By April 8, 2008 Read More →

Shaye Cohen. “Roman Domination: The Jewish Revolt and the Destruction of the Second Temple.” Part IV

Paul's Letter to the RomansExcerpted from Ancient Israel- From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Ed. Hershal Shanks. Washington, D.C.- Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999.


Of the groups that emerged in the first century C.E., the Christians are the most famous. Jesus, their leader, was a holy man and a teacher who, like many other such people, attracted admirers and disciples. Like many of his contemporaries, he apparently believed that the end time was imminent and that he was sent by God to prepare the way for its arrival. He therefore prophesied that the Jerusalem Temple would be removed because a new and more perfect temple would be erected by God as part of the new, perfect and permanent order of the end time. The high priests, however, regarded Jesus as a troublemaker and handed him over to the Romans for execution. In a paradoxical way, his death marked not the end but the beginning of Christianity (a development outside the purview of this book).

The earliest Christian community, as described by the book of Acts, shares many features with the Jewish movements surveyed above. The apostles controlled this Christian group, property was held in common, disbursements were made to the faithful from the common till and disobedience to one’s superiors was not tolerated (Acts 5-1–11). The group dined and prayed together. New members were “converted” through baptism and repentance ( Acts 2-38–42). Like the Essenes, the Christians attempted to create a utopian community. A sense of alienation from the rest of society is apparent in the numerous calls for repentance and in the eschatological fervor of the group.

Although Christianity emerged from a Jewish context, as one among many first-century C.E. Jewish apocalyptic groups, by the end of the century it had separated from its mother religion. Christianity’s development of an independent identity was a process, however, not a single event. Several early Christian groups abolished circumcision and welcomed non-Jews. This change of ethnic composition alone was enough to make Christianity appear to its Jewish neighbors as a new religion. Religious change accompanied this “gentilization” of Christianity. Primary among the religious changes were the abrogation of food restrictions and the observance of the Sabbath and the elevation of Jesus to a position far higher and more significant than that of any angel or any other intermediary figure in Judaism. At this point, not only the Jews saw Christianity as a distinct religion, but so did the Romans—and, as the Christian martyrs soon discovered, the Romans had a marked distaste for new religions. Curiously, while most Christians and Christian groups had ceased to identify themselves as Jews by the beginning of the second century C.E., several Christian groups continued to view themselves as Jewish over the next few hundred years. These groups would be rejected by Jews as “gentile” and by Christians as heretical. 29

In 66 C.E. the Jews of Palestine revolted against their Roman rulers. To this day, the reasons for the “Great Revolt,” which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, are not entirely clear. Josephus is, once again, our primary source. Despite his general unreliability, Josephus does provide enough information to piece together the array of causes that seem to have led to the revolt.

Chief among them were social ferment, Roman misadministration, revolutionary ardor and a leadership vacuum. As we have noted, brigandage, that unmistakable symptom of social distress, increased significantly in the countryside after Agrippa I’s death in 44 C.E. Jerusalem too was racked by social turmoil. In the early 60s C.E., work on the Temple Mount, begun by Herod the Great many years earlier, was finally completed.

Faced with the prospect of having 18,000 laborers added to the ranks of the unemployed, the priests suggested to Agrippa II that the porticoes be torn down so that they could be rebuilt! Agrippa II wisely remarked that it was easier to destroy than to build such edifices and suggested that the laborers devote their energies to repaving the streets. His suggestion was accepted. The laborers were paid for a full day of work even if they actually worked for only an hour. In short, the city of Jerusalem became, in effect, a welfare state, dependent on “make-work” projects for the maintenance of social peace. 30 The wealthy, in contrast, lived their lives and buried their dead in opulence and splendor. Aristocrats in Jerusalem and throughout the country maintained bands of armed retainers to threaten their opponents and to work for their own interests. Within the priesthood there was strife, and sometimes violence, between the upper and the lower clergy. Peasants in Galilee in 66–67 C.E. wanted nothing more than to attack and loot Sepphoris, Tiberias and Gabara, the three largest settlements of the district. After the Great Revolt commenced in 66 C.E., many peasants of both Galilee and Judea fled to Jerusalem, where they turned on both the city aristocracy and the small, organized priestly elite. These tensions within Jewish society often surfaced violently during the Great Revolt. For many of the participants in the war, the primary enemies were not Roman but Jewish. 31

According to Josephus, especially in Jewish Antiquities, the Roman procurators in the years leading up to the revolt went from bad to worse. Of all these corrupt and incompetent Roman administrators of Palestine, none was worse than the last one, Gessius Florus. Albinus, himself an execrable procurator, is described by Josephus as a “paragon of virtue” when compared to Florus. Florus, according to Josephus, “ostentatiously paraded his outrages upon the nation, and, as though he had been sent as hangman of condemned criminals, abstained from no form of robbery or violence … No man has ever poured greater contempt on truth; none invented more crafty methods of
crime.” 32

The Jews ultimately appealed to Florus’s superior Celestius Gallus, the governor of Syria, for relief. Not only was the appeal unsuccessful, but it was soon followed by Florus’s mishandling of ethnic tensions in Caesarea and then his plundering of the Temple treasury and slaughter of the Jews who sought to prevent him from desecrating holy ground.

