Were the Jewish Revolts from Roman Rule Politically or Religiously Motivated?

Within 70 years there were three Jewish revolts in the Roman Empire in 66-70, 115-117 and 132-135 AD. If the Jews’ motivation for these revolts had been merely political, a desire for independence and freedom from Rome, this raises the question, why did the Jews revolt three times in 70 years and not any of the other nations which the Romans had conquered? The Jews had lived peacefully under Persian rule for over 200 years and under Greek rule for 165 years until 167 BC. It was not until Antiochus Epiphanes desecrated the temple in Jerusalem and attempted the forced Hellenization of Judaism that the Jews rebelled to regain their independence. This suggests that the Jews were prepared to put up with foreign rule and accept a loss of independence as long as their religious sensibilities were not violated. This attitude continued under Roman rule. When Gaius planned to erect a statue of himself in the temple in Jerusalem, the Jews threatened to go to war and risk the destruction of the Jewish nation(1). During Pilate’s procuratorship the Jews offered to be killed rather than see the temple desecrated (2). Their religious beliefs were so strong that they were prepared to be killed rather than see them violated.

However, the Jews did not rebel against Roman rule in 66 because they were afraid the Romans would desecrate the temple. According to Josephus, they said their quarrel was not with Rome, but with the local procurator Florus (3) and his inability or refusal to resolve the conflicts between the Jews and the local Gentiles to the Jews’ satisfaction which finally provoked the Jews to revolt. These conflicts had religious roots. Some Gentiles, such as Tacitus, believed the Jews “feel nothing but hatred and enmity for the rest of the world.”(4) The rest of the Greco-Roman world believed that different nations worshipped the same gods, but under different names. The Jews were exclusive and believed they alone worshipped the only true God and the Gentiles’ gods simply did not exist.

These differences erupted into conflicts between the two groups. However, conflicts between Jews and Gentiles should not necessarily lead to the Jews revolting against Rome. The problem was that the Jews believed the Roman authorities sided with the Gentiles against them. For example, when the Samaritans attacked some Galilean pilgrims, the procurator Cumanus (48-52) did nothing. Josephus claimed the Samaritans had bribed him. The Jews attacked several Samaritan villages. Then Cumanus intervened on the side of the Samaritans against the Jews(5).

Furthermore, the Roman soldiers stationed in Judea were not legionaries from Italy, but auxiliaries from Syria(6), the same people with whom the Jews were in conflict. Josephus records that one of these soldiers exposed himself in the temple, provoking a riot in which several thousand Jews were killed(7). A Syrian defiled the temple and when the Jews objected, Syrians acting with Roman authority, massacred several thousand Jews. To the Jews it must have appeared that the game was rigged and the umpires were on the same side as the other team.

Not all Jews were prepared to conditionally accept Roman rule. Josephus wrote that one of the rebel leaders, Menahem, entered the temple “decked with kingly robes”(8). This sounds like he was claiming to be the Messiah(9). Josephus wrote that the Jews had messianic motives in rebelling. They believed it was prophesied that their Messiah would be victorious and rule the whole world(10). Menahem was a descendant of Judas the Galilean who led an uprising in 6 AD and believed that God was their only master and they should not submit to Rome. Menahem’s faction, the Sicarii, inherited these ideas which motivated them to revolt against Roman rule(11). Since they believed submission to Roman rule was a sin against God, the Sicarii have would have fought against Roman rule regardless of how the Romans treated the Jews.

Josephus demonized the Sicarii and other rebels as little more than criminals and tyrants (12). However, after the fall of Jerusalem, some of the Sicarii held out at Masada. When Yigual Yadin excavated Masada in the 1960s, they found the remains of a prayer shawl (13), jars which had been designated for tithing(14), fragments of 14 religious scrolls, including Leviticus, Psalms, Ezekiel and Jubilees(15), a synagogue(16) and ritual baths which the Sicarii had built(17). This suggests that the Sicarii were more pious and religiously motivated and were not the mere criminals which Josephus painted them to be. He had seen the rebels’ actions lead to defeat and the destruction of the temple. From his perspective, God could not have been on their side so they must have been wrong.

