The 9th day of the month of Av serves as a day of national mourning on the Hebrew calendar. The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem is central to the day because of its outsized impact on later Jewish history, but arguably its greatest impact on Jewish history continues to go unrecognized.
The Mishna in Taanit 4:6 lists tragedies that occurred on the 9th of Av: the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans and 65 years later the city of Beitar was destroyed by the Romans, ending the Bar Kochba rebellion. The assigning of these great tragedies to the identical date has led Tisha B’Av to serve as a singular date to recall other tragedies that have befallen the Jews across history, including the crusades, expulsions in Europe and the Holocaust.
For all the catastrophes that are memorialized on this date, it is the destruction of the Second Temple stands out above all. While the First Temple was rebuilt approximately 70 years after it was destroyed, the Second Temple has yet to be rebuilt. In Babylonian Talmud Tractate Yoma 9b, the Talmud pinpoints the reasons for the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the later Second Temple. The First Temple was destroyed for the cardinal sins of idol worship, prohibited sexual relations, and bloodshed. The Second Temple was destroyed for the sin of ‘baseless hatred.’ The Talmud deems the latter to be worse, for the First Temple was restored with the construction of the Second Temple, and the Second Temple has yet to be rebuilt.
The destruction of the Second Temple stands out as a nadir in Jewish history. It marked the beginning of the exile, where without political power Jews were vulnerable in their host lands. It was the precursor to the Kitos War, which brought an end to the Jewish communities in Cyprus, Cyrenaica and Alexandria, and to the Bar Kochba Revolt, with its catastrophic loss of life. The destruction of the Temple forced a change in the religion, from a Temple-centric religion in a national home to a text-based religion in exile. Yet its most enduring impact for Jews may have been its effect on a nascent Jewish religion.
In the third or fourth decade of 1st century CE Judea, a new Jewish religious movement emerged.
The New Testament covers the life and death of Jesus, the rise of early Christianity and the meaning of Jesus’ teachings as understood by his followers. It contains 27 books that can be divided into four categories: the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Epistles and Revelation. The four books of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, tell the story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles follows the events after Jesus’ death and the rise of early Christianity. The Epistles are letters that were sent to individual Christians, Christian communities or to Christians at large, to provide guidance on practical and theological matters. The last book is Revelation, an apocalypse, with visions of the end times.
Combining the four gospel books produces the following account. Joseph’s virgin wife Mary conceived Jesus by miracle. Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. As an adult, Jesus was baptized in water by John the Baptist and began to preach in the Galilee. Gradually Jesus began to accumulate followers. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount laid out his fundamental message, including a system of morality, to not judge others, to love your enemy, and if struck, to turn the other cheek.
Jesus traveled the region as a faith healer, but ran into trouble with Jewish authorities when he began healing the sick on the Jewish Sabbath, in violation of Jewish ritual law. Before the pilgrimage holiday of Passover, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem. At the Temple in Jerusalem he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, accusing them of turning the Temple into a den of thieves.
Jesus and his apostles gathered for Jesus’ Last Supper. Judas, a disciple of Jesus, betrayed Jesus to the Romans for money, and after the meal, Jesus was arrested on the Mount of Olives.
Jesus was tried by the leading Jewish judicial body, the Sanhedrin, and sentenced to death. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate was unconvinced of Jesus’ guilt, but to avoid unrest he ordered Jesus to be crucified. On Friday morning, Jesus was crucified and he died on the cross. He was buried on Friday, before the Sabbath started in the evening. On Sunday morning, Jesus’ body was not in his tomb. He had been resurrected and risen to the heavens.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ followers continued Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ close disciple Peter preached Jesus’ message to the Jews and performed acts of healing, attracting Jewish followers. A Jewish inquisitor named Paul, who was persecuting Christians, never met Jesus during Jesus’ own lifetime. While traveling on the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision, and asked Paul why he was persecuting him. This episode convinced Paul to preach Jesus’ message to both Jews and gentiles.
