To the earlier races of history it was a thing unthinkable that men should so devote themselves to one deity as to refuse to do homage to any other. Each race, on hearing their neighbors tell of other gods, seem usually to have accepted these as being quite as real as their own. The Romans adopted into their "pantheon," or temple of all deities, whatever gods they heard of in their conquest of the world. But now at last in Judea, the mighty central thought of all true religion had grown into clearer understanding. The Jews realized that earth and all its forces are a unit, owing their existence to only one creative Power, that other "gods" are impossible in the superhuman presence of the one god. This strong faith, with its pervading confidence, shut out utterly from the Jewish mind the possibility of worshipping, or even admitting the existence of any other God.
From their faith came their sufferings. The throne of Syria passed to Antiochus IV., a weak and cruel tyrant ever in need of money, to secure which he set various creatures of his own over Jerusalem, as High Priests. These tools of oppression deliberately strove to destroy the religion they were supposed to guide. Not only did they plunder the Temple of its treasures for their master; they introduced the figures of the Greek gods into its sanctuaries, and murdered all who dared protest. Civil war broke out in Jerusalem. Antiochus attacked the city with an army. The citizens, untrained and unprepared, resisted valiantly, but in vain. Their walls were stormed and many thousands of them were slain in the streets.
Then began the earliest religious persecution of which we have definite record (170 B.C.). Antiochus was determined to break the religious unity of the Jews, that obedience to their priesthood which he regarded as a danger to his own dominion. Throughout Syria he commanded all his subjects to do homage to the Greek gods. Only in Judea was the royal order disobeyed. Hitherto, conquered peoples had readily bowed the knee to whatever symbol of power was held over them, whether of sword or king or deity. Neither had it occurred to any victor to forbid a people to pray to whom or what they liked, so long as they were submissive. But the deepened religious spirit of the Jews led them to refuse honor to the idols of the king. Antiochus in his turn forbade them to continue their ceremonies of worship to Jehovah. This mandate was enforced by massacres, by gross profanations of the Temple, and by every extreme of bodily torture that hatred could devise or brutality inflict.
Then came the war of the Maccabees. An aged priest, Mattathias, not from Jerusalem itself but from one of the lesser Judean towns, headed a furious revolt, which gathered numbers as it continued. Soon all Judea was in arms. Mattathias died in the early days of the struggle, but bequeathed his leadership to his sons. Of these, the chief was Judas, called for his fighting powers Maccabeus, which means the "hammerer." The name was later applied to the entire family who became "the Maccabees."
Judas repeatedly defeated the armies sent against him, and within a year had driven the Syrians out of Judea, except the garrison which held the castle or citadel within Jerusalem. The main part of the city, however, was in the hands of Judas, and he restored the worship of Jehovah in the temple.
The king Antiochus IV. was slain in a war with Persia, and Judas continued master of Judea for five years. Then the new Syrian king sent such a powerful army that Judas and his people were compelled to give way before it, and after withstanding a long siege in Jerusalem, they came to terms with the king, who allowed them to continue to worship according to their own religion. The peace lasted only a year. Then religious persecution recommenced, and the Maccabees were again in arms. Judas defeated another large army under the king's general Nicanor, the battle remaining long celebrated in Jewish annals as "the day of Nicanor." Then came the downfall of the great Hebrew champion. He was surrounded by another armed host while he himself had but eight hundred men. Scorning flight, he attacked the foe, and after a desperate fight was surrounded and slain with almost all his band.
Two of the heroic Maccabee brothers still survived, the eldest, Simon, and the youngest, Jonathan. Simon had ever been the counsellor of his brothers rather than a fighter, and now the active leadership fell to Jonathan. With their few remaining followers the brothers fell back into the wilderness, whence repeated forces of their enemies failed to dislodge them. Then civil war broke out between rival aspirants to the Syrian crown; and Judea being left almost wholly to itself, Jonathan regained control of the country. By adroitly lending aid now to one, now to another of the warring generals, he finally secured recognition as the legitimate high priest and ruler of Judea. His policy of changing alliances finally brought him to death at the hands of his foes. But Simon, the last remaining brother, drove back the invaders, who would have seized the land on Jonathan's death; and from the king who now succeeded to the weakened Syrian throne, Simon forced the recognition of Judea's complete liberation. The final battle of the great Jewish "war of independence" was fought in 139 B.C., at Ashdod, where Simon's son John overthrew the last Syrian army ever sent against the Maccabees.
After Ashdod, kings of the Maccabean line ruled over Judea for nearly eighty years, engaging in no wars except those of their own choosing. Those who followed John upon the throne proved anything but religious rulers. Family quarrels and every form of family murder disgraced their reigns and horrified their people. Civil wars or wars of conquest were almost incessant, until at length when the Romans entered the land, their general, the celebrated Pompey, needed scarcely more than to reach out his hand to Jerusalem, and it surrendered. There was a siege, but it was as nothing compared to the savage sieges of earlier days. The struggle was neither long nor sanguinary, and Judea became a submissive and by no means dissatisfied Roman province (63 B.C.).
As a Roman province Judea remained in peace for over a century; and it was during this period that Jesus, our Lord, was born there and fulfilled his earthly mission. Ten years after His death the Roman emperor Caligula commanded that all peoples throughout the empire should worship Caligula as a god. This placed the Jews again in opposition to authority, since they were the one race who saw in religion so solemn and indeed so superhuman a meaning that they would not obey the silly mandate of Caligula. Wherever the Jews had spread throughout the empire they were slain, till the total of dead reached many thousands.