However, if the motivation of the first Jewish revolt had been solely religious, we would have expected the Jews in the Diaspora to have also rebelled and come to their aid. Josephus records that the rebels hoped the Jews beyond the Euphrates would support the revolt, but they did not (18). At the start of the war there were also clashes with Gentiles and massacres of Jews outside Judea in Syria and Alexandria (19). Although they faced the same problems with the local Gentiles which contributed to the revolt, they did not join in and the revolt did not spread and engulf the region. After the revolt was defeated, some of the Sicarii fled to Alexandria where they tried to persuade the local Jews that they should only submit to God not Rome and rebel. However, the Alexandrian Jews were not interested (20).

There were other factors behind this revolt. Josephus described pre-revolt Judea as a divided society in which the rich oppressed the poor and the poor robbed the rich (21). The completion of the temple in 63 resulted in 18,000 unemployed which further aggravated economic conditions (22). Tacitus records that Syria and Judea found their taxes oppressive (23). The rest of the empire was also burdened with taxes and unemployment, but they did not rebel. Taxation was also resented by the Jews for religious reasons. Judas the Galilean had taught that paying tax to Rome implied submission to Rome, rather than God (24). While the religious motives were important, they were fuelled by local issues and were not enough to incite Jews outside Judea to also rebel.

The Diaspora revolt of 115-117 is different from the first revolt in that it was not limited to one region, but included Cyrene, Egypt, Cyprus and Mesopotamia. This suggests that this revolt was not motivated by local issues like the Judean revolt, but was more universal in motivation, affecting Jews in all these areas.

T.D. Barnes suggests the Diaspora Jews “rose against Rome primarily because they feared that Trajan’s conquest of the Jewish communities of Mesopotamia posed a threat to the Jewish way of life.” (25) However, the Jews in the Roman Empire had survived Roman conquest, even the destruction of the temple, so it hard to see what threat adding the Jews of Mesopotamia to the empire would have posed. If the Diaspora Jews did not come to the aid of Judea, it is even less likely that they would rise up in revolt simply in support of the Jews of Mesopotamia. It is more likely that the transfer of Roman troops to Mesopotamia provided the opportunity to revolt (26).

Aryeh Kasher suggests that “the agrarian policy of the Roman emperors in the first century, which led to the gradual decline in small-scale farming in Egypt and Cyrene, affected the Jews as well as prepared them psychologically for rebellious aggression.” (27) However, these policies also affected the Greek and native population, arguably more so than urban Alexandrian Jews, yet they did not also revolt. There must have been additional motives.

Eusebius wrote about the beginning of this revolt, “For both in Alexandria and in the rest of Egypt and especially in Cyrene, as though they had been seized by some terrible spirit of rebellion, they rushed into sedition against their fellow Greeks.” (28) Dio Cassius claims the Jews killed 220,000 in Cyrene and 240,000 in Cyprus (29). There is widespread archaeological evidence of the destruction of pagan temples in Cyrene which has been attributed to this revolt (30). If the Jews’ motivation had been to overthrow Roman rule, killing large numbers of Gentile civilians and destroying their temples seems, at best, a waste of energy. Many Greeks also did not like being ruled by Rome. Instead of joining forces to fight their foreign overlords, the Jews seemed more concerned with fighting the Greeks than the Romans. The Romans intervened to stop the Jews killing the Greeks, rather than attempting to overthrow Roman rule.

Unlike Josephus’ accounts of the events leading to the 66-70 revolt, Dio Cassius and Eusebius do not say anything about conflicts with local Gentiles preceding the Diaspora revolt. However, Gentiles historians were unlikely to appreciate or emphasize such conflicts in the way Josephus did. When we consider the extent of the rage directed towards the Gentiles, it seems implausible that it was not the result of years of anti-Semitic conflict finally exploding.

After 70, some of the Sicarii fled to Alexandria and Cyrene (31). Although they were not initially accepted, perhaps their beliefs, that they should only obey God and not Rome, took root and contributed to the revolt in these regions 45 years later.

After the destruction of the temple, all Jews in the empire were, in effect, punished for the actions of those in Judea and forced to pay a tax to fund the rebuilding of the temple of Jupiter in Rome. While no surviving source mentions a connection between this tax and the Diaspora revolt, being forced to fund a pagan temple while their own temple was in ruins must have violated their religious sensibilities and united them in resentment.

Eusebius calls the leader of the revolt in Cyrene and Egypt Lukuas “their king”(32). Dio Cassius calls the leader of the revolt in Cyrene, Andreas (33). Lukuas and Andreas are assumed to be the same person who had messianic aspirations (34). He apparently led the Jews in a “holy war” against their Gentile oppressors and their pagan temples.

Our sources for the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-135 are also scarce. They all attribute religious motives to the revolt, although these motives are different.

In the late fourth century Spartianus wrote that Hadrian banned circumcision, so the Jews revolted (35). E.M. Smallwood assumes that this was a universal ban on circumcision throughout the empire and was not specifically directed against the Jews (36). However, in the Dialogue with Typho, which was written about the time of this revolt, Justin Martyr discusses circumcision and says nothing about it having been banned (37). Hugo Mantel argues that this ban was not introduced until Antoninus Pius who did not apply it to all Jews, only to proselytes (38). This makes more sense. A universal ban on circumcision would have affected all Jews in the empire, attacking the basis of their religious identity and covenant with God. It would have provoked an empire-wide revolt, not one limited to Judea.

Dio Cassius records that Hadrian decided to rebuild Jerusalem, renaming it Aelia Capitolina, and build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the Jews’ temple, which provoked the revolt (39). The Midrash claims that Hadrian permitted the Jews to rebuild the temple and then changed his mind, provoking the Jews to rebel, however this “is not now considered a primary cause of the revolt by anyone.” (40) Nevertheless, many Jews would have assumed that the temple would be rebuilt like other temples, which had been destroyed in wars, were rebuilt. They assumed they were experiencing a temporary period of punishment and if they behaved themselves, conditions would later improve (41). When the Jews learnt that a pagan temple was to be built on the site of their temple, they realised the destruction of their temple was permanent.

Rather than being a cause of the revolt, Eusebius wrote that Hadrian rebuilt and renamed Jerusalem after the revolt had been suppressed (42). Coins with Bar Kochba inscriptions as well as coins with the inscription “Aelia Capitolina” have been found together in Jerusalem (43). This suggests that Dio Cassius’ account is more accurate. Hadrian renamed Jerusalem, announced his plans to build a pagan temple and the coins with the inscription “Aelia Capitolina” were minted. The Jews revolted and the Bar Kochba coins were minted. After the Jews were defeated, the temple to Jupiter was built.

The Midrash records that some Jews believed that Bar Kochba was the Messiah (44). In his letters, revealing that his real name was Shimeon bar Kosiba, he does not refer to himself as the Messiah, but “prince over Israel” (45). Like Menahem and Andreas/Lukuas, he saw himself as a royal figure and God’s instrument to free the Jews from their Gentiles oppressors. If they did not consciously think of themselves as the Messiah, they had Messianic aspirations and were inspired by Jewish beliefs about the Messiah.

In concluding, if the Jews had been just another “pagan” nation in the Roman Empire, it seems unlikely that they would have revolted three times. Instead, their religious differences mean they would never be fully assimilated and they would always be distinct. These religious differences brought them into conflicts with the local Gentiles and were a cause of the first two revolts. The Jews would not accept violations of their religious beliefs and were prepared to go to war to prevent them even if it seemed futile. In the case of the Sicarii and the messianic pretenders, their beliefs provided additional motivation to rebel.

Notes

(1) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:10:4

(2) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:3:1

(3) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:16:5

(4) Tacitus, The Histories, 5:5

(5) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:6:1

(6) Schurer, E., The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175BC-AD 135), Revised English Edition, Volume One (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1973), pp 363-365

(7) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:5:3, Jewish War, 2:11:1

(8) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:17:9

(9) Rhoads, D.M., Israel in Revolution: 6-74 CE, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), p 114

(10) Josephus, Jewish War, 6:5:4

(11) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:17:8, 7:8:6, 7:10:1, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:1:1-6

(12)Josephus, Jewish War 7:8:1

(13) Yadin, Y., Masada (London: Sphere, 1961), p 54

(14) Ibid., p 94-95

(15) Ibid., p 171-189

(16) Ibid., p 181-184

(17) Ibid., p 164-167

(18) Josephus, Jewish War, 0:2

(19) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:18:1-7

(20) Josephus, Jewish War, 7:10:1

(21)Josephus, Jewish War, 7:8:1

(22) Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20:9:7

(23) Tacitus, Annals, 2:42

(24) Josephus, Jewish War, 2:8:1

(25) Barnes, T.D., “Trajan and the Jews”, Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. 40 (1989), p 162

(26) Smallwood, E.M., The Jews under Roman Rule (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981), p 394

(27) Kasher, A., The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Thuringen: J.G.B. Mohr, 1985), p 26

(28) Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4:2

(29) Dio Cassius, Roman History, 68:32:1-2

(30) Fuks, A., “Aspects of the Jewish Revolt”, Journal of Romans Studies, Vol. 51, Parts 1 and 2 (1961), p 98

(31) Josephus, Jewish War, 7:10:1, 7:11:1

(32) Eusebius, Eclesiastical History, 4:2

(33) Dio Cassius, Roman History, 68:32:1-3

(34) Goodman, M., Rome and Jerusalem (London: Penguin Books, 2008), p 479

(35) Spartinaus, Scriptores Historiae Augustae, Hadrian, 14:2

(36) The Jews under Roman Rule, op cit., p 429-430

(37) Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Typho, 16,19,23,24,92

(38) Mantel, H., “The Causes of the Bar Kokba Revolt”, Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 58. No. 3 (Jan. 1968), p 23

(39) Dio Cassius, Roman History, 69:12

(40) Isaac, B,H., The Near East under Roman Rule, Selected Papers (Leiden: Brill, 1998), p 235

(41) Rome and Jerusalem, op cit., p 448-449

(42) Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4:6:1

(43) Mildenberg, L., “Bar Kokhba Coins and Documents”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol., 84 (1980), p 333,

(44) Feldman, L.H., and Reinhold, M. (editors), Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996), p 299

(45) Ibid., p 301

Bibliography

Books

Feldman, L.H., and Reinhold, M. (editors), Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996)

Goodman, M., Rome and Jerusalem (London: Penguin Books, 2008)

Isaac, B.H., The Near East under Roman Rule, Selected Papers, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1998)

Kasher, A., The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt (Thubingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1985)

Rajak, T., Josephus, The Historian and his Society (London: Duckworth, 1983)

Schurer, E., The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 BC- AD 135) Revised English Edition, Vol. I (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1973)

Smallwood, E. M., The Jews under Roman Rule (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1981)

Yadin, Y., Masada (London: Sphere, 1961)

Articles

Barnes, T.D., “Trajan and the Jews” Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. 40 (1989), pp 145-162

Frankfurter, D., “Lest Egypt’s City be Deserted: Religion and Ideology in the Egyptian Response to the Jewish Revolt (116-117 CE)”, Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol. 43 (1992), pp 203-220

Fuks, A., “Aspects of the Jewish Revolt”, Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 51, Parts 1 and 2 (1961), pp 98-104

Mantel, H., “The Causes of the Bar Kokhba Revolt”, Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Jan. 1968), pp 224-242

Mildenberg, L., “Bar Kokhba Coins and Documents”, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol., 84 (1980), pp 311-335

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