As we are now entering an exciting time in Judea, with such players as Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, and Herod on the scene, it is important to stop and pay attention to an interesting phenomenon. Most of us, when we read history, tend to divide the characters into good guys and bad guys. Who is good and who is bad depends on your own background, but no matter how you feel about the actors on the stage of history, good versus evil is a simplistic way of looking at it. For example, being raised in Israel, my take as a young student was “Rome bad, Judea good.”You might extend it to “Rebels against Rome good, Rome squashing rebellion bad.” Now, after many years of reading history, I can smile at the silliness of this approach and acknowledge that the level of sophistication it shows resembles a video game where you must shoot all the bad aliens. Rebellions in Judea were often extremely stupid and conducted by deranged religious fanatics or power-hungry egomaniacs. The Romans were often extremely harsh and unreasonable, as conquerors often are, but on the other hand, they did not spend their entire time figuring new ways to torment the Jews. Life is complex, and sometimes the Romans were quite reasonable and even friendly.
The most shining example of practicality and reason was Julius Caesar. I am going to quote Josephus’ story about it, because there is simply no reason to paraphrase him and in addition to everything else, he is quite entertaining. Here is his introduction to the important decrees given by Caesar.
“Now when Caesar was come to Rome, he was ready to sail into Africa to fight against Scipio and Cato, when Hyrcanus sent ambassadors to him, and by them desired that he would ratify that league of friendship and mutual alliance which was between them, and it seems to me to be necessary here to give an account of all the honors that the Romans and their emperor paid to our nation, and of the leagues of mutual assistance they have made with it, that all the rest of mankind may know what regard the kings of Asia and Europe have had to us, and that they have been abundantly satisfied of our courage and fidelity; for whereas many will not believe what hath been written about us by the Persians and Macedonians, because those writings are not every where to be met with, nor do lie in public places, but among us ourselves, and certain other barbarous [non-Greek speaking] nations, while there is no contradiction to be made against the decrees of the Romans, for they are laid up in the public places of the cities, and are extant still in the Capitol, and engraved upon pillars of brass; nay, besides this, Julius Caesar made a pillar of brass for the Jews at Alexandria, and declared publicly that they were citizens of Alexandria. Out of these evidences will I demonstrate what I say; and will now set down the decrees made both by the Senate and by Julius Caesar, which relate to Hyrcanus and to our nation.”
Josephus proceeds to quote the decrees as given by Caesar. There are many of them and they are in chronological order. I cannot quote all of them, as it will be an extremely long segment, so I will only give a small sampling.
“Caius Julius Caesar, Imperator and high priest, and Dictator the second time, to the magistrates, Senate, and people of Sidon, sends greeting. If you be in health, it is well. I also and the army are well. I have sent you a copy of that decree, registered on the tables, which concerns Hyrcanus, the son of Alexander, the high priest and Ethnarch of the Jews, that it may be laid up among the public records; and I will that it be openly proposed in a table of brass, both in Greek and in Latin. It is as follows: I Julius Caesar, Imperator the second time, and high priest, have made this decree, with the approbation of the Senate. Whereas Hyrcanus, the son of Alexander the Jew, hath demonstrated his fidelity and diligence about our affairs, and this both now and in former times, both in peace and in war, as many of our generals have borne witness, and came to our assistance in the last Alexandrian war, with fifteen hundred soldiers; and when he was sent by me to Mithridates, showed himself superior in valor to all the rest of that army; for these reasons I will that Hyrcanus, the son of Alexander, and his children, be Ethnarchs of the Jews, and have the high priesthood of the Jews forever, according to the customs of their forefathers, and that he and his sons be our confederates; and that besides this, everyone of them be reckoned among our particular friends. I also ordain that he and his children retain whatsoever privileges belong to the office of high priest, or whatsoever favors have been hitherto granted them; and if at any time hereafter there arise any questions about the Jewish customs, I will that he determine the same. And I think it not proper that they should be obliged to find us winter quarters, or that any money should be required of them.”
Clearly, Caesar is staunch in his determination to let the Jews adhere to their customs. And since this is the main issue regarding rebellions, one wonders… and now, let’s move to the difficult issue of the State’s Capital.
“I, Caius Caesar, Imperator, Dictator, Consul, hath granted, That out of regard to the honor, and virtue, and kindness of the man, and for the advantage of the Senate, and of the people of Rome, Hyrcanus, the son of Alexander, both he and his children, be high priests and priests of Jerusalem, and of the Jewish nation, by the same right, and according to the same laws, by which their progenitors have held the priesthood
Caius Caesar, consul the fifth time, hath decreed, That the Jews shall possess Jerusalem, and may encompass that city with walls; and that Hyrcanus, the son of Alexander, the high priest and Ethnarch of the Jews, retain it in the manner he himself pleases.”
