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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The First Century ce

From Archaelaus's exile in 6 CE to 66 CE, Judah was mainly under direct Roman rule. The Herodians had influence and even ruled over some of the Jews, but except for Agrippa I's brief reign (41–4 CE), Judah was under Roman governors, which created problems that eventually culminated in full-scale revolt. Some significant events took place in the Diaspora, especially in Alexandria.

Recent years have seen a new appreciation of Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE to c.50 CE), including a dedicated journal, the Studia Philonica Annual and a useful bibliographical guide (Radice and Runia 1988). As a prime example of ‘Hellenistic Judaism’, Philo shows how complex Judaism was. He believed that every facet of Jewish law was binding, from circumcision to the kashrut regulations, yet presented a theology that was Platonist at its core. Philo was sent on a mission to Rome because of an attack on the Alexandrian Jewish community in 38 CE. This violent response by the Greek community has commonly been associated with an agitation for citizenship on the part of some Jews. Although the issue has been much debated (cf. Grabbe 1992: 405–9), recent study has confirmed that Jews were not citizens of the Greek cities or Rome in most cases (Pucci Ben Zeev 1998).

It was while Philo was in Rome that news came of Caligula's plan to set up his statue in the Jerusalem temple (Bilde 1978). The Jewish sources and some modern scholars have presented this as caprice, prejudice, or even madness, but the reason is likely to have been more rational: a response to the Jewish destruction of a Graeco-Roman altar in a non-Jewish area. Jews were granted certain rights to practise their religion. Contrary to frequent assertion, the Jews were not formally exempt from the emperor cult (Pucci Ben Zeev 1998), though the sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple and the many synagogue dedications served to fulfil this duty. Judaism was tolerated, but the Jews were in turn expected to tolerate the religious practices of their Greek and Roman neighbours (cf. Rajak 1984; Noethlichs 1996; Stanton and Stroumsa 1998). Caligula's plan seems to have been a response to that act of Jewish intolerance.

According to Philo and also to Josephus (the Antiquities but not the War), it was Agrippa I who interceded with Caligula to abandon his plans. Agrippa was Herod's grandson, but had been Caligula's friend in their youth. As soon as Caligula had become emperor, he had appointed Agrippa as king over Philip's old territory (Philip had died in 34 BCE). Shortly afterward, Agrippa manoeuvred the situation to have Herod Antipas removed from office and his territory also assigned to Agrippa. Under Claudius, Agrippa was given rulership over Judah itself, as Agrippa I. The brief period of his rule (41–4 CE) was seen as idyllic in retrospect, yet his rule did not differ essentially from that of his grandfather, Herod. Perhaps if he had lived longer, greater opposition would have developed. But considering the state of things when Judah reverted to direct Roman rule, it is hardly surprising that his reign would have been looked back upon with affection and nostalgia.

As the last king of Judah, Agrippa is an interesting character, though the hostile account in Acts 12 has affected his perception. The best study of Agrippa has been given by D. R. Schwartz (1990). One widespread misconception is to refer to Agrippa as ‘Herod Agrippa’ (D. R. Schwartz 1990: 120 n. 50, 215–16); his name was almost certainly Julius Marcus Agrippa, like that of his son. After the death of Agrippa I, one might have expected his son Agrippa II to have inherited his kingdom. However, Agrippa II was still relatively young, and for this and possibly other reasons, the emperor Claudius decided to make Judaea into a Roman province once again. This turned out to be a fateful decision. Josephus describes a ‘spiral of violence’ that developed in the twenty years between Agrippa I's death and the Jewish Revolt. It has been argued that this is mainly Josephus's own invention (McClaren 1998). Perhaps so, to some extent; but tensions between the Jews and the Roman occupying force would have increased as time went on. Conditions were right for Jewish opposition to Roman rule to harden at this time (Grabbe 2000a: 108–9, 283–6).

