Keith H. Meservy, “‘Gadiantonism’ and the Destruction of Jerusalem,” in The Pearl of Great Price: Revelations from God, ed. H. Donl Peterson and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 171–96.
Keith H. Meservy was a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University when this was published.
Romans, who destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70, fulfilled prophecies that Jesus forty years earlier had made concerning the leveling of Jerusalem, its temple and people. He said not one stone would still stand atop another in their temple, and envisioning the pains of a dying Jerusalem and its citizens, Jesus wept. How often had he tried to warn curious listeners of their coming woe. Between prophecy and fulfillment, Jewish lives ripened in sin, and finally, like overripe fruit, fell into oblivion. Merely forty years after Jesus had predicted it, Jerusalem and most of its citizens lay deep in dust.
The purpose of this chapter is to show that it was the people’s wickedness that destroyed the Jewish nation; that their wickedness manifest itself especially in a kind of “robberism” known to us from the Book of Mormon as “Gadiantonism,” that Jesus warned them repeatedly about the terror and horror that was coming, and then gave signs (Matthew 24, also JS—M 1) so those who had ears to hear could escape.
Josephus, a participant in and recorder of the issues and events of the war, claimed that God had appointed him to this task. And that God, moreover, had tutored him for this role by giving him dreams that showed the him for this role by giving him dreams that showed the war’s meaning, scriptures that predicted it, and heavenly signs that showed the woes awaiting that generation. Consequently, he felt compelled to tell the story and thought he would betray “God’s commands, should he die before delivering his message” ( The Jewish War III:361; hereafter as War. All references are to the book:line number).
Because Jesus knew of the impending fate of the Jews, he frequently spoke about the devastation awaiting their communities like Capernaum, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Jerusalem. Obviously he spoke on more occasions than we have on record, but his warnings went unheeded. On one occasion, while weeping over Jerusalem’s impending pain, he lamented: “If thou hadst known . . . the things which belong unto thy peace! but now they are hid from thine eyes. . . . [So,] thine enemies . . . shall lay thee even with the ground, and thy children within thee . . . because thou knewest not the time of thy visitation” (Luke 19:41–44; emphasis added).
The Baptist, while calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a “generation of vipers,” wondered who had warned them to flee the coming wrath. Repentance, not Abrahamic lineage, would prevent the poised ax from cutting out the roots of fruitless trees. Bring forth fruit of repentance, he said, or feel the ax (Matthew 3:7–10).
Jesus warned them that the vineyards of the wicked would be burned and their jealous husbandmen would be slain. He, too, wondered how a generation of serpents and vipers could hope to “escape the damnation of hell” (Matthew 23:33). All too soon, Jerusalem would perpetuate its reputation for killing prophets by stoning and killing the ones God sent to illuminate their darkened lives (v. 37). How tragic that those who love darkness feel compelled to put out the light.
Finally, rejected along with his warnings, Jesus, while travailing his way toward Golgotha, felt compelled to warn women weeping for him to save their tears for themselves (Luke 23:28). They, too, would know the devastating consequences of sin.
As already indicated, the horror and agony that Jesus had foreseen would come from the kind of soul sickness that we are calling here “Gadiantonism.” The name stems from the notorious Gadianton robbers who arose from among the Nephites in 50 B.C. (Hel. 1:9; 2:4). But those kinds of works did not originate with Gadianton. They originated rather with Cain (Moses 5:25; Hel. 6:26–30) who coveted things (flocks) belonging to another and used power (murder) to gain what he coveted. Having mastered the great secret about how to get gain by power, Cain gloried in possessing that kingdom-building power. After nurturing others with similar desires, he and they filled the world with violence. When “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually,” and that “. . . all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth . . . [and] the earth [was] filled with violence,” he destroyed the wicked from the earth (Gen. 6:5, 12–13).
Jaredites re-instituted the same kind of movement, and when those kinds of works once again became pervasive, God destroyed them also (Ether 2, 8). When the Nephites set “their hearts upon their riches, . . . [and were] lifted up one above another,” Satan, faithful and persistent as ever, also taught them his big secret and they “began to commit secret murders, and to rob and to plunder, that they might get gain.” Kishkumen and Gadianton organized their followers into a band and “they were called Gadianton’s robbers and murderers” (Hel. 6:17–18). Mormon went on to show “that this Gadianton did prove the overthrow, yea, almost the entire destruction of the people of Nephi” (Hel. 2:13).
Through revelation Moroni knew that this kind of robberism appears "among all people” (Ether 8:20), and is a general phenomenon, not localized either in time or place. Its list of participants, as well as nations it has destroyed, is very long. Moroni warns “whatsoever nation [that] shall uphold such secret combinations, to get power and gain, until they shall spread over the nation, behold, they shall be destroyed” (Ether 8:22).
