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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Fall of Jerusalem

Albinus (62–64), together with the last governor prior to the revolt, Gessius Florus (64–66), confirmed for much of the local populace that independence from Rome was essential. Each took bribes, looted treasuries, and served only himself. Simmering hatred of the governors reached the boiling point in 66 CE, heated by growing nationalism, religious enthusiasm, increasing strife between Jews and Gentiles in various areas of the country, major economic problems caused by droughts and famines as well as by taxation, massive unemployment in Jerusalem in the early 60s occasioned by the completion of Herod's Temple, the inability of the upper classes either to provide leadership or to evoke popular support, and a series of local incidents. Adding even more heat were the diverse interests of peasants from the rural areas of Galilee and urban merchants from the cosmopolitan centers, of those who expected divine intervention and those who relied on their own skill with weapons, of those who hated the Romans and those who hated the rich. As Richard Horsley has aptly observed, a “spiral of violence” eventually enveloped the entire country.

The incident that sparked the revolt may have been the blocking of a synagogue in Caesarea in 61 by a building erected by Greeks. Nero judged in favor of the Greeks; Jewish tensions began to rise, and by 66 fighting erupted in the streets between the Jewish and Greek populations. Concurrently, Florus—following an old procuratorial practice—attempted to remove funds from the Temple treasury. Although his predecessors had faced little direct opposition to this action, Florus provoked Jerusalem's anger. The population, disgusted by his plan but aware of their limited political power, mocked him by holding a public collection. The governor ordered his soldiers to break up the protest, but the opposition became so intense that he retreated to Caesarea, leaving behind in Jerusalem only one cohort of soldiers.

The absence of the governor and the limited number of troops provided the final impetus. Rebellion broke out in Judea; shortly it swept Galilee; within a year it had spread to Samaria. The Sanhedrin, comprised primarily of Sadducees and Pharisees, became the de facto governmental organ. Those in rebellion quickly took various fortresses, including Masada and the Antonia, and even the Temple Mount. Led by Eleazar, the son of the high priest, they stopped the daily offerings to the emperor. Many priests, recognizing that their positions now depended on their support of the revolt, joined the alliance.

Among the various groups engaged in active resistance against Rome, the best known are the Zealots and the Sicarii. Josephus connects the Zealots with the philosophic schools of Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, but he lists this “fourth philosophy” as an “innovation and revolution in the ancestral ways” (Antiquities 18.1.1). The term Zealot appears first in the context of the revolt itself, and should not be confused with either the “bandits” (Greek lestai) or the Sicarii. The lestai probably came from rural or village settings and were involved in social banditry. Their primary motivation seems to have been economic rather than ideological. In contrast, the Sicarii were urban-based revolutionaries who shared the ideals of Judas the Galilean and Zadok. One of their leaders, Eleazar, was the grandson of Judas. The Zealots, perhaps peasants who headed toward Jerusalem from the north even as the Romans were advancing into Galilee, had various agendas: economic, political, even personal. Nor should the Zealots be equated with others involved in the first days of the war, including various revolutionaries from among the priestly houses and the rich who hated the Zealots and Sicarii, and even some Jews from Idumea, who scorned the priests and the upper class.

That the revolt was not merely an uprising against Rome but was also fueled by local political and economic concerns is clearly indicated by the Zealots' more destructive activities. They torched the palaces of Agrippa II, Berenice, and the high priest, as well as the city archives. This latter event is particularly telling, since the debt and tax records were stored there. For the Zealots, elimination of debt would end the economic imbalance of the country, allowing land and wealth to be distributed according to the more egalitarian model suggested by the Torah. The fighting was especially intense in areas of mixed Jewish and Gentile population, as earlier in Caesarea. In such cases, nationalism rather than economics served as the primary catalyst. From Josephus, one might conclude that in Galilee part of the unrest was caused by cultural and geographical rivalries; he recounts that the urban populations were much less in favor of the revolt than the rural peasants.

To what extent the revolt represented the sentiments of the full population is not known. Agrippa II sought peace; sailing immediately from Alexandria to Jerusalem, he sent three thousand soldiers to attempt to remove the Zealots, but receiving almost no help from the inept Florus, he failed. Unlike his son, the high priest as well as the majority of the Sadducees could see no benefit from the revolt. Yet the lower-ranking priests did have reason to rebel. According to Josephus, their superiors had begun taking the people's tithed offerings directly from the threshing floor of the Temple; the lower priests, who depended on these offerings for their livelihood, were thereby being reduced to impoverishment and starvation. One leader of the Jewish forces in Galilee was John the Essene. Pharisaic views are less clear, since they are recorded only by Josephus, if not already then at least later himself a Pharisee with strong apologetic interests. Some Pharisees appear to have counseled peace or at least caution; Rome's willingness to sponsor Pharisaic interests in the aftermath of the war may imply at least some Pharisaic sponsorship of Roman interests prior to the revolt. But others, including Simeon ben Gamaliel, joined the struggle.

