3.1 – Vespasian, Titus and the Destruction of Jerusalem (29 min video)
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Welcome to our third lesson. For this first lecture, we’ll begin with the title– always a good place to start– that title being a Latin phrase, “Imperium Sine Fine,” which literally means “empire without end,” or if you want to take a more biblical phrase, world without end. In terms of our topic, we’re going to talk about the successions, those who came after, but in three different categories. For one, we’ll talk about the emperors of Rome once again and those who followed many of those crazy characters that we talked about last week, but also talk about what happened in Judea following the rise of the church there.
But then of course, talk about the apostolic church and those who succeeded the apostles. We’re going to be of course seeing a lot of contrast much like we already have. In terms of a principle, I want to direct you first of all to something that we already talked about with the reign of Nero and that’s the Colossus of Nero. That massive 120 foot statue that he had built depicting himself as the god Apollo in all of his glory. And despite the fact that Nero was well rather pudgy after having lived a life pursuing pleasure at the time. Anyway, the Colossus of Nero is significant for multiple reasons, but one reason I want to point out is the fact that the Colosseum, which was built after the reign of Nero and was located right by the Colossus, got its actual name from the Colossus of Nero.
What’s curious about the Colossus and the Colosseum and so forth, is they were symbols of Rome’s longevity. It was assumed that the Roman Empire would last forever. In fact, Rome was sometimes simply called, and still is called to this day, the Eternal City. This colossus, which according to some, stood at least until the fifth century when Rome was sacked. Some even think it may have stood longer than that. It’s long gone now, but still lasted for several centuries. Well, in terms of a principle, There’s a great quote by the famous poet and historian of the church, especially the British church, a man by the name of the Venerable Bede.
Venerable, of course, is not his name. It’s the description of his character. We’ll talk about him in greater detail later on. But in the 8th century AD, he wrote this little poem about the Colosseum, of course in Latin, but I’ll translate it for you into English, which is as long as the Colossus stands, that is the Colossus of Nero, Rome will stand. Meaning he saw the Colossus as a symbol of Rome’s power. He then goes on to say, when the Colossus falls, Rome will fall. And when Rome falls, the world will fall. In other words, Rome had a stabilizing effect upon the culture of the world, especially of course, the culture of the Mediterranean world. Rome was seen as something that brought law and order to all of those regions, and it did actually do that. It brought all of this stability. In fact, the Roman Empire really doesn’t end until the year 1453, which is the fall of the Byzantine Empire, something we’ll discuss again later this year. But it’s curious when you look at how Romans thought of themselves. For example, the author Charles Norse Cochrane, who wrote the magnificent book, “Christianity and Classical Culture,” he said that a character like Virgil, perhaps the most famous of Roman poets, thought that Rome was destined to rule the world because Rome, he said, had virtue and it had justice.
To a certain degree, it did exhibit those traits, but as we’ve already seen, it often departed from those traits and departed from them quite significantly. Then you have characters like Pliny the Elder, who was around during the first century AD, right when the church was beginning. He agreed with Virgil by calling Rome, quote, “the unthinkable majesty of our peace.” In other words, Rome was destined to rule. You also have a guy like Valleius, another Roman writer who said, quote, “There’s nothing that man can desire from the gods, “Nothing the gods can grant to man, nothing which conceive or good fortune bring to pass, which Augustus, the first of the emperors, on his return to the city, did not bestow upon the commonwealth, the Roman people and the world.
” In other words, the way the Romans saw the imperial reign, beginning with Augustus Caesar, was he was to be seen as a type of Messiah who bestowed all good things to people.
And that’s why the emperors that come after Augustus try to often mirror these kinds of virtues. And not really Caligula or Nero, for example, but a character like Trajan, for example, one of the emperors who came later, he would actually on his coin, which had a cornucopia filled with all kinds of good foods, with oil and wine flowing from it, he simply had the motto put on that same coin that said, the fortune of the times, associating that fortune with his rule.
