The Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–73/4 CE) was a major historical event, affecting Jewish and Roman history and the history of Jewish-Christian relations. The First Jewish Revolt proved disastrous for those in Judea: the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, ending the sacrificial cult; some major sites were thoroughly devastated; people were killed or enslaved. The revolt and its suppression caused a disruption in Judean society and also affected Jews outside of Judea (fiscus iudaicus). This article will address (1) the sources that are available for a history of the First Jewish Revolt; (2) scholarly explanations of what happened; and (3) the earliest reception history of the revolt.
The following sources are available for studying the revolt:
a. Archaeological Evidence
Sites that were destroyed during the revolt have been excavated. Well-known examples include Jotapata, Gamla, Qumran, Jerusalem, and Masada. These excavations illustrate the preparations, tactics, and effects of Roman sieges. In addition to such famous sites, there are less well-known sites, such as the village of Karm er-Ras (Kfar Kanna) in the Lower Galilee, where underground hideaway complexes may testify to the preparations that the inhabitants made to safeguard themselves from an anticipated assault; the small tell of Khirbet al-Hamam (Narbata) in northern Samaria, where a Roman circumvallation wall, camps, and an uncompleted siege-ramp (cf. also Machaerus) were found that may date to the campaign of Cestius Gallus; the rural villa of Khirbet el-Muraq in Idumea; caves where refugees sought a safe hiding place, such as the hiding complex at ʿAin-ʿArrub in the Hebron Hills that was used over a longer period of time but intensively at the time of the First Revolt; and Naḥal Michmas where four inscriptions may have been written by people hiding in a cistern. Such archaeological evidence may provide unique glimpses of the lived context. Contrary to suggestions otherwise, there is no clear evidence that during the First Revolt Roman soldiers damaged manuscripts from Qumran Cave 4.
b. Numismatic Evidence
At the outbreak of the First Revolt the decision was made in Jerusalem to strike special coins in bronze and silver. The coins themselves, their iconography, and inscriptions reflect the perceived sense of self, the identity, of a new authority in Jerusalem that proclaimed the dawn of a new era. The mint of the silver coins was probably located near the large quantities of silver in the temple treasury in the monumental Stoa at the temple precinct’s southern edge, where economic and judicial functions were concentrated. The minting authority may have been the priesthood, given the symbols and inscriptions, operating under, or at least in coordination with, those who were in command of the temple at the time. The silver and bronze coins were widely distributed outside of Jerusalem and the diminishing presence of specific year issues at sites and regions may be indicative of the progress of hostilities. The effect of the message proclaimed by the revolt coins was not limited to Jerusalem. Excavations at Gamla in Gaulanitis have unearthed six bronze revolt coins that were minted there. These seem to imitate the Jerusalem coins, bearing the inscription “For the redemption of Jerusalem the H[oly]”. These bronze coins from Gamla may attest to real or imagined ties of solidarity during the revolt between different local communities and regions such as Gamla in the Golan and Jerusalem in Judea.
c. Documentary Evidence
A reassessment of some of the manuscripts from Murabbaʿat (Mur 22, 23, 25, 29, 30) suggests that these belong to the period of the First Revolt. These documents also use dating formulas and phrases similar to those on the revolt coins. The documentary evidence illustrates that the independent government guaranteed the legal framework of everyday transactions and that daily life went on during the First Revolt. Moreover, the deposition context of these documentary texts demonstrates that by that time these people were on the run. Thus, the evidence of the silver revolt coins minted in the Jerusalem temple area, the Gamla imitations, and the Wadi Murabbaʿat documentary evidence show different levels of society, different geographical localities, and different contexts involved that seem to share a similar goal: the establishment of a new Jewish political entity.
