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Torah |
How Judaism survived

Torah is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 184, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

With the Temple gone and revolt quelled, the great rabbis lay a foundation in the Torah that will long sustain the faith

Torah - How Judaism survived

Torah - How Judaism survived
A rabbi pores over a book of the Talmud, a compilation of rabbinic commentaries and teachings. Orthodox Jews consider the Talmud to be authoritative in matters of faith.

However devastating the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 to the religious beliefs of the Jewish people, the failure of Simon Bar Kochba’s revolt sixty-five years later was, in one respect, worse.1

Until the Bar Kochba defeat, the faithful could console themselves by recalling that the Temple had been destroyed once before, in 586 b.c., that time by the Babylonians. Had not Jerusalem been despoiled then too? Had not Jewish fortunes recovered? Had not the people been restored to their city by the Persians fifty years later? Had not a second Temple, ultimately far more impressive than the first, been erected on the same site?

Surely Yahweh would do the same again, and surely the powerful Bar Kochba, hailed by his followers as the Messiah, was God’s instrument to make this happen.

But the “son of a star,” as he was nicknamed, suffered a complete defeat, and the Roman emperor Hadrian resolved that there would be no restoration of the Second Temple as there had been of the first. He virtually leveled the city of Jerusalem, filling its ravines with rubble. Even before the revolt, he had renamed it Aelia Capitolina. He erected new Roman buildings on the site and promised to execute any Jew who entered the place.

He also laid waste to Judea, destroying 985 towns and villages, rendering the environs of Jerusalem into a wilderness.

The cost of the revolt in human life was vast. An estimated 580,000 Jews were killed, according to the Roman historian Cassius Dio, and so many were sold into slavery that the slave market collapsed.

To the survivors, one truth gradually sank home. Jewry was no longer a nation-state. The day of the Temple and of the ritual sacrifices was over. If the faith was to survive, it must do so through the local synagogue. It must be learned as well as lived. The day of the rabbi, the teacher, was at hand.

The synagogue, with its local congregation, often a great distance from Jerusalem, was anything but a new phenomenon, of course. It had been a central part of Jewish life since the deportation that followed the first fall of Jerusalem seven centuries before. It was through the synagogue that Paul had founded the first Christian congregations in the Hellenistic world. The means by which the Jewish faith could survive without the Temple was already therefore in place.

Christians, both then and ever since, have raised the question: Why did the Jews not simply recognize that Jesus was the Messiah and accept him? To the Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, research professor for religion and theology at Bard College in New York, this question of whether Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah was the central point at issue. Christians, particularly converts from Judaism, had to ask themselves what they must do now that Messiah had come, whereas other Jews had to ask what they must do while awaiting Messiah. The two attitudes were fundamentally at variance, he writes.

The feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether agrees. In her history of anti-Semitism in Christian history, Faith and Fratricide, she views Jesus’ identification of himself as the Messiah as “the most fundamental affirmation of the Christian faith.”

But to the journalist and historian Paul Johnson, the core issue is deeper than the issue of the Messiah. Rather, it lies in the question of the Messiah’s nature. Johnson, in his A History of the Jews writes:

The notion that Jesus was divine–implicit in his Resurrection and in his foresight of this miracle, and in his subsequent epiphanies–was present from the very beginning of Apostolic Christianity. Moreover, it was accompanied by the equally early belief that he had instituted the ceremony of the Eucharist, in anticipation of his death and Resurrection for the expiation of sin, in which his flesh and blood (the substance of the sacrifice) took the form of bread and wine. The emergence of the Eucharist, the “holy and perfect sacrifice,” as the Christian substitute for all Jewish forms of sacrifice, confirmed the doctrine of Jesus’ apotheosis. To the question, was Jesus God or man, the Christians therefore answered, both.

This made a complete breach with Judaism inevitable. The Jews could accept the decentralization of the Temple. They could accept a different view of the Law. What they could not accept was the removal of the absolute distinction they had always drawn between God and man, because that was the essence of Jewish theology, the belief that above all others separated them from the pagans. By removing that distinction, the Christians took themselves irrevocably out of the Judaic faith.

The Jews could not concede the divinity of Jesus as God-made-man without repudiating the central tenet of their belief. The Christians could not concede that Jesus was anything less than God without repudiating the essence and purpose of their movement. If Christ was not God, Christianity was nothing. If Christ was God, then Judaism was false. There could be absolutely no compromise on the point. Each faith was a threat to the other.

Whatever the core issue, a mutual antipathy rapidly developed. Matthew’s Gospel, usually regarded as the most pro-Jewish of the four, has the Jews saying “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25) seeming to reflect the Jews taking upon themselves the responsibility for the Crucifixion. The term “the Jews” appears seventy-one times in John’s Gospel, almost always disparagingly. Sometimes it refers to the Pharisees, sometimes the Sadducees, sometimes the Temple authorities, sometimes all the Jewish people (John was himself a Jew). Although the language, as Johnson’s history points out, is that of first-century Jewish polemic used by Jews in heated theological argument among themselves, in the centuries ahead these passages would be cited to validate vicious Christian persecution of the Jewish people.

Insofar as language was concerned, the Jewish response to the Christians was equally violent. “Rouse your fury, pour out your rage, destroy the opponent, annihilate the enemy!” had been a curse against Hellenism invoked in the second century b.c., during the Jewish resistance movement. At the end of the first century a.d. it was redirected against the Christians, and thereafter the denunciation of Christianity makes its appearance in Jewish biblical commentary.

But this reference to the Christians forms little more than an incidental aspect of the new Judaism that emerges from the Jewish disasters of the first and second Christian centuries. What came to replace the Temple was the Torah, meaning the Law and the commentaries on it that had been slowly developing over the Temple’s final years. Now the Torah was the only thing left. The refugee rabbis who, settling at Jamnia west of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast, gradually developed it into what Johnson calls “a system of moral theology of extraordinary coherence, logical consistency and social strength.” The Jews, he writes, “turned the Torah into a fortress of the mind and spirit.”

Yet in so doing, the Jews turned in on themselves. Those who had not been lost in the two wars, nor converted to Christianity, formed their own communities within Roman society. But they were largely closed communities. Where Jews had once constituted one tenth of the Roman Empire; had engaged in its philosophical and cultural activity; and had won tens of thousands of converts to their faith and its practices, they now isolated themselves and poured their boundless intellectual energy into the study and development of the Torah.

It was this fact more than any other, says Johnson, that saved them as a people, and conveyed them from the ancient world through the medieval world and into the modern one. By the twenty-first century, the Romans were long gone and the Hellenistic Greeks, the Gauls and the Celts had vanished into other peoples. However, the Jews were still identifiable, and it was their long isolation, holding fast to the Torah in the midst of a sea of Christianity and Islam, that enabled them to do it.

But it was to be a journey fraught with pain, and it began on September 18 of the year 324, when the Christian Constantine became sole emperor of Rome, and their theological foes, the long-persecuted Christians, were now, or soon would be, running the empire.

This is the end of the Torah category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 184, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Torah from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at