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The Sabbation River

(3831 AM - 71 CE)

(3834 AM - 74 CE)

Tacitus on the Jews

(3839 AM - 79 CE)

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Hebrew years 3720 to 3840 (40 BCE - 80 CE)
~~~ Part I ~~~ Part II ~~~ Part III ~~~ Part IV ~~~ Part V ~~~

Year 3831 – 71 CE – The Sabbation river

When he published his Natural History in 77, the Roman author Pliny the Elder mentioned:

In Judea there is a river that is dry every Sabbath day.
--- Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book 31, chapter 18

The legend was that this river would have water flowing very strongly, even carrying stones, every week day but would get dry every Shabbat; in other words, this river seemed to “keep Shabbat”. Pliny probably never stepped foot in Judea so must have heard the story from Jews who lived in Rome. The fact was known to them at these times because the river, called Sabbation, is related in the Talmud. One conversation between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman commander of Judea, Turnus Rufus, who was left to govern over Judea after the departure of Titus (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, book 7,2,6; in this text, this governor of Judea is stated as Tereutius Rufus), and who frequently tried to confound the religious scholar with apparent contradictions or difficulties, went as follows:

And this question was asked by Turnus Rufus of R. Akiva: ‘Wherein does this day [the Sabbath] differ from any other?’ — He replied: Wherein does one noble differ from one commoner?’ — ‘Because my Lord [the Emperor] wishes it.’ — ‘The Sabbath too,’ R. Akiva rejoined, ‘then, is distinguished because the Lord wishes so.’ — He replied: ‘I ask this: Who tells you that this day is the Sabbath?’ — He answered: ‘Let the river Sabbation prove it;’
--- Talmud, Sanhedrin, 65b

The river is also mentioned in the Midrash as a northern boundary to the tribes of the kingdom of Israel, a river beyond which these tribes were exiled by the Assyrians.[1a] In other words, the river marked the northern entrance to the Holy Land.

Josephus also added to the story by mentioning that Titus himself saw this river:

He then saw a river as he went along, of such a nature as deserves to be recorded in history; it runs in the middle between Arcea [Acre], belonging to Agrippa's kingdom [Judea], and Raphanea [outside the kingdom, so probably in Phoenicia or Syrian province]. It has somewhat very peculiar in it; for when it runs, its current is strong, and has plenty of water; after which its springs fail for six days together, and leave its channel dry, as any one may see; after which days it runs on the seventh day as it did before, and as though it had undergone no change at all; it has also been observed to keep this order perpetually and exactly; whence it is that they call it the Sabbatic River [Sabbation] that name being taken from the sacred seventh day among the Jews.
--- Josephus, Wars of the Jews, book 7,5,1

The point of contention with Pliny is of course that Josephus mentioned the particular detail in the opposite way, whereas the river would be dry during six days and flows strongly on Shabbat day. But let’s remember that Josephus was not a direct witness and that, probably, Titus didn’t wait seven days to certify a different behaviour. Either way, the important point here is that such small details mentioned by religious scholars in Judea would find their way into the knowledge of historians and writers of the Roman Empire. Pliny, most likely, would have heard the story from another source than Titus or Josephus, as he reported it mosre in line with Tamudic tradition, that the river stopped “working” on Shabbat days.

Sabbation River
"Sabbation", first page of a poem by Richard Chevenix Trench, 1838

Titus then returned to Rome by way of Jerusalem, where he saw the desolated and ruined city again, then to Alexandria where he boarded a ship to go to Rome. There his troops and prisoners marched for the triumph, and the spoils of war were also passed through the procession:

But for those [spoils] that were taken in the temple of Jerusalem, they made the greatest figure of them all; that is, the golden table, of the weight of many talents; the candlestick also, that was made of gold, though its construction were now changed from that which we made use of; for its middle shaft was fixed upon a basis, and the small branches were produced out of it to a great length, having the likeness of a trident in their position, and had every one a socket made of brass for a lamp at the tops of them. These lamps were in number seven, and represented the dignity of the number seven among the Jews; and the last of all the spoils, was carried the Law of the Jews.
--- Josephus, Wars of the Jews, book 7,5,5

By “Law of the Jews”, Josephus probably refered to a copy of the scrolls of the Bible, probably similar to the copper scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which was meant to withstand the test of time. As for the original Ark of the Covenant, it had been stored in a secret location, probably under the ground of the First Temple, before the destruction by the Babylonians. Other Sages believe that the Ark had been taken away by the Babylonians and returned to the Israelites by order of Cyrus the Mede.[1c] In any case, at the time of the Second Temple, there was no ark in the Temple.