d. Literary Evidence
The accounts of the Jewish priestly aristocrat and historian Flavius Josephus (37–ca. 100 CE) provide a wealth of material. For many if not most events, Josephus is our only source. Written in Greek for an educated elite living in Flavian Rome, these include a seven-volume history of the revolt itself, called The Jewish War (ca. 70 CE; Josephus relates he first wrote an Aramaic version which he sent to his compatriots in Mesopotamia, but we have no further knowledge of this version), a twenty-volume history of Jewish Antiquities (ca. 93/94 CE), the autobiographical The Life (ca. 94/95 CE), which relates his personal activities as a rebel commander of Galilee during the revolt, and a two-volume polemical defence of Judaism and its scriptures as reliable historical sources, called Against Apion (ca. 95/96 CE). Written in Flavian Rome, Josephus’ Jewish War adheres to the techniques of Greco-Roman historiography, exhibiting, for example, classical common places (e.g., στάσις or “faction-struggle”) and moralizing exemplary stories, such as on heroism and fate and tragic suffering. The narrative deals with a history of Judean politics, including a brief history of the Maccabean revolt (167 CE) and Hasmonean dynastic succession leading to the rise and reign of king Herod (bk. 1); the violent conflicts following Herod’s succession followed by further incidents in Jewish-Roman relations up until the actual outbreak of the revolt in Jerusalem and the defeat of Cestius Gallus’ legion (summer of 66 CE) (bk. 2); Vespasian’s appointment and his campaign in Galilee, including Josephus’ defence of the fortified settlement of Jotapata (bk. 3); the advance of Vespasian and the ensuing civil war between different rebel factions in Jerusalem, mirrored by the Roman civil war (i.e., the “Year of Four Emperors” in 69 CE) in which Vespasian came out as victor (bk. 4); the start of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, son of Vespasian, resulting in a destructive famine (end-69 to mid-70 CE) (bk. 5); the gradual progress by the Romans in the siege of Jerusalem with increased suffering among the Jewish population, culminating in the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem (second half of 70 CE) (bk. 6); the aftermath of the revolt (end 70 to ca. 75 CE) with the Flavian Triumph in Rome and the siege and capture of the fortresses of Machaerus and Masada, the last bulwark of the rebels, as well as the rebellions in the Jewish diaspora communities of Alexandria and Cyrene (bk. 7). Much progress has been made in assessing the literary qualities of the texts of Josephus, the main sources. This has resulted in more adequate understandings of Josephus’ historiography within an ancient Mediterranean context. For example, assessments of Josephus’ usage of the terms “bandits” and sicarii have shown that he deploys these Roman legal terms in common rhetorical ways, with the negative connotation of villainous “gangsters” and “cut-throats,” in order to scrutinize political opponents rather than to describe genuine rebel groups, as has long been taken for granted.
In addition to Josephus, there are brief accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio. The Latin account of the Roman historian Tacitus (ca. 55–120 CE) is the most elaborate (Hist. 9–13). Although most attention is paid to Roman leadership and the military course of the revolt, Tacitus makes two remarks on the causes of the revolt: he notes that the Jews were oppressed, especially by Roman officials, who tested the patience of the Jews to the limits, and he notes that they fortified Jerusalem in times of peace because they foresaw many wars as the result of their differences (i.e., their monotheism) with neighboring peoples. The reflections of Suetonius (ca. 70–135 CE) on the revolt are rather limited, mentioning the Flavian triumph and the Jewish oracles that Vespasian and Titus would become emperor, including the predictions of Flavius Josephus – whom he explicitly names. Cassius Dio (ca. 164–229 CE) also mentions Josephus and his prediction (Hist. 65.4), besides a more general reference to the outbreak of the revolt under Nero (Hist. 63.22.1). These three sources may suggest that the reception of the First Jewish Revolt among Roman historians was limited to the fact that it prepared the way for Flavian rule.
2. Scholarly Explanations
While it is obvious that the revolt had dire outcomes, there is no clear consensus on why and exactly how the revolt began. Scholarly hypotheses on what happened address cultural, ethnic, religious, ideological, social, and political factors. These modern explanations are in one way or another based on the various reasons given by Josephus for what happened in 66 CE, which include the brutality of Roman rule and imperialism, cultural-ethnic conflict, social conflict between aristocrats and popular revolutionaries, and general civil war (modern explanations exclude divine judgment).
Martin Hengel’s studies have helped scholars understand both the Maccabean revolt in 167 BCE as well as the First Jewish Revolt of 66 CE from a cultural as well as an ideological perspective. From a cultural perspective, the process of Hellenization in Judea is understood as the cause of tensions between Greeks and Jews in general and within Judean society between so-called “Hellenizers” and traditionalists. From an ideological perspective, the traditionalists are understood to have been rooted in a Jewish freedom movement, called the Zealots, after their “zeal” for Jewish tradition, and the sicarii, seen as the more radical, armed wing within the movement.
Scholars have addressed elements of social conflict and argued that the countryside may have become increasingly impoverished, either as a result of a shortage of agricultural land due to demographic pressure or because of increased debt bondage among peasants because they could not compete with long-distance traders during the pax Romana. Scholars have also suggested that excessive burdens of the tax regime in Judea, which combined Roman imperial taxes with the priestly tithes and cultic taxes, extracted much agricultural wealth from the countryside. Also, Josephus’ descriptions of the “bandits,” religious “impostors,” and sicarii have been evaluated in the light of post-colonial models of anti-imperialistic social banditry, messianic movements, and terrorist movements.
