Father, Forgive Them – Part 1

Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,[1] Jesus prayed from the cross.  It isn’t found in some early manuscripts so it’s in single brackets in the NET (note 81) translation.  I don’t intend to argue the Is it really true that God said[2] aspect here.  I’m more interested in what He meant when He said it since less than forty years later Roman armies quashed a Jewish revolt.  The death toll was staggering and the temple in Jerusalem was completely destroyed.

“Israel’s sins were responsible for the” destruction of the temple Rabbi Irving Greenberg wrote.  “But what were the sins?  Interestingly, the Rabbis focused on Jewish divisiveness.  Unjustified hatred among the people had invited the tragedy…”[3]  Eliezer Cohen, an editor of The Jewish Magazine online, called it punishment:[4]

The calamity of two thousand years in the exile requires understanding…the sages…told us that the first Temple was destroyed because of three things: sexual immorality, widespread murder and idolatry.  The second Temple was destroyed because of one reason: baseless hatred (sinat chinam).

Sexual immorality, murder and idolatry are three grave sins for which a person is obliged to give his life rather than transgress.  Baseless hatred is not considered such a severe sin.  For the sin of sexual immorality, murder and idolatry the Jews had their Temple destroyed and were exiled for a period of only seventy years.  After this period, they came back to their land and rebuilt the second Temple which stood another 400 plus years.

Yet for the comparatively minor sin of baseless hatred the second Temple was destroyed and we were exiled for almost two thousand years!  The punishment seems out of proportion to the crime!!

Though his reasons were different the church historian Eusebius, writing about the destruction of the temple under the Roman emperor Vespasian, seemed to describe it as divine punishment:[5]

For the Jews after the ascension of our Saviour, in addition to their crime against him, had been devising as many plots as they could against his apostles.  First Stephen was stoned to death by them, and after him James, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John, was beheaded, and finally James, the first that had obtained the episcopal seat in Jerusalem after the ascension of our Saviour, died in the manner already described.

John Chrysostom called it grievous wrath and punishment:[6]

‘I ask the Jews, whence came upon them so grievous wrath from heaven more woeful than all that had come upon them before?  Plainly it was because of the desperate crime and the denial of the Cross.  But He shews that they deserved still heavier punishment than they received, when He adds, “And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved;” that is, If the siege by the Romans should be continued longer, all the Jews would perish; for by “all flesh,” He means all the Jewish nation…”

“This early Christian understanding that the Jewish people were being punished for their rejection of Christ may seem very harsh today,” Robin A. Brace explained:[7]

but we must understand that this was a widespread view for many hundreds of years.  Only now, in an age of ‘political correctness,’ ‘liberal values,’ and a concern for ‘human rights,’ has it become unfashionable to express such a view.  Yet let there be no doubt that when the people of Judea demanded that Barabbas the robber should be released and that Jesus should be condemned, those people apparently accepted a curse upon themselves and upon their children for their rejection of Jesus.  Scripture itself states,

Mat 27:25: ‘Then all the people answered and said, Let His blood be on us and on our children.’

The end of the second temple era “was an era of great political upheaval internally, with an ongoing struggle for supremacy amongst different groups of Jews:”[8]

  1. The Pharisees were the led by the rabbis and Sanhedrin…they were careful to maintain ritual purity, and separated themselves from those who did not strictly observe these laws.
  2. The Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah and the leadership of the rabbis…Those who wanted to befriend the Romans were mostly Sadducees.
  3. The Zealots were passionate nationalists who broke away from the Pharisees because they wanted to fight the Romans at all costs, while the Pharisees hesitated.
  4. The Sicarii were against any form of government altogether. “Sicarii” literally means “dagger-men.”  They resorted to stealth and terrorism to achieve their objectives.  They would carry small daggers under their cloaks and stab their enemies – Romans or Roman sympathizers, often wealthy Jews and elites associated with the priesthood – and then blend into the crowd.

“By 66 CE, the Jews in many of the coastal cities were treated as despised outsiders:”[9]

On one day in Jerusalem, 3,600 Jews were killed by Roman troops who had been sent in to quell the riots. Florus hoped the Jews of Jerusalem would try to avenge the slaughter so he could justify the mass killing of the Jewish population, loot their possessions, and seize the Holy Temple.  Instead, the Jews organized a march seeking to make peace with the governor.  The Roman soldiers, lusting for blood, charged into the crowd of marchers, killing many Jews, and continued on to the Temple Mount.  Many Jews had gathered in there to block the entrances.  They were successful, and the Roman soldiers retreated.

But now the Jews began revolting against the Romans throughout the land.  In ever-increasing numbers they joined the movement of the Zealots who were openly preparing for warfare against the Romans.

“The story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza was the pivotal event that ignited Nero’s rage and caused the destruction of the Holy Temple:”[10]

A Jew who had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza made a feast.  He told his servant to invite Kamtza, but by mistake the servant invited Bar Kamtza …when the host noticed Bar Kamtza, he demanded that he leave…Bar Kamtza was embarrassed…“I am willing to pay the full cost of the feast, but do not embarrass me any more…”  The host had Bar Kamtza dragged from the feast and thrown into the streets…Bar Kamtza went to Emperor Nero and told him that the Jews were planning a rebellion against him.

“Vespasian’s troops brutally conquered the north of Israel, eradicating all resistance:”[11]

Meanwhile, the Jewish factions – now increasingly concentrated in Jerusalem – moved beyond power struggles into open civil war.  While Vespasian merely watched from a distance, various factions of Zealots and Sicarii fought each other bitterly, even those that had common goals.  They killed those advocating surrender.  Thousands of Jews died at the hands of other Jews in just a few years.

Long before, the residents of Jerusalem had stored provisions in case of a Roman siege.  Three wealthy men had donated huge storehouses of flour, oil, and wood—enough supplies to survive a siege of 21 years.

The Zealots, however, wanted all-out war.  They were unhappy with the attitude of the Sages, who proposed sending a peace delegation to the Romans.  In order to bring things to a head and force their fellow Jews to fight, groups of militia set fire to the city’s food stores, condemning its population to starvation.  They also imposed an internal siege on Jerusalem, not letting their fellow Jews in or out…

In 69 CE, Vespasian returned to Rome to serve as emperor, but first he appointed his son, Titus, to carry on in his stead.  In 70 CE, Titus came towards Jerusalem with an army of 80,000 soldiers.

“In honor of Passover, many Jews from all over Judea risked their lives to make their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, arriving just ahead of the swiftly-approaching Roman army:”[12]

When they arrived, they found a city divided among warring factions, even as the Romans were in sight.

An unlikely alliance of Pharisees and Sadducees – both of whom did not want to engage the Romans in war – held control of large swathes of the city.  The Sicarii, led by Simon ben Giora, held much of the Upper City and parts of the Lower City.  The Zealots, divided amongst themselves, controlled the Temple area: A moderate faction, led by Eleazar ben Simon, camped in the Temple complex itself while the extreme Zealots, led by Yochanan of Gush Chalav, camped on the Temple Mount—in between the moderate Zealots and the Sadducees.

The moderate Zealots generously opened the gates of the Temple so the Jews could come in and offer their Paschal sacrifices.  But the extremists, pretending to be Jews coming to offer sacrifices, also entered.  Once inside, they took out their swords and began to kill moderates as well as visiting Jews.

“On the day after Passover, Titus started engaging in active warfare.  Now, finally, all the factions in Jerusalem had no choice but to work together and fight their common enemy.”[13]  “When Titus saw he could not conquer them by force, he decided to starve the Jews into submission:”[14]

A terrible hunger now ravaged the overcrowded city.  Soon the last stores of food dwindled down.  Rich people gave all their wealth for a bit of food.  Even leather was cooked and eaten.  At first the Zealots had not been affected by hunger because they took other people’s food, but eventually they too became desperately hungry, eating their horses and even their horses’ dung and saddles.

In Josephus’s account (The Jewish Wars, 5:10): “The roofs were filled with women and small children expiring from hunger, and the corpses of old men were piled in the streets.  Youths swollen with hunger wandered like shadows in the marketplace until they collapsed.  No one mourned the dead, because hunger had deadened all feeling…”

The streets were soon filled with corpses, and, as it was hot summer weather, terrible epidemics broke out. Hundreds of people were found dead every morning.  In their despair, many of the Jews tried to leave the enclosure of Jerusalem under the cover of night to seek something edible in the fields.  They were easily captured, and Titus had them crucified in plain view of the city’s defenders on the wall.  In one night, Josephus tells us, five thousand Jews were discovered searching for food and were all crucified.

“Knowing the dire situation in the Jewish camp, Titus sent his spokesman, Josephus, to convince the Jews to surrender.  The Jewish warriors turned deaf ears to his words and ejected him contemptuously from their presence.  The battle now raged in the Temple area.”[15]  “According to Josephus, Titus did not want the Temple to be burnt, apparently because a standing (but vanquished) Temple would reflect more on Rome’s glory:”[16]

It was a Roman soldier acting on his own initiative who, hoisted on the shoulders of another soldier, threw a firebrand into the Temple.  Titus tried to put a stop to the fire, but in the chaos, his soldiers did not hear him.  (Other historians contradict this account of Titus’s enlightened perspective and report that Titus ordered the Temple destroyed.)

In either case, before long, the Temple was engulfed in flames.  The Jews frantically tried to stop the fire, but were unsuccessful.  In despair, many Jews threw themselves into the flames.  The Roman soldiers rushed into the melee.  Romans and Jews were crowded together, and their dead bodies fell on top of each other.

Josephus recalled the carnage:[17]

Crowded together around the entrances, many were trampled down by their companions; others, stumbling on the smoldering and smoked-filled ruins of the porticoes, died as miserably as the defeated.  As they drew closer to the Temple, they pretended not even to hear Caesar’s orders, but urged the men in front to throw in more firebrands.  The rebels were powerless to help; carnage and flight spread throughout.

Most of the slain were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed, and they were butchered where they were caught.  The heap of corpses mounted higher and higher about the altar; a stream of blood flowed down the Temple’s steps, and the bodies of those slain at the top slipped to the bottom…

While the Temple was ablaze, the attackers plundered it, and countless people who were caught by them were slaughtered.  There was no pity for age and no regard was accorded rank; children and old men, laymen and priests, alike were butchered; every class was pursued and crushed in the grip of war, whether they cried out for mercy or offered resistance.

Through the roar of the flames streaming far and wide, the groans of the falling victims were heard; such was the height of the hill and the magnitude of the blazing pile that the entire city seemed to be ablaze; and the noise – nothing more deafening and frightening could be imagined.

There were the war cries of the Roman legions as they swept onwards en masse, the yells of the rebels encircled by fire and sword, the panic of the people who, cut off above, fled into the arms of the enemy, and their shrieks as they met their fate.  The cries on the hill blended with those of the multitudes in the city below; and now many people who were exhausted and tongue-tied as a result of hunger, when they beheld the Temple on fire, found strength once more to lament and wail.  Peraea and the surrounding hills, added their echoes to the deafening din.  But more horrifying than the din were the sufferings.

The Temple Mount, everywhere enveloped in flames, seemed to be boiling over from its base; yet the blood seemed more abundant than the flames and the numbers of the slain greater than those of the slayers.  The soldiers climbed over heaps of bodies as they chased the fugitives.

It’s a horrifying story.  But is it knowledge of God, how He treats people who are dearly loved (ἀγαπητοὶ, a form of ἀγαπητός)?  I thought so and became an atheist when God didn’t measure up to my expectations.  But now I think it’s the religious mind that seeks out guilt to assign blame: Rabbi, who committed the sin that caused him to be born blind, this man or his parents?[18]  “They deserved it,” mitigates the horror a bit.  But I can no longer conscience standing before the judgment seat of Christ with this story as proof of how God treats people.

If anything, this story describes how sin treats people.  It is not a story (Galatians 5:13-26) of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe.[19]

Father, Forgive Them – Part 2

Back to Who Am I? Part 7

[1] Luke 23:34a (NET)

[2] Genesis 3:1b (NET)

[3] Rabbi Irving Greenberg, “Destruction As Punishment,” myjewishlearning.com

[4] Eliezer Cohen, “Baseless Hatred and the Destruction of the Temple,” The Jewish Magazine

[5] Quoted from: Robin A. Brace, “Jerusalem, AD70: The Worst Desolation Ever?,” ukapologetics.net

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8]The Factions of the Second Temple Era,”  Chabad.org

[9]Revolt against Rome,” Chabad.org

[10]The Story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza,” Chabad.org

[11]Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s Request,” Chabad.org

[12]The Last Passover,” Chabad.org

[13]Battle,” Chabad.org

[14]Starvation,” Chabad.org

[15]The Seventeenth of Tammuz,” Chabad.org

[16]The Destruction of the Temple,” Chabad.org

[17]The Romans Destroy the Temple at Jerusalem, 70 AD,” eyewitnesstohistory.com

[18] John 9:2 (NET)

[19] Romans 3:22 (NET)