Forgotten Shavuot History: The 4 B.C.E Rebellion and the Therapeutae
The Pilgrimage Festivals
Towards the end of the Second Temple (1st cent. C.E.), Jerusalem had turned into an exciting destination as the religious focus for Jews from all over the Mediterranean world and beyond. It was the place to be for Jews during the pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, where worshippers could rejoice before the Lord as mandated in Deuteronomy 16.
The protection of travelers across the Mediterranean ensured by the Pax Romana (Roman peace), and the safe anchorage afforded by Herod’s new harbor at Caesarea Maritima, encouraged international tourism. The magnificence of the Temple compound, which had been greatly extended by Herod with a vast new platform, attracted huge crowds.
The New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles (2:5–6), written probably in the late first century C.E., presupposed the international character of the city on pilgrimage festivals, and imagined “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” in Jerusalem at the festival in the 30s C.E. Acts describes the city as containing:
Acts 2:9–11 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judaea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, relates that King Herod, wishing to protect Judea from attack by the Trachonites (apparently a group of bandits living in southern Syria), builds a large city in the Hauran (modern day southern Syria and northern Jordan), asking a Babylonian Jewish man to oversee it. He then adds:
Jud. Ant. 17.26 [=2.2] This man was a shield both to the inhabitants exposed to the Trachonites and to the Jews who came from Babylonia to sacrifice in Jerusalem; these he kept from being harmed by the Trachonites. (LCL trans.)
Shavuot: Celebrated by Locals
Travel from Mesopotamia took many weeks, and most diaspora Jews made the journey only occasionally. They are more likely to have sought to arrive for the extended celebration of one of the other two pilgrim festivals, Pesach or Sukkot, than for the single day of Shavuot. Thus, Shavuot crowds were likely comprised primarily of Jews from the land of Israel, arriving in convoys from each locality with their first-fruits.
Mishnah Bikkurim (3:2–4) preserves a vivid description of their processions into the holy city, bearing their first-fruits in baskets and preceded by a flute player and an ox with horns overlaid with gold and a wreath of olive-leaves on its head. The Mishnah’s description from more than a century after the destruction of the Second Temple is likely to represent an authentic memory precisely because these characteristics of the ritual lack any biblical warrant but appear to reflect the adoption by Jews of practices common in religious processions in the contemporary Greek world.
Disputes about the Date of Shavuot
Shavuot was a time for rejoicing, but a debate raged among different factions in Judah concerning the proper date for the festival. The Torah does not specify the calendar date for Shavuot, as it does for Pesach and Sukkot, using instead imprecise formulations. Deuteronomy speaks of counting seven weeks from the first cut of grain, while Leviticus speaks about counting fifty days from the omer (the first sheaf of newly harvested grain), which is itself brought “after the Shabbat.”
The Pharisees (and later the rabbis) understood the reference to Shabbat in this text to be the first day of Pesach, and began counting the omer on the second day of Pesach. The Boethusians, however, rejected this interpretation (as reported in m. Menachot 10:3), understanding Shabbat literally, which means they would have celebrated the festival later than the Pharisees.
Josephus, who had himself served as a priest in the Jerusalem Temple, tells us that “all prayers and sacred rites of divine worship are performed according to their [the Pharisees’] exposition” (Jud. Ant. 18.15), so we can assume that the sacrificial liturgy in the Temple followed their prescriptions. Boethusians in Jerusalem would undoubtedly have been upset that the priests were celebrating Shavuot on what they considered to be the wrong day.
It is evidence of surprising toleration of difference within the variegated Judaism of the late Second Temple period that these disagreements about the religious calendar in the national shrine do not seem to have carried over into violence. This is particularly notable given the potential for violence in Jerusalem during the pilgrim festivals was considerable simply because of the size of the crowds, even on Shavuot.
Violence on Pilgrimage Festivals in the Temple
That hostility could easily erupt in the crowded Temple is reflected in several such incidents: One Sukkot, during the long reign of the Hasmonaean High Priest, Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 B.C.E.), hostile demonstrations broke out against him, that are said to have involved pelting him with etrogim (κιτρίοις, citrons), provoking a massacre (Jud. Ant. 13.372). Similarly, a mass demonstration on Sukkot in 35 B.C.E. in support of Jonathan Aristobulus, the last Hasmonaean High Priest, was said to have prompted his brother-in-law, Herod, to arrange his accidental drowning in a swimming pool in Jericho.
The danger of mass insurrection on Pesach was sufficiently patent for the Roman governor of Syria to arrange a census of the number of pilgrims in 65 C.E., the year before revolt broke out against Rome, and to send the figure (much inflated) to the emperor Nero in Rome.
Varus Attacks the Temple on Shavuot, 4 B.C.E.
One serious incident that occurred on Shavuot itself remains curiously undiscussed in Jewish tradition and deserves to be better known. The story, preserved in Josephus, was recounted by Nicolaus of Damascus, Herod’s court historian, who was a participant in the events, and whose work was Josephus’ main source for this period.
Herod died in Jericho just before Pesach in 4 B.C.E., after prolonged suffering from illness. Crowds who gathered to mark his passing were treated to a feast to mark the end of the seven days of mourning by Archelaus, the son finally designated as his heir, but they took advantage of a mass assembly in the Temple to pour out their grievances, demanding lighter taxes, the release of prisoners put in chains by Herod over many years, and the replacement of the high priest appointed by Herod shortly before his death.
Archelaus tried to stall, asking the crowd for patience until his position as king, which had been stipulated in Herod’s will, had been confirmed by the Roman emperor Augustus, but anger boiled over during the celebration of Pesach. Disorder was suppressed only by sending in the cavalry, which massacred three thousand Jews.
Despite the chaos, Archelaus traveled to Rome to seek confirmation from Augustus but on arrival found himself faced with extensive opposition. As he was delayed in the imperial city, Judaea erupted in unrest, which reached a peak on Shavuot.
Archelaus had instructed his officials and the commanders of Herod’s fortresses to keep Herod’s property secure while he was away, but a junior Roman official named Sabinus harassed the rioting crowds and took possession of the royal palace in Jerusalem on behalf of Augustus. Soon the Romans in the palace were besieged by the crowds of pilgrims who had gathered in the city in preparation for Shavuot:
Jud. Ant 17:254 [=10.2] When Pentecost came round—this is how one of our ancestral festivals is called—a great many tens of thousands of men gathered (in Jerusalem) who came not only for the religious observances but also because they rejected the insolence of Sabinus.
Fierce battles broke out throughout the city:
Jud. Ant. 17:258 [=10.2] And when the Romans boldly sallied out, a fierce battle ensued, in which the Romans were superior to the enemy in effectiveness, but yet the Jews did not lose courage at the sight of the terrible loss of many men. Instead, by a roundabout way they mounted the porticoes that surrounded the outer court of the Temple, 17:259 and while a heavy fight was going on, they threw down stones, hurling some with their hands and others from slings, for they were well trained in this kind of fighting.
Soon the Romans ended this Judean advantage by setting fire to the porticoes of the Temple, only very recently erected by Herod:
Jud. Ant. 17:261 [=10.2] Eventually the Romans became desperate at their situation and set fire to the porticoes without being noticed by the Jews who had mounted them. And the fire, being fed by many hands and with very combustible materials, very quickly reached the roof. 17:262 This contained woodwork filled with pitch and wax and also had gold smeared with wax, and so it at once yielded (to the flames). This was how those great and most notable structures were completely destroyed….
Josephus continues with the fate of the rioters:
17:262 …And those who were on the porticoes were caught in this unexpected destruction, for when the roof fell down, they were caught along with it, and others were struck down from all sides by the enemy. 17:263 Many, in despair of being saved and in dismay at the awful fate that confronted them, either threw themselves into the fire or escaped it only by turning their swords on themselves.
Following this incident, Judea rapidly melted into chaos, with violent uprisings all over the country. Rome expected the governor of Syria to intervene when there was serious trouble in Judaea. Publius Quinctilius Varus, the current governor of Syria, accordingly marched south from Antioch with a large army, and he savagely suppressed the uprisings around the kingdom.
The invasion of the country by Varus was recalled a century later by Josephus as one of the great upheavals in the history of Jerusalem. It had created such havoc that the Temple authorities needed to compile anew the genealogical records of priestly families in the archives—the original version was likely destroyed in the riots.
The Humiliating Fate of Varus
In the collective memory of Romans, the name of Varus was long connected with the greatest disaster to afflict the empire in the reign of Augustus. In 9 C.E., thirteen years after his posting in Syria, he suffered a catastrophic defeat as a general in Germany, known in Latin as Clades Variana (the Varian Disaster).
Marching back from his summer camp near the Weser River (northwest Germany), Varus and his three legions were lured by Arminius, war-chief of the Cherusci, into the Teutoburger Forest. The legions were destroyed, and Varus committed suicide. Augustus was said never to have recovered from the shock of the news. In later centuries, Roman tradition blamed the disaster on the incompetence and laziness of Varus.
Varus vs. Pompey
Varus’ disgrace should have been a gift for Jews seeking evidence in history for divine retribution for his brutal actions in Judaea. We know, for example, that Jews reveled in the ignominious murder in 45 B.C.E. of the Roman general Pompey in Egypt, treating his demise as punishment for his sacrilegious entry into the Holy of Holies in the Temple in 63 B.C.E. (Psalms of Solomon 2.25-27). And yet, they do not seem to have made any connection between Varus as persecutor of Jews in Judaea and the same man who killed himself in ignominy a decade later in the Teutoburger Forest.
The explanation may simply be geography: Germany, on the northern edge of Rome’s empire, may have been too distant from the Land of Israel for Jews in Judaea to be aware of Varus’ fate.
The Shavuot of the Therapeutae in Egypt
For Jews unable to be present in Jerusalem for the festival, Shavuot was generally more low-key. There were no extensive domestic arrangements to be made, as for Pesach, with its baking and eating of matzah, or Sukkot, with its construction of sukkot (huts). The festival, however, fifty days after the omer, seems to have appealed to some Jews of a philosophical bent. Philo (c. 20 B.C.E. – c. 50 C.E.), a philosopher deep into Pythagorean numerology, explains:
On the Contemplative Life 65 [Fifty is] the most sacred of numbers and the most deeply rooted in nature, being formed from the square of the right-angled triangle which is the source from which the universe springs.
Philo describes how the Therapeutae, ascetic Jews living in Egypt, who dedicated their lives to knowledge and contemplation, celebrated Shavuot in a distinct way. On Shavuot, “after seven sets of seven days” on the eve of “the chief feast which Fifty takes for its own,” Philo notes:
On the Contemplative Life 66 [T]hey assemble, white robed and with faces in which cheerfulness is combined with the utmost seriousness, but before they recline, at a signal from a member of the Rota, which is the name commonly given to those who perform these services, they take their stand in a regular line in an orderly way, their eyes and hands lifted up to Heaven, eyes because they have been trained to fix their gaze on things worthy of contemplation, hands in token that they are clean from gain-taking and not defiled through any cause of the profit-making kind. So standing they pray to God that their feasting may be acceptable and proceed as He would have it.
The people recline on hard couches, in order of seniority, with men on the right and women on the left.
On the Contemplative Life 68 The feast is shared by women also, most of them aged virgins, who have kept their chastity not under compulsion, like some of the Greek priestesses, but of their own free will in their ardent yearning for wisdom. Eager to have her for their life mate they have spurned the pleasures of the body and desire no mortal offspring.
They then enjoyed a frugal vegetarian banquet with water in place of wine. As they ate, they listened in appreciative silence to their leader expound the scriptures in a leisurely fashion, using allegory. A series of hymns followed, sung first by individuals and then by the assembly as a whole, either in harmony or antiphonally.
Philo even abandons his customary misogyny, characteristic of male authors of his time, to describe how women took a full role in the assembly both as individuals in their search for wisdom and in their participation in a female choir. When he speaks of how “the treble of the women blending with the bass of the men” created the best possible harmony, he was probably reflecting the genuine practices of a self-selected group of religious enthusiasts.
This ritual continues throughout the night:
On the Contemplative Life 89 Thus they continue till dawn, drunk with this drunkenness in which there is no shame, then not with heavy heads or drowsy eyes but more alert and wakeful than when they came to the banquet, they stand with their faces and whole body turned to the east and when they see the sun rising they stretch their hands up to heaven and pray for bright days and knowledge of the truth and the power of keen sighted thinking. And after the prayers they depart each to his private sanctuary once more to ply the trade and till the field of their wonted philosophy.
The First Tikkun Leil Shavuot?
Philo provides us with our only knowledge of the Therapeutai and their practices. This picture of pious dedication was undoubtedly idealized, but the Therapeutai were almost certainly real Jews and not wholly imaginary; they lived near Lake Mareotis, which was not far from Alexandria where Philo was writing.
The description provides us with evidence that in Egypt, two thousand years ago, at least some Jews celebrated Shavuot with prayers and study throughout the night in a fashion strikingly similar to Tikkun Leil Shavuot, the all-night study of Torah on Shavuot night, popular from the early modern period until today.
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Prof. Martin Goodman is Emeritus Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Oxford, Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College, and Supernumerary Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He holds M.A., D.Phil. and D.Litt. degrees from the University of Oxford and an Honorary D.Litt. from the University of Southampton. Goodman is a Fellow of the British Academy, and has written widely on both Jewish and Roman history. His books include The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, A.D. 66-70 (1987), Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire (1994), Judaism in The Roman World (2007), Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations (2007), A History of Judaism (2017) and Josephus’s The Jewish War: A Biography (2019). He was the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies (2002), which was awarded a National Jewish Book Award for Scholarship.
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