History Crash Course #33: The Great Revolt

In a seemingly suicidal move, the Jews take on the mighty Romans.

A rebellion against Rome in the 1st century CE would be the equivalent today of Israel declaring war on NATO. That’s how mighty Rome was.

So how did the Jews decide to take on such a seemingly suicidal challenge? This question has a number of answers. Into the equation enter:

  • Ideological differences between the pagan Greco-Roman world and the monotheistic Jewish world
  • The Jewish response to the Roman domination which led to strife among the various Jewish factions: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots
  • Roman persecution of Jews which started with taxation and ended with outright slaughter

We will look at them one by one.

Ideological Differences

Like the Greeks, the Romans worshipped many gods. Not only that, whenever they conquered a swath of land, they simply added the conquered peoples’ gods to the Roman pantheon. The Roman historian Varro writes that by the 1st century BCE they had in excess of 30,000 gods. [1]Montanelli, Indro, Romans Without Laurels, New York: Pantheon Books, 1959, p. 67.

The Jewish idea of one invisible God, who demanded exclusive worship and could not be added to the big pot, was totally incomprehensible to the Romans.

But more importantly, along with Jewish beliefs went a lifestyle of obedience to a host of commandments that countered the Roman worldview. For example, the Jewish insistence on respect for life, was bound to irk a people who built amphitheaters just so the public could be amused by watching their fellow human beings be butchered, the more grotesquely the better.

The Talmud (Megillah 6a) captures the difference in a very interesting statement:

Caesarea and Jerusalem: if someone will tell you, “both are destroyed,” do not believe it; if someone will tell you, “both are standing,” do not believe it. But if someone will tell you, “Caesarea is destroyed and Jerusalem is standing,” or “Jerusalem is destroyed and Caesarea is standing” that you can believe.

Now we know for a historical fact that Caesarea and Jerusalem were standing at the same time. When Herod was alive, he built the city of Caesarea, and for sure he didn’t destroy Jerusalem.

So what does this mean?

In making this statement the rabbis were making a theological, historical, and political point about the reality of the relationship between Israel and Rome, between the descendants of Jacob and the descendants of Esau.

What they meant is that in terms of the cosmic struggle one can’t be on top without the other being down. When the Jews are up and Jewish values are strong, then Roman values are going to be down and so on. That’s the cosmic struggle for the soul of humanity.

Jewish Strife

The Jewish reaction to the presence of the Romans ― who were dominating the Holy Land and worshipping idols ― had many faces.

  • Hellenized and assimilated Jews. They welcomed the Roman presence and profited by it. They were angry with other Jews who resisted Roman domination.
  • The Sadducees. For the most part, these were wealthy Jews who denied the Divine origin of the Oral Law. They dominated (and corrupted) the Temple hierarchy, and were willing to cooperate with the Romans to keep their power base. They saw other Jewish factions as troublemakers.
  • The Pharisees. These were mainstream Jews who wanted nothing to do with the Romans, but they were pragmatic. They wanted Judaism to survive and short of giving up their religious principles were willing to make the best of the Roman domination. They disapproved of the other Jewish factions ― those that tried to curry favor with the Romans and those that advocated open rebellion.
  • The Zealots. They were comprised of several different groups of nationalistic extremists. Amongst the zealots was a group called the Sicarii (meaning “dagger”) who derived their name from the concealed daggers they carried that were used to murder their political opponents. They were incensed at the Roman presence and were angry with other Jews whom they saw as actively or tacitly cooperating with the Romans.
  • The Biryonim. This was the criminal element often masquerading under the guise of nationalism. They sided with the Zealots.
  • Splinter sects. These religious groups (such as the Essenes) held extreme views and opposed both the Sadducees and the Pharisees. For example, the Dead Sea Sect (famed for the Dead Sea Scrolls) expected the world to end shortly and went off to live in the desert to escape the depravity and corruption of city life and to prepare for the End of Days.

Jewish sources list 24 separate factions. Their conflicting views were a symptom of a disease afflicting the Jewish people at this time. The rabbis call this disease sinat chinam ― “senseless hatred” of one Jew for another Jew.

Unfortunately, we are seeing a very similar situation today. You don’t need to be a scholar of political science or have a PhD in sociology to realize that by far the biggest problem in the Land of Israel, and the Jewish world as a whole, is lack of unity which leads to divisiveness, infighting and even hatred. There are factions of Ashkenazim, Sephardim, secular, religious; among the religious there are the Hassidim, the Misnagdim, and the religious Zionists. A weakened, disunited Jewish nation is easy prey for the both anti-Semites and the enemies of Israel.

