The Jewish Revolts against Roman rule were reflective of Jewish dissent in the Maccabaen revolt of the second century B.C.E.. The Jewish leader, Mathathias, states to king Antiochus- “Although all nations obey king Antiochus…I and my sons, and my brethren will obey the law of our fathers”.Under Julius Caesar in the first century B.C.E., the client king Herod negotiated for the Jews to have a favoured status within the empire. It allowed them to practice their religion freely: they were exempted from military service, they had the right to assemble and could send money to Jerusalem. So to explore whether the Jewish Revolts of the first and second centuries were politically or religiously motivated, one should first explore the change of status that the Jews experienced under subsequent Roman emperors and its outcome.
Prior to the first revolt of the Jews against Roman authority, the Jewish community suffered persecution under the emperor Gaius (Caligula). Philo, who represented the Jews in an embassy to Gaius, states that Gaius thought that the Jews wished to counter his desires and that ‘a most terrible and irreconcilable war was prepared against our nation…’. When Gaius ordered a statue of himself to be placed in the temple at Jerusalem the Jews felt that their whole nation was under threat, ‘for in the destruction of the temple there is reason to fear that this man…will also order the general name of our whole nation to be abolished’. Although Gaius later retracted his order it had made the Jewish people insecure. When Claudius came to power in 41 C.E., Cumanus was made procurator of the province of Palestine and had to deal with several uprisings against perceived Roman injustice. Josephus, who was one of the leaders of the First Revolt, tells of a religious festival guarded by Roman soldiers to try and stop any ‘innovations’ by the populace. When a soldier made an indecent posture to the crowd, youths threw stones and Cumanus had to call for more arms. Cumanus had the Jews thrown out of the temple and, in their panic, many were trampled and killed. This festival became a day of national mourning.
The political dimension of the subsequent revolt became apparent in 54 .E. when Nero came to power and the procurator of Palestine was Albinus. He was accused by Josephus of stealing and plundering ‘…and abused his authority over those about him, in order to plunder those who lived quietly’. Gessius Florus, who succeeded Albinus was even worse, according to Josephus: ‘He indeed thought it a petty offense to get money out of single persons; so he spoiled whole cities…and a great many people left their own country, and fled to foreign provinces’. Josephus thinks that Florus was determined to procure a revolt amongst the Jews to conceal his own crimes, ‘…he therefore did every day augment their calamities, in order to induce them to rebellion’. When a conflict arose in Caesarea over access to the synagogue and the inflammatory sacrifice by a Gentile of birds on its steps on the Sabbath, Florus ‘blew this war into a flame’ be seizing the Jewish leaders who approached him with their complaint about this act and imprisoning them. When Florus marched against Jerusalem ‘that he might gain his will by the arms of the Romans, [and] bring the city to subjection’, the high priests could not contain the people’s outrage. Josephus states that the acts of ‘the seditious’ were used by Florus to attempt to seize the temple, and the people ‘…stood upon the tops of their houses, they threw their darts at the Romans, who, as they were sorely galled thereby’ retired to their camp. Agrippa II, the political leader of the Jews and their ambassador in the Roman court, tried to persuade the Jews from continuing their revolt. In a speech given by Agrippa and recorded by Josephus, he states: “Had I perceived that you were all zealously disposed to go to war with the Romans, and that the purer and more sincere part of the people did not propose to live in peace, I had not come out to you, nor been so bold as to give you counsel…’. Agrippa’s doctrine was that the Rome was raised and supported by divine providence, and that it was in vain for the Jews or any others to think about destroying it. However, Agrippa was unable to stop Florus from provoking or the people from revolting so he retired to his own palaces after sending the leaders of the insurrection to Florus.
To illustrate the ambiguous political and religious intent of the insurgents, the assault made upon the fortress at Masada was conducted by Eleazar, son of Annais and the high priest and governor of the temple. He convinced his followers to stop paying the tribute to Rome. However, any religious zeal was definitely put aside when preparations for war were made, with Josephus stating that ‘those that ministered the temple would not attend their Divine service, but were preparing matters for beginning the war’. Because Agrippa had appeared to the insurgents to have acquiesced to the Romans they attacked his palaces, overwhelmed the king’s soldiers ‘…after which they carried the fire to the place where the archives were deposited, and made haste to burn the contracts belonging to their creditors, and thereby to dissolve their obligations for paying their debts…’. This was done, Josephus asserts in order to gain the support of those who had been debtors, ‘and that they might persuade the poorer sort to join their insurrection with safety against the more wealthy’. They assaulted the garrison of Antonia, set the citadel on fire and besieged the palaces. Manahem, son of Judas, distributed arms from king Herod’s armory at Masada to all of the people and set himself up as king of Jerusalem . When Eleazar heard that Menahem had set himself up as a tyrant and had killed the high priest Ananias, his followers attacked and killed Manahem. It was thought that ‘it was not proper when they revolted from the Romans, out of the desire of liberty, to betray that liberty to any of their own people’. This political statement about liberty and the destruction of Agrippa’s palaces, along with any credit contracts, point to the motivation for the First Revolt being political rather than religious in nature.
