Steve Mason is the first Dirk Smilde Fellow at the Qumran Institute in Groningen. He arrived in Groningen in January and is here until May. Mason is a leading specialist on the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the Jewish religion of the early Roman period, and Jewish interaction with Greek and Roman culture.
The Fellowship has been made possible by a financial donation from wealthy food tycoon Dirk Smilde, who died in 2013. Smilde was very religious. The Fellowship enables top researchers to work in Groningen at the Qumran Institute for a period of between three and six months every other year.
Some people might be surprised that a couple of Engineering students got up after Steve Mason’s lecture at the University last week about the 66-70 AD Jewish-Roman war and told him they were ‘blown away’ by it. ‘They had no idea that stuff like this is going on at their university. They asked if they could sit in.’
The visiting professor was not surprised by the students’ reaction, however. They reacted the same way he did when he first walked into that religious studies class at McMaster University in Canada and got hooked for life. The fact that their research is totally different to his doesn’t make a scrap of difference.
Why is it so fascinating then? Why should we care about a war that destroyed a city and a temple over 2,000 years ago, even if that city was Jerusalem?
It’s all statistics these days
Mason – soft-spoken and still a bit hoarse from all the talking he did last night – smiles. ‘Young people are obviously interested in questions of identity: What is my place in the world? What kind of person am I going to be? There’s a reason why Psychology is so popular. After a year or so, though, they discover that it’s all about statistics and experiments with rats. Then they wonder whether there is another way to tackle these issues – and they defect.’
Mason thinks the Humanities deal with questions the regular sciences can’t. ‘At a time when rampant governments endlessly mediocratize everything to the lowest quantifiable measure and the quality of universities is measured by their output, there doesn’t seem to be a place for big ideas anymore. What these students discover is that there are still some very exciting things to be done. You can’t say “I’ve read Plato. OK, I’ve got it.” These ancient philosophers are inexhaustible and still prompting new ideas.’
Senators killed eachother
History in particular – where researchers look for evidence to really understand why people did what they did and how they did it – provides the tools to reach rich and different civilizations. It sharpens the mind, teaches us to weigh up arguments critically. ‘We live in a multicultural world and that’s great, but history offers an infinite range of access to other societies, other ways of thinking.’
Among these, the world of ancient Judea – with its priests, temples and animal sacrifices – is, to Mason, one of the most exciting. The importance of a war that destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem cannot be overestimated.
‘To begin with’, he says, ‘this war stabilized the Roman government.’ Mason paints a vivid picture of Rome in the days after Emperor Nero, a time when civil war tore the city apart, when senators killed each other and Roman legions fought each other.
The Jews had to update
‘It was an absolutely horrendous and desperate situation, but then Vespasian became Emperor. He and his son Titus portrayed the conflict as a new war against foreigners, gaining new land and riches for the Empire. It was complete farce of course, but it worked.’
It cleared the way for the last golden period of the Roman Empire – when the Colosseum was built, allegedly from the spoils of the Judaean War, when Hadrian worked his way through Britain and when Christianity became the dominant religion.
The destruction of the Temple also forced the Judeans to update. ‘Altars and sacrifices were central to ancient societies’, says Mason. ‘People were constantly sacrificing animals – before they built a house, before sports events, indeed for every little thing – because they had this crude, primitive idea that they were communing with the gods.’
When the Temple was destroyed, however, the priests lost their status and Judean society had to reinvent itself. ‘That made it possible for the Jewish religion to survive the diaspora that followed.’
There is more as well. By far the most important consequence was that the Christians fully exploited the Temple’s fall to legitimize their claim to divine favour. ‘Christians were able to claim that the destruction of the Temple was divine punishment for the Jews not accepting Jesus as the Messiah. Clearly God’s favour had transferred from the Jews to Christianity.’
The argument was repeated everywhere until after the Middle Ages. Jews in Rome were forced to gather under the Arch of Titus, the symbol of Roman victory, with ancient carvings showing the spoils of the Temple being paraded through Rome. ‘The Popes made them sing hymns and apologize for their wrongdoings. Until the 19th century it was seen as the most important event in history’, Mason argues.
Strange to think then that the whole conflict might not have happened. The road that led to this conflict, argues Mason, was far more complex than most historians realize. Generally, it was seen as inevitable, since the Judeans and Romans hated each other. The Romans oppressed the Judeans, so naturally they went for each other’s throats.
Trampled to death
Not so, says Mason. Romans and Judeans were really allies. It was the Romans who had made the Judeans powerbrokers in a region that consisted of numerous tribes who had their own lands, gods and coins. Judea was just one of many, but it was especially favoured by the Romans. ‘Jews were exempt from army duty and Herod’s Judean royal family usually ruled. Even at times when no adequate royal ruler was available, the Romans didn’t pass power on to one of the surrounding races, like the Ascalonites or the Samaritans.’
Understandably, that didn’t go down well with all the other tribes and there were many small incidents to prove it. ‘Samaritans, for example, were often soldiers who guarded the Temple. On one occasion, one of them pulled up his tunic and made a rude gesture from the walls while Jews were sacrificing below. It caused a riot where people were trampled to death.’
A young and distrustful Nero
On another occasion, human bones were scattered throughout the Temple grounds during a period of sacrifice, which made the Temple unclean and ruined the festivities for the whole year.
This was the situation when Nero – far too young, inexperienced, extremely distrustful and with no idea of the situation in Palestine – came to power. He was in desperate need of money and heard about the Temple’s massive wealth, so he decided he would have his share at all costs.
The Roman armies in Jerusalem – consisting of Samaritans and other enemies of the Jews – saw it as a mandate for violence and jumped at the chance they had been waiting for for years. ‘They began killing and crucifying everyone, even members of Jerusalem’s elite class who stood in their way’, says Mason.
Of course the Jews reacted, killing soldiers in turn. However understandable that reaction was, to the Romans it was an affront, an attack on their troops. Then everything got completely out of hand. Roman troops attacked in full force. Jerusalem was besieged and ultimately destroyed – as was the Temple.
So, what does all this show us? Is there a lesson here on wars in general? On the Ukraine? Mason smiles. The main point, maybe, is that each situation is unique, so we must strive to understand each situation in its own right. Don’t listen to people who spin the news to their own advantage. ‘Let’s not make assumptions, but try to learn as much as possible from people who might know.’