I loved the books by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, even some parts of Sam Harris, when they first came out — but in the interview I found myself in agreement that those works represent a kind of two-dimensional atheism. It’s as if they say that all it means to be an atheist is to reject the idea of god and to continue with life as if nothing else needs to change. (And usually the type of religion they attacked was the fundamentalist variety — which is not wholly satisfactory.)
When does atheism become “an identity”? In what social and political contexts? Atheism surely involves an emotional engagement and outlook to life and how the world could be. Atheism changes things on an ethical and political level.
David Newheiser is a senior research fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University. He is the author of Hope in a Secular Age: Deconstruction, Negative Theology, and the Future of Faith.
The Varieties of Atheism: Connecting Religion and Its Critics (U Chicago Press, 2022) reveals the diverse nonreligious experiences obscured by the combative intellectualism of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. In fact, contributors contend that narrowly defining atheism as the belief that there is no god misunderstands religious and nonreligious persons altogether. The essays show that, just as religion exceeds doctrine, atheism also encompasses every dimension of human life: from imagination and feeling to community and ethics. Contributors offer new, expansive perspectives on atheism’s diverse history and possible futures. By recovering lines of affinity and tension between particular atheists and particular religious traditions, this book paves the way for fruitful conversation between religious and non-religious people in our secular age.
Atheism in 21st Century Australia is very different to that of 19th Century Russia, yet they are grouped under the same umbrella. The varieties of atheism in different times and cultures are the subject of a new anthology of essays that aims to reveal the diverse non-religious experiences obscured by the combative intellectualism of New Atheist figures like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.
Gone are the days when I could listen to an author interview on the car radio and then head to the local bookshop, confident that I would find copies of their book waiting for me on the shelf. Unfortunately, that’s not the case anymore. So, while I cannot discuss this particular book based on my own reading experience, I can share a link to the conversation that aroused my interest.
The primary author or editor of the book explained their personal interest in religious traditions, which originated from their upbringing in the fundamentalist Christian tradition. Their journey took a significant turn at the age of nineteen when they were expelled from their community due to accusations of “heresy.” The interest in religion is not motivated by some sort of knee-jerk reaction to a bad time, but by a desire to understand an important part of human life and how it affects the way we treat each other — and ourselves.
That experience of expulsion from one’s community resonated with my own. I was also made to think about the idea that atheism is somehow related to a particular type of religious belief system. Anyway, I hope to catch up with the book and till then you may like to listen to the interviews I heard:
After having frequentlyquestioned the claims that the first Jewish War that began under Nero and ended with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE was motivated by messianic hopes, it is time for me to state where I believe evidence for popular enthusaism for the advent of a messiah does emerge. It is in the aftermath of what might justifiably be described as the “trauma” of the loss of the Temple at the hands of Titus. This is also the period in which many scholars see the critical shaping of what became Christianity and Judaism as they are know today.
This post is the third in a series covering the main ideas of a book by Livia Capponi, Il Mistero del Tempio = The Mystery of the Temple :
Here we survey the period Eusebius described as “stasis”, the pause before the eruption of the bloodbath in early 116 CE. Warning: some of the subject matter is complex insofar as it looks at confusions of similar sounding names in the records.
I follow Steve Mason’s preference for the term “Judean” over “Jew” for the most part. Mason explains: “This is not because I have any quarrel with the use of Jews. . . . But our aim is to understand ancient ways of thinking, and in my view Judeans better represents what ancients heard in the ethnos-polis-cult paradigm. That is, just as Egypt (Greek Aegyptos) was understood to be the home of Egyptians (Aegyptioi), Syria of Syrians, and Idumaea of ldumaeans, so also Judaea (Ioudaia) was the home of Judeans (loudaioi) — the only place where their laws and customs were followed. Jerusalem was world-famous as the mother-polis of the Judeans, and Judaea was Jerusalem’s territory. That is why Judeans (like other immigrants) did not enjoy full citizen rights in Alexandria, Antioch, or Ephesus and could face curtailments of privileges or even expulsion. With other non-natives, and like foreigners in Jerusalem, they lived outside the homeland on sufferance.” — (Mason, p. 90)
The argument in brief
In brief, the argument is that Trajan began his reign with positive relations towards the Judeans, motivated largely by his need to secure his supply lines in his war against Parthia as any desire to continue Nerva’s comparatively liberal policies. There are several reasons to believe that the Judeans had their hopes raised for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple and for that reason many in the diaspora were encouraged to return to Judea.
This post is a survey of the evidence from which the events leading to the revolt of 116-117 are reconstructed, with particular focus on the Acts of the Pagan Martyrs and rabbinic legends.
A new era promised for Judeans?
96/97 CE — Capponi states that the emperor Nerva introduced a new era of improving relations with the Judeans of the empire when he abolished the tax that had been imposed on them all by Vespasian from the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. She points to Goodman’s discussion of coins issued by Nerva in 96/97 in support of this claim. Goodman writes:
The precise import of the legend on his coins, FISCI IUDAICI CALUMNIA SUBLATA, is debated and debatable. The term sublata is otherwise unattested on Roman coins, and, although it was not uncommon to advertise remission of taxes, an abusive term (calumnia) in reference either to the treasury responsible for taxes, or to those who brought accusations to the treasury, or to the whole notion of the tax, is extraordinary, and perhaps only possible when a new emperor wished to make an exceptionally strong statement of disassociation from the previous regime. Many historians have asserted that the beneficiaries of Nerva’s new policy were non-Jews maliciously accused of Judaizing, but it seems to me equally, if not more, likely that Nerva’s reform was aimed at native, practising Jews. ‘Fisci ludaici‘ should mean ‘of the treasury of Judaea’ or ‘of the Jewish treasury’. As Hannah Cotton has pointed out to me, the motif of the palm tree was used explicitly to denote Judaea on Roman coinage. Thus the malicious accusation that has been removed (calumnia sublata) may have been the very existence of a special Jewish treasury, with its invidious tax which singled out Jews, unlike all other inhabitants of the empire, for payment of annual war reparations after unsuccessful revolt. (Goodman, 176)
When Nerva died, Trajan sought to perpetuate the sense of a new era which had been associated with his predecessor. — Horbury, 303
98 CE — Trajan becomes emperor and follows Nerva’s moderate and more liberal policies. First, towards the Greek elites in Alexandria of Egypt. In 98 CE Trajan issued the following letter to the city of Alexandria:
Aware that the city has distinguished itself by its loyalty to the Augustus emperors, and having in mind the benefits that my divine father has conferred on you […], and having personal feelings of benevolence, I commend you first of all to myself, and then also to my friend and prefect Pompey Planta, so that with all care I may assure you the enjoyment of continued peace (eirene), prosperity (euthenia) and the common rights of each and all . . . (P. Oxy., 42 3022 Greek text available at papyri.info).
It is in the end not very surprising that university students of history, with some knowledge of the sources for, say, Tudor England or Louis XIV’s France, find ancient history a ‘funny kind of history’. The unavoidable reliance on the poems of Horace for Augustan ideology, or in the same way on the Eumenides of Aeschylus for the critical moment in Athenian history when the step was taken towards what we know as Periclean democracy, helps explain the appellative ‘funny’. — Moses I. Finley Ancient History: Evidence and Models p. 12
Some time between 107 and 113 CE it appears that relations between Trajan and the Alexandrian elites soured. The evidence Capponi relies on may appear unusual: it is a series of accounts that are generally understood to be fictional entertainment, variously known as the Acts of the Pagan Martyrs, Acts of the Alexandrian Martyrs, and the Acta Alexandrinorum — though the preferred title by one scholar is simply Alexandrian Stories. Historians do use these stories in their historical reconstructions but with “caution”.
Since the literature is not widely known, let me provide some insights into what historians have said about it as a source.
The Acta Alexandrinorum tell the stories of the heroic deaths of Alexandrian Greek nobles. The favoured form of these stories is a record of their trial scene in the imperial court, usually presented as the official minutes (acta), with only a small amount of narrative. The Acta Alexandrinorum recycle the same archetypal story where a group of Alexandrian ambassadors travel to Rome and, on arrival, face a hostile emperor who has allied himself with their enemies, usually the Jewish community resident in Alexandria. . . .
Some of the stories have an historical, and perhaps a documentary, basis and use historical personages, but all surviving examples have been fictionalised to some extent. (p. 1 Harker)
– – –
The Acta Alexandrinorum literature was read in Egypt from the Augustan period to the mid-third century AD. (p. 2 Harker)
The literature is equally hostile to Romans, Jews and also Egyptians; that is all non-Greeks. . . . Alexandria was not a remote, isolated city that had unique problems with Rome, but very much part of the wider Hellenic Mediterranean world. . . .
