Josephus: The man who “invented” Jewish history


Josephus Flavius is maybe one of the wildest characters in Jewish history, and that’s saying something. That’s largely because unlike most historians, he didn’t just chronicle the story; as Yael tells Schwab in this week’s episode, Josephus, or Yosef ben Matityahu, wrote himself into the story – and what a story it is. This week, we learn about Josephus and the siege of Yodfat, and they ask, what does it mean for us to write yourself into the story of Jewish history?

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Editor’s note: Whoever said history was boring clearly never heard these stories…Welcome to Jewish History Unpacked! Join hosts Yael and Schwab each week as they take a dive into some deep cuts of Jewish history. From the Jewish Da Vinci Code to mass suicide pacts, explore true stories that feel larger than life.

Romanticized engraving of Flavius Josephus appearing in William Whiston’s translation of his works.

Yael: So, it’s going to be a little bit of a Clark Kent/Superman distinction. And I just want to clarify that in no way am I comparing Josephus to Superman.

Schwab: Because Superman doesn’t hold a candle. He never went to Rome.

Yael: Well, we don’t know that.

Schwab: Well, he certainly didn’t write a book about it.

Yael: I’m very much an MCU person. So, we’re going to put the DC thing to the side for a second. 

Schwab: Welcome to Jewish History Unpacked where we’ll do exactly what it sounds like. Unpack stories in Jewish history that are…awesome.

Yael: I’m Yael Steiner. And my childhood dream was to stay in school forever.

Schwab: I’m Jonathan Schwab and I am in school forever.

Yael: And we are two non-professional history fans who are not embarrassed to be massive nerds. In particular, history nerds.

Schwab: Yeah, and in even more particular, Jewish history nerds. And on this show, we’re super pumped to unravel some pretty major events in Jewish history. Spoiler alert, there’s a lot to learn, and some of it is pretty bonkers.

Yael: And here’s what that means, practically, for this podcast. Each week, Schwab and I will take turns researching the heck out of a crazy story from the last 4,000 plus years of Jewish history – and then we will, kinda, teach them to each other. And these stories are freaking insane. We’re talking the real story of Hanukkah. Napoleon’s attempt to revive a 2,000 year old Jewish court in the 1800s. But I’m personally psyched for today’s topic.

Schwab: So with that, let’s dive in. And, Yael, this week, you’ll be teaching me. Listeners, I’m with you, excited, but also not quite sure what to expect. So, what do we have for today’s discussion?

Josephus in the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Yael: To get us started, I thought we’d talk about this really interesting, possibly purposefully bungled suicide pact that essentially launched what we know of today as secular Jewish history and the historian who many consider to be the first and probably only rock star of Jewish history – Josephus Flavius. And I did check, it is Flavius not Flavius, in case some of you are wondering.

And as I began reading about Josephus, I just want to preface this by saying that I was getting super Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code vibes. I think he’s kind of the person that historians look to when they want to think about themselves as being cool.

Schwab: He made history cool. Tom Hanks definitely made it very cool in the Da Vinci Code.

Yael: We’re totally dating ourselves and aging ourselves right now.

Schwab: Yes.

Yael: So, Schwab, you’re a well-educated guy.

Schwab: I hope so.

Yael: Tell me about Josephus. What do you know about this guy?

Schwab: From what I know of Josephus, he comes up in a lot of Jewish history classes. I want to say the story of Masada is from Josephus.

Yael: Fascinating. It’s really interesting that you mentioned that because we’re not going to talk about the story of Masada today, but the story that I’m going to tell is very similar. Anything else?

Schwab: And something about his name. I remember from some Jewish history class the fact that he’s Josephus and that’s a Roman name, something about that.

Yael: So, to take a step back, this man that we’ve both been referring to as Josephus was actually born a Jew and he also died a Jew. But when he was born a Jew, his name was Yosef Ben Matityahu, Joseph, the son of Mathias or Matthias. And he was born in Jerusalem in approximately 37 of the Common Era. And the Jerusalem that he was born into, not unlike today, was highly sectarian. And there were really a lot of different groups who didn’t like each other and didn’t really want much to do with each other. This was the time of the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Essenes. I don’t know if any of these names mean anything to you.

