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Nonviolent Resistance of the Jews to Roman Occupation in Israel 26-41 C.E.

In his major work The King is Dead Samuel Eddy shows that the resistance of Near Eastern peoples to Hellenic imperialism “was justified almost universally in religious terms.” Eddy identifies the three main interlocking motives for religious resistance as “the effort to regain native rule as an end in itself,…as a means of ending social upheaval and economic exploitation,… [and] to protect law and religion.”¹

Jewish opposition to Roman rule from 26 to 41 C.E. centered mainly around ostensibly religious issues and was conducted in religious terms. Remarkably, as one modern observer points out, during this period “the Jewish protest was a spontaneous response to offensive Roman activity in Palestine. Jewish outrage was expressed nonviolently….”² This article presents and discusses incidents as related by Josephus, Philo, and Tacitus which seem to be described by at least one of these sources in each case as nonviolent resistance on the part of the Jews to their Roman occupiers, and examines the plausibility of their historicity.

It will not be claimed that Jewish resistance was completely or even generally nonviolent. Rather, it should be noted that nonviolent struggles often take place in the context of a war or a bloody independence movement; yet even within such contexts, nonviolent activities can have a major and constructive influence on the course of events, and their accounts can be highly instructive.³ Thus we need not be deterred by the reservations of those who question the nonviolent nature of these incidents either on the grounds that the threat of violence may have stood behind the nonviolent resistance, or on the grounds that the Jews had no realistic options for violent resistance.4

The backdrop to the incidents we are about to examine is described by E. Mary Smallwood.

The hardening of Jewish nationalist feeling into a militant resistance movement at the very start of the period of Roman rule was the fundamental cause of the recurrent disturbances of the next sixty years and of the revolt which was their climax, in the sense that it created or sharpened the dilemma facing the Romans in attempting to govern Judaea as a province. They were committed to a policy of protecting Jewish religious liberty, but on the political level they were opposed to nationalist aspirations among their subjects. The problem in Judaea was that to the Jews religion and politics were inextricably bound up together as two facets of a single way of life, and though a modus vivendi might have been established between Rome and moderate Jewish opinion, the existence of a belligerent nationalist party focusing discontent and fostering opposition posed a problem which the Romans signally failed to solve. Their failure in turn aggravated matters, and the story of the years 6-66 is largely the story of how the occupying power and the nationalists reacted on one another, each provoking the other to further excesses, until the final explosion came.5

The Standards (Ensigns) Incident

Josephus (c. 38 – after 100 C.E.) gives two accounts of the “Standards” incident, which took place during the term of Pontius Pilate, Roman prefect from 26 to 37 C.E.6 The first account, from War 2:175-203 (Williamson translation),7 was written during the 70s of the first century.8 The reader’s attention is called to the italicized passages.

As procurator [Greek: “hegemon”] of Judaea Tiberius sent Pilate, who during the night, secretly and under cover, conveyed to Jerusalem the images of Caesar known as standards. When day dawned this caused great excitement among the Jews; for those who were near were amazed at the sight, which meant that their laws had been trampled on — they do not permit any graven image to be set up in the City — and the angry City mob was joined by a huge influx of people from the country. They rushed off to Pilate in Caesarea, and begged him to remove the standards from Jerusalem and to respect their ancient customs. When Pilate refused, they fell prone all round his house and remained motionless for five days and nights.

The next day Pilate took his seat on the tribunal in the great stadium and summoned the mob on the pretext that he was ready to give them an answer. Instead he gave a pre-arranged signal to the soldiers to surround the Jews in full armour, and the troops formed a ring three deep. The Jews were dumbfounded at the unexpected sight, but Pilate, declaring that he would cut them to pieces unless they accepted the images of Caesar, nodded to the soldiers to bare their swords. At this the Jews as though by agreement fell to the ground in a body and bent their necks, shouting that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law. Amazed at the intensity of their religious fervour, Pilate ordered the standards to be removed from Jerusalem forthwith.”

The account in Antiquities 18:55-59 (Feldman translation),9 written roughly 16 years after War, is parallel to the War version, but with a few additional details:

Now Pilate, the procurator [Greek: Hegemon] of Judaea, when he brought his army from Caesarea and removed it to winter quarters in Jerusalem, took a bold step in subversion of the Jewish practices, by introducing into the city the busts of the emperor that were attached to the military standards, for our law forbids the making of images. It was for this reason that the previous procurators [Greek: hegemones], when they entered the city, used standards that had no such ornaments. Pilate was the first to bring the images into Jerusalem and set them up, doing it without the knowledge of the people, for he entered at night. But when the people discovered, they went in a throng to Caesarea and for many days entreated him to take away the images. He refused to yield, since to do so would be an outrage to the emperor; however, since they did not cease entreating him, on the sixth day he secretly armed and placed his troops in position, while he himself came to the speaker’s stand.

