Terrence Malick’s 2005 film, The New World, was filmed on the Chickahominy River, less than a mile or two from where we live. The New World tells the story of Jamestown, focused around the fascinating story of Captain John Smith, his capture by the Native Americans, and his detainment at the ancient Algonquian village of Werowocomoco, recently discovered along the York River in Virginia. By Smith’s recollection, his life was spared at the last minute by the intervention of the young daughter of chief Powhatan, Pocahontas. This is the stuff that great legends are made of.
Captain John Smith was a man of adventure, much like the great Jewish historian, Josephus, whom we considered in an earlier Veracity post. Perhaps in more ways than one, you might find a connection between John Smith and Josephus. Let me know what you think.
Incident at Werowocomoco: An Embellishment of History?
Captain John Smith was the most prolific chronicler of those early days at the first English settlement at Jamestown. Likewise, Josephus remains the most influential, and in many cases, the only historian, to give an account of Jewish history around the time of Jesus.
Nevertheless, modern historians cast a cautionary eye over Captain John Smith’s historical recollection. Before Smith joined the English adventure to Virginia, he served as a mercenary against the Muslim Turks in eastern Europe. In his True Travels of 1630, Smith tells the story of being captured by the Turks in 1602 in Hungary. Destined to live a life of a slave, Smith was rescued at a crucial moment by the intervention of a young girl. Smith was able to make his escape, and then ultimately join that legendary voyage across the Atlantic to settle Jamestown.
Mmmmm…. Sounds familiar? Some historians today wonder if Smith’s tale of being rescued in Hungary makes its way again into the legend of Pocahontas. Was Smith enhancing the Werowocomoco story a bit to give it a little more flare to boost his image? After all, Smith was a very charismatic figure, who probably reveled in the glory of the adventurer lifestyle.
We may never know for sure what really happened at Werowocomoco. There are too few other sources to appeal to for verification or falsification. True, he was most probably captured by Powhatan and subsequently befriended Powhatan’s daughter. Nevertheless, John Smith’s contribution to the survival of the early Jamestown colonists remains clearly invaluable, along with the historical records he kept, which continues to fascinate early American historians.
Josephus: Chronicler of Jewish History with a Polemical Agenda?
What, then, do we make of Josephus? From a previous Veracity post, we know that Josephus was the primary source for the story of the mass suicide atop of the mountain fortress of Masada. Rather than submitting to Roman rule and slavery, these last remaining Zealots of the Jewish revolt would rather take their own lives than give the Romans victory. In that earlier Veracity post, we examined the morality of the story. But now we consider a different question: is the story accurate?
Just a few years earlier, Titus Flavius Josephus was a Jewish military leader in the resistance against the Romans. At one point, Josephus and forty of his comrades were trapped by the Romans in a cave. When asked to surrender, the group refused. As a solution, Josephus suggested a collective act of suicide. They agreed. Each man drew lots and began to kill each other, going around in a circle, counting by a step of three. In the end, the last men standing were Josephus and one other man. However, instead of plunging the blade into himself or his remaining partner, Josephus and the other man offered themselves up to the Romans in surrender. Josephus had survived.
Josephus then acted as a negotiator with his former Jewish rebels on behalf of the Romans in the final days of Jerusalem before its destruction in 70 A.D. He had seen the futility of the Jewish Zealot cause. Some historians speculate that the tale of the (mostly) corporate suicide in the cave may have eventually made its way also into the story of the siege of Masada.
I call this the “Werowocomoco Effect”.
What do we make of this? Did Josephus alter the story to advance his own purposes? We may never know entirely for sure, as the historical record for first century Israel is even more thin than for early colonial America at Jamestown!
Nevertheless, we must recognize that Josephus was not simply writing history without unbiased motives. Though he was sympathetic to his fellow Jews, he clearly thought that the more extreme Zealot factions among the Jews were responsible for the downfall for the Jewish nation. If only his former fellow Jewish comrades had sought to cooperate with Rome, as he eventually did, Jerusalem might have been spared the calamity and the Temple would have been preserved. Alas, the stubbornness of the Zealots, like the Sicarii, made a peaceful solution with Rome impossible.
For example, as you read Josephus, the Sicarii of Masada were capable of other morally controversial acts other than mass suicide. Not only did the Sicarii oppose the Romans, they opposed those Jews that cooperated with them. As portrayed in a somewhat sanitized form in the Masada film, starring Peter O’Toole, prior to the siege of Masada, Sicarii raided the Jewish town of Ein Gedi, gathering supplies, but killing several hundred Jewish non-combatant women and children in the process (see War of the Jews, Book IV, Chapter 7, paragraph 2). As Simon Sebag Montefiore, the author of Jerusalem, A Biography, states, when the Jewish extremists were not busy fighting the Romans, they were preoccupied with killing one another, wrestling with other factions that wanted control over Jewish destiny, as well as terrorizing more moderate Jews who refused to support their fanatical efforts.
The Jesus Alternative
So while it is common to think that the Jews of Jesus’ day were united in their opposition to Rome, the reality of the situation was much more complicated. Consider Jesus’ circle of twelve disciples. On one extreme was Simon the Zealot, and on the other was Matthew, the tax collector, elsewhere known as Levi, who acted as a kind of public servant for Rome. In between were peasants and fisherman, like the Sons of Zebedee, who probably all held different views as to what the Jewish solution to the “Roman problem” should look like. Can you imagine what it might have sounded like in those late night discussions about Jewish politics among Jesus’ twelve disciples? Were there some heated arguments, if not a fist fight, or two?
Having that perspective makes it all the more remarkable that Jesus was able to communicate a vision of the Kingdom of God to such a diverse group. There was just something about Jesus that caused and still causes people to move beyond their ideological differences and embrace the true things of God.
Josephus may have used his literary talents to marginalize the Sicarii of Masada as a bunch of ideological fanatics. It is therefore possible that the Masada mass suicide story was embellished to some degree to serve Josephus’ purposes. Nevertheless, regardless of whether or not Josephus can be fully trusted in every single detail about the siege at Masada, he remains an invaluable resource for understanding the world of first century Judaism, and the beginnings of Christian faith.
Though I do not know much about the faith commitments of Professor Jodi Magness, of the University of North Carolina, she has a YouTube lecture describing the Siege of Masada, discussing her archaeological research in the mid-1990s there, and some of the problems in interpreting the historical record of Masada with respect to Josephus (about 90 minutes):
From the PBS website, you can find this article by historian Shaye Cohen who offers a skeptical take on at least some parts of the Josephus legend of Masada. But despite how much scholars might think that Josephus could be prone to exaggeration and polemically driven alterations, he still remains the premier historian of Jewish antiquity…. and he is an absolutely wonderful and engaging story teller.
More about Werowocomoco: The Werowocomoco Research Project at the College of William and Mary continues its investigation into this fascinating glimpse at pre-European American history.
Oh, yes……and one more thing about Captain John Smith: one thing that really irks me is when Hollywood movie directors feel compelled to introduce absolute absurdities into their films and pass them off as normal. For example, here we are wondering how much historical truth there is to the legend of young Pocahontas saving the life of John Smith. John Smith was perhaps in his late twenties, and Pocahontas was probably a prepubescent young teen at most. Nevertheless, Terrence Malick in his New World film, of course, had to show John Smith kissing Pocahontas! Really?? Now, just how stupid and idiotic is that? …