Novelist, screenwriter and biographer Raphael (Ifs and Buts, 2011, etc.) succeeds admirably in recovering the reputation of much-maligned historian Titus Flavius Josephus (37–100).
Born to a prominent Jerusalem family, and deeply opposed to a ruinous war with imperial Rome, Josephus provided the sole existing account—The Jewish War—of the Great Revolt of Judaea against the empire. It is a unique chronicle, Raphael insists, in that no previous losing general in a war ever crossed the lines to describe the defeat of his own side. Retained by the Flavian emperors, first as seer and negotiator, and accorded a Romanized name (he was born Joseph ben Mattathias), Josephus would be accused of treachery against the cause he once served, reviled as a Judas by contemporaries and modern detractors alike. Raphael is inclined to support Josephus’ veracity, albeit with pointed disclaimers. He argues that to dismiss this adroit survivor as a traitorous collaborator underrates not only Josephus’ desire to save Jewish lives, but also his subtlety as a secular historian who smuggled brutal truths about Roman conduct into his work. As Raphael is chiefly concerned with Josephus’ character and writing, his extensive references are almost entirely literary and biographical, many dealing with Jewish writers and intellectuals (Spinoza et al.) through the centuries who echo Josephus’ life as an apostate and alienated observer. Informed by scrupulous, sometimes exhaustive footnotes and addenda, the book is not simply an arresting biography, but a persuasive history of an era. Like his subject, Raphael’s breadth of intelligence works against single-mindedness. Throughout, he quotes the conclusions, often opposed to his reading, of other historians.
Raphael is imposingly erudite and at pains to demonstrate it, yet there is a remarkable clarity to the writing, many elegant turns of phrase and a measure of sly humor.