Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Destruction of Jerusalem and the Consolidation of Rome

Reading N°23 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

About the year 62, shortly after the martyrdom of St. James the Less, a rude peasant, Jesus, the son of Ananias, began running through the streets of Jerusalem uttering terrible curses upon the city and the Temple. "A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds," he cried out; "a voice against Jerusalem and the sanctuary; [...] a voice against all the people." He kept repeating these threats until, during the siege of the city seven years later (A.D. 70), he was struck in the forehead by a stone and died.[1]

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem
David Roberts (1796-1864)

Jerusalem was in an unexampled state of excitement. A horrible massacre of three thousand Jews (A. D. 66), ordered by the Roman procurator Gessius Florus, stirred up a general revolt of the city's population against the Roman authority. One of Nero's last acts, in 68, was to send Vespasian to Palestine with instructions to subdue the rebels at all costs. The general was already before the walls of Jerusalem when the acclaim of the Syrian legions brought him to the imperial office, left vacant by the successive deaths of four emperors (Nero, Galba, Otho, and Vitellius), all of whom died within eighteen months. The task of carrying on the war he left to his son Titus. The siege, one of the most sanguinary recorded by history, lasted seven months and ended by Titus gaining possession of Jerusalem. The Temple was destroyed. The survivors of the siege were made prisoners or sold as slaves. The veil of the Holy of Holies, the seven-branched candlestick, the Book of the Law and the Table of the Loaves of Proposition were carried off as trophies to Rome. This was "the abomination of desolation" foretold by the prophets. This was the fulfillment of the Savior's prophecy: "If thou also hadst known, and that in this thy day, the things that are to thy peace; but now they are hidden from thy eyes. For the days shall come upon thee, and thy enemies shall cast a trench about thee [...] and beat thee flat to the ground, and thy children who are in thee. And they shall not leave in thee a stone upon a stone; because thou hast not known the time of thy visitation."[2]

Titus' troops carrying off plunder from the Temple of Jerusalem
Arch of Titus, Rome

The destruction of the Temple had a considerable influence upon the destinies of the Christian Church. Thenceforth, the observance of the Mosaic ceremonies became impossible in its most essential elements. The priesthood of Aaron, the perpetual sacrifice, and the secondary ceremonies dependent on them were now antiquated and ceased. The Christians had not witnessed the final fall of the Holy City. Seeing the Roman standards raised around Jerusalem, they remembered the Master's warning: "When, therefore, you shall see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet [...] then they that are in Judea, let them flee to the mountains."[3] They withdrew to the city of Pella in Perea, near the left bank of the Jordan. There they lived, poor indeed, on their savings, full of confidence in the immortal vitality of their Church. But when Jerusalem fell, that terrible fall inspired them with a grief like that which a devoted child feels at the death of an unnatural mother. Even toward the Synagogue, deicide and persecutor though it was, a sort of filial reverence existed among these Christians.[4] Thirty years later, the author ot the Epistle attributed to St. Barnabas[5] tried to console the Jews who bemoaned the loss of Sion and the end of their ancient observances by showing them that the holocausts of the Old Law merely prefigured a sacrifice that is performed and will ever be performed, and that all the ceremonies of Judaism had a hidden meaning which, on being revealed, abrogated them. "The horror for unclean food survived in the aversion to be practiced with regard to wicked men[6] ... the brazen serpent and Moses' extended arms were honored in the image of Christ, of whom they were figures.[7] The Jews, as also the Gentiles, had placed their hopes in a material temple."[8] The Temple had now been destroyed by their enemies; but those enemies were to take upon themselves to build to God His true temple, a spiritual edifice.[9]

The providential connection between the Christian Church and its Jewish beginnings was not broken; but the Christian communities became more and more detached from the traditions of the Synagogue, in their hierarchy and also in their ceremonies, and even in the form of their doctrinal teaching.

St. Paul's three pastoral Epistles, written during his last days,[10] are, as it were, the Apostle's last will and testament. In a few clearly indicated details, they give us the picture of the hierarchical organization of the Church at that period.

