In 63 BC the Roman general Pompey took Jerusalem. Roman occupation of the Holy City had begun. A little more than 130 years later Jerusalem and its most sacred building, the temple, lay in ruins. It is amazing the Jews and the Romans were able to coexist for that long. The Romans were pagans occupying the promised land. They brought with them strange gods and strange ways of thinking and living. Rome did allow the Jews to practice their religion, but Roman paganism and Caesar worship were constantly encroaching upon Jewish beliefs. Herod once had a huge golden eagle, the symbol of Rome, placed atop the great gate to the temple and the priesthood enacted a daily sacrifice for Caesar. The Romans also placed an unbearable tax burden upon the Jews. All this combined with Roman brutality made Jewish rebellion inevitable.
The New Testament speaks little of the friction between Rome in the Jews. We do know that one of Jesus’ disciples was a zealot. The zealots favored armed rebellion against Rome. They believed that God would deliver Israel with the sword. Their reasoning went back to the days of David. When there was a gentile problem, what did David do? He got out his sword and dealt with it, and God was on his side. Surely, God would raise up a new Son of David who would do the same.
It is interesting that one of Jesus’ disciples, Simon, was a zealot (Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13). Considering the fact that Jesus opposed violent rebellion against Rome, many probably wondered why Jesus would choose such a fellow. The irony increases when we add the fact that Matthew was a tax collector. Tax collectors were very much in league with Rome. There were probably no two groups of Jews in Palestine who hated each other more than the tax collectors and the zealots. Yet, Jesus chose one of each. Most people probably would have been afraid that these two fellows would kill each other. The Lord wasn’t. He knew the kingdom of God was more powerful than the hatred of men. The very fact Jesus chose two men so opposite in their worldviews was a demonstration of its power.
There was not a unified movement against Rome in first century Palestine. Rebels rose up in many different forms, and at times they ended up fighting each other.
We might have the idea that Jesus was the only one in that day that declared he was the Messiah. On the contrary, there were a great many who thought they were Israel’s deliverer. That number only grew after the death and resurrection of Christ. Most people did not believe that the Messiah would be divine. They believed their savior would be like the deliverers of old. It was thought that the true Messiah would do at least three things. He would build the true temple of God, he would deal with the gentile problem, and he would establish the kingdom of God. However, most understood these things from an old covenant perspective. They expected their savior/king to build a temple made of stone. He would bring a violent end to the gentiles and other sinners occupying the promised land, and he would establish a revitalized old covenant Israel.
The people had one test to determine who was a real or false Messiah. If they ended up on a Roman cross, that settled the issue. Rome crucified Israel’s would be messiahs as traitors. The cross meant failure. If you died there, it meant you were a fake, and you were only getting what you deserved. This begs the question of how Jesus could ever be called the Christ after dying at the hands of the Romans. There can be only one explanation. The resurrection. In fact, scholars believe that the fact that Jesus’ following grew so rapidly after the cross is one of the greatest proofs that Jesus rose from the dead.
The book of Acts lists a number people who claimed messiahship. Gamaliel who was a Pharisee spoke of “Theudas who claimed to be somebody, and about 400 men rallied to him." There was also "Judas the Galilean, ...who led a band of people in revolt " (Acts 5:36-37). Acts also talks of an Egyptian who led four thousand men into the wilderness to be murdered (Acts 21:38).
Then there was Simon:
"Now there was a certain man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city, and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying ‘This man is what is called the Great Power of God. And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts" (Acts 8:9-11).
Non-biblical sources have quoted Simon as saying, "I am the Word of God, I am the Comforter, I am Almighty, I am all there is of God."
Later in the first century two of the most terrible false messiahs came on the scene.
Menahem: In AD 66 Menahem was the son of a rebel named Judas the Galilean. Judas believed the Jews should have no ruler but God, and of course murder was the way to accomplish this. Menahem took his father’s philosophy to new heights by raising a powerful band of cutthroats. He overpowered his opponents who preferred peace with the Romans and made a triumphant entry into Jerusalem dressed as a king. Menahem then took control of the temple and had the high priest Ananias put to death. He committed all sorts of abominations. Finally, when he was entering the temple dressed in royal robes, an angry mob seized and killed him.
