« Prev Chapter XII. Disappearance of the Jewish Nation. Next »



The immediate consequence of this mad act of rebellion was a real persecution of Judaism. The Jews were weighed down by a tribute that was heavier still than the fiscus judaicus imposed by Vespasian. The exercise of the most essential practices of the Mosaic religion—circumcision, the observance of the Sabbath and of feasts, apparently insignificant simple usages were forbidden, under pain of death; and even those who taught the Law were prosecuted. Renegade Jews, who had turned spies, tracked the faithful who met in the most secret places to study the sacred code, and the Jews were reduced to reading it on the roofs 116of the houses. The doctors of the Law were cruelly persecuted, and rabbinical ordination entailed the death penalty both on the ordainer and on the ordinee. There were many martyrs in Judea and Galilee, and throughout the whole of Syria it was a crime to be a Jew. It was now, it appears, that the two brothers, Julianus and Pappus, who are celebrated in Jewish tradition for having preferred death to an apparent violation of the Law committed in public, were executed, and though water in a coloured glass was offered them so that they might pretend to think that they had drunk Pagan wine, they refused to take it.

About that period the schools of the Casuists were chiefly taken up with the question of those precepts which might be broken in order to avoid death, and those for which martyrdom ought to be suffered. The doctors generally admit that in times of persecution all observances may be renounced as long as three prohibited things, idolatry, fornication (i.e., unlawful unions), and murder are abstained from. This sensible principle was put forward: “It is suicide to resist the Emperor’s orders.” It was admitted that religious worship might be kept secret, and that the circumcision of children might be announced by the sound of hand-mills instead of with the usual noisy demonstrations. It was also pointed out that, according to Leviticus xviii. 5, the observance of the Law gives life, and so that consequently any one who dies for the Law is responsible for his own death, so that when a man found himself between the two precepts to observe the Law and to preserve his own life, he ought to obey the second, which is the more commanding, at any rate when death is certain, just as, in the case of a serious illness, it is lawful to take remedies which may contain some impure substance. There was another point on which all were agreed, and this was that it was better to suffer death than 117to violate the slightest commandment publicly; and lastly, they agreed in placing the duty of teaching above all other obligations. At Lydda especially these questions were agitated, and that city had its celebrated martyrs, who were called the murdered of Lydda.

The great doubt about Providence that takes possession of the Jew as soon as he is no longer prosperous and triumphant, made the position of those martyrs a particularly cruel one. The Christian, depending as he does altogether on the future life, is never firmer in his faith than when he is being persecuted; but the Jewish martyr has not the same light. “Where is now your God?” is the ironical question which he constantly fancies that he hears from Pagan lips. To the very last Rabbi Ishmael ben Elischa never ceased to fight against the ideas that sprang up in his mind, and in the minds of his companions, against divine justice. “Do you still trust in your God?” he was asked, and his answer was, “Though he slay me yet will I trust in him,” using the words of Job that have been badly translated.

Aquiba, who had been a prisoner for a long time, nevertheless kept up a correspondence with his disciples. “Prepare for death, terrible days are coming,” was the sentence always on his lips. He was put to death because the was betrayed to the Romans for imparting profound doctrine. He is said to have been flayed alive with red-hot iron hooks. Whilst he was being torn to pieces he cried incessantly, “Jehovah is our God! Jehovah is our only God!” and he laid a stress on the word “only” (ehad), till he expired, when a heavenly voice was heard saying, “Happy Aquiba, as you died whilst uttering that word ‘only.’”

It was not till late, and by means of successive experiences, that Israel arrived at the idea of immortality. Martyrdom made this belief almost a necessity. Nobody could pretend that those scrupulous 118observers of the Law who died for it had their reward here below. The answer that sufficed for cases like those of Job and Tobias did not suffice here. How could any one talk of a long and happy life for heroes who were expiring under a terrible death? Either God was unjust, or the saints who were thus tormented were great culprits. In the middle ages there were martyrs who accepted this latter doctrine with a kind of despair, and when they were being led to execution, they would maintain that they had deserved it, for they had been guilty of all sorts of crimes. But such a paradox must necessarily be very rare. The reign of a thousand years which was reserved for the martyrs, was the first solution of that difficult problem which was attempted. Then it came to be a received opinion that ascensions to heaven in heart and mind, that revelations, the contemplation of the divine secrets of the cabala, were the martyr’s reward. As the apocalyptic spirit was lost, the tikva, that is, the invincible confidence of man in the justice of God, assumed forms that were analogous to the enduring paradise of Christians. But that article of faith was never an absolute dogma amongst the Jews; no trace of it is found in the Thora; and how could it be supposed that God had expressly deprived the saints of old of such a fundamental dogma?

