Neighboring Nations of the Jews in Palestine
Before understanding the full story of what happened to the Samaritans who went to Europe and became Christians (and to know what happened to some other peoples who were similar to them), we must look at the development of what is called Rabbinic Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem in C.E. 70. The records show that Judaism (that is, mainline Judaism) became very isolated from other peoples who once were their neighbors in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe from C.E. 70 onward. This "isolation" is what caused Rabbinic Judaism to develop into what was practically a unified belief system during the crucial period of the second, 3rd and up to the 6th century. From C.E. 70 onwards, and especially after the war of Bar Kokhba in C.E. 135, Judaism for all practical purposes was "an island to itself’ among the nations and religions of the world. But this was not the case in the period before C.E. 70.
In the two hundred years before the destruction of Jerusalem in C.E. 70, Judaism steadily became a very popular religious belief among many of the Gentile peoples who lived near the Jews in Palestine. Quite a number of people from the surrounding nations were prone to accept Judaism and the Jews in a very favorable way. In fact, two of those nearby peoples had been forcibly converted to Judaism with their men having to be circumcised. One of these was the remnants of the Edomites (called the Idumeans) who were subdued by the Jewish king John Hyreanus in about 125 B.C.E. and forced into circumcision and the Jewish rites (Josephus, Antiquities, xv.7,9). The other was an Arabian tribe called the Iturians who lived between the Sea of Galilee and Damascus. They were forced by the Jewish king Aristobulus (100 B.C.E) to submit to circumcision and to become "Jews" or face expulsion from their lands (Josephus, Antiquities xiii.11,2). Many of them submitted and were reckoned among the Jews.
It could rightly be said of both the Idumeans and Iturians that many accepted their Judaism in a religious sense often in a half-hearted way (Josephus called them "half Jews") though obviously there were some Idumeans who took their conversions seriously.
There were hundreds of thousands of people who made up these two groups and the Romans normally came to consider them to be a part of the Jewish nation. However, both the Idumeans and Iturians disappear from the historical records as national peoples with the fall of Jerusalem in C.E. 70. We need to ask what happened to those peoples who might have been seen by the apostle John as among those who "say they are Jews, and are not" (Revelation 2:9; 3:9)?
We must also be aware of another major group of peoples who joined the Jews (often en masse) in the hundred years or so before the destruction of Jerusalem in C.E. 70. These were known by the Jews as proselytes and God-fearers. The former would apply to Gentile men who became circumcised and took on the full role of being a ″new Jew," while the latter would often not submit to circumcision but were those who practiced most of the other rites of Judaism. Of course, women were not subjected to circumcision and many Gentile women in the surrounding areas of Judaea adopted Judaism and reared their children within the Jewish religious society. Josephus mentions, as an interesting example, that almost all the women of Damascus were practicing the Jewish religion (Josephus, Wars, II.20,2), and a great many Gentiles in Antioch (the capital city of Syria) were Jewish proselytes (Josephus, Wars VII.4,3). In fact, Jews won over to their religious beliefs proselytes from all the areas to which they migrated in the period before C.E. 70, and there were also many Gentiles who became "God-fearers" and gave heed to Jewish ways.
The essential reason why great numbers of Gentile peoples living among the Jews, especially in Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor, flocked to practicing Jewish ways is because of the well-known expectation of the Jewish people that sometime in what we call the 1st century a Messianic figure would arrive who would bring in a worldwide kingdom in which the people of Israel (and those connected with them) would lead and control. In simple terms, people wanted to share in that prophesied kingdom that many people were beginning to expect. Both the Roman historians Tacitus (Hist. V.13) and Suetonius (Vesp. 4) mentioned the general belief of people throughout the Roman Empire in the early 1st century that a world empire would emerge out of the East, notably in Judaea. Indeed, Nero was even advised by his astrologers to move his capital to Jerusalem because they told the emperor that the sovereignty of the world was destined soon to develop there (Suetonius, Nero 40). Because of these popular beliefs that the Jews were about to be exalted to world rulership, many Gentile peoples wanted to identify themselves with the Jews in order to share in that government, and many thousands of them did.
Besides this prophetic expectation that caused Gentiles to gravitate to Judaism, it was then profitable in a monetary sense to do so. Jerusalem and the area of Judaea in the century before their destruction were highly prosperous regions and whoever were friends and clients of the Jews had many financial gains that others did not have. The Jewish people in Judaea were relatively wealthy during this time, and this especially applied to Jerusalem where the Temple was situated. The Temple was responsible for bringing into Jerusalem huge quantities of monies and other contributions from Jews and even Gentiles from around the Roman and Parthian worlds. Note the words of Titus the Roman general (and later emperor) in a speech to the Jews just before the fall of Jerusalem:
[Romans] have given you leave to gather up that tribute which is paid to God [the Temple tax], with such other gifts that are dedicated to him: nor have we called those that carried these donations to account, nor prohibited them; till at length you became richer than we ourselves, even when you were our enemies."
Josephus, Wars, VI.6,2
This tribute was the annual half-shekel payment for the upkeep of the Temple which each Jewish male from twenty years of age upward had to pay each year. This money was collected from various sites all over the Roman Empire and conveyed in many instances under guard of the Romans themselves to the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. This tribute alone (besides all the other offerings of money and animals, etc.) that was sent to the Temple amounted to a prodigious quantity of revenue each year. Let us try to understand how much in 1993 U.S. dollars this might have been. The coin in the fish that Peter caught had the value of one shekel (called a stater in Greek). This would precisely pay the annual tribute for Jesus and Peter (Matthew 17:27). A stater was equal to four drachmae with each drachma being a little more in value to a Roman denarius. A denarius, according to Jesus, was what a common laborer would receive in one day (Matthew 20:2). Thus a half-shekel would equal about two days work. Since our minimum wage in late 1993 is just under $5 an hour, a twelve hour day would gain a person about $60 at the present. Thus, two such days would be $120. Based on our "work/pay" today, about $120 is what each Jewish male over twenty would have to pay each year to the Temple treasury. Since it is reasonably estimated that there would have been between 3 and 4 million Jewish males who would pay the tribute each year, this would amount to between $360 to $500 million U.S. dollars just for the half-shekel tribute alone. That is a lot of money!
The Sanhedrin at the Temple in Jerusalem set the value of the half-shekel each year. The value was determined by the value of the animal sin offerings each year (Shekelim, II.4). If the value of sin offering animals went up because of a scarcity, then the Sanhedrin would require more of the common currency to equal the amount of the shekel at the Temple. The standard of value was set by the Temple authorities so that God would have the same amount being given to the Treasury each year no matter what the value of coinage (either inflated or deflated). Whatever the case, there were great quantities of money coming into Jerusalem each year and this helped make the economy of Judaea and Jerusalem a very prosperous one (and even the surrounding countries of the Gentiles who supplied materials to the Jews in Judaea were equally thriving). This wealth of the Jewish people made many Gentiles at the time want to share in this good fortune among the Jews.
That wealth, however, came to an end with the destruction of Jerusalem in C.E. 70. With all the metropolitan region of Jerusalem and the Temple destroyed (and much of Judaea devastated by the Romans) and with Jews beginning to be held in disdain and distrust by many Gentile peoples, there was little reason for Gentile peoples to want to be connected with the Jews after C.E. 70. After that date, only practicing Jews called themselves "Jews."
There was a further reason for not wanting a connection with Jews. To pay for the war of C.E. 66 to 70 (remnants of hostility continued until C.E. 73) and to cause a humiliation upon all Jews in the Roman Empire, Vespasian, the Roman Emperor, decreed that the half-shekel payment due annually to the Temple (which was now destroyed) should go to the Roman treasury. This was a special poll tax that was intended to irritate and humiliate the Jews. Besides that, the Jews were also forbidden to own lands in Judaea. And with Domitian, he made the tribute even more steadfast and added extra taxes besides to anyone claiming to be a Jew.
"The poll-tax on the Jews was levied with extreme rigor, both on those who lived after the manner of the Jews in the city, without publicly professing themselves to be such, and on those who, by concealing their origin, avoided paying the tribute imposed upon that people."
Suetonius, Domitian, XII
These strictures placed on the Jews by the Roman emperors was a blessing in disguise (though the blessing was obtained through great suffering) because it helped to develop what is now called Rabbinic Judaism. It not only solidified the Jewish people into a single society, but it jettisoned half-hearted or nominal Jews who left being "Jewish" because of the imposed hardships. This was easy if the nominal "Jews" could show the Romans that they were not actually Jews (this could be done, among other things, by sacrificing to the Roman gods). So, after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (and with odium now being shown to the Jews), this helped to eliminate from Judaism all those who were not serious about keeping their Jewish identification. Indeed, there were two other historical events that happened in the period of 65 years that followed the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple that embellished this desire of Gentiles not to be Jewish.
In the time of the emperor Trajan (c.C.E. 117) a further war broke out between the Jews and the Romans. The conflicts were chiefly conducted in Cyprus, Egypt and Cyrenaica (North Africa). And in the island of Cyprus alone the Jews during this conflict killed about 240,000 people and destroyed the city of Salamis, but they did not win the war after their first victories. No figure is given on the number of Jewish people killed in Cyprus, but the losses must have been substantial. So severe was the reprimand of the Romans against the Jews that all remaining Jews were expelled from Cyprus and forbidden to return. And though some Jewish scholars feel that Jews did return shortly to the island because archaeology has shown Jewish symbols on certain artifacts found in ruins which date after C.E. 117, yet our research in this book shows that such "Jewish" symbols are no guarantee that the later people were in fact Jewish. As for Jewish losses in Egypt in the same war, Eusebius said that tens of thousands of Jews had been killed.
