Josephus: A Groundbreaking Historian and a Proud Jew

Born to a priestly family in Jerusalem in 37 CE, Yosef ben Mattityahu was, at the age of thirty, sent by Jewish leaders to defend the Galilee from imminent Roman attack. Although faced with a much larger force than expected, he brought his troops directly into battle when he could have easily avoided a fight and left the civilian population exposed to the legionaries’ depredations. After his force was defeated, he declined to join his fellows in a mass suicide, and instead surrendered to the Romans, ingratiated himself to their general, and lived out the rest of his life in the comfort of the capital, writing successful books, in Greek, on Jewish history with the patronage of the royal family—under the name Titus Flavius Josephus.

Elements of the story have led some to see him as having easily given up on the Jewish cause when the going got tough, instead choosing fame and enrichment. But Steve Mason provides a more sympathetic interpretation.

Those who incline to see Yosef as a “turncoat” might ask what they would have done in his sandals. Join the suicide? Go to the emperor Nero and likely death? He was the only man we know about in the war who moved from a safe place to harm’s way. The main traffic ran the opposite way: Judeans who did not feel safe when their leaders welcomed Vespasian fled to Jerusalem’s mighty walls, delaying their final reckoning. Josephus ran toward the shooting and was in serious peril for prolonged periods.

But more importantly, Josephus’ writings, in Mason’s view, make clear that his “deepest commitments” are to his fellow Jews, and that his exhaustive works on Jewish history—covering everything from creation through the recent war with Rome—had as their main purpose a defense of the Judeans and of Judaism for a Roman audience.

The single clearest theme in Josephus’ The Jewish War, reinforced in countless ways, concerns the innately tough, masculine character of the Judean people, in sharp contrast to the prevailing ridicule.

Josephus does not deny that the legions were superbly trained and formidable in column maneuvers. But man for man, the untrained and ill-equipped Judeans put them in the shade with their daring and contempt for death. Whenever they maneuver Romans into small combat, they send them running in fear. The city of Jerusalem matches its people, with its layers of massive walls and fortress-like temple. It would have been impregnable, had the God who watched over it not chosen the Romans to purge it of the pollution caused by compatriot bloodshed.

Indeed, Mason points out, Josephus almost always refers to himself by his Hebrew rather than Roman name. And in the medieval Hebrew reworking of Josephus’ history, his name is given as Yosef Ben-Gurion—the same name taken on by Israel’s first prime minister.

Read more at Marginalia

More about: Ancient Rome, Jewish history, Josephus, Judean Revolt

To Save Gaza, the U.S. Needs a Strategy to Restrain Iran

Since the outbreak of war on October 7, America has given Israel much support, and also much advice. Seth Cropsey argues that some of that advice hasn’t been especially good:

American demands for “restraint” and a “lighter footprint” provide significant elements of Hamas’s command structure, including Yahya Sinwar, the architect of 10/7, a far greater chance of surviving and preserving the organization’s capabilities. Its threat will persist to some extent in any case, since it has significant assets in Lebanon and is poised to enter into a full-fledged partnership with Hizballah that would give it access to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps for recruitment and to Iranian-supported ratlines into Jordan and Syria.

Turning to the aftermath of the war, Cropsey observes that it will take a different kind of involvement for the U.S. to get the outcomes it desires, namely an alternative to Israeli and to Hamas rule in Gaza that comes with buy-in from its Arab allies:

The only way that Gaza can be governed in a sustainable and stable manner is through the participation of Arab states, and in particular the Gulf Arabs, and the only power that can deliver their participation is the United States. A grand bargain is impossible unless the U.S. exerts enough leverage to induce one.

Militarily speaking, the U.S. has shown no desire seriously to curb Iranian power. It has persistently signaled a desire to avoid escalation. . . . The Gulf Arabs understand this. They have no desire to engage in serious strategic dialogue with Washington and Jerusalem over Iran strategy, since Washington does not have an Iran strategy.

Gaza’s fate is a small part of a much broader strategic struggle. Unless this is recognized, any diplomatic master plan will degenerate into a diplomatic parlor game.

Read more at National Review

More about: Gaza War 2023, Iran, U.S. Foreign policy