From thenceforward all hopes of seeing the Temple raised up again were lost, and the Jews had even to give up the consolation of living near the holy places. The species of worship that the Jewish people vowed to the soil which they thought God had given them, was the evil that the Roman authorities wished to cure at any price, so that for the future they might cut off the root of Jewish wars. An edict drove the Jews from Jerusalem and its neighbourhood under pain of death, and the very sight of Jerusalem was refused them. Only once a year, on 119the anniversary of the taking of the city, did they obtain authorisation to come and weep over the ruins of the Temple, and to anoint a hollow stone, which they thought marked the site of the Holy of Holies, with oil; and even that permission was dearly bought. “On that day,” says St Jerome, “you might see a mournful crowd, a miserable people, who received no pity, assemble and draw near. Decrepit women, old men in rags, all are weeping, and whilst their cheeks are covered with tears, and they raise their livid arms, and tear their thin hair, a soldier comes up and calls on them for payment, so that they may have the right to weep a little longer.” The rest of Judea was also prohibited ground to the Jews, but not so strictly, for certain localities, such as Lydda, always preserved their Jewish quarters.

The Samaritans, who had taken no part in the revolt, hardly suffered less than the Jews. Mount Gerizim, like Mount Moriah, had its temple of Jupiter; the prohibition of circumcision attacked them in the free exercise of their religion; and the memory of Bar-Coziba seems to have been execrated by them.

The construction of Ælia Capitolina went on more actively than ever, and everything was done to efface the recollection of the past, which had been so threatening. The old name of Jerusalem was almost forgotten, and Ælia took its place throughout the whole of the East, so that a hundred and fifty years later Jerusalem had become a name in ancient geography which nobody knew any more. The city was full of profane edifices, forums, baths, theatres, tetranymphea, etc. Statues were erected in all directions, and the subtle Jewish mind tried to discover mocking allusions in them, which Hadrian’s engineers certainly never intended. Thus over the gate leading to Bethlehem there was a piece of sculpture in marble which they thought resembled a pig, and in that they saw a most insulting piece of irony towards the 120vanquished people, whilst they forgot that the wild boar was a Roman emblem, and figured on the standards of the legions. The circumference of the city was slightly altered towards the south, and became about what it is now. Mount Zion remained outside the enclosure, and was covered with kitchen gardens. Those parts of the city which were not rebuilt afforded a mass of loose stones which served as a stone quarry for the new buildings. The foundations of Herod’s temple (the present harâm) excited wonder by their strength, and soon the Christians declared that these tremendous layers of stones would only be dislodged at the coming of Antichrist.

On the site of the Temple, as has been said, was raised the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. Bacchus, Serapis, Astarte, the Dioscuri were associated there with the principal god. As usual, statues of the Emperor were scattered broadcast, and one of them at least was equestrian; whilst the statues of Jupiter and Venus were also set up near Golgotha. When, in later years, the Christians settled their sacred topography, they were scandalised at this proximity, and looked upon it as an outrage; and in the same way they thought that the Emperor had intended to profane Bethlehem by setting up the worship of Adonis there.

Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius, and Verus occupied themselves in beautifying the city, and improving the highroads that led to it, and these public works irritated the real Jews. “In spite of all, the works of this nation are admirable,” said Rabbi Juda bar Ilaï one day to two of his friends who were seated with him. “They build forums, construct bridges, and establish baths.” “That is much to their merit!” replied Simeon ben Jochaï; “they do it all for their own benefit: they put brothels into the forums; they have the baths for their own amusement, and they construct the bridges so that they may receive the tolls.


