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Julian the Apostate and His Plan to Rebuild the Jerusalem Temple, Jeffrey Brodd, BR 11:05, Oct 1995.

Julian the Apostate3Of the Roman emperors after Constantine, only Julian (331–363) rejected Christianity in favor of the pagan gods. A nephew of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, Julian incurred the wrath of a burgeoning Christian community by deciding to rebuild the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by Roman legions in 70 C.E.

Actually, Constantine (288–337) was not baptized—and therefore not formally converted—until he lay on his deathbed. But his spiritual conversion came earlier, before he defeated the “usurper” Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge, near Rome, in 312. Even in Constantine’s lifetime, his success in that battle was credited to a Christian vision; supposedly he ordered that the Christian monogram chi-rho (the first two letters of the Greek name for Christ) be emblazoned on the shields of his soldiers, assuring victory. In any event, Christianity became the official religion of the empire during Constantine’s reign.

When Constantine died in 337, the empire was divided among his three sons, but eventually one, Constantius, became the sole ruler. When Constantius died in 361, he was succeeded by his younger half cousin and brother-in-law, Julian, who had already achieved military glory by defeating the tribes that invaded Gaul, thus bringing a measure of tranquility to the region.

A student of philosophy as well as a military commander and an able administrator, Julian was acclaimed emperor in November 361 at the age of 30. Almost immediately, Julian publicly proclaimed what he had been keeping secret for years: Although he had been raised a Christian, sometime around his 20th birthday he had converted to paganism (a). Adopting a theology based on the teachings of the Neoplatonist Iamblichus, Julian revered the ancient gods and goddesses of Homeric tradition.

Like most forms of Graeco-Roman paganism, Julian’s religion was syncretic, absorbing a wide variety of beliefs and practices. He was an initiate of at least three so-called “mystery religions,” including Mithraism.(b) But Julian’s religious open-mindedness did not extend to Christianity: Having adopted from Judaism an exclusive perspective as being the only true religion, Christianity was fundamentally incompatible with the more multifarious syncretism of paganism. (This “handicap” did not apply to Judaism, however, for reasons I shall discuss.)

By the time Julian became emperor, he was hostile to both Christianity, which he referred to as a “disease,” and Christians, whom he called “demented.” (1) Many of his imperial initiatives frustrated and angered his Christian subjects. Shortly after taking office, he proclaimed universal religious toleration and ordered the reopening of pagan temples and the resumption of worship of pagan gods. He issued a number of edicts damaging to Christianity, both economically and theologically. One edict required Christians to return property confiscated in the process of building churches. Another notorious edict specifically forbade Christians from teaching literature and rhetoric—for how could Christians honestly teach subjects replete with allusions to Greek deities whose existence they denied? (2) The effect of Julian’s decree was to exclude all Christian influence from the educational institutions of the empire.

But these were trifles compared to Julian’s announced decision to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple of the Jews. It was because of this plan that he became known as “Julian the Apostate,” an archenemy of Christianity. Julian’s plan to restore the Temple contradicted a central Christian tenet that the Temple’s destruction proved the Christian claim that they, not the Jews, were the Chosen People of God.

Moreover, the project seemed to question Jesus’ status as a true prophet: Had not Jesus, stepping forth from the Temple, prophesied that soon “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2; Mark 13:2; Luke 21:6; cf. Mark 14:58, 15:29; John 2:19)? To Christians, Julian was attacking the fundamental notion that Christianity was the true inheritor of the ancient tradition of the Israelites; they believed the destruction of the Temple was an affirmation of God’s favor toward them and, as an inseparable correlate of this, of God’s abandonment of the Jews. From the second century on, Christian apologians had particularly emphasized that these events had been prophesied in the Old Testament, thus proving that they were part of God’s predetermined plan. The destruction of Jerusalem verified God’s condemnation of the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ; it revealed Jesus as a true prophet, for he had specifically predicted the razing of the Temple.

