Revolts, 66-135 CE


The best-known procurator, of course, is Pontius Pilate, who governed from the Roman capital city Caesarea from 26 to 36 C.E. and is forever remembered for allowing the crucifixion of Jesus to go forth, famously washing his hands of the whole matter. Pilate seems to have a tin ear when it came to Jewish religious sensibilities. The Jewish philosopher Philo recounts that Pilate placed golden shields with the Tiberius’ name in Herod’s former palace, leading to strenuous Jewish protests. Pilate was eventually removed by the Romans because of continued Jewish unhappiness with his rule.

The best-known procurator, of course, is Pontius Pilate, who governed from the Roman capital city Caesarea from 26 to 36 C.E. and is forever remembered for allowing the crucifixion of Jesus to go forth, famously washing his hands of the whole matter. Pilate seems to have a tin ear when it came to Jewish religious sensibilities. The Jewish philosopher Philo recounts that Pilate placed golden shields with the Tiberius’ name in Herod’s former palace, leading to strenuous Jewish protests. Pilate was eventually removed by the Romans because of continued Jewish unhappiness with his rule.

Pilate’s dismissal only put off for a couple of decades the long-simmering Jewish resentments against Rome. Matters finally came to a head in the fall of 66 C.E. Gessius Florus, who would be the last of the procurators, seized money from the Temple claiming that he was simply taking what had been due in taxes. A riot ensued, and the Jews of Jerusalem turned violently against the Roman soldiers garrisoned in the city. Reinforcements sent from Syria were also attacked and rebuffed—a stinging defeat for Rome. Judea was in rebellion. It would prove to be the first of two revolts against Rome in less than a century.

The Revolt came at a time of great ferment within Jewish society. Religious devotion was beginning to be transferred away from the Temple and its priests to a new institution—the synagogue—and to learned masters of Torah law. Ironically, the rise of the synagogue as the location of prayer began in the Diaspora.

Profound changes were also taking place among the groups around which the Jewish populace was coalescing. The Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes, whom we met earlier and who had their roots in the Hellenistic era, were becoming more removed from each other. The Essenes, in particular, became isolationist, waiting for an expected apocalyptic war that they were sure would see them, the Sons of Light, vanquish their enemies—not Romans, but their fellow Jews, whom they regarded as the Sons of Darkness.

Another nascent Jewish group showed profound sense of imminent upheaval and an expected vindication. These were the Christians, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. The earliest Christians shared much with the Essenes- sharing property in common, following a strict hierarchical order, and practicing baptism as a way of spiritual purification. Though initially a sect within Judaism, the followers of Jesus would find many adherents among the Gentiles. When those new adherents eventually decided that they could dispense with key Jewish practices—circumcision, the Sabbath, the dietary laws—Christianity as a religion in itself was born.

In addition to this social upheaval within Judaism, the Jews of Palestine were undergoing economic upheaval as well. In the early years of the 60s, when the work on the Temple that had begun under Herod was finally completed, many thousands of workers found themselves facing the prospect of unemployment. In Galilee, as well, there was growing resentment among a large peasant class against a rich class that had burgeoned in the Galilean cities.

Though the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, as it is now known, initially caught the empire off guard, it did not take long for Rome to recover and to show the rebels what a bitter price it could exact against those who dared to oppose it. The mighty Roman army entered Palestine under Vespasian in the summer of 67 C.E., and he quickly, and brutally, put down the revolt in the Galilee and elsewhere in the country. By the spring of 68 C.E., he was ready to march on the capital, Jerusalem.

The city was spared, at least temporarily, when Emperor Nero was assassinated in the summer of 68 C.E. Vespasian returned to Rome and a year later was himself named emperor. By the spring of 70, Rome again turned its attention to Judea. Vespasian appointed his son Titus as the general who would lead the final assault on Jerusalem. The Jews of the capital had done little to improve their situation. In fact, the opposite was the case- The Zealot party had become dominant; made up of peasants, the party turned on the aristocracy.