The hatred of Greek life, which was always so active amongst the Jews, was redoubled at the sight of a material renovation which seemed to be its striking triumph. Thus finished the final attempt of the Jewish people to remain a nation which possessed a name and a defined territory. In the Talmud, the war of Bar-Coziba is very rightly called “the war of extermination.” Dangerous movements, which seemed to be the rekindling of the flame, appeared again during the first years of Antoninus: they were easily repressed. From that moment Israel had no longer a fatherland, and then it began its wandering life, which for centuries has marked it as the wonder of the world. Under the Roman sway the civil situation of the Jew was lost without recovery. If Palestine had wished it, it would have become a province like Syria, and its lot would have been neither worse nor better than that of the other provinces. In the first century, several Jews played most extraordinarily important parts. Afterwards that will never be seen, and it seems as if the Jews had disappeared underground: they are only mentioned as beggars who have taken refuge in the suburbs of Rome, sitting at the gates of Aricia, besieging carriages, and clinging to the wheels, so as to obtain something from the pity of travellers. They are a body of raïas, having, it is true, their statutes, and their personal magistrates, but who are outside the pale of common law, forming no part of the State, in some measure analogous to the Zingari in Europe. There was no longer a single rich notable Jew of any consideration associating with men of the world. The great Jewish fortunes did not re-appear again till the sixth century, and then it was chiefly amongst the Visigoths of Spain, in consequence of the false ideas with regard to usury and commerce which were spread abroad by Christianity. Then the Jew became, and continued 122to be during the greater part of the Middle Ages, a necessary personage without whom the world could not accomplish the simplest transactions. Modern Liberalism alone could put an end to this exceptional situation. A decree of the Constituent Assembly in the year 1791 made them again citizens and members of a nation.

In that world which was burnt up by a sort of internal volcanic fire, there were some oases. Some survivors of Sadduceeism, who were treated as apostates by their co-religionists, preserved amidst these mystical dreams the healthy philosophy of Ecclesiasticus. The provincial Jews, who were subject to the Arsaeides, lived tolerably happily, and observed the Law without being interfered with. The composition of a charming book, the date of which is uncertain, and which was not translated into Greek till towards the end of the second century, may be attributed to these provinces. It is a little romance, full of freshness, such as the Jews excelled in, the idyl par excellence of Jewish piety and domestic pleasures.

A certain Tobit, son of Tobiel, who sprung from Cades of Naphtali, was taken captive to Nineveh by Shalmaneser. From his childhood he had been a model of goodness, and, far from participating in the idolatry of the Northern tribes, he regularly went to Jerusalem, the only spot that God had chosen as a place of worship, and offered his tithe to the priests, the descendants of Aaron, according to the rules of the Teruma and of the Maaser scheni. He was charitable, benevolent, and amiable towards all; he abstained from eating the bread of the heathen, and in return God obtained Shalmaneser’s favour for him, who made him his purveyor. After Shalmaneser’s death. Sennacherib, who had returned furious from his expedition to Jerusalem, began to act very severely towards the Jews; their bodies were lying 123about unburied in all directions, and were to be seen in heaps outside the walls of Nineveh, and Tobit went and buried them by stealth. The king, surprised at the disappearance of the bodies, asked what had become of them. Tobit was persecuted, hid himself, and lost his property, and only the murder of Sennacherib saved him. He then continued his pious work of burying the Israelites whom he found dead, though his neighbours made fun of him, and asked him what his reward would be. One evening he came back overcome by fatigue; he could not go into his own house, as he was unclean from having touched the dead bodies, so he threw himself at the foot of a wall in the court of his house and went to sleep: an accident deprived him of his eye-sight. Here we have the same problem laid down as in the book of Job, and with the same vigour: a just man not only badly rewarded for his goodness, but struck in consequence of his virtue itself: an act of virtue followed by misfortune resulting from it. How can one allege after that that the servant of Jehovah always receives the reward of his fidelity? His wife asks him where his alms and his good actions are, and what profit he has gained from them.

Tobit persists in the affirmation of a true Israelite that God is just and good, and he even carries his heroism so far as to vilify himself so as to justify God; he declares that he has deserved his lot, firstly on account of the sins and omissions that he has been guilty of through ignorance, then because of the sins of his fathers. Because the ancestors of the then existing generation were guilty, therefore that generation is dispersed and dishonoured. Tobit only begs for one favour, which is to die at once, so that he may return to the earth and go to the eternal place.

Now on that same day, at Ecbatana, another afflicted creature had also asked God for death. 124That was Sara, the daughter of Raguel, who had been married seven times, and, though she was absolutely pure, had seen her seven husbands strangled on their wedding-night by the wicked demon Aëschmadaëva, who was jealous of her, and killed all those who wished to touch her. Those two prayers were presented at the same time at the throne of God by the Archangel Raphael, who is one of the seven angels that are allowed to penetrate into the sanctuary of the divine glory to carry the prayers of the saints thither. God hears the supplication of these two just and sorely tried persons, and bids Raphael make good the evil.