Whatever the faults of the Herodian rulers, they were decidedly preferable to direct Roman rule. Agrippa I's short reign must have raised hopes that were cruelly dashed when Judaea became a Roman province once more in 44 CE. The Roman provincial governors did not help, but used their position to pursue personal gain and objectives, often exacerbating a situation that was far from ideal. In addition, there were various groups who threatened the Roman order: revolutionaries, assassins, miracle-workers, messianic pretenders. The resistance to Roman rule by these various groups has become an area of considerable study in the past couple of decades (Horsley 1987; Horsley and Hanson 1999). The question of the ‘bandits’ who many now identify as ‘resistance fighters’ or ‘social bandits’ has exercised classicists as well as students of early Judaism; however, a recent study has questioned whether the term ‘social bandit’ is a correct one (Grünewald 1999). In any case, our sources suggest mounting unrest caused by a variety of groups, often religious in nature.

The war with Rome began in 66 CE over a couple of apparently trivial events: an incident involving the synagogue in Caesarea and the refusal of a younger temple official to offer the traditional sacrifices for the Roman emperor and his family. But if it had not been these particular events, it would have been others. It is hard to believe that it was not just a matter of time and chance before the Jews tried to throw off the Roman yoke. The discontinuing of the sacrifices for the ruler was, however, more significant than might be realized in a modern context. As already discussed above, all people in the Roman Empire were required to show their submission by engaging in the emperor cult. For the Jews the sacrifices offered daily on behalf of the emperor and his family in the Jerusalem temple were a substitute for the emperor cult. The act of refusing to offer these was unmistakably a defiance of Roman authority.

What is surprising is not that the revolt happened or that it had widespread support, but the reaction after the Jews gained some initial successes against the Romans. The Romans did not respond to the first actions of the war very effectively at all, and the Jews were able to rout two legions and drive the Roman presence from Judaea proper. The Romans could not ignore this without major consequences, but it now necessitated a massive response, involving several legions, which took time. On the Jewish side, some preparations were made, but not very extensive ones. Then, when most of Palestine had submitted and Jerusalem had been invested by 68 CE, the death of Nero and the subsequent struggle for the throne among the Romans required that the conquest of Jerusalem be put on hold. But instead of using the time to strengthen their defences and develop strategies for defeating the Romans, the different factions among the Jews in Jerusalem fought bitterly among themselves and united only when the final attack came in 70 CE.

The siege and fall of Jerusalem has received one of the fullest accounts of any such battle in history, in books 3–6 of Josephus's War of the Jews. As already noted above, however, Josephus's story has to be treated critically, not only because of the bias in his version of his own involvement, but also regarding who was responsible for the revolt. Two important themes of the War are (a) that only a few hot-headed unrepresentative no-account individuals caused all the problems on the Jewish side, and (b) that the Romans destroyed Jerusalem only reluctantly. Josephus tries to absolve both the Romans and the bulk of the Jewish people from responsibility for the revolt. This is mainly propaganda, though, like a lot of propaganda, it was done with the best of motives. The Romans reacted with military force as they did with any revolt. On the Jewish side, it was not just ‘a few hotheads’ who kept it going, as Josephus alleges, but widespread support among the Jews. The leadership of the revolt was in fact mainly the traditional leadership of the high priestly families, the nobility, and the Herodians, though predominantly from the younger generation, as one might expect (Price 1992).

Jerusalem fell in the summer of 70 CE; a few resisters held out for longer (e.g. Masada did not fall until 73). The Romans were not reluctant to destroy the temple, as Josephus alleges, but recognized it as a central pillar in the revolt: it was inevitable that it be razed. The reaction to the disaster seems to have varied considerably. Many Jews found accommodation with the Romans, perhaps thinking and hoping that the temple would be rebuilt and Jerusalem restored. Judging from such apocalypses as 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch written about 100 CE (cf. also the Revelation of John), some Jews evidently expected the imminent end of the world. But a few, shunning both apocalyptic and history, participated in the creation of a new religion. Creating a timeless world-view in which the eternal was mirrored in the trivia of daily lives and the observance of God's will through detailed legal regulations, rabbinic Judaism was born (Neusner 1979). A variety of pre-70 elements probably went into this synthesis, including Pharisaism, but not confined to it. Sixty years after the fall of Jerusalem, the disastrous Bar Kokhva Revolt put Jerusalem off limits to Jews, and made it clear that the temple would not be rebuilt for a long time, if ever. It was the new religious synthesis arising out of the work of a few individuals in the small coastal town of Yavneh that sustained Judaism through the dark centuries to follow.

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