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Revolutionary Violence, Reformation and Reaction in Europe, 1349-1452: Part Two   Leave a comment

Part Two: Bohemian Fantasies…


Central-Eastern Europe in the Fifteenth Century

By the end of the fourteenth century, the Ottomans had continued to push well into the Balkans. In 1396 a Hungarian-French crusade sent to relieve the Byzantines had been destroyed at the Battle of Nicopolis: the Empire was only saved by the intervention of the Mongol leader Timur, who destroyed the Ottoman army near Ankara and imprisoned Sultan Bayezid. The Ottoman hold on Thrace was weakened and the Byzantines even recovered some territory, most notably Salonica, which they held until 1423, when, with Imperial troops unable to secure its defence, it was handed over to the Venetians.

The demand for reform in Bohemia initiated by Jan Milic and Matthew of Janov was carried on by other preachers and was further stimulated by the teaching and example of Wyclif, whose works had become known there from 1382 onwards, as a result of the marriage of Anne of Bohemia to Richard II of England. At the turn of the century, it was taken up by Jan Hus, himself an admirer of Wyclif, who voiced it so effectively that the significance of the movement ceased to be purely local and became as wide as Latin Christendom.

Jan Hus (1374-1415) achieved fame as a martyr for the cause of church reform and Czech nationalism. He was ordained a priest in 1401, and spent much of his career teaching at the Charles University in Prague, and preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel, close to the university. Like his reforming predecessors, Hus was a popular preacher whose favourite theme was the corruption and worldliness of the clergy. But an unusual combination of gifts made him at once the Rector of the University, the spiritual leader of the common people and an influential figure at the court. This gave his protests great weight. He also carried these protests further than any of his predecessors, for when (unofficial) Pope John XIII sent emissaries to Prague to preach a ‘crusade’ against his spiritual enemy, the King of Naples,  and to grant indulgences to those who contributed money to the cause, Hus revolted against the papal commands. Like Wyclif before him, he proclaimed that when papal decrees ran counter to the law of Christ as expressed in the Scriptures, the faithful ought not to obey them, and he launched against the sale of indulgences a campaign which roused nation-wide excitement.

In his writing and public preaching, Hus emphasised personal piety and purity of life. He was heavily indebted to the works of Wyclif. He stressed the role of Scripture as an authority in the church and consequently lifted preaching to an important status in church services. In the process, he became a national hero. In his chief work, On the Church, he defined the church as the body of Christ, with Christ as its only head. Although he defended the traditional authority of the clergy, he taught that only God can forgive sin.

Hus believed that neither popes nor cardinals could establish doctrine which was contrary to Scripture, nor should any Christian obey an order from them which was plainly wrong. He condemned the corruptness of the clergy and criticised his people for worshipping images, belief in false miracles and undertaking ‘superstitious pilgrimages’. He criticised the church for withholding the cup of wine from the people during communion and condemned the sale of indulgences. Never an extremist or a rebel, Hus offended simply by refusing blind obedience to his ecclesiastical superiors, but that was enough to cost him his life. Hus was at the centre of lengthy struggles in Prague, and was his case was referred to Rome. Excommunicated in 1412, he was summoned in 1414 to appear before the Ecumenical Council, sitting in Constance in 1415, in order to defend his beliefs. His intention was to persuade the Council by the argument that the Church was truly in need of fundamental reform.

The Council had attracted wide interest, and by 1415 scholars, church dignitaries and various officials had arrived. Even the Greek Orthodox sent representatives. Over the next three years, some forty-five main sessions were held, with scores of lesser committee meetings. Eventually, after a trial in 1415, John XXIII was forced to give up his claim to the papacy. In the same year, Gregory XII resigned, leaving just one pope, the Spanish Benedict XIII. He too was tried and deposed in 1417. No council had achieved so much in healing breaches within the church since the very early general councils. The way was clear to elect one pope who would once again represent all Western Christians. This was done in 1417, and the new pope was Martin V. Besides the Hus case and a few other issues, the Council initiated reforms, but it also prohibited the giving of both bread and wine to all Christians during the Eucharist, a major Hussite demand, and condemned John Wyclif, posthumously, for heresy. His body was disinterred from the holy ground in Lutterworth and burnt in 1427.

It was decreed that further councils should be held and that certain changes should be made in the College of Cardinals, in the bureaucracy of the papacy and in controlling abuses of tithes and indulgences. The real issue, however, was papal power, and here Martin V showed he was a pope of the ‘old school’, seeking to uphold the absolute authority of the pontiff over all councils and colleges. He was only really interested in administrative reform, not in the reform of religious doctrine and ritual.

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Even before the deposition of Richard II, Sigismund was personally acquainted with the House of Lancaster. In 1392, he had met Bolingbroke, the future Henry IV, on the way back from his Lithuanian expedition, when Sigismund was only King of Hungary. In the Battle of Nicopolis of 1396, mentioned above, Henry supported Sigismund with ten thousand soldiers. Henry returned to Hungary as King of England in 1412, as a guest at Sigismund’s celebration of his peace with Poland. Then in 1415, as Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund visited Henry V in England to promote the peace between him and the King of France following the Battle of Agincourt. The German sources contain details of his memorable journey and his stay in Canterbury and London, of his splendid entourage and princely reception at court. He sojourned there for four months, spending part of his time studying the government and constitution (including a visit to the English Parliament), with which he was very impressed.

Meanwhile, the Lollards continued preaching even after Henry IV proclaimed his severe law, de heritico comburendo in 1401. Without the student link between Oxford and Prague, Wyclifism would never have reached Bohemia or, indeed, Hungary. At least one of the Oxford Lollards, Peter Payne, visited Prague, before seeking refuge from the wrath of Sigismund in Moldavia, where he taught Moldavian Hungarians who began the first translation of the Gospels into Hungarian in 1466. The translation of the books of the New Testament has an attached calendar, the first of its kind in Hungary. This calendar contains the names of English saints not to be found in any later Hungarian calendar. According to Sándor Fest (1938), these names point to Payne having been responsible for the translation. According to a report sent to Constantinople in 1451, the Oxford and Prague University Professor had played a major role in the development of Hussite-Wyclifism in central-Eastern Europe:

… in the conception of the true faith and religion he has brought many people to our fold, in Moldovlacia, of course, from among the foreigners there; also from among the Saxons and Hungarians, and very many in Bohemia and England.

Fest claims that the ideas propagated by Wyclif brought about an unparalleled intellectual revolution in Hungary as well as in England.


When set against this background, the complicity of Sigismund in the death of Hus is a matter of controversy, even more so since he had granted Hus a safe-conduct to Constance and protested against his subsequent imprisonment. Hus was tried and then condemned to be burned at the stake without any real opportunity to explain his views. The reformer was burnt as a heretic during the Emperor’s absence from the Council. The core of Hus’ ‘heresy’ was his claim that the Papacy was not a divine but a human institution, that Christ, not the pope, was the true head of the Church, and that an unworthy pope should be deposed. Ironically enough, the same Council which condemned Hus had indeed just deposed Pope John XXIII on the grounds of simony, murder, sodomy and fornication.

Contemporary records indicate that, at the Council, Sigismund received the English delegates with demonstrative kindness, but was far less gracious to the French. After the Council he continued to be interested in everything happening in England, an interest which had not only a sentimental but a political foundation, for at one time he was working with the House of Lancaster towards the common end of finding a permanent solution to the Lollard-Hussite ‘problem’. Could it have been political expediency, arising out of the change from Yorkist to Lancastrian monarchs in England, which pushed Sigismund into taking a tougher line with Hus and his followers? The reign of Sigismund was also favourable for Anglo-Hungarian commercial relations. The Hungarian sources contain repeated references to English merchants arriving in Buda, or of merchants shipping silver and hides from Hungary to England.

Source: Wikipaedia

Hus’ heroic death nevertheless aroused the national feelings of the Czech people and turned the unrest in Bohemia into a national reformation. For the first time, and a full century before Luther, a nation challenged the authority of the Church as represented by pope and council. During the years 1415-18, the Czechs established their own Hussite church throughout Bohemia, with the support of the barons and King Wenceslas. In effect, the existing Church hierarchy was largely replaced by a national church which was no longer controlled from Rome but was under the patronage of the secular powers of Bohemia. At the same time, at the urging of a former follower of Hus, Jakoubek of Stríbro, it was decided that henceforth laymen, as well as the clergy, should receive Holy Communion in both kinds, bread and wine.

These were far-reaching changes, but they did not, in themselves, amount to a formal break with the Church of Rome. On the contrary, they were conceived as reforms to which it was hoped to win over the Church as a whole. If the Roman Church, still meeting in Constance, had concurred in this reform, the Czech nobility, the Masters of the University and many of the common people would have been satisfied. But the Council of Constance rejected the Hussite proposal on the Eucharist. In 1419 King Wenceslas, under pressure from Emperor Sigismund (his brother) and Pope Martin V, reversed his policy and abandoned the Hussite cause. Hussite ‘propaganda’ was restricted, and even utraquism, the doctrine of communion in both kinds was regarded with disfavour by the secular authorities. In the part of Prague known as the New City, the common people, inspired by the former monk and ardent Hussite, Jan Zelivsky, became increasingly restive. When, in July 1419, Wenceslas removed all Hussite councillors from the government of the New City, the populace rose up, stormed the town hall and threw the new councillors from the windows. Seven of them were killed in what became known as the First Defenestration of Prague.

This unsuccessful attempt to suppress the Hussite movement greatly strengthened the radical tendencies within it. From the start, it had included people whose aims went far beyond those of the nobility or of the Masters of the University. The great majority of these belonged to the lower social strata, including cloth-workers, tailors, brewers and smiths, together with artisans of many trades. The part played by these people was so striking that Catholic polemicists could even pretend that the whole Hussite movement had, from the very beginning, been financed by the artisan guilds. It would have been truer to say that the general upheaval in Bohemia encouraged social unrest amongst the artisans. This was particularly the case in Prague. The success of the insurrection enormously increased the power of the guilds and the artisans, who expelled large numbers of Catholics, appropriating their houses and property and many of their offices and privileges. The monasteries were also dissolved and much of their wealth passed to the City of Prague, which also benefited the artisans. This made the New City a centre of radical influence.


Although it was the guilds that organised and directed the radical reformation in Prague, the rank-and-file were largely drawn not from the skilled artisans but from the lowest strata of the population – the heterogeneous mass of journeymen, unskilled workers, indentured servants, beggars, prostitutes and criminals. By 1419-20 the great majority of the population of Prague, which was between thirty and forty thousand, were on starvation wages. The radical wing of the Hussite movement was largely recruited from this harassed proletariat. This ‘wing’ began to split off from the more conservative one and to develop along lines of its own. Faced with the new, persecutory policy of King Wenceslas, a number of radical priests began to organise congregations outside the parish system, on various hilltops in southern Bohemia. There they gave communion in both kinds and preached against the abuses of the Church of Rome. These congregations soon turned into permanent settlements where life was lived in conscious imitation of the original Christian communities portrayed in the New Testament.

These communities formed an embryonic society which was wholly outside the feudal order and which attempted to regulate its affairs on the basis of brotherly love instead of force. The most important of these settlements was on a hill near to the River Luznica. The spot was renamed ‘Mount Tábor’ after the dome-shaped mountain in Palestine, 1,800 feet above sea level, where Christ was thought to have been transfigured, and where he met and ‘camped’ with Moses and Elijah (Mark 9: 2-13; Matt. 17; Luke 9: 29; 2 Pet. 1: 16). The name became attached to the radical Hussites themselves and they became known to their contemporaries as ‘Táborites’. They were particularly anti-German, since most of the prosperous merchants in the Czech towns were German and staunch Catholics. Also, whereas most of the moderate Utraquists clung in most respects to traditional Catholic doctrine, the Táborites affirmed the right of every individual, layman or priest, to interpret the scriptures according to their own conscience. Many of them rejected the dogma of purgatory, dismissed prayers and masses for the dead as vain superstitions, saw nothing to venerate in the relics or images of saints and treated many of the rites and rituals of the Church with contempt. They also refused to take oaths, which brought them into conflict with the civil authorities. They insisted that nothing which could not be found in Holy Scripture should be treated as an article of faith.

The Táborites aimed at a national reformation which, unlike the original Hussite one, would involve a complete break with Rome. In October and November 1419, Táborites from all over Bohemia congregated in Prague, where their leaders tried to win over the Hussite magistrates and university masters to their more radical ‘programme’. They were unsuccessful, and soon the Hussites as a whole were confronted with a more ruthless opposition. King Wenceslas had died in August, from shock at the killing of the councillors, and the great Hussite nobles joined their Catholic colleagues to secure the succession for Wenceslas’ brother, the Emperor Sigismund, as well as to deal with the radicals in their own movement. The Prague magistrates threw their weight on the conservative side.  They agreed to preserve the Utraquist communion, but also to suppress the Táborites. From November 1419, for several months thereafter, the radicals were isolated from their national movement and exposed to savage persecution aimed at their extermination. As a result,  apocalyptic and millenarian fantasies took on a new dynamism among them.

A number of former priests, led by Martin Huska, also known as Loquis because of his extraordinary eloquence, began to preach openly the coming of a great consummation, announcing that the time had arrived when all evil must be abolished in preparation for the Millennium. They prophesied that, between 10 and 14 February 1420, every town and village would be destroyed by fire, like Sodom, and that throughout Christendom, the wrath of God would overtake everyone who did not flee to the mountains, the five towns in Bohemia that had become Táborite strongholds. Multitudes of the poor folk sold their belongings and, moving to these towns with their families, threw their money at the feet of the preachers. These people saw themselves as entering the final struggle against Antichrist and his hosts, as a letter and song distributed at the time reveals:

There are five of these cities, which will not enter into agreements with the Antichrist or surrender to him.

Faithful ones, rejoice in God! Give him honour and praise, that he has pleased to preserve us and graciously liberate us from the evil Antichrist and his cunning army…

No longer content to await the destruction of the godless by a miracle, the preachers called upon the faithful to carry out the necessary purification of the earth themselves. One of them, a graduate of Prague University called John Capek, wrote a tract which is said to have been fuller of blood than a pond is of water in which he demonstrated, by quoting the Old Testament, that it was the inescapable duty of the Elect to kill in the name of the Lord. This work was used as a polemical armoury by other preachers to urge their congregations on to massacre. They declared that no pity must be shown towards sinners, for all sinners were enemies of Christ:

Accursed be the man who withholds his sword from shedding the blood of the enemies of Christ. Every believer must wash his hands in that blood… Every priest may lawfully pursue, wound and kill sinners.

The sins which were to be punished by death included, as previously in such massacres, ‘avarice’ and ‘luxury’, but also any and every form of opposition to the men of the Divine Law. These Táborites, therefore, considered all their opponents to be sinners who must be exterminated. By no means all the evidence for this bloodthirstiness being enacted comes from hostile sources. One of the more pacific Táborites lamented the change that had come over so many of his colleagues. Satan, he observed, had seduced them into regarding themselves as angels who must purify Christ’s world of all scandals and who were destined to sit in judgement over the world, on the strength of which they committed many killings and impoverished many people. A Latin tract written by one of the millenarians themselves confirms all this: The just… will now rejoice, seeing vengeance and washing their hands in the blood of sinners.

