Rome was in constant conflict with the Jewish people during the first century A.D. because the latter had become tired of enslavement by foreign rulers. By the seventh decade that conflict would erupt into the war that destroyed Jerusalem. Earlier, during the third decade, a messianic leader appeared among the Jews and spoke of the coming kingdom of God, before he was captured and crucified by the Romans. His followers, once they had overcome their grief, created a new religion based on Jesus’ life and work. Christianity eventually made its way to Rome and from there, with the help of Constantine, flourished.
We’re going to divide the first century into two posts. This one will discuss the conflict between the Jews and Romans while the second will bring Christianity into the picture from its inception to the end of the century.
First we start with a lesson in Jewish history to set the stage.
After Alexander, the Seleucid kings Antiochus III and IV conquered and controlled Judea from 200 to 168 B.C. Then in 167 B.C. Judas Maccabaeus and his brothers began a revolt which saw the defeat of their enemy and a treaty with the Roman republic. The victor, Judas Maccabaeus, had a profound impact on his time and is considered one of the four greatest generals of Israel along with Joshua, Gideon, and David. Maccabaeus in Hebrew means “the hammer”.
The Jews ruled themselves efficiently until 66 B.C. when a power struggle broke out between the rival kings Astrobulus II and Hyrcanus II. Their dispute was eventually brought to Pompey who placed Hyrcanus on the throne and imprisoned his brother. During one of his visits to Jerusalem, Pompey desecrated the Temple and removed gold from its treasury.
In 39 B.C, the Romans installed Herod as the king of Judea and their puppet. Herod restored the temple and reigned until 4 B.C. When he died, a diplomatic contingent traveled to Rome to convince Augustus that he should not allow Herod’s children to be his successors. The request was denied and the Jewish lands were divided into four parts. Archelaus received Judea, Samaria, and Idumea; Antipas Galilee, Philip the east shore of the Sea of Galilee; and Salome the town of Yabne.
Now, with this background, we begin our journey through the first century.
Circa 6 A.D. a revolutionary movement was begun by Judas of Galilee to oppose the Romans for their renewal of taxes and oppressive behavior toward the Jews. The movement’s members resembled bands of robbers rather than an army and were organized locally and not coordinated as a national army. Labeled “zealots” by some, these freedom fighters should not be confused with the zealot faction that acted later, during the siege of Jerusalem. With or without a name, these groups operated for decades acting on their passionate desire to free Israel from bondage.
During the early stages of the resistance, the Romans, under the command of Sabinus, were threatened by repeated attacks of Judas so they called on Varus to bring reinforcements from Syria. His army formed a wave moving north to south, destroying all in their path, crucifying two thousand, and temporarily scattering the insurgents.
After Augustus’ death in 14 A.D, Tiberius took a different approach to the administration of Judea. Rather than sending a series of procurators, he only sent only two: Gratus (15-26) and Pilate (26-36). Neither distinguished himself. Pilate, for his part, got in trouble trying to erect statues of Tiberius around Jerusalem. To the Jewish people this was idol worship.
In 46 A.D, the sons of Judas of Galilee, Jacob and Simon decided it was time to re-ignite the resistance movement, but, during an attack on Rome that year, they were betrayed, captured, and crucified.
Eleazar, their successor and also a descendant of Judas, decided that efforts to attack the Roman army directly were foolish. Resistance to the Romans must operate by stealth, he decided, because the Jewish freedom fighters possessed neither the men nor material needed to defeat them. Eleazar formed a new terrorist organization called Sicarii -- named after the daggers they carried. The Sicarii had one goal – to foment revolution. To achieve this goal they began to assassinate important Jews to emphasize the inevitability of the Jewish revolt. The Sicarii, like the previously mentioned zealot group, operated until the fall of Jerusalem.
