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Overview: The Land of Israel during the Byzantine Period (324-638 CE)

Greco-Roman Period
The lamps of Edom [Christianity] burn bright, the lamps of Zion [Judaism] are extinguished.–Yannai, sixth century synagogue poet.

The transformation of Christianity from a despised and outlawed cult into the official religion of the Roman Empire had profound significance for Jews and gentiles alike. In the centuries after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 324 CE, the ancestral religions of Rome were persecuted, destroyed and declared illicit. The great temples of the empire were pillaged, burned, dismantled and on occasion rededicated as churches for the (sometimes) compliant masses. The Christianization of the Roman Empire is one of the most gruesome example of government-sponsored cultural annihilation in western history.

Jews fared far better in this new Christian empire than polytheists did. At first, the maintenance of Judaism was based upon their positive legal status under Roman law. Being an ancient and licit religion, Judaism was protected from Christian persecution. However, as the fifth and sixth centuries wore on, these protections began to slip, as synagogues were destroyed and rededicated as churches under Christian sponsorship, while the government did little or nothing to protect them.

Christians had reason to preserve Jews. St. Augustine formulated that, as the living examples of the “Old Covenant” that God had made with the ancient Israelites, Jews should be treated as remnants of a failed covenant that had been supplanted by the New Covenant of Christ. In a way, Jews were thus anthropologically interesting. This colonial approach towards Jews had theological underpinnings. For instance, according to St. Augustine, the continued existence of the Jews, maintained in an intentionally wretched state, was continuing proof of their rejection by God.

Despite being persecuted, Jewish culture seems to have thrived under Christian Rome, at least in the Land of Israel. Synagogue buildings continued to be constructed throughout Jewish areas of Palestine, often with beautifully decorated mosaics and polished stone seven-branched menorahs. The construction of these buildings had much in common with nearby churches, which came to dominate the Jewish homeland as Christians established their Christian Holy Land and strengthened the economy of Palestine. Jewish literary composition also thrived, though the age of the great and well known Rabbinic scholars passed, and rabbis did their work mainly in anonymity. The exception is a group of sixth century virtuoso synagogue poets, Yose son of Yose, Yannai, Qalir and others, who wove the Hebrew language artfully into new and energized liturgical poetry (piyyutim). Homiletical interpretation of Scripture also continued apace, leading to the composition of new collections of homilies (midrashim) and Aramaic translations of Scripture (Targumim).

In the space created between Christian persecution of polytheists and the grudging toleration of the people of the “Old Testament,” Judaism thrived under difficult circumstances that presaged the Christian Middle Ages. As one synagogue poet Yannai put it, “The lamps of Edom [Christianity] burn bright, the lamps of Zion [Judaism] are extinguished.” Yannai’s lament, however, was only for the moment. His community expected messianic redemption, and with it the defeat of Christian Rome. In the end, redemption seemed to come from the East, with the Persian invasion of Palestine in 616 CE and finally the Islamic conquest in 632 CE.

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