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John of Giscala

JOHN OF GISCALA (Johanan ben Levi), a leader of the revolt against Rome (66–70 C.E.). John was a native of *Giscala (Gush Ḥalav) in Galilee. Little is known of him before the war. When the inhabitants of Tyre, Gadara, and others sacked and burned his native town, he rebuilt it and took revenge on the invaders. His realization that the Romans had stood by and even encouraged the invaders to attack Jews made him alter his former attitude of loyalty toward the Romans, and he began to prepare Galilee for the coming struggle. In the spring of 66, *Josephus arrived as commander of Galilee and was soon involved with John in a conflict which developed into a lasting and bitter struggle. Josephus' account is prejudiced by his personal animosity toward John, but he nevertheless gives credit to John's efforts in preparing for the struggle. John suggested to Josephus that funds be provided from the sale of grain belonging to the Romans, and from olive oil sold to Jews in Syria. He presumably needed these funds for defense, although Josephus accuses him of desiring to use them for personal purposes. Open conflict erupted between them at Tiberias when John learned that Josephus intended to restore the property plundered from the steward of King Agrippa, who was considered a Roman sympathizer. John's supporters included many Galileans; fugitives from Tyre; men of Gabara, including their leader, Simon; Justus of Tiberias and his father Pistus; and the archon of Tiberias, *Joshua (Jesus) son of Sapphas. John dispatched a delegation to Jerusalem, demanding that Josephus be dismissed from his position for failing to fulfill his tasks loyally. This request was acceded to, according to Josephus, as a result of John's bribery and exploitation of his friendship with *Simeon b. Gamaliel. Emissaries were sent to dismiss Josephus from his command and advise the citizens of Galilee to support John. Josephus ignored all this and went so far as to threaten John's supporters. Josephus claims that he succeeded in weaning most of John's followers away from him. John's efforts to organize Galilee for war were unsuccessful and, with the exception of his native city, the whole province fell to the Romans. In the winter of 67, when Titus was at the gates of Giscala and offered terms of surrender, John seized on the intervening Sabbath as a pretext for delaying negotiations and escaped to Jerusalem.

John in Jerusalem

John encouraged the insurgents in Jerusalem to continue the war against Rome. At first he cooperated with *Anan b. Anan and members of the government. Relations between the Zealots and the government, however, steadily deteriorated and reached a crisis when *Phinehas (Phanni) b. Samuel, the high priest, was selected by lot. In the ensuing struggle the priestly circles aroused the people against the Zealots; John tried to serve as mediator. Josephus accused him of betraying the trust placed in him, but it seems that John became convinced that it was impossible to bridge the gulf between the two camps and went over to the side of the Zealots. He may possibly have been influenced by rumors that the moderate elements were thinking of surrendering the city to the Romans. On his advice, the Zealots, who had fortified themselves in the Temple, made common cause with the Idumeans and together overcame the moderates. The government of Jerusalem was thus concentrated in John's hands, causing division for a time among the Zealots, as those in Jerusalem disapproved of the supremacy of the Galilean, and one of their leaders, *Eleazar b. Simeon, actually opposed John for a time. John gradually prevailed and the Jerusalem Zealots joined his camp. Josephus portrays the period of John's rule in Jerusalem in the most somber terms, depicting complete anarchy and lack of regard for human life. Even if it is conceded that the Zealots avenged themselves on their opponents with scant regard for judicial procedure, John's positive efforts to fortify the city and properly equip it against the coming siege cannot be overlooked. His opponents, however, would not reconcile themselves to his victory and invited *Simeon Bar Giora to the city to head the opposing forces. Incessant internecine strife between the two leaders was checked in part, but not entirely, only when Titus appeared at the gates of the city. As the siege intensified, John did not hesitate to melt down the vessels of the Temple to provide weapons and used the Temple's supplies set aside for ritual purposes to ease the famine. With the city's capture, John was among the prisoners taken to Rome and included in Titus' triumphal victory procession. Simeon Bar Giora was apparently regarded by the Romans as the Jewish commander in chief and was executed, while John was sentenced to life imprisonment.


Schuerer, Hist, 251f., 257f., 260, 262–73; Klausner, Bayit Sheni (19512), index S.V. Yoḥanan b. Levi; Josephus, index; C. Roth, Dead Sea Scrolls (1965), index.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.