Commentary Magazine


The Jewish Revolt Against Rome:
The War of 66-70 C.E.

Long familiar to COMMENTARY readers for his special historical investigations, Cecil Roth here offers a fresh analysis of the Jewish revolt of 66-70 C.E.

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The events in Palestine during the great revolt against the Romans in 66-73, culminating, although not ending, in the capture of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, constitute one of the most heroic chapters in Jewish history. It has nevertheless been unfortunate in its chroniclers. We are informed of these events in considerable detail by Josephus, who although writing for a Roman public was unable to conceal completely his admiration for the heroism of his fellow countrymen. But Josephus was a quisling, who had betrayed his people and deserted to the side of the conqueror, and was deeply concerned both to justify his own action and to adulate his patrons. He therefore was driven to denigrate his former Jewish associates, whom he depicts as ambitious cutthroats, fiercely quarreling among themselves for supremacy even when the enemy was at the gates. Other episodic accounts are to be found in the Roman historians, who saw in the Jewish patriots nothing more than fanatical tribesmen engaged in an unreasonable struggle against the majesty of Rome. And there is some interesting legendary embroidery in the Talmud, which adopted a distinctly pacifist attitude, finding its ideal not in those who carried on the struggle in the beleaguered city but in Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, who escaped to make his peace with the conqueror and secure the perpetuation of the Pharisaic academies. Finally, the Christian writers considered that the disaster of the year 70 was a natural punishment for the great crime committed by the Jewish people thirty-seven years earlier by the crucifixion of Jesus, and that those whom God wished to destroy He had previously made mad.

It was therefore inevitable that the lurid picture, of madness and ambition and violence and unreasonable faction fights in the face of the enemy, should have become accepted in modern historiography. One standard work by two eminent theologians goes so far as to discount even Tacitus’s account of the oppression at the hands of the Roman procurators who goaded the people to rise in rebellion; it suggests that “the root cause [for the revolt] must be discovered partly in certain ingrained Jewish conceptions”—that is, apparently, a passion for independence and a profound belief in monotheism—and tells how a leader of the revolt found his way to Jerusalem with “a following of desperadoes,” with whose support he henceforth kept the Holy City in a turmoil. A still popular children’s history states how “The truer patriots counseled conciliation, and at the head of these was the good old High Priest” whose advice was so resented that “the poor old man . . . met with a violent death.” One of the most competent one-volume Jewish histories describes how at the hour of crisis “three factions fought each other, divided by temperament, by personal animosities, by disputes over war methods.” There is, however, no need to accumulate quotations. This is the point of view reflected more or less explicitly by almost all the historians of the period, which has become a commonplace even with Jews.

As I have said, this is largely due to the fact that the judgments of the renegade Josephus have been accepted blindly for various reasons by the general run of historians. In Jewish history of the period, he played a role not dissimilar from that of Benedict Arnold, the renegade American general in the American War of Independence. How Josephus’s literary work should be regarded can best be illustrated by a hypothetical quotation from a non-existent “History of the American Rebellion” as Arnold might have written it:

In the winter of 1779 large numbers of these brigands gathered together in the hill country near Philadelphia, at a spot named Valley Forge. They were led by an ex-officer named Washington, who had been impelled by ambition to repudiate his oath of allegiance and place himself at the head of the rebels. From this favorable position they carried out raids on those peaceful farmers in the vicinity who remained loyal to the government. The brigands received much encouragement from the scribblings of a dissolute mechanic named Benjamin Franklin, now almost senile, who in consequence of having printed a number of almanacs for the lower classes considered himself a man of letters.