Nerva simply used this motto, that is sacred righteousness and public liberty, meaning that according to his rule and according to the Roman virtues, those things would exist.
Hadrian, one of the most famous, put the phrase kindness, discipline, and stability, these three ideals of the Roman government. Marcus Aurelius, the famous philosopher emperor, called his motto, “The Sacred Luck, the Sacred Health, and the Public Security.” It was the idea that somehow the classical culture of the Romans would bring peace and security and ideally an everlasting peace and security to the known world.
Again, Charles North Cochran commenting on this culture said that Christians were opposed to it because specifically they were opposed to the idea of the Caesars being able to grant this because it treated the Caesars as if they were gods, as if they were divine.
Rather, the Christians said that righteousness doesn’t come from man. It doesn’t even come from within you. Rather, they use the phrases in Latin that translate to a cleaving to God because righteousness is found in what he gives. Or they would say things like true wisdom will be gained from the love of God. Literally Latin is “Verus philosophus amator Dei.” True wisdom be gained from the love of God. So we have this remarkable contrast between the Romans and the Christians. Well, as for today’s lecture, let’s focus on the Romans after Nero. So immediately after Nero was ousted by the Senate, and of course he dies this tragic death, partially taking his own life, partially requesting help to actually achieve the event.
Well, he was succeeded by a guy named Galba. Galba was thought by the Senate to be an excellent character to replace Nero, but Galba made a mistake. Trying to correct some of the mistakes of Nero, he required that of all the gifts Nero had given to various nobles or patricians in Rome, that 90% of what had been given should be returned to the treasury.
This made him a lot of enemies rather quickly. In fact, one of those nobles and a general by the name of Marcus Otho decided to take matters into his own hand, and so he killed Galba in the public forum in the city of Rome, the same place roughly where Julius Caesar had been assassinated years before.
But of course, this starts a whole power grab opportunity. Marcus Otho declares himself emperor, but he was not the only one who would do so. Another general by the name of Vitellius would overthrow Otho, who would take his own life, and then for a short period of time, would rule over Rome, supposedly as emperor.
And that was until yet another general by the name of Titus Flavius Vespasian. There’s his full Latin name for you. You can just call him, of course, Vespasian, decided he would march his armies upon Rome to take the throne and the rule for himself.
The problem with Vitellius was that he trusted his own subordinates to do his fighting for him and feasted when Vespasian marched upon Rome. We’re also curiously told that crowds came out to watch the battle. This is the time in Rome’s history after all, where Romans became obsessed with gladiatorial combat, with gladiatorial games. And the only thing better than watching men kill each other in the arena was watching an actual real battle to see who would actually control the Roman Empire, or at least that was the culture of Rome.
As for Vestasian, he was victorious in the year 69 AD, which is when he comes in to rule the Roman Empire. He himself is a curious character. For example, he was a plebeian. He was a commoner born in a Sabine village. It was a village that he frequently visited and tried to live that old simple life whenever he was there. Even when he wasn’t in the village, it was said that he ate the simple diet of villagers and that he always fasted at least one day a month.
That was not something that was common in the case of other patricians or certainly the emperors. In fact, when one of those patricians came to him while he was emperor and wanted to be appointed to a high position of authority, Vespasian told him no, saying, “Because you smell of perfume, “I will not give you the position. “It would be better if you smelled of garlic,” which of course was associated with the food of the plebeians. The other thing about Vespasian is he had remarkable military experience. He was somebody who had helped in the conquest of Britain. He was somebody who suppressed the Jewish rebellion, which we’ll talk about shortly. In fact, Tacitus, who usually doesn’t spare many words criticizing the emperors, says that Vespasian was the only emperor ever made better by the office of being Augustus. remarkable. He actually already had his habits largely in place when he came into office because he was 60 years old. Immediately he went about making allies in the Senate, which was quite wise, and also limited the size of his Praetorian Guard, seeing them as a threat to liberty.