Simon Bar Giora, considered by the Romans to have been the enemy leader, was slain just before the procession of the triumph, probably because he resisted to be displayed alive in this show. His dead body was however drawn to the procession and taken to the due place where he ought to have been executed in public.

After these triumphs were over, and after the affairs of the Romans were settled on the surest foundations, Vespasian resolved to build a temple to Peace, which was finished in so short a time, and in so glorious a manner, as was beyond all human expectation and opinion: for he having now by Providence a vast quantity of wealth, besides what he had formerly gained in his other exploits, he had this temple adorned with pictures and statues; for in this temple were collected and deposited all such rarities as men aforetime used to wander all over the habitable world to see, when they had a desire to see one of them after another; he also laid up therein those golden vessels and instruments that were taken out of the Jewish temple, as ensigns of his glory. But still he gave order that they should lay up their Law, and the purple veils of the holy place, in the royal palace itself, and keep them there.
--- Josephus, Wars of the Jews, book 7,5,7

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Year 3834 – 74 CE – Masada

The Romans in Judea realized that the resistance had not ended with the destruction of Jerusalem because many of the fighters had escaped and regrouped in various Judean fortresses. They needed to secure the region so that Pax Romana could be enforced everywhere. The 10th Legion was sent to conquer Herodium and Machaerus, both located at the top of high hills, and did so in the spring time of years 71 and 72. Herodium fell very fast in 71. For Machaerus, a siege was started in 72 but the defenders surrendered. These two fortresses were conquered by Roman general Luciulus Bassus.

Machaerus, near the Dead Sea, on the Jordanian side
(photograph ITS Pilgrimages - Jordan)

There was only one stronghold left in the country: Masada, on the western side of the Dead Sea. It was held by the Sicarii since before the war with Rome had begun, and was commanded by Eleazar ben Yair. The place had strong natural defenses and, in view of an upcoming attack by the Romans, the defenders had gathered plenty of supply to sustain a prolonged siege. Meanwhile Bassus had died in 73 and was replaced by Flavius Silva, new procurator over Judea. The latter directed the campaign against Masada in Spring 74.

Eleazar had a total of 980 men, women and children while the Roman's 10th legion had 5000 men as well as auxiliaries. Silva arranged for supplies of food and water to be brought to them in the desert by Jewish civilians. The building of the three elements of the siege only took about two months. They consisted of (1) a circumvolution wall (dike), (2) a redoubt to protect it, and (3) several camps (seven in total) in key positions behind the wall. The techniques used for this siege are classic of Roman military warfare. In Masada, all three have been preserved for nearly 2000 years, which triggered UNESCO to declare the site a World Heritage site in 2001.
Then Silva oredered to build a ramp on the western side of the rock, so that the Romans would later be able to bring up their war machines before the assault. In parallel, the Jews inside raised the wall facing the side where the Romans would be coming. After the ramp was made, Silva ordered to throw torches at the Jewish wall, which was made of wooden beams, so the wall was set on fire.

Masada with the earth ramp the Romans built on the right side

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The Romans then prepared themselves for an assault on the next day:

Now, at the very beginning of this fire, a north wind that then blew proved terrible to the Romans; for by bringing the flame downward, it drove it upon them, and they were almost in despair of success, as fearing their machines would be burnt: but after this, on a sudden the wind changed into the south, as if it were done by Divine Providence, and blew strongly the contrary way, and carried the flame, and drove it against the wall, which was now on fire through its entire thickness. So the Romans, having now assistance from God, returned to their camp with joy, and resolved to attack their enemies the very next day; on which occasion they set their watch more carefully that night, lest any of the Jews should run away from them without being discovered.
--- Josephus, Wars of the Jews, book 7,8,5
The battle to come had obvious outcome as the Jews were vaslty outnumbered. So, before the Roman forthcoming assault, Eleazar gathered his men and gave them a remarkable speech, as reported to the Romans by the only survivor, to prefer volontary death to slavery:

“We were the very first that revolted from them [the Romans], and we are the last that fight against them; and I cannot but esteem it as a favor that God has granted us, that it is still in our power to die bravely, and in a state of freedom, which has not been the case of others, who were conquered unexpectedly. It is very plain that we shall be taken within a day's time; but it is still an eligible thing to die after a glorious manner, together with our dearest friends. This is what our enemies themselves cannot by any means hinder, although they be very desirous to take us alive. Nor can we propose to ourselves any more to fight them, and beat them. […] But first let us destroy our money and the fortress by fire; for I am well assured that this will be a great grief to the Romans, that they shall not be able to seize upon our bodies, and shall fall of our wealth also; and let us spare nothing but our provisions; for they will be a testimonial when we are dead that we were not subdued for want of necessaries, but that, according to our original resolution, we have preferred death before slavery.”
