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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.

A Heroic Older Son: The Reign of Titus

Once Vespasian had returned to Rome, his son Titus continued to battle the Jewish rebels in Palestine. Josephus records in great detail the compassion shown by Titus in battle, highlighting his reluctance to press the siege against Jerusalem because of his respect for the famous Temple of the Jews. Despite exaggerations in the account, Titus is remembered as a considerate leader. He found such favor with his troops that after his capture of Jerusalem his soldiers hailed him as emperor and wanted him to lead them in an armed challenge to his father (Suetonius, Titus 5.2). Instead, Titus took only the moral support of his forces with him when he returned to Rome in late 70/early 71 CE, and Vespasian welcomed him back, effectively making him coruler.

Titus's victories in the east also made him popular in Rome, where he and his father celebrated a triumph to recognize the long-awaited victory. For centuries the triumphal procession had been a means of honoring Roman leaders who had defeated foreign enemies. Originally, strict requirements had limited who could be a triumphator, and in what circumstances. By the imperial period, triumphs were reserved for emperors or members of the imperial family. The procession gave the conqueror a chance to display the fruits of his military prowess, including captives and spoils of war. It also permitted the senators, officials, and citizens of Rome to celebrate the power of the empire.

To preserve the glory of the moment, triumphal arches were erected throughout the empire as permanent commemorations. Evidence for earlier arches is found mostly on coins minted to celebrate a triumph. The triumphal arch of Titus, which still stands in Rome, was actually erected posthumously in 81 CE, more than ten years after the victory over the Jews. Sculptural relief panels on the interior passage of the arch portray details of the triumphal procession. One panel shows soldiers carrying a menorah and other furnishings from the Temple. The other side features the emperor driving a four-horse chariot, being crowned by a victory figure, while he gestures to the assembled crowd. Prominently placed in the Forum of Rome, the arch is both a recognition of Titus's achievements and a challenge for emperors to come. Anyone who passed through the Arch of Titus was reminded immediately of the great deeds Titus had done in order to deserve deification by the senate after his death. Of course, any Jews who viewed the arch would have been shaken by this vivid reminder of the destruction. Followers of Jesus, on the other hand, would have had mixed reactions to the fall of the Temple: the destruction was a tragedy perpetrated by the oppressive Romans, but the loss of the Temple could also be seen as retribution for the Jews who had failed to believe that Jesus was the Messiah (Matt. 22.1–7 ).

The reign of Titus is also notable for one of the most famous natural disasters of ancient times. In 79 CE, Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, large sections of which have been excavated by modern archaeologists. Titus could do little more than provide imperial support to the survivors, but according to Suetonius, he did so with such generosity that the historian states that Titus “showed not only the concern of a princeps, but also the unique love of a parent” ( Titus 8.3 ). This kind of positive view of the emperor dominates the reports of his reign, and makes it easy to understand why the senate moved quickly to honor him after his death in 81 CE. Because his reign as sole emperor was brief, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem remains the major historical legacy of Titus. This single event precipitated major changes in Judaism, and also served to widen the growing chasm between Judaism and believers in Jesus as the Christ.

In each of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus is said to predict the downfall of the Jerusalem Temple: “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down’ ” (Mark 13.1–2; see also Matt. 26.61; John 2.18–22 ). Most scholars interpret Jesus' remark as a prophecy after the fact, written after the destruction of the Temple, but presented as a prediction that the event would occur. In this case, the author of the Gospel of Mark, writing around the time of the destruction (70 CE), develops a saying of Jesus that was influenced by the actual or impending fall of the Temple. For those Jews who had been convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the one who had come to usher in the new kingdom of God and set up a new understanding of atonement for sins, the destruction was neither unexpected nor especially tragic. To most Jewish believers in Jesus, the promise of new life in Christ rendered inessential the traditional means of atonement, Temple and Torah. In addition, the proportion of Jewish believers in Jesus was diminishing as the movement attracted larger numbers of Gentiles, for whom the issue of whether Jesus had fulfilled the expectations for the Jewish Messiah was unimportant. If they believed that following Jesus would lead to eternal life, then they could join without hesitation. The mission to bring Jews into the church could never overcome that point of contention, so the churches continued to attract predominantly Gentiles, and questions about how the Jesus movement was related to Judaism became less significant.

Even as the connection with Judaism was ebbing, voices within the churches attempted to retain or reinterpret that bond. The author of the Gospel of Matthew wrote some ten years after the destruction of the Temple, using Mark's Gospel as a source. This author knew that the church was becoming a Gentile institution. The Gospel of Matthew, however, emphasized the ways in which Jesus as the Messiah had provided a sound interpretation of the Torah, and had fulfilled prophecies of Judaism in both his life and his death. The author of Matthew wanted to show belief in Jesus as the true continuation of Judaism. The letter to the Hebrews promoted Jesus as high priest and as sacrifice for the sins of the people. The second-century author of “The Preaching of Peter” accused Paul of being an apostle of Satan, since he had led the churches away from Judaism. Paul, however, had argued with Gentiles in the church at Rome who were claiming that God had rejected the Jews. He claimed the Jews' refusal to believe in Jesus resulted from God's temporarily hardening their hearts to allow the “full number” of Gentiles a chance to come into the church, but that God would eventually end the hardening and “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11.25–26 ). Paul's vision was not realized, and after the Temple was destroyed, Judaism began to develop in new directions under rabbinic leadership. Meanwhile, the churches continued to attract mostly Gentiles. Ten years later, after Titus's death in 81 CE, the churches and Judaism were evolving differently, but they both faced new challenges under the repressive policies of Vespasian's other son, Domitian.

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