Imagine this spirit protracted over a long work, and you have Josephus’s account of the War of 66-70. It is the historian’s task to distinguish the true motives and attitudes behind the actions and personalities which we know only from Josephus’s jaundiced pages.1

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The events in Jerusalem during these years (as a few scholars such as Joseph Salvador, Solomon Zeitlin, and Joseph Klausner realized) are to be considered in the context, not merely of a revolt against the Empire, but of a revolutionary movement which began with the popular rising against the Roman forces in the year 66—directed first against the occupying power, then against the ruling classes, then against the bourgeoisie as a whole. This sequence of events may be said to follow exactly the normal pattern of revolution, as defined by Crane Brinton in his remarkable work The Anatomy of Revolution. We may with Professor Brinton’s guidance discern in the classical revolution some five successive stages:

  1. It begins as a reformist movement, insisting on its loyalty to the regime but agitating for the removal of administrative abuses. The motive force at this stage is generally financial. There is inevitably some initial success—otherwise the revolution is stifled at the outset. Somewhat tardily, the government may try to become conciliatory, make concessions, and accept, however reluctantly, the revolutionary leaders.
  2. The movement now becomes truly revolutionary in the political sense; the former government is repudiated and popular leaders assume control (e.g. the Girondins in France, Kerensky in Russia), adopting a mild program of social reform.
  3. The social revolutionary stage now follows. The moderate leaders of the revolution are thrust aside, demagogic elements come to the fore, and an extreme social revolutionary program is started. The moderate revolutionaries who oppose this are suspected of conspiring with the supporters of the former legitimate authority and are stigmatized as counter-revolutionaries. This results in
  4. The Reign of Terror, since at a period of such extreme danger it is dangerous to show compassion or to allow justice to take a leisurely course. The danger to the state—sometimes at this stage external—makes further desperate measures necessary, such as entrusting the government into the hands of a single person. Hence we arrive at
  5. The dictatorship, exemplified in the towering figures of Oliver Cromwell in England and Napoleon Bonaparte in France. Thus, the face of the revolution is entirely changed. The wheel has gone full circle; and from certain points of view the actual position is not dissimilar from that at the outset.

Now the history of the Jews in the heroic years 66-70 is to be interpreted properly in these same terms. It was a revolutionary movement as well as a patriotic movement: it followed precisely the standard pattern of revolution; it had as its sequel precisely the same political extremism, with precisely the same violent outcome; and it might have resulted in the end in the classical anti-revolutionary climax of revolutionary movements—perhaps indeed the tendency began to show itself—but for the intervention of the Roman forces and the capture of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

For of course, military action against the revolution may cut it short at any stage. A case in point is a revolutionary movement on a small scale which Professor Brinton did not take into consideration, but which is of particular interest to the present writer because it formed the subject of his first book, The Last Florentine Republic, 1527-1530 (London, 1925). In this, the parallel to what took place fifteen hundred years before in Palestine is remarkably close. In both cases, the stage was small; a ruling house supported by alien authority was ejected after a long sequence of financial grievances; the revolution passed from the hands of the moderates to those of the extremists; it expressed itself in social as well as political terms; it was inspired throughout by a wild religious fervor and continued to hope against all hope for divine succor; violence against the counter-revolutionaries and their suspected sympathizers became the order of the day; there was a prolonged siege by alien forces and a heroic defense; and in the end the revolution was suppressed by force of enemy arms. The parallel with the Palestinian events of 66-70 is thus particularly close.

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Crane Brinton points out the coincidence that the classical revolution generally has its origin in grievances against financial maladministration. Perhaps it is not a coincidence: Macchiavelli cynically observed that a man will forgive the butchery of his parents more readily than the loss of his fortune. However that may be, it is a fact that the English revolution began with the protest against Ship Money, the American Revolution with agitation against the Stamp Act, etc., the French Revolution with the incredible tangle of the royal finances and attempts to find a solution for the problem. Precisely similar was the case in Judea before the great outbreak in the year 66. The maladministration of the Roman procurators culminated in the heartless exactions of Gessius Florus, appointed in 64, who in the end even plundered the Temple treasury. This action was the immediate occasion for the protest meeting at which baskets were passed round by some practical jokers to receive gifts from the citizens for the benefit of the indigent governor. This developed into a riot which, though at first savagely suppressed, thereafter spread to such an extent that the Romans were driven out of the city.