--- Josephus, Wars of the Jews, book 7,8,6

Each head of family then slew his wife and children. Eleazar then drew lots to select ten men that would kill all their companions of arm. Then the ten last ones chose one to kill the nine others and set the place on fire before killing himself. Only one old woman survived with five children, as they had hidden themselves in caves before the mass killing. She could tell to the Romans what happened. Masada fell on the 15th of Nisan, according to Josephus. 

Ostracon from Masada - name Ben Yair
Ostracon found in the ruins of Masada,
with the name [Eleazar] 'Ben Yair'

The Wars of the Jews, which was published by Josephus in the year that followed the fall of Masada, had drawn a lot of attention in Rome, and also hatred for Jews in general, as one could read the way that the Roman historian Tacitus described this nation:

As I am now to record the death-agony of a famous city [Jerusalem], it seems appropriate to inform the reader of its origins. […]
The whole of Egypt was once plagued by a wasting disease which caused bodily disfigurement. So Pharaoh Bocchoris [2] went to the oracle of Hammon to ask for a cure, and was told to purify his kingdom by expelling the victims to other lands, as they lay under a divine curse. Thus a multitude of sufferers was rounded up, herded together, and abandoned in the wilderness. Here the exiles tearfully resigned themselves to their fate. But one of them who was called Moses urged his companions not to wait passively for help from god or man, for both had deserted them: they should trust to their own initiative and to whatever guidance first helped them to extricate themselves from their present plight. They agreed, and started off at random into the unknown. But exhaustion set in, chiefly through lack of water, and the level plain was already strewn with the bodies of those who had collapsed and were at their last gasp when a herd of wild asses left their pasture and made for the spade of a wooded crag. Moses followed them and was able to bring to light a number of abundant channels of water whose presence he had deduced from a grassy patch of ground. This relieved their thirst.
They traveled on for six days without a break, and on the seventh they expelled the previous inhabitants of Canaan, took over their lands and in them built a holy city and temple. In order to secure the allegiance of his people in the future, Moses prescribed for them a novel religion quite different from those of the rest of mankind.

Among the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred; on the other hand they regard as permissible what seems to us immoral. In the innermost part of the Temple, they consecrated an image of the animal which had delivered them from their wandering and thirst,[3] choosing a ram as beast of sacrifice to demonstrate, so it seems, their contempt for Hammon.[4] The bull is also offered up, because the Egyptians worship it as Apis. They avoid eating pork in memory of their tribulations, as they themselves were once infected with the disease to which this creature is subject. They still fast frequently as an admission of the hunger they once endured so long, and to symbolize their hurried meal the bread eaten by the Jews is unleavened. We are told that the seventh day was set aside for rest because this marked the end of their toils. In course of time the seductions of idleness made them devote every seventh year to indolence as well.[5] Others say that this is a mark of respect to Saturn, either because they owe the basic principles of their religion to the Idaei, who, we are told, were expelled in the company of Saturn and became the founders of the Jewish race, or because, among the seven stars that rule mankind, the one that describes the highest orbit and exerts the greatest influence is Saturn. A further argument is that most of the heavenly bodies complete their path and revolutions in multiples of seven.[6]
Whatever their origin, these observances are sanctioned by their antiquity. […]
They will not feed or intermarry with gentiles. Though a most lascivious people, the Jews avoid sexual intercourse with women of alien race. Among themselves nothing is barred. They have introduced the practice of circumcision to show that they are different from others. Proselytes to Jewry adopt the same practices, and the very first lesson they learn is to despise the gods, shed all feelings of patriotism, and consider parents, children and brothers as readily expendable. However, the Jews see to it that their numbers increase. It is a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child,[7] and they think that eternal life is granted to those who die in battle or execution - hence their eagerness to have children, and their contempt for death. Rather than cremate their dead, they prefer to bury them in imitation of the Egyptian fashion, and they have the same concern and beliefs about the world below. But their conception of heavenly things is quite different. The Egyptians worship a variety of animals and half-human, half-bestial forms, whereas the Jewish religion is a purely spiritual monotheism. They hold it to be impious to make idols of perishable materials in the likeness of man: for them, the Most High and Eternal cannot be portrayed by human hands and will never pass away. For this reason they erect no images in their cities, still less in their temples. Their kings are not so flattered, the Roman emperors not so honored.
