Tuesday 31 August 2010

Pompeii's destruction: Godly retribution?

Interesting view on the eruption originaly published on the 24th of August.

Pompeii's destruction: Godly retribution?

Archaeology editor says Jews thought so.

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 market.

Suddenly, the ground began to shake, and from the caldera of the Mount Vesuvius towering ominously above the city, a tremendous force was unleashed.

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.

The catastrophic 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?

Hershel Shanks, 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.

“On 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 York Times 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.

Much smoking 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.”

In Shanks’s 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 God.

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 gentiles.

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 ruins.

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.

“It 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.”

[From The Jerusalem Post website]


Jo Berry said...

There was comment on this article on Rogue Classicism last week - http://rogueclassicism.com/2010/08/23/pompeii-and-sodom-andor-gomorrah/

Personally I think the whole thing is nuts ...

Unknown said...

I'm sorry I'm not precise enough, I studied the problem before, but I have a bad memory.
The link with the Sibylline Oracles has been stressed already several times in the past and it's mentioned also in "Pompeii: a sourcebook" by Cooley and Cooley. The link between the inscription "Sodom and Gomorrah" and the eruption is debatable. At the time of the discovery of the inscription, the archaeologists thought that it was inscribed by people who returned to the house after the eruption, but there is no prove of it. Unfortunately the topos became quite popular because of the "Last Days of Pompeii".

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