Schwab: So, Jerusalem was in quarters but they were just different quarters than they are now.

Yael: Yes, exactly. The Pharisees and the Sadducees were more urbanites. They stuck around what we know today to be Modern Jerusalem. The Essenes were a little crunchier, a little more granola. They spent a lot of time out in the desert communing with nature. They were very ascetic. They gave away a lot of their worldly possessions.

And even though Josephus was born in the city around the Pharisees and the Sadducees and at different times in his life self-identified as a Pharisee, he did also go out to the wilderness and spend time among the Essenes. So, he actually is uniquely positioned to tell us about this time of Jewish history because he’s probably one of few people who spent a significant amount of time among many different types of Jews. So, he wasn’t as siloed as most people of his era.

Schwab: Interesting.

Yael: And he even traveled to Rome. So, he was really sophisticated for his era. He was well-traveled. He was well-read. According to his own account, he was somewhat of a prodigy. So, you can take that with a grain of salt if you want. One thing that’s really important to remember as I tell you this is that he is basically the only contemporary source for any of this information. But he was something. He wasn’t just like Joe Nobody. He was Joe Ben Matityahu. He was Joe Somebody. Yeah.

Schwab: I’m starting to see a little bit of that vibe of Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci Code of somebody who just knew a lot of different things. And was just involved in a lot more than the average person of his day.

Yael: And any minute now, some secret society is going to come and make him solve some kind of riddle. So, just to recap, he was born in 37. And during his younger years, when he was perceived by some or maybe only perceived by himself to be a genius, he spent time with a lot of different types of Jews. He traveled to Rome. And all of this was happening, his formative years were a little bit after the Hanukkah story took place and were at the tail end of what we call the Hasmonean dynasty. In the year 66, when Josephus was about to embark on his 30s, a great revolt broke out in the land of Judea which is the geographical term that we’ll use to refer to what is the modern day state of Israel. And he was apparently in addition to being really book smart, also apparently super military smart and really like GI Josephus.

Schwab: But this is all still according to him.

Yael: Yes. So, while historians agree that most of what we get from Josephus is true, now using modern archeology and other sources that have been found since then, we really are taking every story about Josephus from the mouth of Josephus. So, just something to keep in mind as I continue to tell you what an amazing military strategist he was.

Schwab: Well, if you are the one whose book survived, then you’re probably going to be painted in a pretty good light.

Yael: That is a very good point. And actually, a lot of people say that the reason why Josephus’s writings survived was because they were the most useful and they had the most utility. So, presumably, other people who were there found them useful and then passed them along to subsequent generations.

The works of Josephus translated by Thomas Lodge (1602).

Schwab: So, he did write about things other than himself?

Yael: Yes. He wrote four relatively famous books. One is a survey history of the Jews starting with Adam and Eve. And this is a conversation for another day. But it is interesting that he as a historian starts the story with Adam and Eve because today, a professional historian would view a clear split between what we consider biblical story, and what we consider to be historical fact. So, it is interesting that Josephs’ survey starts with Adam and Eve. That’s where the history of the Jews begins.

Schwab: And if he’s writing about himself then he sees himself as part of that story, too. There’s no disconnect for him between the Bible and history. And he’s part of that grand story.

Yael: That’s fascinating because I didn’t think about that. So, again, consulting Josephus as the source of this information. In the year 66, a Jewish revolt breaks out against the Romans in the land of Judea. There are a bunch of proposed causes for this war. A lot of it maybe just was pressure bubbling over from all the strife among the different Jewish sects. And everybody felt a little bit like they were constantly at risk of being labeled the worst group of Jews by the Romans so that created a lot of tension. There’s-

Schwab: Religion, one of the most common causes of war. Yeah.

Yael: Yes. Religion, but not Rome inflicting war on the Jews, it was the Jews inflicting war on each other! And then getting so mad at each other that the entire region just blew up. And then, there is also a lot of conjecture that certain things were happening with the Romans’ presence in the land including the imposition of incredibly high taxes because-

Schwab: Tax is the other major cause of war.

Yael: They threw a little tea into the Galilee I hear. And there’s also this story of the Greeks sacrificing some birds outside of a synagogue in Caesarea and the Romans failing to intervene and chastise the Greeks.

