Surrender or Die
A gripping new history of Flavius Josephus portrays a Roman Jewish writer forever wrestling with his identity
To secure his good treatment, he came up with a brilliant stratagem. He announced to his captor that the God of the Jews had vouchsafed him a prophecy that Vespasian would end up as emperor of Rome. This is the most dramatic, and ethically problematic, moment in Joseph’s whole story, and Raphael, whose works for the screen include Two for the Road (1967) and Stanley Kubrick’s posthumous Eyes Wide Shut (1999), relishes it. “From the moment when he’d crossed the lines,” Raphael observes, Joseph—or, as he would now become, Josephus—had “committed himself to being a performer. No longer a Jew among Jews, he was conditioned by his alien audience: it played with him; he played to it. He was, in a literal and theatrical sense, cast among strangers.”
By making Vespasian such a loaded promise, Josephus turned himself into an indispensable man. Vespasian was not yet openly striving for the purple, but Josephus was telling him something he desperately wanted to hear. At the same time, by listening to the prophecy, Vespasian was more or less committing himself to rebellion against Nero. The emperor and the Jew were locked in a conspiratorial embrace. Fortunately for Josephus, his prophecy came true. Even as Vespasian’s son Titus completed the destruction of the Temple and the conquest of Judea, Vespasian himself marched on Rome and seized the throne.
For the rest of his life, Josephus would be an imperial hanger-on in Rome. He took his new names, Titus Flavius, in honor of the new emperor—that is, of the man who had destroyed his country. Yet he spent his time in Rome writing books in defense of Jews and Judaism, if not quite of the Jewish uprising. “Throughout his career,” Raphael writes, “Josephus remained a polemic pamphleteer in defense of Judaism.” His Jewish Antiquities retold the stories of the Hebrew Bible for foreign consumption, while his Against Apion was a passionate tract against a leading anti-Jewish writer.
Josephus remained between the two cultures, no longer trusted by Jews, never fully accepted by Romans. For Raphael, this is what makes him an exemplary Jewish figure. He is the patron saint of the modern Jewish intellectual, the writer or journalist who turns to the page to create the identity he can’t find in life: “For the Jewish intellectual, especially once he repudiates—or no longer has access to—community, the blank page becomes his only inalienable territory.” This is arguable as a matter of historical fact—despite Raphael’s frequent assertions, Josephus is hardly the first Jewish writer, nor would he have had the modern concept of what it means to be an intellectual.
But it is a useful conceit for Raphael’s book, especially its last third, which takes a leisurely tour through subsequent Jewish history, lighting on figures whom Raphael finds Josephan—Spinoza, Freud, Wittgenstein. There is nothing very original in this praise of the alienated Jewish intellectual, or deeply learned in Raphael’s case studies; often this section reads as though a well-stocked mind has simply been emptied out onto the page. (A large number of Raphael’s examples and sources come from books published in the last few years, including Hillel Halkin’s Nextbook biography of Yehuda Halevi.)
Still, there is a certain charm in the free-associative footnotes, which are full of civilized trivia: e.g., “Until very recently, applications for membership of country clubs and golf clubs, in Britain and the United States, routinely demanded that the candidate declare ‘name of father, if changed.’ ” In the end, it is tempting to see Raphael’s study of Josephus less as a historical biography than as a kind of self-portrait, of a Jewish writer forever wrestling with his identity: “Josephus, the exile, the traitor, the witness, the reasonable patriot, the pious Jew, the alienated solitary, the sponsored propagandist, melts into and disappears into his textual persona as if it were an alibi. Words supply his coat of many colors.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
The author, publishing a new novel this week, talks about conversion, suffering, and life in Vermont