Up to this stage the movement was on constitutional lines. The people declared themselves prepared to resume obedience to the Emperor, against whom they had no complaint, but refused to submit any longer to the hated procurator; and Herod Agrippa II, titular king, was able to exercise his influence on the side of moderation. Even now, therefore, agreement might have been possible, and the progress of the revolution arrested. But as our authority points out, the normal type of revolution begins with a striking initial success, which gives the insurgents encouragement (two outstanding instances are the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 and the storming of the Bastille in 1789). The Jewish revolution of 66 begins with more resounding triumphs than either: first the destruction of the Roman cohort which had been holding out in the Jerusalem citadel, and later on the annihilation at Beth Horon of the punitive force which Cestius Gallus, Roman legate in Syria, led to Jerusalem in order to re-establish order. On the one hand, the brilliant victories gave the insurgents confidence; on the other, they had the inevitable result on the occupying power of such setbacks—the determination that order must be re-established before grievances could be taken into consideration, and that there could be no parley with rebels. The revolution was now irrevocably launched on its path.

The Zealots had emerged long before as a separate faction among the Jews—the “Fourth Philosophy,” adhering on the whole to the Pharisaic point of view, except for one thing. The Pharisees had throughout their history a strong pacifist tendency, advocating loyalty to the alien government provided that there was no attempt to interfere with religious observance; the Zealots, on the other hand, laid down as their cardinal religious principle that the Jews had no other king but God alone, and that any show of allegiance to a non-Jewish authority was a fundamental breach of Jewish law and principles.

This tendency had first emerged in Galilee two or three generations before under the insurgent leader Hezekiah, who had been executed by Herod. It was further organized and given its theoretical basis by Hezekiah’s son Judah, who proclaimed a state of perpetual warfare against the Romans and Roman sympathizers, and was killed when he led a revolt against the imposition of a poll tax by the Romans in 6-7 C.E. Two of his sons suffered the same fate in a rising some forty years later. At the time of the Revolution of 66, the Zealot faction was led by his surviving son, Menahem. Josephus speaks of him as a “sophist,” from which one may assume perhaps that he had scholarly tendencies and further developed the theoretical basis of the movement. He certainly seems to have succeeded in imbuing his followers with a great degree of discipline and cohesion, and was to play for a short time a prominent part as a revolutionary leader. He and his followers could indeed have boasted that they were under arms in the maquis while the elements who later seized control were still attending receptions in the Roman procurator’s palace.

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The activist wing of the Zealot party Josephus terms the sicarii or dagger-men: one may compare the “gunmen” of the period of the struggle for Irish independence, or the “terrorists” in most contemporary revolutionary movements, who if the revolution succeeds become immortalized as revolutionary martyrs. It is indeed curious how faithful the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary vocabulary remains throughout the ages. The Germans in France in our own days, like Josephus in Palestine twenty centuries before, tried to discredit the resistance movement by terming its adherents “brigands.” The activists are of course no less embittered against the temporizing element among their compatriots than they are against the alien oppressors themselves. It is only to be expected then that Josephus should indignantly describe the manner in which the assassins extended their activities among the “loyal” population under the very noses of the Roman authorities, so that in the end even a High Priest was among their victims. The Rabbinic literature seems to reflect the same attitude against “collaborationists” when it tells us that death at the hands of the Zealots (kannaim) was the penalty for sexual relations with an “Aramean.”

It appears from Josephus’s story that the sicarii had a social and economic as well as a political program. This emerges from what happened at the beginning of the revolt against Rome, when the political malcontents who were holding the Temple were reinforced by a body of sicarii with whose help they assaulted the Upper City, which we might term the fashionable and business quarter. Here they destroyed the palaces of the members of the upper class who opposed them, including King Agrippa, who was trying to persuade them to yield, and the pro-Roman ex-High Priest Hanan (Ananus). They also set fire to the public archives—their object, according to Josephus, being “to destroy the moneylenders’ bonds and prevent the recovery of debts,” so as to enlist the sympathy of the mob. Hard-pressed at the outset, they received decisive aid with the arrival in Jerusalem of Menahem and his followers, who (operating perhaps from Qumran2) had stormed the Herodian fortress-palace at Masada overhanging the Dead Sea and equipped themselves from the great armory that had been established there. Flushed with triumph, and exceptionally well equipped, they now were responsible for the capture of the fortress of Antonia and the royal palace, notwithstanding the desperate defense put up by the Roman garrison.