Thus, just as robberism destroys nations, so, concludes Josephus, did it destroy his land and people. He recognized that the end for his own people began when Judas and Saddok organized what he called the “fourth philosophy” in AD. 6. When they “had won an abundance of devotees, they filled the body politic immediately with tumult, also planting the seeds of those troubles which subsequently overtook it” (Antiquities XVIII:9; hereafter Antiq.). They “sowed the seed of every kind of misery, which so afflicted the nation that words are inadequate.” Josephus identified the motive of the fourth philosophy as the getting of gain, rather than patriotism. He said:
When wars are set afoot that are bound to rage beyond control, and when friends are done away with who might have alleviated the suffering, when raids are made by great hordes of brigands and men of the highest standing are assassinated, it is supposed to be the common welfare that is upheld, but the truth is that in such cases the motive is private gain. They sowed the seed from which sprang strife between factions and the slaughter of fellow citizens (Antiq. XVIII:7–8).
Elsewhere, he notes that while the devotees of this philosophy first banded together against “those who consented to submit to Rome and in every way treated them as enemies, plundering their property, rounding up their cattle, and setting fire to their habitations. . . . Yet, after all, this was but a pretext, put forward by them as a cloak for their cruelty and avarice, as was made plain by their actions” (War VII:254–256). Consequently, these men, said Josephus, afflicted “worse atrocities” on their own people than the Romans did.
It is my thesis that robberism or Gadiantonism brought about the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. It was a parasitic movement made up of men who coveted wealth produced by others and used whatever means needed, including robbery and murder, to get what they coveted. Both sensual and material values prevailed in their midst. Like the Gadiantons of the Book of Mormon, the Jewish devotees overthrew their government to legitimize the means they used to satisfy their desires for material goods and sensual pleasure (cf. Hel. 6:38–40; 7:4–5). Examples from Josephus are given below.
Mormon, who saw how brutalized the feelings of those who practiced Gadiantonism became, described its fruits as rape, murder, cannibalism, abomination, awful brutality, and depravity. Its advocates lived without order and mercy. They were strong in perversity while sparing none. They delighted in everything save that which was good. Living by no principle, they reached the point where ultimately they were past feeling and without civilization. The phrase “past feeling” perhaps describes most tellingly their pitiful state (Moroni 9:9–19).
Jesus promised the Jews that a similar condition would overtake them and love would wax cold and iniquity abound. Josephus provides the detail:
That period had, somehow, become so prolific of crime of every description amongst the Jews, that no deed of iniquity was left unperpetrated, nor, had man’s wit been exercised to devise it, could he have discovered any novel form of vice. So universal was the contagion, both in private and in public life, such the emulation, moreover, to outdo each other in acts of impiety towards God and of injustice towards their neighbours; those in power oppressing the masses, and the masses eager to destroy the powerful. These were bent on tyranny, those on violence and plundering the property of the wealthy. The Sicarii [daggermen, see page 180] were the first to set the example of this lawlessness and cruelty to their kinsmen, leaving no word unspoken to insult, no deed untried to ruin, the victims of their conspiracy (War VII:259–62).
Josephus seems to have been a shocked, horrified, and heartbroken spectator of the awesome destructive power of wickedness even as he described what he saw.
Josephus, a Pharisee and a priest, was born in A.D. 37, a few years after Jesus ceased warning his people. As an intelligent, concerned citizen, he participated in many of the decisions and events leading up to the revolt in A.D. 66. He attempted to dissuade his people from revolting against the Romans, but, failing in this, accepted an appointment by the Jewish War Council to be commander-in-chief of the Galilean sector, where he fought for Jewish freedom. He was captured as he defended the city of Jotapata and lived to write the history of the war. Since his record of the Jewish War is the only account that has survived, it is our primary source.
At the time of his capture in the second year of the war, he was convinced that God had spared his life so he could explain the meaning of what was happening in that war. He felt that God had helped him understand the meaning of the war through the “nightly dreams” he received prior to his capture. In them God
foretold to him the impending fate of the Jews and the destinies of the Roman sovereigns. [He says of himself that] he was an interpreter of dreams and skilled in divining the meaning of ambiguous utterances of the Deity; a priest himself and of priestly descent, he was not ignorant of the prophecies in the sacred books. At that hour he was inspired to read their meaning, and, recalling the dreadful images of his recent dreams, he offered up a silent prayer to God. “Since it pleases thee,” so it ran, “who didst create the Jewish nation, to break thy work, since fortune has wholly passed to the Romans, and since thou hast made choice of my spirit to announce the things that are to come, I willingly surrender to the Romans and consent to live; but / take thee to witness that I go, not as a traitor, but as thy minister (War III:351–54; emphasis added).
His history is regarded as reliable. And his interpretation of the war is consistent with what Jesus said, both as to the reasons he gives for why it happened and its results. Eusebius observed: “Anyone who compared our Saviour’s words with the rest of the historian’s account of the whole war could not fail to be astonished, and to acknowledge as divine and utterly marvellous the foreknowledge revealed by our Saviour’s prediction” (III:7, p. 118).
