BMCR 2007.08.23

Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insights

, Diaspora Judaism in turmoil, 116/117 CE : ancient sources and modern insights. Interdisciplinary studies in ancient culture and religion ; 6. Leuven: Peeters, 2005. xi, 302 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9042916052 €40.00.

For scholars of antiquity, the Jewish revolt during the reign of the Emperor Trajan is a tantalizing event, the causes and repercussions of which are shrouded in mystery. While the great Jewish war against the Romans of 66-72 C.E. and, to a lesser extent, the Bar Kochba revolt of 132-135 C.E. have received a great deal of scholarly attention, this conflict, commonly dated to 115-117 C.E., is far less studied. Yet this situation is not due to its lack of importance. Among its grievous consequences, for example, is the virtual eradication of the thriving Jewish Diaspora communities in Egypt. It is quite clear that the revolt had serious effects, but the surviving historical evidence related to it is extremely sparse and difficult to interpret. As a result, even though “the causes and course of the war are most obscure,”1 this revolt “was, if anything, the most costly and violent of all.”2

Therefore, the monograph of Miriam Pucci Ben Zeev (henceforth “PBZ”) devoted to the Trajanic revolt is an especially welcome contribution to the study of ancient Judaism and its relationship with the Roman authorities. The subtitle of the book, “Ancient Sources and Modern Insights,” corresponds to the two-part division of the work as a whole, since pp. 3-119 are a catalogue of excerpts from ancient sources relevant to the reconstruction of the revolt’s history, while pp. 123-266 present PBZ’s arguments for a revision of several points of scholarly conventional wisdom concerning the revolt. The two most significant conclusions of PBZ are: 1) the revolt lasted one year, occurring between the summers of 116-117 C.E., not two years (115-117 C.E.), as stated by Eusebius and assumed by most scholars; 2) in addition to conflict in Egypt, Libya, and Cyprus, it is quite likely that fighting connected to the revolt also took place in Judea and Mesopotamia.

PBZ’s study begins with the “Ancient Sources” section, which divides the material into several distinct categories, and, when necessary, some subsets of these larger categories. The first set of witnesses is inscriptions from Judea, Cyprus, and Libya; the second is documentary papyri, all from Egypt, a small subset of which are denoted as having questionable connections to the revolt (whereas the majority of the documents have no denotation); the third and final section is literary sources, divided into pagan, Christian, and rabbinic materials. Each witness, numbering eighty-six in total, contains a unique number, a descriptive name or commonly-used title (along with inventory numbers for the papyri), information about its provenance and physical condition (when available), a short bibliography (usually including the critical edition and recent scholarly work on the text), the text in its original language, a critical apparatus (in the case of literary sources), and an English translation, either by PBZ or another scholar.

The first chapter of the “Modern Insights” section, entitled “The Background” and the fourth overall chapter of the work (pp.123-142), is a concise discussion of the social, political, and religious issues that seem to have played significant roles in the outbreak of this widespread revolt. PBZ identifies four primary catalysts: 1) the economic woes and psychological humiliation engendered by the Fiscus Judaicus, which was imposed on all Jews in the aftermath of the 66-72 war, regardless of whether they actually participated in the uprising; 2) continual antagonism between local Jews and Greeks in numerous Diaspora communities, the best known and most significant of these being Alexandria; 3) disturbances instigated by rebels who had fled Judea after the great war, further exacerbating already existing tensions between Jewish and non-Jewish segments of society; and 4) a general upswing in messianic expectations and predictions of Rome’s fall, one of the purported signs of which may have been the earthquake that took place in Antioch during a visit of the Emperor Trajan in 115.