After the successful action against the Roman forces in Jerusalem, Menahem tried to follow up his triumph by establishing his personal supremacy. Josephus does not make much of this; but he himself sought refuge in the Temple among his fellow priests, so that it seems that the situation was critical for a time: other persons belonging to the same element whose loyalty was suspect, including a former High Priest, were hounded down and assassinated. In the ensuing fighting, however, Menahem was worsted and killed by the “moderate” elements, led by the captain of the Temple. His surviving followers now withdrew from the city back to the Dead Sea area, under the leadership of his nephew and successor Eleazar ben Jair (probably, as it seems to the present writer, the “Teacher of Righteousness” of the Dead Sea sect).

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A priestly junta (or perhaps it is more correct to say, Temple-and-bourgeois coalition) now assumed control. Shocked by their recent glimpse at the realities of revolution in its wider sense, they were already, it seems, beginning to regret their action against the Romans and to think in terms of compromise. According to Josephus, “we [i.e. himself, the chief priests, and ruling Pharisees] were in a state of great alarm. We saw the populace in arms, and were at a loss what to do. . . . We professed therefore to concur in their views, but suggested that they should make no move and leave the enemy alone if he advanced. . . . In doing so we had hopes that before long Cestius would come up with a large army and quell the Revolution.” This is no doubt an ex post facto account, partly intended to put the historian right in the eyes of the Romans, who remembered him as one of the insurgent generals. But we may at least deduce that already at this early stage there were searchings of the heart among some of those who had been prominent in the initial move against Roman maladministration. They had thought only in terms of removing abuses and, at the most, throwing off the alien yoke. To their consternation, they found that they had helped to stir up a movement which would threaten their own position and their own fortunes. From the point of view of this element, the overthrow of Cestius Gallus in the brilliant series of actions during his retreat from Jerusalem was not a triumph but a foreboding of misfortune.

Inevitably, at this stage the revolution was a “bourgeois” one. The void in government was filled by reverting to the “traditional” constitution of the country, before the usurpation of the Hasmonean monarchs. From the period of the Return from Exile, or at all events from a little while after that date, the internal affairs of the country, under its successive Persian and Greek and Egyptian and Syrian overlords, had been controlled by the High Priest. This therefore was assumed to be the “natural” constitution of the Jewish people. When military governors for the various key positions were appointed by a “popular” assembly meeting in the Temple court, half of them were priests. The ex-High Priest Hanan (Ananus) was given supreme control over the defenses of Jerusalem, in association with one Joseph ben Gorion, and in effect became head of the provisional government. Eleazar ben Hananiah, captain of the Temple, who had originally instigated the repudiation of allegiance to Rome, was sent to the frontier command in Idumea, while Joseph ben Mattathias the priest (better known as Josephus), notwithstanding his youth and inexperience, became military commander in Galilee. It is not very much of an exaggeration to say that the country was mainly governed by a priestly junta, belonging moreover on the whole to aristocratic families traditionally associated with the high priesthood. Considerable influence in Jerusalem was exercised also by the Pharisee leader Rabbi Simon ben Gamaliel, grandson of the great Hillel—once again, a member of an aristocratic or at least upper-middle-class family. He, together with Hanan and Joseph ben Gorion, an able soldier, formed a triumvirate in whose hands supreme authority was generally believed to reside. Another member of the revolutionary government was Antipas, of the Herodian house, and close relative of King Agrippa, who had been one of the delegation which had been sent by the insurgents to interview Florus. He now became state treasurer (in Josephus’s words, he “carried such weight in the city that he was entrusted with the charge of the public treasury”).