Josephus concluded that in the war God was bringing judgment upon the Jewish people. Nephi indicates that telling the story of God’s judgments is an important objective in writing. He himself wrote that readers might “know the judgments of God, that they come upon all nations, according to the word which he hath spoken” (2 Nephi 25:3). God’s judgments, of course, were not foreordained, but since God knows the end from the beginning and is unwilling that any of his children perish, he warns them whenever they set out on a deadly course (Jer. 18:7–10; Ezekiel 33:1–16). Thus, whenever Jews have been destroyed because of iniquity, “never hath any of them been destroyed save it were foretold them by the prophets of the Lord” (2 Nephi 25:9). It appears that correlating prediction with fulfillment provides a powerful lesson for those who come after, and, therefore, shows why permanent records must be kept, both of the prediction as well as its fulfillment.
Josephus tells us that he survived the war under remarkable circumstances, and that he had been inspired by dreams to understand the meaning of what was happening as a divine judgment on his people. We see how ideal his situation was to describe it: he was removed from the conflict, was continually on the scene as an observer, had the confidence of the Roman victors as well as access to their war records, was able to interview Jewish prisoners of war, and had the time necessary to make the records as the war progressed. It seems that he was what he says he was —a man raised up to write the story, with his capture a necessary condition for that writing.
He was an intelligent, careful observer who believed in God and had a sense of justice and honor. We read his story best when we accept his assessment of his role as a divine accountant, while at the same time admitting that, like many others, he was an imperfect instrument to carry out the work of the Lord. He did not write dispassionately. He made moral judgments about participants and sought to identify motives that individuals may or may not have had. Josephus was regarded by his people as a traitor (Jer. 38:1–6). But he seems to have been in the unenviable position of being persuaded, as Jeremiah was, that God had given their temple, along with their nation, into the hands of another power, and that they must submit to it in order to survive (Jer. 27; 26:1–9).
Josephus pled with his readers to indulge him the right to express his feelings over the tragedy befalling his people. For, he said:
I shall faithfully recount the actions of both combatants; but in my reflections on the events I cannot conceal my private sentiments, nor refuse to give my personal sympathies scope to bewail my country’s misfortunes. . . . Should, however, any critic censure me for my strictures upon the tyrants or their bands of marauders or for my lamentations over my country’s misfortunes, I ask his indulgence for a compassion which falls outside an historian’s province. . . . Should, however, any critic be too austere for pity, let him credit the history with the facts, the historian with the lamentations (War I:9–12).
It is clear that Josephus did not regard the robbers as patriots or so-called “Robin Hoods” who robbed the wealthy to help the poor or to help the cause of freedom. He understood their motive to be that of getting gain. To this end they had combined to gain the power they needed.
Bands of robbers were an old problem. What was Josephus’s case that Gadianton-like bands of robbers destroyed the nation?
First, he knew that marauding bands of robbers among Jews were an old problem. In 47 B.C., more than a hundred years before the Jewish War broke out, Herod the Great, governor of Galilee, “caught and killed [Ezekias] and many of the bandits with him.” Syrians were gratified that he had “cleared their country of a gang of bandits of whom they longed to be rid.” They could finally relax in “peace and the secure enjoyment of their possessions” (Antiq. XIV: 159–60; see also War I:204–05). During the winter of 39–38 B.C., Herod again tried to root out “the cave-dwelling brigands, who were infesting a wide area and inflicting on the inhabitants evils no less than those of war” (War I:304–5; cf. Antiq. XIV:422).
Herod’s son, Archelaus (4 B.C.–A.D. 6), had to deal with Judas, the son of Ezekias, whom Herod had slain. Josephus again identifies the robbers’ goals as power and gain: “He [Judas] became an object of terror to all men by plundering those he came across in his desire for great possessions and his ambition for royal rank, a prize that he expected to obtain not through the practice of virtue but through excessive ill-treatment of others” (Antiq. XVII: 271–72).
Fadus, procurator of Judaea, (A.D. 44–46) put to death “Tholomaeus the arch-brigand,” who had ranged through Idumaea. It seemed then that “the whole of Judaea was purged of robber-bands . . .” (Antiq. XX:5). But, during the time when Cumanus was procurator A.D. 48–52, brigands plundered Caesar’s slave on Bethhoron road (War II:229). And then many Jews “emboldened by impunity, had recourse to robbery; and raids and insurrections, fostered by the more reckless, broke out all over the country” (War II:238).
When Felix became procurator in A.D. 52–60, he “took prisoner Eleazar, the brigand chief, who for twenty years had ravaged the country, with many of his associates.” These he sent to Rome for trial. Others he crucified. “Of the brigands whom he crucified, and of the common people who were convicted of complicity with them and punished by him, the number was incalculable” (War II:253). The ready recurrence of robberism shows that it never was completely wiped out and that it was a way for the people to respond to the situation.
Then, during Felix’s procuratorship a new development occurred that reminds one of Kishkumen’s activity. For, “a new species of banditti” called sicarii, (daggermen, after sica [Latin: a curved dagger]) sprang up in Jerusalem. They “committed murders in broad daylight in the heart of the city. . . . The first to be assassinated by them was Jonathan the high-priest; after his death there were numerous daily murders” (War II:254–56).
These lawless assassins were augmented by another body of villains, with purer hands but more impious intentions, who no less than the assassins ruined the peace of the city. Deceivers and impostors, under the pretence of divine inspiration fostering revolutionary changes . . . led [the multitude] out into the desert under the belief that God would there give them tokens of deliverance (War II:258–59). . . .
