolutionary council to prepare against the expected Roman counterattack in Galilee. In Life, he seems to portray his role as a peacekeeper, sent to disarm and pacify the hothead armed gangs spoiling for a fight, until some kind of understanding could be arranged with the Romans.
The reasonable choice for a modern guidebook is Shaye Cohen’s Josephus in Galilee and Rome: his Vita and Development as a Historian. It’s practically the only study that concentrates on the War-Life dichotomy. The book is quite negative about Josephus as a reliable source…and about his character generally. In this aspect, it harks back to what is known as the "classical" view of Josephus derived from late 19th century German source-criticism of Josephus’ corpus. Epitomized by Walter Laqueur’s work in the 1920s, this view neglected the likely socio-political and theological circumstances under which Josephus composed his history. It considered only information meant to support the classical conjecture that Josephus brazenly utilized deceitful forgeries (earlier spurious works) in a way so as to flatter his Roman benefactors and rationalize his own moral weakness. Laqueur and company painted Josephus as only wanting to promote his assumed role as Flavian lackey and gifted author.
Notwithstanding this negative spin, critics could not continue to ignore the obvious Jewish nationalistic (in this sense "apologetic") features and goals that influenced Josephus’ writing. I refer here to the later works, Antiquities of the Jews (his proud paraphrase of and postscript to the Old Testament) and Against Apion (a combative attack on pagan anti-Semitic slanders).
H. St. John Thackeray, translator/editor for the Loeb Classical Library edition of War and Life, to his credit recognized Josephus as a defender of his beleaguered Jewish colleagues, those shattered remnants in Judaea, and those in the Diaspora looking for something to cling to after the destruction of the Jewish heart in Jerusalem. (Josephus, the Man and the Historian, 1929). However, this redeeming feature was peripheral to Thackeray’s analysis, which retained much of the standard negative character portrait.
In 1956, Joseph Farmer’s Maccabees, Zealots and Josephus, an Inquiry into Jewish Nationalism in the Greco-Roman Period, finally made an attempt to consider Josephus’ ideological imperative, his redeeming mission in an empire that still considered Jews and Judaism a dangerous influence in the aftermath of the brutal revolt. Instead of seeing Josephus’ praise of the Flavians as self-serving groveling, he saw it as a means to elevate the Jews as a former worthy enemy and now an even worthier ally, as well as a means of reassuring his defeated countrymen and defend their rights in the Diaspora. In this role, Josephus resembled one of his models, Polybius. In order to safeguard the post-revolt Jewish community, he had to distinguish them from the atypical relative handful of irreligious instigators that fomented and sustained the uprising, creating a situation into which the normally orderly majority was drawn against their better instincts.
Ignoring the judgment of these broad-minded commentators, Cohen’s basic assessment of Josephus regresses to the hostile detractors of the early 1920s. His critique is not so much concerned with Josephus within the distinct political matrix of his time and place, but with his development as historian, apologist and Jew. Cohen is very diligent in reviewing Josephus' use of sources and the specific comparison/contradictions between Josephus' two versions of Galilee. In this sense, the book is a great boon to researchers for laying out this material in an accessible format. However his conclusions do not seem to advance much beyond the censure typical of the early 20th century "classical school" .
Cohen asserts that Life and War both depend upon a common source, a preliminary outline statement of affairs that Josephus kept as a possible defense against future accusations -- a contemporary diary. In the War he allegedly used this outline in a selective way to bolster his thematic rendering of events. Josephus’ thesis constituted a defense of the Romans and a vain excuse for himself and his aristocratic associates. On the other hand, Life, written some 15 years after War adopted a chronological format. This chronological restatement was influenced by Josephus’ desire to court the new "leaders" of the Jewish remnant in Jerusalem, the Pharisee rabbis in the Jewish theological center in Jamnia, Galilee. Cohen’s hypothesis about Josephus’ relationship to this new Jewish elite and his fallen prestige among the Roman court is predominantly based on Cohen’s rather extravagant deconstruction of Josephus’ text. It does not elucidate the likely external political or theological situation that supposedly motivated this changed perspective.
Cohen’s conclusion from his textual deconstruction is that, in line with other aristocrats, Josephus in 66-67, contrary to his avowed reservations, actually was a wholehearted supporter of the Revolt, at least until the fall of Jotapata. His reservations about the impending conflict expressed in War is a subterfuge meant to camouflage his failure as a commander. Although War was in a sense more truthful in portraying Josephus as an accomplice to the revolt, it does it in a manner which tends to conceal the enthusiasm of he and his patrician colleagues in the opening stages of the revolt.