Titus thus attacked a city whose inhabitants were greatly demoralized. Nonetheless, the Jews fought fiercely, with the bitterest fighting taking place around the Temple. By mid-summer, all but the Temple itself had fallen. Temples normally were spared during war, but because it had been used by the Jews as a fortress the Romans considered it a legitimate target. Despite that, Titus may have been considering sparing the Temple; it is possible that the conflagration that finally destroyed the Temple in August of 70 may have been unintentionally started by a firebrand thrown by a Roman soldier. The twin disasters of the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple are still marked by Jews on the fast day of the ninth of the summer month of Ab.

The last rebel holdout, at Herod’s former fortress of Masada, fell in 73 or 74 C.E. when the Romans erected a ramp to scale Masada’s walls. Josephus famously describes Masada’s defenders killing themselves rather than surrender, but historians are uncertain how historical the account is.

Titus returned triumphantly to Rome. So important was the snuffing out of the Jewish Revolt in Roman eyes that an impressive memorial, the Arch of Titus, was erected to mark the victory. The arch depicts Temple vessels, most notably the menorah, being carried through Rome. To punish the rebels, Rome transferred to the half-shekel Temple tax that had been collected from all Jews to serve the temple of Jupiter in Rome instead. Just how important Rome considered its victory is indicated by the large number of Judea Capta (“Judea is captured”) coins it minted in various denominations after 70 C.E.; the coins portray Judea as a woman mourning underneath a palm tree.

The great irony of the First Jewish Revolt is that despite the resounding defeat of the rebels, Judaism itself was not snuffed out. Even before its destruction, the Temple was no longer the only center of Jewish life. Places of Torah study and of prayer had begun to assume some of the Temple’s spiritual role. Ritual sacrifice came to be replaced by the doing of ritual acts and of good deeds. The many groups that vied for support among the Jewish populace had been destroyed or disgraced. Only one group emerged from the fiasco of the rebellion to lead the Jews- the rabbis, who saw themselves as the inheritors of the Pharisees. They would rescue Judaism from bitter defeat and transform it into the religion that it has been ever since. So thoroughly reshaped would Judaism be by the rabbis that the Jewish religion as it has been known for almost all of the past two thousand years has been referred to as Rabbinic Judaism. From the ashes of the Revolt, a new Judaism was born.


That a new Judaism would emerge was, of course, not at all clear in the decades immediately after the Revolt. Some Jews, recalling that after the calamity of 586 B.C.E. the Jews were able to return to their land, reestablish national sovereignty and rebuild the Temple, nurtured hopes of a second renaissance and may even have begun planning military campaigns against the Romans with an eye towards gaining independence. Others hoped to establish a relationship with Rome that would allow them to restore the religious work of the Temple.

Whichever viewpoint had the greater support among the Jewish populace, it was clear that a new leadership would have to emerge. Many of the main pre-70 groups were either destroyed or discredited- The Sadducees, with their power deriving from their status as priests and from their work in the Temple; the Zealots and other revolutionary groups, whose ideology brought the wrath of Rome upon the Jewish people and their Temple, and the Essenes, whose settlement at Qumran was destroyed by the Romans in 68 C. E. on their way to Jerusalem. The one group whose influence would survive and even flourish would be the Pharisees.

That there would be a Judaism to carry on after 70 C.E. was due in part to the fact that the Roman destruction was confined mainly to Jerusalem; also key was the Roman decision not to attempt to eradicate the entire Jewish people and to allow Judea to remain intact. But as important, if not more so, was the collective decision among Jewish leaders to rebuild religious life after the Temple’s destruction. The key event was the regrouping of sages at Yavneh, a small coastal city south of Jaffa.

The Yavneh sages carried on the religious traditions of the Pharisees, a group that was by no means monolithic. The Pharisees were made up of two main schools, Beth Shamai (the House of Shamai), which tended toward strict interpretations of religious law, and Beth Hillel, which was for the most part more lenient. The inheritors of both schools were faced with a common problem- How to develop a new Jewish religious life that was no longer tied to the Temple. Their solution resulted in halakhah, Jewish religious law, becoming the dominant expression of religious practice.

