The Jewish Revolts

Jewish people of Jesus’ day had a passionate desire for freedom from the domination of the pagan Romans and the oppressive Herod dynasty that had ruled them for many years. Revolt seethed continuously, mostly underground, for more than 100 years from the time Herod became king (37 BC) until the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple (AD 70).It is helpful to realize that this underlying struggle is the backdrop for Jesus’ ministry, and why so many hoped he would be a conquering king. This helps us understand why the adulation of the crowds during the triumphal entry reduced Jesus to tears, and probably why many rejected his message.

THE RISING STORM Ever since the Romans arrived on the scene in 64 BC, the Jewish people were divided over how to respond to the rule of their often corrupt governors or the Herod family who served them. The religious community, particularly the Pharisees, believed the Jewish people were to be God’s instruments on earth, from whom the Messiah would come to institute that glorious age when Israel would be a great and free nation. Many others, especially the secular community and apparently some of the Sadducees, noted the present reality of the rule of Rome and determined that cooperation was the best policy. The tyrannical rule of Rome and the paganism of its religious and Hellenistic culture heightened the contrast between the situation at hand and the messianic hopes. This difference produced increasing fragmentation of the people, and several movements developed in response.

The Zealots, an ultra-nationalistic group, proclaimed revolution to be God’s solution (Acts 5:37). The Essenes withdrew, waiting anxiously for the Messiah to lead a violent overthrow of the Romans and their Jewish supporters. The Sadducees apparently practiced a form of cooperation since it was Rome who kept them securely in their position over the Temple and therefore over the people (John 11:49-50). The Herodions appeared satisfied with the Herod dynasty (Matt. 22:16). The Pharisees, condemning Rome’s pagan excesses, were removed from politics and viewed the foreign oppressors as God’s hand punishing his people for their unfaithfulness to the Torah. The country was in turmoil, each faction longing in a different way for the freedom they desired. To this climate of confusion, hatred, and division, many so-called messiahs came, each preaching his own brand of salvation (Acts 21:38). Jesus presented his unique message of redemption. Some followed his lead, but many did not. During feast days, especially Passover, tensions reached fever pitch and the Romans increased their military presence to prevent open revolt. The climate existed, however, for revolution to begin.

Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, died in AD 44 (Acts 12:19-23). The Romans appointed a series of governors called procurators, each apparently more corrupt and cruel than the previous ruler. Groups of rebel sicarii (assassins) were everywhere, killing Romans and the Jews who cooperated with them. Jonathan the high priest was assassinated. During this time, Paul was arrested (Acts 21:27-37) and accused of being one of the rebels (Acts 21:38). Popular support for the Zealots grew. The priesthood became more dependent on the Romans for security and support, and in so doing, they grew increasingly corrupt. This drove the common people toward the radical approach of the Zealots.

Felix (Acts 24) was replaced by Festus (Acts 25) as governor Both were brutal but ineffective in their attempts to quell the rising revolt. Festus died after a short time. The high priest, Ananus, took this opportunity to murder his opponents, including many in the Christian community and James, brother of Jesus. Ananus was deposed and replaced with a man named Jesus, and then another priest named Jesus. These two were in such opposition that their followers fought in the streets.

The Roman administration was in disorder, and the Zealots and sicarii flourished. Florus, another governor, attempted to stop the violence by flogging and crucifying hundreds of people. The time was ripe. The desperate hope of a messiah who would bring freedom from political oppression was ready to bear fruit.

THE REVOLT BEGINS While Christians and Jews were thrown to the wild animals by the emperor Nero in Rome, violence flared in Judea. In Caesarea, a conflict between Jews and Gentiles over activities next to the synagogue had been brewing for some time. In AD 66, on the Sabbath day, a Gentile offered a pagan sacrifice next to the entrance to the synagogue. There was an outcry from the citizens of Caesarea. The authorities in Jerusalem decided to end all foreign sacrifices, including the one for Caesar himself, in the Temple. Florus the governor, who lived in Caesarea, came to Jerusalem with troops, entered the Temple treasury, and took a large amount of gold. When people gathered to protest, Florus unleashed his legionnaires on innocent civilians of the city. Hundreds of women were raped, whipped, and crucified. More than 3,500 people were killed, including women and children.

The reaction was outrage. Mobs swarmed the streets, driving the outnumbered soldiers out of the city. The people stormed the Antonia (the Roman fort) and burned the archives, destroying records of debts. The revolt spread. The Zealots surprised the Roman garrison and occupied the fortress of Masada. From this fortress, huge supplies of weapons were distributed. Though there were voices urging calm, even the nonpolitical Pharisees joined the Zealot movement in droves.

