BMCR 2021.05.21

Les récits de la destruction de Jérusalem (70 ap. J.-C.): Contextes, représentations et enjeux, entre Antiquité et Moyen Âge

, Les récits de la destruction de Jérusalem (70 ap. J.-C.): Contextes, représentations et enjeux, entre Antiquité et Moyen Âge. Judaïsme ancien et origines du christianisme, 19. Turnhout: Brepols, 2020. Pp. 408. ISBN 9782503588308. €85,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Violence is a familiar subject for historians of antiquity. In its state-organized form, as war, it has been a privileged object of both ancient and modern historiographies; a more recent scholarly turn—informed by twentieth-century social and legal theory—has focused on how violence was implicated in ancient social life and culture.[1] While problems of definition remain, this more recent work has argued for the interdependence of physical violence (punching, beating, incarcerating, starving, raping, stabbing, burning) and the speech acts that scripted those doings as meaningful social action (insults, threats, complaints, legal decisions, story-telling, memorializations).

Although not framed directly as a study of violence, the book under review offers a series of essays on the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE that demonstrate in an exemplary way how that—undoubtedly violent and destructive—event was scripted in antiquity and the early medieval period. In the introduction, the editor, Frédéric Chapot, frankly sets aside a naïve quest for the historical reality to draw attention to receptions and narrativizations of the violence. The book is the product of a Strasbourg-based team, joined by scholars from elsewhere in France and Germany, and has a clear cohesion as a collective effort to track the literary tradition of the fall of the city and the destruction of the Second Temple. At the center of this tradition, as the introduction and essays themselves makes clear, are the fifth and sixth books of Flavius Josephus’ Jewish War: a contemporary and eyewitness account of the Roman sack.

Formally the book is divided into two sections, but it might be better read as three panels: chapters one to three provide scripts for Josephus’ narrative; chapter four addresses the composition of the fall of Jerusalem in the Jewish War directly; chapters five through nine examine reinscriptions, direct and indirect, of the Josephan narrative into late antique and early medieval religious texts.

In the first panel, on scripts for the violence at Jerusalem, Alain Chavuot extensively reviews Roman imperial practices and rituals of siege, urban destruction, and refoundation (chapter I), the editor and Jean-Luc Vix discuss the rhetorical trope of urbs capta and its inevitably Trojan echoes (chapter II), and Régine Hunziker-Rodewald looks to the poetry of the opening of the biblical book of Lamentations, composed after the sack of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II in 597 BCE (chapter III). The inclusion of the last topic has great potential for understanding Jewish experiences of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, though the chapter in practice is narrowly focused on the poetics of the first six verses of Lamentations 1 and so represents a missed opportunity. As a group, however, they set the stage well for Serge Bardet’s essay on the account of Josephus (chapter IV). He argues well that Josephus drew on both classical literary models and biblical prophetic theology to present a monumental and powerful account of the fall of the city that blames the revolutionary Jewish parties. For Bardet, Josephus was writing both to memorialize and to provide a theological message to other survivors—even a prophecy—of God’s ultimate agency.

In the final lines of his essay, Bardet suggests that this theological message was what made Josephus valuable to early Christians: the agency of God could be reinterpreted by readers of the gospels. This rewriting of the events of 70 CE are the subject of four of the remaining five essays: Hervé Huntzinger reads across the works of Eusebius of Caesarea to show how the Josephan account is deployed to affirm a supersessionist account of the fall of Jerusalem as punishment for Jewish resistance to Jesus and his followers (chapter V); Gabriella Aragione describes the symbolic use of the ruins of Jerusalem in fourth-century imperial and religious politics, particularly in the reigns of Constantine and Julian (chapter VI); Agnès Molinier-Ando looks at how the late antique Latin history of the Jewish war, conventionally known as the work of pseudo-Hegesippus, rewrites the Josephan narrative to provide a new virulently anti-Jewish and pro-Roman version of the fall of the city (chapter VII); and Céline Urlacher-Becht and Rémi Gounelle demonstrate the impact of pseudo-Hegesippus on an apocryphal early medieval text, Vindicta Salvatoris, a novelistic work in two redactions about Vespasian and Titus, who are depicted living under the emperor Tiberius, as converts to Christianity, and destroying Jerusalem as punishment for the supposed theocide (chapter IX). In an appendix, they also draw attention to a Carolingian hymn on the same theme, which ends each stanza with the same grim line: ad delendam unam gentem convenerunt principes (“the princes gathered to exterminate a single people”).

