What if the revolt of 70 CE hadn't happened?

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christian Church, Early Christianity


Might Christianity be different, less Pauline, if the revolt of 70 CE hadn't taken place and the Jerusalem church had a stronger voice?


Intuitively, one might be inclined to answer with a simplistic, "of course." But many factors mitigate simplicity. Let's look at what scholars know about the state of Judaism and Christianity around that time.

Jews had always chafed under Roman rule. The Roman procurators assigned to Jerusalem were not great leaders. Their main job was to collect taxes and keep the peace. Because they were able to keep any monies above the amount required by Rome, they had no qualms about increasing the tax burden on the people. It simply meant more money for them. The result of this practice quickly led to a new faction of Judaism – the zealots.

They were as anti-Roman as one could be, and for good reason. In addition to the taxation issue, the Roman emperors threatened defilement of the Temple when they wanted to place their statues within its walls. In 39 CE, Caligula was ready to send troops to destroy the Temple over this issue, but he suddenly died before any were mobilized. The zealots believed this was a sign from God that if they stood up to the Romans, God would fight for them. Their argument was compelling, and many moderate Jews readily joined them.

Matters continued to deteriorate. Then, in 66 CE, the Roman procurator robbed the Temple of much of its silver. The zealots retaliated by wiping out the garrison (group of soldiers) stationed at the Temple. They also defeated the smaller army that was sent to punish them. Buoyed by these victories, Jews began joining the ranks of zealots exponentially.

Shortly thereafter, however, the Romans sent troops in force – 60,000 in all, who were highly trained and truly professional. They massacred tens of thousands of Jews before they ever reached Jerusalem. A civil war ensued within Jerusalem between zealots and any remaining moderates. The zealots won. The one bright spot was that a moderate rabbi, Yochanan ben Zakkai, managed to slip out of Jerusalem. He surrendered to Vespasian, the Roman emperor, who allowed him safe passage to Jamnia, where he established a Jewish school. After a multi-year siege against Jerusalem, the Romans breached the walls in the summer of 70 CE. In the violence that resulted, the Romans destroyed the Temple, which was never rebuilt.

The Temple was gone. The sacrificial system was gone. The sectarian and partisan parties of the Pharisees and Sadducees would soon be gone. Judaism began to reinvent itself as a rabbinic religion.

Scholars aren't entirely sure how Christianity fit into this scenario, but it was certainly evolving as well. Some of the early Christians maintained their Jewish faith. They were known as Jewish Christians and were loyal to the early church leaders in Jerusalem. By all accounts, James, the brother of Jesus, was that leader until his death. James was a faithful Jew who strictly followed Mosaic Law. Paul, on the other hand, was the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles.

Reconciling these two groups under one umbrella would prove to be difficult. The first Apostolic Council (ca 50 CE) held in Jerusalem addressed the issue of whether Gentiles needed to become Jews to be saved. James provided the final decision when he listed four requirements that Gentiles would have to follow. None of them included circumcision or a strict obedience to the dietary rules. The four were: 1) abstain from food used in idol worship, 2) avoid blood, 3) avoid strangled animals, and 4) abstain from sexual immorality. These four were considered evidence that the Gentiles had broken off from their former lives without putting them under the full weight of all the traditions.

Rather than a final resolution, however, it provided the basis for furthering the rift between Paul and the apostles, i.e. the Jerusalem Church. Paul speaks frankly in his letters about gathering funds from his mission churches to be used for the needs of the Jerusalem Church. Yet, the author of Acts never mentions the "collection" when Paul arrives. When Paul speaks of the many he has converted, James retorts that thousands of Jews faithful to the Torah have also converted (see Acts 21:20). Moreover, the apostles are decidedly absent when Paul is arrested for an alleged Temple violation.

With Paul's arrest, the Jerusalem Church should have flourished, but world events interfered. In 62 CE Festus died. It took awhile for the Romans to appoint a new procurator. In the interim, the High Priest quickly convened the Sanhedrin (the Jewish supreme court), bringing charges against James and other leaders. The Sadducees condemned him to death by stoning. The Pharisees and other Jews complained to the new procurator and to the Roman authorities. The High Priest was sanctioned and relieved of his duties within three months, but James was gone. No doubt his death left a leadership void that weakened the influence of the Jerusalem Church throughout the Diaspora.

The divide between Jewish and Gentile Christians would not be decided for decades. Pockets of followers loyal to either Paul or James published polemical writings through the fourth century. The Jewish Christians never referred to themselves as Christians; they were the Nazarenes or Ebionites. Yet, despite their best efforts, Paul's writings gained influence and attained canonical status.

Jewish Christians who had survived the revolt of 66-70 CE dispersed throughout the Diaspora, joining the Gentile churches Paul had founded. Without strong leadership and authority located in the Mother Church in Jerusalem, it was only a matter of time before the Jewish Christians were absorbed by Gentile practices. While living and praying side-by-side, Jews were aware of the additional demands of Mosaic Law and soon adopted what was required of the Gentiles. Non-Christian Jews were able to maintain their uniqueness, but James' vision of Christianity was lost to Paul's.

In addition to quarreling with their Gentile counterparts, the Jewish Christians also battled against the larger Jewish community. They were completely excluded from the synagogues by 90 CE. By the second Jewish revolt (132-135 CE), they were no longer considered Jews. Shortly afterward, the Gentile Christians began referring to them as heretics and started persecuting them. Those who were unwilling to join forces with the Gentile Christians became known as heretics. By the 5th century, they were considered a mere footnote in the history of the early Church. The irony, of course, is that the Jewish Christians were probably more faithful to Jesus' teachings; yet today, Christianity is based largely upon Paul's teachings. If you have any questions related to the Bible, please feel free to email us.