Ancient Jewish History

            June 2013    
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The Great Revolt in the Galilee

Review by Norman A. Rubin

Exhibition The Great Revolt in the Galilee
Curator: Ofra Rimon -
The Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa, Israel -

In 66 CE, the Jewish revolt against Rome rule broke out. Four years later, in 70 CE, Jerusalem and the Temple lay in ruins. Three years after that, the Masada stronghold, in which the last of the Jewish insurgents fortified themselves, fell. The revolt was suppressed - the iron hand of the Roman military wrought havoc and destruction among the rebellious Jewish settlements. Thousands of Jews were put to death, thousands more sold into slavery.

The Great Revolt against the Romans - the causes of its outbreak, the divisions in the Jewish society, the doomed struggle against the Roman Empire and the devastation in its wake, and many other of its aspects - constitutes one of the historic events that are permanently etched in the historical memory of the Jewish people and, as such, has accompanied us to this very day. Recently, for example, the Israeli writer Meir Shalev wrote a newspaper article headlined, "Accepted Lies":

..Judea was not destroyed because of factionalism and Judaism did not survive because of unity. Judea was destroyed because of the military superiority of the Romans, because of the stupidity and extremism of the Zealots and because of the surrender of the leadership to their Messianic violence. Judaism survived thanks to the wisdom, vision, and moderation of personalities like Rabbi Yochanan ben-Zakkai, who succeeded in escaping these murderous patriots, handing himself over to the Romans, exchanging the Temple for the synagogue and the slaughtered lamb for prayer, and equipping us with the means of cultural and spiritual existence for the time in exile. -- Preface (from the exhibition catalogue): Ofra Rimon, museum curator and director.

"No Ruler But the Almighty"

Full-scale insurrectionary revolt exploded in AD 66, a revolt which took on a revolutionary character as moderate upper-class Jewish leaders were pushed aside and replaced by more radical and destructive elements. Many different forces were involved in the revolt. Among them were the Sicarii, known in the years before the war for having assassinated collaborators with the Romans with short daggers (Latin sica) which they kept hidden under their garments. The followers of Simeon bar Giora regarded their leader as a messianic figure, and in his name seem to have committed violence not only against the Romans but against other groups of rebels. The defeat of local Roman forces led to the appointment of Vespasian to command and the invasion of revolutionary Palestine by a huge Roman army in AD 67. The war was characterized by hard guerrilla fighting in the countryside, bitterly fought sieges - culminating in the siege, fall and destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70-1 - and appalling atrocities.

Causes of the War of 66-70

In 66, the Roman emperor Nero needed money, and ordered his representative in Judaea , Gessius Florus, to confiscate it from the Temple treasure. The governor was not amused when some Jewish jokers passed the hat round for "that poor procurator Florus" ( Flavius Josephus , Jewish War, 2.295),

(Josephus decided to join his countrymen [expert] and became one of the rebellion's main leaders. Within months, he was facing the tough Roman army as it moved across Judaea. He wrote that, "From one end of Galilee to the other there was an orgy of fire and bloodshed.")

The Roman emperors and their proconsuls did not understand the nature of the Jewish religion as a monotheistic religion that combined faith with nationalistic sensibilities of the Jewish population. The Jews held fast to their religion to the point of sacrificing their lives.

The Jews' anti-Roman feelings gained momentum during the reign of the half-crazed emperor Caligula, who in the year 39 declared himself to be a deity and ordered his statue to be set up at every temple in the Roman Empire. The Jews, alone in the empire, refused the command; they would not defile the Temple in Jerusalem a statue of pagan Rome's newest deity. Ihe emperor's sudden, violent death saved the Jews from the threat of destruction and wholesale massacre.

In the year 66, Florus, the last Roman procurator, stole vasft quantities of silver from the Temple . The outraged Jewish citizens rioted and wiped out the small Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem . Cestius Gallus, the Roman ruler in neighboring Syria, sent in a larger force of soldiers. But the Jewish insurgents routed them as well.


The siege of the Jerusalem ended when the Roman soldiers had reached the Temple and Titus made an offer to the Jews, he would spare the Temple if the rebels would come out and fight, but they resisted his offer. In fact they even set fire to portions of the Temple rather than allow the enemy entrance. The Roman troops fueled the fires, desiring to see the whole Temple in ashes, this was done against Titus' orders and they could not be stopped. The Temple was destroyed and set on fire never again to be rebuilt.


1) Two thousand years after the destruction, two thousand years in which Judaism decried the Zealots and tried to put them out of heart and mind, we returned to Jerusalem. The Temple, fortunately, we have not yet built, but we have already acted like fools and called streets in our cities after those contemptible figures, Shimon bar-Giora, Yochanan of Gush Halav, and Elazar ben-Yair. And now we have added even honey-lipped gatherings of mourning and destruction, where they preach unity between those who do not quite understand the nature of these Zealots and those who see them as exemplars. Preface (from the exhibition catalogue).

2) Many Jewish leaders didn't support the revolt because they realized that the Jews couldn't defeat the mighty Roman Empire. Though most of these leaders were killed by Zealots, some did escape. The most famous one is Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin. Once outside the city walls he was able to negotiate with the Roman general Vespasian. The general allowed him to establish a Jewish seminary in the town of Yavneh, thereby preserving Jewish knowledge and customs. Rabban Yochanan reconvened the Sanhedrin of the Second Temple period, a legislative court that was recognized by the Romans as the rabbinic seat of self-government for the consular province of Judea. (This was known as the synod of Yavneh.) When the Second Temple was destroyed it was learning centers such as this that helped Judaism to survive.


from the June 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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