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Martin Goodman, Josephus’ The Jewish War: A Biography

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 31, Numbers 3-4

Josephus’ The Jewish War: A Biography by Martin Goodman, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2019, 186 pp.


The persona and the writings of Josephus Flavius (37-c.100 CE) have been a source of historical information; theological and moral lessons; scholarship and research; and fiction, including art, plays, and novels. This first-century CE Jerusalem priest and aristocrat commanded the rebel forces in the Galilee during the Great Revolt against Rome in Judea (66-73 CE); surrendered to the Roman general (later, Emperor) Vespasian, with the fall of Jotapata in the Galilee in 67 CE; and subsequently wrote a comprehensive history of the Jewish revolt against Rome. He did so while in Rome with the support of the Flavian dynasty, whose name he took. 

Bust believed to be Josephus
The first-century bust believed to be Josephus (Commons Wikimedia/ Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark)

The History of the Jewish War against the Romans, eventually known as The Jewish War, was written in Greek (the original Aramaic apparently was lost), probably in the mid-late seventies CE, after the defeat of the Jews. The Jewish War relates the history of the Hasmonean and Herodian dynasties, Roman occupation, the course of the revolt, the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem (70 CE), and the aftermath of the Roman victory, including the campaigns against rebel strongholds in the Judean desert (most notably, Masada).1 

The seven books of The Jewish War devote attention to politics, religion, and society in Judea and include a section on the different Jewish groups, with a lengthy description of the Essenes (II: 119-166). There is much material on the Temple (e.g., V: 184-237), and there are references to festivals, priests, and courts of law. In fact, even the extreme and violent revolutionaries whom Josephus calls “zealots” who rejected foreign rule and Jewish collaboration with Rome did so for ostensibly “religious” reasons. Indeed, it is not possible to separate politics, nationhood, and religion in Second Temple Judaism and Judea.2 Therefore, according to Martin Goodman, in addition to its place among the Roman historiographical classics, The Jewish War rightfully belongs in the biography series of “lives of great religious books.” This categorization also applies because of the esteem that the book has been held over the centuries.

 The biographical approach imbues the text with a life of its own, not only presenting its contents and information about its author but focusing upon its history. In fact, this is a study of what scholars call “reception,” namely, how The Jewish War was read and understood from its appearance until today and the factors that led to its popularity. Goodman stresses the reasons for its persistent and immense popularity and for its preservation and the evolution of its translations, adaptations, and interpretations.  An accomplished and well-known scholar, Martin Goodman is eminently qualified to undertake this ambitious task. A Professor of Jewish studies and a fellow of Wolfson College at Oxford, Goodman and his colleagues (among them, leading Josephus scholar, Professor Emerita Tessa Rajak) conducted several workshops on the reception of the works of Josephus through the ages. (Full disclosure: I participated in one of them.) In this Biography, he refers to the findings of the scholars at those sessions along with his own conclusions, presented in Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations and, more recently, A History of Judaism3 and his many books and articles on Jews under Roman rule.


In this concise, information-packed work, Goodman takes the reader on a whirlwind historical tour of two millennia, beginning with a biography of Josephus and a summary of his writings, especially The Jewish War (pp.1-17). The bulk of his study, however, describes the processes and results of reception.  He organizes the material both chronologically and thematically. The chronological division is as follows:  Chapters Two and Three (pp. 18-71) cover the history of the text and the reception of the book during the Ancient Period, from 100-1450, and from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment in Western Europe (1450-1750), respectively. Chapter Four (pp. 71-135) gives the modern uses and contemporary assessments. A brief Epilogue (pp.135-141) discusses the state of The Jewish War today and speculations about its future, and an appendix aptly entitled, “Passages with a Life of Their Own” (pp.141-161) presents the excerpts from the text frequently referred to over the centuries. These passages contributed to the popularity of the book and its author. The Biography also includes ample footnotes and bibliography and several excellent photographs of illustrations of passages in the texts, portraits of Josephus, and the site of Masada.

