Via Dolorosa in the Old City at dawn
If you walk into any Roman (Latin) Rite Catholic parish church building around the world, you will find a series of 14 places, usually 7 along one wall of the long axis of the church and 7 along the opposite wall, where the key events in Jesus’ Passion (final suffering) and death are memorialized. The artistic representations of the events can be three-dimensional tableaux, painting, stamped metal, woven material, or sometimes even just a Roman numeral on the wall. Nearly all of the events depicted are taken directly from the Gospel narratives, although a couple of the incidents are based on local traditions from Jerusalem. In modern times these are known as the Stations of the Cross, and they originated in pilgrimages here in Jerusalem, as pilgrims would seek to retrace the actual route that Jesus followed. Why “seek” to retrace? The actual route is not firmly established for the early stations. Since the route has changed over the centuries, this has been a chronic problem. It is the whole issue of walking over rubble. In performing the ritual, of course, it would be preferable for each station to be at its exact historic location, but that has only been established for the last few stations.
The modern visitor walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, which today exceeds in age the oldest historic sites in North America, is passing through the most recent architectural scene. It is a radically different scene from the first century AD. The colorful narrow streets, small buildings, and modest architecture in today’s Old City represent a legacy of reduced circumstances in the past half-millennium that culminated in Jerusalem’s demographic, economic, and cultural decline to a near-backwater a century and a half ago.
By contrast, in the early years of the first century AD the Roman provinces of the eastern Mediterranean were the wealthiest in the Empire by a good margin. Demographically, Jews were the largest single ethnic group in the beginning years of the Roman Empire (first centuries BC and AD). Within this time the Roman-allied Herod “the Great” was an inveterate builder of near-megalomaniac proportions, and he lavished attention and resources on Jerusalem. As a result, as Jesus was led through a public humiliation to his crucifixion, the public spaces he passed through were not only different, but on a much grander scale and quality than today. However grand the ancient structures were 2,000 years ago, they nearly all ended up as rubble under the feet of any visitor only decades later, and what little survived was destroyed again early in the second century AD.
Archeological investigation during the last 100 years has confirmed and improved our understanding of the location of features of the late Second Temple period or the first century AD. Today, maps and drawing are available to allow a visitor to see the current Old City superimposed onto the city at the time of Jesus. The irony is that artists or film-makers striving for “authenticity” in depicting the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time have not infrequently substituted the Jerusalem of 500 years ago for the Jerusalem of 2,000 years ago. Despite these misconceptions of our own time, knowledge of the place of crucifixion was preserved in Jerusalem and communicated to pilgrims.
The problem for setting a true route of the Stations has been lack of knowledge or mistaken ideas about the location of the Praetorium, the residence of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate and the place of Jesus’ condemnation. The Praetorium represents the starting point for anyone wishing to follow the route of Jesus’ Passion. The destruction of landmarks from various conquests, earthquakes, and several population shifts from Jerusalem did not help. Recent archeology has cleared up several misconceptions, and is close to reaching a firm conclusion about the location of the Praetorium among a few candidates.
A fixed route for pilgrims to pray along a presumed route of Jesus’ Passion is documented in the fifth to seventh centuries, and a different route in the eighth to twelfth centuries. In 1342 the Franciscans were assigned custody of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem, and the current route along the Via Dolorosa (Street of Sorrows) became the standard. In a democratizing movement, the Franciscans at first built outdoor shrines in Europe and elsewhere to enable participation by those who could not make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. By 1686 they petitioned Pope Innocent XI, who granted them permission to place the stations inside churches they administered. A few decades later permission was granted to have stations in all Latin Rite churches.
The idea of the Stations is to conduct a meditation of prayer in a spirit of reparation for the sufferings and insults that Jesus endured. The Stations are observed particularly during Lent, the penitential season. The blame is focused on sin, and particularly sin by the penitent. The Stations are also know as the via crucis, the way or path of the cross. The Christian symbol of the cross is so familiar and ubiquitous (in places where it is not banned) that it has lost its power to shock. The crucis (cross), of course, was a Roman instrument of torture, designed to keep its victims alive as long as they could continue to inflict pain on themselves. The victim alternated periods of suspension (“hanging” on the cross), which prevented breathing, with extending himself upright to breathe at the expense of excruciating pain to the nailed points of attachment. The victim was torturing himself, and it was all in vain anyway because death was inevitable once the process began. In that specific way it was thought to be so degrading as well as painful to its victims that Roman citizens could not be crucified (a quick beheading was the option).
