Judaism without a temple: An excerpt from Martin Goodman’s “A History of Judaism”


The following is an excerpt from Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism, published this month by Princeton University Press.


The destruction of Jerusalem by Roman troops in 70 CE demanded a religious explanation. If God, the supreme ruler of the universe, had allowed such a disaster to be visited on his people, it must be as part of a divine plan. The author of an apocalyptic text that purports to describe the prophetic visions of Ezra, the priest and scribe of the fifth century BCE, but which must in fact have been composed in the last decades of the first century CE, envisaged divine vengeance on the Roman empire. He pictured Rome as a three-headed eagle destined for destruction during the last days that had now come upon the earth:

The Most High has looked at his times; now they have ended, and his ages have reached completion. Therefore you, eagle, will surely disappear, you and your terrifying wings, your most evil little wings, your malicious heads, your most evil talons, and your whole worthless body, so that the whole earth, freed from your violence, may be refreshed and relieved, and may hope for the judgement and mercy of him who made it.

But we have no idea how many other Jews shared in this eschatological hope. IV Ezra is preserved only through copies and translations made by Christians, among whom the text proved immensely popular, presumably in part because of their strong interest in the imminent end times, but it is not known whether the text held similar appeal for non-Christian Jews.

For ordinary Jews, such as Josephus, the obvious explanation for disaster was already predicted in biblical texts about the curses that awaited Israel for failing to keep to the covenant with God, and in the numerous promises of redemption when Israel repents of her sins. The current abyss of misery was simply part of a regular cycle of sin, punishment, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration traced through numerous generations in the biblical books of Kings. By implication, a reformed Israel was guaranteed divine aid, and exile from the holy city of Jerusalem would in due course come to an end.

This optimistic note of confidence in the power of the God of Israel permeates the writings of Josephus, all of which were composed in the aftermath of the war. The Roman readers of his Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities might have been surprised to learn from his passionate narratives that the events that had culminated in the destruction of the capital city of the Jews had been orchestrated by the same Jewish God whose sanctuary had been ransacked, but this was precisely the message that Josephus wished to convey. The corollary was that Jews needed only to return to the path of piety for God again to look after his chastened people.

Presumably not all Jews were equally sanguine about the future under the care of the Jewish God. Some, like Tiberius Julius Alexander, Philo’s nephew, are known to have left Judaism altogether as they moved into the ranks of the Roman imperial elite. In the early second century CE the names of descendants of Herod the Great can be found on inscriptions that show no awareness of their Jewish connections. Other Jews will simply have become unidentifiable in the evidence for the mixed populations of Roman cities in which ethnic groups can be observed only when they made an effort to preserve their distinctive cultures.

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