The impostors and brigands, banding together, incited numbers to revolt. . . . Distributing themselves in companies throughout the country, they looted the houses of the wealthy, murdered their owners, and set the villages on fire. The effects of their frenzy were thus felt throughout all Judaea, and every day saw this war being fanned into fiercer flame (War II:264–65).
Six years before the revolt, Festus, the procurator from AJD. 60–62, attacked the robbers, which Josephus by then was calling “the principal plague of the country: [Festus] captured large numbers of the brigands and put not a few to death” (War II:271).
His successor, Albinus (AD. 62–64), tried to eliminate the sicarii (Antiq. XX:204), who disregarded any and all authority but their own. The sicarii kidnapped Jewish officials and allowed their fellow Jewish officials to ransom them by bribing Albinus to release imprisoned sicarii. The kidnapping, the ransoming, the bribing and the releasing of sicarii prisoners continued until all sicarii were released. They then again became a threat and “proceeded to harass every part of the land” (Antiq. XX:208–10).
Albinus allowed robbers to roam the land as long they filled his Roman hands with bribes. Thus, Each ruffian, with his own band of followers grouped around him, towered above his company like a brigand chief or tyrant, employing his bodyguard to plunder peaceable citizens. [And others] through fear of suffering the same fate [would not report such incidents]. In short, none could now speak his mind, with tyrants on every side; and from this date were sown in the city the seeds of its impending fall (War II:274–76).
Florus, the last procurator before the revolt (AD. 64–66), worked with the bandits as a kindred spirit. He made Albinus “appear by comparison a paragon of virtue”. He . . . abstained from no form of robbery or violence . . . . He stripped whole cities, ruined entire populations, and almost went the length of proclaiming throughout the country that all were at liberty to practice brigandage, on condition that he received his share of the spoils. Certainly his avarice brought desolation upon all the cities, and caused many to desert their ancestral haunts and seek refuge in foreign provinces (War II:277–79).
Roman rule in Judaea before the revolt became bankrupt. Florus, the final official before the revolt, extorted and plundered while overlooking serious grievances. He constantly increased his private fortunes by rapacious and high-handed means, and finally provoked the Jews to revolt to cover up his maladministration of the land.
With this breakdown of law and order, Jewish robber bands, emboldened by impunity, murdered and robbed at will. The fever raging within the inflamed members of Jewish society produced a sickness that could not be healed. Robber bands, who made war the means to private gain, made the most out of the condition of anarchy.
Faction reigned everywhere. . . . Various cliques began by pillaging their neighbours, then banding together in companies they carried their depredations throughout the country; insomuch that in cruelty and lawlessness the sufferers found no difference between compatriots and Romans, indeed to be captured by the latter seemed to the unfortunate victims far the lighter fate (War IV: 129–34).
When the revolt came, it boiled up from the hearts of slavery-sickened and robbery-plagued people. It spewed desolation upon the whole land as the swelling infection broke out in open sores. It involved that whole generation of Jews, born to be free and divinely promised that they could stay free, who bitterly knew they were anything but free.
Three major Jewish leaders arose at Jerusalem. When Josephus referred to zealots rather than bandits, he usually spoke of Eleazar, or a coalition of Eleazar’s and John’s men. Eleazar, a high temple official, helped bring the revolt about by ordering his priests not to offer sacrifices for the emperor and the empire—a revolutionary act. He led a band of zealots within the city who used the temple as their base of operations.
John of Gischala (Gush Halav in Galilee) carried on his banditry in Galilee until that area was overrun by the Romans; he then fled to Jerusalem, where he became one of three revolutionaries in control there. Josephus claimed that John used war simply as a means to his end—to become ruler. “All knew that he had set his heart on war in order to attain supreme power” (War IV: 85; see character sketch in II:585ff). He had “a dire passion for despotic power and had long been plotting against the state” (War IV:208). At Jerusalem, his influence became so perverse that Josephus concluded he had escaped capture by Romans in Galilee because God “was preserving [him] to bring ruin upon Jerusalem” (War IV: 104). After entering Jerusalem, John terrorized the citizens by his plundering and violent activities. Simon, the third major revolutionary leader, will be introduced below. He was a late comer. Bandit Chiefs Unite in Jerusalem Other robbers from without, “. . . satiated with their pillage of the country . . . stole into poor Jerusalem—a city under no commanding officer” and there merged their villainy (War IV: 135–37). Henceforth, they abstained from “no enormities.” They committed murders “in broad daylight, and with the most eminent citizens for their earliest victims” (War IV: 138–39). By eliminating the nobility, they prepared to govern with their own personnel and laws.
The first to die was Antipas, of the royal family, who was in charge of the public treasury. Next, Levias and Syphas, nobles, of royal blood, and “other persons of high reputation throughout the country” (War IV: 140–41). Prominent citizens were first held in prison and then assassinated (War IV: 145–46). Robbers replaced the high priest with their own man “in order to gain accomplices in their impious crimes” (War IV: 147–49; 151–53). Among the robbers, “this monstrous impiety was a subject for jesting and sport” (War IV: 155–57).
