Was Severus or Josephus correct? Did Titus order the Temple to be Destroyed?

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    Some might find it difficult to believe that Titus was the Lawless one and the little horn of Daniel 7 despite all the historical and Biblical evidence because Josephus portrays Titus as an unwilling participant in the destruction of the Temple voting to preserve the Temple in a secret war council (Josephus The Wars of the Jews 6.4.3) and even going so far as to run around yelling to his soldiers to put out the flames. (Wars 6.4.6.)  Josephus’ portrayal of Titus appears to contradict Sulpicius Severus who writes that while meeting with his generals, Titus agreed to destroy the Temple: “But others, on the contrary, disagreed–including Titus himself. They argued that the destruction of the Temple was a number one priority[.]” (Sulpitius Severus Chronica 2.30.7.)

    According to Tommaso Leoni scholars nearly universally believe that Severus was correct in that Titus ordered the Temple’s destruction with only one scholar of recent times, Tessa Rajak, who believes Josephus’ account.1 In this article I will show, I believe conclusively, that in spite of the seemingly contradictory nature of both accounts that almost without a doubt BOTH JOSEPHUS AND SEVERUS ARE CORRECT!  Titus almost certainly SECRETLY wished to destroy the Temple to end the Jewish religion, a point raised by both Severus and Josephus in the war council.  Destroying the Temple greatly reduced the risk of future insurrections in two ways: A destroyed Temple could never again be used as a fortress. Second, in the absence of a Temple the Jewish religion could no longer be practiced greatly reducing the religious hope of a Messiah who would liberate the Jews from Roman rule.  (No Temple->no Law->no Jewish religion->no Messiah->no future rebellion)  Also Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai, a Jewish Roman sympathizer, made known to the Flavians an ancient Biblical prophecy that if they destroyed the Temple they would become kings.  Titus thus had three very powerful self-serving motives to order the Temple’s destruction.

    But because of Titus’ Jewish allies (Josephus, Agrippa II), his Jewish lover (Berenice) who were all present at the siege, and the 20,000 Jewish local troops under Titus’ command, Titus could not be seen or known to have ordered its destruction or he risked not just losing his famously beautiful Jewish lover and his friends, Titus also risked a potential mutiny of 20,000 of his local Jewish troops.  Thus both Josephus and Severus are correct in that although Titus likely hid his intentions at the war council voting in favor of the preservation of the Temple at all costs as stated by Josephus, Severus is likely ALSO correct in that Titus ultimately agreed with his generals who wished to destroy the Temple and ordered its destruction in secret to be carried out by those commanders who shared his opinion.

     

    In Bernay’s Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus, Bernay argues convincingly that Sulpicius Severus’ source for Titus’ desire to destroy the Temple in his secret war council is a no-longer extant portion of Tacitus’ Histories as Tacitus’ account is known to be fragmentary and he is cut off before discussing these events.  Bernay convincingly shows Severus citing Tacitus elsewhere in his account.

    More recent scholarship has cautioned against using Sulpicius systematically to reconstruct Tacitus’ lost account (Barnes 1977; Montefiore 1962); Barnes (2005) nevertheless deems it “incontrovertible” that Tacitus is the source for Sulpicius and that Tacitus therefore presented Titus as making a “deliberate and considered decision” to destroy the temple. (Andrew Zissos, ed., A Companion to the Flavian Age of Imperial Rome, Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World Series (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 245.)

    Bernay argues that Tacitus’ source for the content of this war council was Marcus Antonius Julianus who was the procurator of Judea and one of the six members of this secret war council who decided the fate of the Temple according to Josephus.  Marcus Antonius Julianus is believed to be Tacitus’ source because of the similarity in name of one Antonius Julianus who wrote just prior to Tacitus concerning Jewish affairs, a text that is no longer extant, mentioned by Minucius Felix. (Bernay’s Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus)

    One might be tempted to automatically pick Josephus’ account of Titus’ vote in the war council over Tacitus’ because he was present during the war and wrote twenty-five years earlier.  However, it is important to note that Josephus was NOT an eye witness of the war council in which the fate of the Temple was decided. (Wars 6.4.3.) Both Tacitus’ and Josephus’ accounts are second hand. So which one is to be believed?  Josephus’ source for Titus’ opinion could have been any of those procurators present at this meeting.  However, given his close friendship with Titus, Josephus likely got his information directly from Titus himself. But did Titus have a motive to lie to Josephus?  He certainly did!  Josephus was a close friend and ally who was useful for translating Titus’ message to the Jewish rebels. Titus would not likely want to risk his relationship with his Jewish friend and translator by telling him of his desire to destroy the Temple of his God.  Similarly, it is well-known that Titus oversaw the writing of Wars of the Jews as the text was commissioned to be written by Josephus as Flavian propaganda. Furthermore, Titus had a bad reputation for being unmerciful which “needed correcting for his eventual emperorship (Suet., Titus 6:2; 9:1; Dio, Rom. Hist. 61:19:1-2). If events were spun properly, Titus could appear clement in his attempts to spare the peace-loving portion of the populace and their beloved temple of worship (c.f. J.W. 6:6:3:357).”2 Conversely, this theoretical aspect of Tacitus’ Histories though written approximately twenty-five years later around A.D. 100 is likely to be more accurate as it was written at a time just outside of the twisting influence of the Flavian Dynasty.

    Furthermore, Josephus is the only historian to portray Titus’ unwillingness to destroy the Temple.  In Historiae Adversum Paganos, Orosius, writing about the same time as Severus, agrees with Severus that Titus intended to destroy the Temple though he gives a different reason for wishing to do so.  Also several Rabbinic traditions ascribe to Titus the intention and desire to destroy the Temple (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Gittin 56b. cf. Lev. Rab. 22:3). (Andrew Zissos, ed., A Companion to the Flavian Age of Imperial Rome, Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World Series (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 245.)

    If Orosius and Severus both depend on Tacitus, whose account they adapted to their own rhetorical agendas, then it would appear that two ancient sources, rabbinic tradition and Tacitus, line up against Josephus.  How do scholars assess these contradictory accounts? Rajak (2002, 206-12) deems it plausible for Titus to have come to either decision, but gives greater weight to Josephus as the most reliable source, as he was present during the siege of Jerusalem [though not physically present at the war council which decided the fate of the Temple] and undoubtedly had access to imperial notes. Goodman (2007, 410-23) also thinks it likely that the temple was destroyed by accident in the confusion of battle, with its destruction and the suppression of the Jewish cult subsequently being made to serve Roman propaganda. But others remain unconvinced by Josephus’ account, in part because Josephus himself appears to provide contradictory evidence. Alon (1977, 252-68) points out that Josephus’ portrayal of Titus at the council [in which he expressed a desire not to destroy the Temple under any circumstances] is contradicted by other passages in which Titus declares that if the rebels do not surrender, the temple will be destroyed. Parente (2005, 63) likewise concludes that Josephus’ representation of Titus is a “fabrication,” suggesting that artifacts preserved from the temple, including the golden table, the candelabra, and the interior curtains, provide “irrefutable evidence” that the temple was not destroyed by accident in the heat of battle, but first looted and then intentionally destroyed.

    Scholars offer various explanations as to why Josephus would alter these facts in his narrative. Mason (2005) argues that Josephus employs figured speech and irony to undermine any notion of Roman superiority. Thus Titus’ clemency is magnified to the point of “gullibility,” and Titus himself would be unable to protest too strenuously against Josephus’ narrative without exposing himself to charges of impiety. Assuming, that, as the balance of evidence suggests that its destruction is evidence of a gradually developing, empire-wide policy concerning the Jews. While allowing the Jews to retain their own national customs, philosophies, and ethnic organizations, the Flavians may have thought that the abolition of the Judean “civic cult” would diminish the likelihood of future revolt. (Andrew Zissos, ed., A Companion to the Flavian Age of Imperial Rome, Blackwell Companions to the Ancient World Series (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), 245-246.)

    Interestingly, all the arguments raised above in addition to all available textual and historical evidence all point to BOTH Severus AND Josephus being correct in their accounts of the war council.  How could Titus vote to preserve the Temple and yet immediately order its destruction as implied by Severus?  Josephus was also almost certainly correct in recording Titus running around to try to get his soldiers to put out the fire when the Temple was aflame. How could these two seemingly contradictory accounts almost certainly both be correct and accurate historically?

    The answer is surprisingly simple when one considers the Roman benefits of destroying the Temple to prevent future rebellion together with the need for Titus to be seen protesting this fact because of close personal ties with Jewish friends and allies (i.e. Agrippa II and Josephus), a Jewish lover (Queen Berenice) who was also present during the siege, and 20,000 local Jewish troops under Titus’ command who risked mutiny if word got out that their leader overtly ordered the Temple to be burned.  Though not mentioned specifically by name as present in the war council, Agrippa II almost certainly took part in this meeting as he helped lead the local Jewish troops in Titus’ army.  If Agrippa II were not invited to participate in the war council determining the fate of the Temple and the Temple burned the following day—as it did–it would look very suspicious that Titus ordered its destruction, a fact that Agrippa II would no doubt passionately oppose.  In light of these impediments, Titus was compelled to pretend to protest to the Temple’s destruction during this council and in public so as to preserve good relations with all his generals especially Agrippa II who was also the brother of Titus’ lover, Queen Berenice.  During this council Titus could easily see who did and did not wish to destroy the Temple. Once he was aware of who shared in his opinion, Titus could secretly order those generals who shared in his desire to destroy the Temple to see to its destruction once the other generals were dismissed and the council was unofficially adjourned.  By secretly ordering the destruction of the Temple, Titus could come out ahead in every respect while pretending to protest this fact in the public eye.  I think there can be little doubt that this was truly what happened historically as it not only reconciles two seemingly contradictory historical accounts–both of which seems very credible–and there is also an immense amount of evidence that bolsters this scenario.

    Titus was granted the title Caesar at his father’s coronation in A.D. 69. (Cassius Dio Roman History 66.1.) Titus’ father, Vespasian, having just been crowned emperor of Rome greatly feared assassination, a fate that befell Galba, Otho and Vitellius, the three emperors who immediately preceded him.  The reigns of all three men combined totaled only a year and a half.  Vespasian knew that a military victory in Jerusalem would increase public approval and legitimize his reign–and it did–despite the fact that Vespasian–like the three emperors who were assassinated before him–was not a member of the Caesar family line. Immediately upon ascending to the throne, Vespasian knew that his reign was on shaky ground so he needed a quick victory in Judaea to cement his authority and deter assassination attempts.  Keenly aware that the life of his father as well as his succession ambitions (Titus had already been named Vespasian’s successor) all rode on a quick military victory in Jerusalem, Titus was on a huge time crunch. Tacitus says that Titus did not want to wait to completely starve out the city because “his imagination dwelt on Rome, wealth and pleasure: it would be long before these dreams were realized if Jerusalem were destined not to fall in the immediate future.” (Tacitus The Histories 5.11.)

    Before breaking into the Temple courts Josephus says that Titus seeing his soldiers die for the sake of a building ordered the Temple gate to be lit on fire: “But when Titus perceived that his endeavors to spare a foreign temple turned to the damage of his soldiers, and then be killed, he gave order to set the gates on fire.” (Wars 6.4.1.)  I believe this same reasoning and anger prevailed later when Titus was confronted with the question as to whether or not to burn the Temple itself.  If the Romans burned the Temple it would reduce the amount of time necessary to take the fortress.  And remember Titus needed a quick victory to cement his and his father’s reign and reduce the risk of his father being assassinated. (Remember the reigns of Galba, Otho and Vitellius each only lasted a few months before they were murdered or compelled to committed suicide).


    Burning the Temple would have also greatly demoralized the Jewish rebels. Many Zealots believed that they could not beat the Romans without the help of God. Seeing the Temple on fire sent the obvious message that God was not going to help them making continued fighting seem futile.  Not surprisingly upon seeing the Temple on fire many of the rebels stopped fighting and committed suicide believing the Romans could not be beat without God’s help. (Cassius Dio Roman History 66.6; Wars 6.4.7.)

    Furthermore, lighting the Temple ablaze would also prevent the building from being used as a fortress in future insurrections, a fact that would also discourage later rebellion, fact that according to Josephus was highlighted in the war council (Wars 6.4.3).  Destroying the Temple also benefited the Romans financially as the Temple was made of marble and had gold everywhere.  Plundering the Temple would also greatly offset the financial costs incurred by the war.

    And this wealth stolen from the Temple was a valuable tool to legitimize the reigns of Vespasian and Titus when the victory in Palestine was celebrated in the triumph in Rome.  Mary Beard refers to the triumph being used “almost as a coronation ritual” (Mary Beard, The Roman Triumph, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 296-297) and writes, “[A] triumph is the single most approved driving force in a man’s career.”  (Ibid., 217.) And “[t]he triumph was about display and success—the success of display no less than the display of success.” (Mary Beard, The Roman Triumph, (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 31.) Beard also correctly states, “[I]t was part of the history of the triumph, to be judged against, to upstage or be upstaged by, the triumphs of predecessors and rivals.” (Ibid., 32.) The more plunder a general brought back to Rome, the more glorious the triumph and the Temple had immense amounts of gold and treasure a fact that alone might have sealed the Temple’s fate as Titus and Vespasian needed an especially grandiose triumph to legitimize their reign. And the wealth of the Temple offered them a way to have one of the most glorious triumphs in Roman history and it is clear by Josephus’ description of the plunder as well as the floats that stood three or four stories high paraded through the streets commemorating various battles that this triumph truly was one of the most glorious ever. (Wars 7.139-147).  Thus destroying the Temple benefited Titus and his army in almost every conceivable way and these facts could not have gone unnoticed by Titus and his generals.  Thus in light of these details it is not surprising that Sulpicius Severus says that Titus wished to destroy the Temple.

    Furthermore, in battle with Vitellius for the Roman crown a few months prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem the main temple in Rome, the Temple to Jupiter/Zeus, was burned to the ground.  If Rome’s main Temple, a Temple to Vespasian’s own gods and the gods of his people, where destroyed during Vespasian’s coup what chance would Vespasian reprove Titus for destroying the Temple of the God of his enemies? (Tacitus, Histories 3.71-72.)

    Perhaps the most powerful motive Titus and Vespasian had to destroy the Temple was their own insatiable ambition.  Just before Vespasian heard news of the death of Nero, Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai, a Roman sympathizer, snuck out of Jerusalem and informed him of an ancient Jewish prophecy stating that the man who destroys the Temple in Jerusalem will rule the Roman Empire:

    Rabbi Yochanan b. Zakkai then said to him: ‘Would you like me to tell you something?’ Vespasian answered him: ‘Say it.’ He said to him: ‘You are destined to rule over the Roman Empire!’ He asked him: ‘How do you know that?’ He replied: ‘Thus has it been passed down unto us, that the holy house will not be given into the hands of a mere commoner, but rather into the hands of a king[.](Avoth deRabbi Nathan 4:5.)

    Although the Avoth deRabbi Nathan cites Isaiah 10:34 to show that whoever destroys the Temple would become king, the clearest verse is Daniel 9:26: “The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary.” The fact that whoever was to destroy the Temple would become king would have powerfully motivated both Vespasian and Titus to destroy the Temple so as to completely fulfill this prophecy and in doing so take advantage of a powerful ancient omen that seemed to divinely hand over to them the empire.  This idea also explains why Titus is quoted to have said the following to Apollonius of Tyana “[I]t is not I who did this [conquer Judaea]; it was the Divinity, to whom I loaned my hands as instruments.” (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 6.9.)  If Titus and Vespasian saw themselves as the fulfillment of Daniel 9:25-26, they probably also saw themselves as agents of God’s will.

    Similarly, Titus held a council regarding what to do about the Temple with his leading officers on the 9th of Av.  The Temple was burned the next day, the 10th of Av.  Titus’ Jewish advisors like Josephus would have certainly made him aware of the fact that the 10th of Av was the anniversary of the destruction of the first Temple by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon especially since this point is repeatedly stated by Josephus: “[O]ne cannot but wonder at the accuracy of this period thereto relating; for the same month and day were now observed, as I said before, wherein the holy house was burnt formerly by the Babylonians.” (Wars 6.4.8.) It seems inconceivable that Titus, aware of this fact, would not have seen in this another auspicious divine omen for military success (and the emperor’s crown which came with it according to Dan 9:25-26) as well as a fateful sign to the Jews. (http://www.josephus.org/FlJosephus2/warChronology7Fall.html (5/11/2020).)  A cursory reading of first century Roman history reveals repeatedly that Romans even (perhaps especially) those in power looked to omens wherever they could be found for divine guidance and meaning.  This omen and its incredibly favorable auspices could not have been ignored by Titus in his decision at the war council as it would seem to not only strongly favor his victory but also seem to imply that the God of Israel wished for him to destroy this Temple AND MAKE HIM EMPEROR (Dan 9:25-26) a fact which Titus is reported to have declared to the Jewish rebels: “We have certainly had God for our assistant in this war, and it was no other than God who ejected the Jews out of these fortifications; for what could the hands of men, or any machines, do towards overthrowing these towers!” (Wars 6.9.1.)  How could Titus an undeniably hyper ambitious individual authentically protest to the destruction of the Temple if he were made aware of the anniversary of the first Temple’s destruction and in taking advantage of this auspicious omen thereby seize an equally powerful divine omen that handed him the emperor’s crown in Daniel 9:25-26 if he ensured the Temple’s annihilation?

    Besides the incredible splendor and beauty of the Jewish Temple which certainly weighed in favor of its preservation (Wars 6.4.3), Titus had a significant problem with overtly ordering Temple’s destruction: Titus had a Jewish lover, Queen Berenice (and a famously beautiful one at that), and a loyal Jewish friend and chronicler, Josephus, who were both present at the burning of the Temple in A.D. 70. Furthermore, upwards of 20,000 of Titus’ soldiers were local Jewish troops.  Though Titus knew that destroying the Temple was the right thing to do both politically and militarily, Titus would not have wanted to sour relations with his Jewish friends and lover nor would he want to risk insurrection from his 20,000 local Jewish troops.  Thus Titus would have had to disguise his intentions and appear to disapprove of the Temple’s destruction while in the presence of Josephus; his lover, Queen Berenice; and this large contingent of local Jewish soldiers.  Therefore, it seems likely that while discussing what to do about the Temple with his generals, Titus ordered the Temple to be destroyed in secret.  But when in the presence of his Jewish allies–like Josephus–it was necessary to pretend as though this was not what he wanted to do.  This explains why Josephus states that Titus did not wish to destroy the Temple under any circumstances during his private war council.  Josephus was not physically present during this council so he likely relied on Titus’ own testimony as to what Titus’ stance was during this meeting.

    I believe Titus initially called a meeting of his generals in which he ordered them to put out the flames surrounding the Temple so that his Jewish friend, his Jewish lover and his local Jewish troops could see Titus as an unwilling participant in the Temple’s destruction. (Ibid., 6.4.3.)   But I believe after dismissing most of his generals at the end of this meeting, Titus ordered one or more of his generals who argued in favor of burning the Temple to see to it that, that was accomplished, all, of course, at a time in which Agrippa II, Berenice and Josephus were not present.  Then Titus conveniently retired to his bed chambers with Berenice (Ibid., 6.4.6.), his Jewish lover, so as to make it appear as though he had not directly issued the order to burn the Temple as he was with his Jewish lover when the act was carried out.  Then to further the ploy, Titus ran out of his bed chamber frantically trying to get his soldiers to put out the flames.  Having been given the order by their superiors to burn the building down I believe this explains why the soldiers responsible for starting the fire were told by the soldiers behind them to continue to burn it down in spite of Titus’ plea to put out the fire. (Wars 6.4.6.258.) These soldiers appear to have been aware that Titus’ protest was a show (after all Josephus never states that these men were punished for this insurrection) as Titus’ protest was likely an act to preserve good relations with his Jewish friend (Josephus), lover (Berenice) and Jewish allies.

    It is also possible that Titus wanted to destroy the Temple but not immediately as he wished to afford his soldiers adequate time to plunder the valuables of the building (Ibid., 6.4.7).  This would explain Titus’ order to have his soldiers put out the flames.  Regardless of the reason that Josephus records Titus reportedly ordered the fires of the Temple to be extinguished it is clear that Titus wanted the building destroyed.  After all, before Titus left to celebrate his triumph in Rome, Josephus says Titus ordered the Temple to be destroyed completely: “Caesar [Titus] gave orders that they should now demolish the entire city and temple[.]” If Titus truly wanted to preserve the Temple, why did he not order it to be rebuilt as did Cyrus the Persian? Instead Titus ordered its complete destruction not long after the Temple was burned.

    Titus did not have to completely destroy the Temple in Jerusalem to fund the war, he could have just plundered it. However, Josephus says Titus later ordered the entire structure demolished implying the fact that Titus truly wanted the Temple destroyed and this so as to destroy the religion of the Jews (the Temple was required to follow the Law of Moses) just as Severus states.  If the Temple was destroyed it would prevent future insurrections from the Jews as it naturally destroys the Jewish religion (and their hope of a future Messiah to liberate them from Roman rule) which is predicated on the Temple’s existence.

    1 Menahem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors of Jews and Judaism (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1974-84), 202, cited in Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Divorce of Israel: A Redemptive-Historical Interpretation of Revelation, vol. 2, (Acworth, GA: Tolle Lege Press American Vision, 2024 and Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon Foundation), 902; Gideon Bohak, Theopolis: A Single Temple Policy and Its Singular Ramifications, JJS 50 (1999):3-16, cited in Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Divorce of Israel: A Redemptive-Historical Interpretation of Revelation, vol. 2, (Acworth, GA: Tolle Lege Press American Vision, 2024 and Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon Foundation), 902; Tommaso Leoni, Against Caesar’s Wishes: Josephus as a Source for the Burning of the Temple, Graduate Programme in History (Toronto: York University), 2, cited in Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Divorce of Israel: A Redemptive-Historical Interpretation of Revelation, vol. 2, (Acworth, GA: Tolle Lege Press American Vision, 2024 and Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon Foundation), 902.

    2 Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Divorce of Israel: A Redemptive-Historical Interpretation of Revelation, vol. 2, (Acworth, GA: Tolle Lege Press American Vision, 2024 and Vallecito, CA: Chalcedon Foundation), 903.

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