(photo credit: Courtesy)
This day in 79 CE began as any other. The inhabitants of the Roman city of
Pompeii were going about their business; the men were bathing in the bath
houses, slaves were doing their chores, merchants were selling produce in the
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Suddenly, the ground began to shake, and from the caldera of the
Mount Vesuvius towering ominously above the city, a tremendous force was
Within seconds, a fiery cloud of smoke with temperatures
reaching 250 degrees Celsius descended on the plains below, killing every living
being in its way – men, women, children and livestock.
event, which according to the traditional count took place 1931 years ago today,
was one of the most devastating in Roman history. Thousands perished, including
much of the Roman elite vacationing in the area.
But for historians and
archeologists, the eruption was an endowment that yielded a trove of
well-preserved artifacts and information, frozen in time.
And now, from
the Pompeii ashes, a new question arises for some: Was the destruction of
Pompeii an act of divine retribution by the God of the Jews? Or rather, did Jews
of the time see it that way?
The Temple had been razed by Roman legionnaires in 70 CE, only nine years earlier. So did Jews regard the Vesuvius eruption as the Hand of God punishing those who dared destroy His house in Jerusalem?
the editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, believes Jews indeed made the
connection. In a paper titled “The Destruction of Pompeii – God’s revenge?” in
the July/August edition of the magazine, Shanks cited ancient evidence to
support his thesis.
Shanks recently told The Jerusalem Post
that the idea
to examine a connection between the two events came to him on a tour of the
ruins of the Roman city located in the vicinity of modern-day Naples.
my own visit to Pompeii, I tried to find out when the destruction of the Temple
occurred,” Shanks relates. “When I learnt of the supposed date, I thought, ‘Hey
I wonder if anyone has connected the two.’” Shanks, described by the The New
as “probably the world’s most influential amateur Biblical
archaeologist,” said he called Harvard’s Shaye Cohen, who directed him to Book 4
of the Sibylline Oracles, a text composed by “mostly Jewish oracles” shortly
after the eruption.
The book first mentions the destruction of the
Temple, and then seemingly refers to the Vesuvius eruption: “When a firebrand,
turned away from a cleft in the earth [Vesuvius] In the land of Italy, reaches
to broad heaven It will burn many cities and destroy men.
ashes will fill the great sky And showers will fall from heaven like red
earth. Know then the wrath of the heavenly God.”
The second piece
of evidence cited by Shanks is ancient graffiti etched onto a fresco at a
Pompeii building. The grafitti reads “Sodom and Gomorra.”
opinion, the text is proof that a Jewish visitor to the ruins believed its fate
followed that of the two sin cities that the Bible says were destroyed by
In any case, if the destruction of Pompeii was an act of divine
retribution, then some Jews were also caught up in his vengeance. It is almost
certain there were some Jewish individuals, perhaps a fullyfledged Jewish
community in Pompeii, that perished along with the city’s
Shanks said a fresco of King Solomon, the most ancient
depiction of a biblical scene, is located not far from where the Sodom and
Gomorra graffiti was found.
Also, relates Shanks, a vase with what some
believe is an ancient kashrut stamp has been found in the famous
For Jews elsewhere, it is easy to imagine how news of the
catastrophe at Pompeii would have been greeted with joy in light of the
devastating defeat they had suffered only a few years earlier.
attacked the core of Roman society and, as if to emphasize the point, it
extended all the way to Rome,” Shanks said. “You had the scary white and dark
soot as far as Rome. There’s very good reason to conclude there was a perceived
connection and in the eyes of some, God was clearly at work.”