By April 8, 2008 Read More →

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

Greco-Roman Period
Ancient Israel- From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. Ed. Hershal Shanks. Washington, D.C.- Biblical Archaeology Society, 1999.

Variegated Judaism

Judaism at the time was a remarkably variegated phenomenon. a
Above all, Judaism was a
belief in the God of Moses, who created the world, who chose the Jews to be his special
people and who rewarded and punished his people in accordance with their loyalty to
him. Judaism was also the practice of the laws and rituals that Moses had commanded in
God’s name, most conspicuously the rituals of circumcision, Sabbath and prohibited
foods. The Jews vigorously debated among themselves the precise meaning and content
of their beliefs and practices, but all, or almost all, were in agreement over the general

Judaism during this period was different from, or at least was not identical to, the religion
of pre-Exilic Israel. 17

Judaism in this period was a “book religion”; at its center was the
recitation and study of a collection of sacred writings, the most important of which was
the Torah (Instruction) of Moses. By this time, many Jews had added two other
categories of sacred literature to the Torah- the Prophets and the Writings. These three
groups of writings together constitute the Bible, called the Old Testament by Christians
and the Tanakh b
by Jews. Pre-Exilic Israel, by contrast, did not have such a sacred book;
to be sure, it preserved in written form many sacred traditions, but it was not a “book
religion.” Pre-Exilic Israelites communicated and communed with God through the
sacrificial cult in the Jerusalem Temple and through the revelations of the prophets. By
Hellenistic times, however, and certainly by the first century of our era, the institutional
access to God through the Temple and the charismatic access to God through the
prophets were being supplemented, and to some degree supplanted, by new forms of
piety, especially the regular prayer and study of scripture.

The institutional home of this new piety was the synagogue (assembly or gathering) or
proseuche (prayer-house), which is first attested in Egypt in the third century B.C.E. By
the first century of our era, there were synagogues not only in every Diaspora settlement
but also throughout the land of Israel. Archaeological remains of synagogues from this
period have been discovered at Masada, Herodium, Gamla and various Diaspora sites. 18

Pre-Exilic Israelite religion focused on the group, the community and the clan; first-
century C.E. Judaism, by contrast, focused on the individual Jew. First-century Judaism
enjoined the individual Jew to sanctify his (or her) life through the daily performance of
numerous rituals. Sanctity was not restricted to the Temple; God’s presence was
everywhere, and the Jew was to be continually mindful of this fact. Every moment was
an opportunity for the observance of the commandments, the sanctification of life and
subservience to God. Not only were the people of Israel collectively responsible to God,
but each individual Jew was as well. The cult of the Temple, therefore, was supplemented
by a religious regimen that focused on the individual rather than the group.

Prophecy too no longer was what it had been. Many Jews believed that prophecy had
ceased, or at least had so transformed itself that it no longer had the prestige and the
authority it had commanded when the classical prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah of the
eighth and sixth centuries B.C.E. spoke. Those Jews who continued to see heavenly
visions and hear heavenly voices no longer saw and heard them in the manner of their
predecessors. The new literary genre, called by modern scholars apocalypse (revelation),
assigned a much greater role to complex symbolic visions and angelic intermediaries than
did biblical prophecy. Apocalyptic thinking was dominated by a sense that the world was
in the throes of a final crisis that would be resolved by the immediate arrival of the end of
time. Not only were the style and the atmosphere of apocalypse different from those of
biblical prophecy, but much of its content was different as well. In pre-Exilic Israel, the
Israelites believed that God rewarded the righteous and punished the wicked in this
world, and did so by rewarding or punishing either the actor himself or his children. By
the first century C.E., this doctrine had been rejected, and replaced by the idea that every
individual received his or her just deserts from God either in this world or in the world to
come. Elaborate theories were developed about the rewards and punishments that awaited
people after death or at the end of time, or both. Then there would be a resurrection of the
dead and a final judgment, and the nation of Israel, the plaything of gentile kingdoms in
this world, would finally receive its due; God would send a redeemer, either a human
being or an angel, who would restore Israel’s sovereignty. The nations of the world
would then recognize the Lord and accept the hegemony of the Jews. These new ideas
were widely accepted in society, even though apocalyptic literature was so esoteric that it
could be appreciated only by a few.

The new ideas, rituals and institutions that gradually emerged were adopted in their most
extreme forms by various pietistic groups, but they also had an impressive impact on
broad reaches of the population. The evidence for “popular religion,” 19
either in the land
of Israel or the Diaspora, is very meager, but the literary evidence of Josephus, Philo and
the New Testament shows that popular piety included the study of Scripture and the
participation in synagogue services on the Sabbath; observance of the Sabbath, the
dietary prohibitions and various other rituals; separation from pagans and anything
connected with pagan religious ceremonies; and pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem
for the festivals. Many Jews of Jerusalem, rich and poor alike, believed in the ultimate
resurrection of the dead. This is demonstrated by their practice of reburial. A year or so
after depositing a corpse in a temporary grave, they would dig up the bones, carefully
arrange them in a special box known as an ossuary and place the ossuary in a cave or
some other safe location. Thus the dead would be ready for the resurrection; all the bones
were united safely in one place, awaiting reassembly. 20

In the Diaspora, the most
conspicuously observed rituals, to judge from the testimony of pagan writers, were
circumcision, the Sabbath and the dietary prohibitions (notably the avoidance of pork).
“Popular religion,” at least in the land of Israel, also contained a strong element of the
“magical” and the “miraculous.” Magic brought divine activity into direct and immediate
contact with humans. Teachers and holy men of all sorts roamed the countryside,
preaching repentance and performing “miraculous” cures. Jesus spent much of his time
exorcising demons and performing faith healings, but he was hardly unique in this
respect. Holy men, who often modeled themselves to some extent on the prophet Elisha,
answered the immediate needs of the populace, which was more concerned about good
health and abundant harvests than about salvation and redemption. 21

Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes

Given the growing tensions and explosive mix of interests in first-century Palestine, this
religious ferment is not particularly surprising. 22
The major Jewish “schools”—the
Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes described by Josephus (discussed in the previous
chapter)—continued through the Roman period. In addition to these groups, however,
several new groups emerged in the first century C.E.- the Sicarii, various other
revolutionary groups and, of course, the Christians. Josephus gives the impression that
the countryside teemed with teachers and holy men. The diversity of religious
movements within Judaism was a sign, and symptom, of the breakdown of social and
religious order.

Apocalyptic expectations accompanied the increasing number of varieties of Judaism and
the authority assumed by charismatic figures. Some of these new groups were
revolutionary apocalypticists, who believed that their activities would usher in the new
age. Josephus, for example, tells the story of an Egyptian “prophet” who convinced a
large crowd to ascend the Mount of Olives, “for he asserted that he wished to
demonstrate from there that at his command Jerusalem’s walls would fall down, through
which he promised to provide them an entrance into the city.” 23

The Roman procurator
correctly perceived this as a challenge to his authority, and promptly had the crowd
imprisoned and/or slaughtered. Josephus, in what he referred to as his “fourth
philosophy,” asserts that God was Israel’s only king; this served as justification for active
opposition to Rome. These groups fused their apocalyptic beliefs to their political
activities. By opposing Rome they were doing God’s will, reforming Judaism in
accordance with their view of the divine plan.

Other Jewish apocalyptic groups were isolationist. These groups believed no less than the
active ones that the end of time was imminent. But they rejected the idea that human
activity would bring it about. The Essenes and Therapeutae fall into this category. As
described by classical authors, the Essenes organized themselves in a strict hierarchy and
lived a life of purity and Torah study while they waited for the new age. Philo describes
the Therapeutae—located in Egypt—in similar terms. Our sources do not tell us when or
why these voluntary groups formed. 24

The scrolls found at the settlement at Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls), whether or not they
were written by the Essenes or any other group know to us from our sources, reveal both
the growing apocalyptic mood and the tendency toward isolationism. 25

Although this
group established itself before the Romans entered Palestine, as time went on the group
developed strikingly harsh and apocalyptic concepts. From its beginnings as a group
concerned with the impurity of the Temple and the legitimacy of its priests, the Qumran
community metamorphosed into the “sons of light” who eagerly anticipated—albeit in
the utopian future—their ultimate bloody triumph over the “sons of darkness.” For those
at Qumran, the “sons of darkness” included not only the Romans but also, and perhaps
primarily, those other Jews who did not adhere to the group’s legal interpretations. In the
meantime, they too organized themselves as a tightly knit, hierarchical community that
waited in purity for the end of days in their isolated settlement on the western bank of the
Dead Sea. 26

At some point in the first century C.E., the Pharisees gained the upper hand over these
various groups. Writing on the major Jewish “schools,” Josephus says-
[The Pharisees are] extremely influential among the townsfolk; and all prayers and sacred
rites of divine worship are performed according to their exposition. This is the great
tribute that the inhabitants of the cities … have paid to the excellence of the Pharisees.
There are but few men to whom this doctrine has been made known, but these [the
Sadducees] are men of the highest standing. They accomplish practically nothing,
however. For whenever they assume some office, though they submit unwillingly and
perforce, yet submit they do to the formulas of the Pharisees, since otherwise the masses
would not tolerate them.

[The Essenes] send votive offerings to the temple, but perform their sacrifices employing
a different ritual of purification. For this reason they are barred (or they distance
themselves) from those precincts of the temple that are frequented by all the people and
perform their rites by themselves … The men who practice this way of life number more
than four thousand. 27

Thus, according to Josephus, the Pharisees had the support of the masses, especially the
urban masses, while the Sadducees had the support of only the well-to-do. As a result, the
Sadducees had to accept the dictates of the Pharisees and conduct all public rituals in
accordance with Pharisaic rules. The Essenes, in contrast, distanced themselves from
general society and from the Temple and were supported only by their own members,
who numbered somewhat more than 4,000.

The characteristics and identity of the Pharisees have long exercised scholars. Were the
Pharisees the leaders of Jewish society? Were all public rituals conducted in accordance
with Pharisaic rulings? Was—or is—“Pharisaic Judaism” virtually synonymous with
“Judaism”? The Gospel of Matthew (especially chapter23) seems to indicate that they
were the leaders of Jewish society and that public rituals were conducted in accordance
with Pharisaic rulings. Josephus and rabbinic sources agree. Rabbinic sources, indeed, go
further; according to them, the Pharisees provided the “norm” according to which other
Jewish “deviations” were measured; in short, Pharisaic Judaism was, for the rabbis,
synonymous with Judaism.

Matthew, Josephus and, to a lesser extent, the rabbis give the impression that the
Pharisees were the “leading” Jewish group from at least the beginning of the first century
C.E. But this impression might be misleading. Although Matthew, Josephus and rabbinic
sources provide convergent testimony about the Pharisees, they were written after the
destruction of the Temple and may reflect to some extent the conditions of that time—
when the rabbis, the heirs of the Pharisees, were on the ascendant. Although in
Matthew’s field of vision the Pharisees loomed large, this may prove only that his
Christian community in the 80s C.E. saw the Pharisees as their chief Jewish competitors;
Matthew does not necessarily prove that Jesus and the disciples regarded the Pharisees as
Matthew depicts them. Similarly, the testimony of Josephus proves only that in the 90s
C.E., Josephus regarded the Pharisees as the most powerful Jewish group; Josephus’s
testimony does not necessarily prove that the Pharisees were powerful several
generations earlier. (Of course, if it could be proven that Matthew and Josephus in their
descriptions of the Pharisees were using sources that derived from the Second Temple
period, their testimonies would have added weight.) 28

Rabbinic literature, a third source, provides evidence consistent with Matthew and
Josephus. However, the rabbis had a vested interest in presenting their ancestors as the
group that controlled Jewish society, a position they themselves strived to attain in the
centuries following the destruction of the Temple. Accordingly, we must view our
sources on first-century Pharisaism with considerable skepticism.

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