Who was the real Mark the Evangelist?

Who was the real Mark the Evangelist?

(My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part three of five.  In parts one and two, I offered critical evaluations of two famous chroniclers: Josephus of the 1st century, or Jesus Century as it was called then, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century.  Those profiles follow this critical evaluation of Mark on these pages.  Part four will examine a Holocaust survivor of a different kind.  His name was Moshe Lazar and the brushstrokes used in his portraiture would tend toward shades of kindness, generosity, naiveté, optimism.  Contrast those brushstrokes to the typical traits of the survivor: tightly wound, controlling, cunning, distrusting, with moods of paranoia.  How did a man who survived the absolute negative of the camps become an optimist?  Look for “Who was the real Moshe Lazar?” coming later in July.)

Nearly two thousand years since the Book of Mark went out into the world and scholars remain thoroughly confused.  Who was this Mark?  Why did he put forth his Gospel?  When did this Gospel find its first printing?  Was it the first in line, an original so to speak, predating Matt and Luke and John?  Or, did it fall sometime after Matt, as order in the New Testament suggests?  To add to these questions, scholars believe that one significant book went missing.  Known as the Q or Quelle, German for source, it was a book of sayings and deeds.  When the book was written remains a mystery.  Assuming the book was written during the time of the Synoptics, the scholars’ question became: Did the Quelle help to explain the contradictions found in the Synoptics, and the sea change between the Synoptics and the Book of Revelation?  And speaking of Revelation, why did the Jesus movement of that time need an expansion on their story, an outsized, furiously dramatic, heart-pounding, drums booming, lightning strike of a story that transformed the Synoptic narrative from man into God to God into man?  Maybe John, the supposed writer of the work and apostle allegedly imprisoned on an island, was fighting off sea creatures left and right as he wrote?

     Unfortunately, I have no records to share on Revelation.  The historical record remains thoroughly perplexed.  But something of remarkable consequence got uncovered during my travels and travails.  For the full story, please do see my book, Satan’s Synagogue, but let me say here: a truer perception of Mark the Evangelist can now be pieced together.  What follows is a profile.  Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture.  Here are ten brushstrokes:

1) Let’s start with some literary history.  As I uncovered in a crypt in Nazareth, there was a book written during the time of the Synoptics.  This book was not a Gospel.  It was not written in the traditions of hagiography and foreshadowing and allegory.  It did not use biblical figures, like Isaiah, as a latent prefiguration for the Passion story.  Rather, this book was a history, in the Greco-Roman tradition, introducing factual and credible information on its subject.  This book, in the Jewish tradition, was a responsum.  What was it responding to?

     The title gave it away, Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus.  This responsum then firmly established the Book of Mark as the first Gospel.  Against Mark struck out against the Book of Mark.  The Books of Matthew, Luke and John were then necessary to re-establish the Jesus narrative.  As was the suppression of Against Mark.

     Two questions quickly emerge.  What specifically was in the book and who was its author?  Let’s leave the first part of that question for the moment and attempt to answer the second part.  Modern day readers of the Jesus Century will know the name Flavius Josephus (for my portraiture on the man, see https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/05/30/who-was-the-real-josephus/.)  There were many pages in his passport: an educated Jew, a soldier fighting against the Roman lava flow, a general of a Jewish army, a prisoner of war, a prophet, a translator, a historian, a favorite of Emperors, a citizen of Rome.  The latter was unheard of in those days.  Jews did not become Roman citizens.  Josephus apparently gained his citizenship due to his close relationship with the Emperors Vespasian and Titus.  According to Josephus, he switched his given name to Flavius to fall in line with the Flavian Dynasty.

     This profile of a man has come down to us because of Josephus.  He is the only source we have.  He is not a reliable source (again, see my profile, or my book).  For Christians, though, throughout the centuries, Josephus was a very important author.  In fact, there was a time when his name held quasi-scriptural authority.  In around the year 94, Josephus published a 20-volume history entitled Antiquitates Judaicae, or a history of the Jewish people.  Antiquities surveyed the large swathe of time, from Jewish origin up to the Jewish rebellion against Rome at the end of the 60s in the Jesus Century.  But a reference in Antiquities made the book particularly relevant to Christians.  For Josephus, apparently, profiled Jesus.  That profile came as a two-part sketch.  The most explosive sketch work came in the first entry, or in volume 18.  Aside from calling Jesus a “wise man” and “a teacher” who “performed surprising deeds,” aside from telling a part of the Passion story (condemned to the cross, appearing to his followers on the third day), Josephus called Jesus the “Messiah.”

     Later scholars pounced on the term, suggesting that a Jew of his time would not have used the reference.  Such a term, for a Jew, would have been blasphemy.  The term then suggested that a Christian came along and interpolated the profile onto Josephus’s pages.  Thus, the Testimonium Flavianum, as scholars called Josephus’s profile of Jesus, seemed flawed.

     The scholars were wrong.  Josephus did, in fact, use the term.  There was no interpolation.  He had two reasons for his word choice.  The first revolved around identification.  Let’s step away from the emotion of the rhetoric.  What seems clear is that Josephus had many men named Jesus in his sightline.  That is to say, Jesus was a very popular name in the Roman Empire period and Josephus needed some way to differentiate between this Jesus and that Jesus.  Rather than identifying Jesus with his birthplace, as the Gospel writers did, Josephus chose what turned out to be inflammatory words.  Josephus did not choose Jesus’s birthplace as identification because Josephus knew the Nazarene characterization to be inaccurate, but that’s a story for another time.  His word choice was not inflammatory to himself, which brings us to the second reason for Josephus’s use of the term.

     Josephus lived a complicated life.  He was a Jew and enforced that identity until the day he died.  But, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue, there was pressure exerted on him to become a “Jew for Jesus,” a common term then apparently, an abomination now.  He therefore used the term “Messiah” to quell the pressure.  He had little choice.  He had to satisfy a secret patron in Rome.  Either call Jesus the Messiah or face condemnation on the cross.  Either promote the narrative or find yourself asphyxiated up high on a road to Rome.

     It turns out that Josephus’s patron secretly followed the early Church movement.  Who was Josephus’s patron?  His name was Gaev and he was a Roman senator who considered the apostle Paul “a teacher.”  He quietly promoted Paul as the mouthpiece of the burgeoning Christian movement.  This was at a time when there were many preachers vying for control of the Jesus movement, as is evidenced by Paul’s letters.  This was also a time when the Roman authority wouldn’t permit life to the Jesus movement, as Jesus was considered a seditionist.  So, this senator’s promotion of Paul took on the quietest form possible.  His approach was the antithesis to that in the Book of Revelation.

     This history, as surprising as it may seem, seems conclusive.  It is a secret history never before told.  For more on Gaev, please do see my portraiture on Josephus on this blog, or my book Satan’s Synagogue.  My next book, it should be noted, will form around Gaev’s incredible life story.

2) But there’s more to this particular story.  Apparently unknown to Gaev, Josephus published a history.  He did so without attaching his name to it, but Josephus was the author behind Against Mark.

     The title, it should be noted, fell in line with Josephus’s polemical career.  His final book was called Against Apion.  Apion was the most famous historian of the Jesus Century.  He wouldn’t have written on a provincial like Jesus.  Rather, his works centered on important figures like Homer.  But Apion was intensely anti-Jewish, and in a famous work, he excoriated the Jews, rendering Moses as a leper.  Calling Moses a leper not only stained the first generation of Jews but all who followed from those bloodlines.  Unfortunately, Apion’s manuscript has not come down to us.  We only know of Apion’s work through Josephus. 

     The title, Against Apion, promoted the book’s agenda.  Against Apion was a defense of a people, as Josephus took on a whole kettle of commentators who screamed and whistled anti-Jewish invective.  Against Apion was a roundhouse right of a responsum.  Notably, content in Against Apion appeared, in fragmented form, in Against Mark.  Josephus was playing with some ideas.

     But let’s get back to our story.  Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus was introduced to the world as the year 70 began.  Sequential order is important here.  Mark’s Gospel was published in the late 60s.  Josephus fell under Roman rule in 67, after he surrendered his army in Galilee, according to his narrative.  He soon became a favorite of Vespasian, then the general of the Roman army tasked with putting down the Jewish rebellion.  Vespasian made Josephus his translator.  While Josephus acted as translator in the Roman-Jewish war, he wrote his first book.  Against Mark turned Mark’s Gospel on its head.  Later Christians had no choice; if they wanted to perpetuate the legend of Jesus, they had to eviscerate its existence.

     But the book did not die.  We now turn our attention to the destruction of the Temple.  There was a beadle with a saving acumen.  As the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire began in the year 66, and leading up to the destruction of the Temple in August of 70, this beadle removed books from the Temple library.  The Temple was the leading repository for Jewish scholarship and an original edition of Against Mark had made its way into the library’s holdings.  Josephus, who was on scene as translator, perhaps donated the edition himself.

     The beadle, as he did with other books in the library, squired them away in his robe and buried them in the coffins of Jews.  The Jewish cemetery existed just beyond the Temple compound, outside city walls, as burial within Jerusalem would have been a heresy in Jewish traditions.  The Jewish cemetery edged up to the City of David, or the first incarnation of the city we call Jerusalem.  The Jewish cemetery, then and now, existed on the Mount of Olives.  To Romans, who most certainly knew of the beadle’s movements, it looked like the deceased wanted to be buried with their favorite books.  In actuality, it was a brilliant scheme devised by the beadle to maintain the lifeblood of a people.  But the beadle took his scheme further.  In the case of Against Mark, he let Josephus know of his exploits.  He revealed the particular coffin holding the book, and the coordinates of that coffin in the Jewish cemetery.

     Josephus became a prisoner of Rome.  Though a citizen, he could not leave its boundaries.  He then passed on the pertinent information of the book’s whereabouts to a relative.  That information got passed on.  There is a wonderful chemistry term called an autocatalytic phenomenon, or an increasing on itself.  An autocatalytic phenomenon occurred and one relative would tell the next.  These relatives became known as Josephus Direct Descendants, or JDDs.  A direct line from Josephus to today knew of the book’s whereabouts.  I have done extensive research to uncover the JDD line, though that may be a story for another book project.  But I will say, notably among the JDDs, one famous and important figure stands out.  He was the emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the mid-18th century all the way into the years of the First World War.  His name was Franz Joseph and he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1869.  Unknown to the historical record, Joseph attempted to find Josephus’s book.  He failed, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue.  This is a rather incredible discovery, for many reasons.  But one reason shines like the halo later painters gave Jesus.  Franz Joseph, the great Catholic, descended directly from Josephus, who descended from Jewish high priests.  The Jewish royalty in Franz Joseph’s bloodlines dated back many millennia.

     This JDD history got passed to me.  I received a particular piece of mail from a relative.  As he wishes to remain anonymous, I will simply refer to him as the latest JDD.  In his letter, he asked to talk to me in person.  We met.  I suppose this relative is not the latest JDD.  I am.

     I did something no other JDD had done, with the exception of Franz Joseph.  I went to Jerusalem, to the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.  I found the burial spot.  I didn’t find the book there.  But as luck would have it, I chanced upon a clue that pointed toward another old city and another burial ground.  This one was Christian.  Meaning: this burial ground would be in the bottom layers of a church.  I found the book.

3) With the authorship of Against Mark firmly established, let’s now turn to our second question.  What specifically was in the book?  And even more importantly, what can be learned about Mark in Against Mark?

     Actually, let’s take one more detour.  To get at those questions, let’s first try to understand Against Mark’s target, the Book of Mark.  Let’s go back to some deeply steeped Jewish traditions.  Let’s identify a force known as a dybbuk.  The concept of evil spirits dates back to antiquity.  Dybbuk MiRuah Ra means a cleaving of the evil spirit.  Dybbukim were disembodied souls who couldn’t find a resting place after death.  They attached to the bodies of living persons.  A possessed person then had souls at war with one another.

     As dybbukim gained a foothold in Jewish tradition, a counterforce arose.  In Jesus’s time, they would have been known as maggidim, or itinerant orators.  They traveled the countryside, preaching and performing exorcisms among their activities.  In Jesus’s time, maggidim were so plentiful, they might have formed a profession all to themselves.  To doubt them and their “babble,” as the Romans referred to the maggidim in Latin, was normal operating procedure.  In the early 17th century, bastardized Latin, in the forms of Italian and French, rendered a new term for the maggidim: charlatanry.

     At about that time, the maggidim morphed into the baalei shem, or masters of the name.  These charismatic preachers traveled the shtetlekh of Eastern Europe, and sometimes far wider.

     At the end of the 17th century a remarkable baal shem was born, though his powers were hidden for decades.  His name was Israel Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht.  The Gospel of the Besht recorded multiple exorcisms, including the expulsion of a dybbuk from a madwoman.  The Gospel of the Besht has tentacles reaching directly back to the Gospels of the New Testament.  But that’s a story for another time.

     To understand the Book of Mark is to focus in on dybbukim, maggidim, and in particular one baal shem.  His name, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth.  In Mark’s worldview, the lands known as the Galilee, Phoenicia, and the Decapolis housed the sick and the decrepit.  Jesus as baal shem then went about exorcising possessed persons everywhere.  But the dybbukim and their possession of individuals were only the starting point for what truly ailed the nation.  As Mark rendered, all rulers, from local landowners to regional Pharisees to Temple Pharisees and the Sanhedrin to the vassal king for the Roman Empire, Herod Antipas, to the Romans themselves, suffered from serious affliction.  Power warped their minds.  They acted with deleterious effect.  In Mark’s rendering then, Jesus then moved from Jesus as baal shem to Jesus as seditionist.  His actions forced the hand of the ruling parties.  The seditionist had to die.

     This synopsis brings us to the “Place of a Skull,” known as Golgotha.  In Mark’s rendering, all of Jesus’s suffering on the crucifix formed in the Aramaic words, “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’”  Or, as Mark immediately translated, “‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’”

     From there, death came for Jesus, with witnesses to document the drama.  The witnesses were women.  Mark will use this device at the tail end of his narrative, as the women visit Jesus’s entombment and note, with amazement and fear, the empty crypt.

     This is the narrative in condensed form.  It went out into the world in the late 60s of the Jesus Century.  It caught the attention of our man, Josephus.  At that time, he was a prisoner of Rome, held by Vespasian’s forces in the Galilee.  As the historical record shows, he immediately embarked upon a criticism.  Did he feel personally bruised by Mark’s narrative?  I believe so.  Against Mark has a raw quality, as if the writer took the work as an affront to his sense of right and wrong.  Against Mark is a correction.

     Who read Against Mark and how was it received?  There are no records to answer those questions.  If Against Mark established Josephus as a historian of note, there would have been some tremendous irony.  The readership for The Book of Mark would have grown.  Maybe The Book of Mark, and the subsequent Gospels, became famous because of Against Mark as correction.

     Some two thousand years later, Against Mark should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the Gospels, or church history, or Ancient Rome, or Judaism in the Second Temple period.  I’m not sure there’s been a more influential writer in the history of the western world than Josephus.  He just never gained the recognition.  Maybe that will start to change now.

4) Let’s now turn to our questions: What specifically was in Josephus’s book?  And, more importantly for this study, what by extension can be learned about Mark?  Let’s be blunt: Josephus rendered a very different Jesus to Mark’s version.  To read Josephus’s full text, please do see my book, Satan’s Synagogue, but let me here give a few noteworthy details.

     Mark opened his narrative with the prophet Isaiah as a herald, with John the Baptist and his illuminating words, “I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Mark’s very next words then introduced Jesus the Nazarene.  The introduction bothered Josephus.  He criticized in his book, “We learn nothing else of Jesus’s early history in Mark.  We learn nothing of his genealogy, nothing of his origins, nothing of his birth.  We learn very little of his family.  It is a rather curious omission, considering what Jesus will become.”

     Notably, something similar might be said of Mark.  What really do we know of the man?  According to Church traditions, he was born in Cyrene, an important town within the Egyptian Pentapolis in modern day Libya.  The Pentapolis was really a Decapolis, but that’s a story for another day.  Further, according to Church traditions, Mark became a traveling companion of Peter somewhere around Antioch, during Peter’s missionary run to Rome.  Peter died in Rome on the orders of Nero.  He was crucified, traditions purport, as the Great Fire consumed Rome.