The basic principle behind meditation on the Stations of the Cross is that one who loves is willing to undergo great suffering for the beloved. In an important sense that willingness is the definitive test to differentiate love, properly understood, from its less expensive and more convenient substitutes. All religions known until the time of the Jews had gods that made people suffer, but the Christian belief system proposed a god that underwent suffering for people, the lesser creatures he himself brought about and was responsible for sustaining. That alone made it subversive, for it set a higher standard for the worshipped as well as the worshippers.
In praying the Stations, the key to making the unnatural combination of the profoundly meditative and yet “earthy” elements of suffering work is to have the proper atmosphere. And the atmosphere is a challenge along the traditional route because of crowding and the juxtaposition of the sacred and the secular. The streets are narrow, and along some sections lined with shops. Most of the shops in the Christian Quarter, including the route of the Stations, are operated by Muslims, and in the balance between commerce and the devotional, their interests are unambiguous.
To have pilgrim groups in the middle of the day fill up the streets and clog up foot traffic, add to the noise, and block customer access is not an attractive prospect, to say the least. On the other hand, to come from halfway across the world and have the opportunity to perform a familiar and valued religious ritual at the original site blocked or detracted from by ordinary commercial concerns is not attractive either. The recent rise in religious travel to the Holy Land has intensified this dilemma, and the projected further increases certainly pose a big challenge.
Steve Ray’s solution for our Footprints group, of course, is simply to arrive earlier than anyone else. In the predawn darkness nearly all our group gathers in the Notre Dame guesthouse lobby. We load the coaches for the short ride to assemble on the edge of the Muslim Quarter at St. Steven’s or Lion Gate through the walls of the Old City. Coaches that unload passengers there partially block the street, so we quickly disembark and gather busload by busload on the broad sidewalk just outside the walls. As the morning light slowly builds, deliverymen, maintenance workers, and shopkeepers absentmindedly pass by on the way to their tasks. We pass through the arched gate, climb the worn steps of a narrow street, and quickly reach the Via Dolorosa.
Our pilgrimage priest Fr. Joseph leads the prayers and scripture readings, and the pilgrims respond. In order to avoid waking residents of the Old City at this early hour, we use earphones that receive a transmission from Fr. Joseph, and we respond softly. It is possible for a hundred people to speak in unison quietly, and we do so. A couple of times individuals out on early errands come around a corner and appear startled that such a large group has come to share their vicinity so quietly. The effect of the quiet on the pilgrims is in keeping with the meditative nature of the Stations, but the aerobic element and the uniqueness of the setting supply the “earthy” element. On a transit between stations I see a tall limestone spire of a church bell-tower illuminated to a fiery yellowish-red by the horizontal rays of the rising sun. I snap a picture, but the auto exposure is confused by the difference between the blue-black in the dim canyon-like position of a narrow street we are standing in contrasted with the blaze of light above. I don’t have time to fiddle with camera adjustments and so I just enjoy the effect rather than attempt to capture it.
The route of the Stations of the Cross, of course, ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the place where our stay in Jerusalem began. As we arrive in the small courtyard we find it completely empty, and the double doors of the left arch wide open. We enter, and are able to climb the stone stairs of the entry to the upper alcove that provides access to the top of the hill or mound of Calvary at Golgotha. We are able to kneel at the base of the altar and reach down through a hole to touch the rock of Calvary. In early centuries pilgrims would chisel off pieces of Calvary, so this system was instituted and it has cured the problem of diminishing the rock of Calvary. We head back for Mass in Notre Dame of Jerusalem Chapel, and due to some excellent connections in the group manage to get breakfast hours extended.
Stairs in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre leading to a chapel at the top of the hill or mound of Calvary. The inscription is John 19:17: Et bajulans sibi crucem exivit in eum qui dicitur calvariae locum Hebraice Golgotha ubi crucifixerunt eum. (And carrying his own cross he went out to that place which is called Calvary or in Hebrew Golgotha where he was crucified).