--- Tacitus, Histories, 5:2-5

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Year 3839 – 79 CE – Pompeii

The Roman city of Pompeii was destroyed by an eruption of the Vesuvius on 24 August 79 CE (9 Elul 3839). The city was buried under up to 6 meters of volcanic ash and was only discovered some 1500 years after its destruction. This created an unique environment for preservation of the life of the Romans in this city, caught in their activities at the time of the instant destruction. The archaelogists have been able to recover many items of the buried city and could contemplate the decoration of rich houses of that time. The frescos show many scenes of sexual content in postures that would even be banished in many countries today. But one fresco, found in what was called the "House of the Doctor" was of particular interest because it represented a scene taken from a story of the Bible: the judgment of Solomon. In the scene, we can clearly see a woman imploring sitting judges about her child about to be cut by a Roman soldier standing on the left side with a sharp butched knife, with another woman staning next to him and the child.

The Judment of Solomon - House of the Doctor in Pompeii
The Judgment of Solomon - House of the Doctor in Pompeii (National Archaelogical Museum, Naples)
(extract from photo from Flickriver, "aegean-blue")

This Biblical story has also been found written in a papyrus from the collection Oxyrhynchus Papyrii which was found in Egypt. Indeed the specific papyrus referenced P.Oxy. XLI (41), 2944 contains a story very similar to the Judgment of Solomon (I Kings 3:16-28). This shows that the Greco-Roman world of the first century CE was already well acquainted with this story of the Bible, and surely many others. In fact, some modern historians no longer hesitate to join the opinion of their ancient colleagues who stated that many Biblical themes and stories were known in Greece before the death of Plato (around 350 BCE).[7b]

Why was this particular Biblical tale noticed by the Greeks? Because, as the text from Tacitus mentions it above,
it is a deadly sin [for the Jews] to kill an unwanted child. This story from Solomon must have struck the Greek minds of these times, about the value of life, of death, of justice, and of society.

P.Oxy. XLI, 2944
P.Oxy. XLI, 2944 (source: Oxyrhynchus Online, Sackler Library, Oxford)

Was the destruction of Pompeii an act of God? Nobody can tell but one detail remains. The name Pompeii is representative of the name Pompey, the Roman general who conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE and profaned he Temple. Pompey died in Egypt during the Roman civil war in 29 September 48 BCE (24 Tishri 3713). In addition to the similarity of two names, the difference of the two Pompey-Pompeii dates is of 127 years. This number is reminiscent of the Biblical number of years mentioned for the life of Sarah and for the number of provinces in the largest expansion of the Persian Empire in the reign of Ahasuerus, before his episode with Esther and the festival of Purim. An act of God was upon both events represented by the number 127, as a meaning for greatest and completeness. Can we thus say that the punishment of Pompey, punished by death for his profanation of the Temple, was "complete" after 127 years when Pompeii was destroyed?     

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[1a] Midrash Rabba, Numbers, XVI, 25: He was referring to those exiles who were living beyond Sambatyon

[1b] To see related page of this site, click here

[1c] See the discussion in Talmud, Yoma, 53b-54a

[2] This pharaoh reigned too late compared to the time of the Hebrews in Egypt, but his mention means that the Roman historians already considered that the Jews were already of very ancient origin

[3] It may be a reference to the cherubims, representations of angels

[4] Hammon was a god of Antiquity that was represented as a ram, an animal that the Jews offered in sacrifice since the days of the Exodus (the Pesach Lamb)

[5] This refers to the cyclic times of seven years, also concluded by the 50 years jubilee periods

[6] It is interesting to note the association between Saturn as the 7th planet; the Romans also called Saturn Day (Saturday) the 7th day, and Saturnalia the festival when many unusual things were then permitted such as masters serving their slaves, and so on

[7] The killing of unwanted children, and also sacrifices of children, was common practice in the antiquity, except for the Jews

[7b] See for example Morrzejewski, Joseph, The Jews of Egypt: From Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian, 1997, p.66

[8] The Pashtun, or Pashtan, ethnic of this country know themselves to be of Jewish origin and whose ancestors later adopted Islam, as did most people of this part of the world

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