The casting of the Romans and Jews as the judges and accusers of the Alexandrian heroes certainly would not have worked if there were no history of long-standing tension between the Alexandrian Greeks and the Romans and Jews. (p. 175 Harker – my highlighting)
. . . were truly popular and had a readership that covered a wide social spectrum in Roman Egypt. (p. 177 Harker)
From the scholar who is acknowledged as the first modern researcher into the Acts, Herbert Musurillo:
It is frequently a difficult task to determine when a piece of literature has been written primarily for propaganda (the literary characters being mere pawns in the presentation of a thesis), and when its aim is primarily entertainment, though with sharp political overtones. (p. 275 Musurillo)
. . . a study of the motifs which occur so frequently in the Acta indicates that they were intended to nourish the current prejudices of the interested circle-prejudices of an anti-Roman as well as an anti-Semitic nature-and to stir up their pride in an irretrievable past. (p. 275 Musurillo)
From the renowned classicist, Arnaldo Momigliano, whom Livia Capponi also cites:
It must therefore be ruled out that our documents have any partisan, pro- or anti-Semitic stance. However, just by reading them, it is also clear that they do not have the objectivity of truthful reports collected accurately but unofficially by listeners. Such reports undoubtedly form the basis of these “Acts” and thus explain the very plausible and often certainly true reports they give us as well as their contradictions. But it hardly needs saying that not only some details, such as the miracle of Serapis, but also whole episodes cannot be derived from these accounts. The whole episode of Fiacco’s corruption, with its mysterious colors, is invented. Therefore, given the current state of our knowledge, we are faced with these two facts in order to solve the literary problem constituted by these “Acts”: 1) the authentic and documentary background of their narratives; 2) the lack of any neutrality in their elaboration. . . . .
At least given our current knowledge, this collection of ‘Acts’ therefore seems to me to be understood as a novel with no higher purpose than ordinary novels; a novel built on historical data and thus usable, albeit with caution, as historical testimony. (p. 797f, Momigliano — translation.)
And finally from another historian of the Judean wars against Rome, William Horbury:
To move to the border between documents and literature, Alexandrian anti-Jewish and also anti-Roman feeling under Trajan and Hadrian breathe from the papyrus acts of the ‘pagan martyrs’. (p. 12 Horbury)
. . . events in Alexandria at the time of the revolt do receive some light from sources of a more anecdotal and publicistic kind. The ardently pro-Hellene, anti-Roman and anti-Jewish Acts of the Alexandrians, Greek accounts of trial scenes preserved in papyri, form a kind of propaganda literature presenting some analogies with Christian martyr-acts. A. Bauer’s 1898 description of the Acts of the Alexandrians as ‘pagan martyr-acts’ went together with an emphasis on their literary and fictional rather than documentary and archival character which has been developed further in subsequent study. On the Jewish side they can be compared with publicistic political literature including Philo’s tracts on events in 38, and Sibylline oracles. Later examples of such literature are the rabbinic anecdotes noted above, on the destruction of the basilica-synagogue and the slaughter of Alexandrian Jews by Trajan; these form a further source for Alexandria in the revolt. Slippery as the Acts of the Alexandrians are for the historian, they give a valuable impression of the kind of rumour and gossip which will have circulated in the times of Jewish-Greek conflict, with a strong impact on events.
Two sets of Acts in particular have been discussed in connection with Alexandrian Jewish unrest under Trajan – the Acts of Hermaiscus, pointing to the earlier years of Trajan, and the Acts of Paulus and Antoninus, referring to Jewish unrest in the city towards the end of Trajan’s reign, and in the view of many also suggesting a Jewish presence in Alexandria after Hadrian’s accession. (p. 212 Horbury — my highlighting)
Trajan’s Council “filled with Judeans”
So with the above assurance and caution we continue with Capponi’s historical reconstruction. The particular Alexandrian story of relevance, the Acts of Hermaiscus, begins when Greek elites elect representatives to sail to Rome to deliver complaints about the Judeans to the emperor Trajan. The Judeans hear what these Greek leaders are doing and respond by electing their own delegation to defend themselves. . . .
. . . They set sail, then, from the city, each party taking along its own gods, the Alexandrians (a bust of Serapis, the Jews…) . . . and when the winter was over they arrived at Rome.
The emperor learned that the Jewish and Alexandrian envoys had arrived, and he appointed the day on which he would hear both parties.
And Plotina [Trajan’s wife] approached (?) the senators in order that they might oppose the Alexandrians and support the Jews.
Now the Jews, who were the first to enter, greeted Emperor Trajan, and the emperor returned their greeting most cordially, having already been won over by Plotina. After them the Alexandrian envoys entered and greeted the emperor. He, however, did not go to meet them, but said: ‘You say “hail” to me as though you deserved to receive a greeting — after what you have dared to do to the Jews! .. .’
There is a break in the text and we pick up with Trajan speaking to the Alexandrian Greeks:
‘You must be eager to die, having such contempt for death as to answer even me with insolence.’
Hermaiscus said: ‘Why, it grieves us to see your Privy Council filled with impious Jews.’
Caesar said: ‘This is the second time I am telling you, Hermaiscus: you are answering me insolently, taking advantage of your birth.’
Hermaiscus said: ‘What do you mean, I answer you insolently, greatest emperor? Explain this to me.’
Caesar said: ‘Pretending that my Council is filled with Jews.’
Hermaiscus: ‘So, then, the word “Jew” is offensive to you? In that case you rather ought to help your own people and not play the advocate for the impious Jews.‘
As Hermaiscus was saying this, the bust of Serapis that they carried suddenly broke into a sweat, and Trajan was astounded when he saw it. And soon tumultuous crowds gathered in Rome and numerous shouts rang forth, and everyone began to flee to the highest parts of the hills ….
So Trajan is believed to be currying favour with the Judeans.
Capponi suggests the likely target of Hermaiscus’s complaint was the presence of Tiberius Julius Alexander Julian, son of the Alexandrian Judean Tiberius Julius Alexander, among Trajan’s closest advisors. He was also a general:
The presence of Julian as a leading soldier in the war that brought Trajan into contact with the Jewish communities of Mesopotamia seems to have been a strategic choice of the emperor, who probably aimed to secure the support or at least the non-belligerence of the Jewish communities present in the territories to be conquered. (p. 52)
Around the same time Trajan was immersed in preparations for his coming war against Parthia in the east. Contracts and treaties were being made with the peoples of the Caucasus, Bosporus and Cappadocian regions for grain supplies. Capponi adds,
Everything suggests – even if the information is scattered in sources of a very different nature – that that year [112 CE] Trajan also prepared an alliance with the Jewish communities. The Jews of Alexandria and Egypt controlled land and river communications in Pelusium and near the fortress of Babylon and Alexandria, and thus their alliance had a specific role in the war tactics planned by the emperor. That waterways were strategic is also testified by the construction, around 112, of a canal linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, the Trajanos potamos. (pp. 50f)
We have seen that Trajan began his reign continuing Nerva’s policy of relieving the burdens the Flavian emperors had inflicted on the Judeans. Coins minted in the Galilean city of Sepphoris may be further indications of Trajan’s favourable attitude towards the Judeans.
The emperor had evidently taken an important measure in favour of the Jews, perhaps, as mentioned, as compensation for the scandal of the fiscus iudaicus, the confiscations, the destruction of the Temple and the exile suffered after 70. Perhaps one should consider the presence of Trajan-era coins from the mint of Sepphoris with the eloquent legend (“Trajan granted”) as further evidence of financial movements taking place before 113. (p. 53)
Finally, Capponi suggests that the fictional depiction of the statue of the god Serapis weeping and alarming those present at the hearing before Trajan, may point to religious antagonisms lying behind the narrative. In no other Alexandrian martyr stories do symbols of the respective gods — a statue and, perhaps, a scroll of the Torah(?) — feature. Their presence delivers the message that the god of Alexandria is superior to that of the Judeans.
The Edict of Rutilius Lupus following a “battle” between Romans and Judeans
October 115 CE, the Prefect of Egypt, Marcus Rutilius Lupus, reprimands Alexandrians for their recent violence against the Judean population. The violent mob consisted of slaves and their Greek masters were held responsible for their actions. The prefect reminds the Greeks that they have long had no excuse for taking matters into their own hands — not since the historic Roman massacre of Judeans in the early days of the first war against Rome (66 CE). The Roman leader of the two legions at the time of that massacre was in fact the aforementioned Judean, Tiberius Julius Alexander, the father of the Judean close to Trajan. Alexander had managed to call his legionnaires back from their killing of the Judeans but the rest of the Alexandrians continued their rampage and a total of 50,000 Judeans were said to have been murdered.
The incident that led to Lupus’s edict may be connected to another of the Acts of the Alexandrian Martyrs, namely the Acts of Paul and Antony.
The Acts of Paul and Antoninus: the theatre riot
The story in summary pieced together from a broken text. While the emperor in this account is often said to be Hadrian, Capponi rejects the conjectural grounds for that identification and believes Trajan is preferable. The events take place when the prefect Lupus was absent from Alexandria, in 114 or 115 CE, there had been a riot in the city theatre. A mime play had parodied Trajan as a Judean king and drunkard. Riots followed.
