Judaism Without a Temple: An Excerpt from Martin Goodman’s “A History of Judaism”

The following is an excerpt from Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism, published this month by Princeton University Press.


THE DESTRUCTION OF Jerusalem by Roman troops in 70 CE demanded a religious explanation. If God, the supreme ruler of the universe, had allowed such a disaster to be visited on his people, it must be as part of a divine plan. The author of an apocalyptic text that purports to describe the prophetic visions of Ezra, the priest and scribe of the fifth century BCE, but which must in fact have been composed in the last decades of the first century CE, envisaged divine vengeance on the Roman empire. He pictured Rome as a three-headed eagle destined for destruction during the last days that had now come upon the earth:

The Most High has looked at his times; now they have ended, and his ages have reached completion. Therefore you, eagle, will surely disappear, you and your terrifying wings, your most evil little wings, your malicious heads, your most evil talons, and your whole worthless body, so that the whole earth, freed from your violence, may be refreshed and relieved, and may hope for the judgement and mercy of him who made it.

But we have no idea how many other Jews shared in this eschatological hope. IV Ezra is preserved only through copies and translations made by Christians, among whom the text proved immensely popular, presumably in part because of their strong interest in the imminent end times, but it is not known whether the text held similar appeal for non-Christian Jews.

For ordinary Jews, such as Josephus, the obvious explanation for disaster was already predicted in biblical texts about the curses that awaited Israel for failing to keep to the covenant with God, and in the numerous promises of redemption when Israel repents of her sins. The current abyss of misery was simply part of a regular cycle of sin, punishment, repentance, forgiveness, and restoration traced through numerous generations in the biblical books of Kings. By implication, a reformed Israel was guaranteed divine aid, and exile from the holy city of Jerusalem would in due course come to an end.

This optimistic note of confidence in the power of the God of Israel permeates the writings of Josephus, all of which were composed in the aftermath of the war. The Roman readers of his Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities might have been surprised to learn from his passionate narratives that the events that had culminated in the destruction of the capital city of the Jews had been orchestrated by the same Jewish God whose sanctuary had been ransacked, but this was precisely the message that Josephus wished to convey. The corollary was that Jews needed only to return to the path of piety for God again to look after his chastened people.

Presumably not all Jews were equally sanguine about the future under the care of the Jewish God. Some, like Tiberius Julius Alexander, Philo’s nephew, are known to have left Judaism altogether as they moved into the ranks of the Roman imperial elite. In the early second century CE the names of descendants of Herod the Great can be found on inscriptions that show no awareness of their Jewish connections. Other Jews will simply have become unidentifiable in the evidence for the mixed populations of Roman cities in which ethnic groups can be observed only when they made an effort to preserve their distinctive cultures.

But if most Jews understood the divine plan in the same biblical light as Josephus, the theological implication was not change but continuity, or, more precisely, a renewed commitment to the covenant of the Torah that alone could ensure a reversal of fortunes through divine grace. It is therefore reasonable to assume that understanding of the Torah will have remained as varied after 70 CE as before. The version of Judaism to which Pharisees reaffirmed their loyalty will have been Pharisaic. The same, mutatis mutandis, for Sadducees and Essenes. It is noticed surprisingly rarely that when Josephus writes in the 70s, 80s, and 90s of the first century CE about these different philosophies of the Jews, he did so in the present tense, with no hint that any of them had ceased to exist since the disaster of 70 CE. It was quite possible that Judaism would become more and not less varied with the demise of the Temple as the communal institution in which differences in theology and practice were provided with a public platform.

The common claim by historians of Judaism that 70 CE marked an end to such variety, and even to explain this change as a product of solidarity in the face of disaster, is based on an illusion caused by a change not in the diversity of Judaism but in the diversity of the evidence for that Judaism. The Christian tradition, which preserved Jewish Greek writings such as the works of Josephus composed before 100 CE, lost interest in the preservation of non-Christian Jewish writings after c. 100 CE because Christians were creating an extensive literature of their own. As a result, the nature of Judaism from the end of the first century to the end of the first millennium CE has to be divined primarily from the great mass of religious traditions preserved by rabbis who had little or no interest in non-rabbinic forms of Judaism, although traces of these other forms of Judaism can still be discovered in the archaeological and epigraphic record.