The most extreme members of the movement went still further in maintaining that anyone who did not help them in liberating the truth and destroying sinners was himself a member of the hosts of Satan and Antichrist and therefore fit only for annihilation. For the hour of vengeance had come, when the imitation of Christ meant no longer an imitation of his mercy but only of his rage, cruelty and vengefulness.  As avenging angels of God and warriors of Christ, the Elect must kill all, without exception, who did not belong to their community.

The millenarian excitement was encouraged by developments in the political situation. In March 1420, the truce between the moderate Hussites and Emperor Sigismund was terminated and a Catholic army, international in composition but predominantly German and Magyar, invaded Bohemia. The Czechs had never accepted Sigismund as their king after the death of his brother, Wenceslas. The country embarked on a de facto Interregnum which was to last until 1436. It also embarked on a War of Independence in which, under a military commander of real genius, Jan Zizka, it fought off the invaders in a series of battles. Zizka was a Táborite, and it was they who bore the brunt of the struggle. At least in the early stages, they never doubted that they were living through the consummation of time, the extermination of all evils beyond which lay the Millennium.

They were convinced that while they were cleansing the earth of all sinners, Christ would descend in glory and great power. Then would come the ‘messianic banquet’, which would be held in the holy mountains, after which Christ would take the place of the unworthy Emperor Sigismund and reign among his saints in the transformed millennial realm. Both the Church and the State would disappear, there would be no law nor coercion, and the egalitarian State of Nature would be recreated.

Prague, now the stronghold of the supporters of the evil Emperor Sigismund, became an object os special detestation to the Táborites. They now called it ‘Babylon’, the birthplace of Antichrist and demonic counterpart of Jerusalem, and regarded it as the embodiment of the sins of ‘Luxury’ and ‘Avarice’, the downfall of which had been foretold in the Book of Revelation as the harbinger of the Second Coming. That might be indefinitely delayed, the traditional social order might remain unchanged, every real chance of an egalitarian revolution might disappear, but still the fantasies lingered on. As late as 1434 a speaker at a Táborite assembly declared that however unfavourable the circumstances might be at present, the moment would soon come when the Elect must arise and exterminate their enemies – the lords in the first place and then any of their own people who were of doubtful loyalty or usefulness. That done, with Bohemia fully in their control, they must proceed at whatever cost in bloodshed to conquer first the neighbouring and then all other territories: For that is what the Romans did, and in that way they came to dominate the whole world.

Early in 1420, communal chests had been set up at certain centres under the control of the Táborite priests, and thousands of peasants and artisans throughout Bohemia and Moravia sold all their belongings and paid the proceeds into these chests. Many of these people joined the Táborite armies to lead, as propertyless nomadic warriors of Christ, a life much like that of the pauperes of the People’s Crusades of previous centuries. Many others settled in the five towns which became Taborite strongholds and formed what were intended to be completely egalitarian communities, held together by brotherly love alone and holding all things in common. The first of these was formed, at the beginning of 1420, at Písek in southern Bohemia, and the second came into being in February 1420, shortly after the Second Coming failed to materialise as predicted. A force of Táborites then captured the town of Ústi on the River Luznika, in the neighbourhood of the hill which, the year before, had been re-named Mount Tábor. The fortress they built on a promontory in the river was also named Tábor. Jan Zizka then abandoned his headquarters at Plzen and moved to Tábor with his army of followers. Tábor and Písek then became the main strongholds of the movement, with Tabor becoming the more millenarian of the two. It began inaugurating the ‘Golden Age’ by outlawing all private property.

Josef Mathauser - Jan Žižka s knězem Václavem Korandou roku 1420 hledí s Vítkova na Prahu.jpg

Above: Jan Žižka with a Hussite priest looking over Prague after the Battle of Vítkov Hill

When the funds in the communal chests became exhausted, however, the radicals declared that they were entitled to take whatever belonged to the enemies of God, at first from the clergy, nobility and rich merchants, but soon from anyone who was not a Táborite. Thenceforth, many of Zizka’s campaigns became pillages, and the more moderate Táborites complained at their synod that many communities never think of earning their own living by the work of their hands but are only willing to live on other people’s property and to undertake unjust campaigns for the sole purpose of robbing. In the spring of 1420, the Táborites enthusiastically proclaimed the abolition of all feudal bonds, dues and services, but by October they were driven by their own economic plight to set about collecting their own dues from the peasants in the territories which they controlled. When they were forced to increase these, the peasants found they were worse off than they had been under their former lords. Again, a synod of the moderate Taborites made the following striking complaint:

Almost all the communities harass the common people of the neighbourhood in quite inhuman fashion, oppress them like tyrants and pagans and extort rent from pitilessly even from the truest believers, and that although some of these people are of the same faith as themselves, are exposed to the same dangers of war along with them and are cruelly ill-treated and robbed by the enemy.

As the fortunes of war swung one way or another, these ‘common people’ found themselves caught between the two marauding armies, at times having to pay dues to the Táborites, and at other times to their old feudal lords. They were also being constantly penalised by both sides for collaborating with the enemy, as the ‘allies of tyrants’ on the one hand, or ‘the friends of heretics’ on the other. When under the control of the Taborites they were treated as landless serfs, being compelled by every means and especially by fire to carry out their orders. Though the Táborites had challenged the feudal order more effectively than any group before them, by the end of the war the Bohemian peasantry was weaker than it had been before and the nobility was stronger and better able to reimpose serfdom.

Above: Escape of King Sigismund from Kutná Hora

Nevertheless, from March 1420 onwards the Táborites were involved in the national Hussite war against the invading German and Hungarian armies, helping the ‘mainstream’ Utraquist Hussites of Prague to defend the City for several months. Zizka himself was neither a millenarian nor an egalitarian and, coming from the ranks of the lower nobility, he saw to it that his commanding officers were all men who came from the same background. When the Táborite priests returned to Tábor in the autumn, they were more concerned to elect a ‘bishop’ to administer the community chest than with ‘the Golden Age’ and the Millennium. Small groups of social revolutionaries continued to carry out their bloody and often bizarre practices in the countryside throughout the following year, keeping Zizka’s army distracted from their true cause, but by 1422 social revolution had become a secondary priority for the Taborite movement as a whole.

A counter-revolution put an end to the artisans’ ascendancy in Prague and thereafter effective power lay increasingly with the patricians and the wider nobility. But beyond the frontiers of the Czech lands, the teaching and example of the Bohemian revolutionaries continued to work upon the imaginations of the discontented poor, and everywhere the rich and privileged, clerics and laymen alike, were obsessed by the fear that the spread of Taborite or Hussite influence would result in a revolution which would overthrow the whole social order.

It was in Germany that the Táborites had most chance to exert influence, for in 1430 their armies penetrated as far as Leipzig, Bamberg and Nuremberg. When at Mainz, Bremen, Constance, Weimar and Stettin the guilds rose up against the patricians, the disorders were blamed on the Táborites. in 1431 the patricians of Ulm called upon the towns allied with them to join together in a new crusade against Hussite Bohemia. They pointed out that there were revolutionary elements in Germany which had much in common with the Táborites. It would be all to easy for the rebellion of the poor to spread from Bohemia into Germany. If it did, it would be the patricians in the towns who would have the most to lose. The General Council of Basle, meeting the same year, also expressed its concern about the possibility of the common people of Germany entering into an alliance with the Táborites and seizing Church property. These fears may have been exaggerated and premature, but the chronicles of the next hundred years were to show that they were not without foundation.

Above. The Battle of Lipany

In 1434 the Taborite army was defeated and almost annihilated in the Battle of Lipany, not by an army of German and Hungarian Catholics, but one of Bohemian Utraquist Hussites. From then onwards the strength of the Táborite movement rapidly declined. The town of Tábor itself was eventually taken by George of Poděbrady in 1452, who became King of Bohemia. Utraquist religious worship was established there. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the town continued to include most of the strongest opponents of Rome in Bohemia. The Bohemian Brethren (Unitas Fratrum), whose intellectual originator was Petr Chelčický, but whose actual founders were Brother Gregory, a nephew of Archbishop Rokycany, and Michael, curate of Žamberk, to a certain extent continued the Táborite traditions into the next generations.

Johan amos comenius 1592-1671.jpg

Above: John Amos Comenius

(Czech: Jan Amos Komenský; 28 March 1592 – 15 November 1670)

The Hussites agreed to submit to the authority of the King of Bohemia and the Catholic Church and were allowed to practice their somewhat variant Utraquist rite. J. A. Komenský (Comenius), a member of the Moravian Brethren, claimed for the members of his church that they were the genuine inheritors of the doctrines of Hus. After the beginning of the German Reformation, many Utraquists adapted to a large extent to the doctrines of Martin Luther, Zwingli and Calvin. The Hussite reformers were closely associated with the resistance of the Czechs to German Protestant domination in the sixteenth century, but from the end of that century, the inheritors of the Hussite tradition in Bohemia were included in the more general name of “Protestants” borne by the adherents of the Reformation. The Utraquist creed, frequently varying in its details, continued to be that of the established church of Bohemia until all non-Catholic religious services were prohibited shortly after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. The Moravian Brethren went on to have a major influence on the development of Wesleyan Methodism in England and Wales in the eighteenth century.

Sigismund was finally crowned Emperor in Rome on 31 May 1433, and after obtaining his demands from the Pope returned to Bohemia, where he was recognized as king in 1436, though his power was little more than nominal. Shortly after he was crowned, Pope Eugenius began attempts to create a new anti-Ottoman alliance, but Sigismund died the following year, hated by the Czech people as a whole, if not by the Germans and Hungarians he had also ruled after.

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In the Reformation of Sigismund, written by an anonymous contemporary in 1439 (see above), the Emperor is made to make a posthumous pronouncement about how God  bade him prepare the way for a priest-king who was to be none other than Frederick of Latnaw, the possible author of the book, who, as Emperor Frederick, would reveal himself as a monarch of unparalleled might and majesty. Any moment now Frederick’s standard and that of the Empire would be set up, with the Cross between them; and then every prince and lord and every city would have to declare for Frederick, on pain of forfeiting property and freedom. ‘Sigismund’ goes on to describe how he sought for this Frederick of Latnaw until he found him at the Council of Basle (1431), in a priest whose poverty was equal to that of Christ. He had given him a robe and entrusted him with the government of all Christendom. For this Frederick, he claims, will reign over a dominion which will reach from sea to sea and none will be able to withstand him. He will tread all trouble and wrong-doing underfoot, will destroy the wicked and consume them by fire. By ‘the wicked’ are meant those corrupted by money, simoniac priests and avaricious merchants. Under his rule, the common people will rejoice to find justice established and all their desires of soul and body satisfied.


Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millennium. St Alban’s: Granada

Irene Richards and J. A. Morris (1946), A Sketch-Map History of Britain and Europe to 1485. London: Harrap

András Bereznay et. al. (1998), The Times Atlas of European History. London: Times Books (Harper Collins).

Sándor Fest (2000), Skóciai Szent Margittól A Walesi Bárdokig (Anglo-Hungarian Historical and Literary Contacts). Budapest: Universitas Könyvkiadó.

John H. Y. Briggs, Robert D. Linder, David F. Wright (1977), The History of Christianity. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.



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The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’: part seven – Apocalyptic Literature and Millenarianism.   Leave a comment


Above: The cover of Norman Cohn’s 1957 ground-breaking, iconic and scholarly work on Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (subtitle), the first chapter of which deals with The Tradition of Apocalyptic Prophecy in Jewish and early Christian literature. The picture shows a detail of Albrecht Altdorfer’s

Battle on the Issus in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

‘The Rapture’ at the ‘End of Days’:

The Book of Revelation is Christian apocalyptic literature, but despite many resemblances to Jewish apocalyptic, it has distinct characteristics of its own. It is not attributed to a figure in the distant past, such as Daniel, nor does it survey past ages in the guise of prediction. It is prophetic in the best sense of the word and is Jewish apocalyptic transfigured by the influence of Christianity. Imminent persecution by Rome is expected in the text, and Revelation was written to strengthen those who would face it. The message is given symbolically, however. Pages are filled with symbols and numbers: swords, eyes, trumpets, horns, seals, crowns, white robes; 7,12, 144,000 people, 1260 days, 42 months, 666: the number of the beast. As a result, it has been searched down the centuries for hidden knowledge of the future. There are two verses in the book which refer to Zion, or Jerusalem, often taken out of context by a variety of Christian eschatological churches and traditions, most of which are found today in the USA, having their origins in the mid-nineteenth century. Appropriately, I hope, the following texts are from The Revised Version of the Bible, published in London, New York and Toronto by the Oxford University Press, in 1880:

Chapter 14 v 1:

And I saw, and behold, “the Lamb sitting on the mount Zion, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand, having his name and the name of his Father, written on their foreheads.

Chapter 21 v 2:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.

These passages are commonly, though perhaps erroneously, linked with the following passages from elsewhere in the New Testament, concerning what has come to be known as ‘the rapture’ at the ‘End of Days’. The earliest of these to be recorded is in Paul’s first letter to the Church in Thessalonica:

1 Thessalonians 4 v 16 – 5 v 5, Revised Version:

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that aught be written unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. When they are saying ‘Peace and safety’, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall in no wise escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief; for ye are all sons of light, and sons of the day; we are not of the night, nor darkness.

Some first-century Christians believed Jesus would return during their lifetime. When the converts of Paul in Thessalonica were persecuted by the Roman Empire, they believed the end of days to be imminent.


The ‘Olivet Discourse’:

The ‘Second Coming’ of Christ, the Messiah, is also related in the minds of some eschatological evangelicals to Jesus’ references to a time of great tribulation in what has become known as ‘The Olivet Discourse’, which appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, almost verbatim (Mark 13. 1-13; Matthew 24. 1-14; Luke 21. 5-19). According to the narrative of the synoptic Gospels, an anonymous disciple remarks on the greatness of Herod’s Temple, a building thought to have been some 10 stories high and likely to have been adorned with gold, silver, and other precious items. Jesus responds that not one of those stones would remain intact in the building, and the whole thing would be reduced to rubble. This quotation is taken from a twentieth-century translation:

As Jesus was leaving the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Look teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!” Jesus answered, “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down…

Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, across from the Temple, when Peter, James, John, and Andrew came to him in private. “Tell us when this will be,” they said, “and tell us what will happen to show that the time has come for all these things to take place. “

Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and don’t let anyone fool you. Many men, claiming to speak for me, will come and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will fool many people. And don’t be troubled when you hear the noise of battles close by and news of battles far away. Such things must happen, but they do not mean that the end has come. Countries will fight each other; kingdoms will attack one another. There will be earthquakes everywhere, and there will be famines. These things are like the first pains of childbirth.

You yourselves must watch out. You will be arrested and taken to court. You will be beaten in the synagogues; you will stand before rulers and kings for my sake to tell them the Good News. But before the end comes, the gospel must be preached to all Peoples. And when you are arrested and taken to court, do not worry ahead of time what you are going to say; when the time comes, say whatever is given then to you. For the words you speak will come from the Holy Spirit. Men will hand over their own brothers to be put to death, and fathers will do the same to their children. Children will turn against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But whoever hold out to the end will be saved. (New English Bible).


The disciples, being Jewish, believed that the Messiah would come and that his arrival would mean the fulfilment of all the prophecies they hoped in. They believed that the Temple played a large role in this, hence the disciple in the first part boasting to Jesus about the Temple’s construction. Jesus’ prophecy concerning the Temple’s destruction was contrary to their belief system. Jesus sought to correct that impression, first, by discussing the Roman invasion, and then by commenting on his final coming to render universal judgement. It is unclear whether the tribulation Jesus describes in the rest of this passage is a past, present or future event, in the terms of the gospel authors, but it seems to refer to events surrounding the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and as such is used to dates of authorship to around the year AD 70.

