AD 70 and why it matters

(This is the second in a series “7 Dates and Why They Matter for Anglican Faith.” Read part one.)

By Derek Olsen

The first Temple in Jerusalem—the one built by Solomon, described in the Scriptures—was destroyed by Babylonian forces at the opening of the sixth century before Christ. That event kicked off a identity crisis for the Children of Israel that led to the coalescing of oral traditions and texts into what we now know as the Jewish Scriptures or the Old Testament. An equally momentous event was the destruction of the second Temple—the one built by the exiles returning from Babylon and expanded until a few years of its destruction—at the hands of Roman legions. The date was AD 70—the event is known to history as the Jewish War.

In this conflict four armies sought to destroy the others, then to capture and hold Jerusalem. The name of the war is ironically apt—three of these armies were Jewish. The war was as much internecine as international, a conflict among factions who refused to unite against a common foe. A series of corrupt and incompetent administrators fed a festering resentment of foreign rule that finally flared into open war in AD 66. An initial coalition led by moderate Jewish leaders crushed two Roman legions, buying time for the preparation of the country for war. Instead of consolidating and fortifying their common positions, the coalition collapsed into factional conflict, each fighting for their own aims and causes, and ultimately undermining the defense of the nation.

A determined Roman attack under the ambitious and capable general Vespasian and his son Titus drove through the divided forces, quickly capturing Galilee and penetrating into the Judean heartland. In less than a year, Jerusalem was threatened from several sides. The suicide of Nero saved the capitol temporarily. Titus was sent to pay homage to the new emperor and to receive new orders, but during the journey the imperial seat changed hands again; Titus, uncertain, returned. During the delay, the Jewish forces of Simon son of Gioras took southern Judea and Idumea. His purpose, however, was his own aggrandizement, not the prosecution of war against Rome. Of his own initiative, Vespasian recaptured ground lost during the winter but was halted yet again due to factional politics: Roman politics. He was proclaimed emperor by his legions and did not let the opportunity pass him by. Instead, he traveled to Alexandria to gather forces for an entry into Italy.

Once again, the Judean forces were granted a respite. They had the opportunity to fortify, to plan, and to strike in the absence of the Roman commander; the opportunity, as before, was wasted. In the winter of 69/70, Titus was ordered to complete the capture of Jerusalem. Titus’s four legions faced an entrenched force of some 23,000 troops. Fortunately for Titus, this force was, in truth, three separate armies constantly engaged in fighting one another. During the course of the siege this number was reduced to two after John of Gischala’s consolidation of the Zealot forces but never was it a unified force. After many weeks of siege three sets of walls were breached and the Temple compound itself came under attack. A full-scale assault captured the outer courtyard. Regrouping, on the next day Roman forces set fire to, then sacked, the sanctuary itself. With the fall of the Temple, Jerusalem was symbolically captured and destroyed but rebels continued to hold out for another month before hostilities officially came to an end. The final footnote to the war was the eventual capture of the rebel holdout at Masada in AD 73.

As with the destruction of the First Temple, the destruction of the Second required a radical re-visioning of what it meant to be Jewish from a theological perspective. Second Temple Judaism had many movements—some espousing conflicting or even contradictory beliefs. While the historian Josephus mentions only three “schools” within Judaism, his account—intended entirely for Roman consumption—glossed over nuances and passed in silence over a number of smaller groups. With the destruction of the Temple and no reasonable hope of rebuilding it (since Scripture mandated that the legitimate temple be located in Jerusalem), a theological vacuum loomed large at the center of Israel’s self-identity. From the chaos, two groups emerged—but only one of them emerged as Jewish.

The first group was the Pharisees. In contrast to the Sadducees and other who focused upon the Temple and its sacrifices, the Pharisees focused upon embodying the requirements of Torah in their daily life and work. They reasoned that the holiness enjoined in Temple worship wasn’t simply about a building; it was central to who God was calling the entire land and its people to be. Thus, they sought to answer Scripture’s call to be a holy people and strove to obey the purity laws of the Temple even within their own homes. With the Temple’s destruction, the Pharisees’ way of life was minimally disturbed and they kept alive a theology and practice oriented to the Temple despite its physical absence. Many of the Sadducees converted to this way of life and what started with the Pharisees was codified in the late second century Mishnah and more completely in the 6th century Talmud. Rabbinic Judaism as we know it today grew from these movement. But normativity isn’t always achieved by describing who you are—it also means describing who you’re not.

The early Christians existed within an odd place. The first followers of Jesus were faithful Jewish people; Acts tells us repeatedly of the apostles and others praying and worshipping in the Temple. One of the reasons so many conflicts with the Pharisees appear in the pages of the New Testament is because they held so much in common (indeed—Paul uses the similarity to great advantage in Acts 23:6-9). With the success of the Pauline mission and the outreach to Gentiles in the years leading up to the Jewish War, however, Christianity grew to have more Gentile than Jewish adherents in its successive generations. The first great theological struggle of the Church (led, Luke tells us, by a sizable body of former Pharisees) revolved around the relationship between Christianity and Jewish identity—did a person have to become Jewish before they could become Christian? The answer that the Church settled upon—as testified by Acts 15 and by Paul’s Letter to the Galatians—was “no”. They became the second group that emerged, but they did not emerge as Jewish.

In their developing self-identities, both Jewish and Christian believers defined themselves as “not them” and the way these decisions were embodied would haunt both groups for millennia to come. Christians were forcibly excised from Jewish communities and kicked out of the synagogues. The hurt and upheaval this caused was captured in the pages of the New Testament as pronouncements and denouncements against “the Jews” and laid the groundwork for theologically based anti-Semitism that would flare into violence repeatedly over the centuries.

For this was the time that much of the New Testament itself was coming into being. By AD 70 the first generation of Christian leaders and eyewitness were dying off—or were killed off—and the tumultuous circumstances in Israel were a considerable factor in these events. Indeed, any New Testament scholars see find in Jesus’ prediction of the Temple’s destruction (Matthew 24|Mark 13|Luke 21) echoes of first- or secondhand accounts of the siege and fall of Jerusalem.

Too, the message was expanding rapidly through the Empire and written documents—letters, treatises, and histories—served a vital role in ensuring that the faith was spreading in a uniform fashion. Furthermore, letters that had been written to individual churches earlier—like the letters of Paul—were gathered into anthologies and circulated widely beyond their original audiences. While the Church’s canon would remain in flux for almost another three centuries, most of the debates were about books at the periphery (Hebrews and Revelation, for example). The four canonical Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the central Catholic Epistles were the normative texts of the emerging Church by the middle of the second century.

AD 70 and the destruction of the Temple thus triggered the formal break—on both sides—between Christianity and Judaism, and was one of the driving forces for the writing of the New Testament. And, in and through that event, in their own grappling with the laws of the Temple and the mysteries of Christ, the authors of the New Testament present their own vision of the Temple—one not built by human hands and impregnable against Roman assault: a temple built of living stones, a community gathered in love, possessed by the Spirit, where Christ is the cornerstone, the head, and the heart.

Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament (with a healthy side of Homiletics) at Emory University. He is a database programmer and an adjunct professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology where he teaches in homiletics, liturgics, and New Testament. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X dad appear at Haligweorc.

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