With the birth of Jesus Christ in AD 1, the Old Age of Dominant Powers of Evil came to an end. In its place began the second age of humankind, the New Age of Victorious Jesus Christ. With his birth also began the third period of human history, the Age of Christianity (70-634). This age did not replace the Age of Yahwism, still alive and maintained by Jews everywhere, but it did supersede it.
The first 500 years of the Age of Christianity would prove to be especially difficult ones for Jews. Both in Judea and the Diaspora, they suffered serious losses in population, prosperity, meaning, and morale. These losses followed hard on five disasters.
1. The Roman defeat of the Jewish rebellion in Judea (AD 70). The Zealots were one first-century Jewish movement in Judea. They promoted violent opposition to Roman rule through hostile words and guerrilla attacks. Incompetent Roman leadership didn’t control mounting tensions. Neither did an absence of Roman troops in Jerusalem except during the three annual Jewish festivals. Armed rebellion broke out in AD 66.
The Roman state successfully reasserted its control by AD 70. Its army enjoyed overwhelming superiority. It also received significant help from the murderous hostility between Jews themselves.
The Roman victory had disastrous consequences for Jews in Judea. Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and its second temple dedicated to Yahweh. They killed, enslaved, exiled, or impoverished a vast number of Jews in Judea. They repopulated the province with Olympians and renamed it Palestine. The Zealots, Sadducees, and Essenes all ended as meaningful movements within Judaism. Only the Pharisees and the new Jesus movement remained and they permanently split into two different religions.
2. The Roman defeat of the Jewish rebellion in Alexandria (AD 117). That rebellion had broken out two years earlier. The Roman victory meant a serious decline in the population, wealth, and creativity of the centuries-old Jewish community there.
3. The Roman defeat of the Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem (135). Akiva, a profoundly respected rabbi and major contributor to the Mishnah (written record of oral law), proclaimed Simon, called bar Kokhba or “Son of a Star,” the long-awaited Messiah. Simon led Jews in Jerusalem in rebellion against Roman rule and established Jewish control of the city in 132. Roman armies reasserted their control three years later.
Hadrian, the Roman ruler, forbade Jews to enter Jerusalem and gave the city an Olympian name. Almost half the Jewish population of 1.3 million in Palestine died (Cantor, 86). Those who didn’t sought safety in nearby Galilee or abroad. Pharisaic rabbis moved their school from Jabneh, where it had been since AD 70, to Galilee and finished the Mishnah there.
4. The significant growth of Christianity as an increasingly attractive rival to Judaism. Shunned by leading Pharisees in the first century, the Jesus movement had become a powerful religion and hostile opponent by 200.
5. The establishment of Christianity as the sole legal religion (386). Roman rulers forbade both Olympian and Jewish practices and actively persecuted outlaws.
By 500, the Jewish population in the Roman empire had fallen to perhaps 3 million or about half of what it had been in AD 1 (Cantor, 88).
(Today we continued our reflections on Norman Cantor's The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews [HarperCollins, pp. 86-88]).