The paradigm for all that is happening today can be found in the Roman era.

Roman Persecution

Adding fuel to the ideological fire was the way the Romans tried to extract money ― by taxation and sometimes outright looting ― from the local population. This was especially true of several of the governors (procurators) of Judea who were exceptionally cruel and avaricious. Josephus provides us with numerous examples of Roman mistreatment of the Jewish inhabitants of Judea: 

Pilate (Procurator of Judea 26-36 C.E.), who had been sent as procurator into Judea by Tiberius, sent those images of Caesar called standards into Jerusalem by night. This aroused a very great tumult among the Jews when day broke, for those who were near them were astonished at the sight of the images as indications that their law was trampled underfoot, for those laws do not permit any sort of images to be brought into the city…After this he caused another disturbance by expending that sacred treasure which is called Korban (funds be used for offerings in the Temple) on aqueducts…Gaius Caesar…represented himself as a god and desired to called so… He sent Petronius (governor of Syria 39-41 C.E.) with an army to Jerusalem to place his statue in the Temple and command him that in case the Jews would not admit them, he should kill those who opposed it and carry all the rest of nation away into captivity.[2]Josephus, War of the Jews. 8.3.2: 169-185.

Historian Paul Johnson in his History of the Jews (p. 136) explains why this proved a particularly incendiary element in the conflict:

The Hellenized gentiles… [who] constituted the local civil service and the tax collectors… were notorious in their anti-Semitism… Foolishly, Rome insisted on drawing its Judaean procurators from Greek-speaking gentile areas ― the last and most insensitive of them, Gessius Florus came from Greek Asia Minor.”

Florus persuaded Nero to strip the Jews of Caesarea of their citizenship, making them effectively aliens in the city and totally at the mercy of the Greco-Roman population. The Jews revolted, and their protest was viciously put down with many people killed and synagogues desecrated. The pogrom spread to other cities where the Hellenized population seized the opportunity to get rid of the Jews ― Jewish homes were invaded, looted and burned down.

Jewish refugees, vowing vengeance, began to stream into Jerusalem.

But Florus only escalated the conflict, first by giving Roman soldiers free rein to massacre more than 3,600 Jews who had jeered him, and then by arresting Jewish elders, having them publicly flogged and crucified.

Florus… called out aloud to the soldiers to plunder that which was called the Upper Market Place, and to slay those that they encountered. So the soldiers taking this exhortation of their commander in a sense agreeable to their desire of gain, did not only plunder the place they were sent to, but forcing themselves into every house, they slew its inhabitants; so the citizens fled along the narrow lanes, and the soldiers slew those that they caught, and no method of plunder was omitted; they also caught many of the quiet people, and brought them before Florus, whom he first whipped and then crucified. (Crucifixion was the standard Roman punishment for rebellion.) (Josephus, The Wars of the Jews 2.14.9)

Now there was no turning back. The Jews took up arms.

To go up against the might of the Roman Empire was nothing short of suicidal, and indeed, the Jewish War would end in great tragedy. But when it began in 66 CE, it had some astonishing successes with Florus fleeing from Jerusalem for his life and the Roman garrison isolated and overwhelmed.

But such insults to its might Rome could not abide. Jewish historian, Rabbi Berel Wein in hisEchoes of Glory (p. 155) relates graphically what happened next:

The success of the Jews in driving Rome from Jerusalem sent shock waves throughout the Roman Empire. It also unleashed a wave of bloody pogroms against Jews, especially in Caesarea, Alexandria and Damascus. Thousands of Jews were slaughtered in these riots, and thousands more were sold into the slave markets of Rome.

The sages and rabbis advised a reconciliation with the Romans, seeing that, if irritated any further, Rome would retaliate with even greater force and then surely destroy the whole country and decimate the Jewish people.

Considering that the Sadducees were already pro-Rome and the Pharisees held generally moderate views, their wisdom might have prevailed. But the Zealot extremists would have none of it.

Vowing to fight to the death, they went up against a new Roman contingent making its way toward Jerusalem and slayed 6,000 Romans soldiers. Coincidentally, the victory was won on the very same spot where the Maccabees had vanquished the Greeks, and the Zealots ― seeing a Divine hand helping them ― were encouraged further.

The Roman answer was to dispatch four legions under one of the empire’s most experienced commander, Vespasian.

Vespasian’s strategy was to subdue conflict throughout the region first, and then to take the final prize ― Jerusalem.


1 Montanelli, Indro, Romans Without Laurels, New York: Pantheon Books, 1959, p. 67.
2 Josephus, War of the Jews. 8.3.2: 169-185.
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