The Zealot Temple Siege

(Daniel 12, Luke 21:20)

Daniel 12 speaks of a time of tribulation that will come upon Daniel’s people like the world had never before seen. Daniel asks about the timeline for this distress and the angel responds, “It will be for a time, times and half a time; when the power of the holy people (Israel) has finally broken, all these things will be complete.” Daniel asks for more clarity, to which the angel replies, “From the time that the daily sacrifice is abolished and the abomination that causes desolation is set up, there will be 1,290 days. Blessed is the one who waits for and reaches the end of the 1,335 days.” (v11-12)

Luke 21:20 shows us the “abomination that causes desolation” was set up when Jerusalem found herself surrounded by armies, which we know occurred when the Roman legions, headed by Titus Vespasian, surrounded the city in the spring of 70 AD. But what about the event that begins this 1,290-day (3½-year) timeclock?

That, my friend, was the time of the Zealot Temple Siege.


  • What was the Zealot Temple Siege?
  • How does understanding our Jewish history shape our understanding of prophecy?


As I continue to study the Bible, I am too often impressed with how little I know about our Jewish history. Have you ever turned to the last chapter of a storybook only to realize you don’t know the characters, their motivations or the drama that led them to their final conclusion? Or maybe you’ve tuned into the final 10 minutes of a movie and found yourself utterly lost?

If our starting point is faulty, so will be our understanding.

One of the cardinal errors I see time and time again: We Christians, unfamiliar with our Jewish past, tend to take the Jewish scriptures we don’t understand and we export them to our future. Or, we’ll spiritualize challenging scriptures into meaning whatever we want them to mean. Daniel 12 is one of those passages that often gets abused in this way.

The Zealot Temple Siege is a moment in history that sheds light on how bad things were in Jerusalem in the years leading up to its destruction in 70 AD. This event also happens to clearly explain verse 11’s halting of the daily sacrifice. For the remainder of this lesson, I’m simply going to read to you. No fancy images or supporting video; I’m just going to read. I invite you to sit back, close your eyes, relax and listen.

I’ll be reading an excerpt from Henry Milman’s 1878 second edition of The History of the Jews, which is now in the public domain. Milman’s account is a composite of works by the Jewish historian Josephus, the medieval court historian Jean Froissart and others. There is more than enough color here to give you an idea of what life was like in Jerusalem during the winter of 66 AD.

We’ll begin our reading from Book 15, titled “The War.” Nero is Caesar and war is breaking out across Judaea as the Roman armies wreak havoc in the north. Emboldened by early successes, memories of the Maccabean revolt and the fervor of Messianic expectation, the Jews are fighting back. Milman writes:

But while the cities of Galilee thus arrested the course of the Roman eagles—while Jotapata and Gamala set the example of daring and obstinate resistance—the leaders of the nation in Jerusalem, instead of sending out armies to the relief of the besieged cities, or making an effort in their favour, were engaged in the most dreadful civil conflicts, and were enfeebling the national strength by the most furious collision of factions. It must be allowed that the raw and ill-armed militia of Judaea, if it had been animated by the best and most united spirit, could scarcely have hoped to make head in the open held against the experience and discipline of the Roman legions. Their want of cavalry, perhaps, prevented their undertaking any distant expedition, so that it may be doubted whether it was not their wisest policy to fight only behind their walls, in hopes that siege after siege might weary the patience and exhaust the strength of the invading army. But Jerusalem was ill-preparing itself to assume the part which became the metropolis of the nation, in this slow contest; and better had it been for her, if John of Gischala had perished in the trenches of his native town, or been cut off in his flight by the pursuing cavalry. His fame had gone before him to Jerusalem, perhaps not a little enhanced by the defection of his rival, Josephus. The multitude poured out to meet him, as well to do him honour, as to receive authentic tidings of the disasters in Galilee. The heat and the broken breathing of his men showed that they had ridden fast and long; yet they assumed a lofty demeanour, declared that they had not fled, but retreated to maintain a better position for defence—that for Gischala, and such insignificant villages, it was not worth risking the blood of brave men—they had reserved all theirs to be shed in the defence of the capital. Yet to many their retreat was too manifestly a flight, and from the dreadful details of massacre and captivity, they foreboded the fate which awaited themselves. John, however, represented the Roman force as greatly enfeebled, and their engines worn out before Jotapata and Gamala; and urged, that if they were so long in subduing the towns of Galilee, they would inevitably be repulsed with shame from Jerusalem. John was a man of the most insinuating address, and the most plausible and fluent eloquence. The young men listened with eager interest and vehement acclamation: the old sat silent, brooding over their future calamities. The metropolis now began to be divided into two hostile factions; but the whole province had before set them the fatal example of discord. Every city was torn to pieces by civil animosities; wherever the insurgents had time to breathe from the assaults of the Romans, they turned their swords against each other. The war and the peace factions not only distracted the public councils, but in every family, among the dearest and most intimate friends, this vital question created stern and bloody divisions. Every one assembled a band of adherents, or joined himself to some organised party. As in the metropolis, the youth were everywhere unanimous in their ardour for war; the older in vain endeavoured to allay the frenzy by calmer and more prudent reasoning. First individuals, afterwards bands of desperate men, began to spread over the whole country, spoiling either by open robbery, or under pretence of chastising those who were traitors to the cause of their country. The unoffending and peaceful, who saw their houses burning, and their families plundered, thought they could have nothing worse to apprehend from the conquest of the Romans, than from the lawless violence of their own countrymen. The Roman garrisons in the neighbouring towns, either not considering it their business to interfere, or rejoicing, in their hatred to the whole race, to behold their self-inflicted calamities, afforded little or no protection to the sufferers. At length, an immense number of these daring ruffians, satiated with plunder, by degrees, and in secret, stole into Jerusalem, where they formed a great and formidable troop. The city had never been accustomed to exclude strangers from its walls—it was the national metropolis; and all of Jewish blood had a right to take up their temporary or permanent residence in the Holy City. They thought too that all who entered their gates would strengthen their power of resistance, and that it would be impolitic to reject any who came to offer their lives for the defence of the capital. But even had they not brought sedition and discord in their train, this influx of strangers would rather have weakened than strengthened the defence of Jerusalem; for the provisions which ought to have been reserved for the soldiers, were consumed by an inactive and useless multitude, and famine was almost immediately added to the other evils which enfeebled and distracted the city.

These men, of fierce and reckless dispositions, and already inured to marauding habits, though gathering from all quarters, soon learned to understand each other, and grew into a daring and organised faction. They began to exercise their old calling; robberies, and burglaries, and assassinations, perpetually took place, not secretly, or by night, or of the meaner people, but openly in the face of day, of the most distinguished characters in Jerusalem. The first victim was Antipas, a man of royal blood, and a citizen of such high character as to be entrusted with the charge of the public treasury. They seized and dragged him to prison. The next were Levias, and Saphias, the son of Raguel, both of the Herodian family, with many others of the same class. The people looked on in dismay, but, so long as their own houses and persons were safe, they abstained from interference.

Having gone so far in their daring course, the robbers did not think it safe to proceed farther. They dreaded the families of those whom they had imprisoned, for they were both numerous and powerful; they even apprehended a general insurrection of the people. They sent a ruffian named John, the son of Dorcas, a man ready for the worst atrocities, with ten others like him, and, under their warrant, a general massacre of the prisoners took place. The ostensible pretext of this barbarity was, the detection of a conspiracy to betray the city to the Romans. They gloried in this act, and assumed the titles of Saviours and Deliverers of their country, for having thus executed condign vengeance on those who were traitors to the common liberty.

The people still cowered beneath the sway of these Zealot robbers. Their next step was even more daring. They took upon themselves the appointment to the Chief Priesthood—that is, probably, to nominate the members of the Sanhedrin. They annulled at once all claim from family descent, and appointed men unknown, and of ignoble rank, who would support them in their violence. Those whom they had raised by their breath, their breath could degrade. Thus all the leaders of the people were the slaves and puppets of their will. They undermined the authority of some who were before at the head of affairs, by propagating false rumours, and by ascribing to them fictitious speeches—so that by their dissensions among each other, they might increase the power of the Zealots, thus united for evil. At length, satiated with their crimes against men, they began to invade the sanctuary of God with their unhallowed violence.

After some time, the populace were at last goaded to resistance. Ananus, the oldest of the chief priests, had been long the recognised head of the other party. He was a man of great wisdom, and in the opinion of Josephus, had he not been cut off by untimely death, might have saved the city. At his incitement, murmurs and threats of resistance spread among the people, and the robber Zealots immediately took refuge in the Temple of God, which they made their garrison and headquarters. They pretended to proceed according to a mockery of law, which was more galling to the popular feeling than their licentious violence. They declared that the high priest ought to be appointed by lot, not according to family descent. They asserted that this was an ancient usage; but, in fact, it was a total abrogation of the customary law, and solely intended to wrest the supreme power into their own hands. Matthias, the son of Theophilus, was the rightful high priest; but the Zealots assembled, for this purpose, one family of the priestly race, that of Eniachim, and from this chose a high priest by lot. It happened that the choice fell on one Phanias, the son of Samuel, a man not merely unworthy of that high function, but a coarse clown, who had lived in the country, and was totally ignorant even of the common details of his office. They sent for him, however, decked him up in the priestly robes, and brought him forth as if upon the stage. His awkwardness caused them the greatest merriment and laughter; while the more religious priests stood aloof, weeping in bitter but vain indignation at this profanation of the holy office.

The people could endure everything but this. They rose as one man, to revenge the injured dignity of the sacred ceremonies. Joseph, the son of Gorion, and Simon, the son of Gamaliel, went about, both in private and public, haranguing the multitude, and exhorting them to throw off the yoke of these desperate ruffians, and to cleanse the holy place from the contamination of their presence. The most eminent of the priestly order, Jesus, son of Gamala, and Ananus, remonstrated with the people for their quiet submission to the Zealots, which had now become a name of opprobrium and detestation.

A general assembly was summoned. All were indignant at the robberies, the murders, and sacrileges of the Zealots, but still they apprehended their numbers and the strength of their position. But Ananus came forward and addressed them; and as he spoke, he continually turned his eyes, full of tears, towards the violated temple. He reproached them with their tame endurance of a tyranny, more cruel than that of the Romans; and their abandonment of the temple of their God to profane and lawless men. His long and animated harangue was heard with the deepest interest, and the people demanded with loud outcries, to be immediately led to battle. The Zealots had their partisans in the assembly, and speedily received intelligence of what was going on. While Ananus was organising his force, they began the attack. But Ananus was not less active, and though the people were inferior in discipline, unused to act together in bodies, and unexperienced in the management of their arms, yet they had vast superiority in numbers. Thus a fierce civil war broke out in a city, against whose gates a mighty enemy was preparing to lead his forces. Both parties fought with furious valour; many were slain; the bodies of the people were carried off into their houses; those of the Zealots into the temple dropping blood, as they were hurried along, upon the sacred pavement. The robbers had always the better in a regular conflict, but the people at length increasing in numbers, those that pressed behind prevented those in front from retreating, and urged forward in a dense and irresistible mass, till the Zealots were forced back into the temple, into which Ananus and his men broke with them. The first quadrangle, that of the Gentiles, being thus taken, the Zealots fled into the next, and closed the gates. The religious scruples of Ananus prevented him from pressing his advantage; he trembled to commit violence against the sacred gates, or to introduce the people, unclean, and not yet purified from slaughter, into the inner court of the temple. He stationed 6,000 chosen and well-armed men in the cloisters, and made arrangements that this guard should be regularly relieved.

In this state of affairs, the subtle and ambitious John of Gischala, who had not long arrived in Jerusalem, pursued his course. Outwardly, he joined the party of Ananus; none would be more active in the consultations of the leaders, or the nightly inspection of the guards. But he kept up a secret correspondence with the Zealots, and betrayed to them all the movements of the assailants. To conceal this secret he redoubled his assiduities, and became so extravagant in his protestations of fidelity to Ananus and his party, that he completely overacted his part, and incurred suspicion. The people could not but observe that their closest consultations were betrayed to the enemy, and they began gradually to look with a jealous eye on their too obsequious servant. Yet it was no easy task to remove him; he was much too subtle to be detected, and had a formidable band of adherents, by no means of the lowest order, in the council itself. The people acted in the most unwise manner possible. They betrayed their suspicions of John, by exacting from him an oath of fidelity. John swore readily to all they demanded, that he would remain obedient to the people, never betray their councils, and entirely devote both his courage and abilities to the destruction of their enemies. Ananus and his party laid aside their mistrust, admitted him to their most secret councils, and even deputed him to treat with the Zealots. John undertook the mission, and proceeded into the court of the temple. There he suddenly threw off his character, and began to address the Zealots, as if he had been their ambassador, rather than that of the people. He represented the dangers he had incurred in rendering them secret service, informed them that negotiations were going on for the surrender of the city to the Romans, that their ruin was resolved, for Ananus had determined either to enter the temple by fair means, under the pretext of worship, and with that view had purified the people, or by main force; they must either submit, or obtain succours from some external quarter; and he solemnly warned them of the danger of trusting to the mercy of the people. John, with his characteristic caution, only intimated the quarter from which this succour was to be sought. The chieftains of the Zealots were Eleazar, the son of Simon, the old crafty antagonist of Ananus, and Zacharias, the son of Phalec. They knew that they were designated for vengeance by the adherents of Ananus; their only hope was in driving their own to desperation. The mention of negotiations, according to Josephus, the malicious invention of John, inflamed the whole party of the Zealots to madness. A despatch was instantly sent to call the Idumeans to their assistance, by messengers who were noted for their swiftness of foot and promptitude of action.

The Idumeans, who, since the conquest of Hyrcanus, had been incorporated with the Jews as a people, were a fierce and intractable tribe; some of the old Arab blood seemed to flow in their veins; they loved adventure, and thronged to war as to a festivity. No sooner was the welcome invitation of the Zealots made known through the country, than they flew to arms, and even before the appointed day, had assembled an immense force, proclaiming as they went, that they were marching to the relief of the metropolis. They were 20,000 in number, under John and James, the sons of Susa, Simon, son of Cathla, and Phineas, son of Clusoth. The messengers of the Zealots had escaped the vigilance of Ananus; and the vast army came suddenly, though not quite unexpectedly, before the walls. The gates were closed, and Ananus determined to attempt expostulation and remonstrance with these formidable invaders. Jesus, the next in age of the chief priests to Ananus, addressed them from a lofty tower on the wall. He endeavoured to persuade them to follow one of three lines of conduct—either to unite with them in the chastisement of these notorious robbers and assassins; or to enter the city unarmed, and arbitrate between the conflicting parties; or, finally, to depart, and leave the capital to settle its own affairs. Simon, the son of Cathla, sternly answered, that they came to take the part of the true patriots and defenders of their country, against men who were in a base conspiracy to sell the liberties of the land to the Romans. This charge the party of Ananus had always steadily disclaimed; with what sincerity it is impossible to decide.

At the words of the son of Cathla, the Idumeans joined in the loudest acclamations, and Jesus returned in sadness to his dispirited party, who now, instead of being the assailants, found themselves, as it were, besieged between two hostile armies. The Idumeans were not altogether at their ease. Though enraged at their exclusion from the city, they were disappointed at receiving no intelligence from the Zealots, who were closely cooped up in the temple, and some began to repent of their hasty march. So they encamped, uncertain how to act, before the walls. The night came on, and with the night a tempest of unexampled violence, wind and pouring rain, frequent lightnings, and long rolling thunders. The very earth seemed to quake. All parties, in this dreadful state of suspense, sat trembling with the deepest awe, and construed the discord of the elements, either as a sign of future calamity, or as a manifestation of the instant wrath of the Almighty. The Idumeans saw the arm of God revealed to punish them for their assault on the Holy City; and thought that heaven had openly espoused the cause of Ananus. Mistaken interpreters of these ominous signs, which rather foreboded their own triumph, and the discomfiture of the Jewish people. Yet they locked their shields over their heads, and kept on the torrents of rain, as well as they could. But the Zealots, anxious about their fate, looked eagerly abroad to discover some opportunity of rendering assistance to their new friends. The more daring proposed, while the fury of the storm had thrown the enemy off their guard, to fight their way through the bands stationed in the cloisters of the outer court, and to throw open the gates to the Idumeans. The more prudent thought it in vain to resort to violence, because the sentinels in the cloisters had been doubled, and the walls of the city would be strongly manned for fear of the invading army, and they expected Ananus every hour to go the round of the guards. That night alone, trusting perhaps to the number and strength of his doubled party, Ananus neglected that precaution. The darkness of the night was increased by the horrors of the tempest; some of the guard stole off to rest. The watchful Zealots perceived this, and taking the sacred saws, began to cut asunder the bars of the gates. In the wild din of the raging wind and pealing thunder, the noise of the saws was not heard. A few stole out of the gate, and along the streets to the wall. There applying their saws to the gate which fronted the Idumean camp, they threw it open. The Idumeans, at first, drew back in terror, for they suspected some stratagem of Ananus; they grasped their swords, and stood awaiting the enemy, whom they expected every instant to break forth. But when they recognised their friends, they entered boldly, and so much were they exasperated, that if they had turned towards the city, they might have massacred the whole people. But their guides earnestly besought them first to deliver their beleaguered companions. Not only did gratitude, but prudence likewise, advise this course: for if the armed guard in the porticoes were surprised, the city would speedily fall; if it remained entire, the citizens would rally round that centre, speedily collect an insuperable force, and cut off their ascent to the temple. They marched rapidly through the city, and mounted the hill of Moriah. The Zealots were on the watch for their arrival, and as they attacked the guard in front, fell upon them from behind. Some were slain in their sleep: others, awaking at the din, rushed together, and endeavoured to make head against the Zealots, but when they found that they were attacked likewise from without, they perceived, at once, that the Idumeans were within the city. Their spirits sank, they threw down their arms, and uttered wild shrieks of distress. A few bolder youths confronted the Idumeans, and covered the escape of some of the older men, who ran shrieking down the streets, announcing the dreadful calamity. They were answered by screams and cries from the houses, and the shrill wailing of the women. On their side, the Zealots and Idumeans shouted, and the wind howled over all, and the black and flashing sky pealed its awful thunders. The Idumeans spared not a soul of the guard whom they surprised, being naturally men of bloody character, and exasperated by having been left without the gates exposed to the furious pelting of the storm; those who supplicated, and those who fought, suffered the same fate: it was in vain to appeal to the sanctity of the temple, even within its precincts they were hewn down; some were driven to the very ledge of the rock on which the temple stood, and in their desperation precipitated themselves headlong into the city. The whole court was deluged with human blood, and when day dawned, 8,500 bodies were counted. But the carnage ended not with the night. The Idumeans broke into the city, and pillaged on all sides. The high priests, Ananus, and Jesus, the son of Gamala, were seized, put to death, and—an unprecedented barbarity among a people so superstitious about the rites of sepulture, that even public malefactors were buried before sunset—the bodies of these aged and respected men, who had so lately appeared in the splendid sacred vestments of the priests, were cast forth naked to the dogs and carrion birds.

With the death of Ananus all hopes of peace were extinguished, and from that night Josephus dates the ruin of Jerusalem. The historian gives him a high character; he was a man of rigid justice, who always preferred the public good to his own interest, and a strenuous lover of liberty, of popular address, and of great influence over all the lower orders. Though vigilant and active in placing the city in the best posture of defence, yet he always looked forward in eager hope, to a peaceable termination of the contest. In this respect, perhaps, he followed the wisest policy, considering the state of his country, and the strength of the enemy; yet we cannot wonder, that a man with such views, at such a crisis, should be vehemently suspected of traitorous intentions by the more rash and zealous of his countrymen, who preferred death and ruin rather than submission to the tyrannous yoke of Rome. Jesus, the son of Gamala, was likewise a man of weight and character.

The vengeance of the Zealots and their new allies was not glutted by the blood of their principal enemies. They continued to massacre the people, in the words of Josephus, like a herd of unclean animals. The lower orders they cut down wherever they met them, those of higher rank, particularly the youth, were dragged to prison, that they might force them, by the fear of death, to embrace their party. No one complied; all preferred death to an alliance with such wicked conspirators. They were scourged and tortured, but still resolutely endured, and at length were relieved from their trials by the more merciful sword of the murderer. They were seized by day, and all the night these horrors went on; at length their bodies were cast out into the streets to make room for more victims in the crowded prisons. Such was the terror of the people, that they neither dared to lament, nor bury their miserable kindred; but retire into the farthest part of their houses to weep, for fear the enemy should detect their sorrow; for to deplore the dead was to deserve death; by night they scraped up a little dust with their hands, and strewed it over the bodies; none but the most courageous would venture to do this by day. Thus perished 12,000 of the noblest blood in Jerusalem.

Ashamed, at length, or weary of this promiscuous massacre, the Zealots began to affect the forms of law, and set up tribunals of justice. There was a distinguished man, named Zacharias, the son of Baruch, whose influence they dreaded, and whose wealth they yearned to pillage, for he was both upright, patriotic, and rich. They assembled, by proclamation, seventy of the principal men of the populace, and formed a Sanhedrin. Before that court they charged Zacharias with intelligence with the Romans. They had neither proof nor witness, but insisted on their own conviction of his guilt. Zacharias, despairing of his life, conducted himself with unexampled boldness; he stood up, ridiculed their charges, and, in a few words, clearly established his own innocence. He then turned to the accusers, inveighed with the most solemn fervour against their iniquities, and lamented the wretched state of public affairs. The Zealots murmured, and some were ready to use their swords; but they were desirous of seeing whether the judges were sufficiently subservient to their will. The seventy unanimously acquitted the prisoner, and preferred to die with Zacharias, rather than be guilty of his condemnation. The furious Zealots raised a cry of indignation; two of them rushed forward, and struck him dead, where he stood, in the temple court, shouting aloud, “This is our verdict —This is our more summary acquittal.” Then dragging the body along the pavement, they threw it into the valley below. The judges they beat with the flat blades of their swords, and drove them, in disgrace, back into the city.

At length, the Idumeans began to repent of this bloody work; they openly declared that they had advanced to Jerusalem to suppress the treason of the leaders, and to defend the city against the Romans; that they had been deceived into becoming accomplices in horrible murders; no treason was really apprehended, and the Roman army still suspended their attack. They determined to depart; first, however, they opened the prisons, and released 2,000 of the people, who instantly fled to Simon the son of Gioras, of whom we shall hereafter hear too much. Their departure was unexpected by both parties. The populace, relieved from their presence, began to gain confidence; but the Zealots, as if released from control, rather than deprived of assistance, continued their lawless iniquities. Every day new victims fell by rapid and summary proceedings; it seemed as if they thought their safety depended on the total extermination of the higher orders. Among the rest perished Gorion, a man of the highest birth and rank, and the greatest zeal for liberty—incautious language caused his ruin. Even Niger of Peraea, their most distinguished soldier, who had escaped from the rout at Ascalon, was dragged along the streets, showing in vain the scars which he had received for his ungrateful country. He died with fearful imprecations, summoning the Romans to avenge his death, and denouncing famine and pestilence, and civil massacre, as well as war, against this accursed city. Niger was the last whose power they dreaded. After that they carried on their sanguinary work without scruple: none could escape. He who paid them no court, was stigmatised as haughty; he who spoke boldly, as one who despised them; he who merely flattered them, as a traitor; they had but one punishment for great or small offences—death; none but the very meanest in rank and fortune escaped their hands.

And here ends our account of the Zealot Temple Siege from Milman’s The History of the Jews. Daniel 12:11 tells us the Temple’s daily sacrifice would cease 1,290 days (3½ years) prior to the abomination that causes desolation being set up. Luke 21:20 tells us this abomination of desolation would be armies surrounding Jerusalem, which we know happened at the hands of Rome in spring 70 AD. The Zealot Temple Siege ceased the daily sacrifice in the winter of 66 AD, 3½ years earlier. I hope this lesson offers you a better sense for the tribulation of that time.

Remember, it’s the Truth that sets you free.



Josephus, Flavius. “The Jewish War.” 4.3-6. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/war-4.html.

Milman, Henry. “History of the Jews.” George Routledge and Sons. 1878. https://levaire.com/the-history-of-the-jews-free-pdf/. p239-245.