The remainder of this Monday has been designated as an “optional” day of activity. The optional day allows participants on these pilgrimages the opportunity to spend a quiet time in a more meditative mode, perhaps wandering about the Old City on their own, or alternatively, to take in even more sights and sites in an optional excursion. It’s an adventurous group, because nearly everyone has opted to go to the Israel Museum, and then head down to Jericho in Palestine, and finally the Dead Sea. And the themes of suffering, modern memory, and written scripture will follow along.
One and a Half Capitals in a Non-Capital
We load the coaches and are headed for the Israel Museum. On the way we pass the buildings for most of the major governmental institutions of Israel—the legislature (Knesset), the Supreme Court, the official residences for the President and the Prime Minister, the Bank of Israel, etc. The buildings are attractive, modern structures, well landscaped. These are the normal, ordinary features of a national capital. Except, of course, that few things are ordinary in this part of the world. The UN partition plan for Arab Palestine and Jewish Palestine did not extend to Jerusalem. Given all the non-reconcilable interests, obvious even today, the 1947 UN General Assembly Resolution on partition called for the Jerusalem region to be a corpus separatum placed under United Nations control, with partial autonomy based on neighborhood/ethnicity. It was to be an idealistic experiment in, literally, an international city.
In the initial stage following the announcement of the entire partition plan, the Jewish side accepted, but the other directly involved parties rejected an international Jerusalem. In the event, all parties proceeded with a different course of action—war. However, the UN never rescinded the resolution on Jerusalem, and in fact later reaffirmed it, so that it retains a certain status in the artificial world of diplomacy.
In reality the status of Jerusalem has been seen nearly universally as a “final stage” negotiation issue between the state of Israel and a Palestinian Arab state. A couple of the abortive peace plans of the last generation actually achieved a certain amount of narrowing of differences between the parties on the Jerusalem issue. Still, UN member nations do not officially “recognize” Jerusalem as a national capital and do not place their embassies there. On the other hand, Jerusalem is where all the functions of the nation state of Israel happen. Preparations and infrastructure for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem have evolved too.
Another indicator of the complex environment of non-resolution: the land on which the Knesset is built is not owned by the Israeli government, but actually is leased from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. Nothing simple.
The Israel Museum: Shrine of the Book and model of ancient Jerusalem
The Israel Museum hosts about a million visitors a year, about two-thirds of them Israeli residents, and the remainder tourists. There is a lot to see there, but the two things we have come to see are the most popular. The first is a spectacular model at the scale of 1:50 of ancient Jerusalem in 66 AD, just before the revolt against Imperial Rome. The model uses native stone, is topographically correct, and covers nearly an acre. The project was begun by Holyland Hotel owner Hans Kroch in 1962 and opened to the public in 1966. At the time West Jerusalem within Israel was cut off from the Old City and had no historical monument of its crucial, formative past. Michael Avi-Yonah, professor of Archaeology at the Hebrew University, produced the model and provided its architectural design. Our guide Amer had studied under some of the specialists he trained. In one sense the model is not finished yet, and will not be for the indefinite future. Amer tells us that after each archeological field season an integrated debriefing on significant new findings is held. Older ideas about ancient Jerusalem are corrected and new discoveries of previously unknown features are incorporated into the model, so that it becomes more and more accurate over time.
Israel Museum of 1:50 scale model of Jerusalem at about 66 AD, just before the Roman-Jewish War. The model is topographically accurate and uses the native stone with which Jerusalem was built. Note the strong defensive perimeter wall of the city in the foreground, especially when the base of the wall falls away to a valley or scarp as seen here. This view is from the west side of the city looking east across the palace grounds toward the Temple complex and Western Wall on the opposite side of the city to the left of center.
The second item of particular interest at Israel Museum is a section called the Shrine of the Book. Having a section of a national museum devoted to the major contribution of the Jewish people to human culture, the Hebrew Bible, was an idea so obvious that it had never happened before. When the Jewish people began to codify their spiritual traditions into a standard written form near the end of the First Temple period (586 BC) and the years following, it set off a chain of events resulting in arguably the most influential spiritual system in human history—the monotheistic, Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The earliest stages of this written scriptural development had physical and material dimensions, suitable for investigation and museum curation. It’s a part of the museum that certainly has a constituency today.