For many in Galilee, the war was unwanted. Much of the territory remained prosperous despite famines, taxation, occupation, and memories of Judas and the census. The major cities, Sepphoris and Tiberias, had substantial economic and cultural ties to Rome. Josephus, at first the leader of the Galilean resistance, announces in his Jewish War (the major source for the reconstruction of the events of 66–73) that rebellion is not desired by God.

The varied responses to the call for revolt are epitomized by two residents of Galilee who, during the war, found themselves in Jerusalem. Johanan ben Zakkai, who had lived in Gabara just prior to 66, counseled peace; John of Gischala was at the forefront in defending Jerusalem against the Roman troops. How the Jerusalem church reacted is unclear. According to the fourth-century church historian Eusebius, the church relocated to Pella, across the Jordan River, early in 66. Yet this account has its problems. Much of the sixty miles between Jerusalem and Pella would already have been under Roman control; Pella itself was then in the hands of Jewish revolutionaries, and the reports of the relocation may well originate from Pella itself.

Rome was clearly unhappy with this turn of events. In the autumn of 66, the governor of Syria, Cestius Gallus, headed for Jerusalem. Facing strong opposition, he had to retreat, and during the withdrawal, over half of his military support perished at Beth-horon. This initial victory brought even more of the Jewish population over to the Zealot side. Soon local coins with the inscription “Year 1” began to appear.

Nero next sent his general Vespasian to restore order. Supported financially and materially not only by the emperor but also by Agrippa II and Malchus II of Nabatea, Vespasian embarked for Galilee in 67. There he would meet Josephus, whom the Sanhedrin had appointed commander of the revolutionary troops. Josephus by his own account fortified Jotapata, Tarichea, Tiberias, Sepphoris, and Gischala; he also claims to have mustered a hundred thousand soldiers, an improbably high number. Distrusted by the Zealots, and in particular by John of Gischala, Josephus was accused of negotiating with Rome. Once Vespasian arrived, Josephus recounts that many of the Jewish resistance fighters fled, and he himself retreated to Tiberias while his own troops moved to Jotapata.

The siege of the fortress in Jotapata lasted forty-seven days in June and July of 67. Then, through internal betrayal, the fortress finally fell. The population was either killed or enslaved, and the city was leveled. Josephus claims that he fled to a cave and then, after both a convenient miracle and his opportune prediction that Vespasian would become emperor, his life was spared. He joined the general's entourage, took Vespasian's household name—Flavius—as his own, and spent the rest of his life under Rome's aegis.

Distrusted during and after the revolt by many of his fellow Jews, Josephus is not entirely trusted by modern historians either. His various accounts of Roman political activities in Judea and Galilee, of the actions of the Jewish revolutionaries, of the general political climate in Jerusalem, of the role of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and of the extent of Gentile attitudes toward Jews during the first century CE must be viewed in the context of his apologetic motives. Yet regardless of the extent of his exaggeration, it remains the case that by the end of the year 67, Rome had retaken not only Jotapata and Tiberias, but all of Galilee. John of Gischala fled to Jerusalem, and the Roman army soon followed.

Under Vespasian, the tenth Roman legion next headed for the Dead Sea. Probably expecting the war of the sons of light against the sons of darkness, the Qumran covenanters found instead the army of Rome. Their light remained extinguished until 1947, when their scrolls were rediscovered; Rome turned their settlement into a barracks. Some members of the group may have fled to Masada, but their fate too was sealed.

As the Roman forces marched on toward Jerusalem, the various revolutionary groups in the city recognized the need to consolidate their power. With help from Idumean allies, they replaced the weak Sanhedrin government with their own. They also deposed the high priest, in favor of Phanni (or Phanassus) ben Samuel, not from one of the high-priestly families but chosen by lot. Still, factionalism began to sap both their strength and their spirit. Simon bar Giora, who left Idumea following Vespasian's incursion, headed for Jerusalem in the summer of 69. There he found himself in rivalry not only with John of Gischala, but also with the priest Eleazar ben Simeon, who had split from John's party. Each group formed its own base: bar Giora directed the upper city and parts of lower Jerusalem; John of Gischala held the Temple Mount; Eleazar controlled the Temple's inner forecourt. The rival groups burned much of the grain stored in the city, a move that gave different factions temporary political advantage but ultimately doomed Jerusalem.