Nevertheless, many evangelical Christian interpreters say the passages refer to what they call the ‘Last Days’ or ‘the End of Time’. They disagree as to whether Jesus describes the signs that accompany his return. The discourse is widely believed by scholars to contain material delivered by him on a variety of occasions. The setting on the Mount of Olives echoes a passage in the Book of Zechariah which refers to the location as the place where a final battle would occur between the Jewish Messiah and his opponents.


Jesus then warned the disciples about the Abomination of Desolation standing where it does not belong. Later Christians regarded this as a reference to Hadrian’s Temple (see below), built in 135 AD over the site of Jesus’ tomb, but other scholars dispute this. By some accounts, a statue of Venus was placed on the site of Golgotha, or Calvary. Archaeologists have found evidence of an abandoned quarry just outside the original city walls, which was used as a Jewish cemetery. Hadrian’s workers paved it over with stone, including the supposed tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea for Jesus’ burial.


The Gospels of Matthew and Mark add, let the reader understand, revealing how these passages may have been edited later in order to strengthen this assertion. Matthew makes clear that this is a reference to two passages from the Book of Daniel from the post-exilic eschatological Old Testament literature. Alan T Dale gives a modern rendering of these passages in poetic form, emphasising that this is a quotation by Jesus from the prophets inspired by his ‘view’ of Jerusalem at the time, a great city continually suffering at the hands of evil and violence throughout its history (Luke 21. 20-28), rather than his own prophetic ‘vision’ of its future:

When you see the city besieged by armies,

be sure the last days of the city have come.

Let those inside her walls escape

and those in the villages stay in the villages.

These are the days of punishment,

the words of the Bible are coming true.

There will be great distress among men

and a terrible time for this people.

They will fall at the point of a sword

and be scattered as captives throughout the world.

Foreign soldiers will tramp the city’s streets

until the world really is God’s world.

This was probably not the first time Jesus had remembered these lines during his visits to Jerusalem, as he came to and from the Mount of Olives to the temple and caught sight of the city walls. He was reported by Matthew to have lamented its seemingly eternal fate on at least one other occasion (Mt. 23. 37-39). Jesus then states that immediately after the time of tribulation people would see a sign, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken (Matt. 24:29–30) (Joel. 3:15). Once again, he is quoting from the Old Testament prophets, so that it is difficult to know whether he is describing a contemporary event or predicting one in a distant future. Joel had already prefaced his description of this event by predicting that this would be a sign before the great and dreadful Day of the Lord (Joel 2. 30-31). While the statements about the sun and moon turning dark sound quite apocalyptic, they are also borrowings from the Book of Isaiah. (Isa. 13. 10).

What Revelation reveals…


Above: Albrecht Dürer, The Day of Wrath, from the Apocalypse series, 1498.

(British Museum)

The Book of Revelation also mentions the sun and moon turning dark during the sixth seal of the seven seals, but the passage adds more detail than the previous verses mentioned. (Rev. 6. 12-17). However, the Book of Revelation should not be read as a kind of secret manual to the End Times, containing a series of cryptic clues which need to be deciphered in order to produce a chronology of eschatological events. It is both pure poetry, and a continuous meditation and commentary on the prophecy of Old Testament, with reading and vision inextricably combined. In fact, it gives a clear demonstration of the need to understand the New Testament in the context of the Old. It may seem strange to those without an understanding of the latter since it seems savage and barbarous to those coming to it without that understanding. It should be viewed as a picture of the situation of the Christian Church in the hostile world of the end of the first century in which the power of Christ’s presence was still at work. It tells us what it was like to be a Christian at that time, and is not about what the world would look like at the end of times. Originally all these prophecies were devices by which religious groups, at first Jewish and later Christian, consoled, fortified and asserted themselves when confronted by the threat or the reality of oppression. It is natural that the earliest of these prophecies should have been produced by the Jews.

The Role of Jerusalem in the Early Church:


It was also natural that Jerusalem should remain the focal point of the church’s unity well into the first century. Jerusalem was not only the Holy City of Judaism, but also the place of the resurrection, ascension and Pentecost, and the headquarters of the early church. In Acts, everything seems to revolve around Jerusalem and the Jerusalem church exercises careful supervision of what goes on elsewhere. It is Jerusalem that sends down envoys to Samaria to approve the actions of Philip (8.14), Jerusalem that sets the seal on the conversion of Cornelius (11.18), Jerusalem that is the scene of the Apostolic Council (15.4) and Jerusalem to which Paul has to return, to his peril, to give account of his missionary journeys. (20.16; 21. 11, 15 ff.). And yet the journey which he was planning when he was planning when he wrote to the Romans was essentially a peace-making mission. When the Jerusalem concordat was made, which dispensed with the need for Gentile converts to undergo circumcision, and released them from most of the demands of the Law, the leaders of the church there had stipulated that the Gentile churches should take some responsibility for the support of the poverty-stricken Jewish Christians of Jerusalem.

Paul responded eagerly to this request (Gal. 2. 10). The leaders in Jerusalem may have had in mind something like an equivalent for the contributions which Jews in the Diaspora made to the temple in Jerusalem. As we know from his letters, Paul saw it as a chance to demonstrate the true fraternal unity of Christians, bridging any divisions among them. He set on foot a large-scale relief fund, to be raised by voluntary subscription from members of the churches he had founded. He recommended a system of weekly contributions (Rom. 15. 25-28; 1. Cor. 16. 1-4; II Cor. 8. 1-9, 15.). The raising of the fund went on for a considerable time and there was now a substantial sum in hand to be conveyed to Jerusalem. He was to be accompanied by a deputation carefully composed, it appears, to represent the several provinces.  (I Cor. 16. 3 f; Acts 20. 4). The handing over of the relief fund was to be an act of true Christian charity and also a formal embassy from the Gentile churches affirming their fellowship with Jewish Christians in the one church (Rom. 15. 27).


The goodwill mission, thought to have taken place in AD 59, dramatically miscarried. Paul’s reception by the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, if not unfriendly, was cool. James was thoroughly frightened of the effect his presence in the city might have on both Christian and non-Christian Jews, in view of his reputation as a critic of Jewish ‘legalism’. He urged Paul to prove his personal loyalty to the Law by carrying out certain ceremonies in the temple (Acts 21. 20-24). Paul was quite willing, but unfortunately, he was recognised in the temple by some of his enemies, the Jews of Asia, who raised a cry that he was introducing Gentiles into the sacred precinct (Acts 21. 37-29). There was no truth in the charge, which could have resulted in the death penalty, but it was enough to raise rabble, and Paul was in danger of being lynched. He was rescued by the roman security forces and put under arrest. Having identified himself as a Roman citizen, he came under the protection of the imperial authorities (Acts 21. 30-39) and was ultimately transferred for safe custody to the governor’s headquarters at Caesarea (Acts 23. 23-33). Following lengthy wrangles over jurisdiction between the Jewish Council and two successive Roman governors during which Paul remained in solitary confinement, he exercised his citizen’s right and appealed to the emperor, fearing that he might otherwise be delivered back into the hands of his enemies in Jerusalem (Acts 25. 1-12). Accordingly, he was put on board a ship sailing for Rome, then famously and dramatically shipwrecked off Malta.

After these events, Jerusalem began to lose its position as the centre of the church. According to a report by the fourth-century historian Eusebius, Jewish Christians withdrew from Jerusalem in AD 66, before its fall, and settled at Pella, a city in Decapolis. Jerusalem did not regain its importance for Christians until the fourth century when it became a place of pilgrimage. Indigenous Jewish Christianity lived on but became increasingly a backwater, of little more than historical significance.

Jewish into Christian Apocalyptic Literature:

The ideas of a messiah who suffered and died, and a kingdom which was purely spiritual, were later to be regarded as the very core of Christian doctrine, but were far from being accepted by all the early Christians. Ever since the problem was formulated by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer at the end of the nineteenth century, experts have been debating about how far Christ’s own teaching was influenced by Jewish apocalyptic literature. The celebrated prophecy recorded by Matthew remains significant whether Christ really uttered it or was merely believed to have done so:

For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

It is not surprising that many of the early Christians interpreted these things in terms of the apocalyptic eschatology with which they were already familiar. Like so many generations of Jews before them, they saw history as divided into two eras, one preceding and the other following the triumphant advent of the Messiah. That they often referred to the second era as ‘the Last Days’ or ‘the world to come’ does not mean that they anticipated a swift and cataclysmic end of all things. On the contrary, for a long time great numbers of Christians were convinced not only that Christ would soon return in power and majesty but also that when he did return it would be to establish a messianic kingdom on earth, and that they confidently expected that kingdom to last, whether for a thousand years or for an indefinite period.

Like the Jews, the Christians suffered oppression and responded to it by affirming ever more rigorously, to the world and to themselves, their faith in the imminence of the messianic age in which their wrongs would be righted and their enemies cast down. Not surprisingly, the way in which they imagined the great transformation also owed much to the Jewish apocalypses, some of which had indeed a wider circulation amongst Christians than amongst Jews. In the Book of Revelation, Jewish and Christian elements are blended in an eschatological prophecy of great power. Here, as in the Book of Daniel, a terrible ten-horned beast symbolises the last world-power, the persecuting Roman state, while a second beast symbolises the Roman provincial priesthood which demanded divine honours for the Emperor:

And I stood upon the sand of the sea and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having… ten horns… And it was given to him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given to him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations. And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life… And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth… And he doeth great wonders… and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by means of those miracles which he had power to do…

And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war… And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations… And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies gathered to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse…

And I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast… and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years…

At the end of this period – the millennium in the strict sense of the word – there follow the general resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgement, when those who are not found written in the book of life are cast out into a lake of fire and the New Jerusalem is let down from heaven to be a dwelling-place for the Saints forever:

And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal…


From the Liber cronicarum of Hartmann Schedel, with woodcuts by Michel Wohlgemuth and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff. Nuremberg, 1493. (British Museum)

Religious movements which expect that the second coming of Christ as a cataclysmic event, or series of events, as shown above, are generally called Adventist. These have arisen throughout the Christian era but were particularly common after the Protestant Reformation, as described in Norman Cohn’s seminal work of 1957, The Pursuit of the millennium.  One of the most popular of these views is that the rapture of the church, as described in 1 Thessalonians 4-5 occurs just prior to the seven-year tribulation when Christ returns for his saints to meet them in the air. This is followed by the tribulation, the rise of the Antichrist to world-rule, the return of Christ to the Mount of Olives, and Armageddon, resulting in a literal thousand-year millennial reign of the Messiah, centred in restored Jerusalem. The original meaning of millenarianism was therefore narrow and precise. Christianity has always had its own eschatology, in the sense of a doctrine concerning the last times, or the last days, or the final state of the world, so that Christian millenarianism was simply one variant of Christian eschatology. But the early Christians already interpreted the prophecies in a liberal rather than a literal sense, in that they equated the martyrs with the suffering faithful, i.e. themselves, and expected the second coming in their lifetime. There have always been countless ways of interpreting the millennium and the route to it. Millenarian sects and movements have varied in attitude from the most violent aggressiveness to the mildest pacifism and from the most ethereal spirituality to the most earthbound materialism.


Above: Melchior Lorch: the Pope as Satan-Antichrist, 1545 (Courtauld Institute of Art).

‘Mainstream’ Protestants reject this literal interpretation. For example, instead of expecting a single Antichrist to rule the earth during a future Tribulation period, Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other Protestant Reformers saw the Antichrist as a present feature in the world of their time, fulfilled in the papacy. In theological terms, this mainstream branch of Christian eschatology is referred to as Historicist. Its adherents, whilst holding to a belief in a literal second coming of Christ, as given in the Apostles’ Creed, would regard the signs referred to in scripture as symbolic, and the events as relating to past, present and future events in the history of the church.

Eschatology and the Fundamentalist Right in the USA Today:

By comparison, in the Dispensationalist view, History is divided into (typically seven) dispensations where God tests man’s obedience differently. The present Church dispensation concerns Christians (mainly Gentiles) and represents a parenthesis to God’s main plan of dealing with and blessing his chosen people the Jews. Because of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus, Jewish sovereignty over the promised earthly kingdom of Jerusalem and Palestine has been postponed from the time of Christ’s first coming until prior to or just after his Second Coming when most Jews will embrace him. Those who do not will suffer eternal damnation, together with the non-believing Gentiles. There will then be a rapture of the Gentile church followed by a great tribulation of seven (or three-and-a-half) years’ duration during which Antichrist will arise and Armageddon will occur. Then Jesus will return visibly to earth and re-establish the nation of Israel; the Jewish temple will be rebuilt at Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Christ and the people of Israel will reign in Jerusalem for a thousand years, followed by the last judgment and a new heaven and a new earth.

This view is also held by most groups that are labelled Fundamentalist, believing in the literal and inerrant truth of the scriptures. The more politically active sections within this eschatological view often strongly support the misnamed Christian Zionist movement and the associated political, military and economic support for Israel which comes from certain groups within American politics and parts of the Christian right. They have recently given strong support to the election campaign of Donald Trump, and it is widely believed that they have been influential in his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the modern-day state of Israel as a prelude to moving the USA’s Embassy from the current political capital, Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem.


Above: Maps of Jerusalem and its environs from a pre-1948 Bible concordance.

Below: A Map of Palestine and Transjordan from the same concordance


This decision has, of course, confirmed the Fundamentalist-Dispensationalists of the United States in their belief in an End of Time eschatology, which is, at best, at variance with ‘mainstream’ Judao-Christian beliefs. Moreover, the idea of basing the ‘business of good government’ and international diplomacy in the twenty-first century on a literal interpretation of the apocalyptic texts of the first century is, I would argue, completely antithetical to a genuine understanding of the true history of Israel, Judah, Jerusalem and Palestine throughout the ages. More seriously, it is also at least as likely to ‘trigger’ nuclear Armageddon as any of the near-apocalyptic events of the Cold War, whether they were ideological or accidental in cause and catalyst. Already, Trump’s decision has alienated moderate opinion not just in Palestine and the Middle East, but throughout the world. Having survived an ‘accidental’ nuclear catastrophe over the second half of the last century, we now face Armageddon by the ideological design of the White House in Washington. Is this really what the people of Israel and Jerusalem want? I don’t think so because I don’t hear so. In the meantime, all we can do is to honour the age-old commandment, Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem. Amen to that!


Robert C Walton (ed.)(1982), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.

Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the Middle Ages. Chapter 1. St Alban’s: Granada Publishing.

Kristin Romey (2017), The Search for the Real Jesus in National Geographic, December 1917, vol. 232, No. 6.

Alan T Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’: part six – the ‘chosen people’ and ‘the true Israel’.   Leave a comment


Jewish-Christian relations in the time of the first churches:

The penultimate chapter in the ancient history of Jerusalem has to do with the relations between Jews and Christians in the mid-first century. Despite the fact that many, if not most, of the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth, were, like him, Jews, and although the early church borrowed much from Judaism, Christians were also reacting against it. This resulted in a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, Christians claimed to be the true Israel; on the other, they made light of many of the distinctive features of the ‘chosen people’ – the law, circumcision, the temple and the Sabbath. Moreover, they took to meeting together in their own houses and adopting other attitudes which were considered anti-social by their Jewish neighbours throughout the Roman Empire. Since Jesus had been executed by a Roman governor under Roman law, local governors had little alternative but to take action when they received complaints. As the century progressed, relations seem to have got worse. One reason was undoubtedly the great pressure under which Judaism suffered as a result of the Jewish war, the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. Christians were looked on as hybrid Jews and were therefore unpopular. Before AD 70, as far as we can tell from ‘listening to the silences’, the Jews showed remarkable restraint. Paul, as an active missionary, found many of them stirring up trouble for him wherever he went, but they were not alone in this, and we need to be wary of Luke’s stereotypes of them, which were written in Acts from an obvious Greek Gentile bias. Paul escaped with his life, and only three martyrdoms were recorded for this period; those of Stephen, James, son of Zebedee, and James, the brother of Jesus.

The first Christian communities which grew up between AD 29 and 65, were in Jerusalem, Samaria, Caesarea and other Palestinian cities and also, largely as a result of Paul’s missionary activities, in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome. At this time the leaders of these communities were mainly Jews and their understanding of the teachings of Jesus was partly coloured by their Jewish inheritance. These communities possessed no Gospels so that their knowledge came from oral traditions; from memories of what Jesus had said and done, passed on by word of mouth in public addresses, instruction classes for new converts and in private discourses and conversations. Some of the deeds and words of Jesus were probably written down quite early, including the parables, the aphorisms and the proclamations of the kingdom of God, almost as they were spoken for the first time. However, for the most part, Christians at this time relied for their knowledge upon the shared memories of those who had known Jesus at first hand.

The message of Jesus as it is presented in the four gospels was written for the newly established churches of the Roman empire, churches stretching from Antioch in Syria to Rome. This was the world of the Gospels as written in the form in which we possess them. They are church books, written in the second half of the first century AD to meet the needs of the early followers of Jesus gathered together out of a pagan environment in their Christian communities. These early churches were not, for the most part, Palestinian, and after AD 70 when the country had been laid waste and Jerusalem destroyed, Christians in Galilee and Judaea must have been few and disorganised. The growing churches were in the great cities of the Graeco-Roman world, Antioch in Syria, Ephesus in Asia Minor (now in south-west Turkey), Corinth, Philippi and Thessalonica in Greece and in Rome itself. The members of these churches were Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians and Asiatics, though a significant number of Jews also converted to the new religion. These centres of Christianity and these church members were far away in distance from the world Jesus knew and very different from him in culture and upbringing.


Above: The Western or Wailing Wall, the only remnant of the Second Temple rebuilt by King Herod. It once stood on the adjacent Temple Mount and remains the most significant devotional site for Jews, who believe that they are in physical connection with the divine when they pray at it and kiss it.

Nazarene heretics:

By the end of the first century, however, there were growing signs of a clear break between church and synagogue. It may well have been the case that many Jews blamed the Christians for the destruction of Jerusalem, since Vespasian’s reconquest of first Galilee and then Judaea could have been seen as acts of vengeance for the burning of Rome, which Nero had alleged was the work of the Christians. Before AD 70, the Romans drew little distinction between the two alien, Judaistic faiths. To them, they were all the same, troublesome provincial people. It was after this period that the Birkat ham-minim, the ‘Heretic Benediction’ was added to the Eighteen Benedictions: 

May the Nazarenes (Christians) and the minim (heretics) perish as in a moment and be blotted out from the book of life. 

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that the gospels, especially that according to Matthew, contain many biased statements against the Jews in general, and that these statements were used to justify anti-Semitism among Christians in the Middle Ages and Early Modern times. All three Synoptic Gospels appear to have been written after Nero’s persecution (AD 64), and all three emphasise the message of a powerful Christ, breaking with Judaism. They were also clearly written after the fall of Jerusalem, to which they all refer (Mark 13. 1-2; Matthew 22. 7; Luke 21. 20). It is necessary, therefore, to disentangle the original message spoken by Jesus in Palestine from the meaning drawn out of it by Christian teachers and the four evangelists. The Christian communities in AD 29-65 had a real zeal for evangelism. They looked outward to a world which desperately needed the message of Jesus, so they were missionary churches. In these years, there was a particular reason why evangelism could not wait. The great decisive moment – the return of Jesus to earth in great power and glory – was, so they believed, imminent. While they waited for the Day of Judgement and Reward the Christians evangelised fervently among mostly pagan peoples. An evangelist needs a message, and therefore the task of separating the original message of Jesus from the later additions and interpretations is difficult and often uncertain.



Above: Portraits of Jesus from Roman-era frescoes to modern forensic reconstruction.

Source: National Geographic, December 2017.

Apocalyptic Poetry:

Remembering that Jesus was a poet with an inward vision and a gift for handling words, using vivid images from everyday life, not abstract arguments helps us to get to the heart of his teaching. It is often a clue to those passages of the Gospels where someone has added an explanation of his words. Poets do not explain their poems. They offer us their vision and leave us to discover the meaning. Jesus is a visionary whose eyes are fixed upon a dramatic future in which the old order of the world will disappear and a new order will take its place:

And then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (Mark 13. 26f.)

Poets are not usually interested in creating logical systems of thought in which every single part fits the whole. They speak or write about that which at a particular moment captures their imagination and stirs their soul. If we think, for example, of the poet and illustrator William Blake, writing about John Milton, the author of the great epic poems, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, we do not need to demythologise and strip away his powerful, apocalyptic imagery in order to understand his fundamental message in his Jerusalem:

And did the countenance divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among those dark satanic mills?


Bring me my bow of burning gold!

Bring me my arrows of desire!

Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!


I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green a pleasant land.

The four verses which make up the now well-known hymn, set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1917, first appeared in the preface to one of Blake’s last poem’s, ‘Milton’, which was written in 1804. Underneath them he wrote, would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, quoting Numbers 11.29. In the rest of the poem, the seventeenth-century poet is depicted as returning from eternity and entering into Blake to preach the message of Christ crucified and the doctrines of self-sacrifice and forgiveness. Some of the complex imagery in the poem is borrowed from the Bible, such as the ‘chariots of fire’ which are taken from 2 Kings 2. 11, but much is of Blake’s own invention. In suggesting, in the first verse, that Jesus may have set foot in England, Blake is resurrecting the old legend, and myth, which tells of Jesus’ wanderings as a young man with Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant and member of the Sanhedrin whom Jesus accompanied on a visit to Cornwall. The tale was, at one time, popular with the British Israel movement, which claimed that the British were one of the lost tribes of Israel.


There are two very different interpretations of the main message in ‘And did those feet’. One school of thought regards it as a plea for intuition and imagination in the face of scientific rationalism. From this interpretation, we get the idea that the ‘dark, satanic mills’ represent the cold logical approach of philosophers such as Locke and Bacon that Blake deplored, while Jerusalem represents the ideal life of freedom. The other, more common way of interpreting the poem is as a call for the rule of those social values of social justice and freedom which will build a new Jerusalem in Britain. This message, like that of Jesus himself, has no tidy outward shape but has an inner unity centred upon the proclamation of the kingdom of God. We recognise that inner unity, or message, through the allusions and imagery, without interpreting them as literal events either in the past or the future.


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Much of Jesus’ teaching was directed to the immediate needs and problems of the men and women to whom he talked in small groups in the marketplace, or in large crowds gathered to listen to him. Yet, in all the Gospels there is teaching which seems, on the face of it, to refer to dramatic and even cataclysmic events in the future. Some of these are predictions; forecasts about the future. We have already noted some of these, in particular, his well-known lament over Jerusalem, the Holy City.  (Luke 19. 41-44). This is a terse and vivid prediction of the siege and destruction of the city which began in September AD 70. Since this event took place some forty years after the time of Jesus, it is often argued that such a description of the great catastrophe must have arisen within the early church. However, the prediction does not describe in detail the actual siege of Jerusalem as the Jewish historian Josephus recorded it after the event. The words of Jesus describe a typical siege; a city encircled, siege engines battering at the wall, and so on. Indeed, it took no special insight or vision to predict that if the revolutionary elements continued to resist the government of Judea by violent acts, the Romans would reinforce their troops around Jerusalem.

Did Jesus predict the rejection of Israel as the chosen instrument of God’s purpose? It is clear that this view was held in at least some quarters of the early church. The part played by the Jewish authorities in his arrest, trial and execution; the hostility displayed by some Jews towards the new Christian communities, both played their part in shaping the belief that the ‘Old Israel’ had been rejected and the ‘New Israel’ – the Christian church – had taken its place.This belief has certainly left its mark upon the form in which some of the sayings and parables of Jesus have come down to us. In Matthew 23 there is a sustained and bitter condemnation of the Pharisees and scribes. This was certainly put together in its present form by an editor, prefacing the parable of the vineyard as told by Mark (12. 1. 1-11.), and copied by Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s ‘preface’ contains seven accusations against the lawyers and Pharisees, each beginning, ‘Woe to you’ in a recognisable literary form. This is followed by the lament over Jerusalem, the centre of unfaithfulness, killing the prophets and stoning the those who are sent to you (Matthew 23. 13-37.). The evidence of the Gospels as a whole makes clear that Jesus did attack the religious authorities, declaring that they embodied the kind of religion which would soon be rejected.  Whether he predicted the rejection of Israel and Judah as God’s chosen people depends largely on the interpretation of two parables, that of the Vineyard, which I have already referred to, and that of the Marriage Feast, which tells a similar story (Matt. 22. 1-14.). The invited guests make various trivial excuses and refuse to attend the banquet, and their places are taken by people, both bad and good, collected at random by the king’s servants; the publicans and harlots go into the kingdom of heaven before you (Matt.  21. 31). It seems clear that it is not the nation as a whole which is rejected but the religious leaders, the scribes and the Pharisees.

Another controversial question is whether Jesus predicted that he would come again in glory; that there would be a final Day of Judgement and an end of the world. This was a belief strongly held by Christians during the early years of the first century (1 Thess. 5. 1-11; II Thess. 1. 5-12). The belief waned as the years went by, but in medieval times it gained great popularity. The belief finds expression in Mark 13 and is expanded in Matt. 24-25 and in Luke 21. 5-36. Here the predicted events are dramatic and terrifying  – wars, earthquakes, famine and persecution, the rise of bogus messiahs and false prophets precede the appearance of Christ as judge of the world. There is a different picture in Luke, who uses a third source. Men and women are going about their daily routine when, suddenly, like a flash of lightning, the Day of the Son of Man is upon them. This teaching from the Gospels and Epistles is known as eschatology and uses language which is largely alien to our ‘western’, scientific way of thinking. Many Christians ignore this element in the New Testament, and some biblical scholars deny that Jesus ever thought in these terms, or that he expected his own second coming. Eschatological thinking arises when there is a contradiction between the harsh realities of life and man’s faith in God’s power and justice. In this kind of situation, The words of Paul (depicted below) in Romans VIII were meant to comfort and console…

… the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8. 18).


Eschatological teaching therefore brings hope to men, and when present sufferings are severe then the hope of a glorious future is often expressed in imaginative pictures. Sometimes the language is both poetic and pastoral, as in Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming of the Messiah (11.7). Sometimes it is dramatic, ‘technicoloured’ language to match the drama of the moment, like in the Book of Daniel:

Behold, with the clouds of heaven,

there came one like a son of man,

and he came to the Ancient of Days

 and was presented before him.

And to him was given dominion 

and glory and kingdom

that all Peoples, nations and languages

should serve him;

his dominion is an everlasting dominion,

which shall not pass away, 

and his kingdom one

that shall not be destroyed 

(Dan. 7. 13 f.)

It was natural that the first Christians, often isolated from the rest of their fellow citizens because of their faith, usually under suspicion, taunted for worshipping a crucified Saviour, and at times persecuted, should rest their hopes on Christ’s return to power and glory. They believed that this hope was founded upon the teaching of Jesus, and they made collections of sayings which supported their faith and included them in their church books – the Gospels.

In the final months and weeks of his life, Jesus knew that his enemies would turn the full force of their power against him, but he also he was alarmed and sorrowful at the political situation of his nation. He knew that armed rebellion could only end in national disaster. Yet his faith in the purposes of God and in the realities of God’s kingship did not waver. Whether or not he believed in his own ‘second coming’, he knew that he had been chosen by God to fulfil a particular role in history. The sayings and parables which he used when he thought about the future were his way of expressing his confident faith in God’s undefeated purpose. He expressed his hope for the future in vivid and dramatic language, that of a poet dreaming dreams and seeing visions.



The Book of Revelation, to many the most enigmatic in the New Testament, was written in a similarly poetic and visionary form by a certain ‘John the Divine’ (depicted above) in exile on Patmos, possibly during the Domitian persecution. It is full of a bitter hatred of Rome, but although the author was in exile, he had not suffered a particularly harsh penalty, and his banishment did not even include the loss of property or other rights, as one might expect had Patmos been a penal colony. His one reference to past martyrdom, the mention of Antipas, gives no details of how he met his end. Recent persecution seems to have been more limited and local: John’s fears are for the future. Domitian was despotic, like Caligula before him, but his main anti-Christian actions, against prominent citizens, were taken on the grounds that ‘they had slipped into Jewish customs’. The main threat to Christianity in the New Testament period came from the hostility or malice of the people among whom they lived, whether Greeks, Romans or Jews. Tertullian commented that…

… if the Tiber rises too high or the Nile too low, the cry is: “The Christians to the lion”. 

(to be continued…)


The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’ – part five: First-century Palestine.   Leave a comment

Jerusalem and its Temple in the time of Christ:


Until it was destroyed by Romans in AD 70, the temple at Jerusalem was the official centre of Jewish worship, a great place of pilgrimage and an immensely powerful symbol. Although Jewish theology had increasingly stressed the transcendence and otherness of God, the temple was still regarded as being in a special way a divine dwelling place: the scenes reported by Josephus immediately before its fall suggest a confidence, even then, that God would not allow it to be harmed. The temple in the first century was, in fact, the third to be built, following Solomon’s temple destroyed in 587 BC and the one that replaced it after the return from Babylon. Herod the Great began work in 20/19 BC on the same site but according to a different ground plan, in the prevailing Roman-Hellenistic style of architecture. Construction went on for a long time, certainly until AD 64, and it may have been the case that the temple was still unfinished at its destruction. Nothing remains of the temple proper today, apart from the great platform now surmounted by the Dome of the Rock and the substructure of the massive surrounding walls. However, it can be reconstructed in the mind’s eye through the contemporary descriptions of Josephus and others.

The site of the temple was on a hill in the south-eastern part of the present Old City. A great paved court was laid on the temple platform, surrounded by magnificent collonades against the outside walls. This court was accessible to people of any race or faith, Gentiles included and was by no means reserved for purely religious activities. In common with other ancient temples, the Jerusalem temple was used as a safe-deposit for valuables and other quasi-commercial transactions were carried on there. Within the court was an enclosure surrounded by an embankment, with steps going up to a wall with nine gates. Inscriptions, the Greek text of one of which has been found, warned Gentiles against going further:

No foreigner may enter inside the barrier and embankment. Whoever is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death.


At the heart of the temple lay the Holy Place, elevated by twelve steps. Within was a vestibule which gave on to the main doorway of the sanctuary.  Here were the sacred objects in gold, the seven-branched lampstand, the menorah, the table for the shew-bread and the altar of incense.> a curtain screened the Holy of Holies, containing no furniture whatsoever, which only the high priest might enter, once a year, on the Day of Atonement. Thus the elevation of the temple and its holiness increased progressively towards the centre, as did the elaborateness of its ornamentation. Built of great blocks of gleaming white stone and decorated with all possible splendour, it must have been a breath-taking sight. Josephus’ praise is lavish; he remarks that the outside of the building was covered with so much gold that the onlooker could scarcely look directly at it in bright sunlight. He adds that after the sack of Jerusalem the market of gold for the whole province of Syria was completely flooded so that the standard of gold was depreciated to half its value.

The foundation of the worship offered at the temple was the daily sacrifice, offered morning and evening on behalf of the people. It was never interrupted once during the rebuilding of the temple. A positive understanding of the joy taken in the ritual sacrifice of animals and the significance attached to it is perhaps the hardest thing for modern western Christians to understand, but there is abundant evidence of that joy and of the belief that sacrifice could bring forgiveness. This system was at its height in the last days of the temple, when more care and money was lavished on it than at any other time. Public sacrifice was accompanied by lengthy ceremonial and was followed by private sacrifices, both sin-offerings and votive offerings. The whole of Palestine was divided into twenty-four divisions, each of which was ‘on duty’ in turn for one week (Luke 1. 8f.). Priests and Levites from the course on duty were responsible for offering the sacrifices, and lay representatives were deputised to be witnesses on behalf of the whole people. A yearling lamb was killed and then followed a service of prayer: incense was offered and the lamb solemnly burnt; the priests pronounced a benediction and the choir of Levites sang the appointed psalm, the ceremony being accompanied by the blowing of trumpets.

More numerous sacrifices were offered on the Sabbath and on major festivals. The more important of these were the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), the Feast of Tabernacles (Succoth) following the Day of Atonement, and the Feast Of Passover. The feasts were of great antiquity, having accumulated many overtones of meaning. The Feast of Weeks was a thanksgiving for the grain harvest, but also commemorated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai; the Feast of Tabernacles, or ‘booths’, recalled the time when the Israelites were wandering in the desert and lived in tents, but also contained an ancient prayer-ceremony for rain: the Passover, Pesach, while commemorating the deliverance from Egypt, was also associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which originally also had an agricultural significance. Pilgrims came to all these festivals, often covering vast distances to be present. Passover was the annual peak; one estimate gives the total number of pilgrims likely at that time as about 125,000 compared with the approximately 55,000 permanent residents of Jerusalem. The Passover meal was eaten in domestic surroundings, in table-fellowships of between ten and twenty; pilgrims had by law to stay that night within the limits of Jerusalem itself, as they were ritually interpreted. Despite the flexibility of this interpretation, the crush must have been immense. The ritual was carried out by twenty-four courses of priests and the same number of Levites, who were not in permanent residence. It has been estimated that there were some 7,200 priests involved, and a rather larger number of Levites, who functioned as singers, musicians, servants and guards.



The temple and its priesthood may have been the most striking symbol of Jerusalem, but had they been its exclusive centre, Judaism would never have survived their fall. The way in which it adjusted to the situation after AD 70 shows that there were other strengths; these had as their common basis the Law, and to a considerable degree the history of the different parties within Judaism is the history of different interpretations of the Law. Even while the temple still stood, even within Judaea itself, there seems to have been an increasing preoccupation with the scriptures and their implications, and this focus will have been even more characteristic of the Jews of the Diaspora. A movement like that found at Qumran would have been unthinkable without the scribal tradition of ‘the book’ in Rabbinic Judaism. The beginnings of this trend are to be found in the Babylonian exile and the post-exilic period. During this period the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, took final form and was accorded its place of honour as the Torah, the Law; the Prophets had taken a place beside it by the beginning of the second century BC and the scriptures were recognised during the first century AD.

‘Law’ is an inadequate translation to give a clear idea of the written basis of Judaism; the Hebrew word Torah means rather ‘instruction’ or ‘doctrine’ rather than ‘law’, since the Pentateuch is far more than a ‘dry’ book of laws, of ‘do’s’ and ‘dont’s’. Nevertheless, that is what it became as it was subjected to more and more intensive study. It is essential to try to see the positive elements which such detailed methods of study were believed to bring out, despite Jesus’ criticisms of some of the more life-denying aspects of the process. The Sadducees’ interpretation of Scripture was literal in contrast to that of the Pharisees, whose oral tradition they rejected. From this basic position stemmed their well-known denials of resurrection, future rewards and punishments, angels and spirits, and Providence. The Sadducees were more interested in their control of land and material resources than in spirituality; they seem to have been more concerned with politics of the Sanhedrin than theology.

The supreme Jewish council was known as the Sanhedrin, a Graeco-Aramaic term for an assembly. It consisted of seventy-one members. The sources differ over its composition and nature: Josephus and the writers of the Gospels and Acts present it primarily as a political institution, whereas Rabbinic literature presents a more religious aspect. The latter sources were probably reading back into it features which it took on after the fall of the temple, but the very nature of Judaism meant that political and religious questions were inextricably intertwined. The Pharisees were a broader, lay movement, which set out to embrace the whole of the Jewish people and had developed out of the earlier movement of Hasidism. Many Pharisees were Scribes by occupation, but they were more preoccupied with ritual matters than with theological concerns. Being a ‘separated one’ meant striving to be separated from impurity of all kinds. At the same time, the Law and the understanding of it were the means of avoiding impurity, so that the basic work of the scribe was indispensable. The leaders among the Pharisees were, therefore ‘middle-class’ scribes, whereas the Sadducees, although having their own scribes, had a leadership which was dominated by noble families.  By 70 BC the Pharisees had gained access to the Sanhedrin and from then onwards they never altogether lost power, while the Sadducees declined in importance, especially following the fall of the temple.  It was the Pharisaic/ Rabbinic development which shaped the future of Judaism.; the heightened prominence of the Law after the fall of the temple was accompanied by an institution which had been increasing in importance for some time before AD 70, the synagogue and its worship.

The Jewish Dispersion of the First Century:


During the first century, as ever since has been the case, there were more Jews living outside Palestine than within it. Estimates vary, but a rough guess would be that there were rather more than two million Jews in Judaea and about four million elsewhere. The diaspora had taken place in different stages and for a number of reasons; there were, of course, the forced deportations to Babylon, where about a million Jews lived, but trade had also taken Jews all around the Mediterranean well before that time. There were particularly close connections with Egypt, where there was a large Jewish community, but there were also Jews in North Africa, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and Italy. These Jews had to preserve their identity in a culture which was predominantly Greek. They therefore organised themselves into communities, living in distinct quarters in cities, with considerable autonomy. Both the Greek states and the Roman government allowed a great deal of freedom to religious minorities, but the privileges of the Jews went far beyond this. In return for the favours of the state, however, they had to suffer the constant antagonism of their neighbours, which on occasion damaged official relations. Although the language of the Dispersion was Greek, these Jews still looked to the temple while it stood, and paid a great deal of money to support it. The synagogue, however, had become a far more regular influence in their day-to-day life. While Pharisaic Judaism culminated in the Rabbinic tradition, Hellenistic Judaism gave way to Christianity. It had no future in the context of Judaism, just as Jewish Christianity had no future in the context of the church. A modern Jewish comment is apt:

Jewish Christianity withered since it lacked survival power; Hellenistic Judaism withered since it lacked survival value.

The Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans:

When Emperor Tiberius died in AD 37, the new emperor, Caligula, made his friend Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, king of Philip’s former tetrarchy. He accused Herod Antipas of being in league with the Parthians. Antipas was duly banished, and his tetrarchy and revenues were given to Agrippa. Although Judaea had been a Roman province for thirty-three years, it was in a thoroughly unsettled condition. The Jews felt themselves to be a unique people, and though the basis of this claim was religious, under conditions of foreign occupation its manifestations were bound to be political. Each of the main religious sects thus had its own political ‘line’, most obviously expressed in the extreme nationalism of the Zealots. The disturbed situation of the province, with these insurgents active in the countryside and with continual sectarian conflict among the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, resulting in frequent changes in the high priests now appointed by the governor, needs to be remembered as the background to the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

Agrippa had used his friendship with Caligula to persuade the latter to abandon his orders for the erection of a large statue of himself in the temple in Jerusalem in AD 41. In the same year, Caligula was assassinated, and Agrippa was largely instrumental in securing the succession of Claudius. The new emperor rewarded him by abolishing the province of Judaea and adding it to his territories, thus reconstituting the kingdom of Herod the Great. Agrippa reigned for only three years, but during that time he demonstrated considerable ability. He made Jerusalem his official residence once more, signifying that Judaea was once more Jewish, and he became popular with his subjects. He had James, son of Zebedee, executed, and arrested Peter, two of the leaders of the growing and widely unpopular Christian community (Acts 12. 1-18). On his death, Claudius wished to appoint his son, Herod Agrippa II, to the throne of Judaea, but the boy was only seventeen, and Claudius was persuaded to make the area a province once more, though this time it included the whole of his father’s kingdom. The first two Roman governors, according to Josephus, left native customs alone and kept the nation at peace, but with the third, Cumanus, troubles began again, his government being marked by disturbances and further disasters to the Jews. These continued under the fourth and fifth governors, and on the death of the fifth, the Sanhedrin again took the law into its own hands, executing James, the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem.

According to Tacitus, the endurance of the Jews lasted until Gessius Florus was governor, of whom Josephus claimed that it was he who compelled us to take up arms against the Romans, thinking that it was better to be destroyed at once than by degrees. Florus became governor in AD 64, and the Jewish War began in AD 66. Its short-term causes were a clash in Caesaria between Jews and Greeks, in which Florus supported the latter. Shortly afterwards, he provoked further antagonism in Jerusalem by demanding a large sum of money from the temple treasury on the grounds that it was required by the emperor. In the demonstrations which followed, Florus allowed his troops to loot, and many innocents were killed, including Jews with Roman citizenship. At this stage, Agrippa II sought to intervene, but his attempt to calm his citizens ended with them stoning him, forcing him to leave Jerusalem. Within a month the rebels had taken control of Jerusalem and the greater part of Judaea and had captured the fortress of Masada with its huge arsenal. The disturbances then spread to the predominantly Greek cities of the Decapolis and the coast, and even to Alexandria. In all of them, there were violent clashes between Greeks and Jews, until the governor of Syria, was compelled to intervene and marched south with an army of thirty thousand. Despite early successes, he failed to control the uprising.

Emperor Nero appointed Vespasian, an experienced general, to the command of Judaea. In AD 67 he reconquered Galilee, where the young Josephus was in command, and the next year pressed on into Samaria and Transjordan. Meanwhile, factional struggles in Jerusalem, amounting to a civil war, seriously weakened the ability of the inhabitants to resist the Roman advance. In AD 70, Titus, Vespasian’s son, who had been left in command of the army when his father returned to Rome to become emperor, laid siege to the city. The story is graphically told by Josephus. An attack was only possible from the north or north-west, where the assailants would have to breach three walls in turn. ; even then, there remained the temple itself and the upper city, both of which could serve as well-defended inner citadels. The siege began in May, with the Romans deploying all their resources in siege warfare, building huge ramps and towers, attempting to mine the walls or battering them with huge boulders thrown by their artillery. They eventually constructed a wall of five miles in length running right around the city.  Nevertheless, it was not until the end of September that the whole city was in Roman hands. City and temple were razed to the ground.

Mopping-up operations continued for a further three years, culminating in the long siege and heroic defence of Masada, the great fortress which towers over the western shore of the Dead Sea. When further resistance proved impossible, the surviving defenders of nearly a thousand set fire to the fortress and killed themselves, with only two women who hid in underground water cisterns living to tell the tale to Josephus. The result of the war brought to an end the Jewish state. The Sanhedrin and the high priesthood were abolished, and worship in the temple was forbidden. There were further Jewish rebellions and revolts in AD 115 and 132, but the final guerrilla war, led, with some initial success, by Simon bar Kochba, was finally defeated in AD 135, following which Emperor Hadrian built a new city for Gentiles, from which the Jews were excluded, and a pagan temple was built on the site of Herod’s temple. Zion was no more.

According to Josephus, it was chiefly the belief in the imminent advent of a Messianic king that launched the Jews upon their suicidal war in 66 AD. Even after the destruction of the temple, Simon bar-Kochba was still greeted as Messiah. But the bloody suppression of that rising and the annihilation of political nationality put an end both to the apocalyptic faith and to the militancy of the Jews.  Although in later centuries a number of self-styled messiahs arose among the dispersed communities, what they offered was merely a reconstitution of the national home, not an eschatological world-empire. Moreover, they very rarely inspired armed risings, and never amongst European Jews. It was no longer Jews but Christians who cherished and elaborated prophecies in the tradition of Daniel’s dream and who continued to be inspired by them.

The Samaritans:

Had it been prophesied around AD 30 that the only movements to survive the next two thousand years would be the successors of the Pharisees, the followers of Jesus and the Samaritans, such a forecast would have been worthy of ridicule by contemporaries. Yet this was precisely what happened.


A group of the despised Samaritans still lives and worships near Mount Gerizim, despite the long-troubled history of Palestine. Their survival represents a thorn in the side for those Christians and Jews who view Jerusalem as the sole, exclusive and undivided capital of the Jewish people as represented by the modern state of Israel. The Samaritans were the inhabitants of what was once the northern kingdom of Israel. In New Testament times it is clear from both Jewish and Christian sources that there was hatred and hostility between them and the Jews in Judaea and Galilee, so much so that Galileans on pilgrimage to Jerusalem avoided Samaria by crossing the Jordan rather than using the Jericho Road which Jesus described in his parable of ‘the Good Samaritan’.

The Samaritans regard themselves as the true Israel, separated from the rest of the people when the latter were tainted by the sin of Eli, a priest at Shiloh in the time of Samuel. Though they were deported at the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 BC, they returned fifty-five years later. The Judaeans and Galileans, on the other hand, regard the Samaritans as descendants of gentile colonists who repopulated the northern kingdom after the Assyrian conquest. They therefore regarded Samaritan religious observances as totally tainted. The Samaritan view may not be historically accurate, but the ‘Jewish’ view is also exaggerated in the opposite direction. It is not possible, at the present time, to establish the truth of exactly what happened, but it seems that it was post-exilic concerns which led to the constant rivalry between the ethnic groups. It probably began with the extent of inter-marriage between Samaritan ‘Jews’ and gentiles during the period of the two exiles, accentuated by the different experience of exile encountered by the Judaeans in Babylonia. The conflict reached its climax when the Samaritans built their own temple to replace the earlier one at Bethel. This new temple was erected on Mount Gerizim. The exact date of its construction is unknown, but it was certainly there by the early second century and does not appear to have been totally new then.


In 129 BC, John Hyrcanus destroyed the temple on Gerizim, adding to Samaritan hatred. Herod married a Samaritan woman, suggesting that relations might have been slightly easier during his reign, and it is even possible that the Samaritans had access to the Temple in Jerusalem. However, Josephus reports that a new act of defilement, the scattering by Samaritans of human bones in the temple grounds, once more stirred up tensions. The first century was a bad period for Galileans on pilgrimage when they were set upon and attacked. In the end, Galileans and Judaeans alike regarded the Samaritans as Gentiles. This may be one reason why Mark describes Jesus and his disciples as crossing into Transjordan to teach before his final week in Jerusalem. Earlier references to the Samaritans contain a number of vivid sayings about their impurity; John 4. 9. has an old comment about the practice of Jews and Samaritans not using the same water vessels for this reason. Yet the Samaritans shared the same Torah with the Judaeans, though not the same prophetic and other literature. These were the people whom Jesus chose to illustrate gratitude and love, deliberately choosing to identify the hero of his story by his ethnic origin and ‘label’.  They provide yet another example of how ancient and first century Palestine was a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic region comprising a patchwork of territories under Roman rule, far different in nature from a twenty-first-century nation-state.