In the riots that followed, the Jewish community of the city was involved and fires broke out. Rutilius Lupus had arrested some Jews and condemned the mime, but had guaranteed favourable treatment for the Alexandrians. Shortly afterwards, however, noblemen from Alexandria had mobilised slaves, apparently about sixty, for a punitive action against the Jews. According to the texts, the Alexandrians had kidnapped the Jews from prison and killed them, sparking further riots. . . .
The trial had ended with Antoninus being sentenced to be burnt at the stake, a fact that by its severity suggests the extent of the riots. (pp. 62f)
Antioch: Acts of Claudius Atilianus and the “Day of Tyrianus”
The same genre of literature as the Alexandrian Acts has been found at Antioch, another major city with a history of Greek-Judean tensions, often violence, in the Roman period. Judeans in Antioch accuse Claudius Atilianus, a Greek noble, of responsibility for deadly anti-Judean violence. (Claudius expresses divine reverence for the emperor, probably a snide hint against the Judeans who did not believe in his divinity.)
When [Trajan: originally Tyrianus = Claudius Atilianus?] seized Lulianos and Pappos at Laodicea [in Syria], he said: “If you are of the people of Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, let your God come and save you from my hand, as He saved Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah from the hand of Nebuchadnezzar.” They said to him: “Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah were upright men, and King Nebuchadnezzar was a worthy king and fit that a miracle should be wrought through him, but you, you are an evil king, and it is not fit that a miracle should be wrought through you, and we are deserving of death and if you do not slay us, the Omnipresent has many executioners — many bears, many lions, many snakes, many scorpions that can harm us, and if you kill us, the Holy One, blessed be He, will exact vengeance for our blood from you.” It was said that he had not even left that place when a Roman dispatch came to him and they split his head with clubs and logs. — (Megillat Ta’anit 31, trans by Zeev)
Rabbinic stories speak of an anti-Judean governor or Roman magistrate of Syria around this time named Tyrianus, and Capponi suggests that the name Atilianus has been confused through assonance into Tryrianus, so that possibly the Antioch trial before Trajan focuses on the same hero (to the Greeks of Antioch) or villain (to the Judeans of Antioch). There are multiple rabbinic accounts, however. According to William Horbury (p. 165) the Jerusalem Talmud refers to Trajan while the Babylonian Talmud has Tirion or Tyrianus, which suggests that the Day of Tyrianius”, a holiday that had supplanted another honouring the rebels against Antiochus Epiphanes in the time of the Maccabean rebellion, is reinterpreted as Trajan’s Day.
Capponi thus interprets the Acts of Claudius Atilianus as an account of the death of a Syrian governor for illegally executing Judeans. In Rabbinic legend the two Judeans he executed were financiers of Judean migration back to Judea in order to rebuild the Temple and in one account the governor’s name was confused with Trajan.We will return to this little datum.
It is probable that the Atilianus documented in the judicial record that has come down to us on papyrus was a Roman authority in Syria, tried before the emperor and then killed in Antioch, for illegally putting Jews to death in Laodicea. That there were trials and sentences in the arena could be recalled in the rabbinic account by the allusion of the two brothers to a probable death by the mouths of bears and lions – an obvious symbol of ad bestias condemnation during the games – if Tyrianus had not killed them first in some other way. (p. 66)
The Martyrdom of Ignatius
Re-enter Ignatius. We have posted about him before. (Roger Parvus suspected he was the Peregrinus of Lucian’s satire.) Livia Capponi follows the reconstruction of Marco Rizzi who in turn has a new look at a sixth century record. The table below is adapted from the one in Rizzi’s chapter (p. 126).
Possible Chronology for the Trial and Execution of Ignatius
Earthquake in Antioch, whose apocalyptic interpretation ignites Judean Diaspora revolts in 115 and/or 116.
January – August 115
Possible trial against Judean and Christian Antiochenes before of Trajan in Antioch; capture, trial, and condemnation of Ignatius who is sent in chains to Rome. Ignatius is accused of having insulted Trajan.
August – September 115
‘Battle’ (μάχη) between Judeans and Romans in Alexandria. Trajan orders the combatants to lay down their arms. Possible pacification also in Antioch and within the Christian community. A new bishop is substituted for Ignatius.
Revolt (στάσις) goes on in Alexandria, due to some slaves of prominent Alexandrians.
The restored “peace” was the occasion for Ignatius to give thanks that the church in Antioch has “now found peace” — in his second group of letters: Philadelphians, the Smyrnaeans, and Polycarp.
The Roman Senate decrees three days of ludii in the theater. Possible martyrdom of Ignatius
Judean Revolt in Mesopotamia and elsewhere
Pappus and Lulianus
We now meet up again with the executions that were celebrated in the “Day of Tyrianus”.
Claudius Atilianus (Tyrianus?) was condemned by Trajan for unjustly ordering the deaths of two Judean brothers. In rabbinic legend their names are Pappus and Lulianus and, as mentioned above, they came to be remembered as martyrs slain by Trajan. Since Capponi refers to Horbury as “the foremost expert” (“il maggiore esperto”) on the legend of Pappus and Lulianus I will quote Horbury’s description:
To put together some of the scattered notices, Pappus and Lulianus were rich men, the pride of Israel, whose execution fulfilled the prophecy ‘I will break the pride of your power’ . . . ; they set up banks from Acco to Antioch to aid those coming into Judaea . . . ; after their arrest they were offered water in a coloured glass, to make it appear that they had drunk idolatrous libation-wine, but they would not receive it . . . ; before Trajan slew them in Laodicaea, they exchanged bitter repartee with him, and told him that their blood would be required at his hands – and ‘it is said that Trajan had not moved from there before a despatch came from Rome, and they knocked out his brain with clubs’ . . . . Their commemorative day displaced an existing ‘day of Tirion’ (perhaps a Maccabaean commemoration), according to the Talmud Yerushalmi . . . : ‘the day of Tirion ceased on the day that Pappus and Lulianus were slain’. Instead of ‘Tirion’ a parallel passage in the Babylonian Talmud . . . has ‘Turianus’, Trajan. A ‘day of Tirion’ is placed on 12 Adar in an old list of commemorative days when fasting is not permitted . . . . A narrative of their activity and deaths had then probably begun to take shape well before the middle of the second century.
On the basis of these traditions Pappus and Lulianus have been viewed as leaders of revolt under Trajan or Hadrian. (p. 265)
A return of Judeans to Judea? Horbury cites further from rabbinic legends:
. . . ‘In the days of Joshua ben Hananiah, the empire decreed that the house of the sanctuary should be rebuilt. Pappus and Lulianus set up banks from Acco to Antioch, and supplied those who came up from the Exile . . . ’ (Ber. R. lxiv 10, on Gen. 26:29). Here they facilitate Jewish entry into Judaea, along the Antioch–Acco (Ptolemais) road, a main route to Judaea which had been paved to aid Roman military access from Syria after the Jewish-Samaritan conflicts about the year 50. The likely Roman reaction to this is suggested by the prohibition of immigration to increase the Jewish population in Alexandria decreed in earlier times by Claudius: ‘I bid the Jews . . . not to introduce or admit Jews who sail down from Syria or Egypt, acts which compel me to entertain graver suspicions; otherwise I shall take vengeance on them in every way, as instigating a general plague throughout the world’ (P. Lond. 1912 = CPJ no. 153, lines 88–9, 96–100).
Any Roman permission for temple rebuilding, as recounted in the midrash here, would have come, if at all, at a time other than that of the Jewish revolts during Trajan’s Parthian war. It can perhaps best be envisaged under Nerva and in the early years of Trajan . . . . Apart from this point, however, the reference to the temple is apt enough. Hope for a restored temple was, irrespective of any decree, part of the complex of aspirations for Jewish revival which was sketched from revolt coinage, the Eighteen Benedictions and other prayers . . . , and it could indeed help to evoke the immigration described. (pp. 266f)
Which brings us to the question of messianic hopes among the Judeans of the Diaspora as a contributor to their revolt against Rome.
That will be the subject of the next post.
Capponi, Livia. Il mistero del tempio. La rivolta ebraica sotto Traiano. Rome: Salerno, 2018.
Goodman, Martin. “The Fiscus Iudaicus and Gentile Attitudes to Judaism in Flavian Rome.” In Flavius Josephus and Flavian Rome, edited by J. C. Edmondson, Steve Mason, and J. B. Rives, 165–77. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Harker, Andrew. Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt: The Case of the Acta Alexandrinorum. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Horbury, William. Jewish War under Trajan and Hadrian. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Mason, Steve. A History of the Jewish War, A.D. 66-74. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Momigliano, Arnaldo. “Un Nuovo Frammento Dei Così Detti « Atti Dei Martiri Pagani ».” In Quinto Contributo Alla Storia Degli Studi Classici E Del Mondo Antico. II, 2:789–98. Storia e Letteratura: Raccolta di Studi e Testi 136. Rome: Ed. di Storia e Letteratura, 1975.