The flourishing of Yavneh as a center of Jewish spiritual life spanned the years between the end of the First Revolt in 70 C.E. to the Second Revolt, which began in 132 C.E. The first leader of the movement was Yohanan ben Zakkai, who was succeeded by Rabban Gamaliel II.

Yohanan ben Zakkai was notable for the moderation of his views, regarding both relationships among Jews and between Jews and Gentiles. His key contribution was the enactment of nine takkanot, religious edicts, that were primarily concerned with shifting some religious practices that were confined to the Temple while it still existed or had been tied in with Temple ritual. For example, the shofar, or ram’s horn, was sounded only in the Temple; Yohanan ruled that with the Temple’s destruction the shofar could be sounded anywhere. Yohanan also adapted the famous statement that the world rested on Torah, Temple practices, and piety; with the Temple no longer standing, Yohanan changed the second element of the statement to say that good deeds now atoned for sins where animal sacrifice once did.

While Yohanan’s rulings were important, it is not clear how much influence he had with Jews throughout Judea, nor is there any reason to believe that the Romans recognized him as a leader of the Jews. That changed under Rabban Gamaliel II, who wielded wide influence among Jews in Judea and in the Disapora and, perhaps as a result, was recognized by the Romans as leader of the Jewish community. Gamaliel issued important rulings having to do with the sighting of a new moon (on which the declaration of a new month depended) and on calendrical issues in general. Gamaliel’s prestige attracted prominent rabbis, who carried his views to Jewish communities in Judea and beyond.

Gamaliel was able to wield his power in good part due to his impressive ancestry- He was a great-grandson of Hillel the Elder, the founder of the House of Hillel; a grandson of Gamaliel the Elder, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin during the early days of the Christian movement; and the son of Simeon, who was a part of the moderate wing of the Jewish leadership during the Revolt.

The Yavneh sages under Gamaliel enacted numerous laws and practices that were to become central to Jewish life into modern times. In the absence of the Temple, they made Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur central holidays in the Jewish liturgical year; before the Temple’s destruction these holidays were especially important in the Temple and in Jerusalem, but were not key observances elsewhere. The rabbis of Yavneh composed the prayers that were to be recited on both holidays and built a ceremony around the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and instituted a general fast on Yom Kippur for the absolution of sins.

The Temple’s destruction also obliterated the central ritual of Passover, the bringing of the Paschal lamb for sacrifice. The Yavneh rabbis responded by formulating the Passover Seder, a home-based meal combined with the recitation of the Haggadah, the recounting of the Exodus story. Indeed, the rabbis are remembered in the Haggadah itself, which recounts a time when the sages at Yavneh stayed up all night discussing fine points in the meaning of the Exodus.

The Yavneh rabbis also fixed the final form of the Hebrew Bible, selecting which books would constitute the Writings, the third and final section of the Jewish Scriptures. The Five Books of Moses had been made canonical by Ezra; they constituted the Torah. The second section, the Prophets, joined the canon some time later. The rabbis’ choices for the Writings were occasionally surprising and no doubt controversial in their day; their inclusion of Song of Songs, an extended love poem, and of the Book of Esther, which makes no mention of God, was criticized by some contemporaries and rejected by those Jews such as the Karaites who did not accept rabbinic authority.

Jewish law was another major concern at Yavneh, and it was the rabbis there who decided that the House of Hillel was to be followed in all but a handful of cases. Finally, the sages at Yavneh extended the scope of Jewish worship; where once it had been confined mostly to the reading of the Torah, and even that primarily on Sabbaths and holidays, worship after 70 C.E. became focused on prayer. The rabbis not only established a large part of the liturgy but also instituted daily prayers, whether for individuals or for a community.

While the Yavneh sages were adapting Judaism to life without the Temple and to the reality of political powerlessness, other Jews wished to oust the Romans from Judea and even harbored dreams of rebuilding the Jerusalem Temple. In 132 C.E. these Jews decided to act, and the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome, also called the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (after its leader), erupted.

