States should not start wars that they are certain to lose, of course, but it is hard to predict with a high degree of certainty how wars will turn out.John J. Mearsheimer
When ancient Jewish and Christian writers discussed the Judaean War in retrospect, their interests tended to be theological: “Why did God allow (or cause) his house to be destroyed? What help does biblical tradition offer in understanding the catastrophe?” Josephus shared those concerns, but fortunately for us, he historicized the problem by marrying cosmic drama with concrete personalities, incidents, and situations (Chapter 2). His account leaves countless loose ends, to be sure, and inexhaustible food for thought. One simple question that he does not pose in a systematic way, although he narrates much relevant material, is: Why and how did this war begin?
In this chapter we re-examine the war's beginnings, as a foundation for the rest of our inquiry. We should not assume that early grievances remained the same throughout, but having an idea about how Judaeans came into lethal conflict with Rome's legions will help us to understand later developments.
In exploring the war's causes, we need to avoid seductively simplistic paths. Because Rome and Judaea ended up at war, it has usually seemed obvious that the Judaeans must have had serious grounds for complaint. For such a humble David to have taken on such a Goliath, these grievances must have become intolerable and finally popped the cork of rational restraint. In 1893 the eminent Heinrich Graetz put it thus:
In their native land, and especially in Jerusalem, the yoke of the Romans weighed heavily on the Judaeans, and became daily more oppressive. … The last decades exhibit the nation as a captive who, continually tormented and goaded on by his jailer, tugs at his fetters, with the strength of despair, until he wrenches them asunder.
Although scholars have refined their explanations in countless ways, this picture has remained more or less intact. Leading military historians take it for granted that: “Judaea caused incessant trouble to the Romans. … The people defended their religious identity and culture from the efforts of provincial authorities to impose Greek and Roman culture. …” The image of a Judaea seething with anti-Roman fervour has filtered out from scholarship into the best-researched novels and films, …