Musurillo, Herbert, ed. The Acts of the Pagan Martyrs: Acta Alexandrinorum. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.
Rizzi, Marco. “Jews and Christians under Trajan and the Date of Ignatius’ Martyrdom.” In Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries: The Interbellum 70‒132 CE, edited by Joshua J. Schwartz and Peter J. Tomson, 119–26. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2017.
Zeev, Miriam Pucci Ben. Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insights. Leuven ; Dudley, MA: Peeters Publishers, 2005.
Why did a transnational revolt, with the Jews at its centre, erupt in 116, capable of seriously challenging the Roman empire, which at that very moment had reached the phase of its greatest expansion? . . . What events, in 115 and then 116 CE, first led to Greek-Jewish clashes in Mediterranean cities, and then caused the Jews to take up arms to destroy every element of pagan culture and religion they encountered in their path?
— Livia Capponi: Il Mistero Del Tempio p.18 — translation
We continue picking out nuggets from Livia Capponi’s 2018 study. In this post we cover the main questions arising and the available sources.
The heterogeneous character of these sources complicates the work of historians as it requires the input of different disciplines, and a multiplicity of viewpoints. (p. 14 — all quotes are translations from the Italian)
Any search for the causes of the revolt surely has to begin with the defeat of the Judeans at the hands of Vespasian and Titus in 70 CE and their subsequent treatment.
Following that war, Judeans in all provinces were subject to “heavy confiscations of lands and properties” and a new tax on all who could be recognized as “Jewish”, whether Palestinian or not. From these extractions the great monuments of Flavian Rome were constructed — the Amphitheatre (Colosseum), the Circus Maximus, the arches of Titus.
According to a recent examination by the Belgian papyrologist Willy Clarisse of the tax receipts and arrears imposed on the Jews preserved in Egyptian papyri in the years 74-115 AD, the amount of confiscations and punitive impositions on the Jews between 73 and 115 AD was undoubtedly greater than scholars have long ascertained. The Jewish communities in the Mediterranean were also taxed retroactively according to burdensome and vexatious logic, which undoubtedly contributed to souring the already irreparably deteriorated relations between the imperial power and the communities themselves. (p. 16
Cassius Dio wrote his histories around 200 CE but they have come to us only in an eleventh century summary of them. That precis reads:
Trajan therefore departed thence, and a little later began to fail in health.
Meanwhile the Jews in the region of Cyrene had put a certain Andreas at their head, and were destroying both the Romans and the Greeks. They would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing; many they sawed in two, from the head downwards; 2 others they gave to wild beasts, and still others they forced to fight as gladiators. In all two hundred and twenty thousand persons perished. In Egypt, too, they perpetrated many similar outrages, and in Cyprus, under the leadership of a certain Artemion. There, also, two hundred and forty thousand perished, 3 and for this reason no Jew may set foot on that island, but even if one of them is driven upon its shores by a storm he is put to death. Among others who subdued the Jews was Lusius, who was sent by Trajan. (Book 68, 32:1-3)
Eusebius‘s references have come to us piecemeal through various other sources, but the most detailed account of his that we have is in his Ecclesiastical History:
While the teaching of our Saviour and the church were flourishing daily and moving on to further progress the tragedy of the Jews was reaching the climax of successive woes. In the course of the eighteenth year of the reign of the Emperor a rebellion of the Jews again broke out and destroyed a great multitude of them. For both in Alexandria and in the rest of Egypt and especially in Cyrene, as though they had been seized by some terrible spirit of rebellion, they rushed into sedition against their Greek fellow citizens, and increasing the scope of the rebellion in the following year started a great war while Lupus was governor of all Egypt. In the first engagement they happened to overcome the Greeks who fled to Alexandria and captured and killed the Jews in the city, but though thus losing the help of the townsmen, the Jews of Cyrene continued to plunder the country of Egypt and to ravage the districts in it under their leader Lucuas. The Emperor sent against them Marcius Turbo with land and sea forces including cavalry. He waged war vigorously against them in many battles for a considerable time and killed many thousands of Jews, not only those of Cyrene but also those of Egypt who had rallied to Lucuas, their king. The Emperor suspected that the Jews in Mesopotamia would also attack the inhabitants and ordered Lusius Quietus to clean them out of the province. He organized a force and murdered a great multitude of Jews there, and for this accomplishment* was appointed governor of Judaea by the Emperor. The Greek authors who chronicle the same period have related this narrative in these very words. (Book 4, 2:1-5)
In assessing the above one must also take into account the sources these authors used, as well, and that forms a part of Capponi’s discussion. But I’ll keep to bare outlines here.
Here are the events that preceded the revolt according to Cassius Dio:
The emperor Trajan embarked on a conquest of the east, in particular the Parthians. Special tribute was given to Alexander the Great’s memory in the process. The Roman Senate bestowed on Trajan the highest honours for these “conquests”, granting him as many “triumphs” as he wished — even though he met little or even no resistance at all. Northern Mesopotamian peoples quickly submitted to him, sometimes by sending him envoys promising surrender long before he reached them. (Recall the post on Witulski’s interpretation of the white horse of Revelation.)
But after Trajan had journeyed south down as far as the ruins of Babylon the regions he had “conquered” broke out in rebellion. Garrisons Trajan had left in those places were either slaughtered or forced to flee.
Cassius Dio wrote of how Trajan was forced to turn back and violently suppress these uprisings.
At the same time the Jewish diaspora witnessed uprisings, from northern Africa through to the “recently conquered” Mesopotamia itself. Cassius Dio seems to depict the scenes of revolt as encompassing one large theatre of war from Africa to Mesopotamia.
Eusebius agrees with the above in broad outline but has a different perspective insofar as he identifies the cause of the outbreak to have been hostilities between Greeks and Judeans in Alexandria, Egypt. This violence spread to engulf all of Egypt and eventually fanned into an all-out rebellion against Rome. A related source even suggests that the massacre of Judeans in Egypt was almost total. An Armenian version of a Eusebian text contains suggestions of a Jewish source that renamed Trajan’s general Lusias as Lysias, the general of Antiochus Epiphanes of the Maccebaean era fame. Capponi interprets this piece of evidence as an indicator of how the rebels saw themselves, as re-enacting the Maccabean revolt.
Late Rabbinic sources cannot be used to reconstruct events but they can arguably be used to understand “the psychological and cultural attitudes at the time of the revolt”. These sources do not tell us about a Jewish revolt against Rome but they do testify of “unjustified repression by the Romans and of their total incomprehension of Jewish religious traditions.” (p. 35) In the Jerusalem Talmud we read the following (Sukka V 1 55a-b) where, as Capponi notes, Trajan is presented as “almost aware of being an instrument in the hands of God”:
And once in the time of Trogianus, the evil one [Capponi sees here a reversal of Trajan’s name and title, Optimus Princeps, the “best citizen”]. A son was born to him on the ninth of Ab, and [the Israelites] were fasting. His daughter died on Hanukkah, and [the Israelites] lit candles. His wife sent a message to him, saying. Instead of going to conquer the barbarians, come and conquer the Jews, who have rebelled against you.’ He thought that the trip would take ten days, but he arrived in five. He came and found the Israelites occupied in the study of the Light [Torah], with the following verse: The Lord will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth…’ (Deut. 28:49). He said to them, ‘With what are you occupied?’ They said to him, ‘With thus-and-so.’ He said to them, That man (i.e., I) thought that it would take ten days to make the trip, and I arrived in five days.’ His legions surrounded them and killed them. He said to their wives, ‘Obey my legions, and I shall not kill you.’ They said to him, ‘What you did to the ones who have fallen do also to us who are yet standing.’ He mingled their blood with the blood of their men, until the blood flowed into the ocean as far as Cyprus. At that moment the horn of Israel was cut off, and it is not destined to return to its place until the son of David will come. [translation based on Jacob Neusner’s in The Talmud of the Land of Israel: A Preliminary Translation and Explanation, vol. 17 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 118-119]
The rabbis interpreted the massacres as punishment for “returning to Egypt”, contrary to biblical commands.
Other details Capponi notes of potential significance:
Jewish rebels (sicarii) who had escaped from Judea in the war of 66-70/73 CE found refuge in Egypt and Cyrene (so Josinsephus informs us) and it is reasonable to infer they carried the rebellious tradition;
Trajan earned fame or infamy from 112 CE when he “inaugurated a new dynastic policy based on the deification of his family”;
the Messianic character of the uprisings is “confirmed” in:
5 And after these things a fourth kingdom will arise, whose power will be harsh and evil far beyond those which were before it, and it will rule many times as the forests on the plain, and it will hold fast for times, and will exalt itself more than the cedars of Lebanon. 6 And by it the truth will be hidden, and all those who are polluted with iniquity will flee to it, as evil beasts flee and creep into the forest. 7 And it will come to pass when the time of its consummation that it should fall has approached, then the principate of My Messiah will be revealed, which is like the fountain and the vine, and when it is revealed it will root out the multitude of its host. 8 And as touching that which you have seen, the lofty cedar, which was left of that forest, and the fact, that the vine spoke those words with it which you did hear, this is the word.
40 1 The last leader of that time will be left alive, when the multitude of his hosts will be put to the sword, and he will be bound, and they will take him up to Mount Zion, and My Messiah will convict him of all his impieties, and will gather and set before him all the works of his hosts. 2 And afterwards he will put him to death, and protect the rest of My people which shall be found in the place which I have chosen.
 Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Look before you and consider what you see.”
 And I looked, and behold, a creature like a lion was aroused out of the forest, roaring; and I heard how he uttered a man’s voice to the eagle, and spoke, saying,
 “Listen and I will speak to you. The Most High says to you,
 `Are you not the one that remains of the four beasts which I had made to reign in my world, so that the end of my times might come through them?
 You, the fourth that has come, have conquered all the beasts that have gone before; and you have held sway over the world with much terror, and over all the earth with grievous oppression; and for so long you have dwelt on the earth with deceit.
 And you have judged the earth, but not with truth;
 for you have afflicted the meek and injured the peaceable; you have hated those who tell the truth, and have loved liars; you have destroyed the dwellings of those who brought forth fruit, and have laid low the walls of those who did you no harm.
 And so your insolence has come up before the Most High, and your pride to the Mighty One.
 And the Most High has looked upon his times, and behold, they are ended, and his ages are completed!
 Therefore you will surely disappear, you eagle, and your terrifying wings, and your most evil little wings, and your malicious heads, and 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 judgment and mercy of him who made it.'”
The oracles of Sib. V were written in Egypt after the destruction of the temple but probably before the Bar Kochba revolt. The main question which inevitably arises about its Sitz im Leben is its relationship to the revolt of Diaspora Jewry in 115. We cannot link the oracles directly to the revolt. However, they certainly reflect the atmosphere of nationalism and messianism which produced the revolt, and are our only documents from any strand of Egyptian Judaism at that time.
The suggestion was made by Lagrange and accepted by Fuks that the revolt had no more specific cause than the general messianic expectation of the Jews. The strong expectation of a saviour figure in Sib. V reflects this expectation and may have helped arouse it. True, the saviour expected was a heavenly being but this does not exclude the possibility of his appearing and acting on earth, as we see from the case of Bar Kochba and others. The deep pessimism of the book does not preclude recourse to action. It might in fact have been typical of the desperate attitude of the Jewish revolt.
The bitterness of complaint about the temple and the deeply pessimistic character of the book suggest that at least the central oracles, vv 52-110, 111-178, 179-285 and 286-434 [these lines can be read online at the Sacred Texts site] , were written not long after the destruction of the temples both of Jerusalem and of Leontopolis. Expectation of Nero’s return is also most likely to have flourished at this time.
However, there is reason to believe that there was some direct continuity between the ideology of the sibyl and that of the revolt. In a number of places the sibyl speaks of the destruction of pagan temples. In fact this was a notable characteristic of the revolt . . . . (Collins, p. 94)
¶ massive earthquake in Antioch (several days of severe tremors) – Trajan reputed to have “miraculously survived”:
according to the legend that circulated later, the emperor was brought out of danger by a creature of superhuman dimensions, celebrated on the coinage of 115 as “Jupiter saviour of the fatherland” (p. 23);
a passage in Baruch speaks of “a leader who escaped a war, then an earthquake and then a fire, who would be killed by the messiah” (p. 38)
Diaspora Jews and the Jerusalem Temple
It has been suggested that the Jews in the Diaspora had little interest in the temple since there is no indication that they were interested in coming to its rescue in the war of 66-70 CE. But Capponi points out with reference to Martin Goodman’s historical account that the reason they did not come to the aid of the motherland was “only because they did not suspect that the Temple might be destroyed.” (p. 42)
The Scale of Destruction
We will see in future posts that the scale of the violence was such that it posed a serious threat to the Roman Empire. Archaeological remains testify to the widespread extent of the violence. The figures we read in the literary sources are surely (hopefully) exaggerated but even so, when we read of hundreds of thousands being massacred by Jews, and of the annihilation of all the Jews in Egypt, and the evidence of surviving lists that tell us that no less than a third of the legionnaires sent to quell the uprisings were killed, we know we are dealing with a major war.
Eighty years later Greeks in Egypt continued to celebrate their eventual victory over the Jews.
So from the above information we appear to find some confusion in exactly what was happening and how the events transpired.
115 CE: guerilla war by the Jews in Alexandria, the rest of Egypt, and Cyrene
116 CE: erupted in full scale open revolt when Greeks massacred the Jews of Alexandria.
Jews of Cyrene, under Lucuas (Luke) marched to Egypt and ravaged countryside [why? — unclear]
Trajan sent Turbo to restore order: many battles . . . .
Trajan’s successful campaign undone when he went to Persian Gulf and areas in northern Mesopotamia that had recently submitted to him broke out in revolt.
Lusius Quietus involved in the suppression and restoring Roman rule.
Trajan ordered preemptive massacre of Jews in Mesopotamia, led by Lusius Quietus, who was rewarded for his massacres by being appointed governor of Judea.
Trajan fell ill.
The Jews of Cyrene, led by Andreas (Andrew) were in rebellion;
Romans slaughter rebels in their hundreds of thousands in Egypt.
Artemion led Jews in Cyprus in revolt — Lusius sent to crush it.
The two accounts can be harmonized if we read Eusebius as providing more detail about the origin of the outbreak. But there remains the contradiction over the order in which the Mesopotamian massacres took place. The significance of that question will become clear when we dive deeper into Livia Capponi’s investigations in further posts.
Capponi, Livia. Il mistero del tempio. La rivolta ebraica sotto Traiano. Rome: Salerno, 2018.
Collins, John J. (John Joseph). The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism. Missoula, Mont. : Published by Society of Biblical Literature for the Pseudepigrapha Group, 1974. http://archive.org/details/sibyllineoracles0000coll.
Zeev, Miriam Pucci Ben. Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insights. First Edition. Leuven ; Dudley, MA: Peeters Publishers, 2005.
How we would love to know more about the times between the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and the crushing of the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE. That period is surely a decisive one for how both Christianity and Judaism developed into what they are today. Some have suggested that this period saw the actual births of both Judaism and Christianity as distinct religions in the forms we recognize today.
We have Josephus to inform us about the first Jewish war of 66-73 CE. But we have no comparable contemporary historians of the Bar Kokhba war and only scant hints about “troubles” in the in-between time. We recently posted a series on Thomas Witulski’s thesis that the Book of Revelation was written in response to the events in the times of Trajan and Hadrian, in particular the days of the Bar Kokhba rebellion. In that series we saw that the red horse and its rider in the apocalypse arguably represented the widespread uprisings of Jews in the time of Trajan and the black horse and especially the pale horse depicted the horrific consequences of those revolts (around 115-117 CE).
There are different kinds of history.
There is straight narrative history that interprets known events from the reliable sources. The facts are rarely in doubt but their meaning and significance may be open to debate.
There is historical work that analytically dissects statistics.
There is investigative history that seeks to uncover “what really happened”, such as when there is an interest in settling some current controversy, such as how indigenous peoples were treated by imperial powers.
And then there are hypothetical reconstructions based on a fresh interpretation of sources. This last type is not “an established fact” in the sense we can say “Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC”, so it will be open to debate. Readers will want to know the grounds for the various details proposed and I hope to make those clear in these posts.
The historian Livia Capponi has attempted to fill in that gap with her reconstruction of events in what she describes as “a circumstantial history” (“una storia indiziaria” (p. 75). Her book is published in Italian and is titled, in English, Mystery of the Temple — the Jewish Revolt Under Trajan = Il Mistero Del Tempio: La Rivolta Ebraica Sotto Traiano (2018).
The basic argument presented is this:
Before the revolts of 116-117 CE relations between Rome and Judea were unstable but not openly hostile.
In 96 CE the emperor Nerva abolished an odious tax on Jews and initiated a policy of relative tolerance.
The next emperor, Trajan, sought the support of the Jews (as part of his efforts to safeguard his supply line in his war against Parthia) by authorizing the preparation of a road for exiles to return to Judea and a promise to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem.
If messianic expectations were aroused in the wake of Trajan’s policies they soon turned violent when it was learned that Trajan’s tolerance included the integration of the proposed temple into the Greco-Roman pantheon. There is evidence that Trajan and his general Lusius Quietus (we met him briefly in the post on the red horse) dedicated monuments to pagan gods in Jerusalem.
