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July 12 The Fall of Jerusalem and Destroying the Temple

Today we remember how in AD 70 the armies of the Roman Emperor Titus attacked the walls of Jerusalem after a six-month siege, starting today. Three days later they would breach the walls, and destroy the Second Temple. This would have a devastating impact on the Jewish community and also a significant impact on the embryonic Christian community on how they thought about themselves and understood Jesus death and resurrection.


This act of desecration was the decisive event of the First Jewish–Roman War, a cataclysm for the Jewish people and absolute chaos ensued . The Romans burned the city and the temple itself caught fire and burned, many of the inhabitants were massacred or sold into slavery. It was a terrible shock to Gods chosen people, that Jerusalem, one of the most ancient and largest cities in the empire, was sacked and destroyed. The Second Temple had replaced Solomon's Temple which had been destroyed by the Babylonian Empire in 586 BC, and part of the population of the Kingdom of Judah was taken into exile to Babylon. During the reign of Herod the Great, the Second Temple was completely refurbished into the magnificent that the Romans destroyed. Jewish eschatology includes a belief that the Second Temple will be replaced by a future Third Temple. Many Jews fled into the hills and placed their texts in caves for preservation. The Dead Sea Scrolls are thought to be an example of this (pod of June1)

The Jewish rebellion had started because of the leadership of the procurator Gessius Florus. When tax revenues were low, he had seized silver from the temple and as the uproar against him grew, he sent troops into Jerusalem who massacred 3,600 citizens. This led to an explosive rebellion, which began where it would end in Herod’s old desert fortress of Masada, on the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea. Zealots attacked Masada slaughtering the Roman army there, the rebellion spread to Jerusalem, expelling or killing the Roman troops. Then all Judea was in revolt; then Galilee. Cestius Callus, the Roman governor of the region, marched from Syria with twenty thousand soldiers. He besieged Jerusalem for six months, yet failed. He left six thousand dead Roman soldiers, and many weapons that the Jewish defenders picked up and used. Nero then sent Vespasian, a decorated general, to quell the Judean rebellion. Vespasian put down the opposition in Galilee, and was circling in on Jerusalem when Nero died. Vespasian became emperor and one of his first imperial acts was to appoint his son Titus to finish what he had started with the Jewish War.

Titus had surrounded the city with a siege wall and simply waited. The starvation inside Jerusalem was severe because many of the Judeans from the countryside had taken refuge there. An interesting historical source is Josephus a first-century Romano-Jewish historian who was born in Jerusalem. He initially fought against the Romans during the First Jewish–Roman War as head of Jewish forces in Galilee, until surrendering in 67 CE to Roman forces led by Vespasian after the six-week siege of Jotapata. Josephus claimed the Jewish Messianic prophecies that initiated the First Jewish–Roman War made reference to Vespasian becoming Emperor of Rome. In response Vespasian decided to keep Josephus as a slave and presumably interpreter. After Vespasian became he granted Josephus his freedom. Josephus account of the siege was that it got so bad, that dove dung went for premium prices, and there were outbreaks of cannibalism. The Romans, however, permitted a Jewish sage named Jochanan ben-Zakkai to be smuggled out of the Temple Mount in a casket. He played an important role in re-founding Judaism in a rabbinical school established at Jamnia near the Mediterranean. The central authority of the Temple was now transformed into the regional authority of the synagogue—a tradition that has remained to the present day. Also in Jamnia, the Jewish rabbis established the canon of 39 books in their Hebrew Bible—the Christian Old Testament—in the year 93. During the final throes of the rebellion, there remained one holdout: The Siege of Masada became symbolic of Jewish defiance and heroism. The historian Josephus narrates the siege of Masada with enormous pathos. It is an episode emblematic of the Roman determination to rule and the Jewish determination to rebel. It is symbolic because Masada would become a focus of Jewish nationalism in the 20th century. To this day, Masada still hosts a rite of passage in the Israeli military.

The Jewish rebellion held many consequences for Christians: although interestingly there is not a lot of evidence that the early Christian community was directly caught up in it. Only four years before the war’s outbreak, the first bishop of Jerusalem, James the Just had been stoned to death by the Sanhedrin. James alongside Peter, had been a leader of the embryonic Church but Peter had had to leave after Herod Agrippa's attempt to kill him. James had presided at the Council of Jerusalem and his execution at the hands of the Sanhedrin would have led the struggling Jewish-Christian community to think about leaving Jerusalem. Eusebius, seen by many as the father of church history, tells us that Christians were warned by an oracle to flee the city some time before war’s outbreak. In fact, they evacuated to Pella and other cities north of Jerusalem, and so escaped the Roman siege and conquest.

The war and fall of Jerusalem further distinguished Christians from Jews, especially in the eyes of Romans. Christians were eager not to be associated with rebels. When Luke compiled the book of Acts, he is careful to make it clear that Christians are not seditious. The destruction of the temple was traumatic for Jews and Christians alike and would influence an emerging Christian Theology. Most of the New Testament was written after the destruction of the temple, with the exception of some of Pauls letters, and the earliest Gospel which is Marks Gospel, although this probably spanned 65-73. These early Christian texts would idealize a new heaven, a new Jerusalem, and a new temple. The death of Jesus on the cross would, in some ways, be justified as a fundamental part of Judaism by the end of the age of sacrifice, the end of the temple rituals. In Christianity, the essence of sacrifice would live on eternally through the death of Jesus.


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