The First Jewish Revolt: Who Started It?
Updated: Apr 23
The First Jewish Revolt against the Roman Empire broke out in the year 66 and lasted 4 years until the Romans crushed it. But who started it? We know from the New Testament gospel accounts that the Jews were fed up with their Roman rulers early in that century. We also know from Roman and Jewish historians that over a dozen different Roman governors had been assigned to the Judaean Province since the death of King Herod the Great at the beginning of the century. Did the Jews just finally get fed up and decided one day to start a revolution? Or were they provoked?
King Herod the Great ruled the entire province (see Jan. 17 blog) as a King with no need of a Roman governor. The Romans trusted him to be a faithful ally to Rome. But upon his death they did not see any of his sons as being strong enough or loyal enough, so they divided the kingdom into four parts and sent a Roman governor to oversee them all. This governor in turn answered to the province of greater Syria, of which Judaea was a part. The most famous of these governors, Pontius Pilate, was the fifth in line and ruled between the years 25 and 35 (see my timeline on this website under the History tab).
The governors had a balancing act. They wanted to maximize the amount of taxes they could raise and so skim off some into their own pockets. On the other hand, they needed to keep the peace. The one benefit of the Roman presence to Judaea was the Pax Romana—their soldiers could keep all the thieves and bandits at bay. This allowed daily life and business to continue without the worry of being robbed or needing to hire a bodyguard. These benefits were felt mostly by the upper class, who wanted these protections and could afford to pay the taxes. In contrast, the lower and middle classes were squeezed. The Romans kept between two and three thousand soldiers in Judaea to keep the peace. About one thousand of these were stationed in Fortress Antonia next to the Temple in Jerusalem. The majority of these soldiers were not well-trained Romans, but less-disciplined auxiliaries hired from local provinces.
The line of Roman governors that followed Pilate became, in general, less interested at keeping the peace, and more interested in skimming off taxes. Two of the governors in this line, Felix and Festus, are mentioned in the book of Acts as keeping the Apostle Paul prisoner in Caesarea. Following Festus things began to really deteriorate. Josephus records the behavior of these governors in detail. After Festus came Lecceius Albinus into that office in the year 63. Josephus says that Albinus not only increased taxes but accepted bribes from family members to allow all the thieves and bandits to be let out of prison. The growing poverty caused young men to leave their homes by the thousands and join rebel groups. Following Albinus came Gessius Florus, who Josephus said made Albinus look like an angel in comparison. Josephus lays the blame of the start of the Revolt clearly at Florus’s feet. I will discuss this antagonist, Gessius Florus, in more detail in my next blog.