One standout collection in this part of the museum is a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls, recovered from the caves of Qumran. Before the Qumran collection, the earliest text of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) in Hebrew was dated to the 9th century AD. Until that time, devout Jews maintained an oral tradition for de-coding the way their unique writing system dealt with the text (consonants only). And Jews always followed strict rules for proper disposal of imperfect, worn, or damaged text copies of the scrolls of their scriptures, making ancient written texts rare.
The earliest written text of the combined Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (Old and New Testaments) in Koine Greek (the common language of the Mediterranean of the time) dates to the early fourth century AD. The chances of recovering earlier copies are remote, because one of the key demands Imperial Roman officials made of Christians when they were periodically rounded up for persecution was to turn over all subversive materials—i.e. their sacred books. At various times Roman official were quite serious about eliminating Christianity entirely—both the people and any physical manifestations of the belief system. People of today who critique the earliest believers for what amounts to poor record-keeping are being more than a little churlish. The issue of when a musty old text was written may seem the quintessential academic (read useless) question, but a great deal of significance for some sensitive, and live, issues of religion hangs on manuscript dates, as is case of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Qumran texts of the Hebrew Scriptures and the other writings recovered there were produced over a period from a few centuries BC to the first half of the first century AD. So the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls pushed back the date of the earliest written text of the Bible, either previously known in Greek or in Hebrew, by half a millennium to a millennium. Later in this day our Footprints group will visit Qumran National Park, the archeological site where the Dead Sea manuscripts were recovered in the late 1940s.
The scholarly issues associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls are numerous. Some of the more complicated technical matters have generated controversies that continue more than a half-century later. But the main findings are straightforward. The text of these ancient scrolls is virtually identical to the later manuscripts traditionally used as the basis for translating the Hebrew Scriptures. Theories that hypothesized a long, gradual evolution of the Biblical text during the last centuries BC had to be set aside. Actually such theories were not just set aside, they were eliminated in a particularly sudden and definitive way. Such clear, unambiguous answers don’t emerge often from archeology and the historical sciences.
The Dead Sea Scrolls provided another important piece of evidence about the early Hebrew Scriptures. Modern rabbinical Judaism and most post-Reformation (Protestant) Christian bodies recognize 39 books as the full set of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament, as each respectively would term it. The Eastern Orthodox, Catholic Church, and ancient Churches of the East (Armenian etc.) recognize an additional seven books (and parts of four others) in the canon (official collection) of the Bible. The additional books are termed the Deuterocanon. The Deuterocanon is included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures made by Jewish scholars, traditionally in Alexandria Egypt, probably in the third century BC. The writers of the New Testament, when citing the Jewish scriptures or when quoting Jesus doing so, used this Greek translation regularly, although not exclusively. However, no ancient text of the Deuterocanon in Hebrew was known to exist.
One reason commonly used to support the smaller list of 39 books as the canon of Hebrew Scripture was the belief that the Deuterocanon was originally written only in Greek, was in use only outside Judea, and did not have ancient acceptance as scripture in places where Greek was not the first language of the Jews. But the Dead Sea Scrolls do include very old Hebrew texts of some of the books of the Deuterocanon, were almost certainly produced in Judea and Galilee, and they were recovered in collections of books commonly agreed as the canon of scripture. Adjustment to this finding is still taking place.
So the mystery of the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls deepens. Where did these sacred scrolls come from, and who put them there, and why? The answer to the last part, at least, is clear.
A Clash of Irreconcilable World Views: The Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66 AD
The Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden by a hunted people in AD 70. They were on the run, trying to preserve their most precious sacred writings from destruction by Roman forces during a world-altering cataclysmic disaster. In a long history of woes that have befallen the Jewish people, this event is near the top. And if the date of the text of a sacred scripture is right, it was predicted.
