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The Jewish War

The impact of the first Jewish War on the Jerusalem Church was severe. Here we will consider the evidence of the impact and its implications.

The Jewish War of 66-70 CE

The bulk of our knowledge of the Jewish War and its causes comes from the work of Flavius Josephus (37-c.100 CE). Originally a Jewish military commander named Joseph ben Matthias, Josephus defected to the Roman side early on in the war and was an eyewitness to many of the events that took place. His major works that cover the Jewish war and the events preceding it are: The Jewish War (published in 77 CE) and Antiquities of the Jews 93 CE and The Life of Flavius Josephus around 95 CE. We give below a summary of the war.

In 66 CE a race riot between the Jews and the Gentiles erupted in Caesarea. The Gentiles slaughtered 20,000 Jews within an hour. This slaughter, together with the arrests of Jews by the order of Florus, effectively emptied Caesarea of any Jewish resident. Florus handled subsequent events poorly: he desecrated the Jewish Temple and attempted to extort the Jews by ordering them to pay him 17 gold talents (in today's value this would be about US$350,000) from the Temple funds for protection. This sequence of humiliating events united the Jews; the Zealots were joined by all the major Jewish sects. In May of that year the Zealots attacked the Roman garrison stationed outside Jerusalem. The garrison, which was led by Cestius Gallus, the legate of Syria, was routed by the Jewish insurgents. This initial moral boosting victory initiated open rebellion against the Romans all over Palestine. [1]

Nero sent one of his best generals, Vespasian (9-79 CE) to quell the rebellion. The general's first move was to wipe out the Jewish resistance in Galilee, which he did successfully. He continued to mop up the Jewish resistance in Paraea, Samaria and Idumea. He was poised for an attack on Jerusalem when the news of Nero's death reached him. He made his way back to Rome where he became the new emperor. The task of attacking Jerusalem fell on the shoulders of his son, Titus (c.40-81). The siege of the holy city of the Jews took place in April 70, at the time of the Jewish Passover festival, at the time when Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims, in addition to the insurgents. The Jews stubbornly defended Jerusalem for several months. Finally famine, fatigue and the vastly superior Roman army took their toll on them. Jerusalem finally fell in September of 70 CE. The Romans entered Jerusalem and killed everyone they found. The loss of life in Jerusalem was, by any account, horrendous. More than one million Jews died during the siege. The whole city was leveled, including its walls and the Temple, the symbol of Judaism, was destroyed. [2]

With the fall of Jerusalem the main force of the Jewish revolt was no more. The rest of the operation consists of mopping up the remaining insurgents. The last Jewish stronghold was in fortress of Masada, west of the Dead Sea. Masada was stubbornly defended by the Jews but it too, fell in 74 CE. The Jews in Masada, realizing that Roman victory is imminent, committed mass suicide. When the Romans finally made their way into the fort, to their surprise they found only one woman alive. With the fall of Masada, the Jewish revolt ended. [3]

The level of devastation was intense, here are a couple of scenes from Josephus' account:

Jewish War 3:10:9 [In Galilee]
The Romans never ceased, night or day, to devastate the plains and to pillage the property of the country folk, invariably killing all capable of bearing arms and reducing the inefficient to servitude. Galilee from end to end became a scene of fire and blood; from no misery, no calamity was it exempt...One could see the whole lake red [The Sea of Galilee-PT] with blood and covered with corpses, for not a man escaped. During the following days the district reeked with a dreadful stench and presented a spectacle equally horrible. The beaches were strewn with wrecks and swollen carcasses.

Jewish War 6:8:5 [In Jerusalem]
But when they [The Romans-PT] went in numbers into the lanes of the city with their swords drawn, they slew those whom they overtook without and set fire to the houses whither the Jews were fled, and burnt every soul in them, and laid waste a great many of the rest; and when they were come to the houses to plunder them, they found in them entire families of dead men, and the upper rooms full of dead corpses, that is, of such as died by the famine; they then stood in a horror at this sight, and went out without touching any thing. But although they had this commiseration for such as were destroyed in that manner, yet had they not the same for those that were still alive, but they ran every one through whom they met with, and obstructed the very lanes with their dead bodies, and made the whole city run down with blood, to such a degree indeed that the fire of many of the houses was quenched with these men's blood.

Based in Josephus' accounts, the total number of Jewish deaths during the war has been computed to be 1,356,460! [4]

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The Losses to the Jerusalem Church

Although we have no direct information on what happened to the Jerusalem congregation during the Jewish War, several considerations show that the most likely outcome was that the majority of them perished during the Roman siege of the city:

  • As we have noticed above, many pilgrims who took no part in the war were caught in the siege and died together with the revolutionaries. The Jerusalem congregation, as we have shown elsewhere could not have escaped in large numbers, so most of those left behind would have died even if they did not want to fight.

  • We are told by Josephus in War 2:20:3 that after early victory against Cestius Gallus many of the Jews who were not originally insurgents, including the moderates, decided to join in the fight against Rome. Probably the initial defeat of the mighty Romans was seen by all as a sign that Yahweh was favoring the Jewish nation in the war. [5]

  • Finally we consider the negative evidence. The fact that early Church tradition preserved no account of what happened to the Church during the war, except for the one of the flight to Pella, means that there was no tradition they considered worthwhile preserving. This is surprising in view of the eminence of the Jerusalem church. The only possible explanation was that whatever that was known to have happened there was not considered edifying by the early Church tradition. This means that in all probability, whether they chose to fight or just to stay in Jerusalem in solidarity with the fellow Jews or were simply trapped in the city, the majority of the members of the Jerusalem church must perished during the war. [6]

This conclusion by Gerd Ludemann in his book Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity is apt:

What really happened to the Jerusalem church during the Jewish War? I consider it probable that the majority opposed the rebellion against Rome. But that by no means implies a flight from Jerusalem, especially in view of the fact that the majority of the "peace party" likewise remained in Jerusalem. This means that we must seriously consider the possibility that the members of the Christian community, just like the Pharisees and the Sadducees who wanted peace, perished in the war, in solidarity with their nation. [7]

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Impact of the War

The Jewish War added, to the death of James, the loss of probably the majority of the Jerusalem church and the forced exodus from Jerusalem into the Transjordan. Although as we have seen, some remnants did survive under Symeon, they were no longer significant to the developing (Gentile) Catholic Church. The passage below, from S.G.F. Brandon's The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church, is a fitting epitaph to the Jerusalem church:

The documentary evidence for the fate of Palestinian Christianity during these crucial ears is admittedly meager in quantity and poor in quality. But probably the most eloquent evidence is to be seen in the indisputable fact that after A.D. 70 the Church of Jerusalem disappears completely from the life and concern of the Catholic Church..there is a kind of tunnel in the course of the life of the Church in the second half of the first century. In that period before we see the Church strongly centralized around the mother community of Jerusalem, whose authority and prestige are unchallenged, even by the daring Paul...It emerges again [after 70 CE-PT]...but we see it then changed completely in its organization and outlook, for of Jerusalem and its unique authority nothing is heard, either in reference to the present or in reminiscence of the past...Thus the Mother Church of Christianity passed away from any further effective part in the life of the movement to which it had given birth. [8]

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1.Cary & Scullard, A History of Rome: p367
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p186
2.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p333
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p70
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p185
3.Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p70
4.Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church: p165
5.Brandon, Jesus and the Zealots: p138
Ludemann, Heretics: p52
6.Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church: p179-180
7.Ludemann, Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity: p63
8.Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church: p183

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