Flavius Josephus (born 37 C.E.) wrote the only remaining account of the utter destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in the year 70, and the heroic battle at Masada waged three years later. His position as a Jewish leader and then as the Roman court historian during the reign of Vespasian ensured that his historical works would be read and preserved by Jews and Romans alike. His narrative is not a mere chronicle; it is, in the best historiographical tradition, an attempt to make events intelligible. He does what no other historian, Greek or Latin, could have done: He examines the past in order to elucidate the underlying origins of the war. Other works chronicling the war between the Jews and the Romans circulated at the time, but soon disappeared without a trace. We know of them only because of Josephus' irritation with their inaccuracies and prejudices. Josephus, unlike the other writers, was present during the war, not as a mere bystander, but as a participant in the negotiations. The Romans employed him as an ambassador between themselves and the Jews, in the hope that Josephus could quell his people's passionate uprising. As our only eyewitness to these events, Josephus will remain important. But for his role as a Jew working with the Roman army, he will remain forever controversial. Whether Josephus was a traitor or a wise man who tried to salvage the Jewish kingdom is a question that modern historians still argue. In 1937 a group of law students in Antwerp reopened the case of Flavius Josephus, and after a mock trial found him guilty of "treason". In 1941, in the midst of the Second World War, a group of young resistance fighters who were strong supporters of Zionism reacting as French and Jewish patriots accused Josephus of "collaboration". Today, Josephus' works are read more widely in Israel than in any other country. Archaeology, Israel's "national sport", could not do without him. Caesarea, Sepphoris, Gamala, Masada, and the Jerusalem of the Second Temple could not be imagined without his writings. Finally, his history reminds present-day Israelis of a nation's fate when internal political divisions turn violent in the face of an outside enemy. For all these reasons, we hold his works in such esteem; this is why we, in the twentieth century, still need to know about him.
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