The First Jewish War against Rome

Much like the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 B.C., the ill-fated Jewish war against the Romans from A.D. 66-73 became a defining event in the history of Israel, and it affected the nascent Christian church as well. Tensions between Jews and Romans had run deep ever since Pompey first seized the land of Israel for Rome in 63 B.C., and some of these tensions can be seen in the Gospels (e.g., Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26; John 19:1-22). Tensions continued to mount until finally, in A.D. 66–just six years after Paul was transferred from Caesarea to Rome–open rebellion broke out in Jerusalem and other areas throughout Judea and Galilee. King Agrippa II fled Jerusalem and sought refuge in Galilee, and the Roman governor in Syria, just north of Israel, assembled a legion of soldiers to quell the rebellion. Western Galilee, northern Samaria, and cities along the Mediterranean coast were soon recaptured, but the Romans suffered catastrophic defeat at the pass at Beth-horon, losing 6000 soldiers and their aquila (a highly prized standard for each legion). After this, Jewish leaders formed a provisional government in Jerusalem and appointed commanders over various regions. Galilee was placed under the command of Josephus Matthias, later called Flavius Josephus. The Sicarii, a group of fighters who had already been fighting against the Romans, also attempted to solidify power in Jerusalem, but struggles between them and the other factions forced the Sicarii to relocate to Masada, a desert fortress south of En-gedi. Early in A.D. 67 the Roman general Vespasian and his son Titus arrived in Ptolemais with several legions and began to recapture Galilee and Gaulanitis. Soon after this, however, Vespasian was recalled to Rome, where he was installed as emperor. Titus continued the effort in Judea, and by A.D. 70 the vast majority of the resistance had been crushed, including in Jerusalem itself. After a seven-month siege of the city, Jerusalem’s walls were breached and eventually razed to the ground, as was Herod’s Temple. Many of the Temple’s treasures were taken by Titus to Rome, as depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome. The last vestiges of resistance around Machaerus were defeated by A.D. 72, leaving Masada as the final holdout for a group of about 1000 Sicarii. By A.D. 73 the Romans captured this fortress as well, ending all open rebellion in Judea. The First Jewish War had a lasting impact upon Jews in Palestine and even upon Judaism itself. The destruction of Herod’s Temple completed the shift begun centuries early after the destruction of the first Temple, re-centering Judaism around the synagogue instead of the Temple and placing rabbis in the role of spiritual leadership formerly held by priests. The Christian church likewise experienced a further shift of leadership from Jerusalem to Antioch and other key cities, though the fourth-century church historian Eusebius noted that bishops continued to exist in Jerusalem during the decades following the war. Eusebius also recorded that many Christians fled to the city of Pella just before the war broke out, but some scholars dispute this claim. Various passages of Scripture, including Jesus’ teachings on the Mount of Olives (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21) and the apostle John’s many visions of the end times (Revelation 6-18), are believed to allude to the traumas suffered during the First Jewish War.

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