Florus had all the Jews in Caesarea killed or enslaved. This outraged the whole nation so that Jews laid waste to the villages of the Syrians, their neighbouring cities and numerous other cities and villages of the region, ‘and immense slaughter was made of the men who were caught in them’. Civil war beset the whole region and ‘greediness of gain was a provocation to kill the opposite party…’. This last statement of Josephus’s implies that by now the insurrection had little to do with religious freedom and more to do with power. At this point Cestius the governor of Syria intervened, supported by the armies of Agrippa and Antiochus. However, the Jews refused to be defeated and when they saw this army approach Jerusalem they took up arms with ‘… that rage which made them forget religious observation [of the Sabbath], made them too hard for their enemies in the fight’. After Agrippa’s peace delegation was killed, Cestius sent to Nero for help and Nero sent Vespasian to quell the rebellion.
In 66 C.E., at the same time that Vespasian was sent to quell the insurrection in Jerusalem, unrest had also broken out in the Roman provinces of Britain and Gaul over heavy taxation. This pointed to underlying economic troubles being a factor in the unrest in Judea as well. The use of religious zeal as a motivating element to keep fighting became apparent when Vespasian tried to quell the rebellion through various methods of representation and offers of immunity. However, when the Jews would not yield after a protracted siege, Vespasian was finally able to open the temple to the soldiers. Cassius Dio writes that ‘then the Jews defended themselves much more vigorously than before, as if they had discovered a piece of rare good fortune in being able to fight near the temple and fall in its defence. When the temple was finally overcome ‘they met their death willingly, some throwing themselves on the swords of the Romans, some slaying one another, others taking their won lived, and still others leaping into the flame’. Cassius asserts that they seemed to die of happiness because ‘they had perished along with the temple’.
A purpose driven by religious zeal is given in the account of Yigael Yadin whose archaeological team in the 1960s revealed that the temple at Masada had been added to by the ‘zealots’. Coinage from the time was found on the site and on the floor of the building there is an ‘ostracon’ with an inscription which translates as ‘Priestly Tithe’. Ostraca were found inscribed with the names of people and seemed to be a type of coupon with a name and a symbol. Yadin suggests that they may have been used for rations as they were found near a storehouse. It was possible to accurately date the ostraca as being written between 66-73 C.E. which was the period in which Masada was occupied by the ‘zealots’. Also, religious scrolls were deliberately buried in a pit in the building’s floor. Three skeletons, possibly Jewish defenders, were found on a lower level of the building and another group of disordered skeletons of males aged between 20-70 years and some females and children were found in an adjacent cave. Yadin posits that these were the remainder of the zealots who died by suicide before the fall of Masada. However, although Yadin treated Josephus’s account of Masada and the collective suicide of its defenders as authentic, scholars think that Josephus’s story of suicide was a literary ‘ topos’ and that it ran counter to the Jewish mentality.
The destruction of the Temple had generated great animosity and another cycle of violence. Cassius Dio, a Roman, wrote in the late second century that in the time of the emperor Trajan, Jews in the region of Cyrene were destroying both Romans and Greeks. Cassius goes on: ‘In Egypt too, they perpetrated many similar outrages, and in Cyprus…’. In the third century Eusibius, Christian writer, also writes about this: ‘For in Alexandria and in the rest of Egypt, and also in Cyrene, as if incited by some terrible factious spirit, they rushed into seditious measures against their fellow inhabitants the Greeks’. Eusibius goes on to tell how Quintis became governor of Judea, after marching against the Jews and ‘[slaying] a great multitude of those that dwell there’. Various papyrus documents from 117-118 C.E. form Egypt and Cyrene also attest to the results of such discord and anger. Some refer to them as ‘impious Jews’, a serious accusation of disrespect for Roman authority. There are also inscriptions ordering the restoration of Cyrene’s Caesareum , baths and roads which were ‘destroyed and burnt down in the Jewish revolt’.
Jewish armed resistance against Roman rule culminated and was defeated in the Revolt of Bar Kokhba. The rebels were united by the leader Bar Kokhba and the result was a rebel state in which coinage was issued and ‘ state-land’ was leased. In the Bar Kokhba revolt the Jews showed remarkable ‘ military and political activity’ sixty years after the suppression of the first revolt. Little is known about the causes of the war but it could have been derived as a possible conquest of Jerusalem and an attempt to reconstruct the Temple by the rebels. Cassius Dio wrote that it was the emperor Hadrian’s desire to build a new city called Aelia Capitolina on the site of Jerusalem and the intention of raising a temple to Jupiter on the site of the destroyed Jewish temple that incited the Jews to war: ‘for the Jews deemed it intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their city and foreign religious rites planted there’. Bar Kokhba coinage tells something of the population and the economy of Judea at the time of the revolt. Their symbols embody the objectives and values of the insurgents. Economic conditions before the revolt were underscored by ‘peasant discontent engendered by expropriation and oppressive tenurial conditions. Coinage that states ‘Jerusalem’, or ‘For the Freedom of Jerusalem’ with the design of the Temple on the coinage indicates a declaration. These reflect the values and objectives of the revolt and Jerusalem was of utmost importance to the rebels.