     If so, the year would have been 64.  By then, Mark would have turned to the Church movement, fled from Rome, and returned to Egypt, putting down stakes in Alexandria.  There, he founded a church.  According to Church traditions, he then began the writing of his Gospel, using his notes taken during his journey with Peter.  It seems that Mark wrote down Peter’s sermons in those churches from Antioch and up into Galatia and Bithynia and over to Corinth and onto Rome.  The Gospel of Mark went out into the world sometime during the years 66-70.

     Let me just say outright.  That entire narrative is wrong.  Except for the birthplace and the publishing of the Gospel.  As I noted in Satan’s Synagogue, there was an epilogue to Against Mark.  A series of letters between Peter and Mark offered essential detail.  Those letters, with Peter in Jerusalem and Mark in Alexandria, established Peter as an authoritative witness and, as Peter granted full access to Mark, established Mark as expert.  Those letters also noted the deteriorating health of Mark and Peter’s hope that Mark would join the one they call the Christ in heaven.  The last letter permitted rare access into Mark.  He called his finished work his “last will and testament” and expressed his final wishes: to die a quiet death and for his testimonium to gain notoriety.  Those wishes have been fulfilled.  Mark died in his bed, not, as Church traditions purport, with a rope around his neck and dragged through the streets.  That’s just plain legend building, martyrdom silliness.

     The last letter between Peter and Mark dated to the year 68.  The year, of course, sets off alarm bells.  If accurate, Peter did not die in Rome during the Great Fire of 64.  He returned to Jerusalem.  He outlived his friend and protégé Mark.

     If all of this is considered some serious heresy to Church traditions, let’s add some more.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I claimed that those letters had gone missing.  They hadn’t.  When I found Josephus’s lost manuscript, I found the full manuscript, epilogue included.  Truth is, I kept the letters for myself.  I plan to use those letters to build the true personages of both Mark and Peter in my next book.  Then, and only then, I will restore the letters to their rightful place as the epilogue to Against Mark.  Selfish, you might say of my plan.  I agree.  Welcome to the world of scholarship.

     Mark and Peter, it should be noted, did not meet in Antioch or any other town in Anatolia.  Their intersection is clear, at least according to their letters.  They met in Jerusalem, in the year 50, during, arguably, the most important conference in the entire history of Christianity.  In a quiet room at a local inn not far from the Temple, Peter of Bethsaida and James the Just welcomed Paul and his fellow traveler, Barnabas, both of whom had just returned from their missionary romp around the Mediterranean.  Mark attended on the invitation of his “cousin” Barnabas.  Cousin here is used in the Latino definition, centuries before that definition came to identify anyone in the neighborhood.  Apparently Egypt and Cyprus, Barnabas’s birthplace, were neighbors.  Mark was a scribe, and a scribe was needed to document the conference.  A bond was formed between Peter and Mark and when the Church elders decided to send Peter out on his missionary tour, Mark went along as scribe.

     With their origin now firmly established, let’s get back to our story.  As Mark introduced Jesus as a Nazarene in his Gospel, Josephus set the record straight.  He wrote, “In my days as Governor General of the Galilee, I heard the people talk of this man named Jesus.  Nearly two score had passed since Jesus walked the Galilee and he was still the talk of the nation.  As I understood that talk, he was born in a place called Beth Lehem Zebulun.  To differentiate this Beth Lehem from the polis in Judea, on the road to Jerusalem, the Galileans added the name of one of the twelve tribes.  This Beth Lehem could be glimpsed from the top of Nazareth.  It was hardly a day’s journey from one to the other.  But as Beth Lehem Zebulun was a place of obscurity, Mark gave Jesus the distinction of a Nazareth birth.  Nazareth, at that time, was the sister city of the famed Zippori, or Sepphoris as the Romans called it.  Nazareth had status.”

     Clearly, those reading The Book of Mark across the Empire would have heard of Nazareth.  They would not have heard of Beth Lehem Zebulun.  This accounts for the change in birthplace, according to Josephus.  But what’s also interesting in Josephus’s rendering was the talk of Jesus.  Forty years later, he remained on the Galileans’ mind.  He therefore left some legacy.  Josephus continued, “I now turn to Jesus as he traveled the Galilee whole and beyond, into the Decapolis, over to Tyre and Sidon, and up to Jerusalem, laying down the gospel and curing a nation of sick with both touch and word.  Along the way, masses formed around his personage and a new movement known as Jews for Jesus was born.”

     The Galilean section of the work centered around the town of Capernaum.  It centered around Jesus-as-balm, Jesus-as-curative.  It centered around the cleansing of unclean characters.  It centered around a doctrine of silence.  According to Josephus, Mark established a “story-telling device” from the very first unclean character.  The demons knew the true identity of Jesus.  Jesus rebuked the demon, “‘Be silent, and come out of him.’”  The demon obeyed.  As Josephus wrote, “Mark recycled this device again and again.” 

     To the brushstrokes established so far – Jesus-as-curative, Jesus as private of his true identity – Josephus infused more color.  He transitioned to Jesus as lawgiver.  In The Book of Mark, we find Jesus at table, seated beside tax collectors, and sinners, and scribes who were Pharisees.  The scribes questioned his choice of guests.  Mark eventually came to the nub, as Jesus answered, “‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.’”  The words and tone must have struck the Pharisees as a rebellion to the old world order.  That seemed to be Mark’s point, as he immediately followed with another.  On a Sabbath, a congregation gathered at the synagogue.  Pharisees comprised the congregants, as did a man with a withered arm.  Jesus cured the man and questioned the Pharisees “hardness of heart” concerning Sabbath tradition.  The Pharisees, Mark told us, responded by plotting to bring about Jesus’s death.  They began to conspire with Herod’s court.

     Josephus rendered the story along the line of a “Moses motif.  Mark made Jesus into a lawgiver.  He positioned Jesus as rebel and iconoclast.  Jesus’s actions provoked the powers that be.  These are the foundational traits of Moses in the Exodus.”

5) A question struck Josephus.  The reference to Herod “infused” some historical accuracy into the account.  Remove the oversized miracles and the story of a rebellion against the old world order emerged, with Galileans massing around the central figure who carried the pseudo secrecy of a Messiah identity.  That identity would have been eye-popping and, indeed, would have caught the attention of both the Pharisees and the tetrarch, Herod.  Josephus wondered why Herod didn’t arrest Jesus early in his mission, or as he wrote, “When Jesus struck the chord of insurrection, shouldn’t that have instigated his immediate downfall?”

     As Josephus let the question linger, let’s push on.  According to Josephus, Mark took a “detour” with his narrative.  He focused on Jesus’s family, both the blood relatives and the external characters known as his disciples.  In this “detour,” as Mark rendered the narrative, Jesus made official the appointments of his disciples.  The appointments included Judas Iscariot, “who betrayed him.”  While we learn biographical details of other disciples along the way – James and John were fishermen, so were Simon and his brother Andrew, Levi collected custom duties – Judas carried the mark of the betrayer from first mention.  According to Josephus, “This set the stage for the climactic scene.  It is a loose literary technique, but Mark, at this point in narration, had other biographies in mind.”

     He moved from the disciples as a family of sorts to the reaction of Jesus’s actual family.  As Mark told us, they tried to “restrain” him, as general reaction to Jesus claimed that he had “gone out of his mind.”  According to Josephus, “Familial restraint came across as a saving technique, as if the family attempted to save Jesus from himself.  Such a rendering spoke of a false prophet.  Perhaps owing to the restraint, Jesus rejected his mother and brothers when they asked to see him.” 

     But there’s more to this brushstroke.  As Josephus noted, Jesus-as-rebel posed a serious threat to his family.  Rome and the tetrarch would have eradicated the family after eradicating the rebel.  Mark framed the family as outside the ministry.  He took the framing further with Jesus’s rejection of his own family.  According to Josephus, “Mark’s passage then served as a protective layer for the family against Roman rule.  Mark, writing nearly two score after these events, suggested that Jesus’s family continued on with their lives after these events occurred.”  That may have been the case.  The historical record goes silent on Jesus’s family and what happened following these events.  With one exception.  “That exception formed around James, also known as the Just,” Josephus wrote.  “He was stoned to death in and around the year 62.  The High Priest, Ananus ben Ananus, used the lack of imperial oversight to convene his Sanhedrin.  The Sanhedrin found James guilty of breaking the laws of Moses.  James offended even the most fair-minded observers.  In Jerusalem, we knew him for his eccentric behavior.  He was mad and considered ‘out of his mind.’  As per Sanhedrin doctrine, he was stoned to death.  Jerusalem did not object.”

     To this rendering of James the Just, let’s be clear.  There has been much scholarship on the question of whether this James was the biological brother of Jesus.  The New Testament seems rather clear.  He was.  Later Church fathers, however, needed to foster the perpetual virginity of Mary and so Jesus’s siblings had to be removed a step or two from his biological line.  They became half-siblings, or cousins.  In Mark’s rendition of events, there wasn’t a question.  Mark did not recognize a human father of Jesus.  Joseph never entered the picture.  Matthew and Luke recognized the hole in the story and introduced Joseph as the husband of Mary.  Much confusion then reigned when considering Mary’s perpetual virginity.  Josephus expressed no confusion, however, in his portrayal of James the Just.  The Jewish world knew him as the biological brother.  They considered him mad.  Later Church fathers would spin this James as beloved by his followers.  Both could be true, of course.  As for the history, Josephus’s writing formed the only known reaction to James’s death.  And, Josephus only recorded the reaction of the Jewish population.  In Antiquities, Josephus returned to the subject.  His colorization of James went out into the world.  It would be interesting to note the other side.  How did early Christians react to his death?  Was he viewed as a madman or a martyr?  Did the martyr framing come later, as builders of the faith needed to further perpetuate Christian martyrdom?

6) Let me now skip over some sections of Mark, and Josephus’s reaction.  To be clear, there is great redundancy in Mark.  The whole “Parable” and “Miracles” section should be cut.  Josephus recognized this.  He wrote to his readership, “I won’t bore you with a recount.”

     Mark then changed the setting to the Decapolis.  He introduced a man named Legion.  He gave Legion distinct characteristics: wild, incredibly strong, uncontrollable.  Even chains, Mark wrote, were useless on him.  When Legion saw Jesus, he rushed to him for help.  Jesus demanded that the unclean spirit come out of the man.  Jesus then spoke to the spirit, who implored Jesus not to send him and the many other unclean spirits out of the district.  Taking a look around, the spirit suggested that Jesus send the spirits into the pigs feeding nearby.  Jesus did as asked.  The herd of pigs then rushed into the lake, where they drowned.  Quickly the news spread and the townsfolk came out to see the scene.  There sat the man, now in health, with Jesus.  The townsfolk reacted in fear and begged Jesus to leave.  The man reacted by asking to go with Jesus.  Jesus opposed the man’s request.  Instead, he gave the man instructions: “‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’”  The man then spread the news throughout the Decapolis.  Mark shifted to reaction, as the residents were “amazed” by the man’s story.  While Mark turned to the next story in his catalog, Josephus examined.  He found it noteworthy that the unclean spirit was given a Roman name.  “Nowhere else in Mark’s account do we come across a spirit with a Roman reference,” he wrote.  Mark gave the spirit incredible strength, suggesting the power of Rome.  Mark then moved to Jesus-as-curative.  “The purification suggested the warrior Messiah ridding the Jewish body of the Roman parasite,” Josephus interpreted.  “Mark had the entire spirit population die in the bodies of pigs.  The pig is a stupid animal.  In Mark’s story, they rushed to their death.  The story then read as an anti-Rome allegory.  Jesus cured the Roman of his Jewish hatred.  He then banished that hatred to the population of pigs.  He then drove that population to their death.  Such is our nation’s reaction to the yoke of Roman rule.  This passage reflects supremely on our current climate, as well as the situation nearly two score ago.”

     This last line is extremely important in evaluating Josephus’s criticism.  Both Josephus and Mark wrote their works in the age of rebellion.  These were incredibly bloody times.  When the Romans conquered the Galilee and Judea, they eradicated towns.  They butchered all citizens.  They left the most important on crucifixes.  They burned everything to the ground.  This is the imagery that Josephus, and Mark, had in mind.  Who then was The Book of Mark written for?  Was the narrative used to show that, indeed, the overthrow of Rome was soon to commence, led by the miraculous General-Governor-Lord known as Jesus Christ?  Was it, in a way, a patriotic call to arms? 

     Maybe Josephus interpreted it as such.  Maybe that’s why his criticism comes off as deeply personal.  He didn’t believe in Jesus as savior.  He didn’t rush into the open arms of Jesus’s new beginnings.  He witnessed the brutality of the Roman landscape.  He could never escape that landscape.

7) Mark next turned to the troubles of a synagogue president named Jairus.  He approached Jesus with desperate news of his daughter’s terminal illness.  He begged Jesus to save her life.  Jesus consented and the two began the walk to Jairus’s house.  Along the way, a woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years approached.  She touched Jesus’s cloak and was cured.  Jesus felt the “power had gone forth from him” and turned to confront the transgressor.  In the crush of humanity, however, he couldn’t identify the person.  The woman, in fear, came forward.  Yet, Jesus did not reprimand her.  Rather, he rewarded her, claiming that her faith had healed her.  At that time, a messenger arrived from Jairus’s house with the news that the daughter had died.  Jesus responded directly to Jairus, “‘Do not fear, only believe.’”

     That line struck Josephus.  He wrote, “From Torah to Tanakh and the Haftorah, there are references ad nauseam to the words, ‘Be not afraid.’  Beginning in Genesis and flowing through Exodus and Numbers and Deuteronomy, appearing in Joshua and Samuel and Kings and Chronicles, moving to Job and Jeremiah and Daniel and, importantly for this work, Isaiah, ‘Be not afraid’ forms the most common phrase in the large and wide literature.  By speaking them here, Jesus established himself as the representative of the ancients.”

     The party pressed on to Jairus’s house.  There, Jesus claimed that the girl was only asleep.  Those present laughed at Jesus’s words.  With only the girl’s parents present, as well as a few of the disciples, Jesus told the girl to rise.  Mark left those words in Aramaic while the rest of the text is in Greek.  Mark immediately included a translation of the Aramaic.  The girl rose.  Mark emphasized her age of twelve years.  That number conjoined with earlier references (the woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, the twelve disciples) to symbolize God’s power and authority.  While those present reacted with amazement, Mark told us, Jesus demanded secrecy.  And so the same themes continued: Jesus-as-curative, a pervasive sense of amazement from those present, Jesus calling for secrecy.  Further, Mark gave Jesus the power of life and death.  Jesus could now raise the dead.  If anyone questioned such a rising, Mark added witnesses.  All of this struck Josephus as “a literary tool.”  Mark needed others present to corroborate the details of the story.  Otherwise, the story “came across as more of an entertainment than a truth,” Josephus commented.

     This last line, in my opinion, comes across as a tell to Josephus’s own writing career.  In the events he alone portrayed at Masada, and in his testimony of his battle against the Romans at Jotapata, Josephus added witnesses.  They survived these events and went on to tell the stories.  If Josephus didn’t add witness account to his tales, would his narratives appear as “more of an entertainment than a truth”?

8) To read Josephus’s full portrayal of the events at Masada, or Jotapata, please do see my book, Satan’s Synagogue.  Or, for an abbreviated version, see my profile on Josephus on these pages, https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/05/30/who-was-the-real-josephus/.  But, let’s take a jump in story.  According to Josephus, Mark did “something curious with his story.  He took a break.”  He had Jesus command his disciples to go out into the Galilee and to continue their curative work.  He then used that “dispersion” to return to an earlier story.  What began on the first page of Mark’s narrative ended here, with the death of John the Baptist.  Mark told his tale by noting Herod’s reaction to Jesus.  As whispers of Jesus’s power reached Herod, Herod focused on a past beheading.  While others in Herod’s court gave Jesus a prophetic profile, Herod announced, “‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’” 

     Josephus saw that announcement as “curious.  In turning to the story of John’s beheading, Mark missed what might have been the true story of this character named Jesus.  In my time in the Galilee, I heard the story of Jesus’s death often enough.  Herod’s murder of John and the subsequent rise of Jesus struck fear in the tetrarch.  He then repeated his actions: arresting Jesus as he did John, sending Jesus to Machaerus, ordering the beheading.  Mark took his story in a different direction.  That story comes across as an entertainment.”