Jesus, chief priest second only to Ananus, the high priest, called them tyrants. He lamented that they had “annulled our tribunals, trampled on our laws, and passed sentence with the sword.” They had executed men of eminence (War IV:258–59). They had left the city full of plundered houses, widows and orphans. ‘There is not one who has not felt the raids of these impious wretches” (War IV:260).
The robbers were obviously irreligious. But Josephus emphasized their wickedness by saying that:
Every human ordinance was trampled under foot, every dictate of religion ridiculed by these men, who scoffed at the oracles of the prophets as impostors’ fables. Yet those predictions of theirs contained much concerning virtue and vice, by the transgression of which the Zealots brought upon their country the fulfillment of the prophecies directed against it. For there was an ancient saying of inspired men that the city would be taken and the sanctuary burnt to the ground by right of war, whensoever it should be visited by sedition and native hands should be the first to defile God’s sacred precincts (War IV:385–88).
John knew how incensed the citizens were at their actions and that if “the friends and relatives of the slain and a whole host of people infuriated at the dissolution of their laws and law-courts” gained control, they would be in trouble (War IV:223). So he sought to strengthen the control of the city by the robbers.
He invited the Idumaeans to help him secure complete control of the city. They helped him and his men slaughter 8,000 citizens in one night and then they set out systematically to capture and kill the chief priests, among whom were Ananus and Jesus, scoffing triumphantly over their bodies. For Josephus, their depravity in killing their chief priest indicated why the city fell.
I should not be wrong in saying that the capture of the city began with the death of Ananus; and that the overthrow of the walls and the downfall of the Jewish state dated from the day on which the Jews beheld their high priest, the captain of their salvation, butchered in the heart of Jerusalem. . . . But it was, I suppose, because God had, for its pollutions, condemned the city to destruction and desired to purge the sanctuary by fire, that He thus cut off those who clung to them with such tender affection. . . . Virtue herself, I think, groaned for these men’s fate, bewailing such utter defeat at the hands of vice. Such, however, was the end of Ananus and Jesus (War IV:314–25).
He might better have said that it began when they killed the Heir to the Vineyard and then continued to fight the Owner by persecuting and killing his servants (Matthew 21:33–41; cf. 2 Nephi 25:14). Jesus, their Messiah, had expressed a similar lamentation over the fall of Jerusalem for the same reason: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how oft would I have gathered thee. . . . [But] behold, your house is left unto you desolate” (Matthew 23:37–38).
“Having disposed of [the priests and their leaders], the Zealots and the Idumaean hordes fell upon and butchered the people as though they had been a herd of unclean animals” (War IV:326–29). Twelve thousand of the young nobility who had refused to join forces with the robbers were tortured and slaughtered (War IV:326–33).
If John and the Idumaeans had been an army of freedom fighters, fighting Romans to gain freedom for the nation, no nobleman in Jerusalem would have died by torture rather than join them. No, the nobles seemed rather to loathe the means used by these men who terrorized their country and its capital, destroyed their law courts, murdered and robbed their citizens, high priest, and temple priests, and profaned their holy temple. “In one night almost the whole population had been destroyed” (War IV: 345–51).
When the Idumaeans finally realized that the men they were supporting were robbers and despots rather than freedom fighters, most of them left Jerusalem. The robbers no longer felt a need for any “delay or deliberation about their crimes. . . . They thirsted above all for the blood of the brave and the nobility, massacring the latter out of envy, the former from fear; for they imagined that their own safety depended solely on their leaving no person of authority alive” (War IV:356–57).
John’s Galilean contingent of robbers surpassed all others in mischievous ingenuity and in wicked audacity.
With an insatiable lust for loot, they ransacked the houses of the wealthy; the murder of men and the violation of women were their sport; they caroused on their spoils, with blood to wash them down, and from mere satiety unscrupulously indulged in effeminate practices, plaiting their hair and attiring themselves in women’s apparel, drenching themselves with perfumes and painting their eyelids to enhance their beauty. And not only did they imitate the dress, but also the passions of women, devising in their excess of lasciviousness unlawful pleasures and wallowing as in a brothel in the city, which they polluted from end to end with their foul deeds. Yet, while they wore women’s faces, their hands were murderous, and approaching with mincing steps they would suddenly become warriors and whipping out their swords from under their dyed mantles transfix whomsoever they met (War IV558–63).
Josephus clearly describes for us the appearance of a society wherein love has waxed cold and iniquity abounds, and he describes that amoral society—how they legitimized the immoral by replacing violently the legitimate government with their own—making what had formerly been illicit, legitimate. This point for the Nephites came when the majority of the Nephites, united “with those bands of robbers, and did enter into their covenants and their oaths” to protect and preserve one another in whatsoever difficult circumstances they should be placed, that they should not suffer for their murders, and their plunderings, and their stealings. . . . And thus they might murder, and plunder, and steal, and commit whoredoms and all manner of wickedness, contrary to the laws of their country and also the laws of their God (Hel. 6:21, 23).
