2018 March 25: Palm Sunday

March 25, 2018 10:30

When the Romans conquered a region, they were relatively benign (as ruthless conquerors go) in that they would let you have your local rulers, let you practice your local religion and customs, and pretty much leave you alone as long as 1) you didn’t cause Rome any trouble, and 2) you paid your taxes to Rome. In the 1st century BCE the Romans co-opted a civil war in Judea, effectively taking over the region. The Jews, however, didn’t think much of any plan short of absolute complete self-rule, and so were constantly fomenting insurrection against Rome to a lesser or greater extent.

One of those ‘greater extents’ occurred in 66 CE with a full scale revolt. The Roman’s initial response was to let the Jews fight among themselves, and it worked, what with the Zealots of Eleaser son of Simon, John of Gischala and his private army, and a new leader named Simon bar Giora unable to come to a consensus. What Rome really wanted was to make Judea a peaceful taxpaying province once again, and future Roman emperor Titus was put in charge. The fierceness of the Jewish resistance to Rome’s relatively moderate intentions made moderation impossible, so in 70 CE Titus’ army waited for Passover — when the maximum number of Jews would be in Jerusalem — and laid siege to the city. The Jewish resistance was surprisingly effective — at one point Titus himself barely escaped an attack by the Jewish insurgents.

But in the end the massive Roman military was too powerful. Titus had planned on sparing the Temple, intending to convert it to Roman deities, but a nearby fire got out of control and destroyed it. The Jewish historian Josephus, an eyewitness to the siege, claimed that 1.1 million people were killed, the majority being Jewish, and that 97,000 were captured and enslaved: "The slaughter within was even more dreadful than the spectacle from without. Men and women, old and young, insurgents and priests, those who fought and those who entreated mercy, were hewn down in indiscriminate carnage... The legionaries had to clamber over heaps of dead to carry on the work of extermination." Titus reportedly refused to accept a wreath of victory, saying that the victory did not come through his own efforts but that he had merely served as “an instrument of God’s wrath.”

The famous last stand in Masada, in which 960 Jewish defenders chose suicide over surrender, was four years later in 74 CE.

You would think that would be the end of Jewish resistance in Judea, but it wasn’t. In 115 CE, when Emperor Trajan was busy in a major campaign against the Parthian Empire, the Jews revolted once again, attacking Trajan’s rear guard. Neighboring regions (e.g. Egypt) joined with the Jews, and the revolt against Rome was in danger of spiraling out of Rome’s control. Once again the rebellions were ultimately crushed by the ’shock and awe’ of Roman forces.

One last time the Jews revolted in 130 CE, led by Simon bar Kokhba — acclaimed to be the Messiah. Simon managed to assert Jewish independence for two years, but the Roman bulldozer once again put an end to that, and this time Emperor Hadrian had had enough. He forbade Jews from entering Jerusalem at all except (interestingly) for the festival of Tisha B’Av — an annual fast day which commemorated the destruction of the First and Second Temples. He prohibited the Torah and the Hebrew calendar, executed Jewish scholars, and in general forbade the practice of Judaism altogether. The Jewish sacred scroll was ceremonially burned on the Temple Mount. At the former Temple sanctuary he installed two statues, one of Jupiter, another of himself. And he had the maps of the region redrawn, renaming ‘Judea’ to ‘Syria Palaestina’, and ‘Jerusalem’ to ‘Aelia Capitolina’.

Judea and Jerusalem would not be centers of Jewish religious, cultural, or political life again until modern times.

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