Caligula died, and the persecution stopped, but everywhere the Roman governors began to look upon the Jews as a stubborn and dangerous people. It was beyond the humanity of that day to give them honor for their religious strength, or even to believe in its existence. To the Romans they seemed simply obstinate, ferocious, and rebellious. Matters in Judea grew steadily worse, until in 66 A.D. the lower classes of the Jews, the ignorant and blinded "zealots," as they were called, burst into frenzied revolt. The calmer and more learned Jews tried to restrain their brethren. They saw clearly the hopelessness of this blind warfare against the universal might of Rome. But the flame spread like wild-fire. Roman governors and garrisons were everywhere slain, and for one intoxicated moment Judea stood forth--free.
Then came the inevitable. The great Roman general Vespasian, after-ward emperor, led his legions into Judea. City after city fell amid horrible carnage. The pardon which Vespasian offered was rejected with defiance. The maddened Jews would accept no compromise. They fought to the death, and often when defeated slew themselves rather than surrender. The historian Josephus, who has left us an account of this fearful war, was one of its chief Jewish leaders.
Vespasian was called away to Rome, so that the completion of the destruction fell to his son Titus. He besieged Jerusalem, and, like his father, repeatedly urged the Jews to surrender, but without avail. Finally, when famine rather than Roman arms had conquered, Titus stormed the holy city. His soldiers, infuriated by the deadly resistance they had met, burned Jerusalem to the ground. Over a million Jews perished in the war; and probably as many more were, at its conclusion, driven into exile or sold as slaves. Jewish slaves became common through all the Roman empire.
Even this tragic extirpation did not, however, wholly destroy the nation of the Jews. The remnant left in the desolated land gathered themselves together. Once more they increased in number, and after a time rebuilt Jerusalem. Heavily oppressed, they revolted thrice in various portions of the Roman empire between 115 and 118 A.D. Then at last, in 130 A.D., they began their last rebellion, their last deed as a nation. They found an able leader in Simon, called Bar-cochba, which means "Son of the Star." He claimed to be their Messiah and led them to victory after victory. The Jews in other parts of the empire joined the revolt, but were quickly suppressed. In Judea, however, Simon was triumphant. He drove the Romans from Jerusalem, and almost out of Palestine. He set himself up as king, the last of all the kings of Judea. Only after five years did the celebrated Roman general Severus suppress this tremendous uprising. His cruel and resolute annihilation left the land a desert. He meant to make sure there should be no more rebellions. A thousand towns and villages were destroyed. Every Jew who could be found was sold into slavery. As for Jerusalem itself, the very name was changed. A foreign colony, called AElia Capitolina, was planted on the spot. Every Jew from whatsoever land was forever debarred from residing in this new town, or even from entering it.
Since that day the scattered Hebrews have been only a race of people, never a nation united under a single government or in a single land. Only as fugitives or slaves did they survive the destruction by Severus, or in a few cases as distant colonists who, having taken no part in the war, escaped its punishment. The martyrdoms of the Christians under Roman rule were but the natural outcome of the earlier martyrdoms and rebellions of the Jews. The Christians were looked on by their persecutors merely as Jews of a particularly resolute and fanatical faith, and therefore particularly dangerous to tranquil government.
Jews and Christians soon became more clearly separated in the Roman world. The teachers of the later faith spread their doctrine until Christians were of every race, and Christianity could no longer be confounded with Judaism. Meanwhile the leaders of the older religion made no effort at proselyting strangers, but held to their proud isolation as the "chosen people." Gradually Jewish energy and subtle ability raised many of their race to positions of wealth and prominence under Rome. But another darkness was approaching them. In 330 A.D. Christianity became the established religion of the Roman empire, and afterwards of the modern European world. Then at last did the Jews sink to their final and lowest period of tribulation. Official barbarism and vulgar ignorance united to visit upon the entire innocent race the tragedy of the death of Jesus at the hands of their ancestors centuries before. Christian persecutors singled out these unfortunates repeatedly and cruelly for attack.
This was not so much the case during the cultured Roman days as during the period of semi-barbarism which followed the downfall of Rome. Appalling were the tortures and massacres of Jews in the various kingdoms which the Teutonic tribes set up throughout the Roman world. During the "dark ages" of mediaeval Europe, any fanatic in almost any city could by a single outcry start a riot of plundering and outrage against the unhappy Jews. They fared best in Mahometan Spain and later in free-thinking Amsterdam or liberty-seeking America.
In Spain under the Moors, the Jews were trusted and honored. They rose to high office as the councillors of kings, or as their secretaries or physicians. This was indeed the brightest land for the Jews during all the middle ages. Spain saw the golden days of Jewish literature. The Spanish Jews were poets, orators, philosophers. So long as the country was divided between Moorish and Christian rulers, the Christians also tolerated and even admired the Jews. The moment, however, that the Christians won the entire land, the Jews were persecuted in Spain as they had been in other countries, and their sudden downfall plunged them into misery most awful.
Very, very slowly has Europe outgrown this particular form of fanaticism and barbarity. Only after the great French Revolution of 1789 did Jews begin to be accepted as human brothers in France and England, the leaders of the civilization of the day. In 1790, the new statesmen of France admitted the Jews to full citizenship, giving them the technical name of Israelites. Other European nations have since followed this example. But even the twentieth century has seen Jewish massacres in Russia as cruel as those of Western Europe in the earlier ages. The long and hideous night of Judaism is not yet wholly passed, but the downtrodden race begins to feel the mighty and beneficent generosity of modern religious toleration. It is again expanding and progressing with much of its ancient power--though with its savagery, perhaps, some-what softened by the experiences of two thousand years of suffering.
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