The violence mounted within the rebel movement. Another Zealot leader, Eleazar, who then ordered the slaughter of the Roman prisoners remaining in the city, assassinated zealot leader Menahem. There was no turning back.

A BLOODY REBELLION The Gentiles in Caesarea, hearing of the violence against fellow Romans in Jerusalem, rose against the Jews of that town. Within a day, 20,OOO Jews were killed. This slaughter of men, women, and children, young and old, was repeated in many places in the country and throughout the empire, including Syria and Egypt. Fifty thousand were killed in Alexandria alone. The land ran with blood.

Gallus, the governor of Syria, advanced on Jerusalem with the twelfth legion. However, Zealots ambushed him in the mountain pass of Beth Horon and his force destroyed. The Romans had lost their advantage, and the Jews gained their national freedom (albeit temporarily) and the weapons of an imperial legion. Nero acted quickly. He ordered his leading general, Vespasian, to end the Jewish problem once and for all.

Vespasian began his campaign in AD 67 in Galilee, where a young priest, Joseph, was in command. His army numbered more than 50,000 men. Vespasian took Sepphoris, Jotapata (where Joseph surrendered to the general and became the Roman scribe Josephus), and several other towns with brutal force. He also destroyed Gamla, where the Zealot movement began, putting 10,000 people to the sword. Most of the towns of the region were left as smoking ruins. Many men were executed, often crucified, and the women and children were sold into slavery. A few were saved for the games in the arena. Galilee was again Roman.

Vespasian then conquered the coast, including Joppa, and the lands to the east of Judea. He took Jericho, which guarded the eastern approach to Jerusalem, and Emmaus, which guarded the western. Jerusalem was now isolated.

In AD 68, the campaign halted due to the suicide of Nero. As Josephus had predicted (a prediction that apparently spared his life), Vespasian became emperor. He left his son Titus to complete the campaign against Jerusalem.

The situation in Jerusalem was horrible. Several factions of Zealots converged on the city, having been defeated elsewhere. They blamed each other for their defeats. One group controlled the Temple Mount and appointed their own priest. When the Sadducee priests resisted, they were slaughtered along with 8,500 of their supporters. The sewers of the city ran with Jewish blood. Simon Bar Giora, another self-proclaimed messiah, entered the city and fought the Zealots. Confusion and terror reigned. Jerusalem was divided into three sections, each fighting the other as the Romans tightened the noose. Apparently, the Christian community, possibly remembering Jesus’ words (Matt. 24:15-16), fled to the mountain regions east of the country, beginning the long separation of Jew and Christian that would bear horrible consequences later.

In the spring of AD 70, Titus arrived outside Jerusalem. His army now numbered 80,000 or more. Titus breached the third wall near the end of May and slaughtered the people of that part of the city. Five days later, the second wall fell. Half of the city belonged to the Romans. In July, the Romans built a siege wall around the city to prevent escape and to starve the citizenry.

Unbelievably, the killing between Jewish factions continued. People killed each other over scraps of food. Anyone suspected of contemplating surrender was killed. Because some Jews had swallowed gold coins before trying to escape, their fellow citizens began to disembowel those they caught, looking for money. In one night, 2,000 were ripped open. No one bothered to bury the dead. Many who did surrender were crucified just outside the walls so the hapless defenders could watch their agony. Josephus records that the Roman soldiers nailed people in various positions for their own amusement until they could not find enough crosses for the victims.

The famine took its toll as well. Josephus reports that 600,000 bodies were thrown out of the city. This may be an exaggeration, but gives a sense of the carnage.

THE END OF THE REVOLT The Antonia fortress fell in mid-July. On August 6, the sacrifices ceased in the Temple. The Temple itself was burned and destroyed on the ninth of the Jewish month of Ab (the end of August), the same day it had been destroyed by the Babylonians more than 600 years before. It has never been rebuilt.

On August 30, the lower city fell, and in September the upper. Titus ordered all buildings leveled, except for three towers in Herod’s palace, which were left as evidence of his former strength. All the citizens of the city were executed, sold into slavery, or saved for the games in the arena. The slaughter was beyond description. Infants were thrown to their deaths from the top of the city walls, and people were burned alive; the alleys of the city were choked with corpses. Eleven thousand prisoners died of starvation waiting for their execution. Josephus records that more than 1 million perished and nearly 100,000 were sold into slavery. The Jews’ holy city was gone and their Temple destroyed.