In the course of this discussion, PBZ pauses to treat one particular papyrological witness in more detail, since it has played a major role in establishing the dates of the conflict. This papyrus, CPJ, II, 435 (strangely, not included among the papyri in “Ancient Sources”) is an official Roman document describing an incident of conflict between Alexandrian Jews and Greeks, and is dated securely to October 14, 115.3 Scholars have generally believed that the hostilities mentioned here are part of the Trajanic revolt, but PBZ instead argues that it is an example of the kind of ongoing street-violence that was commonplace in Alexandria prior to the outbreak of sustained, large-scale conflict. Decisive for her is the implication found in the papyrus that it is the Greeks and not the Jews who are chiefly responsible for the ruckus. Moreover, the emperor has sent a judge to conduct a further inquiry, and if the Jewish revolt was indeed happening at this time, “the emperor would have sent not a judge but his best generals and military forces.” (p.138) If PBZ’s interpretation of the document is correct, then the beginning of the revolt necessarily must be pushed beyond October of 115.

The fifth chapter (pp.141-156) evaluates the commonly accepted chronology for the revolt, a chronology that is dependant exclusively on information contained in the Chronicle and Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea. Yet there are reasons to be skeptical of both sources. One obvious discrepancy is that the former gives a three-year duration for the conflict, while the latter places its length at two years. It is possible that factors such as textual corruption and the Chronicle‘s use of the four-year Olympiad system may have contributed to this incongruity. (pp.146-150) Following J. Schwartz4 and T.D. Barnes,5 PBZ notes that tax receipts for the payment of the Fiscus Judaicus in Egypt abruptly cease in May of 116, and suggests this as “the terminus post quem for the beginning of the uprising in Egypt.” (p.153) She also uses papyrological evidence to determine the end of the revolt, which seems to have been “between early and late summer of 117, perhaps as late as the beginning of Hadrian’s reign.” (p.155) Therefore, the revolt lasted only one year, not two or three, as the Eusebian writings suggest.

In the sixth chapter (pp.157-166), PBZ inquires about the reasons for Eusebius’ erroneous dating of the revolts and concludes that the mistake has stemmed from one of the sources used by him. She rejects Dio Cassius because of the numerous discrepancies between his account and Eusebius’; and since Dio Cassius certainly made use of Arrian, this also makes the use of Arrian by Eusebius quite unlikely. PBZ considers it possible that Eusebius used Ariston of Pella or “Bruttius” (perhaps to be identified with the military commander/politican/historian C. Bruttius Praesens) or both, but the fragments of their work that have survived are too meager to be sure of a connection. The most likely candidate is Appian, who spent some time in Egypt around the beginning of the revolt. PBZ theorizes that rumors of the riot described in CPJ II, 435 were relayed to Appian by Greek associates, who wrongly cast the Jews as the instigators. (p.165-166) If this is correct, then Eusebius (and perhaps Appian as well) would have understood this event as the formal start of the revolt, when in reality it was a lesser episode of violence directed at Jews, not by them. PBZ concludes that one of the “Greek authors” mentioned by Eusebius ( HE IV, 2, 5) as his sources was quite possibly Appian, and that Eusebius’ predilection for sources contemporary with the events described would give credence to the other author(s) being Ariston of Pella or Bruttius.

Chapter seven (pp.167-190) treats the papyrological evidence from Egypt in light of the conclusions reached above regarding CPJ II, 435. If this papyrus does not actually concern the Jewish revolt but instead references events preceding it that were not precipitated by the Jews, then “a re-consideration of each of the texts dealing with the revolt that bears an incomplete date” (p.168) becomes a necessity. The relatively short time that the revolt encompassed, between the summers of 116 and 117, allows PBZ to place the undated and partially dated papyri into a chronological framework based on the events described in these documents.

