The Great Revolt

Jewish factions rebel against Roman rule in Palestine.

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Jews in Palestine launched two major revolts against the Roman Empire during the first and second centuries of the Common Era: the Great Revolt (66-73 C.E.), and the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 C.E.). The following article focuses on the Great Revolt, which led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

The [Great Revolt…] can be said to have been going on from the day the Romans first set foot in the Land of Israel [… ] yet full­-scale revolt did not break out until 66 C. E.

The proximate cause was a series of acts by the procurator Gessius Florus (64‑66 C.E.) which displayed disrespect for Jew­ish religious sensibilities. Widespread strife broke out in Jeru­salem, and, as a consequence, some of the priests decided to suspend the offering on behalf of the emperor, an action tanta­mount to declaring open revolt.

The efforts of King Agrippa II, the leading priests, and some of the Pharisees to stem the incipient revolt failed. Jerusalem was soon in the hands of the rebels. This led, in turn, to uprisings throughout the country, where Jews battled their non‑Jewish neighbors for the upper hand. Cestius Gallus, the governor of Syria, attempted to put down the revolt, but his forces were routed by the Jews.

Military commanderswere now assigned to the entire coun­try, to prepare for the expected Roman attack. Among them was the future historian Josephus, who commanded Jewish forces in the Galilee. Judging from his experiences, duly appointed commanders had to contend with competition from a variety of popular, even semi‑messianic, leaders.

As this illustrates, the rebels did not constitute a uniform group. Many different forces were involved in the revolt. Among them were the Sicarii, known in the years before the war for having assassinated collaborators with the Romans with short daggers (Latin sica) which they kept hidden under their garments. The followers of Simeon bar Giora regarded their leader as a messianic figure, and in his name seem to have committed violence not only against the Romans but against other groups of rebels. The Zealots may have had their origins in the groups that had continuously struggled against Rome since the beginning of Roman rule in Palestine, but according to many scholars they only became an organized faction at the start of the revolt.

The inability of the various rebel forces to work together was one of the major reasons why the revolt did not succeed. At the same time, it must be recognized that ultimately, even if united, the Jews could not have stood up to Rome's superior military forces and unlimited resources.

The Roman emperor Nero (54‑68 C.E.) appointed the experienced general Vespasian to lead the attack on Judea. With the help of his son Titus, Vespasian assembled three legions and several contingents of auxiliary forces totaling some sixty thou­sand men. By the end of 67 C.E., Vespasian had taken Galilee. Josephus himself surrendered to the Romans at Jotapata.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.