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John S. Crawford. “Multiculturalism at Sardis.” Biblical Archaeology Review 22, 5 (1996).

Christian anti-Semitism in the Byzantine period (312–1453 C.E.) is well documented—in legal codes, in religious and secular literature, and in iconographic depictions.(1) The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium describes the situation:

[Jews] lived among a triumphant, arrogant, and multi-ethnic Christian population whose literature, religion, liturgy, and art derived in part from Jewish sources. [Jews] experienced anti-Semitism through imperial policy, intellectual snobbery, and ecclesiastical polemic. Byzantine religious art, save for canonical Old Testament figures and scenes, confined representations of Jews to such pejorative contexts as among the damned in the Last Judgment.(2)

Archaeology, however, provides somewhat of a corrective. It’s not that anti-Semitism didn’t exist; at times, it was rampant. Yet the archaeological record proves that some Jews and Christians lived peaceably together in the same communities, worked together and even respected each other’s sacred symbols.(3)

Consider Sardis, a site in modern Turkey.

Sardis was an important religious and commercial center for nearly a millennium—until it was destroyed early in the seventh century C.E.(a) Its church was one of the seven churches of Asia to which the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation) was addressed. Some of Christianity’s early converts no doubt came from Sardis’s Jewish community, large and powerful since the days of Julius Caesar and Augustus. Yet at Sardis, both a grand domed basilica church, probably built in the sixth century C.E., and the world’s largest excavated ancient synagogue occupied equally prominent locations.(4)

The synagogue was part of an important building complex that also included a bath-gymnasium—a long rectangular hall used, in its last phase, to hold industrial waste—and a colonnade with 27 shops and residences built about 400 C.E. Although built as part of what must have been a centrally planned program of urban renewal at Sardis, the colonnade’s scale and materials were modest. The marble column shafts and their capitals were almost entirely taken from earlier buildings. Most of the colonnade’s shop units were about 16 feet wide. All of them had two stories reaching to a standard height of about 16 feet. A number of the second-story rooms were residences. The contents of these shops and residences often indicate not only the occupants’ professions but also their religions.

In this manner, we determined that six of the shops were occupied by Jews and ten by Christians; ten others show no evidence of religious affiliation. One remains unexcavated for control purposes.

In two shops that formed a restaurant (W1 and W2 on plan, below), for example, we found a terra-cotta ampulla, decorated with a Latin cross, that probably had contained holy water or oil; a copper alloy ring with a Maltese cross on it; and a Latin cross graffito. We therefore assume the owner of the restaurant was Christian.

Next to this restaurant, two other shops (E1 and E2) were full of food bones, broken glassware and cooking pottery—including a footed redware plate decorated with a Greek cross and ornamental patterns that resemble early Byzantine ecclesiastical metalwork. We identified these shops as a Christian restaurant, an identification clinched by our discovery of three pig bones and some mussel shells—nonkosher food remains. No observant Jew would have patronized a restaurant that served pork and shellfish.

Another pair of shops on the west side of the colonnade (W9 and W8) contained marble slabs decorated with Latin crosses. The crosses were so large and prominent that when they were first excavated the diggers thought they were uncovering a religious structure. But our further discovery of basins, bowls, cookware and large storage jars (pithoi) indicated that the building had been used as a commercial dye shop, one of the many that made Sardis famous for its rich and colorful textiles.5 The marble slabs formed a dye vat marked with Latin crosses, in keeping with the practice common in early Byzantine Asia Minor of making reused pagan objects—or, in this case, former gravestones—acceptable to Christians.(6)

Some rooms showed no evidence of commercial use. These, I decided, were residences rather than shops. One residence (E3) had a Latin cross with a looped rho inscribed on one of its reused marble blocks. The cross was large enough to be clearly visible from the colonnade. The residence next to it (E4) had mussel shells in it but no inscribed articles or works of art. The most interesting and significant objects discovered in the Byzantine colonnade were next door in E5. A wealthy dye merchant probably lived in this particular residence, judging from the scales and other objects found there. Excavators retrieved a large flask with elaborate Christian iconography from its lower story. The front of the flask is decorated with a large Latin cross; two rabbits nibble on branches and leaves growing from the cross. On the reverse side of the flask, two geese lift their heads to eat from a bunch of grapes.(7) The overall symbolism of the flask is eucharistic and remarkably well executed in this simple mold-made, terra-cotta object. Because its clay lacks the mica typically associated with Sardian clay, the flask was probably brought from elsewhere, perhaps a pilgrimage site. Since the only silver coin found in any of the shops or residences came from E5 (all the other shops contained copper coins), I believe the occupant was a proud, wealthy Christian who could have afforded to make such a pilgrimage.(8) All three residences, then—E3, E4 and E5—were probably occupied by Christians.