He allowed criticisms of his reign. In other words, there was a sense of free speech, and when conspirators against him were discovered, he typically forgave them. Suetonius, who often criticizes the emperor, says about Vespasian, “He showed the greatest patience under the frank language of his friends,” meaning those who critiqued him, “and he even had patience under the impudence of philosophers.” Vespasian really tried, like Augustus before him, to try to correct the virtues of Rome, to try to raise their character once again. It was said that he brought in a thousand noble families from the provinces known for their virtue in order to reform the character of the capital city of Rome.
If it worked, we really don’t have much evidence of it. And we’ll talk about the problems with Roman culture in a little while. Of course, you’ve already seen many of them. The other thing about Vespasian is he increased the taxes and began taxing virtually everything, including the use of public restrooms, in order to erase the debt from Nero.
The curious thing about him is that Vespasian never spent much money on himself. What he did spend money on, besides eradicating the debt, was the beginning of the famous Colosseum, right by Nero’s Colossus, which would be completed by Vespasian’s son, Titus. Eventually, after a ten year reign, Vespasian came to the end of his life, and with the idea that he was somehow becoming a god, that was the idea of the Roman emperors by this time, he famously gave the last words, “Alas, I think I am becoming a god.” Meaning, surely this is what it must actually feel like. He was succeeded by his son Titus. It was one of the shortest reigns in the Roman imperial catalog, only reigned for roughly two years. Philip Schaff, the great church historian, called Titus, quote, “mild and philanthropic.” It was Titus who told his friends at one dinner that he had lost a day because he hadn’t helped anyone that day. In other words, both Titus and Vespasian give us a picture of the noble pagan, something that Christians would come to admire. However, both Vespasian and Titus were responsible for ending the Jewish rebellion, and Titus was specifically responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple.
He became emperor at the age of 40 upon the death of his father, and then like his father, was heavily interested in gladiatorial games, which shows you where his real character lies and what he truly loved.
In fact, it was said that he spent as heavily on the games as any previous emperor and actually exhausted the Roman treasury that his father had filled upon gladiatorial shows.
It’s also during his reign which we have an incredible picture of common Roman life because in the year 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius, that volcano south of Rome, erupted destroying the city of Pompeii, actually covering it in up to 10 feet of ash.
In fact, when Pompeii began to be excavated in the year 1749, not only were buildings and frescoes found preserved, but people’s actual bodies were found preserved, sometimes fleeing, sometimes cowering to try to protect themselves from the ash, or in one case still in the audience of a certain theater.
It also uncovered numerous bakeries, including loaves of bread that have been preserved by the ash, as well as magnificent frescoes. For example, the frescoes showing famous scenes from Greek and Roman mythology of the house of Vettii are some of the most well-preserved Roman frescoes, give us a huge hint of what their art looked like.
Sometimes they would show marvelous scenes of common life, like the work of a fuller, somebody who would clean wool, or perhaps a butcher or an innkeeper.
There’s also the famous blue glass vase, something that shows a feast to Bacchus, the god of wine and essentially of parties. There’s also well-preserved graffiti, and evidently graffiti hasn’t really changed despite all the centuries that have passed. This particular graffiti was an insult. It goes like this, “Sammius to Cornelius, go go hang yourself. In other words, you have right there the Roman culture in short. As for Titus, he did give generously to the relief of Pompeii, but died of a fever at the age of 42 after just two years in office.
Of course, the thing that Titus is most famous for is the suppression of the Jewish rebellion and the destruction of Jerusalem. In order to understand that, we need to talk first of all about the Jews in the Roman Empire. We get huge hints of it throughout the gospel stories. And there’s definitely the zealots, for example, who want to overthrow the Roman Empire. There’s definitely those amongst the teachers of the law and the Pharisees who do not necessarily see it as right to obey the laws of Caesar and try to test Jesus on this matter.
