While we have “sacred space” and religious violence in our thoughts, it’s high time I posted one more detail I wish the scholars who know better would themselves make more widely known.
The population of Judea was not exiled at the conclusion of the war with Rome when the second temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Nor was it exiled after the second (Bar Kochba) revolt 132-135 CE. The generations following that revolt witnessed the “golden age” of Jewish culture in the Palestine (as it was then called) of Rabbi HaNasi, the legendary compiler of the Mishnah.
In the seventh century an estimated 46,000 Muslim warriors swept through Judea and established liberal policies towards all monotheists. Arabs did not move in from the desert to take over the farmlands and become landowners. The local Jewish population even assisted the Muslims against their hated Byzantine Christian rulers. While the Jews suffered under the Christian rulers, no doubt with some converting to Christianity for their own well-being, many resisted as is evident from the growth in synagogue construction at this time. Under Muslim rule, however, Jews were not harassed as they were under the Christians, yet there appears to have been a decline in Jewish religious presence.
How can we account for this paradox? Given that Muslims were not taxed, it is reasonable to assume that the decline in Jewish religious constructions can be explained by many Jews over time converting to Islam. Certainly David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi in 1918 published their hopes that their Muslim Jewish counterparts in Palestine might be assimilated with their immigrant cousins.
There never was a mass exile of Jews from Judea/Palestine. At least there is no historical record of any such event. Believe me, for years I looked for it. In past years my religious teaching told me it had happened, but when I studied ancient history I had to admit I could not see it. Sometimes historian made vague generalized references to suggest something like it happened, but there was never any evidence cited and the evidence that was cited did not testify to wholesale exile.
Who started the myth?
It was anti-semitic Christian leaders who introduced the myth of exile: the “Wandering Jew” was being punished for his rejection of Christ. Justin Martyr in the mid second century is the first to express this myth.
So where did all the Jews that Justin knew of come from if they were, in his eyes, “a-wandering”?
The answer to that deserves a full length post of its own. In the Hellenistic era Jews were renowned proselytizers. For many reasons Judaism proved attractive to not a few gentiles. And once converted, they were, the evidence of Philo tells us, considered to have augmented the Jewish “ethnos” — what we would probably think of as an ethnic identity.
The one and only original Exile
There was one exile that was recognized as The Exile, the only historical exile of Jews, according to the Babylonian Talmud. That was the exile from Judea under the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. If any Jews later claimed to have had ancestors who once lived in, say, Roman Judea, they would be classified as descendants of the Babylonian Exile since this exile set the train for all later situations in which the Jews found themselves. This was the way it was according to the Babylonian Talmud’s narrative.
What happened in 70 CE?
Not even the prophecies the authors of the gospels retrojected into the mouth of Jesus spoke of any exile. The destruction of the Temple, yes. Jerusalem surrounded by armies, yes. Trodden down by gentiles, yes. Warnings to flee to escape the enemy, yes. But no exile.
The famous Arch of Titus depicts victorious Romans carrying off the Temple candelabria, not Jewish exiles.
Josephus who wrote of the Jewish War of 66 – 73 CE paints the scene of the end of the war in these words . . .
Now the number of those that were carried captive during this whole war was collected to be ninety-seven thousand; as was the number of those that perished during the whole siege eleven hundred thousand, the greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation [with the citizens of Jerusalem], but not belonging to the city itself; for they were come up from all the country to the feast of unleavened bread, and were on a sudden shut up by an army, which, at the very first, occasioned so great a straitness among them, that there came a pestilential destruction upon them, and soon afterward such a famine, as destroyed them more suddenly.
NOW as soon as the army had no more people to slay or to plunder, because there remained none to be the objects of their fury, (for they would not have spared any, had there remained any other work to be done,) Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple, but should leave as many of the towers standing as were of the greatest eminency; that is, Phasaelus, and Hippicus, and Mariamne; and so much of the wall as enclosed the city on the west side. This wall was spared, in order to afford a camp for such as were to lie in garrison, as were the towers also spared, in order to demonstrate to posterity what kind of city it was, and how well fortified, which the Roman valor had subdued; but for all the rest of the wall, it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.