Many aspects of the basic dilemma facing the Jews of the Roman period are lost on modern people. The ancient city-state of Rome reached a critical point of expansion in its territorial conquests and its vise-like “alliances.” Without much reflection on the point, Rome slipped from a republic into an imperial state under Augustus Caesar in 27 BC. As the empire expanded even further, it came into contact with dozens of religions and cults (strongly defined systems and styles) of worship. The need for a unifying principle for Roman rule became acute. Practical benefits of Roman rule were many and real—standard coinage, suppression of piracy that made sailing Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea,” or the Mediterranean) a safe and efficient means of trade and travel, superior roads, aqueducts for clean water, etc. But a theoretical, a conceptual, a spiritual basis for the Roman Empire was just not quite expressible.
The reign of Augustus Caesar was decades long (27 BC to 14 AD), stable, and spectacularly successful. Across Rome and throughout the provinces, Augustus Caesar’s name and image were everywhere—on coins, streets, temples, in law courts, in military and administrative offices. This experience started a train of thinking in which a deceased emperor could be “recognized” as divine in retrospect—a god who had resided among men. It came to be known as the “Imperial cult.” Even though the Imperial cult had different forms in different part of the empire, in its essence it morphed into worship of the Roman emperor as a god. For Jews, the incompatibility of this cult with their most basic beliefs was considered insoluble. Those wishing to have Jesus removed from the scene posed the dilemma directly to him. He replied in this way:
“‘Show me the money for the tax.’ And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then he said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ (Matthew 22: 18-21).
Model of the Fortress (or Tower) of Antonia, here depicted with towers at each corner (the consensus view). The fortress was built by Herod “the Great” and named for the Roman Marc Anthony, a patron. The Roman general and later emperor Titus captured the fortress and leveled much of it to clear space for placing siege works against the temple.
In the early stages of the Imperial cult, the emperor was required to be safely dead, so as to keep the ultimate status symbol (divinity) out of the depraved jockeying for power that constantly took place. Whether it is true or was just made up for the rhyme, Caracalla was reported to have said, just before murdering Geta, his brother and co-emperor, “Sit divus dum non sit vivus.” (Let him be a divus—or god—as long as he is not vivus—alive). Something approximating belief in the Imperial cult might have existed in a number of segments of society. But there is no shortage of Roman writers, and the ruling elite themselves, who saw it as a kind of sub-rosa joke, even if a potentially useful one. Emperor Vespasian, the first of the two generals who led the suppression of the Jewish revolt, is reported by the historian/gossip Suetonius to have maintained his dry humor to the end by giving as his last words, “Puto deus fio.” (I think I’m turning into a god.)
But it never was, and could never be, a laughing matter to a believing Jew—and, in these earliest years of the Church, to Christians. Their first commandment, in a list in which positional sequence did indeed represent significance, was:
“I am the LORD your God, … You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20: 2-6).Later, especially in Rome, various semi-paranoid segments of the ruling elite found Christians particularly obnoxious—to the point of treason—for their simple, steadfast refusal to perform even the slightest act representing acceptance of merely the principle of tribute to the divinity of Caesar. And so Christians were sent, in their hundreds of thousands, to their deaths. They often ended up in the Coliseum, where their torture and execution was performed for public entertainment. Every successor of Peter, first bishop of Rome (pope), until the early fourth century was executed (martyred, in Christian terminology).
Under the creeping emergence of the Imperial cult, a critical mass of the population of Jerusalem seethed. The Zealot party, one of several Jewish factions, pushed for complete resistance, with violent revolt an approved tool to be used based only on favorable circumstances. One sub-faction of the Zealots, the Sicarii (Latin = dagger men), took to carrying daggers under their cloaks, and they used targeted assassination as a tactic to enforce their judgments. Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes who committed the offense of being obstacles to violent attacks against Rome—for example, cautioning restraint—were not at all exempt from the Sicarii. It was straightforward terrorism.
Under Roman taxation the Jewish rural population was becoming impoverished. For sixty years the Jews had been paying heavily, and the revenue was exported. Much of the tax haul was spent in lavish consumption, idleness, and intrigue in Rome. The only useful items to emerge from all the taxes were a few port and border projects. Judaea was becoming poor, with much of its land first mortgaged and then sold. To make matters worse, once the renovation of the Temple in Jerusalem was completed in 63 AD, many artisans became unemployed. The rural population and artisans were looking to force a change—any outcome looked better than their near-term prospects.
