I am a great fan of the classical historians. When I was in my teens, my grandfather and I used to read some of these old books and discuss them together. Apart from the Shiji, I have never really found the histories of any other ancient civilization to rival them. Josephus is high on my list of favorites.

As with Caesar before him, Josephus' war history portrays him in too favorable a light to be credible. I suppose that is the dilemma of reading the words of an eyewitness with a flair for drama.

A famous story in Book III of the Jewish War is Josephus' suicide pact. He and some of his followers found themselves beseiged in a cave, with the Romans led by Vespasian urging surrender. Josephus says he knew (as a member of the priestly caste he was able to interpret certain dreams) that it was God's desire he should live on as a Roman citizen after the destruction of Judea, but the other Jews with him were unanimously determined to commit collective suicide. Since he was unable to change their minds, and since they were threatening to kill him, he proposed that they should at least find a way to die without committing the grave sin of suicide. They would draw numbered lots. Each man would kill the man who drew the next lowest lot, until only one man with the highest lot remained; the last man would kill himself. The group agreed to this, and lo and behold ("shall we put it down to divine providence or just to luck?") he was the last man. Josephus not only lived, but convinced the last man to live, too, so that he himself would not have to commit the (equally grave) sin of killing a fellow Jew.

This story is well known. (There is actually a class of combinatorial problems in discrete mathematics called the Josephus Problem.) My grandfather remembered reading the story in a Russian version as a boy in what is now Poland. But he remembered the end differently, and indeed the Slavonic version of the tale has Josephus stealthily allowing himself to draw the highest number.

As I reread the book today, the most striking thing is the fanaticism of the Jews in the time of the Second Temple. You cannot help thinking of the extremism of the violent sects of modern Islamists. 1900 years of diaspora seem to have largely eliminated this particular strain of fundamentalism from Judaism. Well, but why don't people recommend reading the Jewish War for understanding Islamist psychology (both peaceful and violent)?

I feel torn, really. There is a part of me that responds hungrily to the message of fundamentalist loyalty to ancient rules of life. What alternative is there to monotheism? The very idea of an alternative seems absurd. Another part of me prefers the amalgamating culture of the Great City, which fundamentalists of all religions generally condemn. Fundamentalists, of course, tend to idolize the simplicity of peasant ways.

In the City, things are not simple. People come within the city walls to see things they would never see in the countryside. They come to hear music their parents never heard, eat things their parents would never have dreamed of eating. They come to trade, they come perhaps in search of forbidden love or forbidden medicine for their country ills. They come to explore ideas that are not accepted in the countryside, and to meet people they could never meet there. They come to ask questions, and maybe to hear questions asked that they can't answer. Monotheism or no, where else would you want to live?

I do understand the pull of fundamentalist monotheism, and I suppose New York is, after all, Babylon or Rome. But I see in it no connection with the human sacrifices of ancient Babylon or the enforced immoralities of Rome. What the City as I have known it stands for is tolerance - of everything but intolerance. What the City stands for is something immensely good, and better than what people who speak for God usually say.