Monday, May 6, 2013

Ancient History: A Jew Among Romans

On the long list of all-time greatest Jewish calamities, the destruction of the Second Temple is surely among the Top 10. We remember it every year on Tisha B'Av, and at every wedding when the groom smashes a glass. But how do we even know about this 2,000-year-old catastrophe?

Mainly from the writings of one man: Flavius Josephus, a remarkable Roman-Jewish warrior-historian. Frederic Raphael's recently published A Jew Among Romans captures both the gory ancient war that led to the Temple's destruction and the life of the scribe himself.

To be sure, the book is not an easy read. It's interspersed with dry patches and esoteric phrases like "mimetic opportunism" and "divine afflatus." But it is also filled with wry observations and unexpected humor. About Nero: "He was the first ruler for whom the X factor of showbiz trumped statesmanship or martial prizes." About Josephus: "Josephus entertained many ideas, and they entertained him."

Ultimately, Raphael concludes that the Judean Jews had "no great principle at stake" in their rebellion, and that they "had only themselves to blame" for the Temple's destruction.

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