(Part 1: The Antiquities of the Jews)
The second half of Josephus’s Complete Works gets to the real gritty parts of history. Antiquities is Israel’s historical record, but The Wars of the Jews is something completely different. There is some overlap at first. Wars was written first, so it’s not chronological. There are some mentions to the same to kings and conquerers, so many of the first chapters is repetitive. But once it gets into new territory, it’s truly fascinating.
Its authenticity lies in Josephus himself, who was not only historian but a general in the Jewish army. He commanded the forces in the siege of Yodfat, which is one of the first battled described in detail. He records speeches given by himself and the Roman forces, and records the day-to-day of battle, defense, and ultimately Roman victory.
It’s easy to glance over historical records after a while, especially when you’ve been reading the same book on the same topic for nearly a year. But when the war came to Jerusalem, I couldn’t put it down. Page after page of disbelief, that these events truly happened, that this was the beginning of the end. We know that the Temple fell. We know it was related to this war, that everything that happens is leading up to its demise. But I had no idea how it happened: How the Jews were starved out of their homes, and how the Temple was ultimately burned to the ground. The Western wall only survives because the Romans opted to keep it for their own defense.
Josephus later writes a defense of his works (Against Apion), a response to critics who disbelieve his chronicle. But he proves himself by combing other nations’ historical records, finding reference to the Jews in each of them. It’s a great addition, especially for those of us who aren’t going to read ancient texts from places like Assyria and Babylon. I thought the Jews weren’t mentioned in Egyptian history, but they’re present, briefly.
This isn’t an easy read. But it’s worth the effort for the first-hand account and a more complete understanding of events. Outside of the Bible, Josephus’s works are considered the primary source of ancient Israel’s history. If nothing else, at least read The War of the Jews.