After the suppression of the Zealot coup de main in the autumn of 66, this provisional government under the ex-High Priest Hanan, representing a coalition between the priestly and the bourgeois elements, seems to have ruled with a heavy hand. There is evidence that they tried to suppress by military action the democratic elements which opposed their rule. Extremists such as Simon bar Giora and Eleazar ben Simon, notwithstanding the fact that they had played outstanding parts in the victory against Cestius, were excluded from office. When the former established himself in the hill country of Acrabatene, a military expedition was sent to eject him; there is evidence of violent action against the sicarii of Masada and Qumran; and the Jerusalem Zealots under Eleazar ben Simon were hemmed up in the Temple area. (Josephus naturally ascribes all the responsibility for the collision to the latter, but his evidence is not necessarily to be accepted literally.) All this is possibly to be taken in conjunction with Josephus’s own policies in Galilee, in which even before he showed his pro-Roman sympathies he violently collided with what he depicts as the subversive elements in the population.

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There is no need to go here into any details of the campaign in Galilee which he directed anemically against Vespasian’s forces, or of its final debacle, when he shamelessly went over to the enemy. From the point of view of the revolution in Jerusalem, this had results precisely opposite to what might have been anticipated. The priestly junta was apparently prepared, like josephus (who may indeed have been acting in outright collusion with them), to come to terms. However, the influx of war refugees from Galilee under John of Gischala, bringing with them details of the shameful betrayal perpetrated by the priestly nominee there, reinforced the extremist elements and swung the scale decisively against the moderates. Where the Galileans stood in the revolutionary pattern is not easy to determine. However, Josephus sneeringly refers to the activities in the oil trade of their leader, John of Gischala, and we may consider him as belonging to the petty bourgeoisie, standing midway between the priestly junta and their associates on the one side and the Jerusalem proletariat on the other. Associating himself at first with the former (presumably with a “Unified Front” or “Win the War” program), he ultimately began to realize or suspect their anti-national objectives and swung over to the Zealots, entrenched under Eleazar ben Simon on the Temple mount. The other side controlled all the disciplined soldiery and were supported by the forces of law and order, and their position thus seemed to be almost impregnable. However, on John of Gischala’s secret advice the Zealots sent for help to the Idumeans (Edomites) who, although but recently converted to Judaism, were now hyper-nationalist. It was not difficult therefore to arouse them on the plea that the priestly junta was preparing to betray the city and the revolution to the Romans. They marched to Jerusalem, entered the gates during a violent thunderstorm, and swung the balance decisively on the side of the “democratic” elements.

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The revolution now entered a second and more extreme, “Jacobin,” phase, accompanied by the outbreak of violence characteristic of this stage—directed in part, as usual, against the original revolutionary leaders. Already in the disorders which preceded the Zealot triumph a series of arrests and executions had been carried out in the capital by a band of extremists led by one John ben Dorcas, who sometimes broke into the prisons and summarily put to death persons awaiting trial. (This provides a close parallel to the September Massacres in Paris in 1792, and had the same justification—that, with the menacing advance of the enemy, the revolution was in danger.) The victims included various members of the former royal house, one being the Antipas who had been appointed state treasurer after the revolution. After the overthrow of Hanan and the triumvirate, what may be termed a Committee of Public Safety was set up to “save the revolution.” So far as possible judicial forms were observed at first. A special popular tribunal of seventy—not merely the twenty-three necessary for capital offenses according to Pharisaic rulings—was convened to try cases of treason. The first person brought before it was Zachariah ben Banias, charged with conspiring to betray the city to the Romans, but suspect also because of his great wealth. He put up a spirited defense, and was acquitted. But, in such times, necessity is held to override the letter of the law. He was accordingly hurried away and summarily put to death, the emergency tribunal being dissolved. Henceforth, the revolutionary leaders would take no chances, and not only Hanan, who for so long had been at the head of the provisional government, but also persons such as Niger the Perean and Gorion ben Joseph (i.e., Joseph ben Gorion?), who had played a prominent part in earlier stages of the revolt and served in important military commands, were executed without trial. (R. Simon ben Gamaliel, the Pharisaic leader, also disappears from view at this point.) The phenomenon of distinguished generals who had once faithfully served the revolution ultimately adhering to the enemy is not indeed unknown in other ages, as witness for instance the French example of Dumouriez. Incidentally, there is some evidence that at this point Josephus grossly exaggerated the scope of the Reign of Terror. Though his own parents were arrested their lives were spared, and his mother was apparently allowed to have her personal attendants with her in prison—even though he himself had already joined the Romans and was serving in their forces in the capacity of what we would term today “director of psychological warfare.”

