Book Review: A Jew Among Romans
by Frederic Raphael
Pantheon Books, 2013
“If his art concealed art, it rarely concealed him: his personality and his work are inextricably woven together” – so Frederic Raphael wrote in his brilliant 1984 biography of Lord Byron, and the same could certainly be said of Raphael himself, whose string of biographies, short stories, and novels (including his masterpiece, Glittering Prizes), while brimming with talent and erudition, also brim with Frederic Raphael. Thus it may have been with more than his customary ration of mischief that Raphael’s long-time friend classicist Peter Green told him the ancient historian Josephus was “your ideal subject.” It’s certainly hard to think of another ancient subject that would evoke – even necessitate – the admission with which Raphael begins his latest fantastic book, A Jew Among the Romans:
I have never subscribed, except for politeness’s sake, to any God, including that of the Jews. In my youth, I blamed Him for failing to prove that He existed by doing the right thing rather more often than history showed. And yet, by no brave decision, I am a Jew. What it means to me is the deposit of many of the things it has meant to others. There is comedy of a kind in the fact that the only people who might now insist that I am not really a Jew – since I neither pray nor abstain from forbidden foods – are other Jews.
Such an odd prologue would be unlikely to occur in a study of Josephus that wasn’t written by Frederic Raphael, but then, this is an odd study of Josephus. A completely straightforward look at the classical historian who wrote such works as The Jewish War or The Antiquities of the Jews wouldn’t require opening confessions about who is and who isn’t Jewish and why; such things are only fitting prelude to an attempted exoneration. A Jew Among the Romans attempts – half-heartedly and ultimately evasively, but still – to set the record straight when it comes to this most reviled of all ancient literary figures.
Ironic, then, that the ‘record’ in this case mostly originates with Josephus himself (as Raphael writes, perhaps more undercuttingly than he knows, “We depend almost exclusively on Josephus for what we know of the events he describes”). That record is about as ugly as records get: born Joseph ben Mattathias in A.D. 37, he led a detachment of Jewish forces in rebellion against the Romans in 66. When all hope was lost, he convinced his compatriots to join him in a mass suicide – and when that mass suicide left him the last man standing, he changed his mind and surrendered to the conquering Romans, telling anybody who would listen that the beefy victorious general, Vespasian, would one day be emperor. Vespasian (and his sons, Titus and Domitian) naturally liked the sound of that, and when it later came true, both he and the newly-renamed Flavius Josephus found it useful to ascribe the lucky guess to divine prophecy. Josephus was given a nice pension and he spent the rest of his life writing about Jewish history as a lapdog of Jewish conquerors. He was almost certainly present at the final orgy of violence during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70, when the legionaries under Titus and General Trajanus (father to the future emperor Trajan) sacked the great Temple and put many hundreds of wailing inhabitants to the sword – including not only Josephus’ first wife but his parents.
An arch-collaborator, that is. A quisling. The one guy who survives the suicide pact. Historians (especially, it need hardly be added, Jewish historians) began heaping opprobrium on Josephus almost immediately and have continued to do so for two thousand years.
An ideal subject, just maybe, for a scrappy contrarian like Raphael, but even the Devil’s Advocate needs a case before he goes to trial. Here, there’s nothing:
While Joseph ben Mattathias gave diplomatic help to the Romans, not least by encouraging the Jews inside Jerusalem to come to terms when there was still time, there is little evidence (though no shortage of allegations) that he served as a military advisor. Certainly he was never an active combatant on the Roman side.
Or less than nothing:
The comfortable social position of Joseph ben Mattathias’s family may have made him complacent; it hardly made him a premeditated traitor. The assistance he offered the Romans, after his surrender, was offered in order to continue to save his own skin; bit it was never at the direct expense of other Jews, as has been said by the “leaders” of European Jewry.
There’s no real way the reputation of Josephus can be rehabilitated. Some people are just bad. But Raphael’s book is enormously fascinating and valuable just the same, mainly because he pivots from exonerating the filthy-coward turncoat at the center of his book and starts to focus instead on some historical precedents by which Jews have ‘assimilated’ throughout the ages with the dominant societies that hate them.
This approach yields some fascinating observations about such figures as Arthur Koestler, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and novelist David Bergelson – and about Isaiah Berlin, who “never abandoned his Jewishness, but he can scarcely be said to have worn it without reluctance. He became the very model of an Anglicized academic grandee…” Berlin also figures in an anecdote that reveals the wobbly nature of Raphael’s whole enterprise:
It is also sometimes alleged that, among themselves, even the most sophisticated and assimilated Jews like to revert to the Yiddish patois in which, supposedly, they are more comfortably at home. According to Adam Sisman’s 2010 biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, Bernard Berenson claimed that this was true even when he and Isaiah Berlin got together, which Berlin denied, with polite indignation.
Berlin wasn’t the only one to deny such a low-comedy claim: Sisman also (to say nothing of Trevor-Roper) doesn’t believe it. So why retail it, when all it does is reinforce the idea that public-intellect Jews – and by extension all Jews – are hiding something, constantly dissimulating their real, at-home natures? Likewise the somewhat bizarre string of implications about another famous Jewish public intellectual:
In his long heyday as the leading thinker at the New York Times, Walter Lippmann effaced his Jewishness by a show of urbane righteousness … Careful to have no trace of a Hebraic accent, he assumed the mantle of an Old Testament prophet, to whom this world’s rulers were more than somewhat answerable.
Raphael’s legendary encyclopedic learning is on riotous display on every page of A Jew Among the Romans (the footnotes at the bottom of every page are almost universally more entertaining than the prose at the top), but the book as a whole misfires. This is not a serious textual study of the works of Josephus (the work of the great Fergus Millar still stands as the supreme example of that), but neither is it a truly committed study of Jewish assimilation through the centuries. It isn’t an affirmation of Josephus’ nefarious reputation, but it’s not really a refutation either. Raphael means to tell us of “Josephus the exile, the traitor, the witness, the reasonable patriot, the pious Jew, the alienated solitary, the sponsored propagandist,” who “melts into and disappears into his textual persona as if it were an alibi.” It’s engagingly put, of course, but the point seems to be lost (and it’s not helped by lines like “Words supply his coat of many colors”) along the way.
“Faith and coercion are old allies,” Raphael tells us, and although it’s true, it’s little help here. Joseph ben Mattathias wasn’t coerced: he turned on his people, his city, his comrades, and his family in order to curry favor with the enemy and therefore perhaps save his own life. He’s too damningly effective as a cautionary tale to ever be put to any other use.