By exterminating their opponents and establishing laws to support their wickedness and courts to uphold them, the robbers instituted a similar change in Jerusalem. They could now rob and murder and commit whoredoms with impunity.
As Vespasian saw how the zealot-robbers were eliminating the Jews, he concluded that “God was a better general than he, and was delivering the Jews to the Romans without any exertion on their part and bestowing victory upon them without risk to Roman generalship” (War IV:370).
The plundering of Jerusalem was similar to the plundering of the country. The Sicarii, who had conquered Masada from the Romans early in the war, began raiding Jewish communities to get supplies and plunder. Taking advantage of the feast of unleavened bread to catch the Jews off guard, they raided the Jewish community at Engedi. The men fled, “[but] those unable to fly, women and children numbering upwards of seven hundred, were massacred. [The Sicarii] then rifled the houses, seized the ripest of the crops, and carried off their spoil to Masada. They made similar raids on the . . . whole district, being joined daily by numerous dissolute recruits from every quarter” (War IV:398–405).
Ironically, those victims of Jewish brutality were commemorating their forefather’s deliverance from Egyptian captivity. Fellow Jews, for whom plundering was intoxicating, took advantage of their religious observance to further their own interests. The spirit was symptomatic of the times. Robbers banded together to get gain. Throughout Judaea predatory bands, hitherto quiescent, now began to bestir themselves. . . . The sedition and disorder in the capital gave the scoundrels in the country free licence to plunder; and each gang after pillaging their own village made off into the wilderness. Then joining forces and swearing mutual allegiance, they would proceed by companies—smaller than an army but larger than a mere band of robbers—to fall upon temples and cities. The unfortunate victims of their attacks suffered the miseries of captives of war, but were deprived of the chance of retaliation, because their foes in robber fashion at once decamped with their prey. There was, in fact, no portion of Judaea which did not share in the ruin of the capital (War IV:406–09).
Plundering bands, by fleeing into the wilderness, joining forces, and swearing mutual allegiance, typified what the Gadiantons did to succeed.
Bandits now controlled and devastated both Jerusalem and the country. One is reminded of Mormon’s statement of the last days of his own country:
But behold, the land was filled with robbers . . . ; and notwithstanding the: great destruction which hung over my people, they did not repent of their evil doings; therefore there was blood and carnage spread throughout all the face of the land, both on the part of the Nephites and also on the part of the Lamanites; and it was one complete revolution throughout all the face of the land (Mormon 2:8).
“I saw that the day of grace was passed with them, both temporally and spiritually; for I saw thousands of them hewn down in open rebellion against their God, and heaped up as dung upon the face of the land” (Mormon 2:15).
To show that the day of grace had passed for Jews by that point, Josephus introduced the third major revolutionary leader—another bandit, who also wanted to rule the country—“Simon, son of Gioras and a native of Gerasa.” He brought his own kind of desolation upon the country. He was “a youth less cunning than John . . . but his superior in physical strength and audacity” (War IV:503). Initially Simon joined the brigands at Masada on their marauding expeditions but broke with them when they weren’t as adventuresome as he. Because he “was aspiring to despotic power and cherishing high ambitions,” when he heard of the death of Ananus, the high priest, “he withdrew to the hills, where, . . . he gathered around him the villains from every quarter” (War IV:508). When his forces were large enough, he “overran the villages in the hills,” and then with sufficient recruits, he descended into the lowlands. When he became strong enough to terrorize “the towns, many men of standing were seduced by his strength and career of unbroken success into joining him; and his was no longer an army of mere serfs or brigands, but one including numerous citizen recruits, subservient to his command as to a king” (War IV:509–10).
He overran the province of Acrabetene and greater Idumaea, using the village of Nain as a fortress. He stored vast supplies in nearby caves. All of this was in preparation for his obvious goal—”an attack on Jerusalem” (War IV:511–13).
If Simon had been a pure revolutionary who was only fighting for Jewish freedom, wouldn’t fellow revolutionaries have welcomed him and his forces? But Josephus regarded him rather as a robber who was a rival to John in his aspirations to be king.
Capturing “the little town of Hebron” for its booty and grain (War IV:529), he marched through Idumaea, ravaging villages and towns and making havoc of the country. His need to feed 20,000 troops and 40,000 followers daily does not explain “his cruelty and animosity against the nation [which caused] the devastation of Idumaea.” As locusts devastate forests, Simon and his followers stripped Idumaea, leaving it a desert. They burned some places, “others they razed to the ground; all vegetation throughout the country vanished, either trodden under foot or consumed. . . . In short, nothing touched by their ravages left any sign of its having ever existed” (War IV:534–37).
When Simon arrived at the walls of Jerusalem, the citizens, while terrified of him, gambled that by letting him in they would stop the terror and banditry of John within. But they lost.