The role of the local elite within the context of the Roman Empire has also been considered. It has been suggested that the failure of the Judean elite to negotiate between Roman and local interests contributed to the social breakdown in Judaea and, eventually, to the outbreak of the revolt.
Cultural factors have been reconsidered, especially from a regionalist approach to ethnic rivalry within the Roman Empire that argues for a turn to self-help on the part of some judeans. Accordingly, Nero may have ended Rome’s preferences for regional rule from Jerusalem by unilaterally siding with the Greeks in an ethnic conflict and by ordering his local agent (the procurator Gessius Florus) to collect taxes in Jerusalem by any means necessary. This caused turmoil in Jerusalem, which could easily have been checked by an intervention of the Roman legate of Syria, but Nero’s series of executions of Roman senators had paralyzed the senatorial legate of Syria, who now feared to dismiss Gessius Florus, a personal agent of Nero. With no protection left from Jerusalem’s ethnic rivals or Nero’s aggressive agent, the Judeans, it is suggested, turned to self-help, which eventually caused a breakdown of Roman order throughout the region.
Whether characterized as a social revolution, an anti-imperialist uprising, a civil war, or a regional ethnic conflict, most historians agree that events such as the First Jewish Revolt are complex in nature, have many causes, and that it is difficult to tease out the various motivations of the actors involved.
3. Aftermath and Earliest Reception
The aftermath and earliest reception history of the First Jewish Revolt can be studied using Jewish, Christian, and Roman sources. Having become emperors, after the fall of Jerusalem Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian, initiated a series of public media in the city of Rome and throughout the Empire that signalled their hold of imperial power. Justifying the seizure of power, attention was drawn away from the Roman civil war following Nero’s death in 68 CE: the suppression of a provincial revolt in Judea was turned into a victory over a great foreign nation that threatened Rome. New coins were struck bearing the legend “Iudaea Capta,” following the example of the “Aegypto Capta” coins struck by Octavian after his victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE. These coins were distributed throughout the Empire. Redirecting the money-flow away from the now destroyed temple in Jerusalem and to Rome, a new tax was introduced, called the fiscus iudaicus, which was to be paid by Jews throughout the Empire and continued for decades after the revolt. In the city of Rome, a triumph was celebrated in 71 CE and described by Josephus; it is one of the most detailed ancient descriptions of a Roman triumph. Various monuments were built in the city of Rome to commemorate the revolt and to celebrate the Flavian dynasty. Among the most famous constructions are Titus’ arch (with its relief depicting part of the Flavian triumph procession); the Colosseum (whether really paid for by war booty from the First Jewish Revolt or only claimed so); the renovation of the Jupiter temple; and the construction of a Temple of Peace where symbolic spoils of the revolt were housed. Josephus tells of the prophecy that someone from Judea would be proclaimed ruler of the world, referring to Vespasian but which the Jews mistakenly interpreted as referring to one of their own (J.W. 6.312–313, cf. J.W. 3.400). This interpretation appears also in rabbinic writings (bGit 56a–b) and in Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter suggesting that it may have been cultivated in Flavian propaganda.
Although Josephus’ accounts are fundamental to any modern explanation, the one aspect not picked up is that of divine judgment. Josephus argued that God had destroyed Jerusalem and his temple in order to purify it from its defilement by bloodshed and that God was with the Romans now. Late 1st-century/early 2nd century Jewish apocalyptic texts such as 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch also saw the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which they cloaked in terms of the destruction of the city and the temple under the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the 6th century BCE, as resulting from divine wrath. In 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch, this divine judgment was understood to have been brought down because of sinful behavior and ignorance of the Torah. In Mark 13, a similar reflection seems to be present, but in later Christian sources (e.g., Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 2.6.8) the reasons put forward were because of Jews not accepting Jesus as messiah or because of Jews killing Jesus’ brother, which was to become further ammunition for Christian antisemitism.
The site of Shuʿafat provides a fascinating glimpse of Jewish-Roman relations immediately after the revolt. This site was a prosperous Jewish settlement just 4 km north of Jerusalem, established in the last year or two of the revolt or immediately afterwards, which, being so near to Jerusalem, must have had the approval of the Roman authorities. Whether the site’s destruction right before or during the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132–135 CE is any indication of where the allegiance of the descendants of the members of the Jerusalem upper-class lay cannot be confirmed. For a certain period of time they lived side by side, the formerly besieged and besiegers, only 4 km away from Jerusalem. Shuʿafat is thus a fascinating example of how diverse responses to imperial forces could be, how quickly circumstances could change, and how revival could take shape on the ground after such a destructive conflict as the First Jewish Revolt.
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