Apostasy in Judaism

Did Jews have a faith crisis following the Second Temple destruction?


Relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome depicting Roman soldiers carrying the menorah, showbread table and trumpets looted from the Temple in Jerusalem. Did Jews have a faith crisis following the Second Temple destruction? Photo: Robin Ngo.

In 70 C.E., the First Jewish Revolt culminated with the Roman destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem. According to Jewish historian Josephus, whose testimony of these events is the sole surviving work “of a witness” to have come down to us, more than 1.1 million died, and 97,000 Jews were taken as prisoners (Jewish War 6.420).1 The complete and deliberate demolition of structures at the hands of the Romans following the revolt has been exposed in archaeological excavations throughout Jerusalem.2

Did Jews have a faith crisis after the Second Temple destruction and the horrors that followed? In his Biblical Views column “A Crisis of Faith in the Wake of the Temple’s Destruction?” in the November/December 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Jonathan Klawans explores apostasy in Judaism—the abandonment of faith.

Certainly, to see the total annihilation of Jerusalem’s central religious institution, to witness the slaughter of countless friends and family members, and to be an enslaved prisoner-of-war would have been utterly devastating. But, Boston University Professor of Religion Jonathan Klawans asks, is it fair to wonder if mass apostasy in Judaism occurred after the First Jewish Revolt? Some scholars have asserted that there was a faith crisis among Jews following the Second Temple destruction.

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We don’t actually have any evidence—literary or otherwise—for apostasy in Judaism in the first century C.E., Klawans contends. Why have scholars, therefore, suggested that the ancient Jews had a major faith crisis?


Jonathan Klawans contends that scholars who propose mass apostasy in Judaism occurred following the Second Temple destruction may be influenced by modern crises of faith.

“[T]he question isn’t really whether there was or wasn’t mass apostasy—for this cannot be known,” Klawans writes. “The question is really why modern scholars suppose there must have been mass apostasy, even though we lack concrete evidence.”

For Jonathan Klawans, the answer lies in modern history:

Scholars who write about mass apostasy in 70 C.E. also speak of a modern crisis of faith, asking, “How to believe in God after such a catastrophe?” And it would not be incorrect to suppose—though we can’t always know for sure—that when modern Jewish scholars are thinking of a crisis of faith in the past, they are thinking of a crisis of faith in the present: the well-known presumption, held by many, that it remains a challenge for thinking people to believe in God after Auschwitz.

Learn more about the question of mass apostasy in Judaism and the ancient Jews’ experience through the First Jewish Revolt by reading the full Biblical Views column “A Crisis of Faith in the Wake of the Temple’s Destruction?” by Jonathan Klawans in the November/December 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


BAS Library Members: Read the full Biblical Views column “A Crisis of Faith in the Wake of the Temple’s Destruction?” by Jonathan Klawans in the November/December 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.



1. While Josephus’s writings have been invaluable for understanding Jewish history and culture during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the accuracy of his descriptions have long been questioned by scholars. For more on Josephus, see Steve Mason, “Will the Real Josephus Please Stand Up?” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1997.

2. See Hillel Geva, “Roman Jerusalem: Searching for Roman Jerusalem,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1997.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

A Second Triumphal Arch of Titus Discovered

The Masada Siege: The Roman assault on Herod’s desert fortress

Judaea Capta Coin Uncovered in Bethsaida Excavations

Coins Celebrating the Great Revolt Against the Romans Unearthed near Jerusalem

Jewish Captives in the Imperial City

How Ancient Jews Dated Years


Posted in Daily Life and Practice, Temple at Jerusalem.

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  1. ralph says

    It was not an internal faith crisis, it was a deliberately manufactured crisis by the Romans. The Romans were fed up with divisive and militant Judaism, and what they wanted was a Rome-friendly Judaism that paid its taxes. Christianity was one arm of that enterprise, but the amending of Orthodox Judaism was the other.