Some readers will be aware that I have expressed doubts that there were popular messianic movements extant in Judea or the Diaspora prior to 70 CE — remarks about a “world ruler from the Orient” in Josephus and others notwithstanding. (See posts listed under Second Temple Messianism.) But there is evidence that messianic hopes were alive after the catastrophe of 70 CE. Messianic pretenders do seem to appear across the landscape. Such has been my view so I was particularly keen to read Capponi’s thesis about that time.
Livia Capponi has taken a fresh look at the sources — Jewish and others, both primary and secondary — and attempted to uncover what can be learned about the feelings of Jews at this time and what was happening that led to the widespread violence and its bitter aftermath.
Above all, an attempt is made to explain how, from an initial policy of tolerance and an attempt by Trajan to mend the trauma of the loss of the Temple in 70 through Jewish initiatives, he arrived at the bloody repression of the revolt, which swept away the Jewish communities from Egypt, Cyrene and Cyprus, and which led rabbinic literature to portray Trajan as ‘the wicked one’. The compromise of the Temple was probably associated with a form of ‘integration’ of the Temple itself into the Greco-Roman pantheon, evidenced by the construction in Jerusalem of statues and monuments to the emperor and to deities such as Jupiter and Serapis. This policy, normal for the Romans, but aberrant and unacceptable to the Jews, probably explains why Trajan and his general Lusio Quieto in Jewish sources were associated with Antiochus IV Epiphanes of Syria, author of the desecration of the Temple in 167-164 BC, and the Syrian general Lysias. The Diaspora revolt was in the eyes of the Jews a new Maccabean revolt.
The hypothesis is presented and discussed through a re-reading of the historiography on the years 115-117 (in which many problems still exist, also due to incidents in the transmission of sources), and of contemporary documents (papyri and inscriptions). Finally, an attempt is made to integrate into the framework of the Western sources some suggestions drawn from texts composed in a Jewish environment, materials that are extremely difficult because they are enigmatic and expressions of a religious conception, not a desire for historical reconstruction.
(pp. 11f, translation)
I will be posting some of the details from Livia Capponi’s book over the next few weeks.
Capponi, Livia. Il mistero del tempio. La rivolta ebraica sotto Traiano. Rome: Salerno, 2018.
I have not posted so frequently here but have been busy on the blog pages …. if you have an interest in comparing how the author of Acts of the Apostles paired Peter and Paul as miracle workers check out the latest addition to my series of translations of Bruno Bauer.
How often have we found opinions expressed about those two sons of the cross-bearing Simon of Cyrene, Alexander and Rufus, mentioned only in the Gospel of Mark? Usually we read that the author was giving a wink to his local readers who knew them personally. But these readers all turned and smiled at the pair in their midst when the passage was read because no other gospel mentions them. The reason, we are commonly assured, is that the later authors did not know who they were so dropped them from their crucifixion narratives.
It’s a nice story, but surely a little reflection exposes it as false as the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus. Did the authors following Mark personally know all of the characters mentioned by Mark? Did that personal ignorance lead them to drop any mention of them from their versions of events? Does not our experience with obscure figures in ancient literature teach us that rather than remove scenes that seem too sparse later authors prefer to augment them, to invent details to make stick figures more rounded? Compare, for instance, how the unnamed centurion plunging a spear into Jesus’ side in John’s gospel was later given a name and whole anecdotes were filled out about him.
Meanwhile, what are we to make of Alexander and Rufus, the sons of Simon of Cyrene?
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. — Mark 15:21
Are they added because of their symbolism? A Jewish name being the father of a Greek and a Roman name? It certainly looks like an enticing idea — all nations represented at the moment of the crucifixion. Or do they represent gnostic leaders? Or are they figures recalling the destruction of the Jews in wars, as proposed by Andreas Bedenbender? There have been many proposals and many discussions in print and online. I once pointed to them to remark on what I saw as literary bookend patterns in Mark.
But what if….. what if they were never part of the Gospel of Mark when it was composed but were later additions that had no relevance to the gospel at all?
Bruno Bauer introduced me to that possibility and I was compelled to consult the source that led him to his doubts. In a footnote in the final volume of his critique of the gospel narrative he wrote:
The further specification, “the father of Alexander and Rufus,” is an excess that is unfamiliar to Mark. It is an addition that a much later reader inserted. The two names are arbitrarily taken from the letters of the New Testament. (p. 291, translation)
How could he say such a thing about a question that has puzzled and exercised so many minds and generated so many theories? Bauer frequently critically cites Christian Gottlob Wilke so back to his 1838 work on the first gospel I turned.
Wilke believed “Bartimaeus” was not a name given to the blind man Jesus healed in the original author of the Gospel of Mark. The original text simply called him a “blind man”. If he had been known by a certain name he would not subsequently (10:49) have been simply referred to as “the blind man”. (If that is correct, we are following another rabbit hole if we use Bartimaeus to decipher Plato’s influence coded in the gospel.)
Then Wilke writes about the words in Mark 15:21, “the father of Alexander and Rufus”, saying that they . . .
. . . do not belong to the original text. Had Simon been thus more particularly designated, how would it have been previously stated that “a certain man of Cyrene” was compelled? (The readers who knew the man did not need the stipulation that he was of Cyrene, and for those who did not know him the latter was sufficient, nay, it is evident from it that it was the very thing which should have substituted for the name). (p. 673, translation)
He continues by noting a similar case for Levi being designated a “son of Alphaeus” in Mark 3. If he is correct there, that demolishes another set of theories such as those of Dale and Patricia Miller.
But Wilke does have a point. The way “father of Alexander and Rufus” is introduced is not the typical way one would introduce a new figure who is supposedly recognized by the readers.
Whatever the reality, one point that we are reminded of here: our earliest surviving texts are far removed from the originals. We cannot guarantee “every jot and tittle” has been preserved without some sort of corruption. We do know that copyists for innocent reasons and for more malign motives did sometimes edit what they copied.
We do not have sound foundations on which to base any discussion that relies upon a conviction that specific words and names were part of the original documents — unless we have early independent supporting evidence to give us such assurance.
Bauer, Bruno. Kritik der evangelischen Geschichte der Synoptiker und des Johannes. Vol. 3. 3 vols. Hildesheim ; New York : Olms, 1974 . http://archive.org/details/kritikderevangel0003baue.
Wilke, Christian Gottlob. Der Urevangelist oder exegetisch kritische Untersuchung über das Verwandtschaftsverhältniss der drei ersten Evangelien. Dresden ; Leipzig : Gerhard Fleischer, 1838. http://archive.org/details/derurevangelisto0000wilk.
I have been posting section by section my translations of Bruno Bauer’s gospel criticisms here and can note:
he is a must-read author for anyone wanting to understand the evidence that the narratives arose from authorial creativity and not from inherited traditions;
he is quite difficult for anyone who is not familiar with Hegelian thought to understand his explanations for historical origins of religious ideas.
I thought I would try to sort out my difficulty with #2 by picking up Douglas Moggach’s study of Bruno Bauer: The Philosophy and Politics of Bruno Bauer. Unfortunately, I found its opening pages virtually incomprehensible since they were clearly written for mature initiates into Hegelian philosophy. So after searching “Hegel for Dummies” online I settled on Stephen Houlgate’s An introduction to Hegel : freedom, truth, and history. It is excellent! Houlgate doesn’t assume any knowledge at all of Hegelian thought among his readers and he illustrates each explanatory step with real-world illustrations. I look forward to gaining enough of an understanding to turn again to Bruno Bauer and not be fazed by his references to “self-consciousness” in the context of historical discussions.
(To me, the words “self consciousness” bring to mind works by Patricia Churchland and others. I need to shift a gear when reading the Hegelian Bauer.)
What I have enjoyed the most about my new reading is discovering the political focus of Bruno Bauer — and his brother and his associates. He was a “republican” — though I am still to learn what that exactly meant to him, as it is clear that his republicanism opposed not only socialism but also liberalism.
As for the anti-semitism associated with his later years, I have read mixed accounts. Some say it was “blatant”, others that he stood opposed to the possibility of religion being the basis for a free and democratic society. (If the latter, one surely sees the truth of that view in the modern state of Israel with its extreme right-wing religiously dominated government.) But my focus will be on his early years and his biblical criticism. I am curious to learn more about the reasons for his dispute with David Friedrich Strauss.
The Wikipedia page on Bruno Bauer concludes with an irrelevant little tirade against “mythicism”. The author clearly never read Bauer’s own arguments and grounds for thinking that the gospel narratives arose from the experience of the early Christian community rather than from oral or other “traditions”.
Having questioned the common notion that Jesus made his appearance in a society pining for the coming of a deliverer to free the Jews from Rome, I was happily surprised to see further arguments against the same common idea set out 180 years ago in an appendix to a multi-volume work on the gospels written by Bruno Bauer.
I have posted the translation below but for those in a rush here are the key takeaways:
– A survey of the Second Temple literature demonstrates a distinct lack of interest in the idea of a literal Davidic messianic figure about to appear in the future. [Bauer was writing before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls but see the posts in response to Richard Carrier in the side box for what other scholars have had to say on that so-called evidence for popular messianism.]
