Palestinian Jews and Judaism Under Christian Rome (324-638 CE)


Beth Alpha Synagogue Mosaic

Beth Alpha Synagogue Mosaic

Under Byzantine Christianity

Until the Arab conquest of the Near East (634–638 C.E.), the centers of Jewish creativity were Palestine and Babylonia. After the suppression of the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132–135 C.E., the Palestinian Jewish community had recovered quickly. Institutions of self-rule, the patriarchate and the Sanhedrin, as well as local courts and other officials, had soon been reorganized with the toleration and eventually the support of the Romans. Indeed, the period from the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt to the end of the patriarchate of Rabbi Judah the Prince, around 220 C.E., was one of prosperity, peace, and development in the sphere of rabbinic intellectual endeavor. It culminated in the redaction of the Mishnah, completed shortly before the death of Rabbi Judah the Prince. With this achievement the tannaitic era came to a close, as the amoraim, or “interpreters,” struggled, over the ensuing three centuries, to interpret, expound, and even modify this document.

The history of Palestinian Jewry in the amoraic period, then, began on a good note with the golden age of Judah the Prince and his friendship with the high-ranking Roman whom rabbinic literature refers to as “Antoninus” (either the emperor Marcus Aurelius or some local official) carrying over into the days of his immediate successors. The renewed prosperity which most of the Jews of Palestine enjoyed resulted also from the continuation of the administrative system that had been instituted after the Great Revolt of 66–73 C.E. At that time Palestine had been detached from Syria and reorganized as a province in its own right, ruled by Roman officials of higher rank than the procurators and thus better able to understand the Jews and the special problems that the governance of Palestine entailed. The province retained this status and the concomitant better quality of government after the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

Judaism and its practices again became legal in the empire, and from 212 C.E. Jews were considered full Roman citizens. The patriarchate and the Sanhedrin were officially recognized, and Jews controlled those municipalities in the Galilee which were primarily Jewish. Jews still had to pay a special capitation tax, were officially forbidden to enter Jerusalem, and were enjoined from circumcising, i.e., converting, gentiles. With this legislative basis, a modus vivendi between the once rebellious Jews and the implacable Roman Empire had finally been achieved. Jewish agriculture and a limited spectrum of industry and commerce flourished.

In the second half of the third century, in response to the deepening economic crisis in the Roman Empire, Palestine was plagued by inflation, devaluation of currency (especially between 230 and 260 C.E.), and increased taxation. Many farmers moved to the cities. With time, deep class divisions again appeared, a development which resulted in widespread disaffection between the people and the patriarchate. The patriarchs increasingly allied themselves with the rich, while the sages were allied more and more with the poorer classes.

Judah the Prince was succeeded by Gamaliel III (died ca. 230). He in turn was succeeded by Judah Nesiah (the Prince) II, who died around 270. From 260 to 273 C.E. Palestine was under the rule of the former Roman client state of Tadmor (Palmyra, an oasis in central Syria), a change that the Jews at first saw as a hopeful sign but that quickly turned out to be meaningless. Palestine and its Jews could not escape the general decline that had set in throughout the Roman Empire. While Christianization gave the empire a new lease on life, it soon presented the Jews of Palestine and the rest of the empire with new and even greater challenges.

Gamaliel IV served as patriarch from about 270 until his death around 290. Judah III succeeded him and died in 320. The patriarch Hillel II reigned from 320 to 365. Up to his time, the Jewish calendar had been based on the actual observation of the phases of the moon. He is said to have made public the mathematical rules for the calculation of the Jewish calendar due to his fear that the deteriorating Palestinian Jewish community would no longer be able to coordinate the calendar for world Jewry.

In 324 C.E. Constantine the Great became ruler of the entire Roman Empire. Now for the first time, in both Palestine and the Diaspora, the Jews faced a Christian emperor. All the progress in legal status which the Jews had experienced in the third century soon evaporated. They found themselves ruled by adherents of a religion that claimed it had supplanted the old Israel and accused them of deicide. Moreover, Christians considered the Land of Israel as holy, a view now shared by the Roman government. In consequence, the Jews of Palestine, already a minority in their own land, soon faced the process of its Christianization. But during the reign of Constantine this was only beginning, and its full ramifications were as yet unclear.

By 350 C.E. Constantius II (337–361 C.E.) had asserted control over his father’s entire realm with the help (from 351) of Gallus, who administered the East. It was in this period that anti-Jewish legislation was first enacted. Jews were to be isolated from Christians, and penalties for converting gentiles were strengthened. The decisions of the church councils of Elvira (306) and later of Laodicea (431) became the law of the land. Jews were to be maintained in a lowly position in keeping with their having rejected the messiahship of Jesus. Their status, according to Christian teaching, was to bear witness to their replacement as the people ofGod by the Christians.

In the third and fourth centuries, Palestinian Jews now found themselves intermittently persecuted in their own land. As Christian intellectual life flourished there, Jews were increasingly compelled to enter into disputations and arguments with Christians. At the same time, life became harder and harder as the oppressive anti-Semitic measures combined with excessive taxation. It was not long before these pressures led some Jews, as had happened twice before, to rebel against their Roman overlords.