At the head is the bishop. He is the "steward of God,"[11] says St. Paul. He should, therefore, be a model of perfection among the faithful: sober, chaste, kindly, amiable, just, without conceit, hospitable, so that even those outside may bear him a good testimony.[12]

Deacons should be men of tried virtue: upright, incapable of double-dealing, not self-seeking, keeping the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.[13] For duties so difficult, a trial is necessary. They are to be ordained only after a preliminary probation, a sort of novitiate.[14]

At that time devout widows had a special part in the activities of the Church. To them was entrusted the direction of certain works. To these duties were to be admitted only women at least sixty years old, who had been only once married, and who were commendable for their good works, for the way they brought up their children, for their zeal in the exercise of hospitality, in the washing of the feet of the saints.[15]

As for simple Christians, all their duties are summed up in the Apostle's single advice, that they be faithful to the obligations of their condition and state. Each Christian is a member of the great social body of the Church. Let each one conscientiously perform the duties imposed on him by the place he occupies. Let the old men take care to remain "sound in faith, in love, in patience."[16] Let the aged women avoid evil-speaking and see that their outward conduct is such as becomes holiness.[17] Let the young women love their husbands and their children, and remain chaste, circumspect, busied with their home duties, submissive to their husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.[18] Let servants obey their masters; in all things let them show a perfect docility, that in all things they may honor the doctrine of God, our Savior.[19]

But this enumeration of duties does not give what is, according to the Apostle, the very soul of the Christian life. This is piety - earnest, faithful piety - devoted above all to the faith received from Christ by the tradition of the Apostles and ancients. The bishop must exercise himself in piety, since piety is profitable to all things.[20] The widows should continue in supplications and prayers night and day.[21] This piety must not stray off in private fancies. As there is a hierarchical center of the Church, so there is "a "deposit of faith." "O Timothy," the Apostle writes, "keep that which is committed to thy trust,"[22] "keep the good thing committed to thy trust."[23] "Continue thou in those things which thou hast learned, and which have been committed to thee: knowing of whom that hast learned them."[24] "The things which thou hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same commend to faithful men, who shall be fit to teach others also."[25] Paul denounces evil teachers, "disobedient, vain talkers," "teaching things which they ought not."[26] The Church casts forth teachers who betray the salutary doctrine;[27] for the Church, "the house of God," is "the pillar and ground of the truth."[28]


[1] Josephus, Jewish War, VI, v, 3.
[2] Luke 19:42-44.
[3] Matt. 24:15 f. The best interpreters explain the "abomination of desolation" as meaning the Roman military ensigns, which Tacitus (Annals, II, 17) calls "the tutelar deities of the legions."
[4] Cf. Champagny, Rome et la Judée, II, 312.
[5] Funk and Bardenhewer judge that the Epistle of Barnabas was written sometime between 96 and 98.
[6] Epistle of Barnabas, 10.
[7] Ibidem, 12.
[8] Ibidem, 16.
[9] Ibidem.
[10] Cf. Prat, La Théologie de saint Paul, I, 465-469.
[11] Θεοῡ οὶκόνομος (Tit. 1:7).
[12] See 1 Tim. 3:1-7. The Epistle speaks of the deacons in the plural, but of the episkopos in the singular. The words episkopos and presbyteros are always used without distinction; but this verbal confusion should not mislead us as to the real distinction between the office of bishop and that of priest.
[13] cf. 1 Tim. 3:8 f.
[14] Ibidem, 3:10.
[15] Ibidem, 5:9 f.
[16] Titus, 2:2.
[17] Ibidem, 2:3.
[18] Ibidem, 2:4 f.
[19] Ibidem, 2:9 f.
[20] Cf. 1 Tim. 4:8.
[21] Ibidem, 5:5.
[22] Ibidem, 6:20.
[23] 2 Tim. 1:14.
[24] Ibidem, 3:14.
[25] Ibidem, 2:2.
[26] Titus 1:10 f.
[27] Cf. 2 Tim. 4:3.
[28] Cf. 1 Tim. 3:15.


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