Bar Kokhba was the only ancient war fought by the Jews to be named after a single leader. In the Talmud he is given the title ‘Nasi and Messiah’ and while he reigned he was described as a king. R. Aqiva, a rabbi who was part of the revolt, described Bar Kokhba as ‘ the King Messiah’. Bar Kokhba signed his letters as “Nasi Yisrael” and coinage denotes him as ‘Simeon Nesi Yisrael’. Some say that this refers to the ideal king in Ezekiel’s vision of the End of Days. The Talmud has an ambivalent attitude to Bar Kokhba, emphasising his legendary strength and obedience to the sages, to criticizing his addresses to God and stating ‘that he was put to death by the sages when it appeared that he was the false messiah. Bar Kokhba’s letters show him to be an aggressive general and ruler who was occupied with the discipline and routine of his army. However, Bar Kokhba was not just a military leader, lands were leased in his name and he insisted on strong observance of the Sabbath and other religious commandments, plus control of land produce.
It seems that the Jewish Revolts of the first and second centuries could have been the result of both Jewish religious nationalism and the arbitrary nature of the Roman emperors of the period. The Jewish people relied upon the favours that were obtained by Herod from Julius Caesar, and enacted by the Roman Senate, to feel secure that they could practice their religion without being impinged upon by Roman military duties or Roman religious sacrifices. When Gaius arbitrarily incited anger and fear amongst the Jews with his proposal for a statue of himself to be erected within the temple at Jerusalem, Jewish religious leaders saw this as a threat to their authority and to the religious rights to which they had been accustomed. Cumanus’s weakness in dealing with Jewish uprisings against religious insult culminated in Nero’s appointment of a series of corrupt procurators who dealt with Jews harshly and arbitrarily. The Jews saw their political representative to Rome, Agrippa, as being in collusion with the Romans. The burning of credit contracts and following civil strife that resulted in looting shows economic pressures were also indicative of political unrest. However, because the Jewish religion was so bound with the geographical location of Jerusalem and the concept of the temple, it was the Maccabean model of religious revolt that motivated the zeal of the Jews at Masada and in the Bar Kokhba revolt. Therefore, it could be said that religious nationalism served as the motivating factor for the Jewish Revolts.
- Bowersock, Glen Warren. “The making of martyrdom” in Martyrdom and Rome , Bowersock, Glen Warren , 1995 , 1-21
- Cassius Dio, Roman Histories
- Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum (CPJ) 438: Papyrus, Letter (June 116 – Jan. 117AD; Hermopolite nome, Egypt); CPJ 443: Papyrus, Application for leave (28 Nov 117; Hermopolite nome, Egypt)
- CJZC 17. Inscription (118 AD, Cyrene); CJZC 19. Inscription (119 AD, Cyrene); CJZC 25. Milestone (118 AD; Cyrene)
- Eusibius, Ecclesiastical History
- Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews
- Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews
- Isaac, Benjamin H. “The revolt of Bar Kokhba: Ideology and modern scholarship” in The Near East Under Roman Rule: Selected Papers , Isaac, Benjamin H. , 1998 , 220-248
- Maccabees I 2.19-20
- Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius
- Yadin, Yigael. “Extract” in Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand , Yadin, Yigael , 1966 , 181-201
- yTa’anit iv 68d; cf. Lamentations Rabbah ii 4
 Maccabees I 2.19-20
 Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14.225-7; 213-16
 Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, 18.17.119
 ibid. 18.17.194
 Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 2.12.1
 ibid. 2.14.1
 ibid. 2.14.2
 ibid. 2.14.3
 ibid. 2.14.6
 ibid. 2.15.3
 J. BJ 2.16.4
 ibid. 2.17.1
 ibid. 2.17.2
 ibid. 2.17.4
 ibid. 2.17.6
 ibid. 2.17.7
 J. BJ 2.17.8
 ibid. 2.17.9
 ibid. 2.18.2
 ibid. 2.19.2
 Cassius Dio, Roman Histories, 63.2.2
 Cassius Dio, 65.6.2
 Yadin, 1966
 Isaac, 1998
 Yadin, 1989
 Bowersock, 1991
 Cassius Dio 68.32.1-3
 Eusibius, Ecclesiastical History 4.2.1-5
 Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum (CPJ) 438: Papyrus, Letter (June 116 – Jan. 117
AD; Hermopolite nome, Egypt); CPJ 443: Papyrus, Application for leave (28 Nov 117; Hermopolite nome, Egypt)
 CJZC 17. Inscription (118 AD, Cyrene)
 CJZC 19. Inscription (119 AD, Cyrene)
 CJZC 25. Milestone (118 AD; Cyrene)
 Isaac, 1998
 Cassius Dio, Roman History, 69.12.1-14.2
 Isaac, 1998
 yTa’anit iv 68d; cf. Lamentations Rabbah ii 4 (ed. Buber, p.101)
 Isaac 1998
 Isaac, 1998