Everybody knows the charming idyl that follows. It has rightly found a place amongst these sacred fables which, reproduced under many different shapes, never weary us. Gentle morality, family feeling, filial piety, the love and the eternal union of the husband and wife, charity towards the poor man, devotion to Israel, have never been expressed in a more charming fashion. Good will to all, strict honesty, temperance, great care not to do to others what one would not wish to have done to oneself; care in the choice of one’s company and to be intimate only with good people, the spirit of order, regularity in one’s affairs, judicious family arrangements, that is that excellent Jewish morality which, though it is not exactly that of a nobleman, or of a man of the world, has become the code of the Christian middle classes in its best sense. Nothing is further removed from avarice. That same Tobit, who lives on intimate terms with the persecutors of his co-religionists because it is an advantageous place, lays it down as a principle that happiness consists in a moderate fortune joined to justice; he can put up with poverty with a light heart, and declares that real pleasure consists in giving, and not in laying up treasure.


Above all, the ideas of matrimony as developed here are particularly chaste, sensible, and refined. The Jew, with his recollections always fixed on his ancestors the prophets and patriarchs, and persuaded that his race will possess the earth, marries only a Jewess of good family, whose relatives are honourable and known to be so. Beauty is far from being a matter of indifference; but, before everything else, laws and usages and family convenience must be consulted, so that the fortune may not change hands. The man and woman are reserved for one another throughout all eternity. Marriages founded on sensual love turn out badly, but on the other hand, a union founded on real sentiment is the agglutination of two souls: it is blessed by God when it is sanctified by the prayers of the two lovers, and then becomes friendship full of charm, especially when the man maintains that moral superiority over his companion that belongs to him by right. To grow old together, to be buried in the same tomb, to leave their children well married, to see their grand-children, and perhaps the children of the latter, what more can be requisite for happiness?

The author, separated from the book of Job by nearly a thousand years, has in reality not an idea beyond that of the old Hebrew book. All ends for eth best, as Tobit dies at a hundred and sixty-eight years of age, having had nothing but happiness since his trials, and being honourably buried by the side of his wife. His son dies at a hundred and twenty-seven years of age, in possession of his own and of his father-in-law’s property. Before dying, he hears that Nineveh is taken, and rejoices at that good news, for what can be sweeter than to see the chastisement of the enemies of Israel?

Thus God appears like a father who chastises a son whom he loves and then takes pity on him. When the just man suffers, it is as a punishment for 126his own faults and those of his fathers. But if he humbles himself and prays, God pardons him and restores him to prosperity. Thus to sin is to be one’s own enemy: charity preserves from death, almsgiving saves.

What happened to Tobit will happen to Israel. After having chastised it, God will repair its disasters. The Temple will be rebuilt, but not as it was before, and then all those who were dispersed shall be restored to their own country. Israel, thus reunited, will rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple with all the magnificence which was foretold by the prophets, and this time for eternity. It will be a city of sapphires and emeralds; its walls and towers shall be of pure gold; its squares shall be like mosaics of beryl and carbuncle, and its streets shall say Alleluia. All people shall be converted to the true God, and shall bury their idols. Happy shall they be then who have loved Jerusalem and pitied her sufferings.

As soon as it was translated, that little book came into great favour with the Christians. Some of its features were of a nature to shock the delicacy of a few; it was, in some respects, too Jewish; some places in it might be touched up in a still more edifying manner. Hence arose a series of alterations, whence sprang a variety of Greek and Latin texts. The last alteration, that of St Jerome, which was made with remarkable literary feeling, gave that form to the book which it has in the Latin text of the Vulgate. The awkwardness and the clumsiness of the original have disappeared, and the result of those corrections is a small masterpiece which all succeeding centuries have read and admired.

The Jewish people are without an equal when it is a question of accentuating and imparting a charm to an ideal of justice and domestic virtues. The Thora is the first book in the world, regarded as a book of devotion, but it is an impracticable code. No society 127could have lived under it, and the Jews of the time of Bar-Gioras and Bar-Coziba were defending a Utopia when they defended a nationality founded on such principles. History has that sympathy for them which it owes to all those who have been conquered; but how much more was the peaceable Christian and the author of the Book of Tobit, who thought it quite natural not to revolt against Shalmaneser, imbued with the traditions of Israel.

« Prev Chapter XII. Disappearance of the Jewish Nation. Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |