BWW Reviews: A JEW AMONG ROMANS Sheds Light On a Dark History
Let's face it. If you set out to settle a two-thousand year old argument--as Frederic Raphael does in A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus, a historical and philosophical treatise on the ancient Jewish soldier, priest and historian--things are liable to get contentious.
Raphael, a classical scholar who makes a good deal of his living as a novelist, certainly brings formidable skills to the process.
If I'm going to take on the task of shoring up my woefully inadequate understanding of the ancient world, then I certainly prefer doing so in the company of a man who can sum up the character of a Roman emperor by assuring me that, "Titus Flavious Vespasianus carried a big stick more easily than a tune," or do likewise for a warrior culture of the period by stating simply, "It has been claimed that the Aramaic version of (Josephus' classic text) The Jewish War was commissioned to alert the Parthians to the futility of provoking the Romans. If the original text resembled the Greek, it was an improbable book for anyone to read on horseback."
As a stylish distillation of Josephus' own tangled history then--and that of the relationship between ancient Judea and the Roman Empire which defeated and destroyed Jerusalem during Josephus' time, leaving him as the only survivor who managed to tell a tale which has also survived--this volume can hardly be beat.
As a polemic designed to settle that two-thousand-year old argument I mentioned (which takes up the second half of the book and boils down to an attempt to both pin down the necessary duality of Josephus' historical character and, thereby, defend and perhaps excuse it), while also positing its subject as the role model for displaced Jewish intellectuals ever since, it perhaps comes a bit short, though only a bit, and never in less than interesting ways.
For starters, Raphael--so justifiably fierce in his condemnation of so many others--seems oddly indifferent to any real or imagined venality on the part of the Romans who actually destroyed the Jewish temple in 70 C.E., leading to the dispersal of the Jewish nation which has had such far-reaching consequences for human history ever since. He is far more passionate about the (admittedly horrific) sins of Christendom in the centuries following. He doesn't quite say the ancient Jews had it coming, but his Romans--rather like those of Josephus himself, who had the excuse of trying to maintain some sort of cultural identity while keeping his head attached to his shoulders--seem more than a tad detached from their own atrocities, in an "it was clearly nothing personal" sort of way.
While this is partly understandable--even with the Holocaust, and the less publicized, but nonetheless momentous, horrors of Soviet-style communism, (both of which Raphael strains at times to depict as having a more fully formed Christian character than either Hitler or Stalin would have been able to imagine on his own), intervening, the specifically Christianized European pogroms are sufficiently close in time to feel a bit more personal than what those Roman emperors with their big sticks got up to--I think it ultimately leads Raphael into some rather muddled and even lazy positions.
As an example, he tells us that the "Christian fathers" were "the first to declare that 'the Jews' were not only defeated but damned," a declaration they surely did make.
But in a footnote on the same page, we find that the idea of designating "barbarians"--Jews, or anyone else not belonging to a conqueror's own people--as "natural slaves" is attributable to Aristotle and Alexander. That is, to "damnation" in the earthly realm which pagan belief held paramount.
Thus it seems the "Christian fathers" were actually the first to borrow (and, admittedly, adapt) this particular pagan notion (and the borrowing of pagan notions is a monotheistic habit the author does not hesitate to point out elsewhere, though, like many before him, he does not quite get around to explaining why this would invalidate either Jewish or Christian belief and thus provide any evidential weight to his own proudly proclaimed skepticism), whereas Raphael feels it necessary to credit them with utter originality.
In other words, he leaves his potentially convincing argument colored by emotion rather than solely reliant on the cold rationality which certainly would condemn the authors of specifically Christian-mounted horrors just as thoroughly and be much more in accordance with the author's own frequently stated values, not to mention historical logic.