From 30 October through to 1 November 2018, the conference ‘Rethinking the Jewish War’ will take place in Jerusalem, where international experts will be analysing Steve Mason’s latest book, A History of the Jewish War. Prof. Steve Mason is Distinguished Professor of Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Cultures in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Groningen.
The Jewish War of 66-74 CE became a watershed in Western history because it ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and its famous temple. This event was of critical value to the Roman generals involved, Vespasian and Titus, whose effective massaging of the modest achievement – as if it were a great foreign victory – helped vault them into imperial power. More fatefully in the long term, Christians seized on Jerusalem’s destruction as alleged proof that God had transferred his favour to them from the Jews, now condemned as Christ-killers. Moreover, the Jewish people themselves had to rethink their way of life, without the ancient mother-city and temple that had secured their place in the world.
Steve Mason: ‘It is not too much to say that this war decisively shaped the Christian West and poisoned Jewish-Christian relations for most of the next two millennia, with the Holocaust as catastrophic capstone. Modern Israel was founded with the intention of undoing the Jewish War and all its after-effects. The first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, took the Hebrew surname of a leader in the ancient conflict. The symbolism of overthrowing Titus’ Arch in Rome for his destruction of Jerusalem (appropriated by Popes) has been widespread. And the desert fortress of Masada, last hold-out against Rome, became an iconic site in the new State: It would never fall again! Such a consequential war is thus central to the work of colleagues, not only in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Origins department, but across much of our GGW faculty.’
‘It is of some importance to figure out what actually happened in the War, however, behind the Roman-Christian propagandising and the Jewish suffering. In relation to this task, my book brings a new approach. Instead of adding another narrative, more or less modifying the story told by Flavius Josephus in the first century, it begins each chapter with a set of questions – many previously ignored – and investigates them from the ground up. This method requires us to rethink everything, from the causes of the conflict to the motives of key players. The ethos is realist, particular, and economical, avoiding high-level abstractions. The provisional conclusions differ from tradition at numerous points,’ Mason comments.
Asked if he is looking forward to the conference, Professor Mason explains: ‘Our hosts in Jerusalem have honoured my work, while also terrifying me. Experts in each area covered by the study – ancient warfare, Roman governance, archaeological sites and their remains, coins, inscriptions, and texts – will critique those aspects. Since I already know of some real shortcomings, the prospect of three days hearing my esteemed colleagues expose others is not the definition of bliss. But research advances by proposition, challenge, and refinement. Besides the shortcomings, I remain confident in the approach and its main results. The conference and resulting book will provide the opportunity to clarify evidence, interpretations, and arguments, so that we can all move forward with better understanding—and refined questions.’
The conference, ‘Rethinking the Jewish War (66-74 CE): Archaeology, Society, Tactics, and Traditions’, will be held at the École biblique et archéologique française de Jérusalem. This institution, commonly known as the École Biblique, is a French academic establishment in Jerusalem founded by Dominicans and specializing in archaeology and Biblical exegesis.
The event is free and open to the public: registration at secretariat.ebaf gmail.com
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