In 64 A.D, Nero assigned Florus as the procurator of Judea. The latter set a goal of inciting war as a method to enrich himself. Starting with the murder of 3,000, he communicated the false story that the people of Judea had revolted. While the Jews were deciding how to counter Florus, word came that Menahem, the grandson of Judas of Galilee, had attacked the fortress at Masada and massacred the Roman garrison. Now there was no turning back.
The Sanhedrin met and chose Josephus as governor of Galilee, now occupied by the Roman general Gallus. The Galilean zealots led by John of Gischala opposed this as an impractical political decision. Another leader, John the Essene, emerged to take command of the army fighting in Galilee, but his attack on the Romans at Gaza was unsuccessful.
Now it was Josephus’ turn. He appeared to prepare an army to fight the Romans but, in fact, was playing both sides. John of Gischala demanded he resign, and the leadership in Jerusalem sought to remove Josephus from office. The Jews ended up fighting amongst themselves when an army from Jerusalem attacked the town of Tiberias where Josephus’s troops were stationed.
The trouble in Galilee came to the attention of Nero who dispatched is best general, Vespasian, to settle the matter. Working his way onto Galilee, Vespasian laid siege to Jotapata. Forty thousand were killed there and Josephus was captured and sent to Rome. Vespasian completed his takeover of the Jewish countryside and began to plan an attack on Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the administrative authority in the city crumbled and the Jewish garrison began a battle with the Zealots who sought the authority to represent the people. Taking control, the zealots murdered all who opposed the revolution. It wasn't long after that Simon bar Giora, commander at Masada decided to attack the zealots in Jerusalem in support of the government party.
Vespasian resisted the temptation to intervene thinking he would let the Jews kill each other and make his job easier. Then, in June of 68 A.D, he received word that Nero was dead, so Vespasian paused to contemplate developments in Rome. As he waited, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius were overthrown in their attempts to become Caesar.
Vespasian retrieved Josephus from prison and made him an advisor on how to deal with the Jews. The new emperor set off for Rome in the fall of 69 A.D, leaving Josephus with his son Titus who was assigned the task of taking Jerusalem.
From May 25th to September 7th 70 A.D, Titus laid siege to Jerusalem and its temple, before it fell. Tens of thousands were killed or starved to death by the time the siege ended. John of Gischala and Simon bar Giora were both captured trying to escape, paraded through Rome, and executed. More importantly, the temple was destroyed by fire and the Jewish people lost their anchor.
We can see from the history how the first century was an extremely unsettled time in Judea. Contributing to the turmoil were three forces working in parallel.
1. The Jews unrelenting hatred of the Romans for exploiting them, desecrating their holy places, and worshiping idols. Their desire to be free of the Romans led to desperate and foolish attempts to defeat a superior force.
2. The re-visiting of apocalyptic writings which predicted the end of the world. The Jewish people felt that the repression was so great they would be crushed and destroyed as a culture. These writings include the Old Testament books of Zechariah, Isaiah, and Daniel. The following comes from Daniel 9:11,
“Because all Israel transgressed your law and went astray, not heeding your voice, the sworn malediction, recorded in the law of Moses, the servant of God, was poured out over us for our sins. You carried out the threats you spoke against us and against those who governed us, by bringing upon us in Jerusalem the greatest calamity that has ever occurred under heaven.”
3. Apocalyptical writings had the effect of creating the expectation of a messiah, who would either rescue the Jewish people from oppression or rule at the end of history. The list of first century messiah candidates is long and includes Judas son of Hezekiah, Simon of Peraea, Athronges the Shepherd, Judas of Galilee, John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, the Samaritan Prophet, Theudas, the Egyptian Prophet, John the Essene, Eleazar, Simon bar Giora, John of Gischala, and John the Weaver. None of these men were able to accomplish the objectives expected from Jewish Messiah.
In the next post we will see how one of these men took the western world in a new direction through his force of will and charisma. The impression he made on his followers and their efforts to spread his message would lay the foundation for the most powerful religion in the western world.