The Hebrew Benedict Arnold

As many of you know by now, I am a retired homeschool teacher, having taught my five children from kindergarten through high school. I must say, I miss those days dearly: we were all learning incredibly interesting subjects together. Using a modified Classical curriculum, we studied civilizations chronologically – exploring the lands, the peoples, their cultures, their conflicts and their contributions to society. Whenever possible, I tried to use primary sources, and the ancient historian, Josephus Flavius, was a favorite for learning about both Israel and the Roman occupation during the first century, CE.

The move to Israel has been wonderful for this homeschool geek mom, as so much of the history we studied happened here and there are so many archaeological sites and ruins, fantastically preserved, enabling me to actually see where and how events of the past unfolded.

Josephus was an aristocratic Jewish man, born Yosef ben Mattityahu, in 37 CE in Jerusalem to a wealthy family with priestly lines and connections to both the Sanhedrin and Pharisees. He was well educated in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and he eventually became governor of the Galilee region, with its seat in Tarichae (Migdal Nunia), better know as Magdala. As he recorded his manuscript, The Jewish Wars, the Roman forces under Nero were set on wiping out the Palestinians (the Romans re-named Israel “Palestine’ as an act of subjugation and humiliation, as the Philistines had been the arch enemy of the Hebrews in centuries past… the name stuck even today). Yosef ben Mattityahu became the general of the Jewish forces, uniting bands zealots bent on overthrowing their oppressors.

Some of my favorite times here in Israel have been spent reading his chronicles and accounts of the battles in the exact spot in which they happened – and being able to imagine what it was like. Many people think that Josephus exaggerated wildly in his writings, but archaeology is proving that what he recounted was indeed factual.

Magdala, a large port city on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee, was built at the base of the majestic Mount Arbel. It is famous today, because Mary of Magdala, a follower of Jesus, lived there. A bustling place of commerce at the time, important in the fish industry, it was quite the showplace, with villas, a large marketplace, fish processing areas, and an impressive first century synagogue with tiles floors, frescoed walls, and stone columns. The synagogue was not only a place of worship, but had a large yeshiva, or study center. It was a focal point of the town.

Josephus recorded the events that happened at Magdala: it was the year 67, and Roman general, Vespasian and his son, Titus, had already moved through the upper Galilee from the Northwest, taking captives, razing towns, and cutting a wide swath of destruction in their wake. General Vespasian had tens of thousands of troops with him. Magdala was a prime target. The Roman garrisons stationed themselves above the city atop Mount Arbel. For two weeks they laid siege to the place, raining down volley after volley of flaming arrows onto the homes. People from neighboring villages had taken refuge inside the walled city, but it was just a matter of time. What would they do? Josephus writes that they disassembled their beloved synagogue, using the columns, the lintels, and parts of the walls to barricade themselves in. And guess what was unearthed just seven years ago, giving credence to the story? Yup. All the evidence. See picture below:


The parts are all there, blocking up the main entrance to the marketplace. There are three other areas  (two not yet uncovered) where the synagogue capitals and lintels were used as blockades. But this did not stop the Romans. There was a brutal battle at sea, in which, Josephus states, the entire Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) turned red because of the blood. Yosef ben Mattityahu escaped with a small band of zealots. The rest of the town was wiped out. Able bodied men (quite possibly including a group of Jewish believers in Jesus who walked according to The Way, a peaceful path – more research is underway to flesh out that theory) were taken to the slave trading capital of Tiveria (Tiberius), 3 miles south, before being sent to Caesaria Maritima and then to Rome for the gladiator arena. Tens of thousands of women and children were also trafficked. The town was gutted.

The story takes up again at a very small, but well-defended town built on the slopes of another tall mountain, about 10 miles to the west, Jodpata (present-day Yodfat). This Jewish town was a stronghold of the Jewish rebels. It was to this place Yosef escaped, and Vespasian was all-to-eager to see it fall. Titus, commanding the Fifteenth Legion, united with Vespasian’s famous Fifth and Tenth Legions, 120 calvary from Caesaria and 23 cohorts of Roman troops numbering from 600-1,000 infantrymen each. All totaled, there were over 75,000 Romans. The Jews from the surrounding countryside piled into Jodpata, swelling it to almost 50,000 men, women and children.