View of the Israel Museum model of the second defense wall of ancient Jerusalem, with the northwest corner of the Antonia Fortress in the upper right. The mound visible in the center of the scene with a cave tomb entrance is Calvarie locus or Golgotha—‘the place of the skull’ site of the crucifixion of Jesus. The road (via) in front of the hill or mound leads to Gennath Gate, which is not visible in the right center because a short, sharp corner of the second wall obscures the view. Jesus was forced to carry his crossbeam through that gate and along that road.
It all burst into the open in 66 AD. In May, when the corrupt and cruel Roman procurator Gessius Florus demanded a payment from the Temple treasury, executed resisters, and then moved to confiscate his payment. The Jews rebelled, banned daily sacrifice to the emperor, and by August lynched or threw out the Roman garrison of Jerusalem stationed in the Fortress of Antonia. Rebellion flared everywhere in the countryside (Judea and Galilee).
Caius Cestius Gallus, governor of the adjacent Roman province of Syria, marched to the rescue with the Twelfth Legion (each Legion had a name as well as a number; the Twelfth’s was “Fulminata”—Thunder) and many auxiliary troops. The Roman relief force couldn’t take the strong walls of Jerusalem, and because it was fall they retreated to make winter camp. During their retreat they were ambushed in a narrow valley (Beth-Horon) and took very heavy losses, including the legion’s standard (eagle) and siege equipment. They barely managed to retreat at all. While Jewish leaders and many Jews were not at all convinced of the wisdom of these actions, there was no mistaking that the Jews had declared all-out war on the mighty Roman Empire. Jewish leaders quickly organized and divided the country it into eleven administrative districts, each with an independent command of a local army. Of course, these divided forces could not coordinate operations or even provide mutual support.
The depth of Emperor Nero’s desperation was indicated by his choice of the competent old general Vespasian, whom he despised, to lead a campaign to put down the revolt. If the Jews, perhaps 10% of the population of the empire, could succeed in this brazen humiliation of Roman military might, then the whole Roman Empire would probably fall apart. Imperial Rome wanted its subjects to know that it had a long memory, and retaliation would be as certain, even if delayed, as it would be devastating.
The Siege of Jerusalem in AD 70
A few years ago I studied the events of the first century war between the Romans and the Jews of eastern Mediterranean, and I have given a talk on it a few times. It is always a hard talk to present because of the sheer destruction, brutality, tragic missteps along the way, horrors inflicted, and the vast scale of the loss of life. Josephus, the historian and a participant, said in the opening sentence of his book The Jewish War, “The war of the Jews against the Romans was the greatest of our time; greater too, perhaps, than any recorded struggle whether between cities or nations.”
As we walk around the model of Jerusalem at the Israel Museum, our guide Amer gives a fluid account of the geography of the features of first century Jerusalem, including many now-modified sites we have visited. I find myself absorbed with how the practical tasks facing the Roman attackers and the Jewish defenders are in plain view in this model. The Roman forces included four legions (Fifth, Tenth, Twelfth, and Fifteenth) and many auxiliaries, totaling 80,000 men in all. The Jewish forces, in three separate commands, totaled less than 25,000. The Romans made a three-pronged attack, the Fifth legion from the west, the Twelfth and Fifteenth from the north, and the Tenth from the east. Jerusalem has deep valleys (Kidron and Hinom) or defensible natural scarps along the east, south, and southwest. It is mainly vulnerable from the north. And here before me, on the north perimeter of the model is a gentle slope with two outer walls. No audience could miss the significance of it if they stood here.
In AD 68 Vespasian methodically destroyed strong points along the coast, in Galilee and all the country around Jerusalem. Then there was a pause. Emperor Nero had been forced to commit suicide, and three other amazingly incompetent emperors came and went in a single year—the “year of four emperors.” Jewish rebels took heart. Rome was in anarchy. The Roman legions in the east rallied around Vespasian and declared him Emperor. He left for Rome in 69 and assumed the office, leaving his son Titus to complete the conquest of Jerusalem.