There is little direct evidence regarding the social program of the Jerusalem extremists as distinct from the more advanced sicarii, heirs to the teachings of Menahem ben Judah, who controlled the Dead Sea area. The former were ardently patriotic, and democratic in tendency. In internal politics they seem to have reacted violently against the aristocratic and oligarchic tendencies which had dominated the revolution at the outset, and as a natural corollary, they opposed the closed ring of interconnected families who had formerly controlled the high priesthood. In the French Revolution, we perhaps find the parallel to the differences between them and the sicarii. The Girondins, though republicans and idealists, were champions of the rights of property, whereas the Mountain, which depended for its power on the organized mob of Paris, tended more and more in the direction of what is now called socialism. On the other hand, John of Gischala, though often spoken of by modern historians as a Zealot, and though over a long period he acted in collaboration with them, did not in fact belong to this faction. As we have seen, he belonged to the merchant class, with different social and economic standards. Moreover, he seems from Josephus’s account to have been, unlike the Zealots, somewhat careless in his standards of religious observance.

An obviously revolutionary step taken by the Zealots at this time was to remove the high priesthood, the most important office in the state, out of the hands of the closed circle of aristocratic families who had long monopolized it. Josephus tells us how this was done. Hitherto, the incumbent of the supreme office had usually been chosen from among themselves by the representatives of these families, their candidate being subsequently presented for approval to the ruling house or the occupying power. But there was another possible method which was much followed in antiquity. Aristotle had said that the appointment to office by election is oligarchic, but by lot (which gave every man an equal chance) democratic: and this was the point of view too in city-states of medieval and Renaissance Italy. This, then, was the system which was now adopted. Josephus tells us contemptuously (and the story is confirmed in the Talmudic account) how the popular elements insisted on selecting a new High Priest by lot, a simple descendant of Aaron named Phanni ben Samuel being in consequence dragged from the plough to serve at the altar. A man of the people now occupied the highest office in the state.

John of Gischala’s assumption of the leadership of the patriotic extremists perhaps implied a slowing down of the revolutionary program in favor of a more vigorous military policy. For the extreme elements—the “pure” Zealots—such steps were a superfluous and needless labor, so long as the implications of the revolution itself, in the social and religious sphere, had not been realized. They now became reorganized under their old leader, Eleazar ben Simon, who had seized the Roman treasure chest at the outbreak of the revolution but had been excluded from the provisional government, as we have seen. He now “seceded from the party,” together with certain other leaders who shared his ideas, and seized the inner court of the Temple: that is, the actual sanctuary and place of sacrifice, where for some time henceforth they were in sole control. (It is to be presumed that the democratic High Priest recently appointed threw in his lot with them.) The few glimpses of Eleazar ben Simon’s character that are afforded in our sources seem to suggest that he may be regarded perhaps as the idealist of the revolutionary period. His conceptions centered in the Temple and the maintenance of public worship, which he considered so important that he apparently allowed free access to the altar even to his enemies.

