Direct Roman administration brought about violent reactions from a certain sector of the Jewish population. Following the ousting of Archelaus, Cyrenius, the legate of Syria, instituted a census of the Jewish people. This decision caused a profound shock among the populace, as it violated a Torah precept. Only after significant efforts by the High Priest did the people temper their anger.
But not all were placated. Two Jews, Yehuda of Galilee and Tzadok, called for an armed revolt to throw off all foreign domination. Soon they amassed a great number of followers. The group would later become known as kannaim (Zealots).
This development serves to underscore the fact that many in Judah never fully accepted Roman rule, nor did they freely allow themselves to become incorporated within the imperial system. Relations with Rome remained in a state of almost uninterrupted tension, dating back to the earliest days of Pompey and Gabinius, until after the defeat of Bar Kochba by Hadrian. Other rebellions occurred in 44 CE (following the death of Agrippa I), 52–60 CE (during the reign of the procurator Felix), 66 CE (the Great Revolt) and 132 CE (Bar Kochba).
* * * * * The ongoing unrest is surprising, considering Rome’s generally liberal attitude toward the Jews. Unlike other peoples in Roman-occupied territories, Jews were exempted from the official state religion, out of a pragmatic recognition that the Jews were unswerving in their faith and would not worship idols, even when forced.
In addition, the Jews constituted a sizable percentage of the empire, particularly toward the east. They were influential politically and economically, and the different Jewish communities were closely united with each other. Any serious religious interference would have grave repercussions throughout the empire.
Few peoples ever rose in direct rebellion under Roman occupation, other than warlike nations such as the Parthians (along the easternmost border). Surely, the Jews did not fit that same description as a backward, tribal, and militaristic society. Why, then, was insurrection among the Jews so common?
The Zealot leaders had despaired of a functional Jewish life under Roman rule. To them, Rome was a “wicked kingdom” (Talmud, Pesachim 54b), interested only in exploiting Judah. As they saw it, their only ruler was God, not other men (Josephus, The Jewish War). Once they defined freedom as a religious ideal, it became worth fighting for on the same level as any other sacred precept. Thus they readily submitted when necessary to even the most horrible torture and death rather than accept Roman domination.
Josephus (Antiquities) states that, philosophically, the Zealots fell in line with the Pharisees. They differed in two areas only: Their abundant love for freedom, and their acceptance of God as their sole master and leader. Their instigation created a social turmoil, with unrest the natural consequence.
Tiberius died in 37 CE. His great-nephew Gaius Caligula replaced him as emperor. Early on, Caligula received warm support from the Jewish people. He added to his popularity by appointing Agrippa I as tetrarch in Transjordan. However, in a short period of time things would change drastically.
That same year, the pagan population of Alexandria, led by the rabid Jew-hater Apion, prevailed upon the emperor to force the Jews in Jerusalem to erect a large statue bearing Caligula’s likeness in their Temple. All other nations, they argued, had built altars and temples to Caligula, receiving him as a god. Only the Jews had refused. Their hostile words had their effect. Caligula was enraged.
He regarded the Jews with most unusual suspicion, as if they were the only people who opposed his wishes…. Every country and region of the earth…flattered him, dignifying him above measure…. But the single nation of the Jews, refused to carry out these actions… [Josephus, Against Apion]