When the Romans finally arrived and lay siege to the city, there were three rival leaders exerting control there: Eleazar, John, and Simon. Josephus tried to persuade robbers within to submit to superior Roman power rather than be destroyed. If they really trusted in divine help, as they said, did they feel that they merited it? He didn’t believe so. “What have you done,” he asked,
that is blessed by the law giver [Moses], what deed that he has cursed have you left undone? How much more impious are you than those who have been defeated in the past! Secret sins—I mean thefts, treacheries, adulteries—are not beneath your disdain, while in rapine and murder you vie with each other in opening up new and unheard of paths of vice; aye and the temple has become the receptacle for all, and native hands have polluted those divine precincts. . . . And after all this do you expect Him, thus outraged, to be your ally? (War V:401–403).
Josephus felt that Deity himself had fled from the holy places and taken His stand on the side of those with whom you are now at war. . . . Can you persuade yourselves that God still remains with his household in their iniquity? . . . For you parade your enormities and daily contend who shall be the worst, making an exhibition of vice as though it were virtue (War V:412–15).
Josephus was in tears as he concluded his appeal since the robbers rejected his advice.
He was not the first to mourn and lament Jerusalem’s pains. But Josephus’s contemporaries, while desperately seeking to free themselves, had forgotten that freedom comes from within when men love God enough to emulate his character and live his laws. It is never imposed from outside.
Meanwhile, Eleazar’s temple-based zealots in Jerusalem turned against John, and became a “faction bred within a faction, which like some raving beast for lack of other food at length preyed upon its own flesh” (War V:4).
This led to a result Jesus had predicted would take place. He had spoken to the Jews about how Pilate had mingled Jewish blood with Jewish sacrifices. He then said to them that unless they repented they would likewise perish (Luke 13:1–3). One literal aspect of this prophecy occurred when John and Eleazar’s men fought each other for the control of the temple. Eleazar and his men had been using the temple as the base of their operations. As the fighting raged around the altar itself, Josephus tells us that the blood of all manner of corpses formed pools in the courts of God. What misery to equal that, most wretched city, hast thou suffered at the hands of the Romans, who entered to purge with fire thy internal pollutions? For thou wert no longer God’s place, nor couldest thou survive, after becoming a sepulchre for the bodies of thine own children and converting the sanctuary into a charnel-house of civil war (War V: 18–19).
Jesus had earlier called his house a den of thieves (literally: robbers [Gk: lestes] Matthew 21:13). How literally was this the case during the last days of Jerusalem.
Finally, when the Romans compassed the city and kept the Jews in on every side as Jesus had predicted (Luke 19:43), famine broke out and exacted a terrible toll. But even this did not deter the robbers. For, ‘The city, wrapped in profound silence . . . was in the grip of a yet fiercer foe—the brigands. [They broke into houses that] were now mere charnel-houses, they rifled the dead and stripping the coverings from the bodies departed with shouts of laughter (War V:515–16).
Deserters claimed that 600,000 pauper bodies had been thrown over the wall. People raked the sewers for food (War V:571). Mothers snatched food from their children’s mouths and one mother roasted her own son to survive. The time foreseen by Jesus when she who had no child or babe at breast would bless herself, or when one might call upon mountains to fall and bring merciful release, was at hand. Women of Jerusalem were bitterly weeping for themselves (War VI:212–13).
Mormon said of the last days of his own people,
It is impossible for the tongue to describe, or for man to write a perfect description of the horrible scene of the blood and carnage which was among the people, both of the Nephites and of the Lamanites; and every heart was hardened, so that they delighted in the shedding of blood continually (Mormon 4:11).
Josephus said of his people:
To narrate their enormities in detail is impossible; but, to put it briefly, no other city ever endured such miseries, nor since the world began has there been a generation more prolific in crime. . . . They were, slaves, the dregs of society and the [illegitimate] scum of the nation. It was they who overthrew the city, and compelled the reluctant Romans to register so melancholy a triumph (War V: 442–44).
Jesus himself had predicted the unprecedented suffering: “In those days, shall be great tribulation on the Jews, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, such as was not before sent upon Israel, of God, since the beginning of their kingdom until this time; no, nor ever shall be sent again upon Israel” (JS—M 1:18).
When John ran out of plunder for his men, he melted down the golden offerings and temple vessels, and also distributed among his men the temple oil and wine which the priests poured over the sacred offerings. His men anointed themselves with it. Josephus couldn’t
refrain from uttering what my emotion bids me say. I believe that, had the Romans delayed to punish these reprobates, either the earth would have opened and swallowed up the city, or it would have been swept away by a flood, or have tasted a new the thunderbolts of the land of Sodom. For it produced a generation far more godless than the victims of those visitations, seeing that these men’s frenzy involved the whole people in their ruin (War V:566).
Jesus had earlier made comparisons with Sodom. “And thou, Capernaum, . . . shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this d a y . . .. It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee” (Matthew 11:23–24; cf. 10:14–15).
The time came for the devastation of the temple and the city. Josephus believed that “God, indeed long since, had sentenced [the temple] to the flames, . . . (so, a soldier) awaiting no orders . . . but moved by some supernatural impulse, snatched a brand from the burning timber and . .. flung the fiery missile through a low gold door” and set the temple ablaze (War VI:250–53). So the temple was burned, despite orders of Titus to preserve it.