    So we have Johannan ben Zakkai, the de facto high priest after the Revolt, completely amending the religion by ending roast sacrifices for one thing. And in the post revolt era, this would have to be with Roman consultation and consent. But who was Johannan?? Surprisingly, Judaism does not know. How is that? How did Judaism forget it most significant reformer?

    Answer – they did not. They just don’t want you to know who he was. In reality, if you look at the Talmudic descriptions, it is quite clear that Johannan was Josephus Flavius. Yes, quite….. Ouch…


  2. Kurt says

    Why did faithful Christians survive Jerusalem’s destruction?
    In 70 C.E., Jewish Christians could have been killed or enslaved along with everyone else in Jerusalem. However, according to the historical evidence, they had heeded Jesus’ warning given 37 years earlier. They had abandoned the city and had not returned.See destruction (70 C.E.)

  3. ralph says

    Why did Christians survive? Because the Romans (Flavians) were promoting Christianity, not oppressing it.

    The Roman persecution was against the Nazarene (the Church of Jesus,) not the Christians (the Church of Saul). Jesus was not a Christian, of course, he was a Nazarene. And the Nazarene and the Church of Saul were enemies, as Acts makes perfectly plain. Yes, Christians are actually following the wrong religion.

  4. Joe says

    Ralph –

    That’s absurd. There are a number of places where R. Yohanan is described and he had nothing in common with Josephus.

  5. ralph says

    >> Johannan is described.
    And what does it say? Ah, yes, it says that Johannan got out of Jerusalem during the siege of Jerusalem and went to Vespasian. Vespasian berated him for not getting out earlier, and Johannan predicts Vespasian will become emperor. And Johannan and Vespasian are obviously colleagues – Johannan was working for the Romans. Sound familiar? Ah, yes, Josephus Flavius did exactly the same.

  6. JOSEPH says

    Both the Romans and early Christianity have spread enormous falsehoods about the Jews, and there is no arms length here. The Jews displayed their greatest faith in all human history with Rome and the ensuing Christian religion. Whatever in-fighting they had they stood together when told to worship man-Gods or forsake the Mosaic laws; this was a war for freedon of belief and the Jews won. The in-fighting was due to Rome installing bad people in the temple rule as a stratagem, instilling reward & punishment, thereby some seccumbed:
    “So you are the only people who reject my divinity!” [Caligula, 37 CE]
    Jews: “Yup!”

  7. JOSEPH says

    Josephus did not work for the Romans. He was a prisoner of Rome, held in Vespasian’s residence, monitored for every word he wrote, with his father held hostage.

    Rome killed off anyone suspected of adverse reporting, including famous Roman philosophers who wanted a republic. Rome crucified 100,000 Jews for the act of heresy, and made certain not a shred of Hebrew survived. The Dead Sea Scrolls were saved under extraordinary means.The Roman War with the Jews was only about Monotheism, the #1 enemy of the Roman self appointed divine emperors. The Jews alone challenged Rome in defence of freedom of belief – because Rome allowed free religion, but also insisted Jupiter and Roman Emperors also be equally worshipped. Therein was the reason for the war.

  8. GENE says

    In 66 C.E. a Jewish revolt brought Roman forces under Cestius Gallus to the city, surrounding it and making a thrust right up to the temple walls. Suddenly Cestius Gallus withdrew for no apparent reason. This allowed Christians to put into action Jesus’ instructions: “Then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains, and let those in the midst of [Jerusalem] withdraw, and let those in the country places not enter into her.” (Lu 21:20-22) Eusebius, in his Ecclesiastical History (III, V, 3), states that the Christians fled from Jerusalem and the whole land of Judea to a city of Perea that was called Pella.http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200002436

  9. ralph says

    >>Josephus did not work for the Romans.
    >>He was a prisoner of Rome.

    What a load of nonsense. Josephus surrendered to Vespasian beore the siege of Jerusalem and became the Roman propaganda minister, touring the walls of Jerusalem urging the Jews to surrender. And after the seige he was the commander of a Roman detachment that took the surrender of Tekoa (Heridium). And on the way back he came across the three leaders of the Revolt being crucified, so he petitioned Titus for them to be taken down from the cross. Two died and one survived. (Familiar story?)

