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.
The Parting of the Ways
If not for the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66-70 CE, it is reasonable to suggest that Christianity would have remained primarily a Jewish sect, committed to Jewish law and centered in Jerusalem. With its core adherents in Judea and Jewish nationalist underpinnings, this might have limited Christianity’s appeal to gentiles, and possibly produced a different trajectory for Christianity. Instead, events drove a wedge between Jews and Christians.
Rome had traditionally maintained good relations with Judea. In the midst of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Kingdom, Rome entered into a treaty with the Maccabean leader Judas to counter the Seleucid Greek rulers of Judea. Julius Caesar gave the Jews protected status, which was later reaffirmed by the Roman Emperor Augustus.
Before the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, it would have been in a Christian’s best interests to align with Judaism, if only to obtain the benefit of being recognized as belonging to a religion from antiquity and exempt from worshiping pagan gods. After the revolt, it would be in a Christian’s best interests to disassociate from the Jews. The revolt set in motion a “parting of the ways.” It helped establish the primacy of gentile Christianity, a Christian movement led by non-Jews which did not adhere to Jewish ritual law, to the detriment of Jewish Christianity.
According to Christian legend, just before the revolt erupted, Christians in Jerusalem received a divine warning to leave Jerusalem, which would soon be destroyed. They were directed to escape to the town of Pella in Transjordan. While this may have helped some Jewish Christians survive, when the Jewish revolt was finally suppressed by the Romans, the church in Jerusalem was a diminished church in a diminished city. Many Jewish Christians likely remained in Jerusalem and were killed during the suppression of the revolt. Jerusalem itself suffered large scale destruction and a reduction in its population. With the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem ceased to function as an annual pilgrimage site, reducing the number of travelers and potential converts to Jewish Christianity. The surviving apostles chose Symeon son of Clopas, a cousin of Jesus, to lead the church in Jerusalem. He was followed by a series of nondescript leaders, with brief reigns, without a direct connection to Jesus.
In the year 69 CE, Vespasian became Roman Emperor and founder of the Flavian dynasty. Because Vespasian captured the throne through war, he took steps to legitimize his family’s claim to rule by highlighting the achievement of defeating the First Jewish Revolt. The Romans issued ‘Judea Capta’ coins, ‘Judea has been conquered,’ memorializing the victory. They held a triumphal parade to celebrate the defeat of this Jewish provincial revolt. The spoils of war were earmarked for the construction of Rome’s Colosseum. Vespasian’s son and Titus’ brother Domitian built the Arch of Titus, with its relief of the Jerusalem Temple’s menorah lamp being carried away in Roman triumph. The Flavians imposed a ‘fiscus Judaicus,’ literally meaning ‘Jewish basket,’ a tax on Jews. Prior to the revolt, Jews living outside of Judea would send money to support the Jerusalem Temple. Under the Flavian emperors, that money would be redirected towards the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome.
The friction between Rome and the Jews did not abate. The Kitos War from 115-117 CE was launched by Jews in Cyprus, Cyrenaica and Egypt and resulted in widespread destruction on both sides of the conflict.
In 132 CE, the Bar Kochba Revolt erupted at Modiin and spread across Judea. The spark was likely the Roman Emperor Hadrian banning circumcision and his intention to rebuild Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, with a temple to Jupiter. The leader of the revolt was Simon ben Kosiba. Simon went by the name Bar Kochba, the son of a star. He was seen by many Jews as a messiah figure. Bar Kochba struck his own coins, some of which displayed a representation of the temple building with a star above it, the star in reference to himself. This messianic element put the revolt beyond the pale for Christians, for whom Jesus was the Messiah. As a result, Bar Kochba “ordered that only the Christians should be subjected to dreadful torments, unless they renounced and blasphemed Jesus Christ.” 
At its outset, the Bar Kochba Revolt achieved success through the use of guerrilla warfare. Ultimately though, the Romans prevailed, with catastrophic consequences for the Jews. In the final showdown at the fortress of Beitar in 135 CE, the Romans captured the city and perpetrated the wholesale slaughter of its inhabitants. According to Cassius Dio, in the suppression of the Bar Kochba Revolt, 50 towns and 985 villages were destroyed with a loss of 580,000 men killed and innumerable others lost to disease and starvation. Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina. A temple to Jupiter was built near the site of the Jerusalem Temple. The Hebrew Bible and its laws were banned. The land of Judea was renamed Syria Palestina to erase the connection between the Jews and the land. Jews were banned from living in Jerusalem and its environs and were limited to visiting Jerusalem only on the ninth day of the month of Av, when the Jews were allowed in to mourn its destruction. With Jews banned, only gentile Christians could return to Jerusalem. The church in Jerusalem would from then on be led by uncircumcised gentile Christians. Henceforth, gentile Christianity would be the dominant form of Christianity, Jewish Christianity relegated to the margins.
When its books are combined, the New Testament can be woven into a coherent story of the life and times of Jesus. But upon closer inspection, the various books of the New Testament contain contradictions both large and small.
In the Gospel accounts, the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death, but the individual Gospels place varying amounts of blame on the Jewish crowd. In Mark, when Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus, Jesus was obstinate and refused to speak, forcing Pilates’ hand. In Matthew, Pilate washed his hands to demonstrate his innocence in Jesus’ execution. Pilate announced “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” to which the assembled Jewish crowd responded, “his blood is on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:24)
What are presented as intra-Jewish tensions in the earlier New Testament books become criticisms of Jews more broadly in the later New Testament books. In Matthew’s account, Jesus gives an extended warning about the Pharisees. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!…You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?…upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth.” (Matthew 23: 25-35) In John, written later, Jesus tells the Jews “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.” (John 8:44) In the Book of Revelation, a Jewish house of worship is referred to as a “synagogue of Satan.” (Revelation 2:9)
In the absence of clear guidance, early Christian Church Fathers tried to determine what they believed occurred in Jesus’ lifetime and to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ message. One issue they addressed was how a Jewish religion, of Jews, by Jews and for Jews, was now a gentile religion for all peoples. In doing so they took an increasingly anti-Jewish stance.
The Apostolic Fathers were early Christian leaders who were believed to have personally known Jesus’ apostles, and so would have been best positioned to understand Jesus’ teachings. The Epistle of Barnabas argued that the Torah’s laws should be understood as allegory, that the meanings were spiritual in nature and not material, or physical. The Hebrew Bible was a Christian document, which foretold Jesus’ mission.
With the passing of those with direct connections to the apostles, the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers worked to define and shape Christian thought and practice. Justin Martyr argued that the Hebrew Bible’s laws were given because of the Jews’ sins and not as a means to righteousness. Christians were now the people of God’s covenant with Abraham, Jesus is God of Israel and Christians are the new Israel. Tertullian saw the destruction of Jerusalem, the desertion of the land and dispersal into exile as the Jews’ punishment for rejecting Jesus. Melito of Sardis accused Israel of killing their God.
In the ancient Greco-Roman world, there were gentiles who did not convert to Judaism but enjoyed participating in Jewish festivals and religious activities. This tradition continued with gentile Christians either participating in Jewish rituals or following a Jewish form of Christianity. These practices could be referred to as Judaizing.
John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the late 4th century CE, was opposed to Judaizing. His ‘Eight Homilies Against the Jews’ contain some of the most vitriolic anti-Jewish material in all of Christian writing. For Chrysostom, the synagogue is a den of thieves, a lodging-place for demons, a fortress of the devil. One should hate and avoid the synagogue. The Jews killed their master Jesus. The Jews themselves are demons. “If the devil is a murderer, it is clear that the demons who serve him are murderers, too.” (Homily 8,8,6) “Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing. And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter.” (Homily 1, 2,6)
Temple Rebuilding Thwarted
For all the anti-Judaic sentiment in these early Christian writings, they were in the main attacking Judaism from a theological perspective. Early Christians did not have access to power, and posed little physical threat to Jews.
The turning point for Christianity and Jews came at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. In the early 4th century CE, Roman Emperors Constantine and Maxentius squared off across the Tiber River from Rome. According to the church historian Eusebius, before the battle, Constantine looked up towards the sun and saw a vision of a cross of light and the Greek words ‘En touto nika,’ meaning ‘in this sign conquer.’ Inspired by this vision, Constantine’s troops defeated Maxentius’ army. Constantine now had control of Western Roman Empire, and Licinius the Eastern Roman Empire. In 313 CE, Constantine and Licinius combined to issue the Edict of Milan, allowing for the toleration of Christianity within the Roman Empire.
In 324 CE, Constantine went to war against Licinius, and defeated him at the Battle of Chrysopolis. The Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire were now united under Constantine. With power now consolidated in his hands, in 325 CE, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. He gathered Christian bishops from across the Roman Empire, representing the universe of Christianity, to establish a Christian orthodoxy; a universal consensus about what Christians were to believe. Importantly, the results of the gathering at Nicaea had the might of the Roman Empire behind it. Christianity could now enforce an orthodoxy, a ‘right opinion,’ across the entire Roman Empire. To the degree that they had survived until this point, Jewish Christian groups such as the Ebionites and Nazarenes would now be opposed by the Roman Emperor.
With Christianity married to Roman power, Jews began to experience Christian animus. Constantine enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws. A Jew who harassed a convert to Christianity could be executed, as could a non-Jew who chose to convert to Judaism. The next emperor Constantius prohibited Jews from owning Christian slaves, which had an adverse economic impact on Jews, as the Roman economy was dependent upon slave labor.
In 361, the pagan Julian became Roman emperor, and he attempted to rollback Christian advances. For his efforts, he is known to history as Julian the Apostate.
In Julian’s ‘Letter to the Jewish Patriarchate,’ he stated that he took steps to protect the Jews and punished those who were planning them harm. At the end of the letter he wrote “This you ought to do, in order that, when I have successfully concluded the war with Persia, I may rebuild by my own efforts the sacred city of Jerusalem, which for so many years you have longed to see inhabited, and may bring settlers there, and, together with you, may glorify the Most High God therein.” 
Work on rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem began. Gregory of Nazianzus, the Archbishop of Constantinople, recounted that the Jews arrived in numbers to begin rebuilding their temple, but were thwarted by miracle. They were pushed back by the wind, the earth shook and the crowd panicked. Unseen forces shut the doors in front of them, flames shot out of the church and consumed some of the people, and a cross appeared in the heavens. The pagan writer Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that despite the assistance of the governor, fire burst from the foundations and made the site inaccessible, the elements themselves conspiring to prevent the Temple reconstruction.
These authors describe a seemingly miraculous event. It is possible that the work was halted due to an earthquake. But there remains the distinct possibility that the rebuilding effort was thwarted by interference from gentile Christians. In 363, Julian was killed in battle against the Persian Parthians and was replaced by the Christian emperor Jovian. There would be no further work to restore the Temple under Jovian.
In the 7th century CE, another attempt to restore the Temple in Jerusalem appears to have been foiled by gentile Christians. The Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628 was a prolonged conflict between the Byzantine Roman Empire and the Persian Sasanian Empire. In the 610s, the advancing Persian army captured Jerusalem with the support of local Jews.
The Jews were led by a wealthy benefactor, Benjamin of Tiberias, and by Nehemiah ben Hushiel, who led the Jews in Jerusalem. The Jews appear to have restarted the sacrificial service on the Temple Mount, and begun to draw up plans to rebuild the Temple. But by 617 CE the Persians reversed their policies favoring the Jews in favor of the local Christians. When in 629 CE the Byzantine emperor Heraclius returned, the Jews were killed in numbers and forced to flee. Again, the Jews’ attempt to rebuild the temple was blocked by gentile Christians.
An Enduring Legacy
Christians are likely to have thwarted the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, but even if it had been rebuilt, there is no way to know if that structure would have survived the Muslim conquest, the Crusades, or any other challenge that might have arisen over time. But gentile Christianity produced another enduring legacy.
Xenophobia is the dislike or prejudice against foreigners, or those outside one’s social group. This phenomenon is widely observed throughout history. Pagan writers described Jews as being antisocial for their refusal to participate in pagan rituals, but they were similarly critical of Christians. Ethnic groups that are prominent in trade are particularly vulnerable to attack. Jews have been targeted for their role in commerce, as were the ancient Carthaginians who dominated seaborne trade in the Mediterranean, as are the Lebanese in west Africa and the Chinese diaspora of southeast Asia.
The deleterious effect of the shift from Jewish Christianity to gentile Christianity extended beyond interference in the Temple reconstruction. Gentile Christianity created a negative image of Jews beyond simple xenophobia. Early Christian descriptions of Jews as hypocrites, God killers and the devil became the basis for two millennia of anti-Jewish sentiment. The Gospel of John’s quote of Jesus telling the Jews that “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires,” and the Book of Revelation description of a Jewish house of worship as a “synagogue of Satan,” fed into John Chrysostom’s description of the synagogue as a “lodging-place for demons” and “a fortress of the devil,” and that “If the devil is a murderer, it is clear that the demons who serve him are murderers, too.” (Homily 8,8,6)
The idea of Jews as the devil became anchored in history. The earliest image of Jews in Europe, from 13th century England, features Isaac of Norwich and other Jews in the company of devils. This fed into ideas of Jews as a physical and spiritual threat to Christianity, which led to violence, forced conversions and expulsions. In Martin Luther’s ‘On the Jews and Their Lies,’ he wrote that Christians should save their souls “from the Jews, that is, from the devil and from eternal death.” Adolph Hitler in Mein Kampf wrote of Jewish supporters of Marxism, “Considering the Satanic skill which these evil counselors displayed, how could their unfortunate victims be blamed?” This imagery contributed to a debasement and demonization of the Jew, ultimately to deadly effect. It is a challenge that persists today, in propaganda imagery that demonizes Israel.
If we accept the Talmud’s statement in Yoma 9b that sinat chinam, or baseless hatred, was the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple, then through its impact on early Christianity, we continue to live with that result. Twice the Temple was set to be rebuilt, and twice it was likely thwarted by Christians. Early Christian depictions of Jews have haunted Jews for much of the past 2,000 years. Through its continued influence on novel forms of anti-Judaism, this gentile Christian legacy continues to endure.
- Justin Martyr. The First Apology of Justin, Chapter 31, Translated by Thomas Falls.
- Emperor Julian’s Letter to the Jewish Patriarchate, Translated by Wilmer Cave Wright.
- Simon Sebag Montefiore. Jerusalem: The Biography, Chapter 16.