Schwab: Well, that’s the third major … Historically, the third major cause of war is bird sacrificing.

Yael: Yes. I’ve heard that. I really should read more up on that a little more because I’m not as familiar with bird sacrifices. I should be. But basically, once the war breaks out, whatever the cause was, the Jews are really outnumbered. Tale as old as time, the same thing as when they were fighting the Greeks a couple of decades earlier, the Romans have the technology. They have the people. Part of the reason that they have the people is that they have thousands upon thousands of slaves. They have the great-

Schwab: And are the Jews even united at this point with all the different sects and denominations?

Yael: They’re really not. They’re really not. There is a lot of biting off their nose despite their face situation where instead of uniting or rallying around the flag as we call it in the United States now, they still don’t get along. They still fight for primacy among the Jews. And that’s actually how Josephus himself becomes a military general.

Apparently, he was seen as the compromised candidate between the more conservative elders and the younger more radical zealots. The zealots were really the ones fighting in this war, but the elders still had a lot of heritage power. It’s not too dissimilar from today’s political parties in the United States.

Schwab: But he’s traveled among all these different sects so he’s able to bring people together.

Yael: Basically.

Schwab: And he knows a little bit about Rome because he went there, too.

Yael: Yes. So, he probably was able to sell himself and he did as we can tell like himself a little bit and was able to broker this compromise and he became the governor general of the Galilee area. And at a certain point during the war, Josephus who I’m going to now go back to calling Yosef Ben Matityahu because I think it’s important to make a distinction between who he was as a young person and primarily as a layman, as a lay Jew, and who he was later on in his life in Rome.

So, it’s going to be a little bit of a Clark Kent/Superman distinction, like this is what he did when he was Clark Kent and this is what he did when he was Superman. And I just want to clarify that in no way am I comparing Josephus to Superman.

Schwab: Because Superman doesn’t hold a candle. He never went to Rome.

Yael: Well, we don’t know that. But also-

Schwab: Well, he certainly didn’t write a book about it.

Yael: I’m very much an MCU person. So, we’re going to put the DC thing to the side for a second. What was I just saying?

Josephus , also known as Flavius Josephus (c. 37-c. 100 AD), a 1st century Jewish historian of priestly and royal ancestry who recorded the Destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 and later settled in Rome under patronage of Flavius family. Original name Yosef Ben-Matityahu (Matthias in Greek) means Joseph, son of M. Wrote the History of the Jews while in Rome.(Photo by Bridgeman via Getty Images)

Schwab: So, Yosef Ben Matityahu.

Yael: Yosef Ben Matityahu. Thank you very much. So, Yosef Ben Matityahu becomes the governor general in the Galilee. And he decides to move his headquarters to a city. I guess we can call it a city. It was probably a village that stood at a high altitude called Jotapata or Yodfat in Hebrew. We’ll go forward calling it Yodfat just because Jotapata is a lot of syllables.

They basically construct a makeshift fortress there in order to try to stop Vespasian who is the Roman general that has just landed in Caesarea from making an advance on Jerusalem.

Schwab: I’m pretty sure that didn’t work.

Yael: Yes.

Schwab: if I remembered correctly, the Romans did end up getting to Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.

Desecration of the Temple of Jerusalem by Pompey. Illustration in Flavius Josephus Antiquities of the Jews (Antiquitatum Iudai. Found in the Collection of Bibliothèque Nationale de France. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Yael: Yes. So, as good as he was-

Schwab: So, he wasn’t that great.

Yael: He wasn’t that good. But he did manage to hold them off for a little while. And the ways that he did it were kind of clever. One was Vespasian was basically trying to smoke them out with the knowledge that their cisterns which are basically these big vats of water that had been filled prior to the siege, Vespasian was basically waiting for the water to run out and in hopes that the thirst would ultimately cause the Jews to surrender. But what-

Schwab: If you’re going to survive a siege for a long time, I feel like water is one of those things you might need to have a good supply of.

