Jacob Neusner was one of the best-known scholars of Jewish studies in the 20th century. He reckoned that the three most influential Jews of all time were Moses, Jeremiah, and Yohanan ben Zakkai.
Odds are you’ve heard of Moses and Jeremiah. Moses was the great lawgiver. Jeremiah was the great prophet who had the bad luck to see Jerusalem destroyed by Babylon in the year 587 BC.
But Yohanan who? What’s he famous for?
What We Know About Yohanan ben Zakkai
Essentially everything we know about Yohanan ben Zakkai comes to us from the rabbinic writings—the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the Talmudic writings. No first-century sources mention Yohanan ben Zakkai. He’s never mentioned in the New Testament, nor in the writings of Josephus, the great Jewish historian of the first century.
And yet Josephus undoubtedly knew Yohanan ben Zakkai well. My best guess is that the apostle Paul also knew him well. And I’d say it’s more likely than not that Jesus of Nazareth met him. More on this shortly.
Here are some basic historical facts that we know about Yohanan:
- He was probably born around the beginning of the first century and lived until near the end of it.
- He was a prominent Pharisee who argued often with the Sadducees.
- He was educated in Jerusalem, possibly by the great rabbi Hillel, but more likely by the famous Gamaliel.
- He spent 18 years in Galilee teaching Torah, living in a village named Arav (known as Gabara in Greek sources). He complained that the Galileans “hated” Torah, and he had one prominent student, Hanina ben Dosa, whose prayers were said to be effective for healing.
- He eventually returned to Jerusalem where he often taught on the steps at the south entrance to the Temple Mount near the Dung Gate. To this day, the steps are still there, and the nearest gate is still called the Dung Gate.
- He had five students who became famous: Yeshua ben Hananyah, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Yosi the Priest, Shimon ben Natanel, and the mysterious and mystical Elazar ben Arakh.
- Yohanan had at least two sons. One died during his time in Jerusalem, and the other outlived him.
- He served as a judge on occasion and witnessed marriage contracts for the daughters of prominent citizens, including the daughter of Naqdimon ben Gorion. For more on Naqdimon, see my recent posts What Do We Really Know About Nicodemus? and The Mysterious Aristocrats of Ancient Jerusalem.
- During a long drought, he is said to have fasted and prayed that God would send rain. Yohanan is credited with ending the drought. This story is dramatized in my novel Retribution.
- During the Jewish Revolt of AD 66 to 70, Yohanan opposed the war. He argued that Israel should repent and obey Torah and she would not need a Messianic war. And yet he called the young revolutionaries his “sons,” an affectionate term that makes it clear he knew them and loved them.
- His sister’s son, Abba Sikra ben Battiah, had some sort of authority over the food stores during the war.
- Midway through the war, the Zealots refused to let people leave the city. Foreseeing destruction, Yohanan faked his own death and was carried out of the city on a funeral bier by his “grieving” disciples, Eliezer and Yeshua, possibly with some help from his nephew. At the gates, the Zealots wanted to pierce Yohanan’s body with a spear to make sure he was dead, but his disciples wailed that this would be a grave dishonor to a mighty rabbi. The Zealots relented and let them carry him out. Once safely out of the city, Yohanan climbed off the bier. He and his disciples then went to the small coastal village Yavneh (known as Jamnia in English sources).
- Yohanan waited out the war, which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the Temple. This seemed to most people to mark the end of the Jewish religion. At the time, all religions required temples where sacrifices could be offered.
- In Yavneh, Yohanan is credited with founding rabbinic Judaism, a new kind of religion founded on prayer and study of Torah and acts of kindness. This was substantially different from the religion he was raised in. Rabbinic Judaism has endured now for more than 19 centuries alongside its sister religion, Christianity, which dates to the same era.
- A story tells how Yohanan visited the destroyed Jerusalem with his disciples. One of them lamented that the place of atonement was laid waste. But Yohanan said that there’s another kind of atonement, acts of lovingkindness. He quoted Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” This same verse is also quoted by Jesus of Nazareth.
What We Can Guess About Yohanan ben Zakkai
When I began doing research for my City of God series years ago, I studied all the historical sources and made lists of as many named historical persons as I could find. There aren’t that many—only a few hundred who lived in Judea or Galilee in the first century. And I tried to map out their social network—who knew who.
It’s important to remember that both Judea and Galilee were pretty small. My best estimate is that Galilee had a population of about 80,000. Judea may have been about twice as large. Jerusalem itself had a population of only about 30,000.
Even in a city as small as Jerusalem, nobody could know everybody. But in every society, everyone typically has a social circle of around 150 to 200 people. Which means that any two people in Jerusalem were only a couple of links apart. If you lived in ancient Jerusalem, every other person in the city was either a friend, or a friend of a friend, or a friend of a friend of a friend.
If you think about where Yohanan ben Zakkai lived, it seems likely that he knew Jesus of Nazareth, Saul of Tarsus, and the historian Josephus. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Yohanan and Jesus of Nazareth
Since Jesus of Nazareth went through most villages in Galilee, I think it very likely that he met Yohanan ben Zakkai. And I think it likely that they got along rather well. Both of them were rabbis deeply immersed in Torah, who faced conflict with the Sadducees. Jesus was a healer, and Yohanan’s student was a healer. They both opposed the war with Rome that everyone could see coming. If they somehow never met, I’d like to know why.
Undoubtedly, Jesus and Yohanan had their differences. There’s a common Jewish saying—“two Jews, three opinions.” But I think they both felt a little out of place in Galilee, and outsiders often gravitate to each other. So in my novel, Son of David, I threw Jesus and Yohanan together to see what would happen. It turned out a little different than I expected, and there’s no way to prove that’s how things happened. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it did.
Yohanan and Saul of Tarsus
The Talmudic sources say that Yohanan was the last disciple of the great rabbi Hillel, who died around the year AD 10. Since I doubt that Yohanan was born much before the turn of the millennium, this means his education could only have begun with Hillel. He must have finished his studies with someone else.
Jacob Neusner reckoned that Yohanan probably studied with the famous Gamaliel, who succeeded Hillel as the leader of the School of Hillel. Gamaliel is mentioned in Acts 5 as a man who urged the Sadducees to be wary of punishing the earliest disciples of Jesus (sometime in the mid-30s).
Acts 22 portrays Saul of Tarsus as having studied with this same Gamaliel. We don’t know exactly when this happened, but it’s a fair guess that Saul was educated in Jerusalem and returned to Tarsus before Jesus began his ministry, because Saul never met Jesus in the flesh. So it’s plausible that Saul and Yohanan were fellow students of Gamaliel. We can’t prove it, but it seems more likely than not.
In my City of God series, I portray Saul and Yohanan as friends. We know that Saul had a nephew in Jerusalem who saved his life about the year AD 57. Saul had been arrested in the Temple on grave religious charges. Forty young zealots made a vow to neither eat nor drink until they had assassinated Saul. But Saul’s nephew, a member of the group, betrayed the conspiracy and saved his uncle. I gave this anonymous nephew the name Gamaliel and made him a student of Yohanan ben Zakkai. Again, this is speculation. But it’s entirely plausible.
Yohanan and Josephus
Josephus is the English name we use for the Jewish historian who was born Yoseph ben Mattityahu, an aristocratic priest born in Jerusalem in the winter of AD 37/38. He eventually wrote several famous historical works which give us an exceptional look inside Jerusalem around the time of the Jewish Revolt.
In his “autobiography,” Josephus says that he studied with Essenes, Sadducees, and Pharisees as a young man, and at the age of 19, he chose to follow the way of the Pharisees. This would have been about the year AD 56 or 57.
Which means that Josephus certainly knew every single sage living in Jerusalem. There weren’t that many of them—probably a few dozen. He must have known Yohanan ben Zakkai. We know that he knew Yohanan’s close associate, Shimon ben Gamaliel. And we know Shimon had some sort of grudge against Josephus.
A Side Note On Josephus and Saul
It’s worth noting that Saul of Tarsus was nearly assassinated by zealots in Jerusalem at just the time Josephus became a Pharisee, around the year AD 57. And it’s worth noting that the leaders of the zealot movement in Jerusalem at this time were young men from aristocratic priestly families. There were not that many of them, probably only a few dozen. Josephus must have known them all. They were his peer group. It’s entirely possible he was in on the assassination plot, although this is speculation.
But it’s a reasonable speculation, for a couple of reasons. We know that Josephus went all the way to Rome in about the year AD 63 or 64 to ask Nero to release certain young priests who had been arrested years before in Jerusalem “on a trifling charge.” He doesn’t say what the charge was, but it was serious enough to get them shipped to Rome. And they were close enough friends that he took a year out of his life to go to Rome on a fool’s errand to spring them from Nero’s jail. (Incredibly, he succeeded.)
Then soon after Josephus got back to Jerusalem, the Jewish Revolt began in AD 66. And Josephus became part of the ruling junta. He was appointed general of the Jewish army in Galilee, where he fought with some courage until he was captured. He later claimed that he opposed the war, but that’s exactly what you’d expect him to say as a POW intent on saving his skin.
For these reasons, I think it’s plausible that Josephus at the age of 19 was a young zealot fool who joined the assassination attempt on Saul of Tarsus. Because Josephus ran around with exactly the kind of people running the plot. And I’ll repeat myself, there weren’t that many of them—maybe a few dozen.
Why Do We Never Hear of Yohanan ben Zakkai?
Now back to Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai. He was a prominent rabbi who played a crucial role in forming rabbinic Judaism—which makes him every bit as influential as Moses and Jeremiah.
So why do we never hear about him?
The answer is that you’ll never hear about him in a Christian Sunday School, but you’ll certainly hear about him in a Jewish Sunday School. Every young Jew studying for their bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah will learn the basic history of Judaism. And they’ll hear that rabbinic Judaism began at Yavneh. With Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai leading his people through their greatest crisis.
It’s worth noting that only four rabbis in the first century are known by the honorific title “Rabban,” which means “our great one.” The four were Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, Rabban Gamaliel, Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel, and Rabban Gamaliel ben Shimon.
The New Testament mentions only one of these, Gamaliel. Josephus also names only one of them, Shimon ben Gamaliel. Josephus and the New Testament are our two primary first-century sources for information on Jerusalem in this era. But they never mention Yohanan ben Zakkai or Gamaliel ben Shimon, whom we know only from rabbinic writings that date to later centuries.
You Can Visit Yohanan ben Zakkai
The great medieval scholar, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, is known to Jews by the acronym “Rambam” and to Christians by the name Maimonides. He’s buried in a cemetery in Tiberias, Israel.
Busloads of Jewish tourists come to visit the Rambam’s tomb every day. Some of them also stop to see the tomb of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who’s buried in the same cemetery.
I’ve been to visit Yohanan ben Zakkai twice. All five of his disciples are buried just next to him. Here’s a photo I took of Yohanan’s tomb the last time I was there. He was a heroic man who rescued his cultural heritage in a time of terrible danger. I’ve done my small part to honor him by giving him a place in my novels. May he rest in peace.