This had been constructed in the stadium, which provided concealment for the army that lay in wait. When the Jews again engaged in supplication, at a pre-arranged signal he surrounded them with his soldiers and threatened to punish them at once with death if they did not put an end to their tumult and return to their own places. But they, casting themselves prostrate and baring their throats, declared that they had gladly welcomed death rather than make bold to transgress the wise provisions of the laws. Pilate, astonished at the strength of their devotion to the laws, straightway removed the images from Jerusalem and brought them back to Caesarea.”

David Rhoads, in retelling the incident, reads into the accounts what may sound like a threat of violence coercing the prefect: “Pilate, fearing a larger Jewish reaction if he were to harm the protesters, was constrained to remove the offensive standards from Jerusalem.”10 While Rhoads’s words may be ambiguous, those of Josephus are clear. There is no indication that a threat of violence lay behind Pilates’ decision; indeed, as Josephus suggests, it may be because of the impression of sincerity the Jews made on him that Pilate recalled the standards. Pilate was not ‘astonished by the strength of the Jews’ opposition,’ but rather by “the strength of their devotion to the laws.” The Jews who cared most about the issue, that is, the ones who immediately joined the protest, were the ones who refrained from taking violent action, instead “baring their throats.” Stewart Perowne, who portrays Pilate somewhat sympathetically, finds a textual bases for suggesting that Pilate simply did not realize the depth of the Jews’ opposition to iconic standards. According to Perowne, Pilate hoped that by bringing the standards in at night the Jews would be placated: “Pilate decided to compromise: the ensigns should go up to Jerusalem, but they should go up veiled, and by night.”11

In short, while the existence of an explosively violent dynamic is quite possible in a situation like this, there is simply no indication of it in the extant accounts. We are thus left with what appears to be an heroic account of popular nonviolent opposition to the Roman occupier.

The Shields Incident

The only account of the shields incident appears within Agrippa’s letter to Gaius Caligula as presented by Philo, Embassy 38:299-305 (Smallwood translation),12 written in the 40s of the first century, i.e. within a few years of the incidents he describes.

I can also tell you of something on which he [Gaius Caligula’s grandfather, Tiberius Caesar] prided himself, although I experienced countless sufferings during his lifetime. But you love and respect the truth. Pilate was an official who had been appointed procurator of Judaea. With the intention of annoying the Jews rather than honoring Tiberius, he set up gilded shields in Herod’s palace in the Holy City. They bore no figure and nothing else that was forbidden, but only the briefest possible inscription, which stated two things — the name of the dedicator and that of the person in whose honour the dedication was made. But when the Jews at large learnt of his action, which was indeed already widely known, they chose as their spokesmen the king’s four sons, who enjoyed prestige and rank equal to that of kings, his other descendants, and their own officials, and besought Pilate to undo his innovation in the shape of the shields, and not to violate their native customs, which had hitherto been invariably preserved inviolate by kings and emperors alike. When Pilate, who was a man of inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition, obstinately refused, they shouted, ‘Do not cause a revolt! Do not cause a war! Do not break the peace! Disrespect done to our ancient Laws brings no honour to the Emperor. Do not make Tiberius an excuse for insulting our nation. He does not want any of our traditions done away with. If you say that he does, show us some decree or letter or something of the sort, so that we may cease troubling you and appeal to our master by means of an embassy.‘ This last remark exasperated Pilate most of all, for he was afraid that if they really sent an embassy, they would bring accusations against the rest of his administration as well, specifying in detail his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity. So, as he was a spiteful and angry person, he was in a serious dilemma; for he had neither the courage to remove what he had once setup, nor the desire to do anything which would please his subjects, but at the same time he was well aware of Tiberius’ firmness on these matters.

When the Jewish officials saw this, and realized that Pilate was regretting what he had done, although he did not wish to show it, they wrote a letter to Tiberius, pleading their case as forcibly as they could. What words, what threats Tiberius uttered against Pilate when he read it!

It would be superfluous to describe his anger, although he was not easily moved to anger, since his reaction speaks for itself. For immediately, without even waiting until the next day, he wrote to Pilate, reproaching and rebuking him a thousand times for his new-fangled audacity and telling him to remove the shields at once and have them taken from the capital to the coastal city of Caesarea (the city named Sebaste after your great-grandfather), to be dedicated in the temple of Augustus. This was duly done. In this way both the honour of the Emperor and the traditional policy regarding Jerusalem were alike preserved.

In this episode unspecified threats of war (“Do not cause a war!” or something like that) would seem to preclude the classification of this episode as purely nonviolent resistance. Yet the events as reported suggest a realist, overall nonviolent approach to the conflict. The “Jews at large” chose to send a delegation to Pilate, beseeching him to withdraw the shields, warning him of the fact that a popular revolt could occur (not necessarily with their support), threatening to appeal to higher authority within the Roman administration, and finally actualizing this veiled threat. That is, it may fairly be asserted that the approach of the “Jews at large” and their representatives was essentially nonviolent, inasmuch as their only mention of violence was in the context of an appeal to Pilate to cooperate with them to help prevent the outbreak of violence from a third group. Serious doubts have been cast on the veracity of this account altogether. Solomon Zeitlin argues that the letter of Agrippa to Gaius in which this account appears could not have been written by Agrippa, and concludes that Philo composed it himself in accordance with his own theology.13

Moreover, the similarity of this incident with the incident of the standards has lead some scholars to conclude that these are in fact two accounts of one incident.14 Those who maintain or assume that the two accounts represent separate incidents have basically made up stories to explain the relationship between the two incidents. Perowne, for example, imagines that the events went something like this:

A little later Pilate, with all a weak man’s obstinacy, made another attempt to honour Caesar in the Holy City without offending the Jews. He had placed in the palace there a number of gilded shields, which bore simply Caesar’s name, and that of the giver, namely Pilate, without any representation of any living thing whatsoever. Far from being mollified, the opposition increased.”15

Schurer, more cautiously, observes that “there is no certainty in regard to the chronological sequence of these two happenings,” but supposes that the shields incident “probably took place in the latter days of Pilate’s governorship.” Schurer creates a connection between the two incidents: “Pilate had realized from the outburst at Caesarea that the erection of images of the emperor in Jerusalem was impossible because of Jewish obduracy but he thought he might try to introduce votive shields without images but carrying the emperor’s name.”16


The Temple Funds for the Aqueduct Incident

There are two accounts of what happened when Pontius Pilate took Temple funds to build an aqueduct. The first is from War 2:175-177 (Williamson translation).

After this he [Pontius Pilate] stirred up further trouble by expending the sacred treasure known as Corban on an aqueduct fifty miles long. This roused the populace to fury, and when Pilate visited Jerusalem they surrounded the tribunal and shouted him down. But he had foreseen this disturbance, and had made the soldiers mix with the mob, wearing civilian clothing over their armour, and with orders not to draw their swords but to use clubs on the obstreperous. He now gave the signal from the tribunal and the Jews were cudgeled, so that many died from the blows, and many were trampled to death by their friends as they fled. The fate of those who perished horrified the crowd into silence.

The second account is from Antiquities 18:60-62 (Feldman translation).

He spent money from the sacred treasury in the construction of an aqueduct to bring water into Jerusalem, intercepting the source of the stream at a distance of 200 furlongs. The Jews did not acquiesce in the operations that this involved; and tens of thousands of men assembled and cried out against him, bidding him relinquish his promotion of such designs. Some too even hurled insults and abuse of the sort that a throng will commonly engage in. He thereupon ordered a large number of soldiers to be dressed in Jewish garments, under which they carried clubs, and he sent them off this way and that, thus surrounding the Jews, whom he ordered to withdraw. When the Jews were in full torrent of abuse he gave his soldiers the prearranged signal. They, however, inflicted much harder blows than Pilate had ordered, punishing alike both those who were rioting and those who were not. But the Jews showed no faint-heartedness; and so, caught unarmed, as they were, by men delivering a prepared attack, many of them actually were slain on the spot, while some withdrew disabled by blows. Thus ended the uprising.

The reason for the Jews’ reaction is not entirely clear. Levine has suggested three possibilities: 1. The Jews saw the money as being for exclusive Jewish use; 2. Allowing Pontius Pilate to use this money, albeit for a legitimate purpose, would set a dangerous precedent; 3. The money was taken from the fund for sacrifices and not from the Temple treasury (following War version).17

According to these accounts, the Jews were demonstrating vociferously but unarmed and did not initiate any physically violent attack on the Romans. Indeed, it was the soldiers who began a prearranged attack on the crowd. Significantly, we hear of no more protests by the Jews on the issue; they seem to have surrendered to Pilate’s strong-arm tactics.

But the reaction to Pilate’s appropriation may have been subsumed within what presumably was an ongoing struggle against the regime. If we date this incident between the standards and the shields incidents, as many scholars do,18 then the Jews could have later used this claim against Pilate in their appeal to Tiberius. In Embassy (38:302), quoted above, Pilate “was afraid that if they really sent an embassy, they would bring accusations against the rest of his administration as well, specifying in detail his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior.” Thus, rather than giving up, the Jews waited for a more propitious moment to continue their response to this incident.

 The Statue of Gaius Caligula in the Temple Episode

Gaius Caligula was Roman Emperor from 37 to 41 C.E. In the year 39, he ordered that a statue of himself be erected in the Temple in Jerusalem. Four descriptions of the events appear in our sources: Two accounts by Josephus (War 2:184-203; Antiquities 18:261-309), one by Philo, and one by Tacitus. The two accounts of Josephus are roughly parallel for the most part, but the Antiquities account gives greater details. The following is a condensation of the account in Antiquities based on Feldman’s translation.

Gaius Caligula dispatched Petronius as his legate to Syria. He ordered Petronius to lead a large force into Judaea and, if the Jews consented to receive him, to set up an image of Gaius in the Temple. If they refused, Petronius was to subdue them by force of arms and so set up the statue. Petronius hastened to carry out the commands of the emperor. He marched two or three legions to Ptolemais, intending to spend the winter there and towards spring to engage in war. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Jews came to Petronius at Ptolemais with petitions not to use force to make them transgress and violate their ancestral code. They said, “If you propose at all costs to set up the image, slay us first before you carry out these resolutions. For it is not possible for us to survive and to behold actions that are forbidden us by the decision both of our lawgiver and of our ancestors. … In order to preserve our ancestral code, we shall patiently endure what may be in store for us… for God will stand by us; Fortune, moreover, is wont to veer now toward one side, now toward the other in human affairs.”

Petronius saw that they were determined and that it would be impossible to carry out Gaius’ order without great conflict and slaughter. He went to Tiberias to determine the situation of the Jews there. Again, many tens of thousands faced Petronius on his arrival. They besought him to not put up the statue. “Will you then go to war with Caesar, regardless of his resources and of your own weakness?” he asked. “On no account would we fight,” they said, “but we will die sooner than violate our laws.” And falling on their faces and baring their throats, they declared that they were ready to be slain. They continued to make these supplications for forty days. Furthermore, they neglected their fields even though this was the time to sow the seed. For they showed a stubborn determination and readiness to die rather than to see the image erected.

Then members of the royal family and civic leaders appealed to Petronius to refrain from the plan and instead to write to Gaius telling how incurable was their opposition to receiving the statue and how they had left their fields to sit as a protest, and that they did not choose war, since they could not fight a war, but would be glad to die sooner than transgress their customs, and that since the land was unsown there would be no harvest and no tribute. They brought pressure to bear upon him in every way and employed every device to make their plea effective. Petronius was influenced by their plea, and saw the stubborn determination of the Jews, and thought it would be terrible to bring death on so many tens of thousands of people. He thought it best to risk sending a letter to Gaius. Perhaps he might even convince him to cancel the order. If not, he would undertake war against the Jews. And thus Petronius decided to recognize the cogency of the plea of the petitioners.

Petronius convened the tens of thousands of Jews who had arrived at Tiberias, and explained the situation to them. “May God assist you, since God’s might is above any human ingenuity or strength…. If Gaius is embittered and makes me the object of his wrath, I will endure every form of danger and every form of suffering that may be inflicted upon my body and my fortune rather than behold you who are so numerous destroyed for deeds so virtuous. Therefore, return to your fields and your work, and I will send a message to Rome and I will use all my own resources in your service.

Petronius then dismissed the people and asked the leaders to attend to agricultural matters and to conciliate the people. He thus did his best to encourage the masses. God was with Petronius, for as soon as he finished his speech, God sent a heavy shower out of the blue. In fact, that year had been a drought year. This was taken as a good omen, and Petronius himself was amazed by this unmistakable evidence that God’s providence was over the Jews. Even the opponents of Petronius’ decision were so overwhelmed that they kept their mouths shut.

Petronius included this occurrence in his letter to Gaius. For if he should slay them — and they would certainly not give up their accustomed manner of worship without a fight — he would be deprived of their revenue and would be cursed for all time.

Meanwhile, King Agrippa, who happened to be living in Rome, made an attempt to persuade Gaius. He made an extravagant banquet in Gaius’ honor and thereby ingratiated himself before Gaius. Agrippa spent well beyond his means in order to please him, and Gaius was impressed by that. Hence Gaius wanted to make an equally impressive grand gesture, so he said during the banquet, after complimenting Agrippa highly on his loyalty, “You deserve the best. You name it, it’s yours.” He expected Agrippa to ask for some territory or some sum of tax revenue. Agrippa cleverly further ingratiated himself by saying that Gaius had already been very generous with him, and he couldn’t think of asking for more. Gaius, amazed at Agrippa’s character, insisted on his telling him how he could please him. Agrippa replied that he wanted nothing for himself, but since Gaius was being so exceedingly generous, ” I shall ask for something that will bring you a reputation for piety and will induce the Deity to help you in everything that you wish; I ask you to abandon all further thought of erecting the statue which Petronius has your orders to set up in the temple of the Jews.”

This was a hazardous request, for if Gaius were angered it would mean certain death for Agrippa, yet he felt the issue important enough for him to take the chance. But with so many witnesses, Gaius had no choice but to accede, and moreover he genuinely was so impressed with Agrippa that he cared little about the statue. So he wrote to Petronius saying that if he had not yet erected the statue he should drop the project.

But Gaius had written this before reading Petronius’ message from which Gaius wrongly concluded that the Jews were bent on revolt [Feldman notes text is doubtful here] and that their attitude indicated no other intent than a threat of downright war against the Romans. So upon receiving the letter from Petronius he was infuriated. He wrote to Petronius threatening to kill him or ordering him to kill himself. But thanks to God’s providence Gaius was soon himself killed, and the notification of Gaius’ death reached Petronius before Gaius’ letter did.

This account contains several elements which characterize nonviolent opposition: direct personal appeals, mass demonstrations, strikes, diplomatic initiatives, a willingness to risk and endure economic and bodily suffering on an individual and group basis, and patient persistence.19 The most substantial difference between the two accounts of Josephus is that the account in War does not mention Agrippa’s intercession. Even without the element of diplomatic activity, this is an account of a remarkable organized nonviolent campaign directed against the will of the Roman emperor.

Philo’s lengthy version of the incident is found in his Embassy (Legatio ad Gaium) ch. 29-43 (184-348). It is summarized by E. Mary Smallwood as follows:20

The Jews of Jamnia demolished an altar built by the Greeks resident in that town. The latter complained to Herennius Capito, the procurator of the imperial estate in which Jamnia lay, who reported the matter to Gaius. Gaius decided that, as a punishment for the Jews’ action, a colossal gilded statue of himself should be made and erected in the Temple, and he sent orders to Publius Petronius, the legate of Syria, to carry this decision out, with the help of military force if necessary. Petronius sought to forestall the inevitable Jewish opposition by summoning the Jewish leaders to a conference while the statue was being made, for the purpose of informing them of his orders and of advising them to urge the rest of the population not to resist the desecration. His appeal to them was unsuccessful, and when the Jews at large got to know of the scheme, they staged mass demonstrations of protest before Petronius, who by then was in Phoenicia with an army. Their pleas impressed the legate. He wrote to Gaius apologizing for the delay over the dedication of the statue and explaining that this was due partly to the work involved in the construction of the statue and partly to the fact that it was the season of the grain-harvest, which he feared that the Jews might deliberately destroy in their frenzied opposition to the proposed desecration; there would then be danger of a famine, which would be inconvenient when Gaius traveled, as he intended to do in the near future, to Alexandria via the coasts of Syria and Palestine. In a politely worded reply Gaius concealed the irritation which he felt at Petronius’ failure to carry out his orders promptly and his presumption in pleading the Jews’ cause; he commended his forethought, but told him to expedite the dedication of the statue, as the harvest must by then be in. Not long afterwards, however, Gaius was persuaded by the reasoned arguments presented to him in writing by his friend, Herod Agrippa of Judaea, to rescind his order, and he sent instructions to Petronius to leave the Temple unmolested.

Philo’s account adds an additional element, that of organization, from which planned nonviolent action emerges. “Then the Jews approached and made appeals such as the occasions suggested. … They were divided into six groups…. When Petronius appeared from a distance, all the groups fell to the ground as though at a command…. ‘ We are unarmed, as you see…'” (227-229).

The characterization of this opposition as nonviolent has been challenged. Bilde sees in the accounts of Josephus “a description of a pacifist Jewish reaction side by side with hints of non-pacifist elements.”21 Schwartz, on the other hand, has tried to demonstrate that the references to threats of violent response on the part of the Jews in Josephus are mostly misunderstandings of translation or in one case Gaius Caligula’s misunderstanding of Petronius’ letter.22

Similarly, Zeitlin observes that one of Petronius’ considerations in delaying is the fear that Babylonian Jews will come to the violent aid of their brothers and sisters in Israel (Philo 216-217).23 Bilde, after making a similar observation, adds that “Otherwise, we find in Philo a rather uniform pacifist description of the Jewish opposition.” 24

One major challenge to the veracity of the versions of Josephus and Philo is the account of Tacitus (55-120 C.E., writing in the first decade of the second century, in Historiae, V, 9:2): “Under Tiberius all was quiet. Then, when Caligula ordered the Jews to set up his statue in their temple, they chose rather to resort to arms (arma potius sumpsere), but the emperor’s death put an end to their uprising.”25 Yet there is no reason to prefer the passing reference by Tacitus to the detailed descriptions of Josephus and Philo. Smallwood suggests that “Tacitus may be recording an exaggerated version of the demonstrations which had grown up out of the Roman encounter with Jewish pugnacity in 66-70.” 26

Much as been made of the biases or “redactional tendencies” of Josephus and Philo. Bilde, for example, writes: “In my opinion this tension between realistic glimpses of a dangerous situation, and a pacifist interpretation of the Jewish opposition can best be explained as an expression of a contradiction between redactional tendency and historical tradition.”27 Bilde is essentially suggesting that both Josephus and Philo tried to paint pacifist pictures for polemical purposes but the violent truth slips out in a few phrases.

Similarly, Schwartz argues that Josephus has a strong tendency to minimize violent expressions of the Jewish-Roman conflict.28 Schwartz goes so far as to claim in a highly speculative article that the numerous cases in Josephus where the Romans, seemingly unprovoked, attack Dead-Sea area or wilderness dwellers proves that he wanted to minimize the violent image of the Jews. That is, these Jews must have provoked the Romans, but Josephus doesn’t want to say so. When Josephus does recount the violence, says Schwartz, it is because he must do so as an honest historian.29

But Schwartz’s conclusions are made on the basis of comparisons either with other sources, which may have their own bias in favor of making the Jews look more violent, or with what Schwartz would have expected to have happened. Even Gafni’s study (see note 28) does not claim that Josephus distorted the history, but only claims that Josephus emphasized certain aspects of the Jews’ struggle. Schwartz and Bilde display a bias against nonviolent resistance, that is, they presumes that such a thing must not be “realistic” and their interpretation of the events is influenced by that presumption.

Rhoads counters Schwartz’s arguments in part, concluding that “The suggestion that Josephus was somehow trying to emphasize the vicious nature of Pilate and to point up the forbearance of the Jews is unlikely.” This is because Josephus records many cases of Jewish brigandage and violence elsewhere, and because other histories also report this as a quiet period.30 Ironically, the sort of references to Jewish violence in Josephus that Rhoads cites to support his conclusion are the very sort of cases that Schwartz denies are references to direct violence. Moreover, Schwartz does not claim that Josephus tries to eliminate all references to Jewish violence, but rather that Josephus tries to minimize such references and to attribute such violence to radical fringe groups whenever possible, thus protecting the image of the Jewish people as a whole in the eyes of the Roman rulers.

Another serious challenge to the veracity of the accounts is that in both Josephus and Philo some parts of their accounts are so much like stock literary types that they are simply incredible. Smallwood, for example, says that “Josephus’ account includes ‘fairy-tale’ elements, the presence of which tells against the credibility of the whole — rain from a cloudless sky, a sumptuous banquet followed by the offer of a boon, and an order to commit suicide, delayed in transit until it was invalid.”31 Zeitlin comes right out and says that Josephus and Philo clearly made up at least parts of their stories: “Josephus had a tradition that King Agrippa intervened with Gaius. He followed the method of the Greek historians, particularly Thucydides, to put a speech in the mouth of his heroes, what he thought they should have said. …The letter of Agrippa to Gaius, as recorded by Philo, was composed by Philo in accordance with his theology.”32

Although these challenges may be based on valid conclusions about the literary nature of our source texts, they do not disprove the veracity of the general pictures presented by Josephus and Philo. It is commonly known (and surprisingly, commonly not known) that the news media today routinely make up quotations from supposed or even identified sources. While the accuracy of various details may be disputed, or the differences between the versions compared,33 Philo and Josephus presented what they presumably believed to be credible if not wholly accurate accounts, and in the absence of other reliable sources or unsolvable problems in their accounts, there is no reason not to accept their overall presentation of what happened. Even if the incidents did not happen as they describe, the fact that they could credibly present them as what could have happened is in itself remarkable.


1. Samuel Kennedy Eddy, The King is Dead — Studies in Near Eastern Resistance to Hellenism, 334-31 B.C., (Lincoln, NB: Univ. of Nebraska) 1961, pp. vii & 330. Eddy’s thesis supports an underlying assumption of the present work, namely that the acts of resistance herein described constitute resistance to Roman rule per se, and not solely resistance to specific policies, much less attempts to support Roman rule by encouraging the Romans to adopt policies conducive to stability and acquiescence which were in Rome’s own interest.

2. David M. Rhoads, Israel in Revolution 6-74 C.E. — A Political History based on the writings of Josephus, (Philadelphia: Fortress) 1976, p. 63-64.

3. Consider, for example, the movement associated with Mahatma Gandhi in India or the Czechoslovakian resistance in 1968-69.

4. Menahem Stern, in Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities) 1980, vol. II, p. 51, comments on the Statue incident (discussed below): “The possibility of active [i.e. violent] resistance was inherent in the logic of the situation and would have played a large part in the considerations of Petronius, the governor of Syria, who had to execute Gaius’ plan.”

Prof. Mulford Q. Sibley, a long-time proponent of nonviolence, has questioned the value of the statue incident as an example of nonviolent resistance on the grounds that the Jews were in such a position of weakness that they had no other realistic choices of responses to Gaius Caligula’s provocation. (In Mulford Q. Sibley, ed., The Quiet Battle — Writings on the Theory and Practice of Non-violent Resistance, (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co.) 1963, p. 111.)

5. E. Mary Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule from Pompey to Diocletian, (Leiden: E.J. Brill) 1981, p. 155.

6. Paul L. Maier, “The Episode of the Golden Shields at Jerusalem,” Harvard Theological Review (62) 1969, p. 110 n. 5, as well as Emil Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, rev. and ed. by Geza Vermes and Fergus Millar, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark) 1973, vol I, p. 358, point out that Pilate was a prefect, not a procurator.