     As Mark wrote, Herod took the wife of his brother.  Her name was Herodias.  John the Baptist took umbrage with this union, as Herod’s brother was alive, and he made his feelings known to Herod.  This turned Herodias against John.  She held “a grudge” against John, “and wanted to kill him.”  She could not.  Herod “feared” John, believing John to be “a righteous and holy man.”  Herod therefore “protected” John. 

     An opportunity for Herodias, however, eventually arose.  During the festival of Herod’s birthday, Herod’s daughter performed a dance that delighted the tetrarch.  In a mood of elation, Herod promised to give the girl a wish, anything she liked, up to half his kingdom.  The girl consulted with Herodias.  The request of John’s head, according to Mark, caused great distress for Herod.  But he fulfilled his oath.  A soldier beheaded John, then presented the head on a platter at the banquet.  Mark ended this part of the story with his attention on John’s disciples, who took the body away and laid it in a tomb.  Mark ended his story of Jesus with similar colors.

     Josephus hated all of it.  He wrote, “As I am determined to respect the truth of history, permit me to point out the neglect in Mark’s story.  Mark missed the reaction of Herod’s wife before Herodias.  Her name was Phasaelis and she was the daughter of King Aeneas, known as Aretas, who presided over the neighboring Nabataean Kingdom.  Herod did, indeed, fall in love with Herodias and he planned to marry her.  First, though, he needed to divorce Phasaelis.  Phasaelis caught wind of Herod’s plan and she managed to escape and make her way back to her father’s kingdom.  King Aretas reacted to the news with enmity.  A further quarrel between Aretas and Herod over boundary issues set the stage for war.  Aretas routed Herod’s forces.  During the siege, Herod had all of his prisoners in Machaerus killed.  Given his weakened state, he feared a revolt amongst his prison population.  John died in that general murder spree, a victim of a wider war.  To contest Aretas, Herod had no choice but to call for help from Rome.  Tiberius, who wanted peace in the region, took his umbrage out on Aretas.  He called for the governor in Syria, Lucius Vitellius, to bring Aretas to Rome, either alive in chains or dead with his head on a stick.  Vitellius mustered his legions and moved against the Nabataeans.  However, Tiberius died during the Passover in that eponymous place and Caligula recalled the mission.  By then, though, the Nabataeans had moved back to their lands across the Jordan.  Mark missed this entire truth of history with his story.  His neglect is glaring.  To call such a story an entertainment is a miscalculation on my part.  With such a story, he enters the underworld, a place of darkness and deception, a place built by artifice, a place that can best be described as Satan’s Synagogue.”

     Wow.  That was my reaction when I first read this passage in Against Mark.  This is, simply, some watershed text.  Let’s start with the last words.  I believe this is the first reference to Satan’s Synagogue.  I believe the author of Revelation took from Against Mark.  Notably, the author inverted Josephus’s phrase, going with the Synagogue of Satan.  Or, at least those are the words that have come down to us in Gospel translations.  Perhaps the original echoed Josephus. 

     To that notable, add another.  What is this reference to Emperor Tiberius dying “in that eponymous place”?  According to the historical record, Tiberius died in the great Roman port of Misenum in the province of Naples.  What did Josephus know that the world did not?

     To that notable, add another.  Earlier I wrote of Josephus’s “bruised” feelings.  I noted that Against Mark has a raw quality, as if the writer took The Book of Mark as an affront to his sense of right and wrong.  Here, Josephus seemed to get his feelings hurt.  He then lashed out.  Perhaps Josephus’s attack had to do with John the Baptist.  He was Josephus’s hero, it seems, and Josephus could not stand by as a falsification went out into the world.  Notably, Josephus lost the war of words.  His criticism disappeared from view while the Gospels became the book on which much of western civilization is based.

9) To all of this notable, let’s add another.  Jesus died at the prison of Machaerus, beheaded under the orders of Herod.  Josephus came back to that incredible detail.  According to The Book of Mark, Jesus held a conversation with his disciples.  The question on the table concerned identity: who did the people think Jesus was.  He heard various responses: John the Baptist, Elijah or other unnamed prophets.  He asked the disciples for their thoughts.  Mark put important words in Peter’s mouth.  “‘You are the Messiah,’” Peter declared.

     According to Josephus, this declaration acted as “a narrative shift.  In a literary foreshadowing, Jesus replied that the Son of Man must suffer, must be rejected by the ruling hierarchy, must be put to death, and he would then rise three days hence.  With these words, the inexorable march to these events began.  That the climax comes in Jerusalem was necessary, for Jesus had to confront the ruling hierarchy in the Temple.  That Jesus’s words transcended the earthly authority of Rome was necessary too, for this Messiah story moved far beyond the prophetic stories of our ancient past.  Was Jesus the Messiah?  Mark, who took great pains to build a middle passage story for the Messiah in the Galilee section of his work, now moved the narrative to the only place a Messiah could truly be identified.  But, my experience in the Galilee, and most notably during the battle at Jotapata, where all was lost, contradicts Mark’s narrative.  The teaching of Jesus was a story that people still talked about.  But his rebellion was put down.  He died at Machaerus.”

     Let me point out the obvious.  Because people talked about Jesus and his death some thirty-five years later, and because Josephus heard the scuttlebutt, doesn’t mean the history actually played out that way.  Stories tend to get corrupted.  Eyewitness testimony tends to embellish, or omit.  Josephus, though, certainly believed that Jesus died at Machaerus.

10) Did Peter and Mark address such a death in their letters?  They did not.  Did they quietly accept Jesus’s death at Machaerus while loudly, in the form of the Gospel, proclaim the Passion story?  There are no conclusive answers.  But without going into too much detail, as I want to go into depth in my next book, let me say this about the letters: there is an undertone.  There is a sense of building.  The story needed some construction.  Peter and Mark became the chief architects.  They recognized their roles, or as Mark wrote to Peter, “The voice of the Gospel is mine, but you are the sound engineer.”

     As sound engineer, Peter made himself important.  The Romans, in their writing of history, elevated the eyewitness.  They developed a term: thereness.  A history gained greater credibility with eyewitness thereness.  Peter relished his thereness and Mark went along for the ride.  The problem is, there wasn’t a check on Peter’s testimony.  Mark was not a scholar in modern day terms.  He did not seek corroborating sources.  He gave his mentor a gift: free reign.  Peter then grabbed a spotlight and became a kind of co-star.  The thrice denial section of the Gospel speaks to this dynamic.  It feels contrived.  If Mark questioned Peter on his role during the trial of Jesus, there is no evidence in the letters.  What does that say of Mark?

     Here’s what we know.   Mark dictated the Gospel to an unnamed scribe.  Mark was moving ever closer to death and he didn’t have the vigor to actually do the writing.  He spoke the story.  A scribe transferred the narrative to parchment.

     Mark was irritable.  Part of his irritability stemmed from ill health.  Part of his irritability stemmed from life experience.  Part of his irritability stemmed from his general makeup.  Mark was an irascible sort of fellow.

     In his letters to Peter, he complained about most everything: the oppressive heat of Alexandria, the lack of Sea breezes, both the tardiness and the earliness of his scribe, the cost.  The scribe did not come cheap and Mark had no money.  Being a major player in the Church did not lead to a life of luxury.  My, how things have changed.

     Mark might have been senile at this point on his life.  In Against Mark, Josephus railed against Mark’s basic misunderstanding of Galilean geography.  For instance, Mark placed Bethsaida beside the Sea of Galilee.  According to Josephus, Bethsaida resided north of the Galilee, in Gaulanitis.  Bethsaida was a fishing village on the shores of Lake Ram.  Philip the Tetrarch built up a neighboring town to Bethsaida and named it in honor of both Rome and himself, Caesaria Philippi.  Both towns play a role in the first part of Mark’s Gospel.

     Why did Mark move Bethsaida into the Galilee?  Perhaps senility played a role.  Perhaps he had another agenda.   The other disciples all came from the same place, the Galilee, with the exception of Judas.  But then the narrative of Judas is an exception, so that makes narrative sense.  Perhaps Mark simply wanted the origins of the disciples to line up.

     Mark considered himself a “Jew for Jesus.”  He proclaimed it over and over again in his letters.  The term then suggested an evolving sect of Judaism, outside and at odds with the dominant cultures governing the religion.  In Mark’s day, the Christian schism with Judaism had not occurred.  There were no Christians then.  There was, though, a thorough dislike and distrust for the dominant Jewish cultures.  As a Jew for Jesus, Mark railed against the power structure.  This was a part of his irritability.  The authorities in Jerusalem and their tentacles in the Galilee were a bane in Mark’s worldview.  It’s no coincidence then that, in the Gospels, Jesus questions and embarrasses the power structure relentlessly.

     Did Mark develop an inner hatred for the Jewish nation?  Consider his description of Jerusalem in the Gospel.  Decay, corruption, tradition gone asunder: these were the primary markers of Mark’s Jerusalem.  His setting struck a tone of usury, and all debts must be repaid.  The letters between Mark and Peter speak to this characterization.  Both men want Jerusalem “torn down.”  The term didn’t suggest the razing of the city, as the Romans did.  And the city left in rubble for sixty years, as happened between the destruction of the Temple and the Bar Kokhba revolt.  The term suggested “a new beginning… a shining light.”  To Mark and Peter that light hadn’t existed “since the Hashmona’im.”

     It’s a curious reference to the Hasmonean dynasty.  Begun by Judas Maccabeus and furthered by his brother, Simon the Wise, the dynasty threw off the rule of the Seleucid Empire and formed an independent state.  Perhaps that history accounts for Mark’s and Peter’s evaluation of the Hasmonean years.  But, the Hasmoneans were Hellenized and that must have disturbed the Jews for Jesus movement.  The early Church movement wanted, above all else, self-determination.  They wanted, through their conduit Jesus, to touch God.  They saw all of these layers – Romans, Greeks, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Sanhedrin – as “pollutants of the soil,” to quote Peter in a letter.  To them, Jesus was the way of “reduction, and restoration.”

     The Hasmoneans were not.  In addition, their independent state survived about fifty years.  The Romans came, and the Parthians for a few years, and the Hasmoneans settled for self-governance within the wider confines of foreign rule.  The Romans eventually liquidated the Hasmoneans.  Liquidation was the dynamic at the time of the writing of Mark’s Gospels.  Rome was in the process of physically razing Jerusalem.

    But if Peter’s and Mark’s reference to the Hasmoneans comes across as a bit convoluted, their inner hatred for the Jewish nation seems apparent.  To Mark’s description of Jerusalem in his Gospel, let’s consider a second example.  Pilate, as representative of Rome, displayed nothing but forbearance for Jesus.  According to Mark’s Gospel, the Jewish realm pushed Pilate toward capitol punishment.  Mark seemed rather clear in his conviction.  The Jews killed Jesus.  Mark then employed a literary technique.  He had Pilate whip Jesus.  That whipping set up the suffering that would follow.  But the true enemy, as Mark spun his story, formed around the ruling Jewish culture.

     Mark, nor Peter, lived to see the death of that Jewish culture.  But it did die.  The Second Temple period, which began with exiled Jews returning from Babylon, ended essentially with the Bar Kokhba revolt.  A new exile would come into existence, with the Romans booting all Jews out of Judea.

     Bar Kokhba, it should be noted, was ruthless to the Jews for Jesus movement, as those followers refused to fight against the Romans.  Here was the break in history.  The followers of the early Church movement choose to sit out a war against Rome.  They could not support the dominant Jewish culture.  Bar Kokhba punished them for their conviction.  Meanwhile, the emperor of Rome, Hadrian, opened the door of leniency.  And the new movement, known as Christianity, walked right through.  But that’s a story for another day.

     Mark wanted a final letter, to be sent to Peter after his death.  His scribe complied.  According to that death scene, Mark uttered the words Jesus once had at Golgotha, while suffering on the crucifix.  “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’”  Mark uttered them in Aramaic.  His scribe did not translate the words into Hebrew, as Mark did in his Gospel.  His scribe left the words in their original language.

     It would be fascinating to know Peter’s reaction to these words.  Mark’s deathbed cry basically ends their correspondence.  I can interpret… but let me save that for a later book project.

From the Founder of the Faux

Let me say a word or two about this new literary form, the faux history.  Here’s the evolution.  I fell enthralled with the study of history in college.  What enthralled me?  It really wasn’t the story.  In those days, I paid particular attention to British imperialism, and Jewish history, and American migration.  Nor was it the personality of the instructor, and I sat in classrooms led by remarkable minds.  It was the journey to find some truth.  That was the foundation. 

     To build on that foundation, I felt challenged by the historical method.  There was both science and humanities involved.  There was hard data collection and circumstantial evidence and interpretation.  I studied the form.  I rooted through source material.  A question perplexed me.  How were histories written?

     I remember a particular historian called me out.  I had just written a thesis on Jewish Germany, comparing East German Jews to West German Jews since the Holocaust.  This event occurred shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  The narrative then described a lost people, hidden under the weight of death camps.  I found the narrative false.  I found vibrant, learned communities, living in the now.  I called for a new history.  The historian made a suggestion.  “Why don’t you write the history you call for?” he said.

     I have never forgotten his words.  They might be the most influential words ever spoken to me.  I still think of those words during my writing process.  I took his words to graduate school.  I had an idea I wanted to pursue.  I wanted to study the fantasy life of prisoners.  Specifically, I wanted to focus on the death camps in Poland during World War II.  I wanted to understand where the prisoners went in their heads when they fantasized.  The narrative holds that they fantasized about food.  They were starving, and food became the total preoccupation.

     I believed then, and I’m sure of it now, that much got shunted in that narrative.  I think the prisoners, and I’m talking specifically about Jewish prisoners, created a vivid fantasy life.  What might they fantasize about?  Revenge comes to mind.  Stabbing an SS officer, or a kapo, or a fellow prisoner who had just stolen a prized commodity, like a spoon or a toothbrush.  But revenge is only the half of it.  I think prisoners fantasized about privacy, and speaking to separated loved ones, and sex.  I think sex became a preoccupation.

     I couldn’t write this thesis.  It wasn’t possible from an institutional perspective.  The study of the Holocaust, in the 1990s, couldn’t branch out in size and scope and imagination.  A conservative nature kept the study small, with tentacles going nowhere.  To talk about sex-as-fantasy would have been a kind of heresy.  The thinking then: How dare we bother survivors with those types of questions.  How dare we intrude upon their inner space.

     Now, such a study might be possible from an institutional perspective, but the demographics no longer line up.  In the 1990s, there were tens of thousands of camp survivors around as potential source material.  They were in their 70s.  Now, they’re in their 90s.  There aren’t tens of thousands remaining.

     I floundered around the history halls of a prestigious graduate program for a time.  But, in truth, something happened to me there.  History became boring.  History became ego.  The scholars in the program were far different than the scholars of college.  Writing history, and publishing it, turned them into megalomaniacs.  It pained me.  To the question “How were histories written?” I asked a second question.  What did the search for truth have to do with power?

     I dropped out of graduate school.  I needed to move away from the ego of scholarship.  I began to write fiction.  I wanted to turn my thesis idea into a novel.  It went nowhere.  Why?  The story idea might have been fine but the execution was terrible.  I couldn’t write.  I didn’t understand anything about the art form, the flow of story, the usage of words.  I simply got in the way of the story all the time.  Maybe I still do.  I don’t know.

     In my early 30s, I wrote a book called What the Psychic Saw.  That wasn’t the original title.  I wrote the story under a provisional title, The Century of Electricity.  Using the 20th century as setting and character, I followed the evolution of electricity.  What began at an event at the world’s fair on the morning of September 6, 1901 snaked through the killing center of Auschwitz and over to the Manhattan project at Alamogordo.  A significant gerrymandering took place with the Alger Hiss case and that turned the century toward the cold war, and class warfare, and race-related eruptions occurring in places like Watts and South Central, Los Angeles.  The century’s evolution of electricity ended on September 11, 2001 in New York City with the bombing of the World Trade Center.