Flask with elaborate Christian iconography

The tenth and last structure given a Christian identification stood at the far eastern end of the colonnade (E18) and shared a wall with the synagogue. An elaborate, copper-alloy lamp with an ivy leaf-shaped handle guard and a cross decoration was found in it. The lamp’s lid has a knob in the shape of a leaping dolphin, symbolizing the Greek word ICQUS, meaning fish. ICQUS was used as an anagram for Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior and the Resurrection.(9) Both the ivy, because it is evergreen, and the dolphin, a symbol of salvation because it was believed to save people at sea, were Christian symbols of immortality.(10)

Three shops (E6, E7, E8) showed signs of Jewish occupancy. Two amphoras inscribed with “Iakovos,” the Greek genitive form of the Jewish name Ya’akov, or Jacob, were found in the middle shop (E7). The same room also had two menorahs incised on its doorjamb, clear evidence of Jewish occupancy. The three shops formed a major dye establishment. The main production room (E6) was still filled with mortars, pigments and tools; the middle room (E7), with the telltale Jewish marks, was a combined entrance and work area; the business office (E8) still contained hundreds of copper coins.

Iakovos may also have owned a paint and dye shop (E14). Another graffito with the name “Iakovos” was found on an amphora in this shop, but this graffito also included an abbreviation that the excavation’s epigrapher, Louis Robert, translated as “presbyterou,” or “elder.”(11) Robert believed that Iakovos was an elder of the synagogue, but the term could also refer to a leader of the Christian church. Or the abbreviation could simply indicate that this was the senior of two Iakovoses, to distinguish him from his son or grandson or just someone with the same name. But since the menorahs in E7 are good evidence that the Iakovos mentioned there was Jewish, I consider E14 to have been occupied by Jews also, even though there are no specifically Jewish symbols in it.

We had difficulty identifying the religion of the occupants of the two shops (E12 and E13) next to E14. These shops apparently formed a store specializing in glassware vessels and windowpanes. In what had been the upper story of this shop, we found two fragments of a marble plaque inscribed with a menorah. This seemed conclusive proof that the occupants were Jewish. But things subsequently became more complicated: Three names (in the genitive case) were found on pottery vessels—Ioannes, Sabbatios and Theoktistos. Although all of these names are attested Jewish names in Byzantine times, the first and last are also common names for Christians; there is even a St. Sabbatios in the Greek Orthodox Church.(12) To add to the confusion, this same store had a weighing device with a Maltese cross on it. So were the people who operated this shop Jewish or Christian?

I asked the late Professor Nahman Avigad of Hebrew University in Jerusalem what he thought. He told me that he had excavated a third-fourth century lamp with a cross on it at a Jewish catacomb at Beth She’arim.(13) Apparently, if Jewish people borrowed a utilitarian article, they used it regardless of the religious symbols it bore. I later learned that minor Christian objects often turn up in Jewish contexts (and vice versa).(14) Since the shop’s menorah plaque was larger, and therefore probably more important, than the small, less noticeable cross on the weighing device, I finally concluded that the shop owner must have been Jewish.

But what really struck me was that the Jewish occupant of this shop did not remove the Christian cross from the weighing device. It would have been easy to do, so why didn’t he? Obviously the cross did not arouse the kind of religious antagonism against Christianity described in literary sources.

By contrast, images of pagan divinities did arouse antagonism at Sardis, where many pagan symbols had been destroyed or defaced. Sardis had been a center of worship for several pagan gods and goddesses since Lydian times, particularly for the goddess Cybele. A second century C.E. poet from Pergamum, describes Cybele as:

the mother of the immortal gods … she who wields the sceptre over the renowned pole, she of the many names, the honoured One … delighting in drums, tamer of all, saviour of the Phrygians, bed-fellow of Kronos, child of Uranos, the old One, life-giving, frenzy-loving, joyful One, gratified with acts of piety.(15)

Her worship spread from Phrygia throughout the rest of Asia Minor, to Greece and, later, to Rome. Her popular cult was a hated rival of Christianity, denounced by St. Augustine and Arnobius.(16) A collection of monuments from all over the Roman Empire related to her cult fills seven current volumes,(17) and innumerable coins bear her image because her cult enjoyed the patronage of many emperors. Cybele’s prominence at Sardis makes the defacement of her images by Christians and Jews easy to understand.

An altar dedicated to Cybele, with four stone lions, her sacred animal, presided over King Croesus’ gold refinery at the nearby Pactolus River in sixth-century B.C.E. Sardis.(18) This famous shrine must have been destroyed by the fourth century C.E. A large, handsome stela from the fourth century B.C.E., showing Cybele and Artemis, was reused face down in the forecourt of the Sardis synagogue in about 360 C.E.(19) Also, an archaic monument of Cybele was reused in a pier in the synagogue’s main hall in a way that completely obscured her image.(20)

The Byzantine shops yield numerous other examples of anti-pagan sentiment. A lion-shaped brass lamp found in a Christian residence (E5), for example, has a crude patch marring its back, where an image of Cybele probably once rode. Cybele rides a lion on similar sculptures and images on lamps, coins and medallions.(21) The goddess was probably removed from the lion lamp at Sardis so that its Christian owner would have no qualms about using it at home.