A Jewish Religion
In the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ life and mission occur entirely within a Jewish context. Jesus is a descendant of King David, and an itinerant Jewish preacher. His disciples are Jews and he preaches to Jews in the synagogues. His message challenged the establishment Jewish Sadducees and Pharisees. He headed to Jerusalem to the Temple and he celebrated Passover at the Last Supper. But the New Testament does not present a uniform idea of what Jesus represented, taught, or for whom he preached.
In Matthew and Mark, a gentile woman asked Jesus to heal her possessed daughter. Jesus replied “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel…It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs,” gentiles being likened to dogs, the implication being that Jesus’ message is for Jews only. By contrast, Paul in Acts 28 declares “God’s salvation has been sent to the gentiles.”
The New Testament is unclear about whether or not Jewish ritual law, such as eating only kosher food or observing ritual purity, was still applicable after Jesus’ mission. In Mark 7, Jesus says “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?…In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” This implies a negation of the Torah’s laws against eating non-kosher food. In Matthew 5, when Jesus introduces his Sermon on the Mount, he says to his followers that Jewish ritual law remains binding. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” In the Epistle to the Galatians 3, Paul declared the laws of the Torah to be a curse, and that Jesus redeemed people from this curse.
Two episodes in the Book of Acts of the Apostles are telling for Christian adherence to Jewish law, authority within the church and the centrality of the church in Jerusalem.
In Acts 15, at the Council at Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas appear before Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and Jesus’ brother James at the church in Jerusalem to discuss whether or not gentile converts to Christianity have to be circumcised. James issued the ruling that gentiles do not require circumcision; gentile Christians only had to abstain from food polluted by idols, sexual immorality, the meat of strangled animals and consuming blood. An implication of the ruling was that Jewish Christians still remained bound by Jewish ritual law and required circumcision. Notably, Peter and James in Jerusalem are the authorities, and Paul appears to be subordinate. Additionally, Paul and Barnabas’ traveling to Jerusalem demonstrates that the church in Jerusalem was recognized as the central decision-making body for early Christians.
The same pattern is evident six chapters later. In Acts 21, when Paul returned to Jerusalem, he visited with James. James advised Paul to join others in ritual purification in accordance with biblical rules. Acts records that thousands of people were joining this new Christian movement, and Jewish Christians were keeping the Bible’s ritual laws. James said to Paul, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.” (Acts 21:20) Again, Jewish ritual law remained binding for Jewish Christians, James is the authority and a decision about Christian practice is made in Jerusalem.
This emerging Jewish movement grew in popularity amongst Jews. In Acts 4, the Christians in Jerusalem count 5,000 followers. In Acts 6, the number of Christians in Jerusalem, which included priests, increased sharply. In Acts 21, thousands of Jews are said to be Christians. Later Christian and Jewish traditions indicate that the Jewish leadership had become aware of the Christians’ success in attracting Jews to their movement. Justin Martyr, in his 2nd century CE ‘Dialogue With Trypho,’ wrote that Jews were cursing the Christians in their synagogues. According to the Babylonian Talmud Berachot 28b, Shmuel HaKatan authored the ‘Birkat HaMinim,’ the blessing against the heretics, at Yavneh, after the destruction of the Second Temple: “And for the slanderers let there be no hope, and may all the heretics be instantly destroyed.” The heretics in the blessing logically refers to Jewish Christians, not gentile Christians, and is likely the curse to which Justin Martyr is referring.
It is not even entirely clear if Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was God. Eusebius, in his 4th century Church History, wrote of a Jewish Christian group known as the Ebionites who believed that Jesus was human and not divine, and who required adherence to Jewish ritual law. The Nazarenes, another Jewish Christian group, accepted the divinity of Jesus as the son of God and his resurrection and ascension, but required Jewish Christians, and not gentile Christians, to follow Jewish ritual law.