Ancient history New Testament

What Was the First Jewish Revolt?

The First Jewish Revolt was an attempt by the Jews in the Roman province of Judea to gain independence from Rome.

The siege of Jerusalem of 70 CE was the decisive event of the First Jewish–Roman War. Culminating in the destruction of the city and of the temple, the revolt and subsequent war were a tragedy that impacted the future of Judaism and Christianity as well as the New Testament. This interview with Jared W. Ludlow discusses the First Jewish Revolt.

Read more about the First Jewish Revolt in the book New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament

Table of Contents

What was the First Jewish Revolt against Rome?

The First Jewish Revolt beginning in AD 66 was an attempt by the Jews in the Roman province of Judea to gain independence from Rome. Rome had dominated the region since 63 BC, mostly under vassal kings like Herod, but also directly with procurators and prefects. The revolt culminated in a siege on Jerusalem and the subsequent destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70. Some of the rebels held out, particularly at Masada until AD 73.

Why is the Revolt such a tragedy?

The revolt was a major tragedy because it led to great loss of life, disruption of the entire social and religious system, and the loss of the temple. Some Jewish groups like the Essenes and the Sadducees basically came to an end.

What caused the Jewish Revolt?

There were various factors that caused the Jewish Revolt. There was long-simmering animosity among the populace against the local vassal kings and elites who worked closely with Rome.

This animosity fed the rise of Zealots who wanted to purge the land from foreign, corrupt influence and return greater control of religious traditions to their understanding of Judaism. Some of the Roman procurators implemented policies and actions that further exacerbated the problem and fomented anger towards the leaders. Economic problems only added to the flames of discontent.

Learn more about some of the actions that led to the First Jewish Revolt in this video produced for Great Debates in Jewish History by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute.

Who was Josephus?

Josephus was an educated Jew who took part in the Jewish Revolt by commanding a force in the Galilee region. When his forces were under siege and defeat was imminent, Josephus ended up surrendering to the Romans.

After successfully predicting that Vespasian, the Roman general leading the suppression of the Revolt, would become the next Caesar, Josephus found himself liberated and witnessing much of the war from the Roman side. He chronicled many events of the Jewish War providing key witnesses to the events.

What was the prophecy about someone arising from Judea to rule the world?

According to some early sources, there was a prophecy about a ruler coming from the eastern provinces to rule over the known world (basically the Roman Empire). Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century, initially led Jewish forces against the Romans in the Galilee region but was defeated.

In order to escape serious punishment, potentially death, at the hands of the Romans, Josephus craftily told Vespasian that he would become the next Caesar. When Vespasian did indeed rise to power, Josephus was liberated and rewarded for being on the right side of the power struggle.

Why are Josephus’s histories important?

Josephus’s histories are important because he not only had the background of Jewish knowledge and participation, but saw the Roman side as well. Having been on both sides of the conflict, he provided a unique perspective. While praiseworthy of Roman leadership, Josephus also tried to help his fellow Jews navigate the new post-war situation.

What happened in Judea after the death of Nero?

Rome had initial success suppressing the Jewish Revolt by moving from the north towards Jerusalem. When a Roman succession crisis broke out after Nero’s death, Vespasian left his role in Judea and eventually took over as Caesar. This nearly two-year pause allowed the Jews to gather to Jerusalem and other areas not yet put down by the Romans.

Inter-Jewish leadership struggles, however, squandered the opportunity to really strengthen themselves for the eventual resumption of Roman military campaigns under Vespasian’s son, Titus.

In what ways did the Revolt impact early Christianity and the New Testament?

We don’t have the same record about the Revolt from Christian sources as we do from Josephus, so it is hard to know a lot about the impact the Revolt had on them. Likely they were treated similar to the Jews because in Roman eyes they didn’t see much difference between them.

The Revolt could have been an impetus for Christians to write down more of the accounts about Jesus (like some of the Gospels) so that these teachings could be preserved.

How does the Revolt relate to the “abomination of desolation”?

In Jesus’ significant Olivet Discourse recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21, Jesus discussed future destruction that Jerusalem would shortly face. Among these prophecies was the “abomination of desolation,” first discussed in the book of Daniel, related to the corruption of the temple that would lead to its destruction.

It seems that many of the religious and societal ills that the Judean population experienced around this time may have been factors in the siege of Jerusalem and the subsequent destruction of the temple.

Francesco Hayez’s ‘Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem’ portrayals the tragedy of the First Jewish-Roman War.

How often has the prophecy been fulfilled?

Within the Olivet Discourse, particularly the Joseph Smith Translation version in Joseph Smith—Matthew in the Pearl of Great Price, there seems to be multiple fulfillments to this prophecy with another one associated with Jesus’s Second Coming. It seems likely that this imagery of corrupting and desecrating the temple and/or its associated worship could have occurred in different time periods from the Seleucids, Romans, to future desecrations.

Is the story about Christians fleeing from Jerusalem to Perea true?

While early sources seem to mention a flight of Christians from Jerusalem to Perea to escape the impending death and destruction, modern scholars are less certain about the reliability of these sources.

They wonder how Christians could have moved freely through these war-torn regions out of Roman attention, and whether the city of Pella, which Josephus said was already destroyed, remained a viable option. Perhaps many perished alongside their Jewish brothers and sisters.

Do we know what happened to the Christian community in Jerusalem during the Revolt?

While we don’t know much about the Christian community during the Revolt, there are sources that describe a return of Christians to Jerusalem after the Revolt. We have lists of bishops of Jerusalem succeeding each other, first with Jewish names, then with Gentile names, for decades after the Revolt.

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About the interview participant

Jared W. Ludlow is an assistant professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He spent six years teaching religion and history at BYU–Hawaii and served the last two years there as chair of the history department. Ludlow received his bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern studies from BYU; his master’s degree in biblical Hebrew from the University of California, Berkeley; and his PhD in Near Eastern religions from UC Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union. His primary research interests are in ancient Judaism and early Christianity

Further Reading

Jewish Revolt Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

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