Bar Kokhba CoinExcerpted from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

In the aftermath of the Great Revolt of 66–73 C.E., a total realignment of Jewish political and religious groups took place. It must be remembered that the constellation of approaches known from Second Temple times was radically affected by the events of the Roman conquest.

The Sadducees lost their power base when the Temple was destroyed. While some of their traditions probably survived among non-rabbinic Jews and may have influenced the medieval Karaite movement, the Sadducees ceased to be a factor in Palestinian life after the revolt. They may even have been perceived as in some way responsible for the debacle. Some of the high priests had been close to the Romans, and other priests had actually started the open revolt by refusing to offer the sacrifices provided by the emperor. Accordingly, they incurred the wrath of both pro- and anti-Roman forces. Further, some Jews may have taken the destruction of the Temple as indicative of divine
impatience with the way in which the sacrificial worship had been conducted. In any event, the Sadducees exited the stage of history.

The Essenes and the various sects allied to or similar to them also disappeared. The Essenes themselves were leaders in the failed military revolt, according to Josephus, and were decimated by the Romans. Qumran, the center of the Dead Sea sect, was attacked and destroyed in 68 C.E. as part of Roman operations in the Judean Desert. Groups like the Essenes may have contributed to the streams of tradition leading to the medieval Karaite opposition to Talmudic Judaism. Indeed, the parallels between Karaism and the Dead Sea materials are quite striking. With this exception, sectarian groups of the Essene type became insignificant, although in certain ways they seem to have influenced the
development of Rabbinic Judaism.

The more extreme and messianically inspired revolutionaries were in the main wiped out. Yet their traditions and approach reemerged again in the Bar Kokhba Revolt sixty years later. From the political point of view, however, these groups were not a factor in Jewish life in Palestine after the war. The victorious Romans saw little reason to make common cause with defeated enemies, especially with enemies who had wreaked so much havoc on the Roman armies sent to destroy them. Accordingly, they had no interest in deals with the remnants of the rebel groups.

The only serious factor left in Palestinian Judaism in the aftermath of the war was the Pharisaic, rabbinic group. This group had survived the war relatively intact. Some of the Pharisaic leaders, perhaps including Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel (I), had taken an active part in the revolt. Yet other rabbis, as would also be the case in the time of Bar Kokhba, had opposed the revolt and advocated a negotiated settlement with the Romans. The striking difference in Pharisaic attitudes reflected the long-standing debate over the question of whether Judaism demanded national independence or simply freedom of religion, an issue which may also have been the basis of the disagreement between Judah Maccabee and the high priest Alcimus. In any case, the Romans saw at least some of the rabbis, most notably Yohanan ben Zakkai, as leaders with whom they could deal.

Nonetheless, the Roman decision to regard the Pharisaic rabbis as representative of the Jewish nation cannot be explained simply as a proclivity to deal with those whom they perceived to be more sympathetic. The Romans came to see the tannaim as ideally suited to be the country’s internal leaders. Several factors contributed to this decision, most notably the popularity of the Pharisees and the fact that elements of this group had preached accommodation with the Romans. The Romans therefore decided to countenance the establishment of the patriarchate as Palestinian Jewry’s internal self- governing body. In this way they hoped to solve the problems that had led to the large-scale revolt against procuratorial government.

Large segments of the Jewish people came to accept this arrangement, not only for “civil” matters, but for matters of religion as well. The few sources that we have indicate that the approach and personalities of the Pharisees were most appealing to the ‘am ha- ’ares, literally “the people of the land,” the common people, who increasingly followed their lead in matters of religious practice. In view of the ease with which the rabbinic tradition established itself after the destruction, the tannaim must indeed have captured the hearts of many of the populace. Tannaitic Judaism provided the best means for the adaptation of tradition to the new reality without Temple and without sacrifice. This ability to adapt to the circumstances was made possible by the rabbis’ unique approach to Jewish law, the notion of an oral law given at Sinai along with the written. The interpretation and reinterpretation of the Torah which their approach allowed brought about the unique combination of tradition and change which characterized tannaitic

The establishment of tannaitic, rabbinic authority did not take place immediately or without difficulty. The earliest attempts to assert control seem to have occurred in the immediate aftermath of the war, when the sages gathered together at Yavneh under the leadership of Yohanan ben Zakkai. His claim to authority was based only on learning and respect. Soon, however, the Hillelite patriarchal house came back into power after Rabban Gamaliel II reasserted his authority at Yavneh around 80 C.E. Rabban Gamaliel traced his descent to Hillel, the prominent Pharisaic sage of the end of the first century B.C.E. and beginning of the first century C.E. At Yavneh, under Rabban Gamaliel’s direction, the rabbis engaged in standardizing, recording, and gathering traditions. This process, and its extension to the entire Jewish people, would take centuries to complete. In addition, Rabban Gamaliel undertook, perhaps with specific Roman authority, to establish the patriarchate as the system of self-government for the Jews of Palestine. He acted out of a sense that this measure was the only way to bring about the Jewish people’s economic and political restoration in their own land and to unite the whole nation under the authority of one Judaism, tannaitic Judaism.

Rabban Gamaliel’s efforts in this direction went too far at times, and he was almost removed from office by his colleagues. Yet his overzealousness was part and parcel of the effort to establish his authority on a firm basis. Had that authority not been established, and the tannaim, in consequence, not been able to play their crucial leadership role, it is doubtful that the Jewish people would have been adequately prepared for future catastrophes and for the vicissitudes of medieval life in the Near East and in Europe.