What we do know is that the Jews had actually spread throughout the Roman Empire by this time. They made up something like 7% of the entire empire’s population. There were 20,000 Jews, for example, just in the city of Rome. But the Jews, particularly because of their religion, were often hated. The Roman poet Juvenal, for example, hated the Jews because he said they had large families because they did not practice abortion. Another hint at Roman culture and what they valued. Tacitus hated them because they only worshipped one god, which he saw as an insane idea. There was also the fact that the Jews, in trying to appease the actual Roman emperors, would sacrifice two Yahweh, but under the name of the emperor from the reign of Tiberius on.
That’s a huge hint as to why the Jews, when Pontius Pilate is trying to tell them, do you really want me to crucify your king?
That’s why they readily say, “We have no king but Caesar.” It shows us that they had actually kind of given themselves over to that idea. Well, when Herod Agrippa died, and we talked about his rather sudden death after persecuting the early church, he was succeeded by various governors. Some of them show up in Acts, like Felix, who was known outside of Acts for his corruption, or guys like Festus, somebody that Paul appeared before.
They were followed by yet another governor named Albinus, who were told would let free any criminal who could pay him. Finally, Floris serves as the last governor of Judea before the rebellion. He was somebody who was known for his cruelty, his greed, and his free execution of any Jews who stood in his way. His rule led to the further power and the rise of the zealots. The zealots show up in the New Testament. In fact, one of the disciples is called Simon the zealot. The zealots were those who wanted to see a once again free Judea. They were also sometimes called the daggermen because they were known to enter into crowds where they would assassinate anybody seen as disloyal to Judaism.
One thing that has been pointed out by F.F. Bruce is that the epistle or the letter to the Hebrews of the New Testament really has the context of a Judea that is looking towards revolt.
It has the context because it essentially serves as a warning to not return to Judaism, to not return to the old covenant, arguing that Jesus is the final sacrifice once and for all, and he’s also the final high priest, and that we actually serve as his temple, or that Jesus has specifically made, quote, “a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” and he is, quote, “the same yesterday and today and forever.” So we have what’s going on in Judea as a context for the book of Hebrews itself. As for Floris, the governor of Judea during the rebellion, the rebellion started because of him when he sent his guys to go and plunder the temple funds that he needed.
When a mob of Jews protested, he sent his legions to arrest and kill many of them. According to Josephus, over 3,000 Jews died because of that. As a result, those zealots and those daggermen, as well as Jews throughout all of Judea, they rose up and they quickly took over things like the Roman garrison at the great fortress of Masada in in the year 66 AD, that fortress Herod the Great had built.
And then that same year, they took over the city of Jerusalem. When the Romans sent the 12th Legion to retake Jerusalem, the Zealots successfully defeated them and suddenly had this confidence that this was the restoration of Israel and that the Messiah would soon appear.
This is again why Hebrews is so important. Hebrews is showing to the Jews that the Messiah has already come and he’s already fulfilled his mission. It’s around this time though, that we get one of the most famous characters of history. And that is a man by the name of Josephus. Josephus was somebody who joined this revolt as a priest. He was sent to Galilee, where he was told to defend a stronghold against the Romans. When the Romans surrounded it and the men inside came down to the number of only 40 and they realized they would never make it out alive unless they surrendered, they evidently made a pact, an agreement that they would all die one by one, charging the Romans in suicide fashion.
Josephus tried to convince them not to do this, but nobody listened to him. However, he survives along with one other man and he actually surrenders to Vespasian who spares him after he tells Vespasian he would someday become emperor.
He then aided Vespasian in the siege of Jerusalem. He was there on site until he has to go back to Rome because of all the craziness happening there in terms of who’s going to become emperor. And so he leaves his son Titus to finish the siege. It was a siege that lasted for five months, a siege that saw incredible want of food, A siege that saw the zealots reject the surrender terms offered to them by Titus.
And as they died inside the city, either from the arrows of the Romans or from hunger or from disease, they began to throw the bodies of the dead over the walls.