(to be continued…) 

The Genuine Jerusalem and the ‘trump of God’, part four: North and South.   1 comment


Roman Occupation, the Pharisees and Zealot Resistance:

In relation to Rome, the Pharisees were advocates of ‘passive resistance’. By contrast, the chief characteristic of the Zealots, who otherwise had much in common with the Pharisees as fervent nationalists, was their advocacy and use of violence in defence of their faith. There are also probable connections between the Zealot movement and the Maccabees, but its beginning is usually taken to be a revolt against Quirinus’ census in AD 6. Judas, the leader of the revolt, was a Galilean, the son of Eleazar who was executed by Herod; his son led the last stand of the Zealots at Masada. The Zealots take their name from their zeal for the temple and the Law, as illustrated in the writings of Josephus, who writes very disapprovingly, labelling them Sicarii (‘assassins’). He could hardly do otherwise in his position, as they also refused to pay Roman taxes. Luke’s list of Jesus’ apostles includes Simon, called ‘the Zealot’ (Luke 6.15; Acts 1. 13); the parallel passages in Mark (3.18) and Matthew (10. 4) refer to him as ‘the Canaanaean’, an Aramaic form of the same word.

Simon had been a member of the Zealot resistance movement, and Jesus must have known others. The very name by which He became known, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the Galilean’, meant, to the people of Judaea, something like ‘rebel’ or ‘anarchist’ from the home of the Zealots, or freedom fighters, and Galileans were renowned as ‘born fighters’. The presence of a Zealot among Jesus’ followers, coupled with recorded actions of Jesus like the cleansing of the temple and the fact that he was crucified by the Romans on a quasi-political charge has prompted elaborate theories about the connection between Jesus and the Zealots. There is not enough evidence to make out a case, one way or the other, but what evidence there is, is intriguing. The gospels record him meeting, early in his ministry, with several thousand of them hiding in the hills above the fishing port of Capernaum, on Lake Galilee. The ‘crowd’ of hill villagers and fishermen from the lakeside towns were also men of the Resistance Movement, ‘freedom fighters’ whenever the chance came. Jesus felt they were like sheep without a shepherd, a leaderless mob, an army without a general. Though some of them wanted to become that ‘shepherd’ or ‘general’, he refused the offer to join them. Instead, he got them to sit down, under command, in companies of fifty to a hundred, rank by rank and shared a common meal with them. Jesus had come to believe that violence was not God’s way, and he became their critic. Many of his stories were aimed at them as well as at the Pharisees. Many of them abandoned him, and whenever he returned to Galilee from Judaea, he travelled ‘incognito’.  He continued to be appalled by the suffering that even a just cause brought, and referred to the poems of the prophets which were ignored by the Zealots, poems which spoke of an alternative form of resistance:

If only today you knew how to live for peace instead of war!

You cannot see what you are doing.

The time will come when

your enemies will throw up a palisade round you,

besiege and attack you on all sides,

dash down your buildings and your people,

leave not a wall upstanding;

all because you did not see that God has already come to you

in love, not war.

Luke 19, 42-44.

For the Zealots, as well as for the Pharisees in Jerusalem and his own people in the synagogues, Jesus of Nazareth was no-one special. But neither public debate in the hills, or on street corners, nor sermons in the meeting houses, were how he got his message across. Years later, his friends reflected on the man they knew and remembered Isaiah’s poem (42. 3-4) about God’s ‘servant king’ which seemed to describe him precisely:

His is no trumpet call,

no demagogue he, 

holding forth at street corners!

He is too gentle to break a bruised stalk,

to snuff a flickering wick!


But his no flickering wick,

his no timid heart;

honest and plain-spoken

he makes the heart of religion clear. 

Yet, even at the time of his last visit to Jerusalem, Jesus’ friends still had great difficulty in getting out of their heads the widespread Jewish conviction that God’s chosen leader, when he came, would establish some kind of national kingdom, with its king and government. They had grown up with this idea and took it for granted. The Zealots thought of this leader as a military ruler, establishing his power by military conquest, as David and the Maccabees had done. Many others who were not zealots thought in much the same way, though some believed that God alone would defeat the Romans. Jesus would have nothing to do with such ideas. He had not come to be that kind of king or to establish that kind of kingdom. After his death, his followers, calling themselves Christians, came to accept this and abandoned the path of violent resistance. The Jews in general, and the Zealots, in particular, did not.

The Synagogues of First-century Palestine and the Middle East:

According to the Gospels, the synagogues of Galilee were important focal locations for Jesus’ ministry in the north, though some scholars have questioned whether they even existed at this time. The Greek word synagogue is used in the Greek Old Testament to translate the Hebrew word, Eda, meaning ‘congregation’. In such cases it does not, of course, refer to a building at all. So when did groups of people begin to meet together for prayer and the study of Scripture, and when did these meetings begin to take place in a building specially designed for the purpose? Jewish sources trace the institution of the synagogue, like everything else, to Moses; the earliest beginning, however, is likely to be the movement with which  Ezra was connected in the first century BC, and there will have been other contributory factors in different places.


In Alexandria, Jews encountered Greek religious associations which met regularly; in many places, Jews may well have had regular meetings as part of municipal life. It is even possible that there may be some connection between the local synagogues and the meetings of members of the course on duty at the temple in Jerusalem. Those who did not go to Jerusalem are thought to have met together in their homes for prayer when the sacrifice was being offered in the Temple. By the first century AD, there was certainly a strong tradition of regular meetings for prayer and study of the Scriptures held in specially appointed buildings. There is written evidence to suggest that throughout the first century, synagogues were widespread. In addition to the New Testament references to synagogues in Galilee and throughout the Mediterranean world, Josephus makes special mention of synagogues in Caesarea and Tiberius, and Rabbinic writings mention synagogues in Jerusalem itself. The archaeological evidence suggests no set pattern or sequence of architectural development. Those closer to Jerusalem were influenced by the external decorations of the Temple, whereas in Babylon more attention was paid to interiors.


The synagogue was more than a place of worship; it was also something of a village centre with secular uses, a place for judicial, political and religious gatherings. It was certainly a centre for education, where children received elementary instruction and where teaching was given to adults who wanted help in reading the Scriptures. Above all, in the Dispersion, the synagogue was an important factor in unifying the Jews who lived in a particular place. There was no permanent ‘minister’ of a synagogue; the principal officer was the ‘head of the synagogue’, who played a chief role in all the synagogue functions and was ultimately responsible for the conduct of services, and may have chosen the lessons. The synagogue also had its ‘council of elders’ who, in predominantly Jewish villages, would also have been civic officials. The central act of worship was the reading of the Scriptures, both from the Torah and the prophets. In Palestine, this would be in Hebrew, sometimes accompanied by a translation into Aramaic; in the Dispersion, Greek was used. The reading of the lessons was followed by a sermon, and there seems to have been a custom of inviting any visiting teacher to deliver this address (Acts 13. 14).

Recent archaeological evidence has shown that Galilee was not the rural backwater and isolated Jewish enclave in the hills that scholars once imagined. They have plumbed the political, economic. and social currents of first-century Palestine to discover the forces that gave rise to the man and his mission. He has been viewed variously as a religious reformer, a social revolutionary, an apocalyptic prophet and even as a Jewish ‘Jihadist’. By far the mightiest force at the time shaping life in Galilee was the Roman Empire, which had subjugated the whole of Palestine some sixty years before Jesus’ birth. Almost all Jews felt oppressed by Rome’s excessive taxation and idolatrous religion, and this seething undercurrent of social unrest set the stage for the ‘Jewish agitator’ to burst onto the scene denouncing the rich and powerful and pronouncing blessings on the poor and marginalised.

Others have imagined the onslaught of Greco-Roman culture moulding Jesus into a less Jewish, more cosmopolitan champion of social justice. In 1991, John Dominic Crossan published his seminal book, The Historical Jesus, in which he put forward the thesis that the real Jesus was a wandering sage whose countercultural lifestyle and subversive sayings bore a striking resemblance to those of the ‘Cynics’ of ancient Greece. Like Jesus, they had little time for social conventions and the pursuit of wealth and status. Crossan’s unorthodox thesis was inspired partly by archaeological discoveries in Galilee which showed that the whole region was becoming more urbanised and romanised during Jesus’ day than scholars once imagined. Jesus’ boyhood home of Nazareth was just three miles from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital. Although the city isn’t mentioned in the Gospels, an ambitious building campaign sponsored by Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, would have attracted skilled workers from all the surrounding villages. It’s therefore not unreasonable to imagine Jesus, as a young craftsman, working at Sepphoris and testing the boundaries of his Judaistic upbringing.

In Capernaum, the fishing port on the northwest shore called the Sea of Galilee where Jesus met his first followers, Franciscan archaeologists were, in 1968, excavating an octagonal church built 1,500 years ago, when they discovered that it had been built over the remains of a first-century house. There was evidence that this private home had been transformed into a public meeting place over a short span of time. By the second half of the first century, just a few decades after the Crucifixion of Jesus – the home’s rough stone walls had been plastered over and household kitchen items replaced with oil lamps, characteristic of a community gathering place. Over the following centuries, entreaties to Christ were etched into the walls, and by the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the dwelling had been expanded into an elaborately decorated house of worship. Since then the structure has commonly been known as Peter’s House, though it’s impossible to say whether the disciple actually inhabited the home. The Gospels record Jesus curing Peter’s mother-in-law at her home in Capernaum. Word of the miracle spread rapidly, we are told, and by evening a suffering crowd had gathered at her door.


Another dramatic discovery occurred at the site of ancient Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene. Again, it was Franciscan archaeologists who began excavating part of the town during the 1970s, though the northern half lay under a defunct lakeside resort, who was building a pilgrims’ retreat in Galilee. As construction was about to begin in 2009, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority arrived to survey the site. They discovered a synagogue from the time of Jesus – the first such structure to be unearthed In Galilee. This find was especially significant because it put to rest an argument made by sceptics that no synagogues existed in Galilee until decades after Jesus’ death and that synagogues were few and far between in Israel and Judah in general in the first half of the first century. Had the sceptics been right, their claim would have shredded the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus as a devout Jew who often proclaimed his message and performed miracles in these meeting places.

As archaeologists excavated the ruins, they uncovered walls lined with benches and a mosaic floor. More importantly, at the centre of the room, they found a stone about the size of a foot rack that revealed carvings in relief which showed some of the most sacred elements of the Temple in Jerusalem. This has come to be known as the Magdala Stone, and its discovery struck a death-blow to the once-fashionable notion that Galileans were impious country ‘bumkins’ detached from Judaea’s centre of ‘civilised’ devotion. Moreover, as archaeologists continued to dig, they discovered an entire town buried less than a foot below the surface. The ruins were so well-preserved that some began calling Magdala the Israeli Pompeii. The remains include storerooms, ritual baths and an industrial area where fish may have been processed and sold on an open market, the stone stalls of which remain intact. Considering the fact that the synagogue was active during the ministry of Jesus and was only a brief sail from Capernaum, there is no reason to deny or doubt that Jesus was in Magdala, preaching in the synagogue and walking with his fishermen friends.

Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem and his ‘Last Week’:

His journey south and his movements until the last week in Jerusalem are shrouded in obscurity. Mark summarises them in one sentence, short yet significant (10. 1):

On leaving those parts (in the north) he came into the regions of Judaea and Transjordan; and when a crowd gathered around him once again, he followed his usual practice and taught them. (NEB)


The quoted words seem to imply a wider ministry than the account which follows seems to allow for. They suggest that he may have moved down south in the late spring, passing down the eastern side of the Jordan River, finally arriving in Jerusalem at the beginning of the Passover festival week. The account as we now have it had been used in the worship of the church where all the events of the Passion week were celebrated together, from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. The journey may, in reality, have taken much longer, and have involved longer sojourns east of the river before the visit to Jerusalem. Some scholars have suggested that the Gospel accounts comprise two visits to the city, the first in October for the Feast of the Tabernacles, when he dealt with the shopkeepers in the Foreigners’ Court of the temple and was involved in an open debate with the religious authorities.


Whatever the evidence for this, Jesus had made up his mind to make his final appeal to his people when they gathered for the feast of Passover the following spring. He did not intend to have his hand forced, so he spent the winter outside the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem authorities in Transjordan and returned to the city a few days before he was arrested. It is probable that the elaborate preparations that were made to secure his arrest away from potential popular intervention by ensnaring one of his friends would have taken more than a few days, and would have had to involve Pilate (depicted above), as governor, at an early stage.


During the first part of The Last Week, Jesus lodged outside the city at the house of his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, at Bethany, at the foot of the Mount of Olives. From Bethany to Bethpage is a steep walk of about half an hour up a stony path. It was here, at the top of the Mount of Olives that Jesus mounted the ass on which he rode towards Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It was at this spot that he paused and wept over the coming fate of the city. When Jesus took his last journey from Bethany into Jerusalem, he went up the stark Jericho road whose loneliness had given such point to his parable of the Good Samaritan; he knew the way; his disciples followed apprehensively behind. At the highest point of the road, just behind the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem appears suddenly in all its beauty, dominated by the magnificence of the temple. With a facade 150 feet high, facing eastward, it was made of light marble with decorations of pure gold. Surrounding the main building were collonaded courts and vestibules; in the very centre crowning the whole edifice was the Tabernacle, which, according to the historian Josephus, sparkled like a snow-capped mountain. The massive walls of the city, rising 250 metres high above the surrounding valley, embraced other well-known buildings: the Roman fortress Antonia on the north-east side, Herod’s palace on the west with its three enormous towers, 130, 100 and 80 feet high, a little below that was the house of the high priest, also a strong-hold with its own prison. These four buildings were to play their part in the drama that followed. Today none of them remain, since the destruction of the city by the Romans in AD 70, but the sites are there and modern archaeology has revealed evidence of their authenticity; while the breathtaking beauty of the city remains, for the Muslims erected on the site of the Jewish temple two magnificent mosques, which scintillate, the one with golden and the other with silver decorations, even as the original temple must have done. The first is ‘The Dome of the Rock’, the second ‘The Mosque of Al-Aqsa’.  Christian pilgrims today are invited by their Arab guides to stop and praise God when they first set eyes on this most Holy City, even though it bears little resemblance to the place where Jesus walked and taught.


Further on, He would have passed the Garden of Gethsemane, and then down into the valley of the brook, Kedron, and on up the steep slope into the city itself. During this week he preached in the courtyards of the temple, where he challenged the authorities. It was during these final visits to the Temple in Jerusalem, whether they happened in the autumn or the following spring of his southern ministry, that Jesus carried out two ‘acted parables’ which showed that, while he followed a path of nonviolent resistance, he was also willing to challenge the temple authorities over, and at, the heart of their religion. The entry into the city made clear his whole approach to God’s work. He had made secret preparations for it, arranging for the hire of a donkey with a farmer in a village near to the city, possibly Bethany itself, or Bethpage. He rode in to claim his right as God’s chosen leader, perhaps recalling the days of a thousand years before when his ancestor David, following the southern rebellion, rode back on a warhorse to reclaim the city, along the same road (II Sam. 19. 15.-20.2). He was no such military leader, and the words of Zechariah’s poem were probably in his mind:

Lo, your King comes to you;

triumphant and victorious is he,

humble and riding on an ass,

on a colt, the foal of an ass (Zech. 9.9)

All he had said and done in the preceding ministry was symbolised in this act. It must have been intended for his friends, as was the symbolism of ‘the Last Supper’. If it happened in October, he would have joined pilgrims coming into the city for the feast of Tabernacles, using the occasion for his own purposes. Had it been a public claim to Messiahship, it is strange that the authorities, looking around for evidence to incriminate Jesus, did not seize upon this occasion as the kind of evidence they were looking for. The significance of the ‘acted parable’ was quite clear.


