Question: "What were the Roman-Jewish Wars?"
Answer: The Roman-Jewish Wars were a series of conflicts waged between the Roman Empire and Israeli rebels in AD 66—70, 115—117, and 132—135. These wars were devastating for Israel, resulting in immense Jewish casualties, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the expulsion of Jews from their homeland. The Jewish people would not reestablish statehood until 1948 when the modern state of Israel was founded.
During the time leading up to the Roman-Jewish Wars, Israel was under Roman domination and occupation; however, Jewish authorities were allowed some measure of autonomy. They were able to enforce certain religious laws but could not do anything beyond the limited authority allowed by Rome. For instance, the Jewish leaders were able to detain the apostles, forbid them to preach in Jesus’ name, and even have them beaten (Acts 5:17–40), but their authority went only so far. They killed Stephen in a sort of spontaneous “lynching” and thought about doing this with Jesus, but, normally, they would have had to seek Roman approval—as they ultimately did in Jesus’ case.
Rome was serious about “keeping the peace,” and the Jewish authorities were afraid of doing anything that would cause Rome to crack down on them. They were also afraid that Jesus would cause an uprising among the people if the leaders did nothing to curb His popularity (John 11:48) because it seems that Messianic expectations were running high. There was equal pressure on the Roman ruler at any given time because, if the Jews started an uprising, the Roman official in charge might be blamed for mismanagement; for this reason, he would normally give the Jewish leaders as much as he could. This seems to be why Pilate allowed Jesus to be crucified, against his better judgment (see Luke 23:20–22). All in all, first-century Israel was a turbulent place.
Roman occupation of Israel had been in place for over a generation, and most people living at the time of Christ would have never known a time when Israel was not occupied. Many Jews lived in the expectation that God’s Messiah would soon come to deliver them from the political and cultural bondage imposed by Rome. But, when Jesus the Messiah came, He made it clear that His kingdom was “not of this world” (John 18:36). After His “Triumphal Entry” (Matthew 21:1–11), instead of ridding Jerusalem of the Romans, Jesus cleanses the temple (verses 12–17); teaches that the kingdom will be taken away from Israel and given, at least in part, to the Gentiles (verses 33—22:14); tells His followers to pay taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:15–22); condemns the Jewish leaders (Matthew 23); and predicts that the temple will be destroyed (Matthew 24:1–2). He was not going to be the type of Messiah that so many expected, and they rejected Him.
The rejection of Christ left the door open for other would-be messiahs to try to save Israel from Rome, and in less than 40 years after Jesus ascended into heaven, an Israelite rebellion against Rome had been crushed and the temple had been destroyed. This was the first in a series of uprisings against Roman rule that are known today as the Roman-Jewish Wars or sometimes simply the Jewish Wars.
The First Roman-Jewish War took place about AD 66—73 and is also known as the Great Jewish Revolt. About halfway through the conflict, the temple in Jerusalem was completely destroyed, and the Jews in Jerusalem were slaughtered. It was a time of unprecedented suffering. Jewish nationalists took a final stand at the fortress of Masada, where, under siege and with no hope of victory or escape, almost 1,000 freedom fighters committed suicide rather than surrender or be captured by the Romans. This is the war that is chronicled by Josephus in The Jewish War. Following the defeat of the Jewish rebels, Roman rule was restored in Judea.
About 40 years later, riots and rebellions broke out among Jewish exiles in various parts of the Roman Empire. These were all eventually crushed by the Roman military. This series of uprisings is called the Kitos War; some consider it the Second Roman-Jewish War, although some do not because it did not occur in Israel.
The final chapter in the Roman-Jewish Wars was the Bar-Kochba Revolt, led by Simeon bar Kosba, who made messianic claims and was renamed Bar Kokhba (“Son of the Star”) by an influential rabbi. The rebels were able to defeat Roman forces garrisoned in Palestine, and, for about two years, they established an independent Jewish state. As a result of Bar Kokhba’s victories, many hailed him as the Messiah who would restore the kingdom to Israel. However, Emperor Hadrian ordered six legions of soldiers with reinforcements into the area, and the rebellion was crushed. Many Jews were slaughtered in the process.
After this final rebellion, the Roman-Jewish Wars ended. In the aftermath, Jews were barred from Jerusalem except for the festival of Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples. The Jews began to be persecuted in a way they had not been before, and the Diaspora began in earnest. Bar Kokhba was denounced by Jewish leadership as a false messiah, and Jews began to abandon the concept of a personal messiah who would restore Israel. Approximately 100 years after rejecting Jesus as Messiah, Judaism was giving up any hope of a personal messiah, a Jewish homeland, and an independent Jewish kingdom.