Judaism was transformed over the course of the first century AD, both by thinkers who incorporated new philosophies into traditional Jewish religion and by political events which would see the heart of Judaism, the Temple of Jerusalem, destroyed.
Our primary source for the history of the First Jewish Revolt is a Jewish historian named Josephus. Josephus has been introduced before, in our discussion of the factions within Second Temple Judaism. He is a personal witness for what he describes, but he describes it with all the biases of someone who is deeply implicated in the account.
Josephus is a master historian with traditions of Greek history writing and Jewish history writing. He is also a man of complex loyalties. He is both loyal to Rome and to the Jewish people. These loyalties affect the course of his life and color his writings.
Background to the Jewish Revolt
The history we have covered so far has taken place in the background of the Second Temple, which was built around 515 BC. Second Temple Judaism was centered on the temple, but its adherents were spread across the Mediterranean. However, the ritual and sacrificial center of Judaism remained at the temple.
Judaism is a unique religion because it is monotheistic in a polytheistic world. In Second Temple Judaism, Jerusalem had the temple to the one true God. The Sadducees and the Pharisees were both centered here, focused on the temple.
Consider the problem of Roman rule in Judea. The Romans never successfully managed to rule this region. Judea wa the single most difficult province in the empire. Even Gaul was Romanized over the course of a decade. But Judea was intractable. The Jews would rather commit suicide, metaphorically and physically, than submit to Roman rule. Think of what had already been attempted in efforts to rule Judea. In 63 BC, Judea became a Roman satellite. In 40 BC, the Romans attempted to establish a client kingdom under Herod the Great. In 6 AD, Judea became a directly-governed Roman territory. This annexation is remembered in the census of Luke.
After the annexation, Judea was ruled by a series of prefects governing from Caesarea. It was a military imperial occupation. There was some local rule, such as the Sanhedrin, but the Romans were the ultimate authority. Two things were constantly disputed in Judea: taxes and religion. Think about what the Jews received from their taxes: they paid for the army occupying their land. Roman taxes were taken in grain, through the food that the Jews needed to survive in years of poor harvest.
Religion, polytheism, and monotheism do not blend. The Romans thought the gods were everywhere, that they gave victory and power. The Jews were committed to the worship and laws of their God. The Law forbids idolatry, graven images, and gods before their God. Therefore, when Jews and Romans came into contact, there was conflict. The Roman legions had standards with images, and one of these legions was parked in the fort attached to the temple.
In 41-44 AD, the Romans tried to return the territory to Herod Agrippa. However, Agrippa’s rule was unstable and short-lived, so the Romans reverted Judea to a province. There were procurators who ruled the province of Judea throughout the 50s and 60s AD, but the tensions continued to build. These procurators were insensitive to the local situation, and their actions led to a spiral of violence. Judea and Caesarea (which had a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles) experienced continual strife.
Under Felix, whose brother was Pallas, the high priest Jonathan came into conflict with Roman authorities. Rather than remove Jonathan, Felix decided to assassinate him. Jonathan was murdered in the temple, an act that desecrated the holiest place in Judaism. Josephus says this is when God abandoned the city of Jerusalem.
In 59 AD, Felix was replaced by Festus. When Festus arrives, he wanted to ingratiate himself with the local leadership (which is why he sent Paul to Jerusalem for judgement). Festus died in office in 62 AD. Christian tradition tells us that before the arrival of Albinus, the next governor, the Jews brought James (the leader of the Jerusalem church) before the Sanhedrin. who tried and executed James by stoning.
Josephus describes the tenure of Albinus as one of unbridled corruption. In 64 AD, Albinus was replaced by Florus, who made Albinus look like a saint. Florus ruled by cruelty as a manner of principle. He encouraged the tensions in Caesarea to boil over, and even the Roman historian Tacitus says the rule of Albinus was marked by every excess and cruelty.
These tensions would boil over into the First Jewish Revolt in 66-70 AD.
The First Jewish Revolt
The First Jewish Revolt is important in three ways:
1. The events of the First Jewish Revolt put a new dynasty on the throne of Rome: the Flavians.
2. This was a seminal event for the Jews because the destruction of the temple in 70 AD had enormous influence on the trajectory of future Judaism. As a result of the revolt, the heart was cut out of Temple Judaism.
3. The destruction of the temple is crucial in the history of Christianity because it deeply impacts the way Christians understand their own religion and the way they think about the meaning of Jesus’ death.
The rebellion first broke out in Caesarea, partly because the governor allowed non-Jews to commit mob violence; the governor let a pogrom take place against the Jews under his watchful eye. It was a scandalous and disgraceful event. When news reached Jerusalem, the high priest at the temple reacted. The Romans had given the Jews a special dispensation to observe their beliefs; if they prayed for the empire, they could continue to practice Judaism. However, the high priest reacted to the pogrom in Caesarea by telling the Jews not to pray for the empire; he suspended the prayers for Rome.
Remember that Josephus said there was a rebellious element in Second Temple Judaism: the Zealots. Zealotry is in the background of the life of Jesus; he was accused of rebellion and they tried to trick him into implicating himself as a rebel. When the high priest suspended the prayers at Jerusalem in 66 AD, the violent factions in Judean politics seized the opportunity and overran the local Roman garrison.
