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First Jewish Revolt

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First Jewish Revolt

The main source for the First Jewish Revolt, also called the Great War, is Josephus' Jewish War (books 2–7) as well as his autobiography, the Vita. The events of the first century leading up to the war can be found in his Antiquities (books 18–20, with parallels in his War books 1–2). Except for Tacitus's Histories 5, very little is known about the revolt from gentile Greek and Latin sources. The revolt, which started In 66 CE had several causes. It ended with the total defeat of the Jews and the destruction of their Temple in Jerusalem. Scholars have pointed to socioeconomic causes—that is, to the growing rift between the rich and the poor in Palestine. They have emphasized the polarity between Jews and non-Jews there, religious conflicts with the Romans, and Rome's alienation from the ruling class (see below). The circumstances that brought about the war were primarily the cruel and foolish behavior of some of the later Roman procurators and the hostile activity of the extreme Jewish groups usually identified with the Zealots and the Sicarii. In the years that led to the outbreak of the revolt the latter two became factions in the so-called Fourth Philosophy group, which claimed that no ruler except God could rule the Jews, and therefore the Jews must free themselves from the yoke of Roman rule in Palestine.

The first Jewish Revolt was preceeded by intensive fighting between the gentiles and the Jews in the mixed cities of Palestine. In April/May 66 CE, both the emperor and the Roman governor of Palestine, Florus, sided with the non-Jews of Caesarea in a conflict there. Florus irritated the Jews even more by his confiscation of seventeen talents from the Temple's treasury. As a result there was a disturbance in Jerusalem that led to the seizure of the Temple by the crowds and to clashes between the Jews and the two Roman cohorts brought up to Jerusalem from Caesarea. When Agrippa II, king of the former tetrarchy of Philip, heard of these stormy events, he hurried to Jerusalem and attempted to stop the insurrection. His speech is given at length by Josephus (War 2.345–401).

Agrippa's attempts turned out to be futile, and the situation in Jerusalem worsened when Eleazar, the son of Ananias the high priest, who was a clerk in the Temple, persuaded his colleagues to stop the daily sacrifice offered on behalf of the emperor. Most of the more moderate circles in Jerusalem were against this decision, but they could not oppose the militant majority. This led to civil strife within Jerusalem in summer 66 CE. The Jewish leaders of Jerusalem and the high priests called in an army, provided by both Florus and Agrippa II, and fought the rebels who were holding the lower city and the Temple Mount. Within a short time the rebels, together with the Sicarii, managed to gain the upper hand against Agrippa's soliders, the Romans, and the moderates, who were concentrated in the upper city. While doing so the rebels caused a great deal of damage: they set fire to the public archives in order to gain sympathy from the debtors in the city. In addition, the high priest Ananias was murdered; Agrippa's troops were driven out; and the Roman soldiers were killed, in spite of an agreement they had reached beforehand with the rebels. The Sicarii left Jerusalem after one of their leaders, who had gone to sacrifice in the Temple arrayed in royal robes, was murdered. They retreated to Masada and did not thereafter participate in the war in Jerusalem. [See Masada.]

While these events were taking place in Jerusalem, a terrible war broke out all over the country between non-Jews and Jews, in places such as Caesarea, Philadelphia (Amman), Gerasa (Jerash), Scythopolis (Beth-Shean), and Ashkelon. As a result of these events, Cestius Gallus, the governor of Syria, attempted to quell the fighting. He advanced with the Twelfth Legion and forces he had collected from various towns and then made his way toward Jerusalem (September/October 66 CE). The Jews managed to crush the Twelfth Legion, an event that, tragically, encouraged them to read the military and political map falsely. They began to prepare for their own political independence as early as 66 CE, as can be seen clearly from the first series of coins they struck at the time (Meshorer, 1982). The nature of the Jewish central government created at this juncture, as well as of the generals chosen to command the different regions of Palestine is revealing. All were selected from among the moderate section of the aristocracy and from the priestly order; no Zealots were included. At this point many still thought that God had led them into the war, and that they would succeed.

The central government in Jerusalem was active during the winter of 66 and in the first months of 67 CE, but it had difficulty imposing its influence on the different regions in the country. Some local leaders, such as Shim῾on bar Giora acted independently. He, with a private army, terrorized and robbed the rich in the region of Akraba in Samaria and later terrorized the Jews in the region of Idumea. There was also tension between the central government and Josephus (Yoseph ben Mattithias), who was the general in the Galilee. The support the central government gave to Josephus's fierce opponent, John of Gischala (Gush Ḥalav), at the beginning of 67 CE shows that it did not control the country very decisively (Josephus, War 2.583–594; Life).