While in Antioch in 362, Julian issued two letters to the Community of the Jews, one of which has survived (see excerpts from this and two other letters in the sidebar to this article). In it he prohibited special levies against the Jews, saying, “[N]o one is any longer to have the power to oppress the masses of your people by such exaction; so that everywhere, during my reign, you may have security of mind, and in the enjoyment of peace may offer more fervid prayers for my reign to the Most High God, the Creator, who has deigned to crown me with his own immaculate right hand.” (3)

At the time Julian was on his way to Persia to conduct a military campaign. But in the Letter to the Community of the Jews he promised that on his return he would rebuild “the sacred city of Jerusalem, which for so many years you have longed to see inhabited, and [you] may bring settlers there and, together with you, may glorify the Most High God therein.” (4) (Since Hadrian’s suppression of the Second Jewish Revolt in 135, Jews had been prohibited from residing in Jerusalem and the name of the city had been changed to Aelia Capitolina.)

Although Julian did not specifically mention rebuilding the Temple here, he did in another letter, the surviving Fragment of a Letter to a [pagan] Priest: “I myself…intended to restore it [the Jerusalem Temple], in honor of the god whose name has been associated with it.” (5) In addition, he was quoted by a sixth-century historian named Lydus as saying, “I raise with the utmost zeal the Temple of the Highest God.” (6) According to Lydus, Julian said this when he left for the campaign against the Persians. Ammianus Marcellinus, a pagan and a member of Julian’s expedition to Persia, reported that Julian was “eager to extend the memory of his reign by great works…[and] planned to restore at vast cost the once splendid temple at Jerusalem.” (7) Other pagan reports also referred to the rebuilding of the Temple.

Julian never returned from his Persian campaigns. He died in battle on June 26, 363. Whether the spear that mortally wounded him was cast by a Persian or by one of his Christian soldiers (as one tradition suggests), we shall never know. But the fact that the memory of this emperor, who reigned for just 19 months, remained so fresh among Christians for centuries is a measure of his significance; it suggests how concerned they were about his decision to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple.

Before his death, Julian appointed his friend and general, Alypius, to oversee the construction. According to the church father Gregory of Nazianzus, writing in Asia Minor within a year of the project, the Jews “in large number and with great zeal set about the work”; women contributed precious ornaments and carried dirt in their gowns.(8) Another contemporary, Ephraem of Syria, a monk famous for his poetic hymns, reported that the Jews “raged and raved and sounded the trumpets” and that “all of them raged madly and were without restraint.” (9) Later Christian historians left similar descriptions. These Christian reports are probably overblown, but coming from so many different localities, they doubtless contain a core of truth. Moreover, we have similar reports from pagan sources.

Despite such auspicious beginnings, work on the Temple probably lasted only a few days. Numerous reports, both pagan and Christian, attribute the work stoppage to a fire and, perhaps, an earthquake. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus reported that “terrifying balls of flame kept bursting forth near the foundations of the Temple,” burning some of the workers to death and putting a stop to the enterprise. (10) Gregory of Nazianzus wrote of “a furious blast of wind” and “a flame [that] issued forth from the sacred place.” (11) Ephraem noted that there were winds, earthquakes and lightning, and that a “fire came forth.” (12) These Christian descriptions of the event may have drawn on a biblical passage, the revolt against Moses by Korah, whom God punished by means of earthquake and fire (Numbers 16); but there probably was, at least, a fire. In any event, with Julian’s death, the attempt to rebuild the Temple ended.

One of the Jewish workers, eagerly anticipating a new Temple in holy Jerusalem, left a message of exultation inscribed on the western wall of the Temple Mount.

Shortly after the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Old City of Jerusalem fell into Israeli hands, archaeological excavations were begun at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount under the direction of Hebrew University professor Benjamin Mazar. There, on the western wall under Robinson’s Arch, archaeologists found a verse from Isaiah scratched on one of the stones: “You shall see and your heart shall rejoice; your bodies [shall flourish] like the grass” (see inscription). (13) According to Mazar, this inscription, dated to the fourth century by the style of the letters, was probably connected with the attempt to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. Its exuberant tone reflects Jewish enthusiasm for the project.(14)

He is probably right. Any Jew at the time could have placed the quotation on the wall in its entire context: It comes from the Book of Isaiah 66:13–14:
As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bodies shall flourish like the grass;
and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants,
and his indignation is against his enemies.