Yael: And yet, Josephus actually had them waste some of that water by soaking their clothes in it and then hanging their clothes out to dry on the fortress because they wanted Vespasian to think that they had so much water, that they were still doing laundry. And they hope that when he saw that like, “Oh, they’re still doing laundry. Clearly, they must have a ton of water left.” And that maybe-

Schwab: Let’s just turn around and go back to Rome.

Yael: He would’ve just … No. Or that he just would’ve gone somewhere else. Once they realized that that wasn’t going to work, they actually made this soup out of what I think is some kind of pee and they mushed it and they poured it down every single breach of the fortress so that the Roman soldiers would slip and fall on the soup.

Schwab: I know that this is a real war but that sounds a little comical.

Yael: It really gave me Home Alone vibes, honestly.

Schwab: Yes.

Flavius Josephus, struck with a stone thrown from the walls of Jerusalem, rescued by his soldiers (70 AD), Plate 27, engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from Ancient History of the Egyptians, Carthaginians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Macedonians and Greeks, by Charles Rollin, 1839, Rome. (Photo by Icas94 / De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images)

Yael: So, he was clever and he was crafty. But despite the cleverness and the craftiness, the Romans did ultimately breach the wall, did also ultimately get to Jerusalem as you mentioned and thousands of people were killed but-

Schwab: A lot less fun.

Yael: Yes. But through what he later calls divine intervention, Yosef Ben Matityahu finds himself in a cave hiding from the Romans with 40 or 50 other people. It’s at that point that he was really stuck between a rock and a hard place because he really did not want to surrender, but he also saw that there was no way out.

And there were some people among his group who were initially talking about suicide and Yosef Ben Matityahu talked them out of it saying that the body is a gift from God and how could we potentially waste this gift, which actually goes back to what you said about him seeing himself as a piece of the larger theological puzzle.

But ultimately as time went on and one of the women in the group actually tried to sneak out and got caught and they knew that their position had been compromised, he suggests that if they’re going to commit suicide, they’d do it through a process of drawing lots instead of killing themselves because that would be offensive to God. They would draw lots to see who would kill each other. And they did this.

And you might say, miraculously, you might say suspiciously, you might say auspiciously, Josephus found himself to be one of the final two people left after the entire group had killed itself. And strangely enough, when it got down to the two of them, Josephus said, “I don’t know, I’m not sure. What do we really get out of killing ourselves at this point in time? Maybe we should just surrender.”

Schwab: Wow. That’s a good spot to be in.

Yael: Yeah, here’s this guy. He is the one who decided how we were all going to go about killing ourselves so that we could do it in the service of God. And he just doesn’t go through with it. So, this is one of those things-

Schwab: But maybe all 50 of them would have done that and whoever survived would have written a book about it. So, it just happens to be that it was him. Or maybe-

Yael: So yeah, you see where I’m going here. It’s one of those stories where regardless of everything else that we know about Yosef Ben Matityahu both in his earlier incarnation as Jewish lay leader and in his later incarnation as Josephus, all the good that he does and the genius that he might have been and the military strategist that he might have been, you look at him as the orchestrator of a suicide pact where he doesn’t commit suicide. And maybe he’s not as great as we thought.

Schwab: And this reminds me of, I said before that one of the things that I thought about related to Josephus’s Masada. And the Masada story sounds very similar because there’s also a suicide pact there.


Yael: Yes. And what’s interesting is that the story is virtually identical. And the only source we have about the story of Masada is Josephus.

Schwab: But he wasn’t at Masada.

Yael: He wasn’t there. He was already in Rome. So, we’re talking about him as a historian recording the story of a battle that he was not present at, at a time without email, without tweets, without fax machines or telegraphs or Morse code, he happens to hear the details of this battle at Masada and it’s almost exactly like the battle that he had been the general of. So-

Schwab: Yes. That’s Josephus’s go-to move. He’s like there’s a siege, people died. There was probably this elaborate suicide pact plan.

Yael: So, it’s totally possible that this was just a thing that people did back then or it’s possible that Josephus was a little less creative in his writing than one might be. But it’s interesting that you bring that up because, yes, it is very similar but I’m not sure that we have great sources on that.

Schwab: So, he survives this suicide pact and the Romans don’t kill him.