The Roman governor of Syria sent his troops south, but his troops were defeated in the battle of Beth Horon. This only emboldened the Jewish people. Had not God once before blessed an unlikely rebellion? Think about the Maccabees; think about the war scroll in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Jews began planning for their independence. They even started minting coins.
Nero recognized the severity of the rebellion. He reacted by sending an enormous army to Judea under Vespasian. The Roman general first took Caesarea in 67 AD, and in 68 AD he systematically took control of the north, Galilee. In this northern stretch of Palestine, the Jewish army was under the command of Josephus. Vespasian marched his forces against Josephus and backed them into the small town of Jotapata. Vespasian began a siege. After forty-seven days, the Romans broke through the walls and slaughtered the inhabitants.
Josephus the Pharisee was captured alive. He was a moderate who did not want to the rebellion to happen. However, once it began, he sided with his people. His defeat and capture fully impressed the futility of the revolt upon his psyche. He became a prisoner of war but, under special circumstances, he also became a negotiator for Vespasian and Titus.
In 68 AD, the Romans were systematically retaking Judea. However, in June of that year, the emperor Nero was forced to commit suicide amid tumult in Rome. Nero died without an heir; he was the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, the only dynasty to have ruled imperial Rome. There was no plan for what should happen when Nero dies.
The year 69 AD is known as the Year of the Four Emperors. This year was a period of immense instability in the empire, a condition reflected in the book of Mark, which was written around this time. In the year 69 AD, the flaws of the Roman imperial system were exposed. The eventual winner of the imperial contest was the man with the most troops: Vespasian.
Vespasian was acclaimed emperor by his own armies, and he took Egypt to control the grain supply to Rome. He left the armies in Palestine under control of Titus, his son, the only one who he could trust.
Vespasian’s rule ushered in the rule of the Flavian dynasty.
In late 69 AD, the Romans resumed operations in Judea and methodically took control of the countryside. At this time, the Jews only controlled Jerusalem and a few outlying areas. In 69 AD, Titus marched on Jerusalem and surrounded the city. In April of 70 AD, the siege began. Josephus was used as a negotiator and a mediator. He tried to convince the Jews to surrender. The rebellion was over, so why risk the destruction of the city? Titus was willing to offer generous terms of surrender, but the rebels refused.
In September of 70 AD, the Romans broke through and gained access to a major tower. Absolute chaos ensued. The Romans burned the city. The temple itself caught fire and burned. The inhabitants were massacred or sold into slavery. Jerusalem, one of the most ancient and largest cities in the empire, was sacked and destroyed.
It is quite possible, in the aftermath, that Jews fled into the hills and placed their texts (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls) in caves for preservation.
Josephus himself traveled with Titus’ entourage to Rome, where he lived the rest of his life. His name changed to Titus Flavius Josephus. He became a prolific writer, producing a history of the war, a history of the Jews, and an autobiography. In his history of the wars and his history of the Jews, he blames both Romans and Jews for the destruction of Jerusalem.
In the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews scattered. It was the end of the Sadducees and the Essenes.
During the final throes of the rebellion, there remained one holdout: Herod’s old desert fortress of Masada, which was built on the southwestern shores of the Dead Sea. The Siege of Masada is famous, not because it was decisive in the war, but because it is symbolic of Jewish defiance and heroism. Josephus narrates the siege of Masada with enormous pathos. It is an episode emblematic of the Roman determination to rule and the Jewish determination to rebel. It is symbolic because Masada would become a focus of Jewish nationalism in the 20th century. To this day, Masada still hosts a rite of passage in the Israeli military.
The defenders of Masada were led by a man named Eleazar. Although Jospehus was critical of the zealots, he tells the story of these rebels’ death with great sympathy. The Romans, rather than ignoring this meager band and meaningless fortress, were determined to take Masada. The siege shows the Roman determination for total rule at any cost.
In April 16 of the year 73 AD, the Jewish defenses broke. On the eve of the Romans’s final attack, the inhabitants of Masada were unsure of what action to take. Eleazor convinced the holdouts to make a suicide pact, and that is how the defenders of Masada met their end. In Josephus’ account, it is a dramatic end to a dramatic event altogether. Josephus may be exaggerating in his narrative. There is considerable debate over the reliability of Josephus’ history. However, the histories of this period are meant to represent more than just facts and figures.
This rebellion forever altered Judaism through the loss of the temple in Jerusalem. It is traditional to date the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism to the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. From this point, Judaism became a religion of the book. This move only served to reinforce the importance of Hebraic Judaism, as opposed to Hellenistic Judaism.
The Jewish rebellion also held many consequences for Christians:
1. It further distinguished Christians from Jews, especially in the eyes of Romans. Many Christians were eager to distinguish themselves in this context; they did not want to be associated with rebels. Think about the book of Acts, whose subtext is that Christians are not seditious.
2. The destruction of the temple was traumatic for Jews and Christians alike. In the New Testament writings, Christians would idealize a new heaven, a new Jerusalem, and a new temple.
3. The death of Jesus on the cross would, in some ways, be justified as a fundamental part of Judaism by the end of the age of sacrifice, the end of the temple rituals. In Christianity, the essence of sacrifice would live on eternally through the death of Jesus.