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Jerusalem’s Traitor: Josephus, Masada, and the Fall of Judea (review)

From: The Journal of Military History
Volume 73, Number 4, October 2009
pp. 1301-1303 | 10.1353/jmh.0.0444

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Desmond Seward is a well-known popularizer who has produced lively narratives with vivid characterizations in more than a dozen books on medieval and early modern European history. This latest attempt to explain Josephus to the general reader, however, puts him far outside his area of expertise. Retelling the story of the Great Jewish War of 66–70 CE is a laudable goal only if the general reader is not misled. Unfortunately, Seward does not analyze the political, military or social aspects of this complicated war, and he has forsaken any analysis of the problems of Josephus’s reliability.

Seward’s melodramatic flair causes him to include lurid passages that he himself admits are probably not historical. Jerusalem terrorized by murderous homosexuals (BJ 4.561–564) is just one example. He employs blue material only to claim later it was fictional. He accepts Josephus’s long speeches as if they were historical not just literary inventions. He never comments on how Josephus knows what went on in Jerusalem or what was said when he was not present or where the account of what happened at Masada came from.

Seward’s second fault, noted by many previous reviewers, is having his interpretive framework obstruct his analysis. His devout Catholicism causes him to write as if Jews can only be understood through the eyes of the Vatican. Thus the High Priest becomes a kind of “pope,” Qumran becomes a “monastery,” Essenes are “Jewish monks,” Jewish rabbis are “clergy” and James, the brother of Jesus is turned anachronistically into “the Bishop of Rome.” It is not easy to write good religious history without prejudice, but one must try.

Seward’s patrician political sympathies cause him to accept Josephus’s own prejudice against the patriots who fought the war against Rome. Thus Simon Bar Giora, becomes “a blood-stained tyrant from the gutter,” John of Gischala is ignoble and low-born (p. 67), and Eleazar ben Simon is “thuggish” (p. 123) or just “a gang boss with a tyrannical temper.” The lower people are on the social scale, the more they are disliked by Josephus and characterized as “fanatics,” but Seward does little to dispel these images except for the occasional weak caveat at the end of a paragraph.

While there are many issues concerning the war that can be debated, there are some things Seward gets dead wrong. Koine Greek was not the Roman Empire’s lingua franca except in the East, and it would not be the Greek spoken at the imperial palace or used by Cassius Dio. The Romans did not wear kilts (p. 24). Mount Scopus is NE of Jerusalem not halfway between Jerusalem and Emmaus, and an Ebionite was not “a Jew partially converted to Christianity”(p. 27), but a follower of the original party of Jesus led by his brother James. If Vespasian died of malaria, Suetonius would not have known what to call it.

Seward’s ignorance of the modern literature is a major drawback. While he is not required to cite every minority opinion, there are few critical scholars left who accept the messiah passage in the Slavonic Josephus as anything but an interpolation. Few believe the “Pella myth” about what happened to the Jesus party in Jerusalem, fewer still would accept that in Acts Paul delivers his speech in Hebrew rather than Aramaic (p. 209). He follows Spartianus (in the Historia Augusta) as if it were a reliable source. There is no evidence that Bar Kokhba was a descendent of Judas the Galilean, and his statement that archaeologists have failed to add substantially to our knowledge (p. 247) ignores the documents from the caves. He writes as if the “Masada myth” had never been challenged, thus ignoring the work of Yael Zerubavel (reviewed in this journal). Not everyone agrees on the Qumran/Essene connection; it is a debate that has been discussed in numerous issues of Archaeology. There is no evidence that Poppaea Sabina was Jewish although her favoritism toward Jews has been a subject among scholars. His characterizing of the Sadducees as practicing a “world religion” that was “universalist” and who “welcomed the Roman invaders” (p. 15) would not find much support. Finally, if...



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