Yael: They don’t kill him, because basically what he does is he leaves the cave and he goes to the General Vespasian. He’s not dumb. He really is crafty and clever. And he knows that flattery will get you anywhere. And he basically says to this guy, “I had a vision and you are going to be the Roman emperor.” And because Vespasian likes the sound of that, he doesn’t want to risk killing Josephus who might be a prophet. So, he takes him as a slave. But ultimately a few years later when Vespasian does become emperor, they freed Josephus from slavery because now they’re like, “Okay, this guy knows something. He’s got God’s ear. God has his ear. So, we don’t want to be the ones holding him captive.” And they released Josephus as a free man. And that’s when he takes up the mantle of historian and he starts writing the history of the Jews.

Schwab: I feel like Josephus, maybe he actually had this prophecy or maybe he’s the guy who goes on Twitter and says, “In four years, I think the next president is going to be whoever.” Maybe he tweeted a whole lot of things then he just deleted all the other ones. And then four years later, just retweets his own tweet and everyone, all of a sudden is like, “This guy’s a genius.”

Yael: Exactly. So, he’s free now. He’s writing history. And so, he wrote the story of the Jews from Adam and Eve through his own time. He wrote an autobiography. He wrote a defense against anti-Semitism.

Schwab: Okay. Wow.

Yael : And he also wrote one book just about the war that he had participated in called the Jewish War.

Schwab: All the major categories of books. Anti-Semitism, autobiography, history and military.

Yael: So, he has a really mixed legacy because of the things that we’ve talked about with respect to not following through on the suicide pact. And also the fact that he was writing himself into the story, viewed himself as a genius, viewed himself as a military man. But at the same time, he really is the guy that we look to as the progenitor of modern Jewish history. Some people-

Schwab: But he’s also writing all of this in Rome.

Yael: Yes. He’s writing it in Rome and he’s writing it under the patronage of Vespasian’s son Titus. So, on the one hand, there are some people who think when he’s writing the history of the Jews, he’s doing it because he feels guilty about what he did at Yodfat. And there are other people who think actually that he might feel guilty about what happened at Yodfat but because he’s writing under the patronage of Titus, we can’t really take anything he says about the Romans at face value because he’s writing to flatter the Romans.

So actually, that brings me to the question that I really wanted to pose here which is, how do we evaluate historical sources when it comes to Jewish history? I read something really interesting. One of the scholars of Josephus writes an introduction in which he compares Josephus to a modern photographer from the 1980s if you still consider the 1980s modern, named Lee Friedlander.

And Friedlander apparently was the first photographer or the first well-known photographer to really not remove his own presence from the photographs. So, if he was on a ladder taking a picture of something and the shadow of the ladder falls into the frame of view, he included that shadow in his photograph. He really did not need the viewer to forget that there was a photographer there. Some artists want their art to appear as if from nowhere and they don’t want any hint of the artist to remain, but Friedlander do that.

And what this scholar does, I think his name is Frederic Raphael, and in his book, what he does is he really says, “Josephus is the historian who is most like Friedlander in that way and that he does not remove the shadow of himself from his writing.”

Schwab: So, all historians have a certain perspective or trying to tell a certain story, but Josephus is being open about that. “Here is my story. Here was my role in it.”

Yael: And he’s upfront about that. And I think that’s a … I don’t want to say it’s a uniquely Jewish position because I’m sure that there are others who do it. But to me, it’s one of the things that’s most special about the chain of history in Judaism is that we as a people have this need and desire to perpetuate our story but also to place ourselves within the story.

Schwab: Yeah.

Yael: I’m sure you have been to many a Passover Seder. And in the Passover Seder, there is a commandment, the v’higadta l’vincha. The commandment of the Seder is to tell over. The word Haggadah comes from this word v’higadta or the same root as v’higadta. It’s the “telling” the Maggid, which is a portion of the Seders, again the same root. We have to tell our children on this day what happened when God took the Hebrews out of Egypt.

But in addition to telling our children, to really conveying the history, we also have this commandment to tell the history as though we were the ones ourselves who were taken out of Egypt which is why we eat matzah and we-

Schwab: “lirot et atzmo.”

Yael: Exactly.

Schwab: … to see ourselves as part of that story as if it was happening to us.

Yael: So, it looks like Josephus really did … I mean, Josephus literally was there.