Josephus’ The Jewish War: A Biography by Martin Goodman

Goodman divides the individual chapters between the Christian and Jewish receptions of The Jewish War and presents his conclusions to the educated reader who may not necessarily be a historian or scholar. Josephus’ book primarily owes its popularity to the fact that Christians regarded The Jewish War as a proof-text. Indeed, it constitutes the eyewitness account of the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans, and thus served as proof that the Jews were punished for their rejection of Jesus of Nazareth and their alleged role in the crucifixion. It was a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Christian writers stressed the appalling narrative of the mother eating her child during the siege of Jerusalem (War, VI: 201-219) in order to demonstrate the perversion of the Jews whom classical Christian teachings deemed as having been replaced by the Christians as God’s chosen people. Thus, The Jewish War served as historical proof of Christian triumph, particularly after the Roman Empire converted to Christianity in the fourth century.  For example, Goodman notes the lengthy quotations from Josephus in the Ecclesiastical History by Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263-339) copied by later Byzantine authors and chroniclers, and its translation into Latin in various forms. By the ninth century, there were reasonably complete manuscripts in both Greek and Latin. Henceforth, its popularity soared in Latin Western Europe.4 

In contrast, for close to 900 years, Jews neither cited nor transmitted the works of Josephus. Talmudic legends and midrashim presented an attenuated history of the Hasmonean dynasty, Herod and his successors, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.5 The Rabbis interpreted the reason for the destruction of the Temple as the Jews’ sin of “baseless hatred.”  Amazingly, in 953, The Jewish War returned to Jewish readers with the translation/adaptation into Hebrew, known as the Sefer Yosippon.6  The accounts of some events, such as Masada, were changed. Produced in Southern Italy mainly from Latin texts, the Sefer Yosippon was regarded as the original Hebrew first-hand account of events by one Joseph ben Gurion. This consecutive narrative, written in clear, Biblical-historical style, hitherto missing in the Jewish world, became extremely popular, and Sephardic and Ashkenazic versions of the text appeared as early as the tenth-eleventh centuries and henceforth.

Chapter Three covers the reception of The Jewish War during the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Greek scholars and churchmen brought the Greek text to the Latin West, and critical editions were undertaken. The rediscovery of the Greek Jewish War coincided with the revival of interest in ancient Greek and Latin literature and history during the Renaissance and the invention of printing. The first printed edition of the Greek text appeared in 1544; others followed. In addition to the Greek and Latin printings, there were numerous translations into the vernacular. Goodman notes the Dutch, Spanish, English, and French editions, which often appeared with additional works, illustrations, and scholarly commentaries. Interest in The Jewish War increased during the religious wars in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as it was regarded as a cautionary narrative and a warning against the devastation and defeat wreaked by divisiveness, internecine rivalries, and poor leadership. Protestants, in particular, kept the Bible (Old and New Testaments) and the works of Josephus prominently on their bookshelves. The best-known translation of the entire corpus of Josephus into English by William Whiston, published in 1737, became a best seller and was reprinted many times. It is even sold today.   In addition, there were dramas and paintings based upon the events described by Josephus. Likewise, Christian Hebraists took an interest in the Sefer Yosippon and published it along with a Latin translation and commentary. It was regarded as the Jewish version of The Jewish War, as opposed to the Greek text written for Gentiles. As far as Jewish reception is concerned, although the sixteenth-century Jewish polymath, Azariah de Rossi, had read a Latin translation of The Jewish War and knew about the Greek text, the Sefer Yossipon continued to be regarded as the original version of the events. It remained popular, was translated into Yiddish in 1546, and was reprinted throughout the eighteenth century.

As for the modern period and the brief epilogue (Chapter Five), a controversy concerning the behavior of Josephus during the revolt and his voluntary surrender to Vespasian surfaced mainly among Jews, and, to a lesser degree, among Christians. Even leading Jewish historians, such as Heinrich Graetz, who relied upon Josephus for much of his narrative on the Second Temple period and the Great Revolt in his widely read History of the Jews (1878), expressed this displeasure. Eventually, the Hebrew translation of The Jewish War by Kalman Schulmann (1852), and later, the more accurate version by Jacob Simchoni (1923), became very popular among Eastern European Jews, albeit not entirely replacing the Sefer Yosippon. While critical of Josephus’ conduct, Jews were proud of his contribution and the fact that he remained a proud Jew. Zionists, especially the preacher and writer, Zvi Hirsch Masliansky (active in the late nineteenth century-1943) referred to Josephus extensively and set the tone for his acceptance and pride in his transmission of a glorious past, despite reservations about his surrender (treason?) and relationship with Rome.  Goodman shows the persistence of this ambivalence in our own times expressed in the Hebrew poem, “Yosefus,” (1987), by Yitzhak Shalev, as follows: “… He leads me to the hump of Gamla, And on the Yodfat path, In my rucksack, on my back, The Wars of the Jews; Year after year, he stands trial before me, And my hand, reaching out to seal his fate, Is suddenly stilled, The verdict has been suspended, To a later date …” (133-134).