All historians acknowledge that the figures of ancient historians are wildly exaggerated. Many seem to have some numerological significance. Best estimates of the population of Jerusalem at the time were between sixty and seventy thousand — notwithstanding Josephus’s claim that 1.1 million perished in the city.
So Josephus the Jewish historian of the war of 66-70 CE greatly exaggerated his casualty figures. Archaeological remains tell us that the destruction of Jerusalem was not as complete as he indicated. There were massacres, and no doubt many prisoners were sold as slaves, but the bloodshed was confined to Jerusalem and a few fortified cities. Rome did not uproot and exile the entire population. There are no archaeological indications of communities fleeing wholesale from the land of Judea in or around 70 CE.
Actually not even the Babylonians and Assyrians before the Roman era deported whole populations. Nebuchadnezzar was said to have left the land empty as he took the populace away captive to Babylonia; a few were given the option to migrate to Egypt. But we know from archaeology and reasonable inference that only the administrators and cultural elites were removed. Those who worked the land stayed.
Not even the Assyrians notorious for their mass deportations before them removed the entirety of a population.
But as for the Romans, they never deported any large segment of a populated area. In the Western provinces they did evict local farmers for the benefit of Roman veteran soldiers but this policy was never applied in the East. Rome was able to keep the lid on rebellions well enough through terror without the need for wholesale deportations.
What happened in 135 CE?
After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE the population recovered in time substantially enough to cause even more headaches for emperor Hadrian in the 130s CE. Information about the Bar Kochba rebellion is less abundant, being confined to a few lines by Cassius Dio and the third/fourth century Eusebius. There are also some references in rabbinical religious literature. None mentions a mass exile from the land.
Here is the account of Cassius Dio from his Roman History 69:14
Fifty of their most important outposts and nine hundred and eighty-five of their most famous villages were razed to the ground. Five hundred and eighty thousand men were slain in the various raids and battles, and the number of those that perished by famine, disease and fire was past finding out.
2 Thus nearly the whole of Judaea was made desolate, a result of which the people had had forewarning before the war. For the tomb of Solomon, which the Jews regard as an object of veneration, fell to pieces of itself and collapsed, and many wolves and hyenas rushed howling into their cities.
3 Many Romans, moreover, perished in this war. Therefore Hadrian in writing to the senate did not employ the opening phrase commonly affected by the emperors, “If you and our children are in health, it is well; I and the legions are in health.”
Again, historians know these claims are vastly exaggerated. (Recall one of the goals of ancient historians was to demonstrate to their readers the greatness of the topics they wrote about. The wars and the calamities had to be greater in their versions than had been told before.)
Yes, Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina and so was the province renamed Syria Palestinia. Jews were forbidden from entering Jerusalem for a time.
And the grass kept growing
But within fifty years we find a Jewish culture flourishing there again under the leadership of Rabbi Judah HaNasi who edited and compiled the Mishnah and is recorded as being on excellent terms with the emperor Antoninus.
The Jewish population of the province is recorded by both Christian and Muslim sources as assisting the Muslim takeover and removal of the Byzantine rules in the seventh century CE.
It is evident from the prima facie historical record that Jews remained the significant proportion of the population of Palestine right through the vicissitudes of wars and invasions. Over time the population no doubt followed the patterns of other populations throughout history: they generally adopted the religion of their rulers and intermarried with the various peoples who came through over the centuries with Arabs, Crusaders, Turks and others.
This is a vast topic and there are many related issues that need to be addressed. I will cover those in due course. These will include a little more detail on the Christian origin of the exiled “wandering Jew” idea and why and when the Jews themselves came to embrace it. We also need to look at the origin of the Jewish messianic and “return to the land” concept that started to become a feature of rabbinic Judaism from late antiquity. Not forgetting the origins of the nationalist-era historiographies and Christian teachings that laid the foundations for the assumption many have today that the Jews were exiled en mass from their homeland by the Romans. Romans simply did not do that sort of thing as we have seen here.
But I have a few other series I hope to finish off first.
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