Thursday, July 15, 2010
Destruction of Pompeii—God’s Revenge?
There is an interesting article in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Hershel Shanks looks at the literature that was written around and in response to the destruction of Pompeii. The Roman city was destroyed when Mount Vesuvius erupted suddenly in 79 CE. Shanks wonders whether some Jews interpreted the city’s destruction as God taking vengeance on Rome for destroying Jerusalem and the temple. There are some remarkable coincidences that could lead one to think this way. (1) Titus was general of the Roman army that destroyed Jerusalem and looted its temple. (2) This event was considered so significant that Titus memorialized the destruction in the now famous Titus Arch, which depicts the temple treasures being carried away (see the picture above). (3) Titus had only become Emperor of Rome in April of 79 CE, a few short months before Pompeii was destroyed.(4) According to Josephus, the temple was destroyed in August of 70 CE and Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii in August of 79 CE.
Shanks article provides some evidence that people living during first and second centuries CE interpreted this event as an act of the gods. There is even in an inscription in one of the excavated homes in Pompeii alluding to Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps a Jewish or Christian resident living in the city thought that this was God’s revenge on Rome?
One thing that Shanks’s article helps to highlight is that attributing cataclysmic events to God’s judgment is not new. I am thinking of some of the unfortunate comments that were made about the cities that were attacked during 9/11. But the question that comes to the surface is: If God was taking vengeance for Jerusalem, why Pompeii? Jerusalem was a capital city. Why not destroy Rome instead? But when living in a time of disaster, people of every era, have sought to explain the seemingly unexplainable. And Pompeii demonstrates that we are not alone in our strivings to understand the world in which we live.
Incidentally, next week (July 20) will be the day that Jews mark the destruction of both temples, one by Babylon and one by Rome. The day is called “Tisha B'Av” and is a time for Jews around the world to consider the various calamities that have effected them as a people.