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In 70 a.d., a few decades after the crucifixion of Jesus, the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem after a long siege. Perhaps no event has had more enduring reverberations. Judaism lost the Second Temple, the site of nearly all its rites, and the temple was never rebuilt. Jewish Christianity, centered in Jerusalem and led by James the brother of Jesus, soon disappeared beneath the waves of Gentile Christianity. Islam, too, was shaped by the defeat: today, on the former site of the Second Temple stands the Aqsa Mosque, the faith’s third most important devotional site. The Roman Church, the rise of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, the creation of Israel itself — all can be traced back, in some way, to Jerusalem’s ancient destruction.

We have exactly one contemporary account of this event, and its author was one of the most complicated men ever to have lived. Joseph ben Mattathias was born in Jerusalem in 37 a.d., a moderate Pharisee from a family of moderate Pharisees, and was appointed to a generalship in the Jewish resistance against the Romans. When he was cornered in a cave near Jotapata with fifty other men, Joseph assented to his comrades’ wish for a mass suicide. Everything went according to plan, save for the fact that Joseph neglected to kill himself. Captured by the Romans, he was soon enough collaborating with them. When the war was over, he went to Rome, where he was given a pension by the new emperor, Vespasian, and asked to write a history of the war that would burnish his patron’s honor.

The man soon known as Titus Flavius Josephus became a Jewish apologist to the Romans and a Roman apologist to the Jews (whom he endeavored to depict as an estimable people divinely guided through history). He wrote four books, including a brief autobiography, the earliest-known example of the form to survive into the modern age. His works of history, Jewish Antiquities and The Jewish War, are the source of virtually all our knowledge about the time of Jesus outside the gospels. Without Josephus, we would know next to nothing about the Herodian dynasty and Pontius Pilate and would have no idea that the girl who called for the head of John the Baptist was named Salome.

In A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus (Pantheon, $28.95), the prolific Frederic Raphael, who is perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, argues that Josephus was something more than a collaborator or (as the Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin, who excavated Masada, once described him) “a bad Jew.” Josephus was a prototype, “the first Jew to offer an overview of the world’s history and evolution that was not Judeocentric.” Raphael’s magnificently odd book does not skimp on details about the life of Josephus (whose Greek citations have been translated by Raphael himself), but the real focus is on his legacy. What does it even mean to have been a bad Jew in a war as hopeless as the Jewish War, which was not only a popular rebellion against an occupying power (though it was that) but also a bloodthirsty civil war among sometimes deranged factions given to show trials and shocking cruelty? Crazy men with beards ruin everything — a problem that is with us still.

Raphael transforms Josephus, the thinking person’s Judas, into a figure of tragic grandeur and connects him to a wide array of other Jewish writers, artists, and scapegoats from Benedict de (or Baruch) Spinoza, Alfred Dreyfus, and Leon Trotsky to Isaac Babel, Walter Benjamin, and Joseph Roth. “His art,” writes Raphael,

concealed more than art. To call him a traitorous collaborator underrates his subtlety and simplifies his practice. . . . The fact that posterity has read with some ease between Josephus’s lines is more of a credit to his artfulness than scholarly detectives are in the habit of conceding.

Josephus could easily have elided the truth of his actions in the suicide cave at Jotapata, but he didn’t. He was also honest enough to reveal that his mother never forgave him for going over to the Romans.

Raphael’s penchant for the relevance-straining footnote is the least attractive trait of this otherwise erudite book. At various points, Dorothy Parker and Norodom Sihanouk take puzzling footnote bows, and later we find a brief explication of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s feminizing (and, Raphael argues, slyly anti-Semitic) use of the phrase “girlie men.” Very occasionally, the book slips factually, as when Raphael notes that Jerusalem’s Antonia Tower was named after the wife of Claudius. (It was named after Herod’s former patron Marc Antony.) He also claims that Nabokov’s antipathy for Freud was “more naughty than malicious.” But Nabokov despised Freud, and said as much, frequently. Still, when Raphael imagines Josephus walking “among bruising reminders and relics of Jewish humiliation” in Rome — the Colosseum, funded by loot plundered from Judea, and the Arch of Titus, which commemorates the sack of the Second Temple — his subject, to say nothing of his subject’s quandary, feels newly strange and complicated.

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’s most recent book, Magic Hours, an essay collection, was published last year by McSweeney’s.

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