     The publishing house changed the name of the work.  I don’t know why I went along with the name change.  The publisher was, essentially, self-publishing.  I guess I didn’t see it for what it was.  I fell in line with the name change because I had my sights on the bigger picture.  What the Psychic Saw was my first foray into historical fiction.  But, really, it set the stage of what was to come, the faux history. 

     I wasn’t entirely happy with the form in Psychic.  I still had that perplexing question in mind.  How were histories written?  Writing historical fiction didn’t satisfy that journey to find some truth.  I wanted to maintain the shape of a thoroughly researched history.  I wanted source material, and documented reportage, and eyewitness testimony, and footnotes.  I wanted story to follow from a foundation of fact.

     I began the faux history form in a work entitled, The Complete and ExtraOrdinary History of the October Surprise.  The story began in Tehran 1979.  When a group of Iranian college students stormed the American embassy and took hostages, it set the stage for world politics of the most damaging kind.  The question became: Did the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan negotiate a deal with Khomeini’s Iran to delay the release of the hostages until after the presidential election of 1980, thereby assuring themselves of victory over President Carter?

     There were works that looked into this history.  But to study those works revealed a sad truth: there was so much misinformation and disinformation regarding the October Surprise, as it’s known, that the facts of the case didn’t form a coherent, researchable story.

     For historians rooted to the historical method, this conclusion closes the door on the case.  Without facts, what is history?  I proceeded anyway, though I veered into a different lane.  This is where the faux history gathers speed.  Imagination kicks in.  Fabrication accelerates.  Invention replaces reality.  But unlike earlier forms of historical fabrication – historical fiction or alternative history – the faux history maintains the shape of a thoroughly researched history.  The faux historian fleshes out the players involved, fleshes out the records, fleshes out the truths.  The faux historian presents primary source material, cites experts, annotates, builds conclusions based on facts.  Like a genuine history, the flow of facts dictates the story line.

     Facts, of course, can be easily manipulated.  In French, faux means false.  When are the facts false?  When do facts fictionalize?  These questions lie at the heart of the faux history.

     My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, takes on all of this evolution.  Let’s go back over thirty years to my thesis on Jewish Germany since the Holocaust.  Let’s go back to the historian calling me out with those words, “Why don’t you write the history you call for?”  Let’s go back, too, to my presumed doctoral dissertation on the fantasy life of camp prisoners.  With these foundational moorings echoing in my head, I decided to write a history.  I just did it in a different form.  I wrote a critical biography on the Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.  I challenged his narrative, much as I wanted to challenge the narrative of food as the total form of fantasy.  My research uncovered an Elie Wiesel never before uncovered.  I found an excessively ambitious man with a strong narcissism streak.  I found a man moored to self-achievement and self-promotion.  I found a man who promoted a wide sanctimony.  I found a man who could not relinquish control.

     The drive to control wasn’t unusual in camp survivors.  They had all control ripped away during their imprisonment.  But in Wiesel’s case, control issues flooded his psyche.  There were control issues in his transmitting of the Holocaust.  There were control issues in how he framed the survivors.  There were control issues in his writing career, and his advocacy work.  There were control issues in Wiesel the museum builder, and Wiesel the world politics player. 

     My biography on Wiesel did not get published.  One major publisher seemed close to taking it on, but turned away.  The editor told me it would be “fraught for a publisher.”  What he meant specifically, I cannot say.  But as Wiesel had positioned himself as the emissary for the “traumatized generation,” as he so artfully named the survivors, as he had positioned himself as the face of the Holocaust and a far wider Man of Conscience, and as those titles still held sway, maybe taking on my project would have been too damaging for the publisher’s reputation.

     Left with a large and unpublished manuscript, I decided to build Wiesel’s story into a wider fiction.  I turned to the form I had begun with the October Surprise: the faux history.  I imagined the publication of that biography.  I imagined the results.  I imagined the “fraught” that would have come my way.  Death threats.  The story then spins in an unexpected direction.  The author goes into hiding.  He chooses to hide in plain sight.  He travels to Jerusalem.  There, he discovers a lost manuscript.  That manuscript, originally published in the immediate aftermath of the Book of Mark, would have significant consequences on the writings of the Gospels.  It would call into question the motivations of the evangelist named Mark.  It would expose the legend behind Jesus Christ.  But that manuscript would also shine a light on its own author.  Who really was Josephus and how did he stoke his own legend at the expense of the man?

     Satan’s Synagogue then unearths large histories, and smaller ones, too.  Its aim – to find some truth in the incredible complexity that is history – follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust, from Mark to Jesus to Josephus, from Josephus to Emperor Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, the author chronicles a bicycle ride made through the Galilee and Old Phoenicia, known as “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s Loop through the Lesser Levant.”

     But the story doesn’t end there.  Documents found during the research for Satan’s Synagogue reveal new information on the Silk Road, or that network of trade routes that connected Ancient Rome to China.  My next faux history will unveil a previously unreported route, all the way up into the northern region of the Eurasian Steppe, known to the Romans as the “suprasternal notch.”  That book project will also trace a bicycle ride, made from Xi’an (an ancient capital in China) to Istanbul, and a second Tour de Josephus, this one focusing on Rome, and more criticism on Wiesel, and more interpretation of Josephus, and more on the backstory behind the writings of the Gospels.  But there’s even more.  A former CIA agent, living in one of the towns on the “notch,” presented mind-blowing evidence to me regarding the October Surprise history.  That documentation will be included, too.  If you think Satan’s Synagogue covered a tremendous amount of ground, wait until you read the sequel.

Who was the real Josephus?

Who was the real Josephus?

 (My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here:

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part two of five.  In part one, I offered the first of its kind: a critical evaluation of Elie Wiesel.  Criticism of Wiesel, while working off the historical record, has been nonexistent up until this point.  Why?  I even answered that, too.  To read the profile, please see the article below.  Part three will examine another famous chronicler.  Look for “Who was the real Mark the Evangelist?” coming in June.)

For those unaware, Josephus was one of the fundamental chroniclers of the 1st century.  Or, in the time designation used by New Testament scholars, the Apostolic Age, or from the time of Jesus’s rising to the death of the last Apostle of twelve.  Or, better yet, in the time designation used by chroniclers of that era (as I presented documentation with the term for the first time in Satan’s Synagogue), the Jesus Century.  Josephus had, in his sightline, the lands of Judea and the Galilee.  Though he spent the majority of his life in Rome, he never wrote about the center.  He wrote about the periphery.  Of course, Josephus, who was born in Jerusalem, didn’t consider the province of Judea to be peripheral to anything.  In Josephus’s worldview, Jerusalem was the center.

    Three of Josephus’s works have come down to us.  The Jewish War opened Josephus’s oeuvre.  Published around the year 77 of the Jesus Century, The Jewish War focused on the Jewish revolt against Rome in the years 66-73.  Josephus himself played a fundamental role, according to his narrative, as he led the revolt in the Galilee.  Unfortunately, his narrative turns out to be spurious in some fundamental ways.  Writing history, it should always be noted, has much to do with who pays the bills.

     Some two decades later, around the year 94, Josephus published a 20-volume history entitled Antiquitates Judaicae, or a history of the Jewish people.  Antiquities surveyed a large swathe of time, from Jewish origin up to the Jewish rebellion against Rome at the end of the 60s in the Jesus Century.

     Josephus also included a section he called “The Life of Flavius Josephus.”  We know that section today as his Vita.  Modern scholars theorize that the Vita was an addition to Antiquities, not included in the original but added sometime thereafter.  Some scholars theorize that Josephus took some hits for his low working knowledge of Greek and for the veracity in his chronicles, and he therefore felt obliged to write his Vita as a reputation-saving device.  To some scholars, his Vita comes across as a correction.  Notably, Josephus reviewed his battle against the Romans in the Galilee region.  He’d originally written his narrative in The Jewish War.  In his Vita, he offered some fundamentally different brushstrokes.

     I am reminded now of Elie Wiesel and his 21st century translation of Night, or what I called the Oprah translation in Satan’s Synagogue.  In explaining the need for a new translation, Wiesel first found fault with his knowledge of English at the time of the original translation.  As he didn’t do the original translation work, that explanation seems dubious.  Then, Wiesel concluded that with the new translation he would “correct and revise…”

     Correct and revise: the words couldn’t be more applicable when considering Josephus’s Vita and his framing of the Galilee war.

     The final book of Josephus’s life, according to the official record, was called Against Apion.  Apion was the most famous historian of the Jesus Century and Josephus’s title fell in line with his polemical career.  In the work, Josephus had more than Apion in his sightlines.  He excoriated a series of authors who dwelled in anti-Semitic slander.  Of course, the term anti-Semitic didn’t exist back then, as anti-Jewish thought was entirely appropriate.  But that’s a story for another time.

     Those three works encompass the Josephus oeuvre, as we know it.  The nearly 20-year gap provokes some questions.  Did a work go missing?  Was there a work completed in the decade of the 80s?  If so, what would Josephus have had in his sightlines?

     It turns out that, indeed, there was a book published.  Josephus documented a route on the Silk Road.  If that story sounds strange – why would a Jewish writer, writing predominantly about Judea and Samaria, focus on a China/Central Asia/Constantinople journey? – let me save that story for my next book project. 

     It also turns out that Josephus, indeed, wrote a book that pre-dated The Jewish War.  As I documented in Satan’s Synagogue, his first book was called Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus.  Sequential order is important here.  Mark’s Gospel was published in the late 60s.  Josephus fell under Roman rule in 67, after he surrendered his army in the Galilee, according to his narrative.  He became a prisoner but something unusual occurred.  He gained the favor of Vespasian, then the general of the Roman army tasked with putting down the Jewish rebellion.  Vespasian made Josephus his translator.  While Josephus acted as translator in the Roman-Jewish war, he wrote his first book.  Published in the year 70, Against Mark turned Mark’s Gospel on its head.  Later Christians had no choice; if they wanted to perpetuate the legend of Jesus, they had to eviscerate its existence.  For the full story of how I found Against Mark, and for the full re-printing of the work, please do see Satan’s Synagogue.  But suffice it to say that with Against Mark and with other documents that I alone possess – for now, I will in due time make them available to the public –a fuller profile of Josephus emerges. 

     Who was the real Josephus?  What follows here is a profile.  Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture.  Here are ten brushstrokes:

1) Let’s start with biography.  This is an excerpt from Against Mark.  He offered some autobiographical sketch work, written during the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  The year was 70.  Josephus was there as part of the Roman negotiating team.  “Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem.  I look upon our fallen city and I see death.  The number of dead in this bloody war totals one million of our brethren, with the enslavement of an additional 97,000 men, women and children.  The streets are lined with bodies.  I see faces in these bodies.  I see the face of my father, Matthias, who descended from the High Priest Jonathan, who was brother to Judah Maccabee.  I see the face of my older brother, Matthias, a priest, a just and learned man.  I see the face of my mother, who descended from Jehoiarub, or the first of the priestly class who served the Temple during King David’s time.  I see the face of my wife and our three sons: Hyrcanus, named after the High Priest in my great great grandfather’s time, Justus and Agrippa.  Yes, I look at the ruined city and I see familiar faces.  The death of Jerusalem is the death of us all.”

     This is such a strange personal biography.  Josephus clearly was haunted by the deaths of those around him and, perhaps, some of his family members died during the siege of Jerusalem.  But we now know that his father committed suicide due to his pact with Vespasian (more on that later).  Josephus’s three sons did not die during the siege, either.  The first son was born in and around the year 73 in Rome.  He survived his childhood.  The other two sons did not.  There are no records of other children produced by Josephus.  Did he have children, and a wife, who all died during the siege of Jerusalem?  That remains unknown.  Did someone add to Josephus’s page some years later, interjecting the death of his sons?  That remains unknown, too.  Did Josephus’s record of loss and grief speak more to his own personal status?  He became a turncoat, in Jewish opinion.  He became a pariah.  He would go on to become an important historian of his time, but in the Jewish world he could never escape his partnering with the enemy.  He could never, for instance, return to his home world.  Was this writing his way of dealing with the guilt of what he had become?

2) That leads to an amazing discovery I made in Rome.  I found the location of Josephus’s house.  I won’t go into too much detail here.  I will in a future book project.  But let me add to my first tour of Josephus, or what I called “The Tour de Josephus: A Cyclist’s Loop through the Lesser Levant” in Satan’s Synagogue.  In the autumn of 2018, I completed a second tour.  During that tour, to be entitled “The Tour de Josephus, Part II: Triumph and Churches,” I stood in an area just outside the Portico of Octavia, built by Augustus for his sister.  It’s an historical center of Rome.  From this spot, you can see the portico in all of its splendor.  Just down the road stand the ruins of the Theatre of Marcellus, built by Augustus for his nephew.  It looks like a significantly smaller version of the Colosseum.  Perhaps Vespasian and his son Titus had the theatre in mind when they began the build out in the year 72.  Fast forward some 1,480 years.  The year now is 1555.  Upon this spot, by order of Pope Paul IV, Rome constructed a Jewish ghetto.  Paul IV was a short-lived pontiff.  Four years.  But his four years were marked by terroristic prejudice.  Constructing the ghetto.  Welcoming the Inquisition to Italy.  Profiled as anti-Spanish, his anti-Jewish leanings were far more pronounced.  And the Inquisition came.

     The ghetto, it should be noted, was constructed on the other side of the Tiber.  The italics are mine.  The Vatican didn’t want the Jews near their citadel, so they used the river as a natural boundary.  Ironically, of course, the ghetto went up in the heart of elite Ancient Rome.  Ancient Rome constructed its ghetto on the other side of the Tiber.  Or, what would become the Vatican state.  These are the quirks of history.  They come with windy consequences.

     Those windy consequences blow in brutal gales.  On this spot in 1943, the Germans created a staging ground.  Not trusting the Italians to do the job, the Germans rounded up the Jews of the ghetto.  There were some 1,260 Jews walled in then.  They sent some 1,000 Roman Jews to Auschwitz.  Sixteen survived.  There are plaques on the buildings directly surrounding the portico, commemorating the deportation to Auschwitz.

     Let’s go back some 1,940 years.  This area, just over a mile away from the forum, was highly desirable.  Only the fortunate settled here.  Thanks to a document I have in hand, and recorded here for the first time, one of those homes belonged to Josephus himself.  He lived there with his family until his death in the second century.  He died, according to his son, while working on a history of Roman emperors and their attitudes towards Jerusalem.  He died, notably, during the reign of Hadrian.  Though Josephus did not live to see the day, Hadrian ordered the complete demolition of Jerusalem.  He then ordered the rebuilding, to mirror Rome.

     While Josephus did not complete this work, his son did.  That work went out into the world in and around the year 140.  It would have massive consequences for Josephus’s family.  But more on that in a later book project.

     Notably, Josephus didn’t live across the Tiber with his people in the Jewish ghetto of Ancient Rome.  He lived in the Roman elite part of the city.  What should be made of that?  Why didn’t Josephus, a practicing Jew deriving from priestly line, live amongst Jews?  Maybe the Jews of Rome, knowing Josephus’s history and the patrons who supported him, rejected him?  Maybe his life on this side of Rome was by necessity, not choice.  The italics are mine.

3) Who were Josephus’s patrons?  The historical record identifies the Flavian dynasty, specifically Vespasian and Titus.  But a weird hiccup occurred in the year 81.  Titus died of brain fever.  That same fever, or something similar, supposedly turned Caligula from a sympathetic emperor of the people to a mad tyrant.  Josephus had Caligula in his sightlines in the last book of his life.  But let’s leave that for a later time. 

     When Titus died, his brother Domitian rose to the purple.  Domitian was anti-literature with a book-burning kind of fury.  He probably made Nazi Germany proud.  Domitian saw Josephus as a rival, obviously not for the seat of Rome but a rival for the legacy of the family.  Domitian did exempt Josephus’s property from the land tax payable by all provincials, a rather incredible honor.  But Domitian was incredibly anti-Jewish.  If he wanted to purge Josephus, he did not.  What, or who, stopped him?

