The Street of Josephus

West of Mea Shearim run several parallel streets with exalted names:
Malkei Israel, the kings of Israel, evoking the glory of the Davidic monarchy and the sovereigns of ancient Jerusalem.
Rashi Street, named for the greatest biblical commentator of the Middle Ages and possibly of all time – the only work more influential than Rashi’s interpretations of the Bible, in fact, is probably his commentary on the Talmud!
And David Yellin Street, immortalizing the member of the Ottoman parliament who in 1917 was exiled after attending a Zionist congress, and who later founded the Hebrew Teachers Seminary to promote Hebrew as Israel’s language of instruction.
Three parallel streets, three magnificent namesakes – one from the biblical period, one from the eleventh century, one from the pre-State years. So I expected that the road intersecting all of these streets would bear a similarly familiar and exalted name – Hezekiah, maybe, or Maimonides. Or at least Nathan Feinberg.
But it doesn’t. Rather, the street joining these three remarkable streets has a name I didn’t recognize: Yosef ben Matityahu.
Maybe you’d know him by another name: Josephus Flavius.
If you are not as mystified as I by how a street named for Josephus merited such illustrious company, well, please read on. Because while the life of Josephus is not the shining example of Rashi’s or David Yellin’s, it is – to say the least – fascinating.
Before he became Josephus Flavius, he was Yosef ben Matityahu – a Jewish boy born in Jerusalem in the year 37 of the Common Era, privileged and wealthy, descended from the highest order of Temple priests on his father’s side and from the once-ruling Hasmonean dynasty on his mother’s. Yosef ben Matityahu was bright and well-educated, knowledgeable in Jewish and secular subjects and conversant with traditional texts as well as Greek lore.
As Jews continued to chafe under oppressive Roman rule, Yosef ben Matityahu followed the path of many young men: He joined the revolt and traveled to the Galilee, where he led the Jewish forces fighting against Rome. His fiercest battle arrived in the year 67, in the form of a six-week siege at Yotfat against Roman soldiers led by Vespasian himself; as the Jewish forces collapsed, Yosef ben Matityahu and 40 of his compatriots sought shelter in a cave.
Defeated Jewish fighters followed a pattern during the Great Revolt; as the Roman forces closed in, they chose death over surrender and capture. At Gamla, the surrounded Jews threw themselves from the mountain into the valley below – at Masada, they slaughtered their wives and children, then themselves. And so at Yotfat, Yosef ben Matityahu led his men in casting lots to determine in what order they would commit suicide – but then he strayed from the pattern.
Yosef ben Matityahu arranged the lots so that he would be the last soldier left alive. And once his fellow warriors had drawn their numbers and killed themselves, Yosef ben Matityahu exited the cave alone, surrendered to Rome – and, essentially, became Josephus.
Endearing himself to Vespasian with claims that messianic rebels had predicted Vespasian’s ascension as emperor, Josephus was granted the status of a free Roman and the role of interpreter – and, once Vespasian assumed the throne in 69, even the emperor’s family name Flavius. Josephus’s transformation was made complete when he befriended Vespasian’s brutal son Titus, serving as his advisor and translator during the destruction of Jerusalem and the razing of the Temple.
As a witness to much of the Great Revolt – and as a knowledgeable Jew and a prolific writer – Josephus is best known for his great works of history: The Jewish War – seven volumes recounting the rebellion against Rome, including the siege and suicides at Masada – and The Antiquities of the Jews, a twenty-one-volume survey of Jewish history directed at a non-Jewish readership. Although historians view much of Josephus’s work with a skeptical eye, his narratives stand among the most authoritative and compelling sources on Jewish life in the last days of the Second Temple, and until the end of the first century.
Even as he cast his lot with Rome – even as he flattered Vespasian and advised Titus and narrated the burning of Jerusalem – parts of Yosef ben Matityahu endured in Josephus Flavius. Some view his collaboration as an attempt to negotiate, to stave off the destruction of the city where he was born – an effort whose failure must have been a source of unimaginable anguish, as his parents and his first wife perished in Titus’s final campaign against Jerusalem. Others note that he was married four times – and every time he chose a Jewish wife. And other scholars believe that even as Josephus Flavius, he remained committed to observing Jewish law.
Yet are these deeds really enough to merit a street alongside Malkei Israel, among Rashi and David Yellin? Perhaps not. But there is something beautiful in the forgiveness implied by the street, by the posthumous reclaiming of Josephus Flavius as Yosef ben Matityahu. As Josephus, he witnessed firsthand and recorded painstakingly the destruction of Jerusalem. But as Yosef ben Matityahu, he is permitted to have his name recalled among her kings and her sages, her teachers and her pioneers – the ones who loved his city, and who devoted themselves to her glory.