We have seen that, according to Josephus, who was an eyewitness from the Roman camp, the destruction of the Temple in August 70 CE was not intended by the Roman high command. In the chaos of the siege a fire started by a lighted brand flung into the sanctuary by a Roman soldier spread rapidly out of control and attempts by Titus to save the building were in vain. Josephus was clear that Titus had been the instrument of the Jewish God in punishing his people for their sins. It was equally clear that, just as God had brought about in due course the rebuilding of the Temple after its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, so too its rebuilding could be expected now. The Torah contained explicit injunctions to Jews to bring sacrifices and offerings, so to decide that this was no longer possible was hardly an obvious option. The Jerusalem Temple was not the only religious building to burn down by accident in the Roman empire — indeed, the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome had burned down the previous year. The obvious option for Jews was to hope and pray for a rapid rebuilding of their shrine, and for them to strain every sinew to bring it about.

Josephus, writing in the mid-90s CE, took it for granted that Jews were expected still to worship in the Temple, boasting in Against Apion about its excellence:

One temple of the one God — for like is always attracted to like — common to all people as belonging to the common God of all. The priests will continuously offer worship to him, and the one who is first by descent will always be at their head. He, together with the other priests, will sacrifice to God, will safeguard their laws, will adjudicate in disputes, and will punish those who are convicted […] We offer sacrifices not for our gratification or drunkenness — for that is undesirable to God and would be a pretext for violence and lavish expenditure — but such as are sober, orderly, well-behaved, so that, especially when sacrificing, we may act in sober moderation. And at the sacrifices we must first offer prayers for the common welfare, and then for ourselves; for we were born for communal fellowship, and the person who sets greater store by this than by his own personal concerns would be especially pleasing to God.

Nothing in this paean of praise for the Temple hints at the fact, which will have been as blatant to his readers as to him, that it had been destroyed a quarter of a century earlier.

Josephus was wrong in his expectation that the Jerusalem Temple would be rebuilt. Once it was in ruins, Vespasian and Titus invested too much political capital in propaganda about the defeat of the Jews as justification for their seizure of imperial power in Rome to permit any suggestion that its destruction should be regretted, let alone that a new building should arise in its place. The dedication of the Jews who had defended the sanctuary during the siege, and the defensive advantages of the site, discouraged their immediate successors from permitting rebuilding. The founding by Hadrian of the Roman colony of Aelia Capitolina on the site of Jerusalem in 130 CE put paid to the possibility of a new Jewish Temple for the remaining centuries of Roman rule. An abortive attempt by the pagan emperor Julian to rebuild the Temple in 364 CE in order to annoy Christians was prevented by Julian’s premature death on campaign. The Temple Mount lay desolate until the late seventh century CE, when the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik constructed on the site the magnificent Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock that still stands there today.

It is however probable that Josephus was not alone among Jews in expecting the rebuilding of the Temple. A hundred years after him, the compiler of the Mishnah in c. 200 CE included discussion of the detailed practice of Temple worship — not just the set feasts (Sabbath, the pilgrim festivals, the Day of Atonement) but the general treatment of “hallowed things” (animal offerings, meal offerings, sacrilege) and the dimensions of the Temple building and its constituent parts. At least some non-Jews, for whom worship with sacrifice, libations, and other offerings was among the most normal characteristics of Judaism, seem to have shared the assumption that in due course the Jerusalem Temple would again house crowds of pilgrims. Late in the third century, 200 years after the destruction, the pagan orator Menander of Laodicea (in Asia Minor) was still pointing to the pilgrim festivals in Jerusalem as the most impressive example of mass pilgrimage. He noted that “the glory of [a religious] festival is enhanced when those who assemble are either very great in number or of the highest repute. An example of high repute […] is Olympia, where renowned people meet,” but, he noted, “the largest multitudes are to be found at the festival of the Hebrews living in Syria Palestine, as they are gathered in very large numbers from most nations.” In due course Jews were to develop new expressions of Judaism that came to terms with the loss of the Temple, but it is not clear how long it took for the yearning for a rebuilt Temple to subside. Some of the coins of the rebels led by Bar Kokhba in 132–’35 CE carried images of the Temple and the legend “For Jerusalem.” The attempted rebuilding by Julian in the mid-fourth century passes almost unremarked in the extant rabbinic writings from Palestine in this period, but this may be because, being at the instigation of a pagan ruler rather than through the efforts of Jewish priests, it was deemed invalid. Temple imagery and reference to the priestly “courses” in many mosaic inscriptions on synagogue floors of the fifth and sixth centuries CE have encouraged speculation that Jews in this period harbored hopes for an imminent rebuilding, but this may be an over-interpretation. In any case, rebuilding was not a practical possibility under Christian rulers intent on turning Palestine into a Christian holy land in which Jesus’s prediction of the destruction of the Temple could be witnessed as fulfilled. It would not be until the 12th century, in an Islamic world where sacrifice was no longer part of the wider culture, that Maimonides would assert that God had encouraged sacrificial cult in the first place only in order to wean Jews away from the human sacrifice to be found among surrounding peoples. Even Maimonides believed that in the last days the Temple would be restored by God, as assumed in the daily prayer that had been in regular use, at least among rabbinic Jews, since soon after 70 CE:

To Jerusalem, your city, may you return in compassion, and may you dwell in it as you promised. May you rebuild it rapidly in our days as an everlasting structure, and install within it soon the throne of David. Blessed are you, Lord, who builds Jerusalem […] Find favour, Lord our God, in your people Israel and their prayer. Restore the service to your most holy house, and accept in love and favour the fire-offerings of Israel and their prayer. May the service of your people Israel always find favour with you.

In the meantime, the response of rabbinic sages back in 70 CE to the Temple destruction was severely practical:

If a Festival-day of the New Year fell on a Sabbath they might blow the ram’s horn in the Holy City but not in the provinces. After the Temple was destroyed Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai ordained that they might blow it wheresoever there was a court. R. Eliezer said, “Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai ordained it so only for Yavneh.” They replied, “It is all one whether it was Yavneh or any other place wherein was a court.” […] Beforetime the lulav was carried seven days in the Temple, but in the provinces one day only. After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai ordained that in the provinces it should be carried seven days in memory of the Temple […] Beforetime they used to admit evidence about the new moon throughout the day. Once the witnesses tarried so long in coming that the levites were disordered in their singing; so it was ordained that evidence could be admitted only until the afternoon offering […] After the Temple was destroyed Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai ordained that they might admit evidence about the new moon throughout the day.

The emphasis on ensuring liturgical continuity is significant. In the centuries after 70 CE synagogue buildings gradually began to take on an aura of sanctity, albeit at a level below that of the Temple. Synagogue mosaic inscriptions in Aramaic and Greek record the gifts of pious Jews to “this sacred place” in numerous sites in Galilee in the fifth and sixth centuries. Considerable expenditure on such mosaics, many of them elaborately depicting biblical scenes such as the binding of Isaac by Abraham, in itself attests the new veneration accorded to these buildings.

Archaeologists in the early 1930s found in Dura-Europos on the Euphrates a synagogue of the third century CE embellished with a remarkable series of paintings illustrating a variety of biblical stories, from Miriam rescuing Moses from the Nile to the vision of Ezekiel of the resurrection of the valley of dry bones. At the center of the main wall in the Dura-Europos frescoes is a niche on which was depicted the Jewish Temple and some of its appurtenances. The same image is to be found on many of the mosaics in Palestine in late antiquity, along with stylized versions of palm branches, rams’ horns, and other items associated with the great festivals. The synagogue had become, by late antiquity, what the rabbis described sometimes as a “small sanctuary,” in allusion to God’s words in the book of Ezekiel: “Though I removed them far away among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone.”

In ensuing centuries, synagogues were to be increasingly embellished. Many were extensively decorated internally in accordance with local styles, as in the Islamic artistic motifs incorporated into the magnificent stucco that still survives on the walls of the 14th-century El Transito synagogue in Toledo. That stained glass was used in windows in the synagogue of Mainz is known to us from the objections raised by a rabbi in the 12th century who ordered their removal. Evidently Jews had come to assume that conspicuous expenditure on embellishing synagogue worship was an act of piety. Hence also the many fine examples of Jewish liturgical art, generally executed by Christian artists to designs presumably agreed with their Jewish patrons, found in the illumination of Hebrew prayer books. Such illustrated manuscripts reached a peak of sophistication in northern Europe, Italy, and Christian Spain in the 14th century in such masterpieces as the Sarajevo Haggadah.

Communal prayer was adapted to suit. Whatever the original wording of the Amidah prayer, it is certain that it was adapted after 70 CE by the addition of prayers for the rebuilding of the Temple. The Sabbath and festival prayers evolved specific wording in which a description of the sacrifices substitutes for the sacrifice itself:

May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, to lead us back in joy to our land and to plant us within our borders. There we will prepare for you our obligatory offerings […] And the additional offering of this Sabbath day we will prepare and offer before You in love, in accord with Your will’s commandment, as You wrote for us in Your Torah through Your servant Moses, by Your own word, as it is said: “On the Sabbath day, make an offering of two lambs a year old, without blemish, together with two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil as a meal-offering, and its appropriate libation. This is the burnt-offering for every Sabbath, in addition to the regular daily burnt-offering and its libation.”

Quite when such wording became common among Jews is uncertain, but the tradition in the Babylonian Talmud that the order, general content, and benediction formulas were standardized at Yavneh by Rabban Gamaliel II and his colleagues in the late first century CE shows that these elements were fairly constant at least in Babylon by the sixth century. In the following centuries versions of the Amidah were committed to writing. The kedushah, a prayer that describes the sanctification of God by the angels in heaven as found in Isaiah and the imitation of such sanctification by Israel on earth, was already interwoven into the repetition of the Amidah in late antiquity. It reflects an early desire to instill a mystical element into the most solemn portions of this communal prayer: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts! The whole earth is full of his glory.”


The impact of the prevailing religious cultures that surrounded Jewish communities was as much through Jewish opposition as through imitation and adoption. In the first centuries after 70 CE, when Jews everywhere were compelled to respond in some way to what they considered to be pagan idolaters, the rabbis proved adept at simplifying and caricaturing much of the pagan life around them, confining their concern to Jewish avoidance of anything that might smack of idolatry: “For three days before the festivals of the gentiles it is forbidden to have business with them […] And these are the festivals of the gentiles: the calends, the saturnalia, the commemoration of empire, the anniversaries of kings, and the day of birth and the day of death.” The Jews of Dura-Europos commissioned from a local painter a depiction for their synagogue of the destruction of the idol Dagon and seem to have come close to polemic against the numerous pagan cults in their vicinity. But numerous synagogue mosaics from late Roman Palestine depict the sun god Helios on his four-horsed chariot surrounded by the signs of the zodiac, and a synagogue floor from sixth-century Gaza portrays King David as an Orpheus figure with his lyre, without any apparent concern that such pagan imagery might dilute the Judaism of worshippers.

The religious response of Jews to Christianity was similarly varied. Some Jews seem to have contrived to ignore Christianity altogether even at times and places where its influence might have been expected to be particularly strong. Thus the rabbis who compiled the Palestinian Talmud in the fourth century exhibit no awareness whatsoever, when discussing the religious customs of non-Jews, that since the 320s the province of Palestine had been endowed with state funds by emperors from Constantine onward intent on creating a new Christian Holy Land. On the other hand, it has been reasonably surmised that Jewish Bible interpretation in late antiquity was at least sometimes engaged in a covert dispute with Christian understanding of the same scriptural passages. This is particularly likely in interpretations of the proof texts used by Christians to bolster their own faith, although most explicit evidence for such disputes comes from Christian sources such as Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with the Jew Trypho, in which Trypho is portrayed as taking issue with Justin’s interpretation of the prophecy in Isaiah that “the young woman is with child and shall bear a son.” Justin, in accordance with the Gospel of Matthew, took the passage to refer to Christ and Mary, but Trypho insisted that the son mentioned in the passage was Hezekiah and that Justin was wrong to understand the word for “young woman” (alma in Hebrew) as “virgin.”

Elsewhere in Justin’s Dialogue, Trypho objects to the claim of Christians to be Israel, and it is probably the same Christian claim to be the true Israel that is confronted polemically in Song of Songs Rabbah, a midrash redacted around the beginning of the seventh century in Palestine:

The straw, the chaff and the stubble engaged in a controversy. This one says: “For my sake was the land sown” and that one says: “For my sake was the land sown.” Said the wheat to them: “Wait until the harvest comes and we shall see for whom the field was sown.” When harvest time came and all go to the threshing floor, the landowner went out to thresh, the chaff was scattered to the wind; he took the straw and threw it to the ground; he took the stubble and burnt it; he took the wheat and piled it into a stack and everybody kissed it. In like manner the nations, these say: “We are Israel and for our sake was the world created.” And these say: “We are Israel and for our sake was the world created.” Says Israel to them: “Wait until the day of the Holy One, blessed be He, and we shall know for whom was the world created, as it is written “For, behold, that day is coming; it burns like a furnace.” (Malachi 3:19)

It would be wrong to read every biblical interpretation by Jews in a Christian world in the light of such anti-Christian polemic, since (as we have seen) rabbis had good reason to ponder the significance of scripture without any such incentive, but there can be no doubting the real engagement with Christian thought required for the formal disputations imposed on Jews in parts of medieval Europe from the 13th century. In the Disputation of Paris in 1240, which arose from a papal order that Jewish books be examined, the Jewish delegation failed to prevent the condemnation of the Talmud and cartloads of Jewish books were burned in what is now the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville. In 1263, the great rabbi Moses Nahmanides of Girona confronted an attempt by the friar Paul Christian, an apostate from Judaism, to demonstrate that the rabbinic texts themselves revealed the truth of Christianity, by rejecting the miraculous as contrary to reason:

The doctrine in which you believe, and which is the foundation of your faith, cannot be accepted by reason, and nature affords no ground for it, nor have the prophets ever expressed it. Nor can even the miraculous stretch as far as this, as I shall explain with full proofs in the right time and place, that the Creator of Heaven and earth resorted to the womb of a certain Jewess and grew there for nine months and was born as an infant, and afterwards grew up and was betrayed into the hands of his enemies who sentenced him to death and executed him, and that afterwards, as you say, he came to life and returned to his original place. The mind of a Jew, or any other person, cannot tolerate this; and you speak your words entirely in vain, for this is the root of our controversy.

Away from the gaze of Christians, the tone of Jewish polemic against Christianity was less cerebral. It is clear from the number of surviving manuscripts that the scurrilous versions of the life of Jesus in the Toledot Yeshu were popular reading among Jews in the late Middle Ages.

But, away from such confrontations, Jews also adopted religious ideas and practices from their Christian neighbors. The structure of Jewish communities in late antique Palestine as religious congregations clustered around a synagogue may owe much to the tendency of the late Roman Christian state to characterize its subjects in religious terms, even if this form of Jewish life was not altogether modeled on Christian communities clustered around churches. The prohibition of bigamy by rabbis in Germany in the 10th century must reflect the surrounding Christian culture, since the rabbis made no attempt to ban polygamy for Jews living in Islamic lands where polygamy was common. Somewhere between imitation and competition lies the adoption by Jews of martyrologies similar to those that proved so powerful in the provision of narratives about saints to inspire early Christians, which in turn were modeled on the martyr narratives of the Maccabees. For the rabbis, Akiva’s death became an archetypical story of noble suffering “to sanctify the name of God”:

When R. Akiba was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him, “Our teacher, even to this point?” He said to them, “All my days I have been troubled by this verse, “with all your soul”, [which I interpret,] “even if He takes thy soul”. I said, “When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this?” Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfil it?” He prolonged the word “one” [the last word of the Shema] until he expired while saying it.

The vogue for such stories of martyrdom increased greatly in Germany during the time of the Crusades, as in the Chronicles of Solomon bar Simson of the self-sacrifice of martyrs in Mainz in 1096:

When the people of the Sacred Covenant saw that the Heavenly decree had been issued and that the enemy had defeated them and were entering the courtyard, they all cried out together — old and young, maidens and children, menservants and maids — to their Father in Heaven. They wept for themselves and for their lives and proclaimed the justness of the Heavenly judgement, and they said to one another: “Let us be of good courage and bear the yoke of the Holy Creed, for now the enemy can only slay us by the sword, and death by the sword is the lightest of the four deaths. We shall then merit eternal life, and our souls will abide in the Garden of Eden in the presence of the great luminous speculum forever.” […] Then in a great voice they all cried out as one, “We need tarry no longer, for the enemy is already upon us. Let us hasten and offer ourselves as a sacrifice before God. Anyone possessing a knife should examine it to see that it is not defective, and let him then proceed to slaughter us in sanctification of the Unique and Eternal One, then slaying himself — either cutting his throat or thrusting the knife into his stomach.”

The influence of Islam on Judaism was to be very different, and hard to overestimate. Rabbinic theology, poetry, law, and even biblical interpretation reflect contemporary trends within Islam from the last centuries of the first millennium CE through to the high Middle Ages. The disputations in Baghdad in the 10th century summarized in the Book of Beliefs and Opinions of Saadiah Gaon took place in a relatively open and philosophical atmosphere, although the Muslim accusation that the Jews had falsified the text of the Bible in the time of Ezra, imagining God in anthropomorphic terms, led Maimonides to forbid such debates because of “their belief that this Torah was not given from Heaven.” On the crucial issue of monotheism Jews and Muslims shared a common approach in opposition to Christian belief in the Trinity. Many Jewish thinkers were much attracted by the teachings of Islamic scholasticism (kalam), which began in the eighth century, about the absolute unity and incorporeality of God, to whom no attributes may be ascribed, and the perfection of divine justice. The vigor of Islamic philosophy, which incorporated much from the philosophy and natural sciences of the Greeks, especially Aristotle, was adopted by many Jewish thinkers writing in Arabic in the Muslim world, not least in Muslim Spain. Many of their works were in turn transmitted to the Jews of the rest of Europe by extensive translations in the 12th century from Arabic to Hebrew by Abraham ibn Ezra, himself a great biblical commentator, poet, grammarian, philosopher, and astronomer. Over four generations in southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries, the ibn Tibbon family translated into Hebrew numerous Arabic works on philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy as well as commentaries on scripture.

Through such means Islamic philosophy was to transform much of the theological discourse of Judaism in Christian Europe as well as in the Islamic world in the first half of the second millennium CE. As Islam developed, so did Jewish adoption of Islamic religious ideas. Hence, for instance, the influence of Sufism, the mystical tradition within Islam that aimed at mystical union with God through abstinence and incorporated many notions from Greek Neoplatonism, on the pietistic Duties of the Heart of Bahya ibn Pakuda, who wrote in Spain in the second half of the 11th century and quoted liberally from Sufi authors:

How is special abstinence to be defined and what need have followers of the Torah for it? As to its definition, scholars are divided. One says that special abstinence is the renunciation of everything that disturbs one [and draws him away] from [service of] God. Another says that it means holding this world in abhorrence and curtailing desires. Another says that abstinence is quietude of the soul and curbing its musings from everything that only gratified the idle imagination. Another says that abstinence is trust in God. Another says that it means limiting oneself to the minimum of clothing required for decency, taking of food only as much as is needed to still hunger, and rejecting everything else. Another says that it means abandonment of affection for human beings and loving solitude. Another says that abstinence is gratitude for benefits received and bearing trials patiently. Another says that abstinence means denying oneself all relaxation and physical pleasure, limiting oneself to mere satisfaction of natural needs without which one could not exist, and excluding everything else from the mind. This last definition befits the abstinence taught in our Torah better than any of the other definitions above set forth.

A similar sharing of religious outlook emerged in the celebration by both Jews and Muslims of festivities surrounding pilgrimage to the alleged tomb of the prophet Ezekiel on the anniversary of his death:

A lamp burns day and night over the sepulchre of Ezekiel; the light thereof has been kept burning from the day that he lighted it himself, and they continually renew the wick thereof, and replenish the oil unto the present day. A large house belonging to the sanctuary is filled with books, some of them from the time of the first temple […] The Jews that come thither to pray from the land of Persia and Media bring the money that their countrymen have offered to the Synagogue of Ezekiel the Prophet […] Distinguished Mohammedans also come hither to pray, so great is their love for Ezekiel the Prophet …

But the impact of Islam, Christianity, and any other faith was still far away in the unimagined future when Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai and a group of rabbinic sages met in Yavneh, a small town on the Mediterranean coastal plain of Judaea, in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.


Martin Goodman is professor of Jewish studies at the University of Oxford, where he is president of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a fellow of Wolfson College. His books include Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations and The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies.