Both cock-up and conspiracy

by
22 August 2007

Cally Hammond on the ruin of Jewish religious practice by the Romans


Rome and Jerusalem: The clash of ancient civilizations
Martin Goodman

THIS BOOK is a patient search for answers to a riddle and a mystery surrounding the relationship between two great cities of the ancient Mediterranean — Rome and Jerusalem. Martin Goodman has digested huge quantities of evidence, and presented his work as a readable narrative. All the (impressive) scholarship is confined to endnotes, where those who want to can chase up the ground of his arguments.

First, the riddle. Why was Jerusalem destroyed in AD 70? What happened to turn the Romans into agents of divine displeasure, destroying angels? For centuries, the Romans had been curious about the Jews, but not antagonistic towards them. The picture of the era before AD 70 that emerges from this book is of peaceful and mutually convenient co-existence. The Life of Brian stereotype of arrogant Romans systematically oppressing downtrodden and rebellious Jews is exposed as an anachronistic fiction, a rewriting of the past to harmonise with the aftermath of the destruction.

If this is true, the only plausible interpretation of what happened in AD 70 is the one that Goodman gives — it was a cock-up.

So much for the riddle. Now for the mystery. Why were the Jews prevented from rebuilding their Temple, when everyone in the ancient world, pagan or Jewish, knew that without a temple Jewish religion could never again be practised in the way that God had ordained? The answer in this case is not cock-up but conspiracy.

The ruin of an entire nation’s religious practice and devotional focus was the outcome of chance events that backed the Roman authorities into a political and military corner. But their continued refusal to allow rebuilding (even though the Temple had, in times past, been rebuilt more than once) was prompted by the political convenience of successive emperors.

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The eventual triumph of Constantine, and his proclamation of the victory of the Christian God, effectively put an end to 250 years of hope and yearning. Victory for Christianity meant vindication of Jesus’s prophecy that Jerusalem would fall; so for Christians to think of rebuilding the Temple became an impiety.

The excellences of this book are many — clarity, readability, schol-arship, balance; the skilful working of original source material into a continuous narrative. As well as the overall approach, there is also polish in the detail. Goodman observes that in many cultures the primary pleasures include eating, drinking, sex, and shopping, before looking at how the Jews differed from the Romans regarding the acceptance of ostentatious consumerism. Material for the preacher here, I think.

As with all the best books, the reviewer is left hoping that readers will choose to discover its insights for themselves. Setting aside the obvious interest Christians should have in a book that explores the culture clash on which their own religious identity is founded, perhaps the most important insights come at the end. I could wish that every Christian preacher who talks about “the Jews” in sermons would imagine a Jewish person sitting in the congregation: and would ask themselves the question, “Do I still want to say this? should I make my point in this way?” This book will carry them a long way to achieving the goal of such an exercise.

In the end, though, the conclusion may also be a realisation of how distant the ancient world is from ours. The scriptures may be the same, and a continuity of development may be traceable; but unfettered triumphalism? Glorying in vindication proved by the downfall of the Jews? Readiness to equate what happened with God’s will? Demonisation of a whole race and nation as evil? This is a world from which we do well to shrink in distaste, or, more likely, disgust.

We may be the heirs of those who gloried in the Temple’s ruin, but — as feminist theologians occasionally remind us — biology is not destiny.

The Revd Dr Hammond is Dean of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge University.

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