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Jewish Rebellion and Christian Identity, to Masada (73 CE)

Roman authorities viewed the spread of Judaism as a threat to Rome. Jewish businessmen aroused the resentment of their non-Jewish competitors. Jews were scorned for refusing to burn incense before the emperor's statue – worse than Americans refusing to salute their flag. Jews, including the followers of Jesus, aroused suspicion by their inclination to keep to themselves. They appeared to others as haters of the world outside their own circle. They were disliked for their quarrelsome denunciations of gods other than Yahweh, and they were often the targets of mockery and violence. Emperor Claudius (who ruled in the years 41 to 54) moved to curtail the spread of Judaism in Rome. He denied Jews there the right to meet outside of their synagogues. And in 49, following a disturbance involving Jews, Claudius (as described in Acts 18:2 in the New Testament) expelled Jews from the city of Rome. But elsewhere in the empire, Claudius defended the rights and privileges that had been conferred upon Jews and other minorities, except for Druids, who were viewed as a threat to the empire's well-being.

Following Emperor Claudius to the rule of Nero, in the year 64, persecution of followers of Jesus came with a Great Fire in Rome that raged for many days. It almost destroyed the entire city and was horrendous enough to seem like Armageddon had arrived. Historians do not know how the fire started. The Roman historian Tacitus, years later after Nero was dead, did not mind accusing Nero of starting the fire, although he had no hard evidence that Nero had. The fire may have been an accident – the overturning of one of the barbecue-like stoves (a brazier) that people used inside their homes, or by an oil lamp. But one historian, Gerhard Baudy, by the year 2002, had put together observations with which to speculate that a few Christians may have started the fire. There were Christians who equated Rome with evil and would have believed they were doing the Lord's work by setting fire to Rome. Baudy knows of vengeful texts circulated in the poor districts of Rome predicting Rome being burned to the ground by a raging inferno. A constant theme among these Christians in Rome, according to Baudy, was that such a fire was prophesied. And Baudy speaks of some of the Christians willing to help the prophecy along by doing the Lord's work. Rome's great fire started on a prophetic day for these Christians: July 19, 64 CE, the day that the dog star, Sirius, rises. If the Christians did not start the fire, Baudy speculates, they may have lit additional fires to add to the conflagration to help the prophecies.

With Christians seeing the Great Fire as the beginning of the fulfillment of their expectations that the world would be destroyed by fire, reports of their joyous dancing, looks of glee and shouts of hallelujahs would have attracted suspicion. And Christians were an easy target because they were still thought of as Jews. Suspicions of arson arose not because evidence of arson had been found but because people were inclined to believe that disaster was the work of some kind of malevolence. An official investigation concluded that the fire had been started by Jewish fanatics. This put the Jewish community in Rome in danger, and Jewish leaders in Rome may have tried to avert this danger by describing to authorities the difference between themselves and the Christians. The leaders of Jews in Rome could reach the emperor, Nero, through his new wife, Sabina Poppaea. Nero learned of the separate identity of those Jews who were followers of Jesus, and he put blame on them for the fire.

Nero had some Christians executed in the usual way of executing criminals: putting them in the arena against gladiators or wild animals, or as was commonly done to those convicted of arson, having them burned to death. It was around this time that the apostles Peter and Paul vanished.

Masada and End of the Jewish Homeland

In the year 66, rioting and killing broke out between Jews and non-Jews in the port city of Caesarea, about eighty-five kilometers north of Jerusalem. Fighting between Jews and non-Jews spread from Caesarea to cities outside of Palestine, including Alexandria, where the Jewish section was left in ruins. And, during the year 66, rebellion spread to Jerusalem, which had been receiving impoverished migrants running from poverty and hunger. This was the rebellion that Judea's aristocracy had feared, with good reason: the rebels burned their homes and murdered those aristocrats they could get their hands on. And with whatever weapons the Judeans could find they attacked the Romans. Roman troops in Judea were hopelessly outnumbered, and the Jewish rebels killed many of them.

The view of Jewish aristocrats was expressed by one of their number, the historian Josephus, who would describe the war. Josephus was aware of Rome's strength compared to that of the rebels. He would describe the revolt as sedition and as insanity by desperate men.

Rome crushed the rebellion. It sent to Judea an army that was allowed to plunder, massacre and burn. A Roman blockade of Jerusalem created famine among its inhabitants. Calls to Yahweh for help went unanswered. Roman soldiers poured into the city, and, according to Josephus, they raped and massacred thousands. They left the inner city destroyed and Yahweh's temple, the "House of the Lord," a burned ruins.

The Roman army swept through the rest of Judea. Remnants of the rebel force retreated, and it took months for the Roman army to eradicate pockets of resistance. The last of these was on a mountaintop plateau in the desert above the Dead Sea – a place called Masada. According to Josephus, as the Romans closed in on the plateau all but two women and five children chose suicide.

The Romans executed some Jews they had taken prisoner. Some they sent to Rome for punishment in the arena, and some they sold into slavery, condemned to work in mines. Rome stationed an army permanently in Jerusalem and forbade the Jews to rebuild their temple. Rome abolished Jerusalem's High Priesthood and Council of Elders. It forbade the Jews from proselytizing anywhere in the empire. According to Rome there was no longer a Jewish nation. Several million Jews remained in and around Judea, but Rome allowed non-Jews to settle in place of the Jews who had died or had been taken away as slaves.

Followers of Jesus saw the defeat of the Jews in the tradition of Yahwism: as God's punishment. Orthodox Jews responded to this by putting into their synagogue liturgy an anathema against the followers of Jesus.

Rabbinic Judaism Replaces Temple Worship

With Jerusalem's temple destroyed, what is called the Second Temple Period (from 516 BCE to 70 CE) came to an end. It was an end also of the Sadducees priesthood, which had been associated with the temple. It was the end of Temple sacrifices and other temple practices. The Sadducess had been monarchs, but with the end of the Hasmonean dynasty there was no more monarchy. The Pharisaic tradition, which had been in conflict with the Sadducees, remained. Those Jews called Essenes were gone or disappearing. Where Jewish people gathered and thrived, worship was to be guided by leaders who were scholars of Judaic scripture – the Torah, the first five books of Hebrew scripture, called the Pentateuch. These scholars were "rabbis." A rabbi was a Torah scholar. Together the rabbis had begun the formulation and explication of what became known as Judaism's "Oral Law" (Torah SheBe'al Peh). This was encoded and codified. Recognized by a Jewish community, they had the power to place individuals who insulted them in excommunication. Beyond community power, it was based on scripture, as in Proverbs 3:35, where it said: "The wise shall inherit honor."


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.