A few Zealots took refuge at Herod’s fortress of Masada. Here they hoped to outlast the Romans. One can only imagine the state of mind of these people, some of whom had seen Jerusalem fall. Titus left their fate in the hands of Silva, the new governor. The tenth legion laid siege to Masada in AD 72. A wall was built by Jewish slaves around the base of the enormous mountain plateau, six feet high and more than two miles in length. However, there was little chance of starving out the defenders because Herod’s extensive storehouses were still filled with food and weapons and his cisterns with water. The Zealots apparently felt safe here.

Over the next seven months, the Romans built a siege ramp against the western side of the mountain. When the ramp was finished, a battering ram was winched to the top, and Roman soldiers smashed a hole in the fortress wall. The Zealots fortified their wall with timbers, but these were set on fire. That night the Zealots met. Their leader, Eleazar from Gamla, argued forcefully that suicide was the only honorable action. They had seen what the Romans would do to them, their wives, and their children. They had lived their lives for freedom and the opportunity to serve God alone. Now they must remove all possibility of serving anyone else.

Every man killed his family. Ten men were chosen to kill the Jewish soldiers; one killed the other nine and then committed suicide. In so doing, the Zealots stole the final victory from the Romans. However, the revolt was ended. Two old women and five children survived to share the story with the world.

POSTSCRIPT The Romans eventually built a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. Emperor Hadrian (c. 117-138) desired to remake Jerusalem as a Roman city named Aelia Capitolina. The few Jews who remained held to their desire for freedom and their hopes of a conquering messiah. When Simon Bar Kochba, a descendant of David and apparently a charismatic leader, began a new resistance, the religious community declared him Messiah. Open rebellion (the Second Jewish Revolt) began in AD 131 and the Jews rallied around his leadership.

The Romans were surprised and initially defeated, but their follow-up was swift and devastating. The Roman commander Julius Severus, and even Hadrian himself, responded with overwhelming force. Nearly a thousand villages were destroyed, and Bar Kochba was killed. In AD 135, the Second Jewish Revolt ended. Any Jews who had not fled the land were killed or enslaved. Jerusalem became Hadrian’s Roman city, the Jewish religion was outlawed, and Judea became Palestine. The Jews were a people without a land.

Out of this disaster came two new religious movements: Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. The revolt drove Christianity to the ends of the earth, and it soon became a largely Gentile faith. Only today are its Jewish roots being recognized. Rabbinic Judaism became the Orthodox faith of the Jewish people of today, the descendants of the Pharisees. The Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots are no more.

JESUS AND THE REVOLTS The First and Second Jewish Revolts were a disaster for God’s people. The agony suffered over two millennia can be traced to those events. The same Romans crucified Jesus nearly 40 years before the first revolt. Understanding the climate that led to the revolt and his anticipation of that event makes his teaching clearer.

Often people saw in Jesus a Davidic king, a military conqueror who would rescue them from the Romans (John 6:15; Acts 1:6). However, his kingdom was not the kingdom of the Zealot or the sword (Matt. 26:51-52), though he had a Zealot disciple (Matt. 10:4). Jesus frequently commanded those he taught or healed not to tell anyone, possibly because they would misunderstand, given the political climate of the day (Mark 1:44, 7:36, 3:12, 5:43; Matt. 8:4, 9:30, 12:16; Luke 8:56). When we remember how many messiahs proclaimed their message during this time, we can understand the uniqueness of Christ’s message and the reticence of his audience.

Clearly, Jesus predicted the destruction that would result from the revolt (Matt. 24:1-2). It led him to weep on one occasion as he described exactly what would happen (Luke 19:41-44). It seems that Jesus was saddened because his fellow Jews looked for military solutions to their problems rather than spiritual ones, to a political messiah rather than the Lamb of God. He warned his followers not to take part in that method of bringing in God’s kingdom. The coming destruction was not God’s judgment as much as it was the natural result of human beings seeking salvation through their own political and military might. Jesus’ method was the opposite of such an approach.

While we cannot fully understand God’s reasons for shaping history the way he has, we must be able to weep with Jesus because the destruction wrought by the two Jewish revolts resulted from people seeking God in the wrong places and ways. We must be devoted to Jesus the Messiah’s message, for he truly is God’s hope of peace (Luke 2:14).

NOTES 1. Judah of Gamla apparently revolted against a census ordered by Quirinius, governor of Syria, and was executed by Herod Antipas (who also executed John the Baptist). Judah probably founded the Zealot party, though not the movement. His sons Jacob and Simon were executed by the Romans for resistance, and his son (possibly grandson) Menahem was a leader in the First Jewish Revolt.


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