     As I documented in Satan’s Synagogue, a secret patron saw to the welfare of Josephus.  His name was Flavius Valerius Gaev Constantinus.  When I first came upon the name, I naturally did a Google search.  Except for a strange reference, called the Gaev Arch, significantly north of the Caspian Sea in Kazakhstan, there’s not a shred of information.  But something magical happened.  In my research for Satan’s Synagogue, I came across a treasure trove of documents.  Let me now provide some color.

     Gaev, as he was known in his lifetime, spent the first half of his life as a Roman legionnaire.  In fact, he played a role in the Roman/Jewish war of 66-73.  He became a trusted confidant of the future emperor Titus.  He gained the title of special counselor.  Gaev thus took the Flavian given name to fall in line with the dynasty.  Titus, through his father Vespasian, appointed Gaev to the senate in and around the year 73.  Near the end of his life, Gaev came into some sort of trouble.  Was it a public falling out with another powerful figure?  Was it more sinister than that?  Did Gaev lead an execution of a Roman citizen without trial?  Some information edged up to such a conclusion, but if so, under Roman law, the executioner would have been banished.  Rome had a penalty of exile for its citizens to avoid excessive capital punishment.

     Gaev probably went west into what was known as Hispania.  He spent the rest of his life in exile.  He died during the reign of Hadrian in the second century.  It is doubtful that he ever returned to Rome.

     All the records on Gaev ended up at the University of Salamanca in northwestern Spain.  In the 1950s, a young researcher removed those records from university holdings.  Why he did so remains a mystery.  But he passed those records on to me.  I promise to return the documents to the university in due time.  But first there’s another book to write, and it has to do with the Google reference to the Gaev Arch in Kazakhstan.

     Gaev was probably born in Dardania, in the modern day Balkans.  His father probably served as an officer in the army, and the son would follow the father.  That position landed him in the Galilee in June of 67.  According to Josephus’s written account in The Jewish War, the famed tenth legion of the Roman army burned the hill town of Jotopata to the ground and captured the leader of the Jewish army, Josephus himself.  Josephus went before Vespasian, then general of the region and future emperor of Rome.  Was Gaev present at that interview?  Did Josephus’s behavior enrapture those present, as Josephus spun his story?  Did a “friendship” form between Gaev and Josephus?

     For the full history, please do see Satan’s Synagogue, but what’s clear is that Gaev and Josephus began to write letters to each other sometime in the mid-70s of the Jesus Century.  A letter from Gaev to Josephus on June 23, 76 offered specific instructions.  It spelled out, in short, what Josephus was to write.

     Both men were in Rome, serving the Flavian dynasty.  As a “quid pro quo,” Gaev promised protections and funding.  So while Josephus, publicly, had the endowment of Emperors Vespasian and Titus, he secretly had the patronage of Senator Gaev.  If either emperor, or the third in the Flavian dynasty, Domitian, knew of the agreement, there is no record.

     The letter contained extremely important historical information.  Consider the date.  Gaev talked about the day with “a profundity of grief.”  He attributed that grief to the “banishment and sudden death, exactly a decade earlier, to the day” of his “hero” and “teacher.”  Gaev then named that cherished figure: “Paul of Giscala.”

4) Who was this man?  According to Gaev, he led the “Jews for Jesus movement.  His death, as his ship capsized off the coast of Malta, something of which you yourself are familiar with, sent shock and anguish through the community.  Fortunately, his name lives on.  I am writing to you now to express my hope that you will add some ingredients that, in turn, will be used to embroider his name for all eternity.”

     Such interesting word choice: to “add some ingredients,” “to embroider.”  Gaev, judging from the word choice, seemed to favor homebody pastimes.  But to this knot of multi-layered detail, let’s try to comb through.  There’s no definitive name to give the early church movement.  As noted earlier, Scholars refer to the period as the Apostolic Age.  I am using a different term, the Jesus Century.  Those, though, are time designations.  Gaev pronounced a different term: Jews for Jesus.  If we think of the term as an abomination now, it apparently wasn’t then.  It described a growing sect.

     When did the term Christianity officially begin?  We first see individuals identified as Christians in Acts of the Apostles, written sometime in the decade of the 80s.  We also see those same individuals referred to as Nazarenes in Acts, in accordance with Jesus’s presumed birthplace.  We never see them referred to as Jews for Jesus.  Gaev’s reference suggested a name that didn’t make it into the canon.

     But Gaev seemed to have an unidentified man as the leader of that movement.  Or, have we put too much trust around the town of Tarsus?  Did Gaev touch on some accurate history?  The world knows of Paul (from the Greek), or Saul as he was known in the Hebrew, as a key player in the early church movement.  Acts of the Apostles, and some letters found in the New Testament canon, spelled out the story.  He was born in Tarsus, a hub of commerce located not far from the Roman center of Antioch.  His father was a Pharisee who held Roman citizenship.  This was unusual for a Jew, and that citizenship passed to Paul.  That’s an important detail considering the stories around his death.

     Around the age of 10, Paul went up to Jerusalem for his Jewish education.  The New Testament then shifted to Paul’s fervent disdain for the early followers of Jesus.  As a Pharisee and an educated Jew of means, he persecuted them.  His conversion on the road to Damascus changed history irrevocably.  But what if Paul originally came from Giscala and not Tarsus?  How would that have altered the legend?  Tarsus as Paul’s birthplace and childhood home established the apostle as an outsider.  While his lineage was Jewish establishment, his personage developed many miles removed from the Judean center.  The narrative could then build the burgeoning Christian movement as steps removed from the Jewish establishment.  Easter becomes a fundamentally different codification scheme than Passover.  With a Tarsus origin, Paul could throw off his Jewish roots on that road to Damascus: his Pharisee lineage, his parentage, his Jerusalem education could all be shunted. 

    But Paul, apparently, was a Galilean.  Notably, a later chronicler, Jerome, gave Paul’s parents the Giscala address.  Further, another letter from Gaev to Josephus delved into Paul’s journey to Jerusalem in the year 50 for a summit with Peter of Bethsaida and James the Just.  While the New Testament recorded this interview as a foundational moment in the history of Christianity, as circumcision lost its sway, the canon missed some detail.  According to Gaev, Paul first stopped in Giscala “for a period of repose.”

     Why would Paul, on a fundamental mission, first stop at Giscala?  Consider the geography.  The town was situated in the north of the Galilee, separated from Caesarea by forty-eight miles on today’s roads.  To get there from the coast, as Paul did after reaching one of the ports, Caesarea or Joppa or Tyre, would have meant an excursion significantly out of his way.  Paul must have had a personal reason for trekking to Giscala, like visiting aging parents.

     Is it possible then that the Tarsus-as-origin detail in the New Testament is a fiction, a literary tool?  That question segues to Paul’s death.  Did he die in Rome, as various sources suggest?  How did he die?  Was he martyred, as second century missives stated?  Why was he martyred?  According to source material, the Emperor Nero condemned Paul to death.  Legend then sprouted that Paul’s body was buried outside Rome, on an estate owned by an early supporter of the Christian movement.  The Emperor Constantine built the first church on those grounds.  That’s notable given Gaev’s birth name, Valerius Gaev Constantinus.  Was Gaev an ancestor of Constantine?  Were Constantine’s Christian sympathies in his bloodlines, so to speak?  For the letter from Gaev to Josephus clearly showed Gaev’s allegiance to Paul and the burgeoning Christian movement.  Or, why else did Gaev refer to Paul as “hero” and “teacher” and more, as “friend.”

     If Paul wasn’t martyred but died in another fashion, did the martyring provide a foundational mooring for the legend?  By martyring, he fell in line with the death of Jesus, and so the age that began with martyr involved a second martyr with long-reaching tentacles.

     Gaev’s letter provided answers.  According to Acts of the Apostles, Paul was shipwrecked three times.  Gaev’s letter pointed to a fourth shipwreck, this one resulting in his death.  Gaev’s letter also touched upon Josephus’s personal history, or “something of which you yourself are familiar with.”  But the death date in the letter fell after a period of “banishment.”  Why was Paul banished from Rome?  Gaev gave no reason.  Certainly Roman citizens were banished all the time.  And certainly Nero loved his beheadings, as the legend of Paul’s death was built upon.  But if accurate, Nero pronounced a capital punishment death on a Roman citizen.  As that pronouncement went against Roman law, there would have been rumblings in the senate.  Those rumblings might have been recorded.  The historical record misses any such rumblings.

     As for Gaev, he ran the risk of banishment for his secret association with the early church movement.  If Titus, for instance, found out about Gaev’s association, how would he have responded?  One thing is clear: there would have been a response.

     But Gaev’s letter left all of these questions adrift and moved on to the mission, or adding “ingredients” to “embroider” the legacy.  “The movement needs a historian,” Gaev wrote to Josephus.  “As Jesus Christ was presented in a heralded light in the Book of Mark, so too must Paul fall within that glow.  From his origins to his final days, and all the days in between, he is messenger and portent.  He is oracle and apostle.”

     The letter continued.  “From our time together, I can think of nobody better suited to touch on the early history of Paul, the pre-history to the Jews for Jesus movement, than you.  It has come to my attention that you are writing a complete history of the rebellion.  If you include a last stand, I would be supremely pleased.  I would see your contribution as a quid pro quo.  To the pacified country, to the tired 10th sailing home, consider a different history.  A final protracted battle in which the overwhelmed rebels fight on against our legionnaires.  The rebels lose, but along the way the rendering of struggle and tenacity comes into the world, the rendering of righteousness.  From these rebels, Paul sprouts.”

     Josephus’s immediate reaction to these marching orders remains a mystery.  Notably, as Gaev commented, Josephus was in the midst of writing The Jewish War.  Where he was in the writing process, we do not know.  But the final version of that history provided a roadmap for what Gaev had in mind. 

5) Josephus did something incredibly inventive.  He found the ideal place for a “final protracted battle.”  He built the Masada legend at the end of The Jewish War.  Today, we think of Masada as a last stand.  Some 1,000 Jewish rebels, known as Sicarii, outduel the Romans for an extended period of time from a fortress in the Judean Desert.  When it becomes clear that the Romans will win, the Jews take their own lives.

     The history is more complex.  Let’s turn to a strange reference in Acts of the Apostle.  Paul, in Jerusalem to stand trial for his life, went before a Roman tribune, Claudius Lysias.  Hearing Paul speak in Greek, Lysias questioned if this Paul was the “Egyptian who led a force of 4,000 Sicarii into the wilderness.”

     To get this reference, by the way, the reader must have the King James version.  The New International Version, the New American Standard, the New Revised Standard Version and all recent translations have the Sicarii translated as assassins or terrorists.  Wilderness also comes across as desert.  It’s a total misreading of the text.

     Paul’s reaction to the charge spoke volumes.  He neither denied nor admitted any backstory.  Instead, he glossed over the charge by providing his birth city.  Paul’s answer had nothing to do with Claudius Lysias’s question.  Paul then asked to give a speech before his arrest.  The speech became foundational in the Christian narrative.  The Sicarii detail got lost, or shunted.

     But with Gaev’s letter in mind, the Sicarii reference now has some context.  Acts of the Apostles came into the Jesus Century at least a few years after The Jewish War.  Meaning: Josephus’s story of Masada had been in the public domain for some time.  Followers of the faith could have connected the dots from Acts back to Josephus.

     Now, let’s consider a question.  What if Gaev had others secretly in his patronage?  What if the author of Acts of the Apostles was under Gaev’s authority?  In his efforts to get out a Paulist iconography, what if Gaev pressured that author to add the “4,000 Sicarii” detail?  To the author of Acts, the detail might have been seen as a frivolity.  The entire scene revolved around Paul’s speech to his audience.  Certainly, Gaev would have wanted that speech.  But in Gaev’s iconography, Paul as a Sicarii would have linked to Josephus’s Masada story.  Paul as Sicarii would have come across as a more layered origin story.  His emergence would have come as a justified mutineer.  He would have been the rebel turned oracle.  Such a rendering would have begun the process of coloring Paul in that “heralding light.”

6) Let’s return to Josephus and his Masada invention.  To understand how he created the scene, we have to go much further back in time, sometime to the late 11th century, BCE.  There, we find another important Saul, King Saul, in a death struggle with the Philistines.  According to the prophet Samuel, Saul couldn’t tolerate the Philistine occupation and rebellion broke out.  The climactic scene occurred in and around Mount Gilboa.  The Philistines routed the Jewish armies and “the battle pressed hard upon Saul.”  He was severely wounded.  His sons were killed.  The enemy encroached.  Saul had a death conversation with his bodyguard.  He asked the man to kill him, so that “these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sport of me.”  The bodyguard refused.  Saul took his own sword and “fell upon it.”  Note the understated phraseology.  Josephus sure did.  (See 1 Samuel 31:3-6.  New Revised Standard Version.)

     Now, Saul had to die for the Book of Samuel to get to its real hero, David.  But let’s leave that literary device for Josephus’s device.  He built from the Saul story.  In the Masada story, the leader of the Sicarii, Eliezer, feared Roman procedure.  Before the final battle with Rome, he talked about dishonorable death.  As Josephus wrote in The Jewish War, Eliezer “had a clear picture of what the Romans would do to men, women and children if they won the day; and death seemed to him the right choice for them all.”  Death by suicide under these kinds of circumstances, Eliezer argued, would shock the Romans.  Roman victory would be denied.  Roman “amazement” at such a “brave death” would be a lasting reaction.  Josephus seemed to have Saul’s final bow in mind, or the understated falling on his sword, when writing of Eliezer.  He “let the sword do its damage.”

     Of course, Josephus needed witnesses to tell the story.  He didn’t have a prophet like Samuel around.  He identified some women in hiding.  With these witnesses, the tale got told.  The template of Saul was lost.

     What would we know of the Jewish rebellion if not for Josephus’s work?  Very little.  Josephus then is a must read.  But a cautionary read.  He took a history of war and destruction, of massacres and annihilation, and built upon it.  He added layers of fiction.  He stoked legend.  He developed characters for reasons outside historical accuracy.  He did more than involve himself in the drama.  He billboarded himself.  He spread a fog of fact.

     Who else does that sound like?  It sounds remarkably like the great chronicler of the 20th century, Elie Wiesel (please see the article below for more on that).  Maybe Wiesel read Josephus?

7) Did Josephus meet Paul?  It’s an interesting question of historical connection.  There were two possible meeting points.  The second occurred in the mid-60s.  According to Josephus’s narrative, he journeyed from Jerusalem to Rome in the year 63 to meet with Emperor Nero’s people.  Apparently there were Jewish priests held in Roman prisons.  Apparently Josephus led a delegation to argue for their release.  Josephus did not mention how he came to serve as lead negotiator.  Let’s leave that story for the moment.  According to Josephus, he didn’t make it back to Jerusalem until the year 66.  What happened during those three years?  Was Josephus successful in his efforts to free the priests?  The record remains murky.  There are no records delving into the priests, their imprisonment, or Josephus’s acts of negotiation.  Perhaps Josephus, indeed, argued on their behalf.  Or, perhaps Josephus, once again, had literary device in mind.  Perhaps Josephus created a legend.

     Let’s now follow the coastline along the Mediterranean, from Josephus’s Jerusalem and wider Judea to Alexandria.  That city saw a pogrom in the year 38 of the Jesus Century.  The provocation, ostensibly, stemmed from a decree by Emperor Gaius Caligula.  He wanted to be worshipped as a god.  The Jews refused, as that meant the desecration of their temples.  A Jewish eyewitness to the pogrom, Philo, published his account a few years later.  It is the most reliable description of events passed down to the modern age.  Still, there are questions about Philo’s chronicle.  What level of accuracy did he seek?  What was his agenda in his reportage?  His chronicle has been described as a “novel” that “did not aim at giving a detailed historical account.”  It has been described as prejudice, containing exaggeration. (See Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World.  See also Joseph Modrzejewski, The Jews of Egypt.)