By the time the Roman general Vespasian landed in Palestine in spring 67 CE, there was no united Jewish front against Rome. It does seem, however, that the majority did support the first stages of the war, which had been presented as a defensive war against Rome and the gentiles living in the land of Israel. Opposition to the war was symbolized by cities such as Sepphoris, which minted coins In 68 CE with the inscription “the city of peace” (Meshorer, 1982). [See Sepphoris.] The Galilee fell quickly to the Romans after the immediate collapse of Josephus's army. He himself was besieged by the Romans in Jotapata (Yodefat). The fortress there fell to the Romans In June or July 67 CE. [See Jotapata.] Josephus surrendered to the Romans, and when he appeared before Vespasian prophesied to him that the general would become the future emperor of Rome. By the end of 67 the Romans had managed to regain control of the whole of the Galilee and part of the Golan (War 4.1–83). Thousands of Jews were killed or deported to be sold as slaves. During this time the Roman forces also demolished Jaffa and killed 11,600 Samaritans (War 3.414–431; 3.307–315). The campaign of 67 CE ended with the conquest of Jamnia and Ashdod. After a winter break, Vespasian resumed operations, and by the end of spring 68, the whole of Transjordan, Judea (Judah), and Idumea were subdued. Only Jerusalem and Masada were left unconquered. Thus started the last stage of the war.

Meanwhile, civil strife had begun in Jerusalem, caused in part by the defeat of the Jews of Palestine. Vespasian's operations in Palestine in late spring 68 resulted in a terrible refugee problem in the capital. Many Jews had escaped from the Romans to Jerusalem, which was still firmly in Jewish hands. One group that reached there safely in autumn 67 was led by John of Gischala. In June 68, Nero committed suicide, and a great turmoil ensued in the empire. In summer 69, the legions declared Vespasian emperor. Titus, his son, was left to continue the war in Judea, but he did not manage to continue the operation against Jerusalem until spring of 70. Thus, for about two years the citizens inside the city, instead of preparing for an imminent war, carried out dreadful attrocities against each other. The Zealots fought both each other and the moderate groups and, among many others, murdered two of the most distinguished moderate leaders, Hanan the high priest and Joseph ben Gurion. It was because of, and during, these fights that the moderate Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai left Jerusalem for Javneh. According to a rabbinic tradition, it was ben Zakkai who allegedly greeted the emperor with the words “Vive domine imperator” when he met him (B.T., Giṭ;. 50 a–b).

In spring of 70 Titus besieged Jerusalem. John of Gischala managed to penetrate the courts of the Temple compound and brought the Zealots under his control. Simeon bar Giora became the high commander of most of the city, while John of Gischala was responsible for the Antonia fortress and the Temple Mount. Nevertheless, a great deal of fighting continued within the city during the siege, described by Josephus, who was with the Roman forces outside the city (War 5–6). Josephus made continuous attempts to encourage the besieged Jews to surrender, but his attempts were in vain. The city fell to the Romans on the tenth of Tammuz (summer 70 CE), and the Temple was destroyed. The so-called Burnt House and other archaeological remains excavated in the upper city of Jerusalem are mute evidence of the city's last hours (Avigad, 1983). Masada fell in spring of 73, after a three-year siege. The Jewish Revolt was over, and the whole of Palestine was again subdued. Reactions to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple can be found in certain of the Gospels, Luke–Acts, in 2 Baruch, 4 Ezra, as well as in rabbinic sources.

[See also Biblical Temple; Jerusalem.]


  • Avigad, Nahman. Discovery Jerusalem. Nashville, 1983.
  • Cohen, S. J. D. Josephus in Galilee and Rome: His Vita and Development as a Historian. Leiden, 1979.
  • Goodman, Martin D. The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, A.D. 66–70. Cambridge, 1987.
  • Hachlili, Rachel. Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in the Land of Israel. Leiden, 1988.
  • Hengel, Martin. The “Hellenization” of Judaea in the First Century after Christ. London, 1989.
  • Hengel, Martin. The Zealots: Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period from Herod I until 708 AD. Edinburgh, 1989.
  • Kasher, Aryeh. Jews and Hellenistic Cities in Eretz Israel. Tübingen, 1990.
  • Kuhnen, Hans-Peter. Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit. Munich, 1990.
  • Mendels, Doron. The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism. New York, 1992.
  • Meshorer, Ya῾acov. Ancient Jewish Coinage. 2 vols. Dix Hills, N.Y., 1982.
  • Rajak, Tessa. Josephus: The Historian and His Society. London, 1983.
  • Schürer, Emil. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, 175 B.C.–A.D. 135. 4 vols. Revised and edited by Géza Vermès et al. Edinburgh, 1973–1987.
  • Smallwood, E. Mary. The Jews under Roman Rule from Pompey to Diocletian. Leiden, 1976.
  • Stern, Menachem, ed. and trans. Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism. 3 vols. Jerusalem, 1976–1984.

Doron Mendels

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