Schwab: Right, he was there.

Yael: But he tells the story and he places himself from the story. And I think that regardless of how crafty or clever he may have been, and I do take your point that he may legitimately have thought he was in a line of prophets, and he maybe did feel divinely connected to Adam and Eve. So, no matter how crafty or clever he might have been, I think he really is a very good role model for us as we embark on this journey together of talking about our place in Jewish history and whether or not we as non-historians have a place in the conversation about Jewish history. Because we certainly have a place in the Jewish present, we’re here. And as we move forward in our lives into the Jewish future, how do we synthesize what’s important to us from the past, into the present to make sure that we eventually see a Jewish future. I know I sound like a fundraising ad for the Jewish Federation or something.

Schwab: That’s why you should donate, yeah, to your local Jewish Federation. But thinking about that question about the Jewish future, for Josephus, was that even what he was trying to do when he was writing in Rome after the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple? he probably wasn’t imagining you and me sitting around talking about his work, but was he imagining future Jews reading his works or he was telling the history of a people that he imagined are on the brink of extinction?

Yael: That’s a good question. Actually, I don’t know the answer there but one thing I do know is that there were many Jews in Rome at the time that Josephus was writing. When the Temple was destroyed in 70 and just the great revolt in general, both of those things led to a major exile from the geographic locations that we’ve been talking about. And a lot of Jews went to Rome because Rome was where it was all happening. The same way a lot of immigrants came to New York in the 1800s and early 1900s because that was where it was at.

Schwab: The center of the world.

Yael: That was Rome. That was where philosophy and literature and technology, they built aqueducts, they built battering rams. So, Jews lived in Rome for about 2000 years which is longer than Jews have lived anywhere other than in the land of Judea.

Yael: So, he definitely did have a Jewish audience for his writing. I don’t know if he catered to them. And again, that goes back to the question of what his motivations were. But there certainly were people around who were Jews who definitely had access to this work.

Schwab: Wow. And just for so many things, his is the only writings that we have from that era. And the only account of this war is Josephus’, it sounds like.

Yael: Yeah. I mean, it’s the only contemporaneous account. So, anything else that we have was heard secondhand. And so, I think for us now as we’re thinking about what the two of us want to talk about, what we want to share about Jewish history, we’re also talking about these things based on secondhand sources. When it comes to very modern Jewish history, we have some first hand sources but that’s also unique in a way the two of us being the elderly, geriatric millennials that we are, have grown up with the opportunity of hearing about major events in Jewish history firsthand. I am a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and I’ve met dozens upon dozens of Holocaust survivors in my life and have had the opportunity to hear their stories firsthand. But in the next 10 years, maybe less, that opportunity is going to disappear for the next generation of Jews.

Schwab: Yeah. That’s something that I think about a lot because my children who were still young are going to grow up in a world I think where they’re not going to hear survivor testimony of the Holocaust all the time the way that I grew up hearing it, not just in my family but in school all the time. And for them, it’s going to be history in a way that it wasn’t for us growing up. It was something else. It was testimony. It felt more tangible and personal and real.

Yael: Right. And I think at a certain point in time, I mean many, many, many years in the future, it may seem as remote to them as the great revolt seems to us now.

Schwab: Wow, yeah.

Yael: And when I think about my responsibility and this is the responsibility I take upon myself but my responsibility as a young Jewish person, I want to ensure that Jewish history or the Jewish history that I’ve seen firsthand or had the opportunity to speak with witnesses, too, that that gets transmitted to the next generation in a way that is certain, in a way that feels alive.

And in a way that they don’t become these obscure stories that the two of us are now talking about as, “Hey, you might not have heard, there was this huge war in which thousands of Jews were killed. And there’s this cool story about a suicide pact so we’re going to talk about it.” I would feel as though I failed in my mission to keep our heritage alive.

Schwab: Right. There’s something that feels very Jewish about saying, “We’re a part of history. We need to record things. We need to keep them for posterity.” And there’s something interesting also about Josephus that it didn’t happen to him. That he’s really, “I was an active participant in it. And I was a general at this time and here were all my great strategies.” And he’s not just saying, “Here’s everything that has happened to Jews or happened to me,” but, “Here’s a way that I was in the world and was present.”

