Detail of the Arch of Titus Showing the Sack of Jerusalem
Judea and Galilee have had the seeds of revolt planted in the popular memory of the Maccabees and in the practices that have held their identity as a Jewish people after the exile. The memories of the Exodus and exile, the memories of past greatness and the desire for a new Davidic king, in addition to the very real burden of taxation felt by many of the people (and the consolidation of land/wealth by the elite) provided a volatile environment by the beginning of the Common Era. Even a ruthless, yet effective, ruler like Herod the Great who is able to rule through force, fear and political intrigue only delays the coming firestorm. Herod may rebuild the temple in glorious fashion and may want to occupy the role of a Davidic king in the people’s imagination but there are two major factors against him and his offspring. First he is not of Jewish decent, he may be a practicing Jew, but he is not of a Jewish much less Davidic bloodline and second he is aligned with Rome. After Herod dies in 6 CE his reign divides between his sons (many also named Herod) and none of them, or the people Rome replaces them with are able to exercise the type of power of Herod the Great. In 66 CE the region explodes into revolt against the Romans, first in Galilee and spreading quickly to Judea. The Romans respond quickly and decisively destroying the temple in 70 CE and performing mop-up operations for a couple of years. When the Judean Jews revolted again in 132 CE, the Roman response was even harsher attempting to crush any hope of another uprising. Judaism did not die, but it did transform-it would no longer be tied to a temple, there would no longer be a concentrated Jewish homeland, the hope for a messiah would remain but in the meantime the people got on with their lives and being Jewish became portable. Rabbinic Judaism becomes the dominant expression of Jewish identity. Rabbinic Judaism is centered in the exposition of the Jewish Scriptures and oral traditions. Gathering in local tabernacles became the place where identity was formed. In addition to the scriptures and tabernacle, the Jewish people continued to practice the actions and festivals that made them distinctively Jewish. The loss of a central authority did not destroy their identity, but rather finding themselves dispersed throughout the Roman Empire they evolved to become a community centered on scripture, tradition and practice.
Throughout this part of our journey we have seen authority rest in families, in king and temple, in narrative and practice. With authority comes the access to wealth, military might, and most centrally to people of this time land. The people give up some of their autonomy (or at least the autonomy of their family, clan or tribe) for the greater security of monarchy-and yet even security has its limits. As we can see from the incident of Rehoboam the tribes and families may choose to go a different direction (as they did at the splitting between Israel and Judah). Even with the temple and monarchy at its strongest there is still a prophetic critique of both, and yet in the memory of the people as the monarchy goes (or the monarchy and the temple) so goes the people. The loss of power, land and military might leads to a process of re-evaluation, a process that draws on the prophetic imagination. The Hebrew people center in on their stories and practices and as much as possible attempt to remain true to their identity without assimilating into the dominant culture. In trying to remain distinct there is a conflict between purity and assimilation the seeds of revolt are sewn. Yet throughout a millennia of conflict, crisis, exile and return, revolt and repercussions Judaism adapts and evolves, it is never so dependent on one place of authority that it cannot re-center itself on what it means to be the chosen people in a new time and place.
One of my discoveries in re-reading in what lies before is the role of fear in the transfer of authority. The fear of the nations around them allows tribes and families to cede their authority to a centralized monarchy and temple. Yet, too much consolidation of power (and wealth) by the monarchy leads many of these tribal leaders and families to rethink their authority and to appoint a king they find more favorable to their desires. When monarch, land, temple and wealth are destroyed and the people find themselves in exile they fear assimilation and they bring together the stories and practices that allow them to maintain their identity in a world they perceive is hostile to their identity. Even in the return to Judea there is a fear of the outsider, the gentiles, and purity becomes an overriding concern. Now certainly there are other issues that contribute to these transformations and yet where we place authority depend on a desire for security and stability in the midst of the chaos, real or perceived, a group of people find themselves within.
This is where we will leave one journey behind, Rabbinic Judaism continues across the world and has adapted to any number of challenges that have come its way. The Romans were not the last to try to oppress them, force them to relocate, or even try to wipe them out. That journey continues, but I am not the one to tell that story. Instead we will begin the other story that emerges in this point out of the Jewish story…the story of Christianity and its own struggle to locate authority.