     To be clear, Philo was writing for the Jewish community.  He served an important function: a Jewish patriot.  He therefore needed a slew of enemies and, as his reportage demonstrated, an archenemy.  The title of his reportage identified his first archenemy, In Flaccum.

     Avilius Flaccus was the Roman prefect of Egypt.  He gained his position under the patronage of Emperor Tiberius.  In the first five years of his administration Flaccus appeared as a fair leader, according to Philo.  He displayed no anti-Jewish tendencies.  That all changed when Flaccus began to “behave erratically.” 

     Why did his behavior change?  Philo offered the death of Tiberius as speculation, and the rise of Gaius Caligula.  Rightfully assuming that Caligula would consolidate his power base through assassination – Caligula quickly got rid of his two main rivals, the co-emperor Tiberius Gemellus and the praetorian Macro – Flaccus realized that the times called for a dire, and life-saving, strategy.  He sought allies among the Greek elite.  Those representatives, a “mob” in the characterization of Philo, advised Flaccus to win Caligula’s support by sacrificing the Jews.  In his chronicle, Philo then found enemies everywhere: in the Roman prefect, in the Alexandrian Greeks, in the Emperor Caligula.

     Philo’s reportage ebbed toward an explosion.  The mob expelled the Jews from four of the five quarters, including Delta, the Jewish quarter.  The pogrom then moved to the next stage: exile, and with the mobsters dividing “the booty among themselves as if it were war.”

     Exile left the Jews destitute.  According to Philo, the resulting unemployment was “even more unbearable than the plundering.”  Unemployment and poverty led to a famine. 

     To exile, to destitution, to famine, Philo added the “bloodthirstiness” of the perpetrators.  They “stoned any Jews they happened to catch sight of, or beat them to death with clubs…”

     Meanwhile, the “perpetrator of enormities,” as Philo rendered Flaccus, “… devised a monstrous and unparalleled attack.”  He arrested the 38 members of the gerousia, or the Council of Elders responsible for self-government.  He had their hands bound.  He marched these elders through the market to the theater.  There, he ordered the council “to be stripped and lacerated with scourges…”  Philo continued, “As a result of the flogging some of them died the moment they were carried away, whereas others were ill for such a long time that they despaired of ever recovering.”

     Philo’s chronicle then twisted toward a just conclusion.  Caligula, hearing of the riots through his Jewish ally, King Agrippa, sent a centurion and a company of soldiers to arrest Flaccus.  In Philo’s rendering, the mission surprised Flaccus, as he had convinced himself that he’d moved into the emperor’s good grace.

     Here’s where things get interesting, from the Josephus perspective.  Sometime around Flaccus’s execution in the year 39 – the dates remain hazy – Caligula received two delegations from Alexandria to quell the violence.  Philo headed the Jewish delegation.  Apion headed the Greek delegation.  The Greek delegation presented first.  Only many months later did Caligula hear the Jewish side, with a Greek delegation present.  The setting for the conference appeared almost farcical: in two villas on the Esquiline hill. 

     During the conference, according to Philo, Caligula walked through the villas and gardens, commenting on architecture and flowers.  The Jews felt “crushed to pieces.”  They gave up.  “There was no strength left in us,” Philo wrote.  The emperor seemed to be influenced by the Jews’ squashed state.  The conference, described by Philo as a “theatre and a prison in place of a tribunal,” ended with Caligula’s new view of the Jews.  “‘They seem to me to be a people unfortunate rather than wicked and to be foolish in refusing to believe that I have got the nature of a god.’” (Philo of Alexandria, The Embassy to Gaius, trans. by F.H. Colson.)

     The Jews intersection with Caligula ended there.  He was assassinated in January 41 of the Jesus Century.  His successor, Claudius, restored some Jewish rights while warning the Jewish community not to demand more rights than they had previously.  Still, the conflict simmered.  Fears remained that Jewish-promulgated riots might cause revolt elsewhere in the Empire.  Those fears proved bona fide.  A straight line connects the pogrom of 38 to the revolt of 66-73.

     Josephus, writing of Philo in Antiquities, and again in Against Apion, highlighted the conference on the Esquiline hill, even more so than the pogrom in Alexandria.  Was that a tell?  Did Josephus use the conference to subtly present a grandiose self-image?

     Let’s go back to the year 63.  According to Josephus, and Josephus alone, he went to Rome to negotiate with the emperor on behalf of imprisoned priests.  The negotiation seemed to take an extended period.  Again according to Josephus, and Josephus alone, he didn’t return to Jerusalem for three years.  The record ends there.  We don’t know if Josephus would have described the negotiation as farce and “theatre,” as Philo did.  We don’t know the fate of the priests.  We don’t have Josephus’s personal views on Nero, to parallel Philo’s personal views on Caligula.  All we have is Josephus’s rather self-serving reference as negotiator.

     Still, the parallel is remarkable.  The question lingers.  Did Josephus in his narrative of Philo mold a Josephus-like character?  Did he then build up Philo to parallel and promote the legend of Josephus?

     Notably, a 20th century writer came along and used this example as his template.  To read the oeuvre of Elie Wiesel is to see characters presented to parallel and promote his own mythology?  Someone should do a study.

8) All of this returns us to Paul, or Saul, and a possible meeting point with Josephus.  To Rome in the decade of the 60s, there was an earlier option: Jerusalem in the 40s of the Jesus Century.  Paul – born in Tarsus, or, according to new information presented here, Giscala – went up to Jerusalem for his schooling.  According to Acts of the Apostles, he entered into study with the famed Gamaliel the Elder.  Gamaliel sat on the Sanhedrin.  He probably died sometime in the decade of the 50s.

     Another rabbi occupied a chair on the Sanhedrin.  His name was Mattathias ben Theophilus and he would ascend to the high priesthood around the year 60.  Little else is known about this Mattathias.  It is thought that he was high priest when the war with Rome came.  In fact, that was the case.  As I am in possession of some documents concerning Mattathias (or Matthias, depending upon translation) ben Theophilus, I can fill in some blanks.  Mattathias ben Theophilus served as high priest until his death in the year 68.  He died a pariah.  He was not buried in the hills surrounding Mount Scopus or on the Mount of Olives, as was tradition.  He was not buried in Jerusalem.  A small detail in a document suggests that his bones were “banished.”

     Why was he banished?  Let’s go back to the year 66 and the war clouds building over Judea.  In Jerusalem, the elders held a meeting in the Temple compound.  War plans were hatched.  Rebellion leaders were named to take control of various regions.  They gained titles as General Governors.  Josephus became the General Governor of the Galilee.  That appointment came as a surprise.  Josephus was a rabbinical scholar.  He had no experience in war preparation or tactics.  He was not an organizer.  Further, the Romans would be coming from Syria, through the Galilee, on their march to Jerusalem.  The defenders of the Galilee would be the first responders.  The General Governor of the Galilee was a major appointment.

     It turns out, based on a document that I hold, that Josephus gained his appointment through nepotism.  His father was the high priest, Mattathias ben Theophilus.  Perhaps this familial connection also explains how Josephus led the delegation to Nero’s Rome, if that history actually occurred.

     Mattathias’s appointment of his son led to his own death.  A deal was struck, following the downfall of the Galilee.  Vespasian, then general of the Roman army, presented terms to High Priest Mattathias ben Theophilus.   Here are Vespasian’s words, paraphrased by Josephus: “You, Mattathias ben Theophilus, High Priest of the Temple and supreme leader of your people, must resign.  I give you your son’s life for your own sacrifice.  You must then take your own life, as any disgraced Roman would.  Further, your successor shall come from the rank and file, an amateur with little ability to galvanize his people and therefore threaten Rome.”

     This was the deal offered, and accepted.  There is no evidence that Mattathias attempted to negotiate the terms.  He clearly was in no position to counter-offer.  His only leverage was sacrifice.  He sacrificed all.  He made the deal.  He kept to the terms.  He died a pariah.  A suicidal death explains why his bones would be exiled.

9) Notably, there are references to a man named Theophilus in the Gospels, specifically The Book of Luke and Acts of the Apostles.  Some New Testament scholars believe this Theophilus and the High Priest were the same man.  They are correct.  But there’s more.  As documents show, and as I promise to write more in full in my next book, Mattathias ben Theophilus routinely returned to the Hillel school for night study.  Mattathias ben Theophilus originally attended the Hillel school under the leadership of Shimon ben Hillel.  Shimon, the son of the legendary Hillel the Elder, died young.  His son, Gamaliel, took over the school.  Documents identify those in attendance in these night study sessions.  There was the teacher, Gamaliel.  There was the “most learned” of the Sanhedrin, Mattathias ben Theophilus.  There was the “heretic.”  A man identified as Saul, who “broke” with the Temple, to become a “Jew for Jesus.”  There was also a young scholar, who had become “an authority on the intricacies of Jewish law.”  His name was Yosef ben Mattathias.  He would become known to the world as Josephus.

     It’s an incredible find.  Paul was then in the midst of sailing the Mediterranean and building the church movement.  Apparently, he stopped periodically in Jerusalem for study.  But note the term used to describe him: a “heretic,” from the Greek.  The men in attendance welcomed the heretic to their night studies.  Clearly, Saul had something to offer.  These sessions were clandestine.  It would have been heresy in the world of the Pharisees to appear with Paul.

10) There’s another incredible find.  I wrote about this history in full in Satan’s Synagogue, but it’s worth repeating here, in smaller detail.  As noted in these pages, Josephus’s Against Mark: On the Antiquity of the Jew called Jesus was introduced to the world in the year 70.  Later Christians attempted to eviscerate its existence.  They succeeded for nearly 1,950 years.  The book disappeared from view until its reemergence in Satan’s Synagogue in 2019.  How did I find the manuscript?

     Let’s go back to the destruction of the Temple.  There was a beadle with a saving acumen.  He had some foresight.  He began to remove books from the Temple library in the early days of the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire.  The Temple was the leading repository for Jewish scholarship and an original edition of Against Mark had made its way into the library’s holdings.  For four years, or from the early days of the war in the year 66 up until the destruction of the Temple in August of 70, this beadle squired books away in his robe and buried them in the coffins of Jews.  The Jewish cemetery existed just beyond the Temple compound, outside city walls, on the Mount of Olives.

     In the case of Against Mark, the beadle took his scheme further.  He let Josephus know of his exploits.  He revealed the particular coffin holding the book, and the coordinates of that coffin in the Jewish cemetery.

     Josephus became a prisoner of Rome.  Though a citizen, he could not leave its boundaries.  He then passed on the pertinent information of the book’s whereabouts to a relative.  That information got passed on.  There is a wonderful chemistry term called an autocatalytic phenomenon, or an increasing on itself.  An autocatalytic phenomenon occurred and one relative would tell the next.  These relatives became known as Josephus Direct Descendants, or JDDs.  A direct line from Josephus to today knew of the book’s whereabouts.  I have done extensive research to uncover some ninety percent of the JDD line, though that may be a story for another book project.  But I will say this: there are some famous names in that catalog.  Famous Christians throughout the ages actually descended from Jewish high priests.

     A few years back, I received an email from a relative I had never met before.  As he wishes to remain anonymous, I will simply refer to him as the latest JDD.  In his letter, he asked to talk to me in person.  We met.  He explained the autocatalytic phenomenon in full.  I suppose this relative is not the latest JDD.  I am.

     I did something no other JDD had done.  I went to Jerusalem, to the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.  I found the burial spot.  I didn’t find the book there, as that specific part of the cemetery was in repair.  But as luck would have it, I chanced upon a clue that pointed toward another old city and another burial ground.  I found the book.

     I couldn’t read the pages, as I am illiterate in its language.  I then made a copy of the manuscript and sent that copy to my man in Toronto.  Let me take a moment to introduce Eli Pfefferkorn.  I promise to write a profile on the man but, for now, let me offer a few brushstrokes.  Pfefferkorn was a born in Poland at the worst possible time, or some ten years before the Germans pulverized the nation.  He died in Canada in 2017.  Along the way, he lived in England and Israel and the United States.  He was highly intelligent, highly provocative, highly conniving.  He was a camp survivor.  In the language of the camps, he was an organizer.  Meaning: a forager, a scavenger, or somebody who quickly learned how to survive in that world of the absolute negative.  Pfefferkorn survived the death camp of Majdanek.  He was one of the few.  He was a born and fantastic storyteller.  But nothing got in the way of story, not fact, not common sense, not veracity.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I gave Pfefferkorn’s storytelling a name.  There was Pfefferfact and Pfefferfiction and sometimes it was impossible to tell the difference.  There was such a dynamic as the Pfefferization of history.

     Pfefferkorn was also a polyglot.  He could read Aramaic.  Had Josephus written Against Mark in Greek or Hebrew or Latin, or a more modern day language like German or French or Polish, I could have taken that manuscript to Pfefferkorn, too.  Pfefferkorn translated the book from Aramaic to English.

     Against Mark should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the Gospels, or church history, or Ancient Rome, or the Second Temple period.  I’m not sure there’s been a more influential writer in the history of the western world than Josephus.  He just never gained the recognition.  Maybe that will start to change now.

Who was the real Elie Wiesel?

Who was the real Elie Wiesel?

(My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making.  Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to a Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher.  Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus.  The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-Brian-Josepher/dp/1796731927/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1BOJK9W717GRJ&keywords=brian+josepher&qid=1554993946&s=books&sprefix=brian+josepher%2Caps%2C188&sr=1-2-catcorr.

     I am writing a series of profiles related to the book.  This is part one of five.  Part two will examine another famous chronicler.  Look for “Who was the real Josephus?” coming in May.)

I first wrote to Elie Wiesel in the winter of 2006.  “This is a book proposal,” I began.  “I would like to write a biography on you.  A different kind of biography, perhaps, from the books already published.  The biography I propose would not be a blow-by-blow accounting of your life….  I aim to write an intimate portrayal.”

     An “intimate portrayal”: what did I mean?  Words came to mind: insightful, penetrating, investigatory, critical yet objective, sympathetic, balanced.  That last word resonated in my mind: a balanced biography.  That kind of book did not exist on Wiesel.

      Why didn’t that kind of book exist?  There are enough books on the life and work of Wiesel to fill a library.  There are profound theological studies.  There is an abundance of literary critique.  There is much hagiography.  There are volumes written as part of youth literature.  Wiesel himself wrote over a thousand pages of autobiography, in multiple volumes over many years.  Still, despite the voluminous work, Wiesel remains a great unknown, an enigma.  The big questions endure.  How did a Hasidic Jew from a small town in Northern Transylvania become the face of the Holocaust?  How did a yeshiva bocher, or a young man in a religious school, evolve into a man of conscience and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate?

     Over the course of eight years, I navigated his life.  I interviewed schoolmates from Wiesel’s heder, or Hebrew elementary school.  I interviewed his cousin, who was with him in Auschwitz.  I interviewed his closest friend from Buchenwald 1945.  I interviewed his friends from France and the period following the war.  I interviewed his French tutor.  I interviewed the counselors who guided him.  I interviewed theologians and thinkers who knew Wiesel in America.  I interviewed Wiesel’s key lieutenant from the Holocaust museum building era of the 1980s.  I interviewed his eldest sister, until she abruptly ended the interview.  The list goes on.

