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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.

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

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