John 11:45-48 — ‘the Romans shall come and take away both our place [wealth] and nation’ — LeGrand Baker

Hidden not very deeply under those words is the avaricious rational behind the Jewish leaders’ determination that Jesus must die — the enormous wealth of the Temple along with their own cultural and political power.

45 Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him.
46 But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done.
47 Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles.
48 If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation (John 11:45-48).

Jesus’s genealogies in the gospels shows that he was the legitimate heir to the ancient Jewish throne (read that “king,” “Messiah,” or “anointed one”), but no member of that family had ruled since Zedekiah was captured and killed by Nebuchadnezzar, 600 years earlier. However, the regal line was remembered. The title by which Jesus was known, “Son of David,” and the celebration of his “triumphal entry” affirm that his royal heritage was both known and accepted by many of the people. At that time, Judea was ruled by the Romans, but the cultural and political power associated with the Temple were the dominion of the Jewish elite. If there were a popular uprising to put Jesus on the throne, all that would surely end.

But there was more at stake than cultural and political power. GOLD ! — lots and lots of gold, and it was all controlled by the High Priest and the Jewish hierarchy.

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On one of the stones in the Roman Colosseum there is a pattern of holes. Scholars believe the holes were where metal letters were attached to the stone, and that the holes can actually be read. Their conclusion is that the holes say that after A.D. 70, when Titus sacked Jerusalem, he used the fabulous treasures taken from the city and the temple to pay for building the Roman Colosseum.

Louis Feldman’s article “Financing the Colosseum” (Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2001), explains the way the holes on the stone were deciphered, but he also shows that the wealth taken from the temple and the city would have more than enough to pay for its construction.

Fildman reports that in 1995, Professor Gaza Alfoldy of the University of Heidelberg published a decipherment of the inscription based on these holes. As reconstructed by Professor Alfoldy, the inscription reads: “The Emperor Titus Caesar Vespasian Augustus ordered the new amphitheater to be made from the (proceeds from the sale of the) booty.” Fildman then asks where the booty came from, and concludes that of all the Roman wars fought at that time, only the sacking of Jerusalem could have produced such wealth.

Fildman’s article is fascinating, but what interests us here is his evidence that the Jewish treasure would have been more than sufficient to finance the construction of the Colosseum. The excerpts that follow describe that wealth.

By contrast [to other Roman wars], we know that the Romans acquired tremendous treasures in their conquest of Judea, especially in Jerusalem, and above all from the Temple, which Herod had renovated at extraordinary expense and which was still being reconstructed almost on the very eve of its destruction in 70 C.E.41 The Letter of Aristeas states that the Temple “was built with a lavishness and sumptuousness beyond all precedent. From the construction of the doorway and its fastenings to the door-posts and the solid nature of the lintel, it was obvious that no expense had been spared.”
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Josephus remarks that it lacked nothing that could astound either one’s soul or one’s eyes. “Being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold,” he adds, “the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from solar rays.”
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We hear specifically of treasures that were delivered over to the victorious Romans by priests, including lampstands, tables, bowls and platters, all of solid gold and very massive, as well as many other treasures and sacred ornaments. In particular, Josephus asserts that the altar and lampstand, both made of gold, weighed no less than two talents (approximately 66 pounds). When the Temple was razed the Romans burnt the treasury chambers, “in which lay infinite [apeiron, `boundless] sums of money, infinite [again the word used is apeiroi] piles of raiment, and other valuables; for this, in short, was the general repository of Jewish wealth, to which the rich had consigned the contents of their dismanded houses.” The Romans presumably saved for themselves at least some of these valuables.

Many people donated houses and fields to the Temple, which were then sold and the proceeds deposited in the Temple treasury. Moreover, the Temple served as a bank for widows and orphans, who entrusted their deposits to it.
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When the Romans entered the Temple court, “so glutted with plunder were the troops, one and all, that throughout Syria the standard of gold was depreciated to half its former value.”

Moreover, according to Josephus, 97,000 Jews were taken prisoner during the war with the Romans (this may be the source of the tradition, otherwise unattested, that Jews actually built the Colosseum) [Human backs and hands were the machines that did the work, and slaves were as valuable as gold.]
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Josephus says that it is impossible to describe the diversity of riches that were displayed in the triumphal procession in Rome after Jerusalem was destroyed-silver and gold in masses flowing like a river. “The spoils in general,” he says, “were borne in promiscuous heaps; but conspicuous above all stood out those captured in the temple at Jerusalem.” The reliefs on the Arch of Titus apparently depict only a small portion of the spoil taken by the Romans. According to Josephus, Vespasian deposited the vessels of gold from the Temple in the Temple of Peace that he established in the Roman Forum, but almost nothing has remained of this building. Josephus adds that Vespasian deposited the Law (nomos), presumably a Torah scroll, of the Jews and the purple hangings of the sanctuary [veil] of the Temple in his palace.
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Moreover, the Colosseum was not the only structure built from the money of the spoils. According to a sixth-century Christian historian, John Malalas, out of the spoils from Judea Vespasian built in Antioch, outside the city gate, what are known as the Cherubim, so called because he placed there the cherubim that Titus had taken from the Temple in Jerusalem. He also built in Antioch the theater of Daphne, inscribing on it “Ex praeda Iudaea,” that is, “from the Judean booty,” having destroyed a synagogue that was located at the site, in order to insult the Jews. Malalas also notes that Vespasian built in Caesarea, likewise from the spoils from Judea, a very large odeum, or concert hall, the size of a large theater on a site of what had formerly been a synagogue.

Not only did the Temple treasury contain enormous wealth, but it was their never-ending source of a continually flowing river of more money. The Jewish leaders understood that they could buy anything with money and their control of the Temple gave them an unlimited perpetual income. Fildman explains:

According to Exodus 30:11-16, every male Jew over the age of 20 had to contribute a half shekel to the Temple each year. If, as there is good reason to believe, the number of Jews was somewhere between four and eight million, and if, as apparently was the case, the great majority of Jews faithfully contributed this amount, the total collected must have been enormous. Cicero mentions that in four cities of Asia Minor (a province that was admittedly wealthy but probably not the wealthiest) 220 pounds of gold intended for the Temple were seized by the Roman governor Flaccus in 59 B.C.E.

All this information creates an entirely new scenario. Jerusalem was not a little back-water provincial city that was just a thorn in the side of the Roman Empire. The Jews had wealth and they knew how to wield it to influence contemporary policy and events. That was what made Jesus’s life very expendable.

47 Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles.
48 If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation (John 11:45-48).

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