This fifth letter continues our series on the pressures, fears and hopes of an imaginary young brother living in the shadow of AD 70. The strength which our early brethren gained by their hope in the Kingdom gives encouragement to us today as we live on the eve of an even greater event. The letters from our imaginary young brother Joseph ben Judas who lived at Anathoth have been edited by Bro Allan Archer.

December, AD 67

 My dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus

Loving greetings across the centuries.

It’s been a while since I last wrote, but conditions here have hardly been conducive to writing, to say the least!

Last time I wrote, I told you about the great defeat of Cestius Gallus, the governor of Syria, when the Jews attacked his men as they retreated from Jerusalem through the pass of Beth-horon. The unexpected victory at Beth-horon fanned the flames of fanaticism in Jerusalem. The Jewish Zealots went wild with excitement and talked about another glorious era of Jewish independence.

You’ll remember that that brought up the dilemma for the ecclesia. Were we in the “lull of the storm” and being given the opportunity to flee to the mountains, or are we years away from that time?

Our beloved Luke recorded Jesus as saying: “When ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation is nigh. Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains”. That was very clear, at least to most of us in the ecclesia at Anathoth who left for the mountains of Judaea almost a year ago now.

Rather oddly, various members of the Jerusalem ecclesia are waiting behind until they see the “abomination of desolation” in Jerusalem itself. We worry about them as, once the Romans are there, it will be too late. Maybe, and I hesitate to say it, they are making the most of what the world can offer before they give it all up. I fear the consequences. Pray God that they will see that their world offers nothing.

And when you are faced with something similar, don’t try to walk “on the edge”, making the most of the world. The strong risk is that you will fall off the edge the wrong way.

As far as the Anathoth brethren are concerned, we are looking at moving on to Pella soon. That’s one of the semi-independent cities of the Decapolis east of the Jordan. So far, Decapolis has remained loyal to Rome during the Jewish War, so it should provide safety when the Romans move into Judaea.

Anyhow, I must tell you about what has happened in the Jewish War so far.

Knowledge of the rout of Governor Gallus soon travelled throughout the Empire. We are only a very small part of one province, yet we gain an inordinate amount of attention from Rome, from Caesar down. It’s rather like Zechariah’s reference to Jerusalem being a “burdensome stone” to all people.

Anyhow, shortly after the defeat of Governor Gallus, the Emperor Nero gave Vespasian the command of the Jewish War. Vespasian is now in his late fifties and a very experienced commander. He was decorated for his service as commander of the 2nd legion in Britain twenty years ago. Vespasian sent his twenty seven year old son Titus to Alexandria to mobilise the 15th legion, while he went to Syria to pick up the 5th and 10th legions. Altogether Vespasian has brought against the Jewish nation half the Roman legions in the east!

These two men are now bending all their energies and skills in warfare to the subjugation of Palestine without pity or regard for age or innocence. Death, slaughter and destruction abound as they mercilessly subdue the land, starting from Galilee. But for the immovable stipulation of our God of heaven, the Jewish people might well become extinct:

  • Jeremiah said, “though I make a full end of all nations whither I have scattered thee, I will not make a full end of thee” (Jer 30:11).
  • The Master himself made the point that, “except those days be shortened there should no flesh be saved” (Matt 24:22).

The victory at Beth-Horon has distorted the thinking of fanaticism in Jerusalem. The Jews seem to have totally underestimated the Power of Rome, as well as ignored the prophets, which is far worse.

Generals were selected to protect certain areas, but rather strangely, because the extreme nationalists, the Zealots and the Sicarii, did not have a mass following, all the Generals selected were moderates. They have never been fully committed to the revolt and have hoped that they could find some peaceful settlement.

The classic case of a moderate General is a young priest, whom you might have heard something about–Flavius Josephus. He was thirty when he was given command of Galilee, but because of his lack of conviction he failed to inspire his troops.

How he behaved in the siege of Jotapata says it all. (You may not have heard much about Jotapata, but it has been one of the most important Jewish towns in Galilee.) When Vespasian moved up all his artillery and siege equipment against Jotapata, Josephus planned to get out of the town while he could. The locals found out what he was up to, and while he tried to persuade them that he was too important to risk capture, they insisted that he stay.

The Romans moved up their battering rams and began to pound the wall. The defenders tried to cushion the effect of the blows by hanging sacks of chaff in front of the ram, but the Romans cut the ropes. They managed to break off the head of the ram by a boulder and they set fire to the ram’s housing. But the Romans repaired the ram and continued pounding. Finally part of the wall opened and the Romans broke into the town and killed every living thing.

Josephus and forty of the leading citizens hid in a cave. When they were discovered, Josephus tried to surrender but the others stopped him. He explained that it was God’s will that he should survive, but they were unimpressed. Instead it was decided that they should commit mass suicide!

Reluctantly agreeing with this, Josephus suggested that the best arrangement would be for them to draw lots as to who should kill whom and in what order. It was no surprise that it fell to his lot to be the last man left alive. All the others killed themselves in turn, but when it got down to just the last two, they surrendered to the Romans instead. In return for betraying his people, Josephus was spared.

No wonder that Josephus is so despied by the Jews. And he was a priest!

In fact we have since heard that when Vespasian ordered that Josephus be sent to the Emperor Nero for sentencing, Josephus flattered Vespasian by telling him that he and his son Titus would eventually become Emperors. It is said that he said something like, “I come to thee as a messenger of great tiding… Dost thou send me to Nero? …Thou, O Vespasian, art Caesar and Emperor, thou and thy son… Thou O Caesar art not only lord over me but over the land and sea and all mankind”. No doubt Vespasian was impressed! I wonder what will come of all this.

I’ll write again as soon as I can from this country in which everything is upside down. But meanwhile, remember the brethren in your own day who, like us, have given up worldly security for the truth. I don’t want to elevate ourselves, for we made the choice to leave all that we owned at Anathoth on the clear instruction of Jesus. In your day brothers and sisters in poor countries have responded with faith to the principles of the Truth and have lost much. Please don’t forget them.

Your brother in hope of the fulfilment of God’s promises,