The Jewish Revolt against Rome

jrSoon after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it became evident that the publication was far too big a project for the local institutions. It was logical that other scholars were invited to join the researchers. From the beginning, Qumranology was an international and multidisciplinary affair.

Still, the publication of the scrolls proceeded slowly. There is nothing strange about this. A parallel is the non-publication of the tens of thousands of unpublished cuneiform tablets in the British Museum, some of which have been waiting for more than a century. The finds in the Dead Sea caves were not different: thousands of fragments belonging to some 970 scrolls.

Usually, no one really bothers about slow scholars, but in Qumran, the expectations were high and many people were disappointed that publication took so long. There were all kinds of conspiracy theories, inevitably claiming that texts had been discovered that would reveal an unpleasant truth about Christianity, inevitably focusing on the Vatican, inevitably becoming stranger and stranger. In the 1990s, the embargo was broken and it took until 2009 until everything was published.

It soon became clear that the first published scrolls, which were written by the members of a sect with a dualistic world view, had been quite atypical. Now that all texts are known, it seems increasingly unlikely that they belong to one, sectarian library. The original identification of the building at Qumran as a monastery is now also very much contested. More importantly, Qumranology tries to contribute to other fields.

Like military history. No one will, of course, claim that the scrolls can replace JosephusJewish War as main source for the conflict between Rome and the Jews. It will never be an exaggeration to say that anyone trying to write about this military engagement is essentially retelling the Jewish historian. The scrolls, however, can help us understand his bias and focus. It has become increasingly clear that his typology of three main types of Judaism (Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes) and an intrusive ‘fourth philosophy’ of aggressive nationalists, is not as illuminating as we might have been hoping for. The scrolls offer evidence for a religious and social landscape that is far more complicated and fascinating than we had expected.

In The Jewish Revolt against Rome, editor Mladen Popović has collected sixteen articles on the Judaean-Roman conflict. For example, Brian Schultz deals with the ideas about the eschatological war in the famous War Scroll and related texts and shows how the identification of the archenemy, the ‘Kittim’, shifted from Greeks to Romans. This conclusion is not very surprising but makes it clear how the study of the scrolls can be useful to military historians.

In this way, it is possible to offer more context to Josephus’ account. Werner Eck observes that the author of the Jewish War always blames members of the equestrian order and almost never suggests senatorial errors, which suggests that the book was read by senators. This in turn suggests that there were limits to Josephus’ fantasy. Pieter van der Horst tries to find out what was intrusive about the fourth philosophy and concludes that the refusal to pay taxes was indeed unheard of. Jodi Magness shows that Josephus’ account of the siege of Masada is quite accurate.

The most important (and longest) contribution is ‘What is history? Using Josephus for the Judaean-Roman War’ by Steve Mason. He is essentially dealing the well-known paradox of ancient history: of necessity, we must build our knowledge of the past largely on written sources, but these are suspect, precisely because they are written. Antiquity was, after all, a face-to-face society in which the most important information was passed on orally, so anything written down is highly atypical. Josephus wrote an interesting text, but he does not answer the questions we would like to see answered.

This is, or course, the central theoretical problem of study of Antiquity. Any source ought to be treated critically. Mason does not offer easy answers, but his article certainly illuminates the problems and shows some modest ways forward. In fact, I think it ought to be reprinted separately and should be required reading for any first-year student, to be followed by a decent exposition of hermeneutics and other explanatory models.

One final remark: although The Jewish Revolt against Rome is not free of academese – it subtitle is Interdisciplinary Perspectives – there are no claims about new paradigms. Self-laudatory remarks about groundbreaking, seminal, innovative, or game-changing insights are also mercifully absent. A recommended book.

[Originally published in Ancient Warfare]

One Response to The Jewish Revolt against Rome

  1. Alex Scarfe says:

    Really enjoyed this post. Thanks and wishing you well my friend. Alex

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