In one of the Christian restaurants (W1), a furniture support in the form of Attis, Cybele’s consort, had its face deliberately removed. In the House of Bronzes, across the road from the colonnade, excavators found an incense shovel with a cross on it and another defaced furniture support. In both instances, Christians clearly took exception to the pagan images.

A statue of Dionysus and a satyr was found in the bath-gymnasium’s latrine. A mutilated Dionysus marble table leg—the god’s face and genitalia appear to have been deliberately smashed—was removed from the upper story of shop E19. A lion table leg from the same shop, however, was not defaced in any way. The occupant, whether Jewish or Christian, discriminated only against pagan symbols.

But while pagan imagery was prohibited at Sardis during the Byzantine period, Christian and Jewish symbols were allowed. Though neither Jews nor Christians tolerated paganism, they respected each other’s religious symbols and therefore probably each other. There is no evidence at Sardis of defacement of either menorahs or crosses.

On the contrary, an inscription listing the city’s public fountains even mentions the fountain in the forecourt of the synagogue, meaning that at least the synagogue’s forecourt was open to all.(22) The very existence of the synagogue at this time, with its large size and rich decoration, proves the respect given it. The synagogue also shows evidence of renovations until at least the middle of the sixth century,(23) in apparent defiance of the 438 C.E. law of Theodosius II banning the repairb or construction of synagogues.(24)

Clearly Theodosius II’s law was not enforced at Sardis, and it may not have been enforced elsewhere either(25)—suggesting that actual relations between Christians and Jews were not as hostile as literary sources claim. In Israel, two other known synagogues were built while the law was in effect. An inscription in the mosaic pavement of the Gaza synagogue dates it to approximately 508 C.E.; a mosaic pavement of the Beth Alpha synagogue, south of the Sea of Galilee, also dates to the sixth century.(26) At least two more synagogues,c like the one at Maon, have been dated to the sixth century on stylistic grounds.(27) Some synagogues even coexisted with churches during the fifth and sixth centuries C.E. The magnificent synagogue at Capernaum, for example, which may date as late as the fifth century (and was certainly repaired at that late date), flourished cheek by jowl with the Christian church known as St. Peter’s House.d And synagogues and churches coexisted in the Golan into the seventh century.(28)

Since prohibitions on the building and remodeling of synagogues were obviously not enforced, we must ask whether other restrictive laws were also ignored even though they remained on the books. The canon of the Council of Laodicea (late in the fourth century) forbade Christians from accepting New Year’s presents from Jews. But this implies that Jews and Christians had been exchanging New Year’s presents at least up to that time.(29) Are we to believe that this practice suddenly stopped?

Moreover, if Sardis is typical, there appear to have been no restrictions on where Jews could live and work. Jews and Christians shared the same colonnaded area, and their shops were interspersed, not segregated. Jews and Christians could also practice the same trade—producing and selling paints and dyes.

At Sardis, contacts between Jews and Christians were apparently frequent, just as we would expect in any urban setting with a mixed population. Jews had been a prominent part of city life at Sardis for hundreds of years, as the first-century historian Flavius Josephus and the donation inscriptions of the synagogue attest. The synagogue was located in the most central and frequented part of the city, and it remained a Jewish synagogue until it was destroyed, along with the rest of the city, early in the seventh century C.E.

Of course, people’s attitudes are always difficult to measure. One thing, however, is clear: There is no evidence of hate. Both Christians and Jews could proudly declare who they were, do the work they were trained to do, go where they wanted, live where they pleased and worship as they chose. This may not have been true everywhere in the early Byzantine world—and it was certainly not true in later periods—but in Sardis and many other places between the fourth and seventh centuries, a measure of tolerance and peace, even neighborliness, prevailed between Christians and Jews.

1. Steven B. Bowman and Anthony Cutler, “Anti-Semitism,” in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, 3 vols., ed. Alexander P. Kazhdan (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991), vol. 1, pp. 122–123; Bowman, “Jews,” ibid., vol. 2, pp. 1040–1041.

2. Bowman, “Jews,” p. 1041.

3. A. Thomas Kraabel, “Impact of the Discovery of the Sardis Synagogue,” in Sardis from Prehistoric to Roman Times, ed. George M.A. Hanfmann (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983), p. 185.

4. For the church, see Hanfmann, “Christianity: Churches and Cemeteries,” in Sardis, ed. Hanfmann, pp. 194–196, fig. 287; for the synagogue, see Andrew R. Seager and Kraabel, “The Synagogue and the Jewish Community,” in Sardis, ed. Hanfmann, pp. 168–190, fig. 258.