7. G.A. Williamson, trans., Josephus: The Jewish War, rev. by E. Mary Smallwood (NY: Dorset Press)1981, 1985.

8. Rhoads, p. 61, places the events at the beginning of Pilates service, in 26 C.E. But Daniel Schwartz, “Josephus and Philo on Pontius Pilate” in Uriel Rappaport, ed., Josephus Flavius: Historian of Eretz-Israel in the Hellenistic-Roman Period, (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben Zvi) 1982 (Hebrew), p. 224, says that the events in Josephus in these chapters are not arranged chronologically. Likewise, Schurer p. I 386.

9. Louis H. Feldman, trans., Josephus, (Cambridge: Harvard Univ.) 1965, 1969.

10. Rhoads, p. 61.

11. Stuart Perowne, The Later Herods, (London: Hodder and Stoughton) 1958,p. 51.

12. E. Mary Smallwood, trans., Philonis Alexandrini: Legatio ad Gaium, (Leiden: E.J. Brill) 1961.

13. Solomon Zeitlin, “Did Agrippa Write a Letter to Gaius Caligula?” Jewish Quarterly Review (56) 1986/66, p. 27. Zeitlin writes: “Upon careful examination of the letter quoted by Philo we must conclude that it could not have been written by Agrippa to Gaius. Agrippa knew Gaius, his patron well, that his mind was deranged, and that he actually believed himself a god equal to Zeus.”

Daniel Schwartz, in Agrippa I: The Last King of Judaea (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center) 1987, pp. 212-213 takes Zeitlin’s reasoning one highly speculative step further and claims that Philo was a participant in the events he records and that he himself wrote the actual letter that was in fact sent by Agrippa to Gaius Caligula.

In either case, the outcome is that Philo, and not Agrippa, wrote the version of the letter which he relates in Embassy.

Per Bilde, in “The Roman Emperor Gaius (Caligula)’s Attempt to erect his Statue in the Temple of Jerusalem,” Studia Theologica (32) 1978, pp. 71-73 refutes Zeitlin’s thesis, claiming that Gaius Caligula is misunderstood by later historians. Josephus and Philo do not say Gaius Caligula was mentally ill, nor did he force others to accept his divinity, claims Bilde.

But even if Zeitlin’s characterization of Gaius is accurate, it should not be beyond credibility to posit that Agrippa could have written such a letter. After all, Philo seems to think it is credible.

Moreover, Jewish emissaries, like all politicians and diplomats, are prone to saying things that sound reasonable to themselves but are shocking or abhorrent to their audience. For example, consider Jimmy Carter’s famous “Montezuma’s Revenge” comment in Mexico, or the statements made periodically by Israeli public figures to American Jewish leaders. Indeed, it is noted (Embassy 331) that “Gaius was…angered at each of the points” when he read the letter.

Further, Zeitlin says Gaius Caligula would be displeased by Agrippa’s complimenting his ancestors because we know generally that Gaius Caligula hated his own ancestors. But Gaius Caligula’s general or past behavior may not reflect his then current feelings or public posture, and Agrippa may well have been familiar enough with Gaius Caligula to know this.

Finally, if Philo had written the actual letter sent to Gaius Caligula as Schwartz claims, why wouldn’t Philo have taken credit for his role? It is difficult to image that he would be too modest.

14. Schwartz, “Josephus and Philo,” pp. 217-236. Schwartz p. 223 says that the position according to which the shields incident is distinct is based on anti-Jewish researchers, who see in this story a negative depiction of the Jews and thus want to believe Philo’s account.Schwartz pp. 224-227 reconciles the two accounts. Many of his arguments see quite plausible. I can easily believe that, like Pharoah’s dreams, these are two accounts of one episode, despite the fact that they are so different in many details. On Yom Ha’atzmaut 1983 I heard four radio news accounts of a demonstration at the dedication ceremony at Har Berakha, a new West Bank settlement. The accounts varied greatly in detail, such that if I didn’t know better, I might have thought they were describing different demonstrations. For example, the number of demonstrators was 1,500, or 2,000, or 3,000, or 5,000, depending on which report was being broadcast. The surprising element of the story is that all four reports were consecutive broadcasts of the same radio station, Qol Yisrael, in Hebrew, English, Arabic and French. Similarly, compare the portrayal of the Indian Salt Strike in the film Gandhi with actual footage taken at the time. Moreover note that Philo’s account is explicitly written for a polemic purpose, i.e. part of Agrippa’s letter to Gaius Caligula to convince him to change his orders about the statue of himself in the Temple. Formally, Philo himself is not claiming that it is an accurate account; he at most claiming that Agrippa presented such an account in his letter to Gaius Caligula.

