Any fan of antiquity will have heard of Flavius Josephus or simply known as Josephus, the Jewish historian famous for his eyewitness account of the first Jewish War. His account is the only surviving manuscript of the War. Desmond Seward in Jerusalem’s Traitor provides a “life and times” biography of Josephus. Seward writes a compelling story of the life of Josephus as it relates to the first century history of Judea and the Roman Empire.
Josephus was from an aristocratic family who was appointed the governor of Galilee when the Jews revolted against the Roman Empire in 66 CE. He was captured by the Romans after the capture of Jotapata and escaped death by his prophesy that Titus Vespasian (Roman general sent by Emperor Nero to squash the revolt) would become Emperor of Rome. He eventually became a Roman citizen and tried to convince his fellow Jews to surrender to the Romans. During the siege of Jerusalem, Josephus urged the Jews to surrender the city to avoid annihilation. Following the Roman crushing of the revolt, Josephus moved to Rome and wrote several books including The Jewish War.
Seward brings an objective eye to his analysis of Josephus. This analysis is based on the various writings of Josephus and what his contemporaries said of him. Seward easily discerns Josephus’ biases and the biases of his critics.
Although there no other accounts of the Jewish War, Seward does his best to separate the truth from Josephus’ biased view of the Zealots (fundamentalist Jews who refused to accept any ruler other than God). For example, Josephus asserts that the revolt was mainly perpetrated by Zealots who he claimed were from lower social orders. However, by analyzing the events as described by Josephus and using common sense, Seward concludes that many of the aristocratic Jewish families joined the Zealots in the revolt (also by the fact that Josephus was allied with them in the beginning of the war).
Seward also points out how Josephus’ views of the revolt are inconsistent. At times, Josephus is extremely critical of the Zealots – especially blaming them for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. However, his pride shows when he describes the events surrounding Masada – the Jews their own lives rather than waiting on the Romans to either kill or enslave them.
I only have one criticism and that centers around the title of the book – it is a bit disingenuous to include Masada in it because there really is not much on the siege and capture of the fortress. Don’t expect a detailed explanation of the fortress, the Roman tactics used to capture it, and the motives of the Jewish leaders to kill themselves before the Roman capture of the fortress.
The book is a quick read (275 pages) because of Seward’s easy-to-read writing style. The book contains eight pages of black and white photographs and drawings, including images of Josephus, Vespasian, and the Second Temple.