Although discontent against Rome had been building since the destruction of the Temple, there were two specific causes that contributed to the timing of the Bar-Kokhba Revolt. The first was the banning of circumcision by Emperor Hadrian and the second was Hadrian’s decision to completely remake Jerusalem as a pagan city. Hadrian decreed that Jerusalem would henceforth be named Aelia Capitolina, which referred to one of his own names (Aelius) and to the gods of the Roman Capitolina (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva). Though neither edict was directed specifically at the Jews—other peoples in the Near East practiced circumcision and many cities had seen the introduction of Greek or Roman institutions—but for the Jews the twin royal decisions must have been particularly galling, echoing the actions of Antiochus IV, which sparked the Hasmonean revolt.

Unlike the Hasmonean Revolt of the second century B.C.E., which is documented in First and Second Maccabees, and the First Revolt more than six decades earlier, which is recounted in detail by Josephus, the Second Revolt has no literary account that might help us understand why the outbreak happened when it did and how it did. Thankfully, archaeologists have been discovering numerous important items that have helped fill out, at least in part, the picture we have of the revolt. These discoveries include documents that the rebels to with them into the Judean desert hideouts from which they sought to harass Roman military forces, the hideouts themselves, and coins. The coins are especially noteworthy; the symbols on the vast majority of them relate to Jerusalem and the Temple and its service. Some depict the Ark of the Covenant, which was likely lost in the destruction of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E., indicating that the rebels sought not only to overthrow the yoke of Roman rule but to return to the age of the Davidic monarchy.

Thanks to these discoveries, we now have a better picture of the Revolt. Where earlier the Revolt had been seen as involving all of Judea, we now know that only southern Judea was the scene of fighting. Claims of very large losses of life are now considered to be exaggerations. The second greatest concentration of Jewish life at the time, the Galilee, was almost totally spared the fighting and could thus welcome the refugees that came its way from the south after the Revolt had been broken by the Romans. The Galilee was also thus in a position to become the main focus of Jewish life, especially Jewish intellectual life, in the wake of the Revolt.

Also revised by recent scholarship has been the view that Bar-Kokhba was a messianic leader. There is no reason to think that he was; the only title he used for himself—Nesi Israel (prince of Israel)—has no messianic overtones. Although the famed Rabbi Akiva may have thought that Bar-Kokhba was the Messiah (or at least had the potential to be the Messiah), many of his colleagues disagreed with him and counseled compromise with the Romans.

It is hard to know just what the Jewish rebels hoped to accomplish with the Revolt. Based on the slogans emblazoned on Second Revolt coins, they sought the “freedom of Jerusalem”—local autonomy that would allow them to renew Temple worship. It is possible that some of the rebels imagined that they could deal Rome a crippling blow, but if they did they were deluding themselves. Most of the rebels’ activity was confined to caves in the Judean hills, from which they would emerge to harass Roman legionnaires.

The Jewish rebels did not manage to capture a single city or even a single Roman stronghold; nonetheless, suppressing the revolt prove to be difficult and Hadrian was forced to send one of his ablest generals, Julius Severus to Judea to finally squash the rebellion. The last rebel stronghold to fall, Beitar, southwest of Jerusalem, was captured in the summer of 135, making it the Masada of the Second Revolt. Jewish nationalist aspirations were squashed, not to re-appear for another 1,800 years.

In the wake of the revolt’s failure, Judea’s name was changed to Syria-Palestina to obliterate its Jewish character. Jerusalem was razed and rebuilt as a pagan city, with the temple to the Roman gods occupying the area that once held the Jewish Temple. The center of Jewish life now decisively shifted to the Galilee and beyond—it is at this point that we hear of rabbis moving to Babylonia. With no hope of the Temple being rebuilt and politically powerless, Jewish life was about to make a decisive shift, and that shift would be guided by rabbis first in Galilee and then in the great Talmudic academies to the east who would extend the profound religious innovations first expounded in Yavneh.

Excerpted from Biblical History: The Roman Period, Steven Feldman, COJS, 2007.

What do you want to know?

Ask our AI widget and get answers from this website