The Romans sensed what Josephus had been saying right along—that it was God who brought the city to ruin. Josephus recorded Titus’s reaction when he saw how good the defenses of the Upper City were: “‘God indeed,’ he exclaimed, ‘has been with us in the war. God it was who brought down the Jews from these strongholds; for what power have human hands or engines against these towers?’” (War VI:411).
At this point in his story, Josephus indicates how the destruction of Jerusalem really signified the destruction of the whole nation. He said:
The total number of prisoners taken throughout the entire war amounted to ninety-seven thousand, and of those who perished during the siege, from first to last, to one million one hundred thousand. Of these the greater number were of Jewish blood, but not natives of the place; for, having assembled from every part of the country for the feast of unleavened bread, they found themselves suddenly enveloped in the war, with the result that this over crowding produced first pestilence, and later the added and more rapid scourge of famine (War VI:420–21).
He said: “. . . the whole nation had been shut up by fate as in a prison, and the city when war encompassed it was packed with inhabitants. The victims thus outnumbered those of any previous visitation, human or divine” (War VI:428–29). “Captured on five previous occasions . . . [Jerusalem] was now for the second time devastated” (War VI:435).
For good reason Jesus had counseled his Christian followers not to seek security in Jerusalem but to flee to the mountains. He gave them signs so they would know when to do this (Matthew 24, especially JS—M).
Caesar ordered the whole city and the temple to be razed to the ground, leaving only the loftiest of the towers, Phasael, Hippicus, and Mariamme, and the portion of the wall enclosing the city on the west: the latter as an encampment for the garrison that was to remain, and the towers to indicate to posterity the nature of the city and of the strong defenses which had yet yielded to Roman prowess. All the rest of the city was so completely levelled to the ground as to leave future visitors to the spot no ground for believing that it had ever been inhabited. Such was the end to which the frenzy of revolutionaries brought Jerusalem, that splendid city of world-wide renown (War VII: 1–4).
Josephus tells us how Titus tried to get the revolutionaries to give up so the total destruction would be unnecessary, but promised that if they did not, then he would destroy it. Jesus’ prophecy that the enemy would not only compass the city, but lay it and its inhabitants even with the ground, and not leave one stone upon another was fulfilled to the letter. And all because they hadn’t recognized when God tried to visit them and gather them as chicks under his protective wings (Luke 19:41–44).
It was clear to Josephus that while God overthrew the city, it was a “a city which . . . produced a generation such as that which caused her overthrow” (War VI:408).
I have attempted to show from Josephus’s words that robbery was an old problem; that within his lifetime it flourished as bands of Jews plundered countryside, village and city; that robbers often competed with each other for plunder and power; that not only did they plunder, but they also devastated the country; that Jerusalem itself was devastated as rival robbers fought each other for control; that the robbers themselves had killed many of Jerusalem’s citizens before the Romans had ever arrived; that while the common goal of the Jews, ostensibly, was to rid themselves of Roman rule, they united only to attack the Romans when their own common survival was at stake. On the other hand, they assaulted each other, as well as citizens caught in the middle, as though their goal was to eliminate each other; the robbers were, as Josephus claimed, the chief plague of the country, and they and not the Romans brought the Jewish nation to its bitter end. And all of this fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy that iniquity would abound and the love of many would wax cold.
This produced a tragic irony. The Jews wanted deliverance but rejected it when God visited them and offered it to them because it wasn’t a deliverance formed in their mold; therefore, powerful robber barons, living by the sword, became their erstwhile deliverers. That generation was frequently characterized as a wicked and adulterous one that loved darkness rather than light because it loved evil more than good. It was a society that was sick unto death. Knowing how horrible it was, one can only say: What if the Jews had accepted Him as their Messiah?
- As their Prince of peace he had the alternative to the insanity of war.
- As their Great Physician he could have healed the most serious kinds of sicknesses including soul sickness itself.
- As the other great Comforter, he inspired revolutionary spirits to solve problems with love.
- And as their Foreteller, he warned them: “When you, therefore, shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, then you shall stand in the holy place. . . . Then let them who are in Judea flee into the mountains” (JS—M 1:12–13). Not only must they sanctify their lives so as to be able to stand in holy places, but they must also prepare to flee the cauldron boiling in Jerusalem.
Eusebius, the ancient Church Historian, knew that the Christians in Jerusalem survived because they stayed in tune with the Lord:
Furthermore, the members of the Jerusalem church, by means of an oracle given by revelation to acceptable persons there, were ordered to leave the City before the war began and settle in a town in Peraea called Pella. To Pella those who believed in Christ migrated from Jerusalem; and as if holy men had utterly abandoned the royal metropolis of the Jews and the entire Jewish land, the judgment of God at last overtook them for their abominable crimes against Christ and His apostles, completely blotting out that wicked generation from among men (III:5, p. 111).
Eusebius. The History of the Church. Trans, by G. A. Williamson. New York: Penguin, 1965.
Josephus: Jewish Antiquities. Trans. Louis H. Feldman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1969.
Josephus: The Jewish War. Books I–VII, trans. H. St. J. Thackeray. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976–79.