Remarks on Josephus in the Light of Current Events: 2001

by G. J. Goldberg

December 30, 2001

The needless repetition of past mistakes in judgment is a sad aspect of the terrorism of 2001.  When in the safety of our armchairs we read Josephus' history of the Jewish War and shake our heads at the errors that led to so much violence in the First Century AD/CE, we may wonder how such things can happen, and doubt if they happened as Josephus describes. But current events now give us a new, visceral understanding of what Josephus experienced firsthand, and of the issues that Josephus had to grapple with in writing his history.

The Violence and Paradox of Religious Totalitarianism

Josephus presents the revolutionaries in two different aspects. In one aspect they are religious nationalists who want to free the holy land from dominion of the earthly superpower, Rome. We see this in the domination of the early revolt by priests of the Temple, the Sicarii call to "look upon the Romans as no better than themselves and to esteem God alone as their lord" (War 7.10.1 411), belief in a messianic oracle and in interpretations of heavenly signs, and in such incidents as the argument, applied to Agrippa's men, that anyone living in the holy land must be circumcised. In the other aspect, the rebels are seen as thieves and killers who use religion as a mere pretense for their own endless greed and animalistic violence. Examples of this dominate the telling of their actions.

To a number of scholars (see Further Reading ), these contradictory views are evidence that Josephus is dishonest in his characterization of the rebels. He reviles them, it is theorized, because he was once a rebel himself, and wants to separate himself from them out of fear of Roman prosecution.  

Now we have a vivid example of such a group. The religious extremists of al-Qaeda have an avowed goal of ridding "Islamic lands" of the presence of the modern superpower, the United States. The suicidal actions of a handful of them supposedly attests to the sincerity of their goal. At the same time, those that do not kill themselves manifestly profit from this violence in both power and money (from increased contributions to the cause). And the suicides are promised their own immediate reward in paradise -- the famous seventy virgin wives -- and escape from failed lives, raising questions about their real motives. To an outsider, there is a convenient blend here of an appeal to the basest animalistic impulses and the highest aspirations of the human being. When people are allowed to think that any action they have the impulse to undertake can be regarded as defense of the highest virtues of the nation, then every horror becomes possible.


Josephus' Need to Isolate the Extremists

Immediately after the terrorists were identified as Muslim extremists, the media became saturated with the message that these extremists did not represent "true Islam," which condemns the murder of innocents.

One urgent motivation for this message was to prevent simple injustice. A great deal of discussion emerged in the United States to prevent depriving American Muslims in general of their civil rights in a knee-jerk reaction to the violence; none the less, random attacks on Muslim-appearing individuals occurred.

Another urgent motive was to prevent any hint that the west was declaring "war on Islam", an act which was the perceived goal of the terrorists: for if a war on Islam were declared, the terrorists apparently hoped that the "Arab street" would then rise up in mass demonstrations and multiple acts of terror in "defense" of Islam. Subsequent foreign policy moves by the United States kept this firmly in mind, and the official government stance was to distinguish the mass of followers of Islam from the madmen who had hijacked the religion for there own ends. The most vivid example was the simultaneous dropping of bombs and food on Afghanistan.

This message was eerily reminiscent of Josephus' insistence that the revolutionaries did not behave as true Jews ought to -- that they in fact violated every law of Moses, twisted every interpretation of Scripture, and so brought about their own destruction. Some scholars, as noted above, saw this as simply Josephus saving his own skin by separating himself from the Zealots. An additional view was that Josephus was warning Jews, as well as other groups, that attacking Rome was evil and sure to bring about retribution.

But these depictions of Josephus now appear shallow. We can vividly see that the same motives must have been at work in Josephus' day as now, and so Josephus, as a part of the "media" of the day, needed to convey an analogous message. Thus, there was need to protect the civil rights of the mass of Jews, which required that they be separated in the popular mind as much as possible from the anti-Roman revolutionaries. That this was a real need was seen in such mass punishments as the imposition of a special tax on all Jews.

At the same time, it was necessary to prevent the "Jewish street" from rising in continual violence against the Empire even after the war began. It was necessary to assure the majority of Jews that the extremists were not the definers of the true religion. The majority of Jews, said the message, can live peacefully with Rome and still be complete Jews; they do not have to turn to violence and become martyrs in order to practice their faith. This was a real fear in Alexandria after the war, where the Jewish elders determined that the revolutionaries who had fled their needed to be handed over to the Romans or else ruin would be brought onto the whole community (War 7.10.1 407ff).

In this light it appears that regardless of Josephus' personal motives he needed to vilify the rebels as much as possible and establish to all concerned that they were most certainly not "true" Jews.


Eyewitness to Destruction

Finally, we can remark on the horror experienced by any who witnessed the terrorist attacks in person or via television. This experience resonates with Josephus' witnessing of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and perhaps gives some intuition into what that was like.

The psychological effect of that experience on Josephus now seems to have been insufficiently appreciated by scholars. In his introduction to the Jewish War he admits that he is unable to prevent lamenting his country's misfortunes or concealing his hatred of the rebel tyrants and marauders; he can only ask indulgence of the reader for this failure to always be an objective historian (War Preface 1.4 9-12). And at the beginning of the Antiquities he describes how he had been compelled to write history because of the "stress of events" that he participated in.

Given this experience, it would appear any serious investigation of Josephus' motivations in writing must begin with the horror of the events he witnessed. On the contrary, scholars have tended to examine motives for writing such as personal security, self advancement, ego, and literary pleasure. This may speak more toward those scholar's own personal experience, or lack thereof, than that of Josephus.

For after witnessing such destruction one question looms largest in the mind: how could this have happened? In Josephus' quest for the answer he proposes multiple solutions, never settling on one alone, although his preference seems to be for Daniel's interpretations of history: that the Deity decides who will rule the world in any given age, and it is not for humans to try to change this no matter what their personal convictions. Heaven will not cause you to succeed in your violence simply because you want to, simply because you have some conviction that Heaven is on your side; the Divine Plan is not yours to determine. And this 1931-year-old message is one that needs to be relearned again and again.

Further Reading

For a discussion of scholarly approaches to Josephus' motivations in the Jewish War, see:

 Per Bilde, Flavius Josephus between Jerusalem and Rome, pp. 75 ff
Tessa Rajak, Josephus, The Historian and his Society, Chapter 4, "Josephus' Interpretation of the Jewish Revolt", pp. 78 ff.

On this web site, see:
Jim Bloom, The Campaign against Al Qaeda and the Jewish War: Some Parallels

The term "religioius totalitarianism" is taken from Thomas Friedman's columns in the New York Times.

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