Josephus's The Jewish War

A Biography

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Martin Goodman
Lives of Great Religious Books
  • Princeton: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The aim of Martin Goodman’s Josephus’s The Jewish War: A Biography is to follow the life of Josephus’s Jewish War through its copying, translating, editing, distributing, accepting, and rejecting in various social, literary, and religious settings. In this work of reception history, the author shows clearly how the book has a rich and fascinating history from the 1st century to the modern period. In this small volume of four well-constructed chapters, the author allows the reader to have a good understanding of not only Josephus and his text in the context of the war itself, but also how both Josephus and the Jewish War have been constructed and deconstructed for subsequent ideological projects.

In the first chapter (“Beginnings”), Goodman presents Josephus the man, the Jewish general, and the new Roman citizen, who had to negotiate multiple identities and spaces. Goodman notes in defense of Josephus, who has been regarded by readers both in the past and in the modern world as a traitor to his own people, that “it cannot be denied that his [Josephus’s] decision to write so copiously and positively about the Jewish tradition was itself an act of exceptional bravery in a world where it was often safer to say nothing at all” (7–8). Goodman admits, however, “in some ways, the Jewish War can be regarded as a work of Roman literature” (8).

Chapter 2 (“Early Years”) situates the early reception of the book. Early Christians, especially from 100 to 600 CE made it theirs because they viewed the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE as divine judgment on the Jews for having rejected Christ. The second historical moment Goodman analyzes is the book among Jews from 100 to 1450. Although there was a certainly a Jewish readership of the Jewish War during Josephus’s own time, rabbinic interest remained extremely low, which goes with their general attitude toward “all the rest of Jewish literature in Greek” (30). But the Christian world made the work famous (600–1450), especially through the various Latin manuscripts. In particular, the Testimonium Flavianum, which allegedly gives to the Christians the needed proof of Jesus’s historical existence and divinity outside the gospels, made Josephus a champion of the Christian cause.

Chapter 3 (“Rediscovery of the Greek Book (1450–1750”) is full of fascinating information about the reception and ideological function of Josephus’s book among European Christians. For many of them, the internal strife of European Christians in the 16th and 17th centuries represents a mirror reflection of intra-Jewish divisions of the 1st century. The moral lesson to be learned was that “such divisiveness could incur divine wrath on Christendom as it has once done for the Jews” (54). The destruction of Jerusalem was a topic of reflection and liturgy in various Christian services to serve as a warning against Christian division and to call for repentance to avoid what happened to the Jews.

Chapter 4 (“Controversy”) delves into some of the earliest expressions of doubt regarding Josephus’s moral honesty. Some Christian moralists, as well as many Jewish readers and interpreters of his works, questioned his stance with regard to his own people. The fascination for his work, however, particularly among Christians, remained unabated for understanding the world of the New Testament. It will take some time before the study of Josephus’s works become accepted within departments of classics and ancient history, or even later on in newly established Jewish studies programs. At the beginning of the 20th century, in particular around the formation of the modern state of Israel, a renewed energy and appreciation for Josephus’s Jewish War meant subjecting this work to play some roles in the nationalist-Zionist propaganda, which viewed the “Jewish War as a narrative for a proud new nation” (108).

In the “Epilogue,” the author reflects briefly on the present and future of the Jewish War. A beneficial appendix allows the reader to read a few well-chosen excerpts from the text.

This book will be of interest to readers interested in Josephus (students and scholars alike), reception history, Jewish studies, as well as those concerned with the lives and ideological functions of literature. It does not add anything new within studies of Josephus, which was not the author’s goal, but it will stimulate more interest in the Jewish War, and hopefully, in the larger corpus of Josephus’s work.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Ronald Charles is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Date of Review: 
November 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Martin Goodman is professor of Jewish studies at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Wolfson College. His many books include A History of Judaism (Princeton), Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, and The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies. He lives in Oxford, England.