The revolutionaries may also have believed that they were living at the threshhold of the end time. Josephus narrates that “what more than all else incited them to the war was an ambiguous oracle, found in their sacred scriptures, to the effect that at that time one from their country would become ruler of the world.” 33

In the years immediately preceding the revolt, many “eschatological prophets” were active, predicting the imminent approach of the end time or attempting, by means of a symbolic action (for example, splitting the Jordan River), to hasten or implement its arrival. Although Josephus states that the equivocal prophecy quoted above was the primary inducement for the Jews to go to war, in the body of his narrative he seldom alludes to the eschatological expectations of the revolutionaries. Perhaps some of the revolutionary leaders regarded themselves as messiahs, or were so regarded by their followers, but Josephus nowhere makes this point explicit. Accordingly, while few scholars would deny that eschatological expectations played a role in the motivation of the revolutionaries, the relative importance of this factor remains the subject of debate. 34

The Jewish aristocracy was just as unhappy with Roman rule as were the lower classes, and they took a leading role in the early stages of the revolt. Although established by the Romans as local leaders, the Jewish aristocrats were systematically deprived of the means to govern. Hence, they were left in the awkward position of being identified with the Romans, but of having no real power to respond to the needs of their compatriots. The way out of this predicament was to oppose the Roman procurator, a choice that put them on the fast track to war. 35

Yet it is clear that Josephus does not want his readership to conclude that the Jewish revolt was led and embraced by the Jewish aristocracy. Reading his Jewish War, one could easily conclude that it was the work of a few fanatics. In his desire to repair Roman-Jewish relations, however, Josephus protests too much. Aristocratic involvement in the revolt was far too prominent to conceal.

Josephus’s apologetic for the Romans is also evident from his account of the war itself. Vespasian and Titus, the Roman generals, were perfect gentlemen who gave the Jews every opportunity to come to their senses and surrender. They even commiserated with the poor innocents who had to suffer the tyranny of the revolutionaries and the horrors of war. According to Josephus, Titus did his best to save the Temple (see below) and wept when he beheld the destruction of the city and of the house of God. Josephus is clearly saying that Titus and the Romans bore no responsibility for the destruction of the Temple, and that this unfortunate consequence of the war should not bar the resumption of normal relations between the Romans and their Jewish subjects.

In Jewish Antiquities, Josephus writes anew about the prehistory of the war. Here he is much less concerned about war guilt and much more prepared to admit that responsibility for the war should not be ascribed to the revolutionaries alone. In The Jewish War Josephus wanted to cover up any connection between the revolutionaries and the “official” representatives of Judaism; in Jewish Antiquities he no longer felt constrained to do so. For example, in Jewish Antiquities, one procurator even colludes with the assassins in order to remove an opponent; another empties the prisons of all those who were arrested for seditious activity. The emperor Nero, by favoring the pagan element of the city of Caesarea in its dispute with the Jewish citizenry, also bears some responsibility for the ensuing catastrophe. 36

Here the corruption and incompetence of the Roman procurators is far more evident. Most modern scholars see the war as the result of a complex array of factors, both internal and external. The perspective of modern scholarship resembles that of Jewish Antiquities much more than that of The Jewish War. Moreover, unlike Josephus, many modern scholars admire the revolutionaries, or at least do not condemn them. For Josephus, even in Jewish Antiquities, they are villains and scoundrels, the dregs of society. For modern Israelis and for many others, they are heroes who were trying to reclaim what was rightly theirs.

The rabbis of the Talmud shared the perspective of Josephus in The Jewish War- The revolutionaries were crazed fanatics who did not listen to the sage counsel of the rabbis and persisted in their folly. They brought disaster upon the entire house of Israel. In the Talmudic account, the hero of the war is Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, a man who fled from Jerusalem, went over to the Roman side and acknowledged the suzerainty of Vespasian, the Roman general and soon-to-be emperor. Isaiah’s prophecy that “Lebanon shall fall to a mighty one” (Isaiah 10-34) was interpreted by Yohanan ben Zakkai to mean that the Temple (constructed from the cedars of Lebanon) would fall into the hands of Vespasian (a mighty one). The rabbinic hero thus hailed the Roman general as victor and emperor well before his actual victory and his elevation to the purple. From the perspective of the revolutionaries, this was treason; but from the perspective of the rabbis, viewed with acute hindsight, this was wisdom, a course of action that to their regret had not been followed.

Whether the historical Rabban Yohanan did anything even remotely approximating the deeds ascribed to him in the rabbinic account is, of course, unknown and unknowable. The story probably tells us much more about the political outlook of the rabbis of the third and fourth centuries than about the actions of Rabban Yohanan in the first. 37

The social tensions and eschatological expectations that impelled Judea to war with Rome were not uniquely Jewish. In fact the war of 66–70 C.E. follows a pattern evident in other native rebellions against the Roman Empire. Tensions between rich and poor, and between city and country, were endemic to ancient society and often contributed to native rebellions. Like the uprising in Judea, other native rebellions were often led by aristocrats, although peasants, day laborers and landless poor formed the bulk of the revolutionary army. As so often happens in revolutions ancient and modern, in its initial phases the struggle is led by aristocratic (or bourgeois) elements, which are later ousted, usually with great violence, by more extreme (or proletarian) groups. Like the Jews, other rebels in antiquity also dreamed of subjugating the universal Roman Empire. The revolt of the Gauls in 69 C.E. was prompted in part by a Druid prediction that Rome would be destroyed and that the rule of the empire would devolve on the tribes of Transalpine Gaul. The Jewish revolt was, therefore, hardly unique in the annals of Rome. 38

What makes it special is its intensity, its duration and, most important of all, the fact that an ancient historian saw fit to write its history in great detail. Because of Josephus’s The Jewish War, we are better informed about this war than about any other native revolt against Rome.

Comments are closed.