To completely seal off the city, Titus had an earthen ramp, a circumvallatio, dug around the entire perimeter of Jerusalem and supported by thirteen strong points and constant pickets. Not even secret paths and tunnels could be used to enter or leave the city. And this provides another example of the significance of determining the date of a manuscript. In what is called the Olivet Discourse, Jesus approaches the city of Jerusalem (40 years earlier) from the Mount of Olives:
“And when he drew near and saw the city he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that even today you knew the things that make for peace! But now they are hid from your eyes. For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave one stone upon another in you; …’” (Luke 19:41-44)If that text was written after the events of 70 AD, then the writer could, of course, have benefited from having seen the actual events to produce a supposed prediction after the fact. On the other hand, if it were written before 70 AD, the credibility of the speaker obviously is enhanced.
In spring of AD 70 Jerusalem was full of devout Jews who had come for Passover; about 600,000 were in the city. Fights between the extremist Zealots and the moderate party continued; there were so many dead and wounded that they lay untended in the streets. The Romans demanded surrender, but the Jews literally laughed at them. The Roman army breached the outer (third) wall on the northwest in early May, and occupied most of the north plain inside the second wall. The Jewish forces counterattacked and the Romans had to fight savagely to retake it.
View of gently sloping plain at the north perimeter of ancient Jerusalem (Israel Museum model). The area depicted is between the second defense wall (left) and the third and outer defense wall (right, top, and bottom). Roman Forces under Titus staged their assault from here in 70 AD. The skyline of modern Jerusalem is visible in the upper right field of view.
The battle began again from the second wall and was bitterly fought up to the Fortress of Antonia. The front was pushed through the northern suburbs to the edge of the Temple precincts. Ambushes in the maze of streets cost the Roman units dearly, and stoked a rising hatred. The Romans built ramps and their unsurpassed siege works. The auxiliaries cut trees to supply them. But the Jews fought savage small encounters with heavy casualties on both sides in wild fighting every step of the way. No sooner were structures built than they were put to flames in suicidal attacks.
The stench of death was overpowering. Corpses of those who had died in battle and of starvation were thrown over the wall because the defenders did not have the strength to bury them. Josephus said, “…I tell of things unknown to history, whether Greek or barbarian. It is frightful to speak of it and unbelievable to hear of it. I should gladly have passed over this disaster in silence, so that I might not get the reputation of recording something which must appear to posterity wholly degrading. But there were too many eye-witnesses in my time.”
But there are no records of Jewish Christians dying in this event. When they saw the events happening in Jerusalem just before the siege, the ancient historian Eusebius says they left Jerusalem and relocated to the mountain village of Pella east of the Jordan River in what is now Jordan. Recent archeological work supports this report. Again a text of Christian scripture is involved, but in this case it seems the timing of what came first is implicit in what happened. Again in the Olivet discourse, Jesus is quoted:
“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that its desolation is at hand. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains. Let those within the city escape from it, and let those in the countryside not enter the city, for these days are the time of punishment when all the scriptures are fulfilled. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken as captives to all the Gentiles; and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the time of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:20 through 22, 24)Titus was now in a hurry to end this frightful slaughter. He did not want the reputation of a savage, nor the eternal hatred of a subject people within the Roman Empire. Also, the longer the Jews held out, the weaker it made mighty Rome look. In early July of 70 AD Roman troops stormed the Fortress of Antonia, in whose courtyard Jesus had been sentenced to death about 40 years before, and took it apart stone by stone. Under these circumstances, a bit of geographic uncertainty about the correct starting point for the Stations of the Cross is certainly understandable. For Titus the strongly fortified Temple itself was next.
Titus rejected his commanders’ plan to storm the Temple. Once more he ordered a halt to operation and sent heralds to call for surrender. The Jews did not hesitate one moment to reject the call. The assault began. The Jews fought like men possessed and didn’t yield a bit of ground. They sent a hail of arrows and rocks onto the attackers. They fought in a delirium and with the expectation that their God would come to their aid at the last minute as he had in the past. More than once the scaling ladders touched the sacred walls, but every time they were thrown back. Battering rams were useless against the Temple walls. Titus ordered that the wooden gates be set on fire.
As soon as the gates had been consumed, Titus ordered that the flames be put out. He posted as order of the day for the attack, “Spare the Sanctuary.” The fire had reached the inner court and the Romans were fully occupied in putting it out. The Jewish forces made a violent counterattack, but the Romans with their full strength and disciplined small units cut them down and began to drive them back through the Temple courtyard in a wild battle.
