What a little moon can do: Tensions between Romans and Jews in first century Judea (NT 2.4)

The first century was marked by a series of tensions between certain Roman authorities and some Judeans that, in some ways, ultimately culminated in the Judean war and the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in 70 CE. While some Roman governors (procurators) of Judea seemed somewhat attentive to the peculiarities of Judean culture, including its monotheism and some of its laws, others were less so.

Thus, for instance, Josephus relates a story about how the procurator or prefect Pilate (who is also known for his execution of Jesus in about 30 CE) attempted to have Roman standards (decorative shields) with images of the emperor placed within the city walls of Jerusalem (War 2. 169-171 //Antiquities 18.55). (There is a useful online article about Pilate). According to Josephus, the result was a significant, non-violent sit-in by a large crowd of Judeans who were greatly offended by the abrogation of Jewish laws concerning images. When Pilate decided he would have his guards surround the crowds and prepare to threaten death, the response by the Judeans was the extension of their necks in Josephus telling: we’ll die for our God’s laws. Pilate gave in this time, but this sort of incident could not be good for Roman public relations in Jerusalem and Judea. In his histories, Josephus recounts a number of other incidents involving clashes, some more violent than this one with Pilate, between Romans and inhabitants in this Roman province.

Among these incidents is one involving a less than polite Roman soldier in the time of procurator Cumanus (c. 48 CE), whose moon and accompanying rude noises (William Whiston’s translation is somewhat more restrained) ended up resulting in a riot and the death of some Judeans in the crowds during the feast of Passover (Josephus may be exaggerating with his 10,000 dead, though):

“[W]hen the multitude were come together to Jerusalem, to the feast of unleavened bread, and a Roman cohort stood over the cloisters of the temple (for they always were armed, and kept guard at the festivals, to prevent any innovation which the multitude thus gathered together might make), one of the soldiers pulled back his garment, and cowering down after an indecent manner, turned his breech to the Jews, and spake such words as you might expect upon such a posture. At this the whole multitude had indignation, and made a clamor to Cumanus, that he would punish the soldier. The rasher part of the youth, and such as were naturally the most tumultuous, fell to fighting, and caught up stones, and threw them at the soldiers. Upon which Cumanus was afraid lest all the people should make an assault upon him, and sent to call for more armed men, who, when they came in great numbers into the cloisters, the Jews were in a very great consternation. Being beaten out of the temple, they ran into the city. The violence with which they crowded to get out was so great that they trod upon each other, and squeezed one another, till ten thousand of them were killed, insomuch that this feast became the cause of mourning to the whole nation, and every family lamented their own relations” (War 2.223-227; the translation here is William Whiston’s as cited on PACE (with punctuation slightly revised), which also supplies the parallel passage in Josephus’ Antiquities.

These are just two examples of what repeated itself at certain points, contributing to what would become a full revolt in 66 CE.

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