    In what way, does any of this represent Josephus being a prisoner?? He was a vassal of Vespasian, in that everything he wrote was censored by Rome, we all know that, but he was not a prisoner. But then all the gospel authors were also vassels of Rome, who had to write very similar Rome-friendly texts (render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar……). In fact, much of Luke and Acts was based upon Josephus’ “Jewish War”. You cannot understand Luke and Acts, unless you have read Josephus. See the book “King Jesus” by Ellis.


  10. ralph says

    >>This allowed Christians to put into action Jesus’ instructions:
    >>“Then let those in Judea begin fleeing to the mountains.

    Yes, and no. If you read Eusebius, it was the Nazarene Ebionites who fled to Pella, not the Christians. Both Jesus and Saul were Nazarene, as the synoptics and Acts make perfectly clear, and it was the Nazarene who fled to Pella. But Saul changed his religion to his new Simple Judaism.

    These Simple Judaic ‘Christians’ did not flee to Pella, because they were not known as Christians at this time. Saul only created Simple Judaic Christianity AFTER James made the four simple rules for Saul’s new Church, and this was in the mid 50s. But the Jewish Revolt was inspired by the Nazarene, as Josephus makes clear – and so Rome was after the blood of the Nazarene Church of Jesus and James, not of Saul’s Simple Judaic Gentile ‘Christians’ (remember that Saul was the ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’).

    So again the Roman persecution was all directed against the Nazarene Church of Jesus and James, not against Saul’s Rome friendly Simple Judaic Gentiles. So Christians are all following the wrong religion – they are following the Gentile Simple Judaism of Saul, instead of the more Jewish and more radical Nazarene Ebionite Church of Jesus and James.


  11. GENE says

    As the Ebionites are first mentioned as such in the 2nd century, their earlier history and any relation to the first Jerusalem church remains obscure and a matter of contention. There is no evidence linking the origin of the later sect of the Ebionites with the First Jewish-Roman War of 66–70 CE, or that prior to that they formed part of the Jerusalem church….. Eusebius relates a tradition, probably based on Aristo of Pella, that the early Christians left Jerusalem just prior to the war and fled to Pella beyond the Jordan River, but does not connect this with Ebionites.[11]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebionites

  12. GENE says

    For no apparent reason, Cestius Gallus and his troops withdrew from Jerusalem and began retreating. The Zealots gave chase. With the warring parties away, Jesus’ followers suddenly had an opportunity to flee. Jesus had specifically instructed them to leave their material possessions behind and depart without delay. (Read Matthew 24:17, 18.) Was prompt action really necessary? The answer soon became clear. Within days, the Zealots returned and began forcing the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea to join the rebellion. Conditions within the city rapidly deteriorated as rival Jewish factions struggled for control. Flight became increasingly difficult. When the Romans returned in 70 C.E., flight became impossible. (Luke 19:43) Any who had lingered were trapped! For the Christians who had fled to the mountains, heeding Jesus’ instructions meant saving their lives. They saw firsthand that Jehovah knows how to deliver his people http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/2012284#h=21:0-25:620

  13. Irine says

    Shalom..i guese if we take in this perspective the issue of the two nations.israel and gentile we will understand better..the israel was chosen from the beginning and God Yahweh was their Leader and they had prophets..most of them disobeyed and were punished..they used to offer sacrifice im the temple and this promoted them to continue sinning..and were promised of a messiah who was to come and be da final sacrifice..messiah came but the jews denied

  14. Irine says

    They denied and contentions began ..thus peter and paul became instruments of spreading the gospel ..peter to the jews amd paul t the gentiles duding pentecost jews and proselytes were converted and with paul he convert the gentiles who are currently the christiand

  15. Irine says

    In my view both israelites and todays gentile christians are one body united by Messiah who died for all..ephesians 2 and kindly i accept your view and any clarrification on this if u can..shalom

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