- A History of the Jewish War a.d. 66–74 by Steve Mason
One metric of scholarship considers how much it pushes the envelope in, or shifts, a given field. By this standard, Mason’s history receives high marks. [End Page 580] Reframing how the so-called “Jewish/Judean War” is understood according to various sources, this historical reconstruction challenges numerous longstanding assumptions and provides an essential guide to understanding the Judean revolt and Jerusalem’s subsequent destruction under the Flavians. The book’s strengths include attention to regional conflicts, which constitute the war’s oft-neglected backbone, and careful interdisciplinary analysis that allows tentative reconstructions. Weaknesses stem from neglect of important analytical lenses (like religion) and the “softness” of history that often relies heavily upon the imagination. Still, Mason’s work is exceptional, dealing holistically with complex historical dynamics of ambiguous events in a theoretically sophisticated, yet eminently readable fashion.
Mason’s first chapter contextualizes the Judean War as one monumentalized as cosmically significant in the millennia since the events transpired, but which was in fact a relatively minor Roman accomplishment. Mason rightly explains that Titus’ triumph “screamed out ‘Made in Rome’” (21). Jerusalem’s destruction was not a triumph-worthy feat, but was publicized as such. Mason even states that Josephus’ Judean War propounds that the Flavians had not conquered Judaea; this point, I think, would take a very sharp-witted reader to understand, and I doubt that Josephus would have admitted as much at a book signing. Chapter 2 introduces history as “the methodological investigation of the human past” (71) and Josephus’ Judean War as situated rhetoric. The chapter contains much more as well, and illustrates Mason’s habit of using nineteenth- and twentieth-century parallels to make points applicable to the first century; for example, Mason uses Napoleon and Kaiser Wilhelm II as examples to show that “commanders of invading armies have always received exuberant affirmation from fast-thinking natives” (127)—comparanda that render Josephus’ fawning reception of Vespasian neither surprising nor unique. Chapter 3 makes putative realities of ancient warfare real for the reader, completing Mason’s foundational “Contexts” section.
The fourth chapter contextualizes the causes of the Judean revolt, foregrounding Josephus’ “mostly political” interests. Mason assumes an ancient “realism” in which “each nation must attend to its own survival and well-being, because no one else will” (218). This perspective proves enlightening, especially in untangling the real yet rarely cited engine for the revolt: local tensions between poleis/ethnē, exacerbated by imperial pressure. This is where the insertion of religious factors would have helped Mason’s analysis. Mason has elsewhere argued, as he does here (88–91), that “Judaism” as a category is out of place when discussing the ancient world, because the reality of “religion” existed as part of an irreducibly complex cultural system. However, failure to employ religion as a heuristic lens here means that Mason’s analysis of the diverse ethnic groups which were at odds with one another in Syria and Palestine leading up to the war is not as sharp as it might be. Religion was a major factor in the history of the Judean War, and it could have received a little more attention here.
Chapters 5 and 6 treat the Judean War’s precursors under Nero. Here Mason illustrates his “history as inquiry” principle by imagining realistic scenarios in which Roman peacekeeping in Judea turned unpredictably into real Roman–Judean conflict. Eschewing discussion of motives, Mason sifts recoverable data in designing a believable, if necessarily speculative, reconstruction. Chapters 7 and 8 bear the weight of Mason’s overall project, explaining what probably happened surrounding Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 ce. Significant here is Mason’s translation of Ζηλωτής as “disciple,” offloading the baggage of the English “zealot” and [End Page 581] signaling the (Semitic) term’s positive connotations; Mason’s translation may well be right, though some scholars will not like it. Chapter 8’s discussion of numismatic evidence from...