In making his case, Cohen is self-contradictory in places. For example, notwithstanding his own assertion, Cohen accuses Josephus of falsifying the record when he claims that Josephus could not have been among the peace party since he was a general in the rebel army and on that account could not have wanted peace. He discredits Josephus’ description of the selection of regional commanders for the defense of the various districts of Judaea because Josephus asserts that all generals were chosen at the same time…which Cohen seems to reject. But then he goes on to state that the selection may have actually occurred in one sitting. Cohen allows that Josephus’ account of the proceedings, albeit exaggerated and simplified, seems inherently plausible. Nonetheless Cohen claims that Josephus’ roster of area commanders is generally fictitious.
Further, Cohen acknowledges that there were many shades of opinion among the Jewish elite. Yet he disregards this dictum when he asserts that Josephus could not have been for peace, since he was a general, and as such a defacto hawk, forgetting that he had only just allowed that there might have been dovish hawks and hawkish doves in the revolutionary cadre.
In order to discredit Josephus’ description of his somewhat ambiguous role in preparing and mounting the Jewish defense against Vespasian’s offensive, Cohen proposes that Josephus account of his SIX clever strategems in withstanding Vespasian’s siege of Jotapata is largely rhetorical overstatement. According to Cohen, the ruses are most likely fabrications to support his self-characterization as "the ideal general", a device (a literary topos) going back at least to Thucydides. Cohen makes a great deal about Josephus’ bluster about how clever he was to think up these tricks, when, in fact, he most likely copied them from well-known military treatises and campaign histories available to him. I found at least half of Cohen’s suggested "models" for Josephus’ stratagems doubtful. However, even if these ruses were well-known there is no reason why Vespasian would not have been surprised or stymied by Josephus’ use of them, because the Roman army had little experience of Judaean counter-siege warfare at that time. Of course, in keeping with Josephus’ vanity, he would indulge in a bit of bravado; however his vanity and poetic license is insufficient justification for disbelieving Josephus’ account in its entirety.
As for the differences and omissions between Life, where he revealed underlying motives, and War where he was more taciturn, this goes to the nature of the two accounts. This has been pointed out forcefully by Tessa Rajak in her 1984 critique of The Jewish War, titled Josephus: The Historian and His Society. Rajak notes that the information overlooked in War is simply irrelevant there – and that includes the details about the way Josephus took up his appointment, and about his companions. But it is important to the Life, with its special interest in the quarrels over Josephus’ command in order to refute Justus’ charges. So in Life every internal political maneuver is spelled out. Nevertheless, it remains true that the same picture of the mood and attitudes of Josephus and his colleagues is painted in the two accounts. That they went unwillingly to war is quite evident from both. And so it is of little moment that a short-lived expedition sent out to discover whether the revolt in Galilee was still small enough to be stifled, and accomplishing nothing, does not rate a mention there.
Josephus wrote the Life because his reputation as a captured enemy general was being seriously tarnished by Justus of Tiberias’ claims. Those assertions that he could dispute, he did. Those that seemed undeniable, he granted but reinterpreted. For example, he allows that he was not initially sent as a general (Life 28) but insists that he was ultimately confirmed as sole commander (Life 310), after a hectic and rapidly changing period wherein he attempted to control the chaotic four-way battles in Galilee. He also acknowledges the great prestige of Simon ben Gamaliel, the priest who initiated impeachment and recall proceedings against him in the Jerusalem Revolutionary Council; however, he also suggests that this Pharisee’s friendship with John of Gischala corrupted his accuser (Life 191-192). He further alleges that the high priest had originally defended him (Life 194), but changed his mind solely because he was bribed by Simon ben Gamaliel. He opportunely records that everyone in the city was unaware of the plot.
So where was Josephus lying: in War or in the Life? The answer is neither. He provided a terse but sufficient military history to suit the purpose of War and later provided missing personal details in order to present a personal defense against his accusers in Life. All in all, his overriding and undeviating goal was to defend and protect his people in the manner best suited to their precarious circumstances at the close of the First Century.
© 2000 James J. Bloom, JB Historical Research Consultants, LTD