Jesus’ ‘Cleansing of the Temple’ was the second acted parable and was also a very public one, this time inside the city and the Temple itself. In the Temple were several open courts, one of which was known as the Court of the Gentiles. This was a large area where sympathetic foreigners could share in Jewish worship. It was being used in Jesus’ time as a market, a bank and a shortcut through the Temple, anything but a place of worship for foreigners. It looked as if nobody bothered whether foreigners worshipped there or not. Jesus cleared the courts, his very righteous indignation took the stall-keepers and bankers by surprise; foreigners, Jesus was saying, had a place in God’s worship. The Temple was not exclusively for the use of Jews. He made a declaration of the universality of the Good News – My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a robbers’ cave. The Jewish leaders confronted him afterwards:

As he was walking about the Temple, Jewish leaders came up to him. ‘Who told you to do this sort of thing?’ they asked. ‘Who gave you the right to act like this?’ 

‘I’ll ask you a question first,’ said Jesus. ‘You answer my question and I’ll answer yours. You remember John the Baptist; was he God’s messenger, or just another of these mob-leaders? You tell me.’

They didn’t know what to say… They were frightened of the crowd, for everybody thought that John was one of God’s messengers.

‘We don’t know,’ they said at last.

‘Well, I’m not telling you, then, who gave me power to do what I’m doing,’ said Jesus…

The Jewish leaders now made up their minds to get hold of Jesus,… but they were frightened of the crowd; so they left Jesus and went away. 

Mk. 11. 27-33, 12. 1-12.

Rather than answer their question, which he suspected was not really a genuine question, but one intended to trap him (he didn’t intend to be caught out as simply as that), Jesus had told them a parable about a landowner who let out his estate to farmers when he went abroad. At harvest-time, he sent a slave for his share of the market, but they beat the slave and sent him away empty-handed. So he sent another slave, but the farmers hit him on the head and shouted insults at him. So the landowner sent his only son, thinking that they would respect him. But the farmers saw this as an opportunity to claim the estates for themselves, so they killed him and threw his body outside the walls of the estate. Jesus then asked them what the landowner would do, answering his own question by telling them that the landowner would come himself and destroy the farmers and give the estate to others.

In challenging his critics, he adapted a story which Isaiah had once told to his people about a farm where only wild grapes would grow. The Jewish leaders would recognise immediately what he was doing and also see that the estate was a picture of the Jewish people and that he was criticising them directly by casting them as the farmers who had wanted to take over the estate and exploit it for themselves.; the Jewish leaders were now making the Temple their temple, not God’s. They weren’t asking what God really wanted them to do. No wonder that, then and there, they made up their minds that they weren’t having any more radical talk like this, and resolved to get rid of him somehow. If this took place in October, by the spring they were ready for him.


They were frightened that the common people would take him seriously, as they had John the Baptist. If they did, the whole Jewish way of life and their leadership hopes would disappear, or be changed into something its current leadership could hardly recognise. The Jewish leaders saw his intentions more clearly than his own friends did. If this incident took place in October, by the spring they were ready for him. They caught him at night in the orchard on the side of the Mount of Olives. His trial and execution could happen swiftly afterwards.


The Genuine Jerusalem and the ‘trump of God’: Part three – Struggles for Independence.   Leave a comment


From the top: Caesarea, The Wilderness of Judaea, Miriam’s Gate, Jerusalem

The Resurgence of Jewish Nationalism: The Maccabees

It seems that, in the interests of peace and unity in his Syro-Hellenic empire, Antiochus was trying to eradicate Jewish nationalism, if not the Jewish nation itself, in what would have been an act of genocide of unprecedented proportions. He both underestimated the strength of Jewish national feeling, supposing that their attitude towards religion was much the same as that of the Greeks, and over-estimated Jewish support for his attempt to introduce Hellenistic culture. Not all among the upper classes opposed it, certainly, and there were even those among the priests who supported Antiochus’ general policy, though perhaps more from weak-mindedness than on principle. Opposed to them were the Hasidim, the ‘pious’, who in contrast to those who had abandoned the holy covenant for a covenant with the Gentiles. The Hasidim saw themselves as mighty warriors of Israel who chose to die rather than profane the holy covenant. They first took part in passive resistance, but many then joined the more militant Maccabees to help them to restore the Temple and to regain their right to the observance of their religion.  Mattathias, the leader of this rebel group, was the head of a priestly family who lived near Jerusalem. He had five sons, but it was Judas ‘Maccabeus’, a nickname deriving from a Hebrew word for ‘hammer’, who emerged as their military leader.

One of the first signs of revolt against Antiochus was an incident in the Temple itself. Mattathias saw one of his own people, a Jew, preparing to take part in a service of sacrifice to the heathen god. Mattathias struck him down and, turning to the Syrian guard, killed him. For their immediate safety, he and his sons fled to the hills where they gathered around them a strong resistance movement. From the hills, Judas laid raid after raid against the Syrians, making their occupation of Judaea more and more dangerous and hazardous. They organised themselves into guerilla army, destroying altars and forcibly circumcising babies. They campaigned both against Hellenising Jews and persecuting Gentiles (1 Macc. 2. 1-48). In the midst of all the fighting, Judas regularly assembled his followers to observe the Jewish religious ceremonies, to watch and pray, and to read the Divine Law, the Torah.


It was therefore hardly surprising that the fiercest reaction to Antiochus’ policy came from the Maccabees under Judas’ leadership. Their first aim was the regaining of freedom to obey the Jewish law and the recovery and purification of the temple. This was achieved after two years of fighting in 166-165 (1 Macc. 3. 10-4, 35), In December of 164 BC, Judas and his followers recaptured the temple and the priests reconsecrated the Holy Place, erecting new altars to the true God. It was also now protected by external fortifications, which were complemented by a permanent guard provided by the Maccabees. The colourful Jewish festival of Hannuka, also known as the Feast of Lights, commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 165 BC.  It is said that when the perpetual lamp of the Temple had to be re-lit, only one day’s supply of non-desecrated oil could be found but miraculously this oil lasted eight days until a fresh supply could be brought. This is why the festival lasts for eight days and is commonly known as The Feast of Lights. The day which sees the start of the festival is the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the ninth month, which can fall on any day in December. The central part of the ceremony is the lighting of a candle on the eight-branched candelabra on the first day, with an additional candle lit on each of the seven successive days recalling the eight days of light provided by the miraculous oil when the Temple was re-dedicated. In 163 BC Judas’ campaign of resistance was extended to the defence of Jews resident among the surrounding Gentiles (I Macc. 5). The Syrians counter-attacked successfully, but the death of Antiochus forced them into offering terms to the Jews, allowing to live by their laws as they did before (I Macc. 6. 59).

The Pharisees also began to develop in this post-exilic period, fostering a lay spirituality for the whole nation, thus ensuring Israel’s continuity after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. The Essenes, a group referred to by Philo, Josephus and Pliny the Elder, and the related Qumran community broke away from the official orthodoxy of the temple and priesthood in the belief that the future lay with the ‘elect’, separated from the pollutions of the world. The movement of which the community at Qumran formed a part may be seen as an extreme form of Pharisaism, taking the principle of separation to new heights. It probably originated during the Maccabean period. Details of the community are provided by the site itself and two documents containing regulations, found in what came to be known as the Dead Sea scrolls. These documents are known as ‘the Community rule’, formerly called the Manual of Discipline, and ‘the Damascus Rule’, so-called because it describes a group which migrated to Damascus and entered into a new covenant. The latter document was found in the Cairo synagogue, but fragments have also turned up at Qumran; it probably represents a different stage in the development of the community. A third document, ‘The War Rule’, describes the final battle between the spirits of light and darkness, which would be paralleled on earth by a similar battle before a final victory was won.


These future expectations helped to condition the day-to-day life of the sect and were an important reason for their continued purity. Their negative attitude to the rest of Judaism around them led to a rejection of the traditional calendar and of temple worship. Their own worship centred on the common meal, which probably represented the eschatological feast that would be celebrated in the last days. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and their contents at first led to some exaggerated ideas about the significance of the Qumran sect in relation to Christianity. In fact, very few direct connections between the two can be demonstrated, and none on matters of central importance. A reading of the scrolls alone will make it quite clear that their main importance is in the light that they shed on the different forms of Judaism to be found at the beginning of the Christian era.

The death of Menelaus, one of the leading Hellenising Jews led to the victory of the Hasidim over the priesthood. The Maccabees, however, continued to resist the Hellenising high priest, Alcimus, who had begun his high priesthood by murdering sixty of the Hasidim. The Maccabees defeated the Syrian Army sent to support him at Adasa in 160 BC. II Maccabees ends with this victory, but two months later the Syrians killed Judas in battle and re-occupied Judaea. The Maccabees fled to the wilderness to regroup under Judas’ brother, Jonathan; Alcimus died and the Syrians departed. For two years there was peace in Jerusalem and in Judah. But now the Maccabees wanted nothing less than political freedom, and the Hellenists did not feel secure while they could be harried from the wilderness. They asked the Syrian general Bacchides to capture Jonathan (157 BC), but Bacchides was defeated and made a final peace with Jonathan, who settled at Michmash, a stronghold north-east of Jerusalem (I Macc. 9. 73; see map above). Like the judges of old, he began to judge the people, and he destroyed the ungodly out of Israel. The Maccabees had won, and until the arrival of the Romans in 63 BC, Judaea was virtually independent. The Seleucid empire was weakening as the Parthians became more powerful to the east. In 142 BC, the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel, and the people began to write in their documents and contracts, “in the first year of Simon the great high priest and commander and leader of the Jews”  (I Macc. 13. 41f.).

However, in 134 BC Simon and two of his sons were killed by Ptolemy. A third son, John, in command of the army near Gezer, heard the news in time to reach Jerusalem before Ptolemy, and John was welcomed as high priest and ruler (I Macc. 16. 11-22). The Seleucid king made a further successful attack on Jerusalem, but in 128 BC was killed by the Parthians, and the internal struggles within the Seleucid empire prevented any further persecution of the Jews. There were a series of civil wars fought for control of the temple between the Sadducean party and the Pharisees. Salome ruled for the Pharisees, appointing Hyrcanus II as her high priest, while his brother Aristobulus led the Sadducees. When Salome died in 67 BC, Aristobulus defeated Hyrcanus, becoming both king and high priest. Then Hyrcanus made fresh alliances, defeated Aristobulus and besieged him in Jerusalem.

Roman Intervention and Imperialism: Herod the Great.

This was the point at which the Roman general Pompey arrived in Syria. Both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus appealed to him to come to their aid. When he reached Jerusalem, some Jews opened the city gates to him, while others barricaded themselves in the temple-fortress. Pompey built a ramp on the north side and brought up his great siege-engines. For three months the strong temple walls stood up to the battering rams before a great tower gave way, and the legionaries poured through the breach. The city surrendered, but no fewer than twelve thousand people were reported to have died in the massacre that followed. Pompey himself broke into the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed to go, to find out what Jewish religion was all about, an act which the Jews could not forgive.

After his sacking and desecration of Jerusalem, Pompey removed Aristobulus to Rome, reinstating Hyrcanus as high priest. It was Hyrcanus’ ally Antipater who gained most, however, for the Romans relied on him to establish a stable government and later gave him the title of procurator of Judaea. His son was Herod the Great, and among his grandsons was Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee in the time of Jesus of Galilee. Once again, religious and political authority was separated and it is noteworthy that even in the independent Jewish state the combination of the two was not popular. The Jews seemed to prefer a secular state as, of course, was the case under Roman rule into the first century. Before we get to the Christian New Testament, these issues were reflected in the previous Hebrew literature, especially the book of Daniel, and in those books included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made at Alexandria, known to Christians as the Apocrypha. 

From the annexation of Palestine by Pompey in 63 BC down to the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-72, the struggles of the Jews against their new masters, the Romans, were accompanied and stimulated by a stream of militant apocalyptic literature. As it was addressed to the common people this propaganda made great play with the fantasy of an eschatological saviour, the Messiah. This fantasy was already very ancient; if for the prophets, the saviour who was to reign at the end of time was usually Yahweh himself, in the popular religion of the post-exilic period, the future Messiah seems to have played a considerable part. Originally imagined as a particularly wise, just and powerful monarch of Davidic descent who would restore the national fortunes, the Messiah became more superhuman as the political situation became more hopeless. In Daniel’s dream, the Son of Man who appears riding on the clouds seems to personify Israel as a whole. Already Daniel may have imagined him as a superhuman hero, and in the Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra, which belong in the main to the first century AD, the superhuman being is incontestably a man, a warrior-king endowed with unique, miraculous powers.

In the Book of Ezra the Messiah is depicted as the Lion of Judah at whose roar the last and worst beast – now the Roman eagle – bursts into flame and is consumed; and again as the Son of Man who first annihilates the multitudes of the heathen with the fire and storm of his breath and then, gathering together the lost ten tribes out of alien lands, establishes in Palestine a kingdom in which a reunited Israel can flourish in peace and glory. According to Baruch, there must come a time of terrible hardship and injustice, which is the time of the last and worst empire, the Roman. Then, just when evil has reached its greatest pitch, the Messiah will appear. A mighty warrior, he will rout and destroy the armies of the enemy; he will take captive the leader of the Romans and bring him to chains to Mount Zion, where he will put him to death; he will establish a kingdom which shall last to the end of the world. All the nations which have ever ruled over Israel will be put to the sword, and some members of the remaining nations will be subjected to the Chosen People. An age of bliss will begin in which pain, disease, untimely death, violence and strife, want and hunger will be unknown and in which the earth will yield its fruits ten-thousand-fold. Such a Kingdom was worth fighting for, and these apocalypses had at least established that in the course of bringing the Saints into their Kingdom the Messiah would show himself invincible in war.

Under the procurators, the conflict with Rome became more and more bitter. In 40 BC, the Parthians invaded Syria with the son of Aristobulus and pretender to the throne of Judah. He attracted strong support from the Judaeans, and within a short time, Judaea was in revolt. High priest Hyrcanus was captured and Herod was forced to leave Jerusalem secretly. He and his brother Phasael, who committed suicide, had been made tetrarchs of Judaea by Mark Antony following the murder of Caesar and defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 BC.  Herod was now forced to leave his family in the strong fortress of Masada and then fled to Petra, eventually making his way via Egypt and Rhodes to Rome, where he appealed for Antony’s support. The latter, …

… recalling Antipater’s hospitality and filled with admiration for the heroic character before him, decided on the spot that the man he had once made tetrarch should now be king of the Jews.