5. J. Stephens Crawford, The Byzantine Shops at Sardis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990), p. 15, footnote. See also Clive Foss, Byzantine and Turkish Sardis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1976), p. 15.

6. This is especially true of the Temple of Artemis. See Foss, Ephesus after Antiquity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979), p. 82, and Byzantine and Turkish Sardis, p. 49

7. The branches and leaves on the front of the flask mark the cross as the Tree of Life, a metaphor originating in apostolic times and elaborated in Byzantine sermons (Gerhard Podskalsky, “Cross,” in Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, vol. 1, p. 549).

In this context, the rabbits symbolize the defenselessness of Christians, who put their trust in Christ. The three-lobed leaves with crosses on them that the rabbits are eating probably symbolize communion bread because of their Trinitarian and Christological symbols (Hans Biedermann, Dictionary of Symbolism [New York: Facts on File, 1992], p. 165; and J.C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols [London: Thames and Hudson, 1978], p. 80).

The two geese on the reverse side symbolize vigilance, and the grapes they eat symbolize communion wine (Biedermann, ibid., p. 156).

8. Crawford, Byzantine Shops at Sardis, p. 57.

9. James Hall, Dictionary of Symbols in Art, rev. ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), pp. 105–106.

10. For the symbolism of the ivy see Biedermann, Dictionary of Symbolism, p. 187, and Hall, Symbols in Art, p. 163; for the symbolism of the dolphin, see George Ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961), p. 15.

11. Louis Robert, Nouvelles inscriptions de Sardes (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1964), p. 57, pl. 2.

12. Robert, Nouvelles inscriptions de Sardes, p. 58, pl. 111. See also Hanfmann, “The Fifth Campaign at Sardis (1962),” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 170 (April 1963), p. 51. I am grateful to Fr. Raissas of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Wilmington, Delaware, for the information about St. Sabbatios.

13. The catacomb was begun in the second century, added to in the third. Burials continued until the fourth century.

14. Nahman Avigad, Beth She’arim III: Catacombs 12–13 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1976), p. 188; and Crawford, Byzantine Shops, pp. 18, 79. A valuable discussion of Christian objects found in Jewish contexts (and vice versa) has appeared in Leonard V. Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), pp. 81–92.

15. Maarten J. Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 10.

16. Vermaseren, Cybele and Attis, pp. 180–182.

17. Vermaseren, Corpus Cultus Cybelae Attidisque, vols. 1–7 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1977–1989).

18. Hanfmann, “Lydian Society and Culture,” and Andrew Ramage, Sidney M. Goldstein and William E. Mierse, “Lydian Excavation Sectors,” in Sardis, ed. Hanfmann, pp. 95–96, 36–37.

19. Hanfmann, “Christianity,” p. 194.

20. Hanfmann, “Lydian Society and Culture,” p. 92.

21. Crawford and James Greaves, “A Brass Lion Lamp from Sardis,” American Journal of Archaeology 78:3 (1974), pp. 291–294. Cornelius C. Vermeule, Greek and Roman Sculpture in Gold and Silver (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1974), p. 24, no. 77–78. Statues and statuettes of Cybele riding a lion are numerous. For one in alabaster in the Virginia Museum, see Ancient Art in the Virginia Museum (Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1973), p. 126, no. 145. See generally Vermaseren, Matrem in Leone Sedentem (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970); and Corpus Cultus Cybelae Attidisque; and Cybele and Attis: The Myth and the Cult.

22. Seager and Kraabel, “Jewish Community,” p. 169. William H. Buckler and David M. Robinson, Sardis VII.1: Greek and Latin Inscriptions (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1932), no. 17, line 7.

23. Seager and Kraabel, “Jewish Community,” p. 174.

24. Seager and Kraabel, “Jewish Community,” p. 174. Novellae Theod. 3.3=Codex Justinianus 1.9.18. See Clyde Pharr, The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitution (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1952), p. 489 n. 3.

25. Seager and Kraabel, “Jewish Community,” p. 174.

26. Avraham Negev, ed., The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (New York: Putnam, 1972), p. 48.

27. Negev, Archaeological Encyclopedia, p. 194.

28. Negev, Archaeological Encyclopedia, p. 30.

29. Rutgers, Roman Diaspora, p. 85.

a. Excavators speculate that either an earthquake or an invasion caused the fire that destroyed Sardis.

b. Except in the case of imminent collapse.

c. Unfortunately it is impossible to tell exactly how many synagogues might fit these descriptions since only a fraction of the synagogues known to have existed have been excavated.

d. See James F. Strange and Hershel Shanks, “Has the House Where Jesus Stayed in Capernaum Been Found?” BAR 08:06.

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