Before Julian’s reign, what Jew would have imagined that a Roman emperor would rebuild the Temple? The tragic history of Jewish relations with the Romans, which culminated in the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E. and the brutal suppression in 135 C.E. of the Second Jewish Revolt (the Bar-Kokhba revolt), after which Jews were officially prohibited even from entering Palestine, remained fresh in Jewish memory. Christians must have been as astounded and horrified by the rebuilding of the Temple as the Jewish worker who inscribed the Isaiah quotation was enthusiastic and hopeful.

What was Julian up to? Why would a pagan emperor opposed to Christianity and with ambivalent feelings about Jews want to rebuild a Jewish temple?

Some scholars argue that Julian’s Temple project was undertaken out of genuine friendship for his Jewish subjects and that Julian is thus rightly regarded as a “philo-Semite.” (15) Careful scrutiny of the evidence, however, suggests that Julian’s feelings toward the Jews were mixed; he had high regard for Jewish religious traditions and Jewish morality, but he did not much care for his actual Jewish contemporaries. Although the surviving Letter to the Community of the Jews is written in a very friendly tone, and Julian appears to be genuinely interested in helping the Jews, we must bear in mind the context of the letter: It is a work of diplomacy, using conventional techniques for charming readers. In the Letter to a Priest, on the other hand, Julian referred to the “pitch of folly” to which the Jews were brought “by their barbaric conceit.” (16)

The principal motive for Julian’s Temple project was not just friendship toward Jews and Judaism, or even hostility toward Christianity. The rebuilding of the Jewish Temple was an important part of a comprehensive reform of traditional paganism. Julian’s supposedly “anti-Christian” actions are best understood as aspects of this reform.

From Julian’s syncretistic pagan perspective, the Jewish god was one of his own! In letters to his fellow pagans, he wrote of the Jews’ ardent devotion and obedience to the law, and praised their god as “most powerful and most good.” (17) Elsewhere, he referred to the god of the Jews as “the Most High God, the Creator.” (18)

For Julian, the god of the Jews “is worshiped by us also under other names.” (19) More specifically, Julian identified the Jewish god as the universal demiurge, the creator god celebrated in Plato’s Timaeus. (20) The fact that Jews called their god by a specific name (Yahweh, in Hebrew) was not a problem, as the syncretism of the Neoplatonists allowed for various names for the same god. Julian referred to the demiurge elsewhere by such names as Helios and Attis. The identification of the god of the Jews with the creator god was not a radical idea for a Neoplatonist of Julian’s day. The earlier Neoplatonists Porphyry (c. 232–305) and Iamblichus (died 326) also seem to have made the identification. (21)

Another factor accounts for the difference between Julian’s attitude toward Judaism and his attitude toward Christianity: Animal sacrifice had been practiced in the Temple before it was destroyed. Julian was famous for his love of animal sacrifice. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “I sacrifice oxen in public. I have offered to the gods many hecatombs as thank-offerings.” (22) Ammianus Marcellinus, a pagan who sympathized with Julian on most counts and mourned his loss, mused that “if he had returned from the Parthians [Persia], there would soon have been a scarcity of cattle.” (23) Julian’s high regard for animal sacrifice was grounded in his Neoplatonic pagan outlook, which regarded the smoke of the burning animal as a necessary vehicle for carrying prayers heavenward. (24)

Julian knew that Jews had sacrificed animals in their Jerusalem Temple. (25) By allowing the Temple to be rebuilt, he was ensuring that Jews would resume their practice of offering animal sacrifices—to a god Julian regarded as his own!

