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This internal strife ultimately led to the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, for the city was well-fortified, amply provided with water and huge storehouses of food, and populated with defenders willing to die for their Holy City. It was not Roman superiority of arms that destroyed Jerusalem from without, but rather sinat chinam, or “senseless hatred among the Jews,” that destroyed the city from within. When the moderate Sadducees and Pharisees sought control of the Temple, the Sicarii and Zealot extremists imported Idumean mercenaries to slaughter the moderates who opposed them. With events moving too slowly for their tastes, the Zealots destroyed the city’s food stores and forced the populace, in the throes of starvation, to cancel the advantage of their fortifications and take the fight to the enemy, outside the gates of the city. The rashness of this move proved disastrous, the fall of the Holy City the result.

Whereas civil war among the Jews followed a protracted and smoldering historical course punctuated by episodic flare-ups, the Roman civil war was an acute event precipitated by the deposing and subsequent suicide of Emperor Nero in June of 68 CE. The difficulty, although a person could be excused for considering it a blessing, was that Nero had left no successor. He had no heir, and had murdered any and all he had considered a threat to his sovereignty. By the time he was deposed he had killed not only all the male descendants of Augustus, but also his wife and adoptive brother. He did not spare even his mother, who history tells us asked her assassin to stab her in the womb in retribution for the ill fruit it had borne.

For the first time in the history of the Roman Empire, the throne was left open to any who could claim and defend it. Over the following year four sat the Roman throne, but only Vespasian survived to keep it for any appreciable length of time. This was the same, battle-hardened Vespasian who Nero had sent through Agrippa II, the Roman client king of Judea, to subdue the rebellious Jews in the Holy Land. And subdue them he did.

Beginning in the North in 67 CE, Vespasian worked his way south, commanding submission or death. He utterly destroyed any village or township that refused to surrender, slaughtering the men, raping the women, ransacking their homes and razing them to the ground. He sold survivors into slavery and rendered their lands useless by cutting down fruit trees, burning crops and lacing the fields with salt.

The atrocities were so horrific that the Zealots at the fortress of Jotapata chose to kill their wives and children with their own hands and then commit suicide rather than fall into the Romans’ hands. Similarly, at the city of Gamla in the Golan Heights, roughly 5,000 Jews cast themselves from the cliffs surrounding the fortress to evade capture. A few years later, following the fall of Jerusalem, the Zealots at Masada did the same thing.

Sixty-eight, most definitely, was an interesting year. And it is in the midst of this turmoil of history and religion that The Eighth Scroll begins, among the community of Essenes at Qumran, suffering the occupation of the Romans.