The First Jewish Revolt: Archaeology, History, and Ideology

By Andrea M. Berlin; J. Andrew Overman | Go to book overview

11

Jewish millenarian expectations

Tessa Rajak


Introduction

In the course of the first two centuries, the Jews revolted three times against Rome within a period of some seventy years. These revolts caused considerable disruption, engaged substantial Roman forces and senior commanders each time for several years, and had a major impact on the history of the empire at the very highest level, being primary causes of Nero's fall, of the Flavian ascent to power and of Trajan's Parthian disaster. Yet the Jews-in the eyes of any rational observer-were bound in the end to be defeated. To explain both their determination and their foolhardiness it has been all too easy to invoke the messianic temper of the times and to suppose that the rebels acted in the assurance of the expected destruction of the Gentiles, the promised victory of Israel, the translation of an elect group and, if not the End of Time, at least the opening of the final act of the drama. Such reasoning underlies numerous interpretations, especially perhaps those offered by historians of Rome. 1 Thus the outbreak of revolt is explained less in terms of the nature of Roman rule and more primarily by the peculiar character of this subject population.

To be sure, such views are not entirely without some support in the sources; but that support is all of it problematic. Overtones of messianism-of whatever kind-have been detected by interpreters of all three revolts, in relation both to the claims of the leaders and the responses of the followers. 2 Gager (1998) speaks of a “messianic reflex.” For the revolt under Trajan (115-17 C.E.), such interpretations center on the scant evidence of a leader of the revolt in Cyrene, named Lukuas by Eusebius (HE 4.2.3-4), and described as a king. Cassius Dio (68.32) in fact gives a different name Andreas, for this man, while for the Revolt leader in Cyprus, Dio offers no more than another bare name, Artemion. To this Horbury (1996) would add as messianic indicators the sudden outbreak, the tenacity of the rebels, the destruction of shrines and the understanding of rebel movements as an intended return from exile. He also cites the textual evidence of messianism in the liturgy, while Hengel finds a messianic background in the fourth and fifth Sibylline oracles. 3

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