Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing and the Jewish War

Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing and the Jewish War November 13, 2015

Palestine in Jesus’s time was a much more complex and diverse place than we might sometimes think from the standard colonial imagery of Roman soldiers oppressing Jewish subjects. As I have described, there were plenty of other groups in Palestine and neighboring regions, and Jews and Gentiles lived in close proximity. There were also substantial Gentile areas, like the Decapolis. To that extent, Palestine and its environs were typical ancient Mediterranean societies, in being multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. Relations between communities and faiths could be cordial, or at least peaceful, but the rise of Jewish revolutionary nationalism created intense conflicts and mutual fears. The depth of the mutual hatred is striking.

The scale of the internal divisions became horrifically apparent during the Jewish Revolt of the 60s, when neighboring communities and cities massacred and purged each other with a zeal that makes the Yugoslav war of the 1990s look almost friendly. Ethnic and religious cleansing ran rampant, and the theme occurs on almost every page of Josephus’s Jewish War. This is also an instance where we can reasonably use the controversial word “genocide” as the intended goal of both sides, Jews and Gentiles.

The Jewish War is a familiar source, but I think this theme often gets underplayed, amidst such spectacular set-pieces as the siege and fall of Jerusalem. We focus so much on the central fact of the war between Rome and the nationalists that we ignore the inter-communal savagery at the level of streets and villages.

Josephus describes the radical coup in Jerusalem in 66, which then ignited massacres across the country. (As always reading his works, it never pays to take his numbers too seriously). I am using Whiston’s old translation:

Now the people of Caesarea had slain the Jews …. insomuch that in one hour’s time above twenty thousand Jews were killed, and all Caesarea was emptied of its Jewish inhabitants; … Upon which stroke that the Jews received at Caesarea, the whole nation was greatly enraged; so they divided themselves into several parties, and laid waste the villages of the Syrians, and their neighboring cities, Philadelphia, and Sebonitis, and Gerasa, and Pella, and Scythopolis, and after them Gadara, and Hippos [These are the main cities of the Decapolis]; and falling upon Gaulonitis, some cities they destroyed there, and some they set on fire, and then went to Kedasa, belonging to the Tyrians, and to Ptolemais, and to Gaba, and to Caesarea; nor was either Sebaste [Samaria] or Ashkelon able to oppose the violence with which they were attacked; and when they had burnt these to the ground; they entirely demolished Anthedon and Gaza; many also of the villages that were about every one of those cities were plundered, and an immense slaughter was made of the men who were caught in them.

Jewish rebels and Zealots slaughtered Gentiles, and Gentiles wiped out Jewish communities that they feared might be nurturing potential rebels and genocidaires in their midst.

As so often in history, and certainly not just in the Middle East, the worst massacres and pogroms are justified by a fear of what the other side might have done had they had the chance. Each side can and does claim that the other side started it, and that they are just retaliating in the face of impossible provocations. It rarely repays the historian to seek the actual sequence of rights or wrongs, or to determine who exactly “started it,” and who started the cycle of massacres and tit-for-tat revenge.

At least in the eyes of the perpetrators (then as now), violence and terrorism are commonly justified as acts of self-defense:

However, the Syrians were even with the Jews in the multitude of the men whom they slew; for they killed those whom they caught in their cities, and that not only out of the hatred they bare them, as formerly, but to prevent the danger under which they were from them; so that the disorders in all Syria were terrible, and every city was divided into two armies, encamped one against another, and the preservation of the one party was in the destruction of the other; so the day time was spent in shedding of blood, and the night in fear, which was of the two the more terrible; for when the Syrians thought they had ruined the Jews, they had the Judaizers in suspicion also; and as each side did not care to slay those whom they only suspected on the other, so did they greatly fear them when they were mingled with the other, as if they were certainly foreigners.

The word Judaizers, tous Ioudaizontas, is not clear. It is familiar in early Christian writings, where it refers to Jesus followers who favored retaining aspects of Jewish law and ritual, but that is obviously not the meaning here. It might refer to Gentiles sympathetic towards Judaism who had not undergone full conversion, such as the God-Fearers referred to in the Book of Acts. Conceivably, it might include Gentiles attracted to the rising Jesus Movement, which at the time was viewed as a Jewish sect. Might the word apply to what we would call early Christians?

Based on a great many historical analogies, it is overwhelmingly likely that much of the violence was driven by escalating rumors and atrocity tales. “Did you hear the Jews killed a thousand Gentile children?” “Have you heard that five thousand Syrians are coming this way to slaughter us all?” And if such stories of murder, rape and mutilation began as fictions, all too soon they entered the world of reality. Conceivably, Josephus’s astronomical casualty figures reflect memories of these stories and rumors.

Josephus’s analysis of the mixed motives driving ethnic slaughter sounds very contemporary, and could apply to pogroms and massacres in any era, or any continent. The closest modern analogies that come to my mind are the extraordinary massacres that accompanied the Partition of British India in 1947, and the creation of Pakistan:

Moreover, greediness of gain was a provocation to kill the opposite party, even to such as had of old appeared very mild and gentle towards them; for they without fear plundered the effects of the slain, and carried off the spoils of those whom they slew to their own houses, as if they had been gained in a set battle; and he was esteemed a man of honor who got the greatest share, as having prevailed over the greatest number of his enemies. It was then common to see cities filled with dead bodies, still lying unburied, and those of old men, mixed with infants, all dead, and scattered about together; women also lay amongst them, without any covering for their nakedness: you might then see the whole province full of inexpressible calamities, while the dread of still more barbarous practices which were threatened was every where greater than what had been already perpetrated.

One grim story unfolded at Scythopolis, a city of the Decapolis on the West side of the Jordan. The rebels were shocked to find that local Jews were allied with the Gentiles against the revolt, and actively defended the city. Even so, the Gentiles did not trust their Jewish allies, and forced them out of the city, with their families. Reputedly, some thirteen thousand perished.

Besides this murder at Scythopolis, the other cities rose up against the Jews that were among them; those of Ashkelon slew two thousand five hundred, and those of Ptolemais two thousand, and put not a few into bonds; those of Tyre also put a great number to death, but kept a greater number in prison; moreover, those of Hippos, and those of Gadara, did the like while they put to death the boldest of the Jews, but kept those of whom they were afraid in custody; as did the rest of the cities of Syria, according as they every one either hated them or were afraid of them; only the Antiochians, the Sidonians, and Apamians spared those that dwelt with them, and would not endure either to kill any of the Jews, or to put them in bonds. And perhaps they spared them, because their own number was so great that they despised their attempts [ie the Jews were such a small minority that they posed no plausible danger]. … As for the Gerasans, they did no harm to those that abode with them; and for those who had a mind to go away, they conducted them as far as their borders reached.

Some of the worst fighting occurred in Alexandria in Egypt, an ancient and prestigious Jewish center. Inter-communal rioting escalated until the Romans sent in regular forces, who massacred the substantial Jewish Quarter:

no mercy was shown to the infants, and no regard had to the aged; but they went on in the slaughter of persons of every age, till all the place was overflowed with blood, and fifty thousand of them lay dead upon heaps; nor had the remainder been preserved, had they not be-taken themselves to supplication. …. the populace of Alexandria bare so very great hatred to the Jews, that it was difficult to recall them, and it was a hard thing to make them leave their dead bodies.

After the epochal destruction of a relieving Roman force, Gentile cities further afield became even more alarmed, and struck out at Jewish populations:

The people of Damascus, when they were informed of the destruction of the Romans, set about the slaughter of those Jews that were among them; and as they had them already cooped up together in the place of public exercises, which they had done out of the suspicion they had of them, they thought they should meet with no difficulty in the attempt; yet did they distrust their own wives, which were almost all of them addicted to the Jewish religion; on which account it was that their greatest concern was, how they might conceal these things from them; so they came upon the Jews, and cut their throats, as being in a narrow place, in number ten thousand, and all of them unarmed, and this in one hour’s time, without any body to disturb them.

This was neither the time nor the place for people who straddled the religious and political boundary, who wanted no part of the reciprocal mass murder. A strong tradition holds that the earliest followers of the Jesus Movement avoided the catastrophe by fleeing Jerusalem – and where else, but to the Decapolis, to the city of Pella?

The full religious impact of these disasters is open to debate. We know, for instance, that old Jewish sects like the Essenes did not survive the war – although some scholars think that some survivors migrated east, where they merged into Jewish-Christian baptismal sects. Also intriguing is the fate of some old followers of John the Baptist or Jesus, including Gentiles, whom were expelled or purged during the war years. Perhaps we see their ghosts in the later Mandaean sect of southern Iraq. It’s also interesting that the first significant Gnostic leaders appear in Antioch just a generation or so after the war, suggesting that perhaps they carried some heritage from the migrants and survivors of older Jewish sects.

But the sheer mass destruction of these years means that we are missing many of the documents that would allow us to speak more confidently about these possible survivals.



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  • John Read

    What are the best estimates for the number of Jews killed in the Jewish War (both inside and outside of Palestine)? On top of that how many were killed in the conflicts between 66 and the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 136? I started wondering this after I read the Jewish War for the first time and became more familiar with the other wars and massacres of the Era. It certainly made it clear that Jesus’ prophecies were spot on about the scale of terror and destruction to come on that generation of the Jewish people.

  • philipjenkins

    A figure often heard for the first Jewish War is around a million, but it’s really unknowable. Let’s just agree that the slaughter was on a vast scale.

  • John Read

    While the majority (though not all) of critical scholarship has Matthew and Luke written after 70AD, it is divided on whether Mark was written before 66AD. In fact there are many good reasons to suppose Mark predates the Jewish War. Besides prophecies against the Temple and Jerusalem have precident in the classical prophets (Jeremiah and Ezekiel).

  • philipjenkins

    You would not find many scholars who would date Mark before 70. John A T Robinson did, of course, in REDATING THE NEW TESTAMENT (1976) and it’s a terrific, provocative work, but very few have followed his conclusions.

  • Andrew Dowling

    It’s not the more vague judgments against Jerusalem that sway scholars (in fact most see the pre-War “Q” document to contain those) but the more detailed and expansive Olivet Discourse (“let the reader understand”), the allegorization found at the end of the parable of the vineyard, the symbolic breaking of the Temple curtain after the Crucifixion . . .all heavily point to a post-Temple fall milieu (or at the earliest, during its siege) for the writing of Mark. Throw in that the earliest Patristic references to its historical placement (which I don’t generally view as trustworthy but who had every incentive to claim documents were written earlier than later) say Mark was written post-65 (Peter’s death)