Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Rome's Regime after Judea's Overthrow.

Proselytes Again.

The Emperor Vespasian, who had permitted the institution of the Jamnian Academy, was succeeded by his son Titus. Titus lived too briefly after he became emperor to exert a decided influence on Israel, but it could never forget that to his hand had been entrusted the final overthrow of Judea. His brother Domitian, however, the next emperor, was a tyrant and a degenerate. It is said that at one time he contemplated the extermination of the Jews. The Jewish tax (Fiscus Judaicus) was collected with needless cruelty and indignity. He bitterly persecuted those Romans who in spite of Israel's fallen fortunes, were still drawn to its Faith and made severe laws against those who encouraged conversion. Proselytes came in sufficient numbers to make the subject an important theme of discussion in the Jewish Academy. It was probably in Rome itself where the spread of Judaism most alarmed the emperor. Perhaps its teachings reached the Romans through the Jewish prisoners of war. Certainly many high born Romans were enthusiastically prepared to make sacrifices for its cause. It is said that even Flavius Clemens and his wife Flavia Domitilla, relatives of Domitian and possible heirs to the throne, were pledged to Judaism. Clemens was put to death and his wife was exiled. But a step, and Judaism might have mounted the imperial throne of Rome and have exchanged destinies with Christianity. Perhaps not even then, for its unbending monotheism and strict Law brooked no easy compromise. However, it is one of the might-have-beens of history.

One of the most famous proselytes was Aquila, a Greek of scholarship and wealth. Dissatisfied with the later Greek translations of the Bible, distorted to fit Christian doctrine, Aquila made a literal translation from the Hebrew that so commended itself to the Rabbis that it became the "authorized version," so to speak, for the Synagogue. An Aramaic translation of the Bible, following his model, was called after him Targum Onkelos—which means "a translation like that of Aquila." It is often printed with the Hebrew texts of Scripture to-day.

Revolt against Trajan.

It was the unhappy fate of Israel that the mischievous Domitian should have reigned so long and that the good Emperor Nerva, his successor, should have reigned so briefly. So although the injunctions against proselytes were removed during the sixteen months of Nerva's rule as soon as Trajan came to the throne many anti-Jewish laws were restored. Like Alexander the Greek, Trajan the Roman cherished the wild desire of conquering Asia. When he attacked Parthia, the Jews living in semi-independence there became his most vigorous opponents. In Babylon they stubbornly held the city of Nisibis against his legions. No sooner had he subdued the lands on the Euphrates and the Tigris than the Persian provinces revolted.

All the Jews of the Diaspora now seized the occasion to throw off the hated Roman yoke. For they had never become reconciled to it; and, their children, now grown to manhood, had been brought up in the assurance that soon Judea would be won back again and the Temple rebuilt. "Carthage must be destroyed" had been the Roman cry; "Jerusalem must be rebuilt" was now the Jewish. In Egypt, in Cyprus, a Mediterranean island, and in Cyrene, further west on the African coast—they rose against their opponents. At first success came to their arms, though much blood flowed on both sides; but there could be no doubt of the ultimate outcome with Rome's overwhelming numbers. Yet so vigorous was their resistance that the historian Graetz ventures to think that, in spite of lacking cavalry and being indifferently armed, had these three separate Jewish uprisings been organized under one directing control it would have gone hard with the Roman legions. As it was, their beautiful synagogue in Alexandria was destroyed, all the Jewish inhabitants of Cyprus were slain and the island forbidden them in the future. Many lives were lost in other places of Jewish insurrection, including Judea itself. The revolt certainly nipped in the bud Trajan's foolish ambition to conquer all Asia, and he died in mortification at his failure.

Gamaliel was now dead and Rabbi Joshua had become Patriarch. The reins of power could not have been entrusted to wiser hands, for he seized the moment of the accession of the new emperor, Hadrian, to counsel conciliation. Like Jochanan ben Zakkai, he saw the futility of Israel wasting its strength in fighting with colossal Rome. The Sanhedrin was removed from Jamnia to Oosha in upper Galilee. Joshua's sway was less rigorous than that of Gamaliel. At a time when many of his brethren felt nothing but hatred toward the heathen, he uttered the famous dictum: "The virtuous of all peoples have a share in the heavenly bliss of the life to come." This has since been accepted by the House of Israel as the classic expression of its attitude towards other religions.

The new emperor Hadrian also seemed at first inclined to a policy of concession; but there was little choice, for revolt burst out in all parts of the empire, from Asia Minor in the East to Britain in the far West. The discouraged emperor gladly met many of his enemies half way. Parthia was restored to the control of its own princes. In Judea proper a cruel general, Quietus, was checked in his terrible purpose of exterminating the Jews and was ultimately executed.

Hadrian's "Promise."

To win peace and adherents, Hadrian was willing to make many fair promises at the opening of his reign that he had no serious intention of fulfiling. One of these was an offer to the Jews to rebuild their Temple, which they had exacted as the condition of laying down their arms. Imagine the boundless joy with which this news was received—a Cyrus come to power once more! Hebrew poets sang of the glories that were to come. Christians and Samaritans were much disconcerted at the news.

But as soon as Hadrian had obtained the mastery of the situation and quiet was restored, he resorted to subterfuge. They might rebuild their Temple, but not in the same place! He knew it was that place or none. The Jews saw through the pretense; their hopes were blasted. There was talk of war again, but the wise Rabbi Joshua still counselled submission. So for many years the embers of revolt slumbered in the breasts of the Jews, but did not die out, though as long as Rabbi Joshua lived they did not break into flame.


Proselytes:— Read the article on this subject in the Jewish Encyclopedia for fuller list of Roman proselytes. Notice here first, the different degrees of proselytism; secondly, the attitude of the synagogue toward the convert, favorable or unfavorable in different periods of its history, varying with its changing relations with the outside world. Based on the laws given to Noah (Genesis ix) the Tannaim deduced seven Noachian rules, which they regarded as obligations binding on all mankind. To these humane laws strangers living in their midst must conform. For they felt this sense of responsibility to those not of their religion.