Certainly Jews themselves had different views, especially regarding the purpose of animal sacrifice. But their perspective had little to do with the emperor’s decision. If the enthusiastic worker who inscribed the quotation from Isaiah on the Western Wall of the Temple Mount had known of Julian’s true intentions, would there have been any inscription for 20th-century archaeologists to find?

a. Although Julian consistently uses the term “Hellene” when writing about himself and those he regards as followers of his religion, “pagan” is at least as appropriate and was not necessarily used pejoratively in antiquity. See Pierre Chuvin, A Chronicle of the Last Pagans (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 7–9.

b. Julian was also an initiate of the Magna Mater and the Greek Eleusinian mysteries. For information on Mithraism, see David Ulansey, “Solving the Mithraic Mysteries,” BAR 20:05.

1. Julian, Rescript on Christian Teachers, in W.C. Wright, trans., The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. 3 (London: William Heinemann, 1913–1926), pp. 117–123.

2. Julian, Rescript on Christian Teachers, Works.

3. Julian, To the Community of the Jews, Works, vol. 3, pp. 177–181.

4. Julian, To the Community of the Jews.

5. Julian, Fragment of a Letter to a Priest, Works, vol. 2., pp. 297–339.

6. Lydus, De Mensibus, in Julian, Works, vol. 3, pp. 301–302.

7. Ammianus Marcellinus, John C. Rolfe, trans., Ammianus Marcellinus, vol. 2, (London: William Heinemann, 1939), 23.1,2.

8. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio V contra Julianum, 4, in C.W. King, trans., Julian the Emperor (London: George Bell and Sons, 1888).

9. Ephraem of Syria, Hymni contra Julianum, 1.16 and 2.7, in Samuel N.C. Lieu, trans., The Emperor Julian: Panegyric and Polemic (Liverpool, England: Liverpool Univ. Press, 1986).

10. Ammianus Marcellinus, 23.1,3.

11. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio V contra Julianum, 4.

12. Ephraem of Syria, Hymni contra Julianum 1.16 and 2.7.

13. The Hebrew inscription reads: adk µtwmx[w µkbl w µtyarw. Benjamin Mazar points out that the words “shall flourish” are omitted in the western wall inscription (Mountain of the Lord [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975], p. 23).

14. Mazar, Mountain of the Lord, p. 94.

15. This view is taken by Michael Avi-Yonah (The Jews Under Roman and Byzantine Rule: A Political History from the Bar Kokhba War to the Arab Conquest [Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1984], p. 190).

16. Julian, To the High-Priest Theodorus, Works, vol. 3, pp. 55–61.

17. Julian, To the High-Priest Theodorus. See also Julian’s Fragment of a Letter to a Priest; some believe these were originally parts of the same letter.

18. Julian, To the Community of the Jews; see also a brief fragment in which Julian refers to rebuilding “the temple of the Most High God” (Works, pp. 301–302).

19. Julian, To the High-Priest Theodorus.

20. The specific terminology Julian elsewhere uses to describe the demiurge leaves little room for doubt regarding this identification. Compare, for example, the description of the demiurge in his “Hymn to the Mother of the Gods” (Oration V 166d, Works, vol. 1). Julian refers to the god of the Jews as demiurge in his letter To the Community of the Jews; in another instance, Julian asserts that the Jewish god “governs this world of sense” (To the High-Priest Theodorus), which is the role of the demiurge in Neoplatonic philosophy.

21. For Porphyry, in Commentarii in Oracula Chaldaica, as quoted in Lydus, De Mensibus, in Menahem Stern, trans., Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, vol. 2 (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1980), p. 433. For Iamblichus, quoted in Lydus, De Mensibus, in Stern, p. 485.

22. Julian, letter To Maximus, the Philosopher, Works, vol. 3, pp. 24–25.

23. Ammianus Marcellinus, 25.4,17.

24. See, for example, section 16 of Sallustius’s Concerning the Gods and the Universe, in Arthur Darby Nock,trans., Sallustius: Concerning the Gods and the Universe (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1926).

25. Julian, Julian contra the Galilaeans, Works, vol. 3, pp. 404–407.

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