Another chapter, by Matthias Morgenstern, discusses the evasion of this tradition in rabbinic literature (chapter VIII). For the most part, early rabbinic (tannaitic) texts avoid the subject of fall of the temple. Only in following generations did rabbinic texts deal more directly with the destruction of the Jerusalem; in his chapter, Morgenstern focuses on the fourth- or fifth-century midrash on the book of Genesis, Bereshit Rabbah, to draw out the rabbinic placement of the destruction of the temple within the divine act of creation that is narrated in Genesis. At the same time, the rabbis quoted in the text develop a rhetorical contrast between Rome (often in the guise of Esau) and Israel and allude skeptically to Julian’s plans for rebuilding the Temple. As this summary may indicate, this particular midrashic discourse is disconnected from, even opposed to, the historicizing Christian tradition that depends on Josephus.

In sum, the reader of this book is presented with an album of destructions of Jerusalem, moving from Roman military practice and rhetorics to late imperial construction projects and early medieval apocrypha, with the essays, for the most part, both introducing their subjects well and guiding readers towards the bigger picture. In an unusual way, this is an edited volume that repays a complete and sequential reading—something I find is rarely true of volumes that emerge from conferences or even of aspirationally completist handbooks. It is not simply a matter of cross-references and distribution of material (both well done), the editor and team have managed to make their points collectively about the centrality of Josephus in the tradition and the uses of his narrative.

Inevitably, there are some récits still missing. In the introduction, the prophetic references to the destruction of the temple and city in the synoptic gospels are set aside as “allusive and marginal” (12), which may well be true from a strictly historical perspective, but they were decisive for how Christian readers came to understand the historical events. Huntzinger demonstrates this for Eusebius, but more attention to these passages could have opened up a thicker account of the late antique Christian scripting of the sack. For instance, pseudo-Hegesippus inserts several allusions to the synoptic prophecies into his historical account of the destruction, turning the history, largely based on Josephus, into a more direct verification of prophecy. Other pre-Constantinian Christian authors are largely absent here, perhaps notably Justin Martyr, who directly theologizes the events of 70 CE in his Dialogue with Trypho. The same might be said for Jewish literature: the absence of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch excludes important early responses to the destruction (even if they do not quite directly narrate the sack either). For rabbinic literature, Morgenstern’s choice to focus on Bereshit Rabbah means that the volume lacks a discussion of the midrash Lamentations Rabbah, perhaps compiled slightly later than Bereshit Rabbah, which more directly retells the atrocities of the destruction and offers one version of the rabbinic legend of the distinctly Josephus-like rabbi, Yohanan ben Zakkai, who is claimed to have escaped the besieged city. The inclusion of the Vindicta Salvatoris may also justify inclusion of the late first-millennium CE Sefer Yosippon, a Jewish history that takes pseudo-Hegesippus as a central source text. There would have been no way to be exhaustive here—and this should not stand as a criticism of the work of the authors—but there certainly remain possibilities for a thicker dossier of narratives of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

As a history of violence, however, there is another, more challenging absence from the volume. The exclusion of “historical reality” from a study of this kind is an understandable intellectual position—I share the stated doubts of Chapot and Bardet in particular about the impossibility of getting beyond Josephus’ narrative to the actual sequence of events and distribution of agency in the destruction itself—but it threatens to leave the actual violence in Jerusalem as ineffable. Chapot directs our attention towards “historical consequences” instead and to Jerusalem as a central issue in later religious controversy (12, 17). Although it is not mentioned in this volume, there has been some debate over the last decade among historians of ancient Judaism on the question of the immediate impact of the fall of the Jerusalem on Jewish society, but there too the focus has been on theological responses.[2] But that narrowing of consequences seems to me to move too quickly past the physical harm and destruction that took place in Jerusalem; after all, the damage done was not only religious, but also personal, social, economic, and political (or maybe it would be better to say that the religious consequences were entirely embedded in these others). In thinking about these other impacts, we might too listen to the calls from scholars working on Roman expansion in western Europe to direct our attention to the dark side of the empire.[3]