According to Josephus, they threw over a hundred thousand bodies past the walls. In other words, we have an apocalyptic-like destruction the city of Jerusalem. Then on August 8th, 70 AD, despite the fact that the Zealots were determined to keep the temple and keep the sacrifices going, which they did for as long as they possibly could, well on that day of August 8th, 70 AD, the Romans breached all the city walls and they entered into the temple and they set it on fire after pillaging it of its treasure.
Josephus tries to excuse Titus saying that he really didn’t want to see this happen. But Tacitus has a different opinion. Tacitus says that the burning of the temple was the direct order of Titus because he quote “expressed the opinion that the temple ought most certainly to be destroyed in order the Jewish and Christian religions might more completely be abolished. If the root were taken away, the stock would easily perish. It’s a fascinating quote because it really did bring about an end to the high priesthood and the sacrifices the Jews had actually accomplished for thousands of years.
But it didn’t do away with the Christian church, largely as you should know, because the temple was no longer the temple as it had been known.
The temple had become the church, really the believer himself or herself that now the Holy Spirit dwelled in. As for the Jews who survived the actual assault of the Romans, thousands of them were crucified. Josephus says that they ran out of crosses and room to even place the crosses that they had. Some 97,000, according to Josephus again, were taken as slaves, many of them sent to mines, many of them sent to the gladiator games in Rome.
In fact, they were brought back to the city of Rome first, where they were forced to march in procession before Titus and his legions, themselves being a symbol of the glory of Rome.
And of course, he most famously had the golden lampstand and treasures from the temple, things that would later be depicted on the arch of Titus, which he ordered built to commemorate this event.
An event that, according to Josephus, saw the deaths of more than one million people. And he also said, “The war laid all the signs of beauty quite a waste.” The war didn’t actually end in 70 AD. It would continue until 73 or perhaps 74 when the fortress of Masada fell. As all the zealots there decided to commit suicide instead of surrendering to the Romans who had built a ramp to actually attack the fortress.
A Spacian, seeing the end of the temple, ordered the Jews to stop giving a tax to support the temple and instead to give a tax to go to the rebuilding of Rome and even to the support of the temple of Jupiter in Rome.
It was meant to be an insult. He also closed the temple of the Jews in Egypt that had been going on since the days of the Ptolemies. As for the temple, it was gone. The high priesthood was gone. The Sadducees were also gone, which meant the only surviving party of the days of Jesus in terms of Jewish political and religious parties was the Pharisees.
The Pharisees lasted for a while, actually started a new Sanhedrin in the town of Jamnia in Galilee, but they became largely a party that would only decide upon on religious, not political matters.
Then in the 130s, Hadrian, now emperor, decided to add further insult to the Jews by ordering a temple to Jupiter to be built on the same site as their former temple in Jerusalem.
And to even add further insult, he forbid circumcision, the public instruction of Jewish law or the Old Testament, and also forbid the observance of the Sabbath.
This led to yet another rise and another revolt led by a guy named Simon Bar Kokhba, which literally means the son of the star, as he claimed to be the star of Jacob, predicted and prophesied by Balaam thousands of years before, because he was claiming to be the Messiah.
That revolt lasted for roughly three and a half years and saw the deaths of over half a million people, as well as numerous destructions of Judaism and Jews throughout the Roman Empire.
From that time forward, there was never a great uprising like there had been. And the Jews were dispersed to wherever they could find a peaceful place to practice their faith. As for Jerusalem, it was renamed by Hadrian, Aelia Capitolina, named after his actual family name. And he built there both temples to Jupiter and to Venus. As for the Christians in Jerusalem, But we know that they continued there until at least the time of Hadrian, based upon the list of that church’s leaders given to us by the great historian Eusebius. In other words, we begin to see the succession in the church to the apostles, of people that kept the faith going and faithfully preached the gospel.
We’ll talk more about them in a future lecture.