     I then used all of that material to build a literary investigation in the tradition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  My research uncovered an Elie Wiesel never before uncovered.  I called the work, The Gospel According to Elie Wiesel.  GAEW never found publication.  It was too iconoclastic for the reading realm.  It upset too many sensibilities.  I then used my research on Wiesel, added multiple story lines and characters, including Jesus and Josephus, created a faux history, and called it Satan’s Synagogue.  Below you will find a profile of Wiesel.  Or, in the language I used in Satan’s Synagogue, a portraiture.  Here are ten brushstrokes:

1) Wiesel was a master teacher, according to former students.  One of those students, Ariel Burger, recently wrote a book entitled, Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom.  In a question and answer article used by the publisher for publicity, Burger spoke to the genesis of his work on Wiesel.  He couldn’t believe that “so little had been written about his role as a teacher, even though he always said that teaching was the most important public role he played.” (see Ariel Burger’s author page on Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/Witness-Lessons-Elie-Wiesels-Classroom/dp/1328802698/ref=sr_1_fkmrnull_1?crid=1IYDXH5UFHNOQ&keywords=ariel+burger+witness&qid=1554900149&s=gateway&sprefix=ariel+burger%2Caps%2C126&sr=8-1-fkmrnull)  He went on to say that “Wiesel was very supportive of the idea, and we spent time discussing what I might include.”  Of course, those sessions occurred.  Wiesel never allowed anyone outside his circle to write on him, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue and as I will touch on in these brushstrokes.  Wiesel used his circle to control his narrative.  He held autocratic authority over the telling of his story.  That’s not the grave disappointment found on Burger’s pages, though.  There’s not one critical evaluation of Wiesel in Witness.  All we get is the idealized Wiesel.  The real Wiesel – his ambitions, his overwhelming need to control, his public façade of purity, his fragile psychology, or what I called his psychache in Satan’s Synagogue – remains untouched and unexplored.  As a Festschrift, Witness is a success.  But then, that’s all we have on Wiesel.  Pages and pages of Festschrift.  Books and books of Festschrift.  Winston Churchill once said, “To do justice to a great man, discriminating criticism is always necessary.”  Burger’s book only provides more urgency to the fundamental question: Who was the real Elie Wiesel?

2) Wiesel was a profound storyteller and a fundamental chronicler of the 20th century.  He had an extraordinary talent; he could conjure up not only the image of the concentration camp universe, but its breath, its smell, its echo, its reverberation.  That talent produced a cult of personality.  Wiesel developed a kingdom of followers and disciples, in the traditions of his Hasidic ancestry.  He occupied the seat of the rebbe.  The rebbe-to-disciple relationship produced a fierce sense of protection.  To challenge Wiesel publically became a rarity bordering on blasphemy.  There were a few mitnagidim, or opponents, to Wiesel.  The Holocaust survivor Eli Pfefferkorn, who was once a follower but eventually broke with Wiesel, was one.  The literary critic Alfred Kazin, who also cherished Wiesel early in their friendship but eventually saw Wiesel as an act, was another.  I am the latest.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I question Wiesel in the narrative he told.  I question Wiesel in how, and why, he portrayed himself as he did.  I question Wiesel in the role he created for himself.  I think Wiesel created both a Biblical character and a Gospel.  He framed himself as a prophet while quietly advancing a kind of sanctimony.

     Notably, Wiesel’s Gospel linked to the New Testament.  Consider some linkages.  As the Gospels of Jesus framed an idealized birth scene to contrast the later trauma on the cross, Wiesel romanticized his childhood to contrast the absolute negative of Auschwitz.  In Auschwitz, according to Wiesel, unyielding suffering provoked his argumentation with God.  The detail has a link to Jesus on the cross.  Death followed the suffering, figuratively, as Wiesel became a corpse in a mirror at the end of his iconic memoir, Night.  Resurrection followed death, figuratively, as Wiesel became a messenger to mankind.  The war ended for Wiesel in Buchenwald 1945.  He then experienced a period in the proverbial desert.  He appeared lost and hungry.  But he found his calling: writing, remembrance, witness, using his personal history to draw attention to current genocides and great injustices.  As Jesus used his platform to castigate the decadence of the ruling Pharisees, to overturn the tables of the moneychangers, Wiesel used his voice to advocate on behalf of Soviet refuseniks and dissidents.  He continued his missionary work in places like South Africa, Nigeria, Argentina and Cambodia.

3) If Wiesel’s mission included some truly admirable work, a strong subtext of narcissism pervaded.  He made a career of distilling and billboarding the Holocaust’s essence as he saw it, usually with himself at the center.  He developed his prophet persona, replete with a physiognomy.  But he took his persona beyond the prophet.  He reached for an illustrious figure in Jewish traditions: a Tzaddik, a wholly righteous person.  In Hasidic traditions, the Tzaddik has some superhuman qualities.  A charismatic leader, he can be imbued with access to the divine.  I think Wiesel positioned himself as the American Tzaddik.

     To what was Wiesel moored?  To condense my project down to a few lines, he was moored to self-achievement and self-promotion.  He was moored to control at a high cost.  He was moored to storytelling at the expense of historicity.  Such a mooring, for a novelist, would hardly be worth a footnote.  But Wiesel positioned himself as much more than a novelist.  He positioned himself as the emissary for the “traumatized generation,” as he so artfully named the survivors.  He positioned himself as the docent of Auschwitz.  He positioned himself as the voice of conscience.  In those self-appointed roles, did he have the right to compromise truth?  Did he have the right to build legend?  Did he have the right to create an apocrypha?

     Let’s examine one example among many.  In his autobiography, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel documented the story behind the writing of Night.  That is to say, why did he wait ten years to write the memoir, as his self-stated record claimed, and how did the writing process proceed?  According to Wiesel, he wrote the memoir on a ship called the Provence, while sailing from France to Brazil.  He wrote the memoir in a full sprint.

     “I spent most of the voyage in my cabin working,” he claimed.  “I was writing my account of the concentration camp years – in Yiddish.  I wrote feverishly, breathlessly, without reading.  I wrote to testify, to stop the dead from dying, to justify my own survival.  I wrote to speak to those who were gone.  As long as I spoke to them, they would live on, at least in my memory.”

     Note the tone: a tight, intense, compelling scene.  The reader feels somehow present in Wiesel’s cabin, watching.  In terms of Holocaust awareness, this scene served as a tipping point.  Wiesel’s climb as the emissary of the Holocaust generation began here, as his story poured out.

     According to Wiesel’s version of events, he wrote 862 pages in Yiddish.  Meanwhile, he missed the story he was supposed to cover.  In the 1950s Wiesel wrote a column for an Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth.  The column, entitled “Sparks from the City of Light,” focused on Paris, where Wiesel lived.  According to Wiesel, his editor at the newspaper suggested the trip.

     He described, “It seems the Catholic Church was conducting suspicious missionary activities in Israel, particularly among Jews recently arrived from Eastern Europe.  They were poor and unhappy, and Rome’s emissaries offered them visas for Brazil, free passage, and two hundred dollars each, provided they converted to Catholicism.”

     When the Provence arrived at the port of Sao Paulo, the immigrants caught his eye.  Their visas had been annulled.  They couldn’t disembark.  Wiesel asked one of the ship’s officers a question: How long would the refugees have to remain on board?  “Until someone gives them visas,” the officer answered.  The ship then began to sail for the next port of call.

     According to Wiesel, he had a decision to make: either to disembark or to stay with the refugees.  He remained on board, he claimed, along with his large manuscript.  “We sailed from port to port,” Wiesel declared, “pariahs rejected everywhere.”

     Wiesel, at this point in his tale, assumed a role.  “A sort of spokesman for the exiles,” he described.  Substitute one word – survivors for exiles – and the description fit Wiesel’s emissary role.

     At the port of Buenos Aires, Wiesel introduced a crucial character.  His name was Marc Turkow and he was a superstar in the Yiddish publishing world.  A serendipitous moment occurred.  Turkow noticed Wiesel’s large manuscript.  “He wanted to know what it was and whether he could look at it,” Wiesel claimed.  “I showed it to him, explaining that it was unfinished.  ‘That’s all right,’ he said.  ‘Let me take it away.’”

     Wiesel complied.  Turkow disappeared from Wiesel’s narrative.  He reappeared, briefly, in December 1956.  Wiesel “received from Buenos Aires the first copy of my Yiddish testimony ‘And the World Stayed Silent,’ which I had finished on the boat to Brazil.”  Wiesel’s memoir became volume 117 of Turkow’s Dos poylishe yidntum (Polish Jewry), a series that included Holocaust memoirs.

     The sailing, according to Wiesel’s dating, took place in the spring of 1954.  That same spring, or possibly 1955 (Wiesel’s dating can be contradictory), Wiesel interviewed the famed writer, François Mauriac.  As Wiesel told the story in “An Interview Unlike Any Other,” (see Elie Wiesel, A Jew Today), Mauriac wanted to know the details of Wiesel’s Holocaust experience.  Wiesel objected.  “I shook my head,” he described.  “‘I cannot, I cannot speak of it, please, don’t insist.’”

     Mauriac, though, pushed Wiesel further.  He wanted to know why Wiesel had not written of his experiences in the camps.  Wiesel indicated his ten-year vow of silence.  Mauriac pressed.  “‘I think that you are wrong,’” he said, according to Wiesel.  “‘You are wrong not to speak…”  The ellipsis was Wiesel’s.  Mauriac continued, “‘Listen to the old man that I am: one must speak out…’”

     From there, according to Wiesel, he began to write.  “One year later,” as Wiesel described, he sent Mauriac the completed manuscript, “written under the seal of memory and silence.”

     From there, the historical record is clear.  Mauriac reached out to a contact in the publishing business, Jérôme Lindon of Les Editions de Minuit.  In June of 1958, La Nuit came into the world, with a foreword by Mauriac.  The English version would follow and Wiesel’s climb as the emissary of the Holocaust generation would begin its slow ascent.

     That, in a nutshell, seems to be the backstory behind the writing and publishing of Night.  Let’s take a moment to do the math.  According to Wiesel, he wrote a manuscript of over eight hundred pages while on board the ship.  The Provence took approximately two weeks to cross the Atlantic.  Simple math suggests that Wiesel produced some sixty pages a day on his typewriter.  Such totals spark a dose of skepticism.

     Let’s continue with the skepticism.  According to Wiesel, he gave his just-written, unedited manuscript to a publisher.  That manuscript was his one and only copy.  Would Wiesel or any writer trust his only copy to a stranger, albeit a publisher?  And if he did, wouldn’t he follow up with Turkow in between the spring of 1954 and December 1956, when publishing occurred?  Wiesel didn’t address these holes.

     That leads to the original 862 pages.  According to Wiesel, he cut the manuscript severely for the French version of Night.  He never addressed the logistics of those enormous cuts.  He never addressed when the cuts took place, or how, or what specifically got lost.

     That leads to the translation.  According to Wiesel, it took him a year to write Night in French.  Wiesel’s story is a little screwy at this point.  Did he meet Mauriac first?  Did he then sail to Brazil and write the Yiddish manuscript?  Did he then turn the Yiddish into the French?  Or, did he sail on the Provence first?  Did he then turn the Yiddish, written feverishly, into the French, with the interview of Mauriac occurring sometime within that year?

     To these sizeable doubts, the one source in a position to possibly correct the historical record offered his version of events.  For Wiesel did not travel to Brazil alone.  “My poet friend Nicolas, now immersed in South American literature, proposed to go with me,” Wiesel indicated in his autobiography.  “A resourceful Israeli friend somehow managed to come up with free boat tickets for us…”

     Let’s leave that last line for a moment to introduce Nicolas de la Garde.  Like Wiesel, he was born in Romania in 1928.  His father, in fact, was born in Wiesel’s hometown of Sighet.  Nicolas’s family moved to Belgium the year after his birth.  Nicolas survived the war in hiding and in various concentration camps in France, including the notorious camp of Gurs.  In the summer of 1946, Nicolas’s mother took a job as a cook at an orphanage at Versailles.  Wiesel met Nicolas de la Garde there.  Nicolas gained his doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1957.  He immediately procured a teaching position at Hebrew University.  There, he changed his name to Moshe Lazar.

     Lazar became a legendary scholar.  At Hebrew University he developed the department of romance languages.  He moved on to Tel Aviv University to found the school of visual and performing art.  In 1977, he moved to the University of Southern California, where he taught until his retirement in 2011.  Students at USC described Lazar as a “rock star” professor and a “one-man humanities department.”  Lazar spoke thirteen languages.  (See Jordan Hurder, The Windbag Litwag, http://chancepress.wordpress.com/category /marc-chagall/.)

     Late in life, his language turned erratic.  During the first decade of the 21st century, Lazar began to suffer from Alzheimer’s.  It’s a horrible irony.  Alzheimer’s took away his speech.  Lazar died in December 2012.  But in Satan’s Synagogue, Lazar came forward with his story for the first time.  When he offered that story, he was in the early stages of his disease.  As a counter to possible misremembering, Lazar’s wife sat in on the interviews.  Sonia Lazar had heard the stories for years.  She could corroborate or dispel.

     Moshe Lazar agreed with Wiesel on one detail: the two traveled to Brazil together on board the Provence.  The rest he called “strange, contradictory tales.”  According to Lazar, Wiesel wrote the Yiddish version in Paris.  He contracted with Marc Turkow to publish before the sailing to Brazil.  The historical record shows that Wiesel had a direct contact to Turkow.  His name was Leon Leneman and he was an important journalist in the Yiddish world.  Wiesel was a boarder in the Leneman home following his stint in the orphanage.  Wiesel, though, didn’t give his only copy to a stranger, who happened to board the ship in Buenos Aires.  That was a part of Wiesel’s apocrypha.  The Yiddish version was complete.

     On board the Provence, Lazar began to translate Wiesel’s manuscript from Yiddish to French.  He worked for six hours every day, according to his recollections.  The Provence docked at the port of Buenos Aires.  Lazar and Wiesel disembarked.  Asked about the refugees on board the ship, unable to leave, Lazar simply shook his head.  The fiction was so sizable; he couldn’t even muster words of dissent.

     Lazar and Wiesel checked into a hotel.  Early the next morning Wiesel woke him with “urgent” news.  He had to return to Paris, immediately.  Wiesel and Lazar had planned on a two-month tour, including a month at sea as part of round-trip sailing.  Lazar, who hadn’t finished the translation job on board the Provence, stayed in South America.  He spent several more weeks on the translation.  He then sent both manuscripts, the Yiddish and the translated French, back to Wiesel in Paris.

     According to Lazar, the original Yiddish didn’t amount to anything close to 862 pages.  Asked why Wiesel exaggerated the total, Lazar didn’t weigh in.  Wiesel, though he never addressed the logistics of the cuts, did address the effect.  “Suddenly I was left with six hundred pages and I thought, ‘Well, there are enough pages here for other books.’” (Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in conversation with Elie Wiesel.)

     Note the unexpected.  Note the serendipity.  These brushstrokes help to form the fuller portraiture of Elie Wiesel.  They flow into his wider brushstroke of humility.  In Wiesel’s description the cuts served a fundamental role.  They propelled his writing career forward.  But if accurate, Lazar’s recollections debunked the total.  The cuts were apocrypha.

     Asked what Wiesel did on the ship while Lazar worked on the translation, Lazar replied with one word, “Nothing.”  His word came out strained, tight, tense.  At the end of his life, Lazar held a great deal of animosity toward Wiesel.  He felt betrayed.  Why?  Sonia Lazar explained, “In the last years, as things piled up, he began to examine the earlier years and the unkind tricks played on him” by Wiesel.  For the full history of those tricks, please see Satan’s Synagogue.  But let’s address one of those tricks and circle back to Wiesel’s line about the Israeli friend who “somehow managed to come up with free boat tickets.”

     According to Lazar, the two young men traveled in style, in first class accommodation.  As neither Wiesel nor Lazar had money, how did they wrangle the tickets?  Lazar reported, Wiesel “had been paid to take two luxurious Cadillacs to Brazil.”  The Cadillacs were contraband.  Lazar found out about the cars upon disembarkation.  One Cadillac had been registered in Wiesel’s name, the other in Lazar’s name.  If accurate, Wiesel then made Lazar a trafficker.  What would have happened had the authorities in Brazil learned of the smuggling operation?

     Lazar was ripe for such schemes.  His wife described him as “naïve” and “optimistic.”  She told a story to demonstrate.  In the 1970s Wiesel interviewed Lazar for a film.  Wiesel couldn’t believe the “great optimism” flowing from Lazar, “despite his experiences in the camps!”

     Sonia Lazar described her husband as an “optimistic Holocaust survivor,” or a rare breed.  “Contrast that to Elie Wiesel,” Sonia Lazar concluded.

4) Wiesel was a heroic figure.  In the 1950s and 60s, when few outside the survivor demographic listened or cared about the Holocaust, he worked on behalf of survivors.  He gave them voice.  He then used his voice to advocate on behalf of Soviet refuseniks and dissidents beginning in the mid-1960s.  He continued his advocacy work around the world.  It’s a profound record.  He won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work.