All this contrasts strikingly with the purely political motivation (as it appears) of the more secular John of Gischala, a very different person. It may be that the pure Zealots objected to the latter’s dictatorial tendencies. As the surviving member of the quadrumvirate which had been in control in Jerusalem after the Roman conquest of Galilee, he may have considered himself to be the legitimate ruler, but the tendency to suspend constitutional guarantees and to concentrate power in the hands of a single person is a commonplace in such situations. Josephus hints darkly at homosexual practices among his followers—another lurid accusation which we often hear in similar circumstances.

Later on, John of Gischala with his strong personality and his political adroitness and fine resistance record, as well as his devoted following, was able to reassert his authority over his Zealot rivals: Josephus possibly exaggerates the degree of violence by which this was achieved, as the two factions now drew together again, Eleazar ben Simon and his followers fighting henceforth to the end under John’s command.

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Meanwhile another revolutionary party had appeared in the city, led by Simon bar Giora, who at the outbreak of the revolt had taken a distinguished part in the fighting and later made himself master of the district of Acrabatene. Obviously he belonged to the extreme left wing of social revolutionaries. “Bar Giora” means “son of the proselyte”: he thus had no connections with the country’s upper or middle class, belonging to the flotsam and jetsam of the population who are initially thrown up in a revolution. Josephus gives us an inkling of his social program, which horrified him. A democrat in the fullest measure, and in a sense that was true of none of the other leaders of the revolution, he believed in real equality for all, without exception: for we are informed how he proclaimed liberty for the slaves, who flocked to his standard. It is very probable that he based this on religious grounds, claiming that it was a fulfillment of the word of God before whom all men were equal, the realization and implementation of this being a prerequisite of redemption: indeed, did not the prophet Isaiah tell how the true redeemer of Israel would bind up the broken-hearted and proclaim liberty to the captives, before the great day of triumph? One may understand now why it was that at the beginning of the revolution the ex-High Priest Hanan had sent a military expedition to eject him from Acrabatene. He thereupon took refuge with the sicarii in Masada; the fact that he was admitted there, for however short a time, suggests that at least some of his political and economic program was not wholly unacceptable in this apocalyptic environment. It is to be noted, however, that he is never described in any contemporary source as a Zealot.

After a while, Simon bar Giora and his hosts fell out. Profiting from the difficulties of the central government in Jerusalem after the fall of the priestly junta, he now began to establish his authority in the outlying areas, including Idumea, receiving a great degree of popular support for his economic, social, and political policies. The Zealots entrenched in Jerusalem, however, opposed him and his programs resolutely, not to say frenziedly. Meanwhile, the remnant of the moderate party in the capital, headed by the recently deposed High Priest Mattathias ben Boethus, were looking round desperately for some ally. They found no possibility—incongruous though this was—except in Simon bar Giora and his followers, who at all events were opposed to the Zealots, and who they hoped would be sobered by responsibility. Nothing loath, Simon and his new levies, recruited from released ex-prisoners who had streamed to join his standard, now marched on the Holy City, freeing the slaves, opening the prisons, and gathering fresh force as they progressed. Obviously, they wished to carry the revolution yet a stage further. By the time he reached the city walls, Bar Giora had 15,000 men behind him.

In the spring of 69, thanks to the military assistance of some of the Idumean forces who had remained behind after the return of their compatriots to their own country, Simon entered the gates and before long was able to make himself master of the entire walled area—both the Upper City and the Lower City—with the exception of the Temple Mount where John of Gischala and the Zealots remained in control. Simon was, however, master of the Holy City as a whole, and of the great majority of the much swollen population as well as of the armed forces, and is henceforth to be reckoned as head of the attenuated Jewish state: it was indeed as such that he was put to death by the Romans in their sadistic fashion when Vespasian celebrated his triumph. His administration of the beleaguered city seems to have been efficient though—necessarily—firm and unyielding. But it was inevitably a one-man rule: indeed, there is some evidence that he was formally appointed, or accepted, by the people as the head of the state. (If that is so, we have here the normal paradoxical climax of the pattern of revolution as it so frequently evolves.)