In the meantime, Christian scholars at universities throughout Europe and America included the study of the works of Josephus as part of the corpus of Classical histories. There has been a continuous publication of new critical translations and an abundance of learned articles, monographs, and books. In the twentieth century, the rise of Biblical archeology and the Zionist movement with its links and attachment to hitherto neglected Jewish sites in the Land of Israel transformed Josephus into a guide for professional and amateur excavators of sites, religious Christians and Jews, thousands of Israeli youth, and local and foreign tourists. As we have noted above, The Jewish War continues to serve in that capacity, although today scholars and archeologists regard his work more critically and with some reservations. Goodman discusses the fascination with Masada (VII: 280-406) and the role it has played in Zionist ideology, Hebrew literature, and Israeli archeology. He mentions the poet Yitzhak Lamdan and the general and archeologist Yigael Yadin. Similarly, the complex figure of Josephus has been the subject of historical novels and plays, often exploring the issue of Jewish identity in the wider world of Roman (by implication, European) society and culture, such as the trilogy by Lion Feuchtwanger (1884-1958), written during the 1930s. In the recent biography by Frederic Raphael, A Jew among Romans (2012), Josephus appears as the “non-Jewish Jew,” albeit not a Marxist like Isaac Deutscher. Here, Josephus stands as a moderate force against a perceived Jewish extremism.  Indeed, Goodman is correct that Josephus has become a part of Jewish identity, history, and historiography in general, not only of Israeli Jews, and will continue to do so.


Martin Goodman has done a fantastic job of putting together the disparate parts of the reception of The Jewish War over two millennia into a cohesive study. For example, those who know the history of reception during Antiquity or the Renaissance may learn about the Modern period and how it continues and breaks from the past. And even those among us who are scholars of a particular period always discover something which we did not know beforehand. In addition, one gains a sense of the prevailing cultures and needs of the different times and how the Zeitgeist affected the reception of Josephus. Furthermore, The Biography is highly readable and accessible for any educated person.

An outstanding feature of the book is the inclusion of anecdotes and brief items about the different scholars, translators, copyists, and admirers of Josephus, among them, the controversial William Whiston, who was forced to resign from his position at Cambridge University because of heresy but continued to thrive because of his translation of the works of Josephus  The Jews include the nineteenth-century banker and philanthropist, Daniel Iffla, of Moroccan origin, who adopted the name “Osiris,” and dedicated a plaque in Temple Buffaut in Paris in 1877 where Josephus is listed as one the “illustrious children of Israel,” along with Moses, David, etc. (73-75).  The problem with this anecdotal type of presentation is that Whiston or the seventeenth-century Jewish leader and rabbi, Manasseh ben Israel, are much more serious figures than Osiris. The same holds true for the contemporary period.  For instance, the play by an outlier, such as the Israeli playwright and filmmaker Amos Gitai, who poses as a prisoner of conscience, had a very short run in the theaters of Israel. That being said, such brief items make interesting reading and show the amazing diversity among those who found content and meaning in The Jewish War. Hopefully, the reader will be able to distinguish the more notable figures from the others.

In conclusion, Josephus’ The Jewish War:  A Biography is an exciting and excellent piece of intellectual history. I recommend it without any reservations.

* * *


1 In Rome, Josephus subsequently wrote his magnum opus, Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jews from Creation to the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 66 CE (the first eleven books comprising a “rewritten Bible”); his autobiography, The Life of Josephus, a defense of his actions during the Great Revolt; and Against Apion, an explanation and defense of Judaism and a refutation of anti-Jewish accusations prevalent in the Greco-Roman world. All the above were written in Greek in 90 – 100 CE.

2 For a thorough study of Jewish religion in the works of Josephus, see: Jonathan Klawans, Josephus and the Theologies of Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), who states that “Josephus indeed serves as our best guide to a general understanding of ancient Jewish theological disputes …” (p.43).

3 For reviews of Martin Goodman’s two recent major works see: Rivkah Fishman-Duker, in: JPSR 20, 1-2 (Spring, 2008), 125-130; and JPSR 30, 1-2 (2019), 261-266.

4 We must recall that the Church Fathers (late first –seventh century CE) and later Christian writers also admired Josephus for the passage on Jesus, known as the Testimonium Flavianum (Jewish Antiquities, XVIII: 63-64). The controversy over the authenticity and actual wording of this passage has been the subject of volumes of scholarly research.

5 For a comparison of the material in Josephus and in rabbinic texts, see:  Tal Ilan and Vered Noam, et. al., eds., Josephus and the Rabbis, 2 volumes (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2017). For the narratives on Second Temple period history, see: Volume I, and for the Great Revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, Volume 2.

6  For the critical edition and scholarly introduction of the text, see: David Flusser, ed., The Josippon, 2 volumes (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: The Bialik Institute, 1978).