Last week, we decided to hike the mountain and re-imagine the siege. Actually, we can see the mountain from our bedroom balcony, as it is only four peaks away from our mountaintop home. It was all as Yosef recorded.


Yosef ben Mattityahu and his forces, although falling in heaps under the barrage of Roman spears, clung defiantly to the battlements on the northern side of the hill. They were hurling stones and fire over the walls to stave off the enemy. But the Romans had a secret weapon, the Ram, a battering ram in the shape of a ram’s head (the iron ram has been found and although the wood has been replaced, now stands outside the walls of the city) with which they breached the walls.

Josephus later wrote about the events, and how the Jews were throwing the dead bodies of their slain over the double walls to try to stop the Roman forces. Horrifying shrieks from the women and children and groans from the wounded pierced the air. The entire strip of ground that encircled the battlefield adjacent to the ramparts was soaked with blood. The battle raged throughout the night with the Ram continuing to breach the walls. By dawn, the Hebrews inside had tried to fill the breach with the bodies of the fallen hoping to block the route. But the Romans scaled the gangways and entered the town. The legions were using catapults and other seige engines proving too much for the Jews. During the fray, one valiant Jew, Elezar ben Samias, mustered all his strength to hurl a huge stone down fro the ramparts, breaking off the head of the Ram. Then he leapt down, seized the head, and ran with it, back up the mountain, towards the wall of Jodpata. Wearing no armor to protect his body from the Roman spears and arrows, he was pierced at least five times. Pumped with adrenaline, still clutching the Ram’s head, he scaled the wall, taunting the Romans before he finally collapsed. Two other brave Jews, the brothers, Phillip and Neiras from neighboring Rama, charged down the hill, breaking the ranks of the Tenth Legion.

Still, the well-fortified town held out for another 47 days. There was plenty of food stored up, and even though the cisterns were running low, the Romans did not know that. In a move that would later be repeated during the siege of Masada, south of Jerusalem, General Yosef ben Mattityahu ordered the people to soak their garments in water from the cistern and throw them over the walls. If they had water to spare, then the Romans would think they were well fortified. However, Vespasian ordered a final, all-out attack against the Galileans.

In the long run, it was a noble, yet losing battle. The Romans were furious that the routing of these Jews took so long, so they showed no mercy once they entered the town. 1,200 prisoners were sent, in cages, to Rome to face the lions in the arena. Over 40,000 had been massacred. A mass grave was found. Over 40,000 men. women and children were slaughtered. Yosef remained alive, but was found hiding in a cave. After turning himself over to Vespasian, he became the general’s personal slave. Proving himself quite useful – he was literate in at least four languages, well-educated, and agreed to serve as mediator between the Jews and the Romans. Yosef prophesied to his new master that Vespasian would soon become Emperor of Rome after Nero. When, this actually happened in 69 CE, Vespasian granted ben Mattityhu his freedom. He changed his name to Flavius Josephus, taking on the family name of the new dynasty of Emperors. Josephus remained loyal to the Romans, in effect, defecting, serving as advisor and friend to Vespasian’s son, Titus, who would be the emperor after Vespasian.

It was under Titus, that the city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews of Israel were forced into Diaspora in the year 70.  The Arch of Titus in Rome commemorates the Roman victory, showing the legions carrying the menorah and spoils of war back to Rome. Josephus was there to record all of the history. In Israel today, the name Josephus is met with great disdain, for he was a traitor. Synonymous with the name Benedict Arnold in the United States, he is considered by many a treasonous wretch, a coward who hid in a cave and gave himself up rather than fall by the sword. For me, he will forever be a primary source of history. His first-account retelling of battles; his descriptions of the Second Temple in the book Antiquities; his exciting details bought history to life for our little schoolroom and for me today in the Galilee.


                             (the cave where Josephus hid from the Romans)

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