Along with reconstructing a timeline of the revolt’s events, PBZ here also notes several remarkable features of the conflict as it unfolded in Egypt. Two examples are especially outstanding for grasping the scale of the uprising. One papyrus ( PSI 1063) indicates that a cohort in Egypt imported new recruits from Asia Minor; this is noteworthy not only because the standard practice was to recruit from within a province — thereby suggesting that resources were strained — but also because the number of the recruits represented approximately to one-third of a cohort, indicating significant casualties.6 The evidence of this source leads PBZ to agree with J.F. Gilliam about “the serious and bloody nature of the Jewish uprising in Egypt.”7 A second example comes from several papyri that note the great quantities of property that were confiscated from Egyptian Jews in the aftermath of the revolt, a policy that left “the rare survivors, stunned by the harsh verdict of imperial justice,…totally impoverished.” (p.189) Such actions provide some clues as to how the revolt managed to decimate the Jewish communities of Egypt.

Chapter eight (pp.191-217) evaluates the possible role of Mesopotamian Jews in the revolt. While scholars have frequently recognized that Jews fought alongside of the Parthians against the Roman invasion during Trajan’s Parthian campaign, this event has usually been treated as a separate occurrence unrelated to the wider Jewish revolt. PBZ’s interpretation allows for a great deal more Jewish agency than is usually granted, arguing for their participation in a revolt “of the territories previously conquered” by the Romans, which Arrian mentions. (pp.206-207) Furthermore, she argues that Jews in Mesopotamia who fought against Roman forces were not merely stirred up by Parthian propaganda, but had their own distinctive reasons for resisting Roman annexation, most notably the avoidance of the Fiscus Judaicus. (p.211)

The ninth and final major chapter (pp.219-257) considers what shape, if any, the revolt took in the province of Judea itself. As PBZ admits, there is very little evidence for great instability in Judea at this time. (p.227) However, several rabbinic sources mention a “war of Qitos,” which PBZ theorizes was an insurrection against Trajan’s great general Lucius Quietus, who was sent from the Parthian front to Judea in 117 as the new governor of the province. While historical reconstruction from rabbinic materials is widely considered a fraught exercise, PBZ argues that it is “precisely because the rabbinic sources are not history books that their remarks concerning historical details may be regarded as being of particular value, since they are usually recorded incidentally, casually, and in passing.” (p.236) Her position has some merit, since in several of the rabbinic texts the “war of Qitos” is not of interest in itself, but merely serves as a chronological backdrop to debates that are halakhic in nature. When the testimony of the rabbinic material is combined with inscriptional and numismatic data and information from several Syriac and Armenian Christian chroniclers, the likelihood increases that some sort of revolt took place in Judea during the governorship of Lucius Quietus. Yet PBZ does suspect that the paucity of references to this portion of the revolt is not simply a historical accident of preservation, but indeed reflects the fact that “the events of Judaea…did not reach proportions similar to those reached by the uprisings in the other countries.” (p.257)

PBZ ends her study with a short concluding chapter (pp.259-266) entitled “The Order, Possible Interrelations and Achievements of the Uprisings.” The two works of Eusebius and Dio Cassius present differing orders for the regions involved in the revolt, and there are no clear reasons to favor one order over another. However, as PBZ observes, in the regions where the chronological data is most reliable — namely Egypt and Mesopotamia — it seems that the starts of the uprising were virtually simultaneous. As surprising as such a situation might be, PBZ argues that this state of affairs would explain why “there could be no consistent order in their presentation.” (p.262) Several scholars in the nineteenth and twentieth century have argued that the geographically disparate revolts were nevertheless the product of a strong centralized leadership, a possibility that PBZ does not dismiss outright, but recognizes is “bound to remain speculative.” (p.263) To the mind of this reviewer, suggestions that such a widespread series of uprisings could be the work of a single organizing entity sound uncomfortably like the rhetoric of a “worldwide Jewish conspiracy” that has been invoked in numerous anti-Semitic compositions. Nevertheless, the evidence of contemporaneous beginnings to the revolt cannot be ignored, and it is indeed a most puzzling feature of the historical record.