However, it was not until 37 BC that Herod was able to enter Jerusalem, escorted to his capital by a force of Roman legionaries. He continued to be popular with the Roman rulers, including the Emperor Octavian (now Augustus) and Agrippa, Augustus’ junior partner in ruling the Empire. He was able to secure the latter’s support for the Jews of the Dispersion in Asia Minor, who were being persecuted in the Greek cities where they now lived. Herod never enjoyed the same success in his relations with the Jews in Judaea. He was an Edomite and therefore could not combine the offices of king and high priest. The separation of the two offices served as a permanent reminder to his subjects that he was a usurper and the nominee of a foreign power. It was also a lasting contradiction of what the historian Josephus called the theocratic tradition of the Jews. Nevertheless, his achievements on the material level were far from negligible. He developed the economic resources of his kingdom, rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, and founded two new cities – the port of Caesarea, which took twelve years to complete, and a city in Samaria which he also named after Augustus. When severe famine struck Judaea in 25 BC, he acted promptly and vigorously, selling the gold and silver furnishings from his palace to buy corn from the Roman governor of Egypt. Notable among the concessions made by the Romans towards the Jews of the Dispersion was the right to contribute to the temple in Jerusalem. Herod’s reign seemed to characterise the desire for ‘good government’ which the Jews had longed for since the days of Saul, David and Solomon.


It is difficult to reconcile this vital and capable ruler with the tyrannical monster who, in the story told in Matt. 2. 16f. ordered the massacre of the innocents. This appears to have been a local incident, which the gospel-writer seems to have used to demonstrate the fulfilment of a prophecy and to emphasise the significance of the infant king Jesus as a very different ‘King of the Jews’ to Herod. The story is not recorded anywhere apart from the gospel, and a more historical view of Herod derives from the way in which he had to deal, on his death-bed, with a feud within his extended family. In 5-4 BC he was seriously ill when his son Antipater began plotting against him and his half-brothers, Archelaus and Philip, over the succession. Among the symptoms of Herod’s terminal illness were rapid swings in mood and delusions of persecution. In 4 BC, amid mounting pressures from the Pharisees and only a few days before his death, Herod had Antipater executed, and ordered the execution of a number of other leading nobles, either in order to prevent civil war after his death and/or so that the Romans would mistake the mourning of their families for mourning for him, demonstrating his popularity among his own people. He then issued his fourth and final will, under the terms of which the kingdom was to be divided between three of his remaining sons. Archelaus, only eighteen, was to be king of Judaea, Edom and Samaria; his brother Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Transjordan; their half-brother, Philip, tetrarch of the north-eastern territories of the kingdom. The kingdom remained divided into these tetrarchies, with a succession of Roman governors as ‘procurators’ of Judaea (see below), the fifth and most infamous of which was, of course, Pontius Pilate, responsible, together with the Judaean Sanhedrin, for the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.


(to be continued)

The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’ – Part Two: Empires and Exiles…   Leave a comment

The Decline and Break-up of Israel:

Under the rule of David and Solomon, Israel was more than simply a united kingdom; the territories amounted to an empire. But, just as it would be a gross anachronistic error to equate an ancient empire, or kingdom, with a modern nation-state, it would also be wrong to confuse the multi-ethnic and multi-faith city of Jerusalem in the tenth century BC with a complex hub of government, administration and communications in the twenty-first century.  Modern capitals, and the ‘temples’ within them, are perhaps less ‘magical’ and ‘mystical’ than were ancient ‘capitals’, in an era in which the ideals of democracy are more important, and the exercise of power far less arbitrary. The idea of a city being ‘eternal’ in religious or cultural terms is not incompatible with it being a modern political capital, provided that both religious and political leaders of all traditions, identities and parties are able to demonstrate their mutual respect and shared loyalty to the city. The Old Testament prophets issued continual warnings to both kings and peoples not to persecute or exclude gentiles from the city and the temple courts. When they were ignored, they warned that what would result would be the destruction of Jerusalem, the desolation of its temple and the disintegration of its peoples.

The political history of Israel in the period 922-587 B.C. is characterised by increasingly rapid decline, punctuated by brief periods of partial recovery but ending in total annihilation. This fate befell not only Israel but all her neighbours as well. The rise of new centres of imperialism in Mesopotamia probably made this probable, but not inevitable. It was a process which was determined and accelerated by the foolish policies frequently pursued by the victims. Rehoboam (922-915), Solomon’s son and successor, chose to ignore the weakness of his position in the northern part of his kingdom, rejecting the demands for reform made by the northern tribes. All at once, the simmering resentment they felt at being ruled by Judaean, which had troubled both David and Solomon, boiled over into a full-scale insurrection. They declared their independence and selected Jeroboam, their former champion who had just returned from exile in Egypt, as their first king (I Kings 12. 1-20).


The new kingdom took for itself the name of Israel, which had previously been used to designate the whole undivided kingdom. The remnant in the south, remaining loyal to the dynasty of David, became known as Judah. With this division, Jerusalem was no longer the capital of Israel, now divided into two independent kingdoms, bitterly hostile to each other, and so the era of the Israelite empire was over. Of the two kingdoms, Israel was both the larger and the more prosperous. It included most of the larger Canaanite cities, the main trade routes, and the best land on both sides of the Jordan. Judah, by comparison, was a small state in the hills, remote from the main roads and sources of wealth. This remoteness made it strategically and economically less important to the great empires which, in turn, enabled it to survive for more than a century longer than its northern neighbour.

Jeroboam made certain religious changes in an attempt to discourage the annual pilgrimages which his subjects continued to make, in spite of the political schism, to Jerusalem. He established two royal temples of his own at the ancient sanctuaries of Bethel and Dan, where the God of Israel had been worshipped for centuries. Here, as a kind of compensation for the ark, he set up golden bull images, not originally intended to represent pagan deities, but which later became centres of a debased, pagan worship (Hos. 8. 3 f.; 10.5; 13.2). At the beginning of the ninth century,  there were decades of open ‘civil’ war in the rump kingdoms of Palestine and Syria, with first Judah and then Israel allying with the Aramaean kingdom of Damascus to attack the other.


Both countries were, however, to enjoy one final period of prosperity. Damascus, Israel’s traditional enemy, was destroyed by the Assyrian king in 802, and thereafter Assyria left Syria and Palestine in peace for half a century. During the long reigns of Jeroboam II (786-746) in Israel and Uzziah (783-742) in Judah, both countries made swift recoveries. Jeroboam recovered the whole of his northern and trans-Jordan territories at the expense of Damascus. Judah had already reconquered Edom in the early eighth century and went on to make further conquests (II Chronicles 26. 6-15). Taken together, the two kingdoms were almost as extensive as Solomon’s empire had been, but they remained as separate kingdoms. Later in the century, however, Hoshea, King of Israel, made the mistake of withholding tribute from the Assyrian throne of Shalmaneser (727-722), while at the same time making a treaty with a minor ‘king’ in Egypt. Shalmaneser attacked Israel in 724 and besieged its capital, Samaria. After two years, Samaria fell to Sargon II, succeeding Shalmaneser, and Sargon deported a large number of the inhabitants of Israel to other parts of his empire, replacing them with other ethnicities (II Kings 17. 5 f., 24). Judaean independence continued for more than a century until the defeat and death of Josiah by the Egyptians in 609. Judah again passed under foreign control, this time that of Egypt. With the defeat of the Egyptians by Nebuchadnezzar (605-562), at the battle of Carchemish in 605 B.C., Judah fell into the hands of the Babylonians, but continued intrigues with the Egyptians, so that in 597 Nebuchadnezzar arrived in Judah and besieged Jerusalem, which surrendered to him. The young king of Judah was deported to Babylon together with a great number of the upper classes of Judaean society. Fresh intrigues with Egypt led the Babylonians to invade once more in 588, devastating the entire country and destroying its cities. In 587 Jerusalem itself was captured and destroyed, together with the temple. King Zedekiah, a puppet king, was forced to witness the execution of his sons and was taken to Babylonia with many of his people (II Kings 25. 1-21).

So, like the people of Israel following the Assyrian deportations in the previous century, the Judaean people were now also torn in two. It is difficult to say which was in the worse plight; the exiles in Babylonia, deprived, it seemed, of the hope of ever returning to their homes, or the wretched lower classes, left mainly to their own devices in a land devastated, its crops ruined and its houses destroyed, a prey to hunger and disease and to the depredations of wild beasts and of the Edomite tribes from the south who raided their land, anxious to gain revenge on their former oppressors.

God’s ‘Chosen People’ and the Returning ‘Remnant’:


What so sharply distinguished the Jews from the other peoples of the ancient world was their attitude towards history and in particular towards their own role in history. The Jews were alone in combining an uncompromising monotheism with an unshakable conviction that they themselves were the Chosen People of the one true God. At least since the exodus from Egypt, they had believed that the will of Yahweh was concentrated upon on Israel, that Israel alone was charged with the realisation of that will. At least since the days of the Prophets, they had been convinced that Yahweh was no mere national god, however powerful, but the one and only God, the omnipotent Lord of History who controlled the destinies of all nations. There were many who, like the ‘Second Isaiah’, felt that divine election imposed a special moral responsibility upon them, an obligation to show justice and mercy in their dealings with all men, including the poor of their own nation. In their view, the divinely appointed task of Israel was to enlighten the Gentiles and so carry God’s salvation to the ends of the earth. But alongside this ethical interpretation, there existed another which became ever more attractive as the fervour of an ancient nationalism was subjected to the shock and strain of repeated defeats, deportations and dispersals. Precisely because they were so sure of being the Chosen People, Jews tended to react to peril, oppression and hardship by fantasies of the total triumph and boundless prosperity which Yahweh, out of his omnipotence, would bestow upon his Elect in the fulness of time.

Already in the Prophetic Books of the Old Testament, some of them dating from the eighth century BC, there were passages that foretold how out of an immense cosmic catastrophe, there would arise a Palestine which would be nothing less than a new Eden, Paradise Regained, to borrow from John Milton. Due to their neglect of Yahweh the Chosen People would have to be punished by famine and pestilence, war and captivity, they must indeed be subjected to a shifting judgement so severe that it would effect a clean break with a guilty past. There must indeed be a Day of Wrath when sun and moon and stars would be darkened, the heavens would be rolled together and the earth would be shaken. There must be a Judgement when the disbelievers – those in Israel who have not trusted in the Lord and also Israel’s enemies, the heathen nations, would be judged and cast down, if not utterly destroyed. But this would not be the end, a remnant would return from exile, and through that remnant, the divine purpose would be accomplished.

When the nation would be regenerated and reformed, Yahweh would cease from vengeance and become the Deliverer. The righteous remnant would be assembled once more in Palestine and Yahweh would dwell among them as ruler and judge. He would reign from a rebuilt Jerusalem, a Zion which has become the spiritual capital of the world, where wild and dangerous beasts have become tame and harmless. The moon will rise as the sun and the sun’s light will be increased sevenfold.  Deserts and wastelands will become fertile and beautiful. There will be an abundance of water and provender for the flocks and herds, for men, there will be an abundance of water, corn, water, fish and fruit; men and flocks and herds will multiply exceedingly. Freed from the disease and sorrow of every kind, doing no more iniquity but living according to the law of Yahweh now written in their hearts, the Chosen People will live in joy and gladness.

The dream of a ‘homeland’ in Palestine:


In the period 312 to 63 BC, the Jewish people were involved in a struggle for a united, independent homeland, a period when the Palestinian Jews attempted to establish their own state and live according to their own religious conscience, while the Jews abroad were forced to work out for themselves how they should live and express their faith in order to bear clear witness to their faith in the alien, dominant Greek, or Hellenic culture around them. In the apocalypses of this period, which were directed to the lower strata of the Jewish population as a form of nationalist propaganda, the tone is cruder and more boastful than in the earlier literature. This was already striking in the earliest apocalypse of the period, the vision or dream which occupies Chapter VII of the Book of Daniel and which was composed about the year 165 BC, at a particularly critical moment in Jewish history. For more than three centuries, since the end of the Babylonian exile, the Jews in exile had enjoyed a measure of peace and security, at first under Persian, later under Ptolemaic rule; but the situation changed when, in the second century BC, Palestine passed into the hands of the Syro-Greek dynasty of the Seleucids.  From 198 BC, Palestine belonged to the Seleucids, taking their name from Seleucus, one of Alexander the Great’s officers who had established himself as ruler over the eastern part of Alexander’s empire in 312 BC and by 301 had gained most of what is part of Turkey, as well as Antioch in Syria, which he named as his capital. Seleucus’ rival was Ptolemy, who had annexed Palestine following Alexander’s death, starting a struggle between ‘the kings in the north’ and ‘the kings in the south’, as described in chapter 11 of the Book of Daniel.

For nearly a century Palestine had been the battleground between these opposing forces and was frequently conquered and reconquered until the Seleucid Antiochus III took all Palestine, concluding a treaty with Ptolemy V. There had been Jews in Egypt since the time of Jeremiah (Jer. 43, 5ff.), and in 312 BC, Ptolemy I had settled captives in Alexandria, where they were greatly influenced by the Greek way of life. Ptolemy II had had the Hebrew scriptures translated into Greek for the benefit of the new Greek-speaking Jews of the city. Judea itself was also influenced by the Hellenistic way of life, founded on the Greek polis (city), with its urban civilisation and tradition of training young men in athletic prowess and literary skills. The Jews were bitterly divided, for while the worldly upper-classes eagerly adopted Greek manners and customs, the common people clung all the more resolutely to the faith of their forefathers.

In 169 BC, Antiochus IV campaigned in Egypt, aiming to extend and unify his kingdom by including Judaea.  When the Seleucid monarch tried to intervene on behalf of the pro-Greek party and went so far as to forbid all Jewish religious observances, the response was the Maccabean revolt. Antiochus proclaimed himself by title Epiphanes meaning ‘God made manifest’. The Jews could never subscribe to this for their God was Yahweh, who had been their shield and saviour from earliest times. Upon hearing that Judaea was in revolt, Antiochus raided and took control of Jerusalem, plundering houses, desecrating the Holy of Holies in the Temple, rededicating it to Zeus, as well as profaning the fortress by setting up his own citadel overlooking the Temple (Dan. 11. 30). He then instituted a campaign to unify his empire and rid the region of all evidence of the Jewish faith, slaughtering large numbers of Jews in the process, whom he then left under a governor who was more barbarous than the man who appointed him (II Macc. 5. 22).  He also decreed in Palestine (I Macc. 1. 4ff.) that all should be one people, and that each should give up his customs. He wrote to the Jews, directing them, on pain of death, …

… to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and feasts, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised.   

In the dream in the Book of Daniel, composed at the height of the revolt, four beasts symbolise four successive world-powers, the Babylonian, the (unhistorical) Median, the Persian and the Greek, the last of which shall be more diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces. When this empire, in turn, was overthrown Israel, personified as the ‘Son of Man’,

… came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of Days… And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away… The greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven was given to the people of the saints of the most High…

This goes much further than any of the Prophets beforehand: for the first time, the glorious future kingdom is imagined as embracing not simply Palestine but the whole world. Already here one can recognise the paradigm of what was to become and to remain the central ‘fantasy’ of revolutionary eschatology. The world is dominated by an evil, tyrannous power of boundless destructiveness, a power which is imagined not simply as human but as demonic. The tyranny of that power will become more and more outrageous, the sufferings of its victims more and more intolerable, until suddenly the hour will strike when the Saints of God are able to rise up and overthrow it. Then the saints themselves, the holy, chosen people who hitherto have groaned under the oppressor’s heel, will, in their turn, inherit dominion over the whole earth. This will be the culmination of history; the Kingdom of the Saints will not only surpass in glory all other previous kingdoms, it will have no successors.  It was thanks to this dream that Jewish apocalyptic, through its derivatives, held such a fascination for the discontented and frustrated of later ages, and continued to do so long after the Jews themselves had forgotten its very existence.

(to be continued…)

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