BWW Reviews: A JEW AMONG ROMANS Sheds Light On a Dark History

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.

Or yet again: "Because of its connection with Christian mythology, the history of Herod's rule is better known than that of most minor kings."

Well that's half-true. So why not go all the way?

Say perhaps:

"Because of its connection with Christian history and mythology, some specifics of the history of Herod's rule are better known than those of most minor kings."

Or even risk a little syntactical awkwardness in pursuit of full accountability and use "history and mythology" both places?

If Raphael is suggesting--as it seems he is here, though surely through an uncharacteristic wish-fulfillment at the expense of precision rather than intent--that Christianity has no history but only mythology, then I imagine the very real Jewish victims of those persecuted by very historical Christians could serve as the loudest voices bent on setting him straight.

These may seem like little more than semantic annoyances, but they do mount up.

Start there and you end up relying on vague, even nonsensical phrases like "mental circumcision" (Freud, chasing the Josephus model, at least in Raphael's view) or "somewhat mimics" (Disraeli, doing same--assuming it is possible to "somewhat" mimic--doesn't one either "mimic" or not, and then either succeed or not--and, if unsuccessful, does the role-model paradigm still hold?) at the very moment when clarity would be especially useful.

At a far reach, you might even conclude that "Religion is less a way of describing the world than of reading meaning, and hope, into it." This in the middle of a book that trumpet's the author's anti-religiosity on page after page. Surely he is not suggesting that we should pass through this vail of tears without meaning or hope? Or that he has found a proper substitute--one which won't allow for history's atrocities--but is merely refusing to share it with us?

As I said, it mounts up.

But, for all that, these flies by no means spoil the entire ointment of Raphael's free-wheeling argument for the importance of fully appreciating the precarious position of Jews in general and Jewish intellectuals (such as himself) in particular, throughout the history of the Western world made by pagan (Greek and Roman), Christian (Catholic and Protestant) and Anti-Christian (Fascist and Communist) powers alike.

As he makes abundantly clear throughout, the Jews really have been tormented to a pathological degree--and most often for particularly unfathomable reasons. And he does make a strong overall case that Josephus is at the source of many subsequent attempts to both survive the pathology and fathom the unfathomable, not merely because he was first, but because his particular character was imminently well suited to providing a model that has repeated itself throughout the ensuing centuries.

If the style of argument is admittedly more in the manner of lightning flashes, dropped page-after-page, than closely reasoned analysis, that is perhaps unavoidable given the vastness of the subject and the inevitable necessity of addressing it within the limits of bound covers.

Still, overall, I found Raphael's basic arguments compelling if not entirely convincing. For all the book's scholarly specificity, the final effect is impressionistic, more valuable for its glimpse of possibilities, than for the force of its own arguments.

I finally liked it more for its (sometimes inadvertent) questions than for its proposed answers.

As much as I am bound to enjoy a writer of Raphael's learning and erudition telling me that a messianic rabble-rouser named Theadus, who gathered a considerable following in that troubled first century, came short of glory when,"Fadus had him arrested and beheaded, which reduced his charisma," I would have liked even better for him to have made one of his lightning flash connections (and if he's made them elsewhere, all the more reason to reiterate them here) and give his take on why another messianic rabble-rouser of the same period had his charisma multiplied by a factor of millions rather than "reduced" after meeting a similarly gruesome fate.

I might not find myself agreeing with Mr. Raphael's conclusions, but I have no doubt his arguments--on this and many other subjects--would be stimulating.


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John Walker Ross John Walker Ross is a graduate of Florida State and lives somewhere in the Florida Panhandle where he has variously toiled in advertising and legal publishing for the last three decades. He is interested in everything but his only known addictions are vintage rock and roll and women?s tennis. His favorite writers are Tolstoy, Henry James, Phillip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and Anita Loos, but he no longer tries to write like all of them at once.

John blogs about Pop Culture, his shady past and other life-affirming things at theroundplaceinthemiddle.com.