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The Josephus Problem

from As You Were Saying (American Writers Respond to Their French Contemporaries) just published by Dalkey Archive

The battle had drawn to a close. For the defenders, the battle was lost. The battle had been won by the assailants. After fifty-three days of siege, the fortress Jotapata, which had been built by Joshua in Galilee to the north of Sepphoris, had fallen at the hands of the Romans because of a deserter’s betrayal. Thirty-five thousand perished. More than eleven thousand—men, women, children—would be sold as slaves. In the subterranean room where the last survivors—among them, the leader of the insurrection, Eleazar ben Simon of Saab—had taken refuge before the legions’ final assault, Vespasian’s soldiers found the corpses of forty blindfolded men on the ground. They had all died in the same way: from a sword’s blow to the back of the head, at the root of the neck. Forty dead. Forty dead and one survivor. Who declared his name to be Josephus. ¹ In his left hand he held his sword, drenched in blood.

“Who are you?” asked Vespasian when the prisoner was brought before him in chains. “How is it that you are still alive, when all your comrades are dead?” Wounded during the fighting, the commander of the Roman armies was lying on a litter, his son Titus standing at his side. “Father,” said Titus, “what do we care about this rebel’s tales? Send him to Nero!” Vespasian silenced his son and repeated the question.

And Josephus responded: “We had decided not to let ourselves be captured alive only to be slaughtered or sold as slaves to Rome. Yet none of us wanted to die a shameful death by our own hand. Some of us wanted to attempt one last attack against the Romans, but nothing guaranteed that we would all be killed in the course of this final battle. The soldiers, with information from the traitor, must have received the order to find and capture us. Time was of the essence. The sound of the slaughter was drawing near. Soon our hideout would be discovered, and it would be too late. Our leader, when he was convinced our fight was lost, thought long and hard about how to reach the goal each and every one of us desired: to die, but not by Roman hands, and not by unforgivable suicide. So he proposed the following:

“Let us arrange ourselves in a circle. Let us then sit, blindfolded, swords in hand, heads bowed, our bare necks exposed. When I give the signal, he whom by fate’s choice is first to act will lift the blindfold that prevented him from seeing, rise, and send his neighbor to his anticipated death. He will then resume his position and await the blow he will receive in his turn. Gradually, with no changing of places, the dead will replace the living one by one. In this way, forty of us will escape both slavery and suicide. The circle’s last survivor, should he not depart this life while fighting, will be the sole sufferer of either of these two disgraces. He will have sacrificed himself for the honor of us all.”

Vespasian and Titus listened attentively to the rebel who stood calm and fearless before them. Josephus paused, and then began anew: “Having spoken, our leader drew a circle on the cave’s floor, set the youngest among us in the first position, then placed himself where he had decided to be, and bid us to position ourselves where we desired. When I saw where he had placed himself, thinking about how our sacrifice would unfold, I understood that he had chosen to be the last survivor. I understood this. I went to sit at his side, took the same posture as my comrades, and placed the blindfold over my eyes, my sword close at hand.”

“And yet you are here, and all the others are dead. How do you explain this?”

“He Who Decides All Things wanted it so,” responded Josephus. “And do you know why? So that I, Josephus, might be able to address you, Vespasian, and your son Titus, in order to make the following prophecy. Listen, then, to what I have to say:


“Rebel,” said Vespasian, “my gods do not acknowledge your God, and I therefore have no faith in your prediction. I know full well why you flatter me by offering me, by offering us this image of a future of shared imperial glory. You want to escape the slavery that awaits you. But just as I consider worthless an oracle made in the name of a divinity whose existence I deny, I likewise do not believe it is some supernatural intervention that has allowed you to be the sole survivor of the bloody ceremony you described. Pray clarify this matter for us.”

“With pleasure,” said Josephus. “I was faced with an apparently unsolvable problem. According to the rule decreed by our leader, my chances of survival were very precisely nil…...........................²”

Josephus explained everything, and his account appeared so ingenious to Vespasian that the Roman leader immediately freed him from his chains, made him his advisor, and brought him back to Rome with him for the Triumph. He thought that there was a chance his own gods would decide to follow the advice of such a clever man, if only to reward his cleverness. And Vespasian did indeed become emperor, succeeding Vitellius, and his son Titus too became ruler of the Empire in his turn . . .

¹ Or “Josippus,” if one goes by the Slavonic version of Josephus’s chronicle. The Latin account of the events, called the Josephus Latinus, is wrongly attributed to Hegesippus, an author from the second century AD. It was no doubt penned by Ambrosius, Bishop of Milan in the fourth century. “Hegesippus” is in all probability a corruption of “Josephus.”

² A lacuna in the text of the Chronicle has caused Josephus’s explanation to disappear, but the reader can easily reconstruct the method he used to survive.

Translated by the students of Fr185A, Literary Translation (Fall 2006), Yale University, in alphabetical order: Lulu Cheng, Heather Freeman, Yonah Freemark, William Griffin, Emily Gruen, Carmen Lee, Suchitra Paul, Tiffany Pham, Daniel Schlosberg, Kathryn Takabvirwa, Jake Velker, Meredith Williams, and Mei-Lun Xue, with their professor, Alyson Waters


Jacques Roubaud

Jacques Roubaud was born in 1932 in Caluire-et-Cuire, France. He has been a professor of mathematics at the University of Paris X and is one of the most accomplished members of the Oulipo (the Workshop for Potential Literature). He is the author of numerous books of prose, theater, and poetry, including Some Thing Black; The Form of a City Changes Faster, Alas, Than the Human Heart; The Great Fire of London, and Hortense in Exile. Jacques Roubaud will be reading along with many of his fellow Oulipans on April 1st at the New School and on April 3rd at the Pierogi Gallery.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2007

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