In the case of Jerusalem, precise numbers of dead and enslaved are out of reach—the figure of over one million dead given by Josephus (B.J. 6.420) is likely too high—even if in the tens or hundreds of thousands, the shock to the Judaean population was surely massive and likely significantly compounded by the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt in the 130s CE. Many families must have disappeared entirely or needed to be reconstituted anew; in an agrarian and likely pilgrimage-based economy, the loss of labor and markets must have been instantly impoverishing for many; the Judaean aristocratic elite that had developed in the Hasmonean and Herodian periods, including the Herodian family itself, seems to have largely vanished. Traces of this violence are visible, for instance, in Josephus’ writing: he reports that in the wake of the fall of Jerusalem he begged for the lives of family members, including his brother, and for freedom for hundreds of acquaintances; he speaks too of weeping at the sight of friends who had been crucified at Tekoa by the Roman army; he also boasts of his imperial land grants in coastal Judaea, presumably taken from participants in the revolt, to replace now unprofitable holdings in Jerusalem (Vita 419-422). Certainly, there were significant continuities of social forms and traditions—Judaism survived—but there is important work to be done still on the social, economic and political consequences of the destruction. The editor and authors of the book under review have performed a valuable service in examining narratives and memorializations of the destruction of Jerusalem; in conversation with and in response to their work, let us consider more directly the material violence that took place in 70 CE.

Authors and titles

Avant-propos (Frédéric Chapot)
Première partie: Jérusalem et la destruction des villes dans l’Antiquité: réalités historiques et mises en œuvre littéraires
Chapitre I: La «destruction» de villes dans l’Antiquité romaine (Alain Chauvot)
Chapitre II: Le motif littéraire de la destruction des villes (Frédéric Chapot & Jean-Luc Vix)
Chapitre III: La ville-princesse en pleurs: l’art de la communication de la souffrance en Lamentations 1, 1-6 (Régine Hunziker-Rodewald)
Chapitre IV: Le siège de Jérusalem selon Flavius Josèphe (Serge Bardet)
Deuxième partie: La destruction de Jérusalem: interprétations et réécritures
Chapitre V: Eusèbe de Césarée et les ruines de Jérusalem (Hervé Huntzinger)
Chapitre VI: Reconstruire Jérusalem au IVe siècle: Constantin, Julien et les aléas d’une ville-symbole (Gabriella Aragione)
Chapitre VII: Une lecture romaine et chrétienne de la chute de Jérusalem : l’adaptation latine de la Guerre des Juifs attribuée à Hégésippe (Agnès Molinier-Arbo)
Chapitre VIII: Réflexions sur l’image et l’histoire du temple de Jérusalem dans le Midrash Bereshit Rabba (Matthias Morgenstern)
Chapitre IX: Un développement littéraire médiéval: la « légende» de la Vindicta Saluatoris (Vengeance du Sauveur) (Céline Urlacher-Becht & Rémi Gounelle)


[1] Lendon, J. E. 2005. Soldiers & Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven: Yale University Press; Brent D. 2011. Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Bryen, Ari Z. 2014. “Histories of Violence: Notes from the Roman Empire.” In Violence and Civilization: Studies of Social Violence in History and Prehistory, ed. Roderick Campbell, 125–51. Oxford: Oxbow.

[2] Klawans, Jonathan. 2010. “Josephus, the Rabbis, and Responses to Catastrophes Ancient and Modern.” Jewish Quarterly Review 100: 278–309; Najman, Hindy. 2014. Losing the Temple and Recovering the Future: An Analysis of 4 Ezra. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. For a different view: Schwartz, Seth. 2016. “The Impact of the Jewish Rebellions 66-135 CE: Destruction or Provincialization?” In Revolt and Resistance in the Ancient Classical World and the Near East, ed. John J. Collins and J. G. Manning, 234–52. Leiden: Brill.

[3] Fernández-Götz, Manuel, Dominik Maschek, and Nico Roymans. 2020. “The Dark Side of the Empire: Roman Expansionism between Object Agency and Predatory Regime.” Antiquity 94: 1630–39; Padilla Peralta, Dan-el. 2020. “Epistemicide: The Roman Case.” Classica: Revista Brasileira de Estudos Clássicos 33: 151–86.