John of Gischala: Late in AD 67 John of Gishala rose to power. He was even more brutal than Menahem. He had tens of thousands of people put to death. Anyone who supported the Romans or desired peace was worthy of death in John’s eyes. The priesthood supported peace with the Romans, so they became his enemies. At one point he seized the temple with the help of the Idumeans and killed the high priest. So fierce was the fighting that 8,500 died on the temple grounds. John then appointed a high priest that was a mockery. John of Gischala continued his murderous rampage until Jerusalem fell in 70 A.D. He was captured by the Romans and lived the rest of his life in prison.
Jesus was the only one that fulfilled the Messianic expectations, only He did it in a way many misunderstood. He did establish the true temple of God on the earth. His temple was not build by hands but made by God with living stones. That temple or dwelling place of God on the earth is His church. He did deal with the gentiles and the sinners. However, he did in a way so unexpected that Paul called it a mystery. He did not come to destroy folks like the Romans. He came to forgive them. He came to make the Jew and the gentile into one new man. And Jesus did bring the kingdom of God, only it was not an temporal kingdom one could find on a map. It would dwell in the hearts of His people.
Rebellion against Rome took many forms. There were certain folks that were known as bandits or robbers. These were not ordinary thieves. They were insurrectionists who robbed from the wealthy who supported Rome. These folks were often Robin Hood type figures who gained popularity with the people. Another group of rebels were the Sicarii or dagger men. They carried short curved knives that could easily be concealed. At opportune times the Sicarii would assassinate Roman sympathizers.
Ever since Pompey entered Jerusalem in 63 BC, there were pockets of armed resistance against Rome. However, rebellion reached a fever pitch in AD 60 to AD 70. In AD 60 the Jews ceased the daily sacrifice to Caesar in the temple. This was the final offence that brought the wrath of Rome upon all of Palestine.
Here is a summary of the conflicts that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple:
In AD 60 skirmishes between the Romans and the Jews began to break out.
In AD 66 Cestius led Roman armies against Jerusalem. However, for no apparent reason he broke off his attack and retreated. The Jews pursued and killed many Romans thus humiliating the Roman army. This created confidence in the rebels that God would lead them to victory over Rome.
In AD 67 Vespasian led armies in siege against Jerusalem. However, at Nero’s death Vespasian withdrew his armies and returned to Rome to become emperor.
In AD 70 Titus, the son of Vespasian, began the final siege of Jerusalem. Josephus in his work called “The Wars of the Jews” gives a detailed account of the destruction of Jerusalem. It was one of the most horrific sieges in history. Titus surrounded the city during the Passover feast, thus the number of people in the city was double the normal amount.
Various factions inside the city began to fight one another. In one skirmish the combatants accidentally set fire to the city’s grain reserves. Normally, Jerusalem had enough in reserve to endure a lengthy siege. However, the loss of these reserves led to a devastating famine. Josephus records that bands of cutthroats roamed the streets murdering entire families for even a morsel of food. Many resorted to cannibalism.
In time Titus breached Jerusalem’s defenses and surrounded the temple. A ferocious battle ensued. Titus ordered his soldiers not to harm the temple itself. It is not clear who set fire to the temple structures. Some say it was overzealous Roman soldiers. Others say it was the Jews themselves in a final act of defiance. After the fire had run its course, the Romans tore the stone structures of the temple apart in order to recover the vast quantities of gold that the fire melted. They left not one stone on top of another. Some believe this was a fulfillment of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24.
We often hear Jesus words quoted, “… for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matt. 26:52).” Some say He was condemning all military action throughout time. If this was the case, Jesus words simply were not true. Everyone who has taken the sword in conflict has not died violently. I believe Jesus’ words were most likely a warning to His own people. He was saying if you try to bring the kingdom of God by violence, you will all die. He was right. Those who rebelled against Rome died often in a very cruel manner.
The instrument that would overcome Rome was not the sword but the cross. It was not an act of violence but an act of love. It was not vengeance but forgiveness that eventually conquered the Roman empire.
Sources used in this series on first century history:
Holman Bible Dictionary. Holman Bible Publishers, 1991.
Horsley, Richard. Bandits Prophets, and Messiahs. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999.
____. The Message and the Kingdom. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Maier, Paul. Josephus The Essential Works. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1988.
Martin, Ernest. The Temples that Jerusalem Forgot. Portland: ASK Publications.
Stegemann, Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann. The Jesus Movement. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.
The Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
The Christians Their First Two Thousand Years, Vol. 1. Canada: Christian Millennial History Project, Inc., 2002.
Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
____. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.
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