– If Judeans had developed ideas about a coming messiah from their prophetic texts we would expect to see in the gospels some reference to stock ideas from those supposedly widespread ideas. Instead, the gospel authors are “winging it” — they come up with different possibilities for interpreting Old Testament passages as messianic and are evidently not tapping in to common ideas supposedly extant at the time. They are creating the prophetic interpretations, not inheriting common stock.
– History-changing personalities have always made their impact by the originality of their ideas and presence; they have not made a splash by claiming to be a popularly pre-figured person.
I have added sub-headings to make it easier to focus on points of particular interest.
The Messianic Expectations of the Jews at the Time of Jesus
All those who have spoken out against Strauss’s interpretation of the evangelical history in recent years also felt it was their duty to protest against the derivation of sacred history from the Messianic expectations of the Jews. But this protest, no matter how earnestly intended or spoken with holy disgust at the supposed blasphemy, was from the beginning powerless and remained so, since it could not prevent Gfrörer from developing the contested view to the extreme that it could reach. But what use was it to recall that this or that Jewish book, which the critic designated as a source for the views of the evangelists, was written six, seven, or fourteen centuries after the composition of the Gospels? What could an argument of this kind achieve, which only focused on individual and few points, if one shared with Strauss the basic assumption that Messianic expectation had already prevailed among the Jews before the appearance of Jesus, and even knew fairly accurately what its nature was? To the same extent, a dispute of this kind had to be futile and useless, just as it was impossible for Strauss to make the origin of the evangelical history understandable, as long as he, like Hengstenberg, considered the Messianic dogma of the Jews as one that had already been fully developed before the appearance of Jesus. Both criticism and apologetics shared the same error, their struggle could only lead to unfruitful quarrels, but not to a decision, and the matter suffered most – it remained buried in prejudices.
Since Gfrörer has now taken uncritical thinking to its peak, it is finally time to come to our senses and to recognize reason, which has not yet come to recognition in this regard after two thousand years of error in history. It is a matter of the utmost importance – who does not immediately sense it? – to bring criticism to its ultimate crisis and to make it the last judgment of the past by elevating it to complete ideality and universality and freeing it from the last unrecognized positive with which it has still been entangled. The last and most persistent assumption that it still shared with apologetics must be addressed – and how extraordinary is the reward that follows the resolution of this uncritical assumption when the creative power is again attributed to the Christian principle, which even the previous criticism had denied.
Thinking the unthinkable
Apologetics, as it has developed or rather remained the same since the beginning of the Christian community until our day, could not even conceive the idea that it might be possible to question whether the Messiah’s view had become a reflection concept before the time of Jesus and had come to power as such. It couldn’t – because it is already clear to them from the outset that the content of the revelation has always been the same and always the same one object of consciousness *); it must not – because in its limited polemical interest, it believes that the connection of the Old and New Testament is only ensured if it demonstrates the content of the latter as a real object of consciousness in the former. To interpret the preparation of Christianity differently, namely to say that Jesus only had to say: “See, I am what you have been expecting so far” – this is completely impossible for them.
*) The author allows himself to refer to the detailed explanation in his presentation of the Religion of the Old Testament, section 54.
Even Strauss shared the apologist assumption
Until now, it was impossible for criticism to free itself and history from the apologetic shackles, as every opposition in its first form shared the assumptions of its opponent and only determined them differently. Hengstenberg and those before him claimed that in Jesus, what the pious had hoped and expected had appeared, while Strauss claimed that in the Christian community, the history of Jesus had been created and elaborated as an image and fulfillment of Jewish expectations.
Intent to produce evidence
After having proven in the above criticism that the gospel history has its principle solely in Christian self-consciousness, and that its assumptions, as far as they are contained in the Old Testament, were only used by the community and the evangelists as these assumptions for the elaboration of the Christian principle and the messianic image, we want to provide evidence in outline that the messianic element of the Old Testament view did not develop into a reflection concept before the beginning of the Christian era.
It is not necessary to mention here in more detail that the messianic views of the prophets had not yet been raised by them to the unity and solidity of the concept of reflection; we have proven this in our presentation of the religion of the Old Testament. The interest of the present investigation lies solely in the question of whether the idea of “the Messiah” had prevailed among the Jews in the centuries immediately preceding the advent of Jesus.
The Numbers prophecy of Balaam
If we first examine the Septuagint, whose oldest components are said to date back to the third century BC, and Jonathan’s paraphrase, we have an example of what a translation of the Old Testament must look like when it is written in a time and environment where “the Messiah” has become the subject of consciousness and the view has become dogma. The translator must indicate explicitly the individual passages that can and should be interpreted messianically, and he must state expressly that the passage speaks of the Messiah at that point. A necessary consequence of this reflection will eventually be that even in the translation, the systematic theory cannot be denied, namely that the content of one passage is transferred to another and one view is combined with another – all things that one searches for in vain in the translation of the LXX. Once (in Balaam’s blessing, Num. 24:7), it is indeed said differently from the original text: “A man shall come out of Jacob’s seed and he shall rule over many peoples.” But it is not only not said that this man is the Messiah, it is rather clear that it is to be a man, that is, a future king in general, who (v.17) will wound the princes of Moab and plunder the children of Seth.
Another worthy study is now available in English — most belatedly, unfortunately, since it was first published 170 years ago in German! Again, see the right margin of this blog for links to works by Bruno Bauer:
Again, I have made it available as a single PDF file, too, though I expect over time I will see little corrections will be needed and there will be revisions. See vridar.info for the pdf.
(I have also completed a draft translation of another multi-volume work: Kritik der evangeliſchen Geſchichte der Synoptiker = Critique of the Gospel History of the Synoptics. I will need to spend a little time checking for major errors and any gaps before making it available. Hopefully no more than a few weeks. I will probably post an appendix from it before then, though — I was quite pleased to see that Bruno Bauer is another who found no evidence for popular messianic expectations in Judea prior to 70 CE and that the gospels actually serve as evidence against that common notion.)
It is a machine translation (DeepL, ChatGPT, Google Translate + some human checking from time to time) so it is not the best but it is readable — at least I found it to be so. I compared parts of it with another published translation and saw that the published book is also very close to a literal translation. A literal translation is not optimal (it is not always the easiest of reads) but this one is at least free.
ChatGPT to some extent tended to break away from the literal translation but at the cost of being too creative and even introducing what it thought should be corrections or additions to the original text! So I hope none of those creative additions slipped through to the finished product.
The current post follows on from the previous one where we outlined the identification as “forerunners” of Israel the Banu Yamina (Benjamin) with their “davids” in the northern Syrian steppes during the second millennium BCE. One detail I did not note in that post but am adding here is that those same people had a particular group of diviners known as “nabi’um” — from which the Hebrew “navi”, meaning “prophet”, derives. So Garbini drew attention to the “Benjamin” confederacy having connections with Yahud, “davids” and “prophets”.
Giovanni Garbini traced the origins, migrations and settlements of Israel through his research as a professor of Semitic philology. In Garbini’s view, both “maximalists” (those who interpreted all archaeological evidence through the Bible) and “minimalists” (those who relied upon archaeological evidence ‘speaking for itself’) overlooked the evidence of epigraphy — the study of place and ethnic names in both the archaeological finds and the Bible. Garbini wrote that he…
found himself alone in supporting the thesis that adequate linguistic and philological preparation, with the support of extrabiblical sources, makes it possible to reconstruct the ancient history of Israel differently from the biblical account, using the Bible itself as the main source . . . (Scrivere, p. 11 – translation)
Throughout much of that second millennium in the northern Syrian steppes tribal groups were changing their seminomadic and pastoralist lifestyles when they built and settled into cities, allowing for new groups to move in to surrounding areas, with those semi-nomadic groups ever-changing their confederations, with new tribes emerging and older ones disappearing, always over the centuries in ethnic and tribal flux.
Egypt dominated the coastal and hinterland region as far as today’s Lebanon up until the 1300s BCE when we have Egyptian records informing us that new tribal groups and mercenary armies were threatening the security of cities over which Egypt had been the hegemon.
When Garbini integrates these Egyptian records with those of the Assyrian kingdom covering the ensuing century he pinpoints a critical new group of people who will become major players in the Levant: the name by which they were eventually most commonly known was the Aramaeans. They are sometimes named in association with one of the tribes of the Banu Yamini (or “Benjamin”, whom we met in the previous post.)
The Assyrians first encountered the Aramaeans in the northern region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The region between the Tigris and Euphrates where the Assyrians first encountered these Aramaeans was known as Musri. Over the following centuries Musri was also identified on both sides of the Euphrates and in the ninth century, at the Battle of Qaqar on the Orontes River, some of the combatants were identified as Musri. Evidently they took their name from the region where they had originated. It appears that this branch of Aramaeans was gradually moving west.
1300’s BCE — Israel came out of ‘Egypt’, or Musri?
What are we to make of this name “Musri”?
