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My views on the Jewish question


Who was Titus Flavius Josephus?
Frederic Raphael Writer
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The Jewish thing has haunted me all my life and I come back to that, so to speak, as a... as an envoi. I don't know what I think about it. I wrote not long ago, in fact two or three years ago, a book about a man called Titus Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who was known, when he was young, as Joseph Ben Mattathias – a well placed Jew in Jerusalem during the time of Nero. And he wrote the only history that we have in any extended form of the war which led to the fall of Jerusalem in 70, the destruction of the second temple, and supposedly, the dispersal of the Jews from having a homeland to no longer having one. Not entirely true because actually there were plenty of Jews in Judea afterwards because they had another revolt later which was also crushed, that time by Hadrian.

Josephus survived because he elected not to die in the siege in which all the other people being besieged proposed and did kill themselves. And Josephus, by a ruse which as they say need not concern us here, escaped and was taken by Vespasian who wanted to talk to him. So he was the only survivor of the siege of Jotapata, a small hill town outside Jerusalem, long before the fall of Jerusalem. And Josephus was the first – what I... what I have called 'existential Jew'. He had been a member of the hierarchy. Not... he was a priest, the highest rank of priest, but priest was not a vocation in ancient Jerusalem – it was a social register level. The Jews was a... was a hierarchical state. There were no democracies. Jerusalem was run by the high priest and his men, and like that. They... the public had certain loud noises they could make, but there was no voting or anything of that kind as far as I know and I don't think there was.

Anyway, Josephus in effect deserted the Jewish cause. But, of course, he was in great danger because Romans usually killed the commanders of cities or towns who resisted sieges for any long time. And Josephus was eventually brought in front of Vespasian at his own request. He'd obviously failed to do something that Vespasian wanted to do so Vespasian put him aside and left him in this tent or a cell or whatever it was to cool his heels, as they say. And after a while Josephus called to the jailer and said, tell your commanding officer that I have an important message for him. Presumably they thought, aha! You know, he knows who to get in touch with in Jerusalem to get the place surrendered or whatever it was. So he was taken to Vespasian and Titus and two other officers were in the... in the tent with them. And before Vespasian could say anything, Josephus said, you think I am here as a captive to plead for my life. You're wrong. I am here because I have a message for you from the God of the Hebrews. You, Vespasian, are destined to be the emperor of Rome. Some sources say that he said, 'but not the next emperor' – much it matters.

Now, Vespasian was Nero's general and Nero dealt very harshly with generals who were in any way insubordinate, even if they were very successful. He'd recently executed one called Corbulo. Now what he should've said at that moment was: take this man out and kill him – that is sedition. But he didn't. And every second that passed secured Joseph Ben Mattathias as a privileged person. Because now it was quite certain that [Vespasian] could not send Joseph to Nero as a prisoner because he would say to Nero what he had said to Vespasian, which is, Vespasian is going to be the emperor after you, at which point, of course, he would not be because Nero would send someone to kill him. So by a Jewy trick, a smart piece of thinking, a bit of middle management, Josephus became a privileged person. Now, of course, he could've killed him – Vespasian – anyway. But the Romans were both deeply realistic – nobody more realistic than Vespasian, a tough old bird if ever there was one – but they were also very superstitious, as most people were in the ancient world. A guy who brings a message from a god should probably not be killed because he was, in some sense, a sacred herald. So Vespasian survived... so Josephus survived. My book has a great deal about this.

Now eventually Jerusalem falls in spite of all Josephus' efforts to get the bloody people to give up and make a deal. They wouldn't do it for various reasons which are too complicated. They're not uninteresting to talk about. And eventually Joseph was rechristened Titus Flavius Josephus. Vespasian and Titus were... family name was Flavius. And he went back to Rome and he wrote the history of the fall of Jerusalem. He wrote a very, very long book attacking a man called Apian who was an Alexandrian anti-Semite Greek. Not an anti-Semite in the programmatic modern sense, but just somebody who wrote against Jews of whom there were a large number in Alexandria, none of whom had rebelled against the Romans, and who became quite assimilated. And he also wrote a long history of the Jews which actually, I think, came after the writing of the... of the war, but looked as though it preceded it in temporal terms. And he wrote a first autobiography which we've got – the first piece of writing that's come back to us from the ancient world written in the first person apart from Archilochus who wrote poems with his first person, but generally the first person was not favoured in the ancient world.

Born in America in 1931, Frederic Raphael is a writer who moved to England as a boy. He was educated at Charterhouse School and was a Major Scholar in Classics at St John's College, Cambridge. His articles and book reviews appear in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and The Sunday Times. He has published more than twenty novels, the best-known being the semi-autobiographical The Glittering Prizes (1976). In 1965 Raphael won an Oscar for the screenplay for the movie Darling, and two years later received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Two for the Road. In 1999, he published Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of his collaboration with the director Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's final movie. Raphael lives in France and England and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1964.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Jerusalem, Titus Flavius Josephus, Nero, Vespasian

Duration: 6 minutes, 43 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 10 September 2014