In evaluating the final outcome of the Trajanic revolt, PBZ highlights a strange duality in its outcome. On the one hand, the revolt meant the obliteration of many significant Diaspora communities, particularly those of Egypt. Yet on the other hand, the successful repulsion of the Roman invasion of Parthia, in which Mesopotamian Jews certainly played a part, meant that the major centers of Jewish learning in Babylon remained free of Roman domination. As PBZ argues, “The longterm historical consequences of these uprisings, therefore, would have equaled or even surpassed those of the two more famous Jewish wars of 66-70 and 132-135.” (p.266)

This study constitutes an extremely valuable resource for the continued study of this enigmatic but very significant chapter in ancient Jewish history. The gathering together of a wide array of sources in excerpted form is not only of practical use, but is also a stark reminder of the various types of evidence that the scholars of antiquity must judiciously employ in the service of historical reconstruction. The analytical components of her study demonstrate a meticulous caution in their conclusions and a broad familiarity with the numerous interpretative difficulties that a study of this sort of event must take into account. Her work presents a compelling case for what was at stake in the outcome of this revolt for the Jewish communities in the Roman and Parthian empires.

Nevertheless, some of the most intriguing aspects of the revolt, at least to the mind of this reviewer, might have merited more discussion. As mentioned above, the apparent fact that the revolt began in several places is very curious, and the solution does not seem to be in positing a single original agent responsible for the conflict. While any suggestion is bound to remain provisional, it is possible that some analogues to this sort of behavior might be found within the discipline of cross-cultural anthropology.

A second, and related, point of curiosity has to do with the inverted relationship of this uprising to the revolts of 66-70 and 132-135. While Judea may have indeed participated to some degree in the Trajanic revolts, this participation was, as PBZ recognizes, quite minor in comparison to both the contemporaneous events elsewhere and to the level of conflict present in Judea during the great war and the Bar Kochba revolt. Conversely, the great war and the Bar Kochba revolt are characterized by large-scale resistance within Judea itself, but the evidence for anti-Roman activity in the Jewish Diaspora during these conflicts is virtually nil. While scholars have, quite rightly, pulled back from overemphasizing the distinctions between Palestinian Judaism and Diaspora Judaism, it seems reasonably clear that the Jewish community as a whole was never simultaneously in revolt against Rome. This unusual situation necessitates further reflection by scholars.

Apart from these issues, the only significant drawback of the work for this reviewer concerns not its content, but its presentation. The more than a hundred pages of primary source documents that begin this study are not preceded by any kind of introduction, either for themselves or for the research as a whole, making for a rather bewildering entry into a topic that is already extremely difficult. Moreover, although the individual primary sources are set off from one another by unique numbers, these numbers do not appear to be replicated anywhere in the main body or footnotes of the study. This omission renders the numbering of the sources far less useful than it might be otherwise. Finally, the lack of any introductory chapter deprives the reader of understanding PBZ’s reasons for including or excluding primary sources. As a chief example, CPJ II, 435 is one of the most frequently discussed sources, but it is not contained in the “Ancient Sources” section. Whether this is due to the length of the document or some other reason is unclear, but its importance in the overall argument of the work would seem to demand its inclusion.

Despite these criticisms, PBZ is to be commended for making a significant contribution to the study of this revolt, the results of which were both disastrous and fortuitous for the Jewish communities of antiquity.


1. S.J.D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Philadelphia, PA, 1987, 17.

2. J.G. Gager, The Origins of Anti-Semitism, Oxford, 1983, 51.

3. V.A. Tcherikover and F. Alexander (eds.), Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum, Volume 2, Cambridge, MA, 1960, 228.

4. J. Schwartz, “En marge du dossier d’Apollonios,” CE 37 (1962): 353.

5. T.D. Barnes, “Trajan and the Jews,” JJS 40 (1989):157-58.

6. R.O. Fink, Roman Military Records on Papyrus, Cleveland, OH, 1971, 74.

7. J.F. Gilliam, “An Egyptian Cohort in A.D. 117,” Bonner Historia Augusta-Colloquium 1964/1965, Bonn, 1966, 91-97.