(Well, let’s be clear.  The Nobel Peace Prize is as spurious as they come.  First off, a quiet yet relentless campaigning takes place for all wannabe recipients.  My investigation shows a multipronged campaign, occurring over many years, to win Wiesel the prize.  Secondly, let’s just consider some of the names on the winner’s list.  Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat, Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat, Menachem Begin.  It’s hard to call any of these people peace advocates considering their wider history.  A signature on a document does not make them promoters of peace.  The Nobel peace prize committee seems to dwell in childlike naiveté.   Notably, Wiesel later awarded Kissinger the Elie Wiesel Remembrance Award.  That was a strange cozying up to a Machiavellian.)

5) His narcissism got in the way.  After winning the Nobel, Wiesel created a foundation.  The foundation served as a platform for Wiesel’s self-promotion.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I gave it a name.  A one-man state department.  Consider some of his questionable diplomacy.  In the summer of 1992, international observers and journalists began to chronicle widespread atrocities in Bosnia.  The reportage evoked images of World War II and the concentration camp universe.  In fact, the parallels to the Holocaust were eerie, as if the perpetrators had a model on which to build their form of annihilation.  As in the Holocaust, the genocide in Bosnia sparked its own vocabulary.  The term “ethnic cleansing,” attributed to the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadzic, came into the world.  Talk of “ethnic cleansing” resulted in an international outcry to stop the atrocities.   

     At the end of August 1992, a critical moment occurred.  A conference, to advance peace negotiations and to close the prison camps, was held in London.  Top Western diplomats, mainly foreign ministers including Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, attended.  So did all the key players from the Balkan region.  One attendee, the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim by birth, referred to the prison camps as death camps.  Such talk conjured one death camp in particular.  Auschwitz loomed over the entire proceedings.

     What transpired proved notable.  Elie Wiesel attended the conference on the invitation of President Dobrica Cosic of Yugoslavia.  According to Wiesel, Cosic proposed that a commission, led by Wiesel, travel to Bosnia to investigate the conditions in the prison camps.  At the conference, the other leaders went along.  They promised freedom of movement.  Cosic took the gesture further.  Before Wiesel, he appealed to Karadzic to close all the camps in his territory.  Karadzic accepted.  The two leaders signed an agreement.

     Pierre Hazan, then a diplomatic correspondent who covered the Balkan wars extensively, called that document a “paper” agreement.  It was worthless.  It would never take effect.  (See Pierre Hazan, Justice in a Time of War.  Hazan participated in an author interview, September 3, 2013.)

     Hazan framed the conference as a façade.  The Balkan strongmen hoped to gain a “veneer of legitimacy.”  In Wiesel, they found the ideal frontman.  Here was the witness to the concentration camp universe.  Here was the docent of Auschwitz.  Here was a voice of conscience.  Here was someone who could confer, in the court of public opinion, a favorable image.

     Hazan, though, took the framing further.  The Balkan leaders weren’t alone in using the persona of Wiesel.  Why did the leaders of the Western democracies turn to Wiesel?  Following the reportage of atrocities, public opinion expressed outrage.  Cries could be heard for a vigorous intervention.  The Western leaders responded by ratcheting up the pressure on the Balkan strongmen during the London conference.  They threatened the belligerents by naming a special investigator to examine the crimes.  They imposed economic sanctions.  They raised the idea of military intervention.  “The words are strong,” Hazan described, “but no one is fooled.  Behind the rhetoric and spectacle of politicians outraged by the policy of ethnic cleansing, this conference is, above all, an attempt to intimidate the belligerents into compliance and to calm an indignant public.  It is not about sending soldiers to die in Sarajevo.”

     Hazan called the London conference a “theater.”  Wiesel served as the perfect symbol, according to Hazan, or “the living dead man returned from the Nazi camps meets the organizers of ‘ethnic cleansing.’”  In the persona of Wiesel, Western moral conscience had a public face.

     Was Wiesel aware of the duplicity?  Did he realize that he was a tool, as all sides played Wiesel for their own gain?  Or, was he blinded by his own ambitions?  Was he a victim of his own one-man state department publicity?

     During his tour, Wiesel met privately with Milosevic and publically with Karadzic.  The interview with Karadzic took place in Karadzic’s palace.  Wiesel brought an entourage, including members of the American and European press.  The scene was photographed and filmed by the press.  In the push and pull between a war criminal and a witness who had once been a victim of war criminals, some basic questions emerged of Wiesel.  Why would he meet with alleged war criminals?  What would he hope to gain?  Was he that enamored with his own role in the proceedings?  And if Wiesel truly believed in his mission, why did he create a media event?

6) Wiesel developed a most unique public image.  His self-portraiture centered on humility.  He removed himself from the forces of ambition.  He shaped his character upon the moral fibers of work: to study, to write, and to teach, as noted in the Ariel Burger article.  Meanwhile, his credits piled up.  He wrote indefatigably.  He won literary prizes in France.  He served two presidents as the Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.  He won the highest prizes bestowed by the U.S. government: the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  His crowning achievement occurred in 1986 with the Nobel Peace Prize.

     Wiesel developed a distance between himself and his accomplishments.  There’s no talk of taking action, of pursuit.  There’s no talk of ambition.  A definitive brushstroke in the self-portraiture of Elie Wiesel emerges, the brushstroke of humility.  The world fame and import fell to him.  He played no role in his accomplishments.  Rather, he expressed wonder at his success.

     This incredulity found a champion in Wiesel’s longtime literary agent, Georges Borchardt.  Wiesel met Borchardt in the late 1950s.  Borchardt then represented the French publishing house Les Editions de Minuit in New York.  Through Borchardt’s efforts, Wiesel’s iconic memoir, Night, found an American publisher.  A confidential, trusting relationship grew from these roots.

     Asked about the promotion of Wiesel during the long width of Wiesel’s career, Borchardt responded, “I, as his agent, did not do anything to promote him, nor did he promote himself.  People just came after him…” (Author correspondence with Georges Borchardt, May 1, 2009.)

     Borchardt’s statement held some merit.  In July 1966, for instance, the 92nd Street Y contacted Wiesel.  His lecture series began with the Y’s outreach.  But consider Borchardt’s pronoun, I.  He focused on himself.  His statement missed the wider story.  Was there duplicity in Borchardt’s grammar?

     Wiesel hired a promoter, the B’nai B’rith lecture bureau, in the spring of 1967.  The bureau, then and now, represents renowned Jewish public figures and scholars.  Lily Edelman became Wiesel’s publicist.  In many different sources over the years, Edelman interviewed and wrote about Wiesel.  Never does she acknowledge her role as paid publicist.  Never does Wiesel acknowledge her role.

     Wiesel’s incredulity expressed a kind of purity.  The advance of Wiesel’s brand, however, developed through a more active, assertive role.  To hire an agency did not remove Wiesel from self-promotion.  Rather, it added a layer.  A similar dynamic played out in Wiesel’s campaign to win the Nobel Prize.

     Notably, the lack of self-promotion as a defining characteristic paralleled the New Testament.  “He stayed outside in remote places,” the Gospel of Mark detailed Jesus’ movement.  “Yet people kept coming to him from all quarters.” (Mark 1:45.  Oxford Study Bible.)  Was Wiesel’s framing coincidental?  A lack of self-promotion, an overwhelming tone of humility, promoted Wiesel as modest, somber, interior.  Meanwhile, the Gospels of Jesus imbued the figure with similar characteristics.  Did Wiesel have the Jesus example in mind?

7) Why was Wiesel’s Jesus framing significant?  Beginning with the Night story in the 1950s, Wiesel established himself as bilingual.  His language spoke to both Jews and Christians.  He offered a mooring in which both faiths could identify.  This language was part of Wiesel’s genius.

     Go read Night.  Near the end of Wiesel’s time in Auschwitz, he described a hanging.  In Wiesel’s rendering, he subtly mirrored the crucifixion of Jesus.  In Wiesel, Crucifixion 32 shifted to Hanging 1944.  Golgotha met Auschwitz.

     Wiesel’s scene resonated with Christian readers.  The first, François Mauriac, described Wiesel as holding on to “the far reaches of the two testaments.” (François Mauriac, “Le Bloc-Notes de François Mauriac,” Le Figaro Littéraire, June 8, 1963.)  Other Christian readers followed.  Among them, John K. Roth called the hanging scene the book’s “key.”  He asked, “Who, what, is dying on the gallows?”  He answered, “One child, all children, and Elie Wiesel among them.” (John K. Roth, “Telling a Tale That Cannot Be Told: Reflections on the Authorship of Elie Wiesel,” in Alvin H. Rosenfeld and Irving Greenberg, eds., Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel.)

     Remarkably, Wiesel’s rendering of the scene stands alone.  There were multiple witnesses to that hanging.  I found and interviewed a number of them, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue.  None of them remembered the scene the way Wiesel described.  One of them, Siegmund Kalinski, called Wiesel’s rendering “a fantasy, just to make an impression on his readers.” (Author interview with Siegmund Kalinski, April 18, 2009.) 

8) Wiesel was, quietly, an incredibly litigious person.  He threatened lawsuits relentlessly.  Perhaps the case can be made that Wiesel used the threat of lawsuits to yield power and control.  Perhaps the case can be made that the threat of lawsuits was a part of his psychache.

9) Wiesel was nearly as litigious as Trump.  That isn’t their only similarity.  Both men loved, and sought out, the limelight to a fault.  Both men built their campaigns on loyalty.  Loyalty meant saying the earth was flat if the leader deemed it so.  Disloyalty got you shunned.  Both men suffered from massive abandonment issues as children, stemming from their fathers.  Trump’s father has been well-documented: autocratic, recalcitrant, certainly emotionally unavailable but very possibly lacking in emotional intelligence.  Wiesel’s father, in the years before his death at Buchenwald, was a merchant, a grocery store owner.  In an interview (see Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in conversation with Elie Wiesel), Wiesel reflected on his early relationship with his father.  The store took away the attentions of his father. 

     “He worked hard from early morning to late at night,” Wiesel recalled.  “He was more absent from home than present because either he was in the store or he was working for the community.”  According to Wiesel, and corroborated by other eyewitnesses, Wiesel’s father was a dayan, or community organizer and arbiter.

     Due to his work life, Wiesel’s father had one day a week to spend with his son.  That time came on Shabbat.  Wiesel attached to a memory.  Following the ritual mikveh, father and son walked to services together.  The father took his son’s hand.  “I liked it when he did that, and I like to remember it now,” Wiesel commented in his autobiography, All Rivers Run to the Sea.  “I felt reassured, content.  Bound to me, he belonged to me.  We formed a bloc.”

     That bloc dissolved in an instant.  When someone else joined in the walk, the father released the hand.  The act caused his son to feel “abandoned, even rejected…”  The image is arresting.  For moments, snippets, Wiesel had his father’s undivided attention.  That attention inspired gratification.  Note the great warmth, the unity, the ownership.  The child reveled in the attention.  The moments, though, were fleeting.  Something always followed, something that took his father’s attention away.  Wiesel felt rejected.  Rejection led to bereavement.

     Where did bereavement lead?  Bereavement created a cycle, a deep and unmitigated longing for more attention.  What did the child learn from that wound?  How to hoard what he craved?  How to invent to facilitate more?  How to act to coerce?  How to control?

     Trump’s early life contained some of the same markers.  Of course, Trump didn’t lose his father to the Holocaust.  He didn’t watch his father die, as Wiesel did.  The war year, from the spring of 1944 to April 1945, intensified Wiesel’s sense of bereavement.  The war year produced a person who desperately needed to control his universe.  Control came easily to the writer.  In his fiction, his memoirs and even his journalism, Wiesel created character, plot lines, and story development.  There was no outside threat, no voice of contention.  Control came almost as easily to the emissary, and to the teacher.  But that control was put to the test during the 1980s and the building of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue.  Wiesel entered a new and collaborative enterprise.  He had a great deal personally at stake.  He felt threatened.  In the face of perceived threat he tightened his control.  He formed an oligarchy as a protective layer.  He surrounded himself with loyalists.  The tentacles reach out to Trump’s oligarchy, to his obsession with control, to his wound relationship with his father.

10) Let me circle back to the beginning of this portraiture.  I asked a question.  Why doesn’t a balanced biography of Wiesel exist?  Wiesel did respond to my book proposal.  He pointed out the many books on his life and work.  Did the world need another?

     At that time, I accepted his response.  But something gnawed on me.  I continued to read the oeuvre and I discovered a fascinating dynamic.  Wiesel’s narrative served as the central source for all books on him.  His story, as he laid it out, dominated.  Critical appraisal, working off the historical method, was nonexistent.

     How did this come to pass?  Let’s consider one example.  Ellen Norman Stern authored two pivotal works on Wiesel as part of a youth series.  She originally met with Wiesel sometime in the early 1980s.  “We sat in the small office and he spoke to me of his childhood, especially of his parents,” Stern described in her introduction to Elie Wiesel: Witness for Life.  “I had brought along fragments of my manuscript-to-be, and he was particularly interested in seeing that I had the right ‘tone’ in my opening page.”  Stern welcomed Wiesel’s guidance.  “I had the feeling I had known this man all of my life,” she continued.  “I was seeing a friend.  I felt united to him by the fact that, as children, our lives were altered by the Holocaust.”

     Stern came from Berlin.  Her family fled in 1939 for the United States, some of the last Jews to escape the prison that Europe would become.  Stern went on to describe that first meeting with Wiesel as “a homecoming.”  If her description clearly emphasized appreciation and gratitude, if her motivations for the meeting seemed clear – to raise the level of the manuscript – a question reverberates.  What were Wiesel’s motivations?  Perhaps, as Stern implied, Wiesel guided for purely literary purposes.  According to his narrative, he paid particular emphasis to the first page.  If it didn’t “sing,” if he didn’t “hear the melody,” then he discontinued.  He set the project aside.  He waited.  The first page determined the flow of the story.  (See Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in Conversation with Elie Wiesel.)

     Perhaps, in Stern’s case, Wiesel merely acted as storytelling adviser.  Or, perhaps he sought control.  If control issues flooded his psyche, we see his need to control, in the case of Ellen Norman Stern, by offering his guidance.  In so doing, did Wiesel manage who would write about him, and how they would write?  The question, of course, circles back to the latest book on Wiesel, Ariel Burger’s Witness.

     For me, a smaller question lingered.  How did my proposal, back in 2006, strike Wiesel?  Had others in my position, outside his circle, submitted similar proposals over the years?  Had he reacted to those proposals as he did to mine?  The record remains hazy.  While Wiesel responded to my proposal with kind words of rejection, strong evidence suggests that he attempted to shut down my research.  In Satan’s Synagogue, I documented the roadblocks Wiesel erected.  Roadblocks circle back to my book proposal.  Was his question a roadblock, offered not out of humility, as it read on paper, but rather out of control, as I would be working independently, uninterested in promoting his agenda?

     For me, the questions linger on.

About the author

Brian Josepher lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Over the years, he has authored fiction and history, online editorials and reportage, and even a relationship column. All of his previous books are available on Amazon. See https://www.amazon.com/s?k=brian+josepher&crid=1Y0R9RGSBE70U&sprefix=Brian+jose%2Caps%2C127&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_7_10.

He is currently working on a sequel (sort of) to Satan’s Synagogue. Documents found during his research for that book unearth new information on the Silk Road, or that network of trade routes that connected Ancient Rome to China. In the not too distant future, Josepher will reveal a new route, all the way up into the northern region of the Eurasian Steppe, known to the Romans as the “suprasternal notch.” Shortly before this blog’s publication, a former CIA agent, living in one of the towns on the notch, presented mind-blowing evidence to Josepher regarding the October Surprise of 1980. Did the Reagan Republicans negotiate a deal with Khomeini’s Iran to delay the release of the American hostages held in Tehran until after the presidential election of 1980, thereby assuring themselves of victory over President Carter’s reelection campaign? Josepher now has proof. If you think he covers a tremendous amount of ground in Satan’s Synagogue, wait until you see the sequel.