But then a further disaster came to the Jewish people especially to those who remained in the Palestinian region. In C.E. 132 the Jews in Palestine again went to war with the Romans and once more they were defeated, this time by the emperor Hadrian in C.E. 135. We are told that 580,000 Jews were killed in this war. This final war with the Romans proved to be the last straw of patience and allowance shown by the Romans to the Jews. In consequence of the Roman victory, Hadrian forbade any circumcised person from approaching within eyesight of the former city of Jerusalem. He even turned the city into a pagan one with the name of Aelia.
The three major wars of the Jews with the Romans (C.E. 66–73; 117; and 132–135) afforded a time of great demographic changes among those who were Jews or who wanted to be Jews. The whole economy of Judaea (which was located in central Palestine) declined precipitously over this period of 65 years (from C.E. 70 to 135). With Jerusalem and the Temple gone, no money was being sent into the area by Jews in other lands. With the Jews not allowed to own property in Judaea, the economic benefits were drastically reduced. Even the surrounding Gentile lands which before C.E. 70 had teaming populations (that is, Idumaea south of Judaea, and Moab and Ammon east of Jordan), all of them disappear from history. True, Justin Martyr said there were many Ammonites in his day (mid-2nd century C.E.), but even in the 1st century Josephus called the people in the territories of Moab and Ammon as being "Arabians" (Antiquities, XIII.14.2). And in the time of Origen in the early 3rd century, he said the areas of Moab, Ammon and Idumaea were then Arabic (On Job, Book I). Indeed, even the highly civilized Arab nation of the Nabateans who had their capitals at Petra and the Edomite city of Bosrah (Bostra) came to extinction as well in C.E. 106 when the Romans made the region a part of the province of Syria. This is when Arabs from the desert areas to the south and east began to filter into these lands. There was simply no economic base any longer in the areas of Judaea, Idumaea, Nabataea, Moab and Ammon to support the teaming populations who once lived in those areas before C.E. 70.
The Jewish/Roman War of C.E. 66 to 73 was not only devastating to the Jews in Palestine, but it also caused multitudes of people to leave those districts for other regions of the Empire. We will discuss this more fully in future chapters. And with the final destruction of Jerusalem in C.E. 135, all the early peoples of these regions surrounding Judaea abandoned the lands to incoming desert from the east and south — tribes that did not depend upon the same type of economic system that governed the districts prior to C.E. 135 (and certainly prior to C.E. 70). As Rabbi Simeon bar Yakim of the Amora period stated: "The wicked Hadrian came and ruined the whole land." The observation of Schurer on this desolation is very pertinent,
"The whole of Judaea was practically a desert. Fifty forts were destroyed and 985 villages. 580,000 Jews fell in battle, and those who succumbed to illness or starvation were uncounted."
The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ,
Jerusalem itself was changed by Hadrian into a Gentile military garrison which he named Aelia after himself. As a matter of fact, Aelia became a frontier military town for the Tenth Legion (a frontier town on the "desert") until it moved to Aqaba in about C.E. 285 (Benjamin Mazar, The Mountain of the Lord, pp.233, 237).
The whole region of Judaea, Idumaea, Nabataea (around Petra) and Moab and Ammon east of the Jordan River became very backward economic areas starting from the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in C.E. 70 (and especially after C.E. 135) and they did not recover even a measure of their former prosperity until the time of Constantine when pilgrimages began once again to come to Palestine.
We will show that thousands upon thousands of people in those areas (and adjacent ones in Syria and parts of Asia Minor) went into all regions of the western part of the Roman Empire in the two centuries before Christ. The remaining part of these people (who once lived in those prosperous areas before C.E. 70) followed their early brethren and migrated into other northern and western areas of the Empire. Those areas in the southeastern section of the Empire did not revive in a population or economic manner until the time of Constantine.
After C.E. 70 (and especially after C.E. 135), the real economic bases in the Middle East went back to Egypt, up to Antioch, up to the rest of Asia Minor (especially in its western parts). The western parts of the Empire began to flourish. Rome and even to the Rhone Valley in Gaul (France) became quite prosperous. Because of this (and because many of their brethren were already in the west) thousands of people migrated out of Palestine and adjacent areas to the north and west. This mass movement of people involved Jews, Samaritans, and peoples from the eastern side of Jordan and Syria. The whole of Cyprus was repopulated with people from the east, and much of Cyrenaica (Libya today) was repopulated with eastern peoples in the wake of the Jewish decline in both of the regions of Cyrus and Cyrenaica. Most people, however, went further west into Italy and even into Gaul and Spain. We will have more to say on these migrations in future chapters of this book.
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