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At this stage, according to the historians, there was carried on the fratricidal warfare within the walls, in the face of the Roman menace, which sealed the doom of the beleaguered city. A moment’s consideration shows that this was inevitable and, granted the premises, even proper. For the various factions were struggling, not merely to defend the city against the Romans, but to establish the reign of God on earth. Once they had done this, God would Himself descend on the city and save them. Until they had done so, none of their efforts could be successful. It did not matter how extreme their case was—the Divine power would be sufficient. But the Divine power would not manifest itself until all iniquity had been purged away and justice and righteousness fully established in the Holy City among the remnant of the Holy People. The fact that the Romans were beneath the walls and the city in mortal danger proved that this had not yet taken place. It was therefore utterly necessary to sweep away the men of iniquity and their regime. They did not fight among themselves despite the fact that the condition of the city was so extreme; it was precisely because the condition was so extreme that it was necessary for the advanced religious wing of the social revolutionaries to fight against those who were obstructing their program. Only if the Law was observed fully and social justice was implemented according to the prophetic vision would the Lord descend on the ramparts to save His once chosen people: if the slaves were set free, the Biblical laws protecting the poor and needy put into force, interest no longer exacted on loans to the man who needed help, and every man dealt justly with his neighbor. We have no direct evidence; if anything was written down, it must have been destroyed with the city itself when the Roman legionaries at last breached the walls. But this plea for social justice, or if you please this program of social reform, more or less extreme in accordance with the tendencies (one might almost say, the party affiliations) of the “prophet,” must have constituted a great part of those ratiocinations to which Josephus superciliously alludes.

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This obviously explains one of the episodes relating to this period, hardly credible in itself, but recounted with some differences by Josephus, Tacitus, and even in the Talmudic sources, so that there can be no doubt about it: how, after the city was completely beleaguered, the granaries were deliberately burned, the food supplies which might have rendered possible a more protracted resistance being thus consumed. The defenders of the city were profoundly convinced that if they trusted implicitly in God, He would save them even at the last moment. Firing the granaries not only demonstrated their trust, but also brought nearer the last moment, when God would assuredly manifest Himself. For Simon bar Giora and his followers to refuse to come to terms with their rivals, for them to attempt to insure their dominance in the city by a coup de main, was similarly not paradoxical; nor from their point of view was it suicidal; nor could it weaken the defense. On the contrary, it was only thus, by insuring the favor and good will of God, that victory could be possible. Meanwhile, in and around the Dead Sea, the Zealot extremists still maintained themselves aloof, biding their time—cherishing the memory of that Menahem ben Judah who had been assassinated in Jerusalem by the priestly junta at the outbreak of the revolution, and convinced it was themselves and their doctrines that God would establish firmly in the “end of days,” when their rivals had been swept away in the maelstrom of war.

In the end, it was the Roman military machine that triumphed; Jerusalem was captured, to be followed three years later by Masada. The Jewish revolutionary leaders either perished sword in hand, disappeared into obscurity, or were subjected to the ruthless judgment of the Roman conqueror. The Temple lay in ruins, the once dominant priestly element thus losing its raison d’être. The Pharisaic leaders, personified in Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, who had been smuggled out of the city by his pupils during the siege, were quick to realize their opportunity, and established themselves as the supreme Jewish authority. The revolution had collapsed. More than that: its memory disappeared.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 The details in the following pages derive almost entirely from Josephus's War of the Jews, with some additional data from his Autobiography: I have used the Loeb Classics edition. In some instances the precise sequence of events is dubious, but the general picture is not affected by this. My use throughout of a “contemporary” vocabulary is deliberate, as it gives a far greater air of actuality to what otherwise seems improbable and remote. This is in the nature of a preliminary survey: I hope to return to the subject more systematically at some time in future.

2 In the opinion of the present writer, the “Qumran Sect,” whose doctrines and organization are reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, were in fact Zealots. See “A Solution to the Mystery of the Scrolls,” COMMENTARY, October 1957.

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