Musri in the Bible
Musri is also mentioned in the Bible, or rather it was mentioned, because in the current text, both in Hebrew and Greek, this name has been systematically concealed through a series of textual interventions. (Scrivere, p. 22 – translation)
Garbini sets out the evidence that the Hebrew Bible we know today has several times replaced Musri with the name Egypt. When it was not replaced, it was spelled incorrectly to make it look like another name for Egypt (msrym instead of mwsr). At some stage scribes associated closely with Jerusalem and who were responsible for the Hebrew Bible attempted to downplay early links between Israel and the northern Aramaean people and region. They repeatedly stressed that though Abraham had come from Mesopotamia, Israel grew into a nation in Egypt and Yahweh who drew them out of Egypt. That was their identity.
But the evidence of philology, the names in the sources, indicate that Israel rather came from the north, from Musri and the Aramaic area, Garbini explains.
In Garbini’s view, some of the biblical books preserve very ancient traditions to this effect:
When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, . . . Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” . . . . 5 Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramaean . . . — Deut. 26:1-5
Hosea fondly looks back on the time Israel was in Egypt and called out to be with God, but any perusal of that time in the Pentateuch quickly reminds us it was not a time of fond romance but one of tension, rebellion, so much so that God cursed the entire generation and even required Moses to die before entering the promised land. Hosea and Amos warn that Israel will be punished by being made to return to Assyria — and Egypt, in a context that suggests Egypt is near or under the dominion of Assyria. That makes more sense if the original text spoke of Musri, Garbini argues. There are other detailed arguments but I am avoiding the technicalities in this post.
The testimony of Hosea and the stories about the patriarchs, which were written at a later date, reveal the existence of a remarkably ancient tradition that traced the origins of Israel and Ephraim to the environment of the Aramaic-speaking seminomads who, startingfrom the 15th century BC, moved in the land of Musri, i.e. the vast steppe area of northern Syria that extended on both sides of the Upper Euphrates. Here, through processes that we do not know, a homogeneous group of tribes was formed, which took the name of Israel and at a certain moment began to move southwards. If several centuries later a prophet, who felt himself to be the custodian of the religious tradition of the group to which he belonged, launched reproaches and threats to his contemporaries who, in his opinion, did not honor the god who had brought them to the land of Canaan enough, it is very likely that the cult of that god played an important role in the formation of Israel. (Scrivere, p. 25 – translation)
Abraham, King of Damascus – and the Damascus Document
Benjamin may have been the youngest of the twelve sons of Jacob according to the Bible but in the archaeological record his name – and tribe – is the first to appear. Or rather, the name, Banu Yamin, represents a coalition of about four or five tribes.* But Banu Yamin, sons of the right (hand), is their name in documents at Mari first appearing around the early second millennium, let’s say around 1600 BCE. That coincides with the time biblical chronology is thought by some to indicate the time of Abraham’s entry into Canaan. (One of those tribes was named Rāfē’, which may be compared with the fifth son of Benjamin, Rapha, in 1 Chronicles 8:2.)
Those who have dealt with the history of Israel so far may not have been pleased to learn that, in the 17th century BC, the youngest of Abraham’s great-grandchildren was circulating instead of Abraham himself. (p. 17 – translation)
The sons of right refers to the people of the south, or southerners, because another Semitic tribe, one to the north, were the Banu Sam’al, the name meaning “left”. (Perspective is based on facing the rising sun.)
Now it is possible that “southerners” was a common term that could apply to any group of people at any time, and if so, then the Banu Yamin may have nothing more than the coincidence of the name in common with the biblical tribe of Benjamin. But there is more. To translate the comment by Giovanni Garbini:
The possibility of a homonymy between Banu Yamina and Benjamin cannot be completely excluded, but it appears unlikely for the reasons that will now be explained.
First of all, it should be said that theonomasticcoincidence between the Mari semi-nomads and Semitic peoples documented at the beginning of the first millennium BC could also concern the “sons of the left”. In the 9th and 8th centuries BC, a city named Sam’al flourished in Cilicia, ruled by an Aramaic dynasty whose members sometimes bore Anatolian names (Kilamuwa Panamuwa, etc.). The singularity of the toponym suggests that the foundation of this Semitic city in a non-Semitic area is somehow linked to the banu sim’al. When we consider that the name of the Semitic people of Sam’al was Ya’ud . . . , a linguistic form identical to Yahud, it will be difficult to attribute to chance that a Ya’ud/Yahud ethnic group was closely related to both the “sons of the left” to the north and the “sons of the right” to the south. (Scrivere, 17)
Yahud, you will suspect, bears some relation to Judah and Jehud (the Jewish province in the Persian era), the name being formed from Yah/Yahweh.
Before continuing, let’s be clear where we are:
The vast steppe areas that close off the northern part of the Syrian desert, bordered to the east by the Euphrates and to the west by the Afrin, Orontes, and Jordan rivers, constituted the environment in which numerous tribes of semi-nomads lived, mainly devoted to animal husbandry and raids while continuously moving. The presence and the very existence of these peoples, who have never left any trace of themselves, are revealed by information transmitted by written texts within sedentary cultures possessing writing, namely Mesopotamia and Egypt. . . .
In the 3rd millennium and the first half of the 2nd millennium BC, all the semi-nomadic tribes were of Semitic language and appeared to be characterized by intense military activity.
The most significant information on Semitic semi-nomads comes from hundreds of letters written in Babylonian found in the royal archive of Mari, a Syrian city on the right bank of the middle Euphrates. Most of the letters date back to the first half of the 18th century BC. In this period, the term amurru, which designated the first semi-nomads who came into contact with Mesopotamia in the 24th century BC, had become a generic name to indicate the “West,” that is, Syria. We recall that the Hammurabi dynasty (1792-1750 BC), which ruled Babylon, was of Amorite origin. By the 18th century BC, the Amorites had already passed the semi-nomadic phase and had become largely sedentary. In their place, two large groups of tribes, the Suteans (Sutum) and the Banu Yamina, had entered the steppe of Syria.(Scrivere, 15ff)
The Banu Sam’al were spread across the north but the map below identifies the location of the city of Sam’al that we read about above:
The texts at Mari even speak of “Davids” long before the biblical David:
[C]oncerning the banu yamina, the texts often speak of a dawidüm, who was also present in other tribal groups and sometimes in cities, where he was in close contact with the king or members of the royal house. The dawidüm appears in texts as a military leader during a battle, but he is a leader with such particular prerogatives that in texts the expression “to kill the dawidüm” is almost idiomatic to mean “to win a battle”; in some cases, the word dawidùm is synonymous with “victory”. The problem of the dawidüm is certainly complex, and the information we have is not sufficient to fully clarify it; . . .
And, as we would expect, religiously interested scholars have sometimes muddied the research efforts:
. . . what can be said is that it has been made even more complicated by the attitude of those scholars who have dealt with the dawidüm with the sole purpose of demonstrating the lack of any relationship between this character and his functions and the great King David of the Bible; however, we can immediately say that before him, in the whole Near East, there was never any person named David.
Every “david” of the Benjamin tribes who led his army to battle would either be victorious or be sacrificed:
The word dawid . . . is the passive participle (as in Aramaic) of the verb dwd “to love”; literally, it means “the loved one“. Actually, it is a technical term that indicates a particular relationship between a member of the royal family, usually the king, and a noble. The Amorite dawid finds an exact semantic parallel in the mawd (passive participle of wdd “to love”), which is found in the oldest Sabaean inscriptions (7th century BC) and is usually translated as “friend”; many prominent figures declare themselves mwd of their sovereigns. The Mari texts, which highlight the military function of the dawid that invariably ends with his death, only illustrate one aspect of this figure, which must have carried a complex ideology. If every battle lost by the Banu Yamina inevitably resulted in the death of the dawid, this means that this person did not fall in battle but was put to death, probably in a ritual manner, after the victory achieved by the opponents on the field; reading the Mari texts, one gets the impression that a victory would not have been complete without the killing of the dawid. In confirmation of this, we can cite the inscription of Mesha, the Moabite king of the 9th century BC, in which a dwd is mentioned, which we will return to in due course.
What does all of the above mean, then, in relation to the Bible’s narrative?
In conclusion, the texts from Mari reveal much more than a mere coincidence of names with the world described in the Bible. That being said, it is not being claimed that the banu yamina of Mari were the direct ancestors of the Benjaminites, nor that the history of the Jewish people was already underway in the 18th century BC; this research has merely revealed that one of the components of future Israel had its remote origins in the varied and fluctuating environment of Semitic Amorite semi-nomadism, which was a protagonist in the historical events of the centuries around 2000 BC.(Scrivere, 17ff)
With thanks to a commenter’s recommendation to read Giovanni Garbini’s Scrivere La Storia D’israele.
Garbini, Giovanni. Scrivere La Storia D’israele. Vicende E Memorie Ebraiche. Brescia: Paideia, 2008.