A chat with Jona Lendering on the Jewish-Roman Wars

Ancient Warfare issue VIII.5, on the Jewish-Roman Wars, has returned from the printer’s and is on its way to stores and subscribers. Digital subscribers are now able to download and read the issue immediately.

In related news, our good friend and ancient historian Jona Lendering, one of the authors of Edge of Empire and owner of the website Livius.Org, wrote a book on a related topic. The Dutch title is Israël verdeeld (i.e. Israel Divided) and it has been published by Athenaeum Publishers in Amsterdam. An English summary of the book is available. Israel Divided is not a book primarily about ancient warfare, but instead deals with religion, and especially focuses on the parting of ways of Judaism and Christianity.

For Ancient Warfare magazine, I decided to invite Jona for a brief interview, similar to the one we conducted last year about Edge of Empire.

Josho Brouwers: What inspired you to write a book on early Judaism?

Jona Lendering: Actually, I don’t know. I know that I decided to write a book about the parting of ways some nineteen, twenty years ago, but the subject had, by then, already been on my desk for quite some time. It may be that an introductory course at the VU University in Amsterdam, where Mr K.H. Uthemann explained the Q-source to us, was the moment when I became really interested.

Anyhow, there’s much that makes this an attractive subject. Many people know the basic outline, the texts included in the Bible can be consulted by anyone, there are many unusual texts to discover, archaeologists have investigated many parts of this region, and there’s always Josephus, one of the most interesting authors from Antiquity.

JB: An entire chapter of your book is devoted to Josephus. In our related issue of Ancient Warfare, Josephus features heavily, but as a source he is often subjected to criticism. What’s your take on his usefulness as a source for the period?  

JL: It can be shown that the Jewish War was read by some of the officers who took part in the battles. Josephus could not really invent things, although he could leave out details, like Agrippa’s presence during the siege of Jerusalem. The main outline of the battle narrative, nevertheless, is probably reliable.

On the other hand, his description of Jewish religion, with three acceptable schools and an un-Jewish ‘fourth philosophy’, appears to be an oversimplification. His analysis of the causes of war, therefore, is biased. Still, I cannot help but be impressed: the man was considered a traitor and could never safely return to Judaea, but still, he continued to defend his people for some thirty years.

JB: There has been a lot of discussion recently on whether or not Jesus ever existed or was purely a mythological figure. What is your take on this issue?

JL: Jesus’ existence is as real as the existence of, say, Hillel or the Teacher of Righteousness, or Anatolian charismatics like Alexander of Abonutichus or Apollonius of Tyana. Jesus’ opinions on marriage are documented in more independent sources than the marriage laws of Augustus. His halakhic opinions on the Sabbath fit within ancient discourse. You can only deny the existence of Jesus by ignoring historical method. Now it is of course possible to ask ‘harder’ evidence form ancient historians, and I agree that much more can be done, but that’s a different debate.

There are three problems. In the first place: ancient historians do not explain their methods. The general idea is that anyone can contribute to the study of ancient history, but it’s a serious job. In the second place: good, recent historical publications are behind pay walls, while digitalization projects make available texts that are out of copyright – which is another way of saying that they contain outdated information. Increasingly, bad information drives out good. In the third place: many people detest religious fundamentalism and seek to discredit modern religion by focusing on its ancient roots. This means that people with a motive to disbelieve normal historical facts, easily find the wrong information and do not learn how to investigate it.

JB: Rome got more heavily involved in Judea in the first century BC and finally conquered it in AD 6. How would you summarize the effects of Roman influence in Judea had on the people living in the region?

JL: There is evidence from Roman, Christian, and Rabbinical sources that shows considerable problems with debts. Still, the first generation after the annexation remained quiet. The first intervention by legions is in 40/41. After that, problems became increasingly difficult to handle.

JB: The Jewish population revolted against Rome, but the Empire eventually managed to quell the uprising in AD 70, following the Siege of Jerusalem. According to your book, that was a watershed moment: can you briefly explain why?

JL: The main consequence of the Roman intervention was, of course, human suffering. However, there was another consequence: the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem was terminated. Now this was one of the very few things that kept all Jewish schools together. After 70, there were still some shared elements, but new religious elites came into being, like the rabbis and bishops, and they could not find common ground.

Another important aspect is the Fiscus Judaicus: the old temple tax, which all Jews had paid, continued to exist, except that the money was sent to the temple of Jupiter in Rome. The Romans now had to define who was a Jew, and so they did. Those who followed the Law of Moses were forced to pay the tax, but did not have to sacrifice to the pagan gods. Christians were exempt from the Fiscus Judaicus, but they were allowed to be monotheists in front of the lions only.

JB: The English summary of the book is useful for those who are interested in the work, but cannot read Dutch. Can we look forward to an English translation of the book somewhere down the line?

JL: I am not optimistic. In 2004, I published a book on Alexander the Great. I had travelled in his footsteps all the way to Pakistan and could offer some new readings of cuneiform tablets. Without false modesty: it was a good book. However, before a book written in a foreign language can be published in English, it has to be translated. That costs a lot of money. I can imagine that English publishers prefer to reprint outdated books. So, although I think that my current book, which no doubt will have its flaws, is a pretty good overview, I would be surprised if it were translated.

JB: Finally, can you tell us something about any future projects you have lined up?

JL: I have to renovate the Livius website: a new style, more methodological explanations, more literature, notes – more or less in that order of importance. It will take about two years at least. I am also dreaming of a new magazine, comparable to Ancient Warfare, but dedicated to ancient society as a whole.

My thanks to Jona Lendering for answering my questions. 

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