15. Perowne, p. 52.

16. Schurer, vol. I, p. 386, and note 139. Others who hold that the two incidents are distinct include Maier, p. 112: “The balance of adducible evidence, however, demonstrates that these are two separate and distinct episodes.” (Cf. pp. 111-114 for his arguments). Likewise, Carl H. Kraeling, “The Episode of the Roman Standards at Jerusalem,” Harvard Theological Review (35) 1942, pp. 276-277; E. Mary Smallwood, Jews Under Roman Rule p. 166: “This episode was surely quite distinct from that of the standards…” in light of several particulars in which the accounts differ; Israel Levine in Menahem Stern, ed., Shilton Romi, (Jerusalem: Keter-Yad Yitzhaq Ben Zvi) 1984, p. 100 presents this as a separate incident without comment.

17. Levine, p. 99. Rhoads, p. 61, follows the first and second reasons. E. Mary Smallwood, Jews Under Roman Rule, p. 166, in suggesting a basis for the Jews’ opposition to the placement of the shields, offers a suggestion similar to Levine’s second possibility here, namely that yielding the authority to Pilate to do this would represent the “thin end of the wedge, and that their acceptance would be the prelude to another attempt to introduce iconic objects in Tiberius’ honour.” Perowne, p. 53, offers a unique interpretation of the incident: “…Pilate undertook a major reconditioning of the [water]supply. To pay for it, he used the Temple treasure. He was entitled to do so, because aqueducts are one of the objects specifically mentioned in the tractate of the Mishna Shekalim, which prescribes how the treasure may be expended. Moreover, the aqueduct delivered the water into the vast cisterns of the Temple. But the inhabitants of Jerusalem were no more grateful to Pilate for giving them water than their successors were to be to the British who gave them a far more copious supply 1,900 years later. In the Levant, material benefit is as nothing when weighed against psychological grievance.” But the Mishna, whenever it was written, does not authorize Romans to use Temple funds, particularly those designated for Qorbanot; there is no indication that the water went to the Temple; Perowne is sympathetic to Pontius Pilate throughout his book and as for his characterization of the Levant, even if it were accurate today, he does not justify projecting onto the past.

18. See, for example, Levine, pp. 99-101.

19. To compare this with Gandhian nonviolence, see the description of the elements of Gandhian nonviolence in Joan V. Bondurant, Conquest of Violence: The Gandhian Philosophy of Conflict, revised edition, (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1965, pp. 36-45.

20. E. Mary Smallwood, “The Chronology of Gauis’ Attempt to Desecrate the Temple,” Latomus (16) 1957, p. 3-4.

21. Bilde, p. 80 and p. 81.

22. Schwartz, Agrippa, p. 93 n. 58.

23. Zeitlin, p. 23.

24. Bilde, p. 81.

25. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors, pp. 29 and 51.

26. Smallwood, Jews Under Roman Rule, p. 176.

27. Bilde, pp. 81-82. Bilde’s emphasis.

28. Schwartz, in Scripta Classica Israelica, VII, 1983/1984, pp. 49-52, and in Agrippa p. 93. Gafni, in his comparison of Josephus and I Macc., says Josephus stresses willingness to die whereas I Macc. stresses brave fighting and heroism in their accounts of the same period. (Y. Gafni, “LeDarkei Shimusho….”, Zion (45), 1980, pp. 90-91.)

29. Daniel Schwartz, “Midbar u’Midrash” in Yeshayahu Gafni and Gabriel Mutzqin, eds., Kehuna uMelukha (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center), 1987, pp. 61-78.

30. Rhoads, pp. 64-65.

31. Smallwood, Philonis, p. 32; Schwartz, Agrippa, pp. 97-99.

32. Zeitlin, p. 31.

33. For arguments as to which account is more accurate, see Smallwood, Jews Under Roman Rule, p. 174, p. 178 n. 116; and in Philonis p. 32: “Therefore, although the Legatio does not comprise a straightforward history, the indications of chronology in it are likely to be more reliable than those of Josephus, who was writing some fifty years later. Secondly, Josephus’ account includes ‘fairy-tale’ elements, the presence of which tells against the credibility of the whole — rain from a cloudless sky, a sumptuous banquet followed by the offer of a boon, and an order to commit suicide, delayed in transit until it was invalid. Thirdly, the fact that the chronological indications which Josephus gives for the opening of the episode are not acceptable throws doubt on the reliability of the rest of his narrative. For these reasons, in the account of the general course of events here given Philo’s version is followed in preference to that of Josephus, where the two seem to be irreconcilable.” See also Bilde, pp. 83-86, and concerning Agrippa’s role p. 86: “…Josephus’s account is closer to the historical course of events than Philo’s….” On Chronology, Bilde does not accept Smallwood’s analysis, but rather concludes, p. 91: “…there is no real contradiction between Philo and Josephus, but only confusion in Philo’s account” (Bilde’s emphasis).

Note also Bilde, p. 88: “Both Philo and Josephus know that the project was canceled on the initiative of Agrippa. And, since both of them have their redactional interest invested elsewhere, we may conclude that this knowledge represents historical tradition” (Bilde’s emphasis).

Also see Schwartz, Agrippa, pp. 90 and 99.

© Jon-Jay Tilsen

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