Recognizing the toll internal fighting was taking, Vespasian had left the Zealots in Jerusalem to weaken each other and turned instead to Idumea, Perea, Antipatris, Lydda, and Jamnia. Quickly advancing, he took Shechem, and thus the Samaritans who had begun to fight Rome in 67 were subdued. Soon Jericho fell, and Vespasian was ready for the last major rebel stronghold, Jerusalem. Yet again, however, Jerusalem was spared. On the ninth of June 68, Nero committed suicide, and the general's attention was redirected westward. Given this sudden lull in Roman activities, bar Giora recognized an opportunity to attack southern Judea, including Hebron. Vespasian naturally then mounted a campaign against Hebron, which fell quickly. By mid-June, he held all points except for Jerusalem and the fortresses of Herodium, Machaerus, and Masada.

Apparently during this time, perhaps as late as the summer of 69 when the Idumeans also fled Jerusalem, the Pharisaic leader Jochanan ben Zakkai escaped from the city. Rabbinic accounts suggest that he had received permission from Vespasian to establish a school in Jamnia. These accounts also depict ben Zakkai—like Josephus—as predicting that Vespasian would both destroy the Temple and ascend the imperial throne. A minor episode during the war, ben Zakkai's relocation would have a major effect on the survival, and configuration, of Judaism.

Attentive to power struggles both in Rome and in Jerusalem, Vespasian bided his time. On 1 July 69, the Roman armies stationed in the eastern part of the empire proclaimed Vespasian emperor. Leaving his army in the control of his capable son, Titus, Vespasian returned to Rome, where he began his ten-year reign as emperor. Titus, aided by (among others) the Jewish-born former procurator Tiberius Julius Alexander, the former rebel leader in Galilee Josephus, and four legions of soldiers, began the siege in early 70, a few weeks before Passover. The timing perfectly coincided with the increasing tension among the internal factions. When Eleazar the priest opened the gates of the Temple for the celebration of the festival, John of Gischala stormed the inner court. Now only two Zealot factions remained. With Titus laying siege to the northern wall of Jerusalem, the groups inside finally united. Their effort failed, and in only three weeks Titus controlled the entire inner city.

The fortress of Antonia capitulated in three days, but the Temple, better defended and less accessible, took longer to fall. Yet the cessation of the daily sacrifices, caused by the food shortage, signaled the inevitable. This cessation, which demoralized the religious population remaining in the city, reduced the Temple to a Zealot stronghold. After a fierce battle and numerous losses to his own troops, Titus succeeded in capturing it. Sometime in August 70, the ninth day of the month of Ab according to Jewish tradition, the Temple was burned. We do not know whether Titus was responsible (Josephus asserts that the general wanted to spare the Temple, but the claim itself is questionable) or whether it was torched by the remaining Zealots.

John of Gischala and his followers escaped and continued their resistance from various locations in the upper city. Lack of food ended this last Jerusalem holdout within five months. Titus marched seven hundred prisoners to Rome for his victory procession, including John of Gischala and Simon bar Giora. Josephus recounts that the former spent his life in prison, while the latter was executed. Titus's arch, depicting many spoils from the Temple including the famous menorah and the altar table where the showbread were displayed, commemorates the Roman conquest. But the conquest was by no means complete. Symbolically, the remaining western wall of the Temple, the Kotel, can be seen to represent the refusal of the Jewish population to surrender completely to Rome. Historically, there remained yet a few pockets of resistance whose story would also be preserved through archaeological remains.

The task of taking Masada, Herodium, and Machaerus fell to Sextus Lucius Bassus, who was appointed procurator of Judea in 71 by Vespasian. Herodium fell quickly in 71, and Machaerus, after a longer battle, was taken in 72 when Bassus promised amnesty for the rebels. Bassus died shortly thereafter; his successor, Flavius Silva, began the siege of Masada in early 73.

Masada had been held by the Sicarii since 66. During the war, Eleazar ben Jair, his troops, and their families accumulated abundant stores of food and water. Their resources gave them an initial advantage over Silva's troops, since the Romans had to bring in supplies from a considerable distance, and since in the late spring and summer the heat in the region is intense. But the fall of Masada was inevitable. Eventually, the Roman troops broke through Masada's defenses, set fire to the wooden barricade erected by Eleazar to protect the wall, and prepared to enter the fort.

What happened next is a matter of some debate. According to Josephus, Eleazar recognized that Masada would fall and persuaded his followers to kill their own families and then commit suicide. The victorious Romans then entered, but found more than nine hundred corpses; only two women and five children, who told the conquerors what had happened, had escaped by hiding in cisterns. Some scholars doubt this story, believing that Josephus made it up in order to satisfy both his Jewish sympathies and his Roman loyalties, allowing the Jews to appear heroic and sparing the Romans the infamy of having slaughtered whole families.

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