In a battle frenzy some Roman legionaries threw a torch into the Golden Window to the Holy of Holies. The ancient dry wooden paneling and holy oils exploded into flames. Titus ordered his men to put out the fire, but they ignored him and fought on. He ordered his centurion and his own bodyguard to beat those who would not follow his order with wooden staves, and still he was ignored. Josephus said:
“But however great their enthusiasm for Caesar (Titus—he too later became emperor in A.D. 79) and their dread of what he had forbidden them to do, their hatred of the Jews and their eagerness to fight them was equally great.” “In addition the hope of booty spurred many of them on. They had the impression that all these rooms within were full of gold, and they saw that all around them was made of pure gold.”In August, the legionaries erected their banners in the sacred precincts and defiled them by offering their pagan sacrifices there. Half of Jerusalem was in Roman hands, and thick smoke from the destruction hung over the city. Still the Jewish forces would not surrender. Titus needed all the technical skill at his command, but in September Herod’s palace was stormed and destroyed. Titus ordered that all structures in Jerusalem—all homes, public buildings, everything—were to be torn down. It was to be an object lesson for the whole empire on the consequences for directly challenging the military might of Rome. The only structures left standing were the Antonia fortress towers of Phasael, Hippicus, and Mariamne, which were spared only to provide quarters for the occupying legionaries. Jews were forbidden to enter the city under penalty of death.
According to Josephus 1,100,000 people were killed during the siege. Although the Jews certainly inflicted painful causalities on the Romans, the great majority killed were Jews. A not inconsiderable number of the dead were killed by Jewish hands during factional fighting, and by illness and starvation. The Zealots deliberately destroyed grain stores in order to force violent resistance by removing hope of survival through a negotiated settlement. Josephus also reports that 97,000 were captured and enslaved.
So much gold entered the markets of Syria from looting of the Temple treasury that the price temporarily plunged. The occupation legionaries knew of the wealth associated with the Temple, and during their time off duty they would search through the ruins. The intense fire that burned the heart of the Temple cracked the stones it was built from. Among the legionaries the rumor was that gold had melted and poured into the cracks, so they pried apart the remaining stones and cast them aside in their hunt for treasure. And so the Temple was destroyed—not a stone left upon a stone. The consequences are with us today. Ironically the Jerusalem of Jesus’ time is slowly emerging through archeological work, new tools of data storage and visualization, and careful scholarship, more clearly than perhaps at any time since the passing of the generation that lived through the war and siege. Certainly, until the last few decades there was no place a visitor or pilgrim could go to gain all at once a sense of the scale, features, layout, and appearance of late Second Temple Jerusalem as the model in plain view at the Israel Museum today.
Titus made a roundabout return to Rome, speeded up in the end by a concern to quash rumors that he was challenging his father Vespasian for the emperorship. When he arrived in Rome in 71 AD, he was granted a ceremonial “triumph” (victory parade and celebration—plus). He rode into the city with Vespasian and his brother Domitian (who succeeded him as Emperor). They were saluted enthusiastically by the population. A great parade displaying treasures and captives from the war led the way. The public displays included gold and silver in abundance, elaborate re-enactments of incidents from the war, and treasures taken from the temple including the menorah (seven-branched candlestand) and the scrolls of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). At a festive gathering in the Roman Forum the rebel leader Simon Bar Giora was executed, and then the procession ended with sacrifices at the temple of Jupiter.
A visitor to Rome today can visit a virtually intact memorial of this whole episode. Just southeast of the Forum is one of the seven hills of Rome, Velian Hill. On it is a monumental arch commemorating the triumph granted to Titus. Titus’ Arch was constructed in 82 AD shortly after his death by his brother the Emperor Domitian. The frieze on the arch contains a depiction of the Jerusalem Temple treasures being brought into Rome as war booty. The inscription on the arch, completely legible today, reads:
“Senatus Populusque Romanus divo Tito divi Vespasiani filio Vespasiano Augusto”
(The Senate and the People of Rome [dedicate this arch] to the divine Titus Vespasianus Augustus, son of the divine Vespasian.”
(Photos by Glenn Juday)
Previous posts in this series: