The destruction of church mosaics in eighth-century Palestine was probably inspired by Muslim laws prohibiting the depiction of any living being. But examples of iconoclasm can be found in the Christian and Jewish traditions as well. The Second Commandment forbids the making of “graven images”—though these words have been interpreted very differently throughout the millennia—and the Hebrew Bible contains numerous references to ancient Israelites who spoke out against idolatry. One of the most famous episodes of Jewish iconoclasm occurred in the late first century B.C., when a group of Jewish scholars stormed the Second Temple in Jerusalem and tried to remove the ailing King Herod’s “idolatrous” statue of a golden eagle. The incident is described in Flavius Josephus’s chronicle The Jewish War:

“There was one Judas and Matthias, two of the most eloquent men among the Jews, and the most celebrated interpreters of the Jewish laws, and men well-beloved by the people, because of their education of [Jerusalem’s] youth; for all those that were studious of virtue frequented their lectures every day. These men, when they found that the king’s distemper was incurable, excited the young men that they would pull down all those works which the king had erected contrary to the law of their fathers, and thereby obtain the rewards which the law will confer on them for such actions of piety … For Herod had caused such things to be made, which were contrary to the law … [He] had erected over the great gate of the temple a large golden eagle, of great value, and had dedicated it to the temple. Now, the law forbids those that propose to live according to it, to erect images. So these wise men persuaded [their students] to pull down the golden eagle; alleging, that although they should incur any danger which might bring them to their deaths, the virtue of the action now proposed to them would appear much more advantageous to them than the pleasures of life; since they would die for the preservation and observation of the law of the fathers …

“With such discourses as this did these men excite the young men to this action; and a report being come to them that the king was dead, this was an addition to the wise men’s persuasions; so, in the very middle of the day they got upon the place, they pulled down the eagle and cut it into pieces with axes, while a great number of people were in the temple …

“Now the king’s captain … caught no fewer than forty of the young men, who had the courage to stay behind when the rest ran away, together with the authors of this bold attempt, Judas and Matthias, who thought it an ignominious thing to retire upon this approach, and led them to the king.

“And when they were come to the king, and he had asked them if they had been so bold as to pull down what he had dedicated to God, ‘Yes,’ said they, ‘what was contrived we contrived, and what hath been performed, we performed it; and that with such a virtuous courage as become men; for we have given our assistance to those things which were dedicated to the majesty of God, and we have provided for what we have learned by hearing the law: and it ought not to be wondered at, if we esteem those laws which Moses had suggested to him, and were taught him by God, and which he wrote and left behind him, as more worthy of observation than thy commands. Accordingly we will undergo death, and all sorts of punishments which thou canst inflict upon us, with pleasure, since we are conscious to ourselves that we shall die, not for any unrighteous actions, but for our love to religion.’

“The king … ordered them to be bound [and] he sent them to Jericho … [He] burnt Matthias, who had raised the sedition, with his companions, alive. And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon.”

From The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), The Jewish War 17.6:149–164.