In a later decree, he even states that not only Jerusalem belongs to the Jews, but they can rebuild and fortify it as needed. He could not have been clearer on Jerusalem belonging to the Jews, not to Rome, which is rather surprising.
And now, let’s move to the issue of trade, tax, agriculture, and more about the customs of the Jews. The city of Joppa is modern Jaffa. It is an important port, situated next to the modern city of Tel Aviv.
“Caius Caesar, Imperator the second time, hath ordained, that all the country of the Jews, excepting Joppa, do pay a tribute yearly for the city Jerusalem, excepting the seventh, which they call the sabbatical year, because thereon they neither receive the fruits of their trees, nor do they sow their land; and that they pay their tribute in Sidon on the second year [of that sabbatical period], the fourth part of what was sown: and besides this, they are to pay the same tithes to Hyrcanus and his sons which they paid to their forefathers. And that no one, neither president, nor lieutenant, nor ambassador, raise auxiliaries within the bounds of Judea; nor may soldiers exact money of them for winter quarters, or under any other pretense; but that they be free from all sorts of injuries; and that whatsoever they shall hereafter have, and are in possession of, or have bought, they shall retain them all. It is also our pleasure that the city Joppa, which the Jews had originally, when they made a league of friendship with the Romans, shall belong to them, as it formerly did; and that Hyrcanus, the son of Alexander, and his sons, have as tribute of that city from those that occupy the land for the country, and for what they export every year to Sidon, twenty thousand six hundred and seventy-five modii every year, the seventh year, which they call the Sabbatic year, excepted, whereon they neither plough, nor receive the product of their trees. It is also the pleasure of the Senate, that as to the villages which are in the great plain, which Hyrcanus and his forefathers formerly possessed, Hyrcanus and the Jews have them with the same privileges with which they formerly had them also; and that the same original ordinances remain still in force which concern the Jews with regard to their high priests; and that they enjoy the same benefits which they have had formerly by the concession of the people, and of the Senate; and let them enjoy the like privileges in Lydda. It is the pleasure also of the Senate that Hyrcanus the Ethnarch, and the Jews, retain those places, countries, and villages which belonged to the kings of Syria and Phoenicia, the confederates of the Romans, and which they had bestowed on them as their free gifts. It is also granted to Hyrcanus, and to his sons, and to the ambassadors by them sent to us, that in the fights between single gladiators, and in those with beasts, they shall sit among the senators to see those shows; and that when they desire an audience, they shall be introduced into the Senate by the Dictator, or by the general of the horse; and when they have introduced them, their answers shall be returned them in ten days at the furthest, after the decree of the Senate is made about their affairs.”
The thing that was dearest to the Roman heart was money. And yet, Caesar was willing to accept the fact that every seventh year [the Sabbatic year] there would be no taxes levied on the Jewish State. To me, the mere fact that he even knew the name, Sabbatical year, is amazing, since the Romans did not celebrate the Jewish seventh day holiday or seventh year when the land lay fallow. The generosity of supplying the Jews with good seats for the circuses seems highly amusing, but if you think how much it costs to get tickets to a sports event these days, and that the Roman “games” and“shows” were even more popular than football or baseball, perhaps you might appreciate the consideration…
There are plenty more decrees, including directives to other states and cities where Jews dwelt, expressing Caesar’s good will toward the Jews. And the way Josephus ends the chapter is funny and abrupt at the same time – in other words, his usual, priceless dry humor.
“Now there are many other such decrees, passed by the Senate and the Imperators of the Romans, relating to Hyrcanus and our nation, as well as resolutions of cities and rescripts of provincial governors in reply to letters on the subject of our rights, all of which those who will read our work without malice will find it possible to take on faith from the documents we have cited. For since we have furnished clear and visible proofs of our friendship with the Romans, indicating those decrees engraved on bronze pillars and tablets which remain to this day and will continue to remain in the Capitol, I have refrained from citing them al as being both superfluous and disagreeable; for I cannot suppose that anyone is so stupid that he will actually refuse to believe the statement s about the friendliness of the Romans towards us, when they have demonstrated this in a good many decrees relating to us, or will not admit that we are making truthful statements on the basis of the examples we have given. And herein we have set forth our friendship and alliance with the Romans in those times.”
But this appeal to reason changes nothing. Not when you deal with Judea, two thousand years ago, a time and a place of madness.