Yael: And he’s also not passive and he’s not weak. And Jewish history is not always, thank God, the story of how we were led into exile or led into destruction, but hopefully can also be the story of success and perpetuity and tradition. Wow. That got really deep really fast.

Schwab: Yeah.

Yael: Good job. So, let’s recap a little bit, Schwab. Why does any of this matter? What did we just talk about? Give me 60 seconds on how Jewish history started and why it matters. Go.

Schwab: Sixty seconds. Josephus got four volumes and I get 60 seconds. So, Josephus is a character, lives at a really interesting time. He’s part, not just a witness to but part of this really important war in Jewish history. And he chronicles that. And chronicles not just his own life but how this is part of this broader Jewish story. And in reading it and thinking about it, that is so relevant to us today in thinking about what do our lives mean as Jews in the present? How does that connect to larger things? When we tell our stories, to whom are we telling the stories? Who is going to hear these stories? How are they going to understand them? And having the character of Josephus and the writings of Josephus just brings up all of those questions.

Yael: I like it. I love the word chronicles. I’m so glad you brought that in there. One thing that I noticed and I actually think is really cool is you described Josephus as a character.

Schwab: Yeah.

Yael: That, in and of itself, to me, speaks volumes because we think about people in history as characters, their characters in a story. And that story could be fiction. That story could be nonfiction. That story could be inspirational. It could be in any section in Barnes & Noble. It could be literature. It could be religion. It could be social sciences, history, self-help, motivation. And I like it. I like it. I like that it fits in a lot of different pockets of our lives.

Schwab: And it sounds like that’s what it was like. He wasn’t sitting on the sidelines and writing this history of everything he observed but he was part of it and there’s a clear voice to it even. He has a perspective and that shapes the way he tells his story.

Schwab: Yeah. Wow.

Yael: Well, first, I want to say that there was so much more about Josephus out there that we didn’t get to cover. So, anyone who’s interested should definitely read up. Shout out to getting eBooks from the library.

My takeaway from this is that it’s important to be … This is so cheesy and it comes from a romantic comedy that I really like called The Holiday, but it is important to be the lead character in your own life. Josephus didn’t take himself out of the story. And I don’t think it was because he was trying to gain confidence after a guy broke up with him in the same way Kate Winslet did in the Holiday.

But he keeps himself in the story because if you’re part of a chain of tradition, you are a piece of the chain and your perspective matters, your experience matters. And people in the future should know how your experience colored your perception of what happened at the time. I know that’s a little rumbly and trite but-

Schwab: But what a great way to frame this entire podcast.

Yael: Well, that is very complimentary of you. Thank you.

Schwab: Yeah, because this is … Historians have discussed this. And like you said at the top, we’re not historians but we’re part of this story. And the way we think about it and feel about it and the way we find its relevance to our lives is a big part of being Jewish and experiencing Jewish history.

Yael: Yeah. And I hope that anyone who’s choosing to spend their time listening to this feels like they too have a voice and a perspective. Your impact on the world is important. It matters. And you should never pull yourself out of the equation.

Schwab: Wow.

Yael: Now, I feel like now is the time when I segue into the ad for online mental health services. But I mean, not joking, online mental health services are great. But yeah, I feel a little bit empowered by this.

Schwab: Yeah. Yeah, I do too. This has been a really interesting discussion. And I’m very excited for more of these discussions.

Yael: Yeah. It was so fun learning about Josephus. I know I’m like the world’s biggest nerd for saying that, but it was really, really, really great.


Thank you for listening to Jewish History Unpacked, a production of Unpacked, a division of OpenDor Media. If you liked this show, subscribe on your podcast app of choice, and give us five stars and write us a review on Apple Podcasts. Check out for everything Unpacked-related, and subscribe to our other podcasts. And of course, check out our TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – just look for @JewishUnpacked. And, most importantly, be in touch with Yael and Schwab – write to us at

This episode was hosted by Jonathan Schwab and Yael Steiner. Our education lead is Dr. Henry Abramson. Audio was edited by Rob Pera, and we’re produced by me, Rivky Stern. Thanks for listening, see you next week!

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