From 350 to 351 C.E. the Romans faced a variety of rebellions in the West, as well as continued pressure from Shapur II, the Sassanian king of Persia. In 351 many Jews rose in revolt against Gallus, the vice-emperor of the East under Constantius II. Like their brethren in the earlier revolts, they must have expected political and financial help from their contacts among the Jews of Babylonia and perhaps also from Shapur II. Although the revolt spread through the main cities of the Galilee, and, as excavations now show, into the Jewish communities of the Golan Heights as well, many rabbinic leaders and certain members of the upper classes do not seem to have participated. The Romans quickly put the revolt down, destroying many villages. Surprisingly, they did not exact vengeance on the population or carry out deportations, as they had after the previous revolts. A military government under the general Ursicinus ruled Palestine for the next ten years. In 354 Gallus was executed. It may be that the lenient treatment of the Jews after the revolt resulted from Roman recognition that mistreating them had precipitated the uprising. After the dust settled, the local Jewish authorities soon made peace with the new Roman administration and succeeded in reestablishing themselves. At the same time, however, the abortive rebellion further accelerated the economic decline of the Jewish population and its urbanization.

Between 355 and 360 C.E. Julian (Gallus’s brother), known as the Apostate, gradually asserted power over the empire, becoming emperor in 361. Unlike his Christian predecessors, he wanted to reverse the Christianization of the empire. Encouraging the rebuilding of pagan temples and the revival of Hellenistic culture and religion, he saw all the non-Christian elements of the empire as his allies, and this naturally included the Jews. He also saw the Jews as necessary allies, for obvious geographical reasons, in his planned attack on Persia. Jews throughout the empire benefited from Julian’s proclamation of religious freedom and rescission of the anti-Semitic laws enacted by his
predecessors. He even corresponded with the patriarch, Hillel II.

Most notable was Julian’s intention, announced in 362 C.E., to restore Jerusalem to the Jews and to rebuild the Temple and reinstitute its sacrificial worship. By doing so he intended to strengthen his ties with the Jews and disprove the Christian claim that they were living testimony to the folly of rejecting Jesus. Although the project must have excited many Jews both in Palestine and outside, the patriarchal house was hesitant, mindful of the dangers inherent in Julian’s proposal. After all, Christians still remained very powerful in the empire.

In 363 C.E., when Julian attacked Persia, work on the Temple had already begun. Materials were being gathered, and the area was being prepared for building. Then a sudden fire swept through the area, injuring workmen, and the project was stopped. The Christians took this as a sign of divine intervention, although many historians have suspected them of having set the fire. In any case, the patriarchate was soon proven correct, for Julian was killed on the eastern front and replaced by a Christian emperor. The anti-Semitic restrictions were now reinstituted, and would remain in effect throughout our period, but the large-scale persecution that might well have befallen Palestinian Jewry under the circumstances was averted by the cautious approach of its leaders.

For a time it appeared that the Jews might benefit from the internal struggles in the Christian church and Roman Empire, but it soon became clear that they would again be crushed from all sides. In 363–64 C.E. the Jews of Palestine were subjected to Christian attacks designed to eliminate Jewish settlements from the south of the country. Although the attacks soon abated, the growth of Christianity in Palestine left the Jews under constant anti-Semitic pressure. In 365, with the death of Hillel II, Gamaliel V became patriarch, ruling until 385. The emperor Theodotius I (reigned from 379 C.E.) and his successors were fervent Christians who intensified anti-Jewish legislation as the government fell more and more under the influence of the church. By this time Judah IV was patriarch, serving from 385 to 400. He was succeeded by Gamaliel VI, who served until the abolition of the patriarchate in 425. The separation of the eastern empire from the western in 395 C.E. hastened the process of Christianization, since the church of the eastern portion speedily secured the increased support of the imperial government. All the while the Jews and the Hellenistic pagans were in the same boat. By the fifth century, Hellenistic paganism had virtually disappeared, leaving the Jews the sole target of the Byzantine Empire, as the Christianized eastern empire is generally termed.

A series of anti-Semitic laws was promulgated in 383, 392, and 404 C.E., prohibiting Jews from converting gentiles and from holding public office. A law enacted in 415 required Jews and Christians to use only the imperial courts for cases between them. Synagogues were destroyed with clerical encouragement, and laws were passed forbidding the construction of new synagogues or the repair of old ones.

The Christianization of Palestine was manifest in the building of churches and monasteries, the presence of large numbers of monks, and the coming of many Christian pilgrims. In the fifth century Christians finally became the majority of the country’s population, a factor that must have been a cause of the Samaritan revolts of 484 and 529 C.E. The failure of the two revolts contributed greatly to the limited size of the Samaritan community in medieval and modern times. The Samaritans simply lacked the demographic, economic, and political resources necessary to effect a recovery.

Under the difficult conditions of Byzantine Christian rule, the rabbis of Palestine felt pressured to redact the various texts of tannaitic and Palestinian amoraic Judaism. The Tosefta and the tannaitic Midrashim, as well as the earliest of the amoraic midrashic collections, took on their final form, and the Palestinian Talmud was hastily redacted. These texts are an enduring monument to the ability of Judaism to flourish even under the adverse conditions of an anti-Semitic environment.

Considering the circumstances described in this chapter, it is remarkable that the patriarchate managed to continue for so long as the recognized central authority over the Jews of the empire. Yet in due course the general decline in the status of the Jews in the third and fourth centuries C.E. caught up with it. Between 399 and 404, because of internal dissension between the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire, the patriarchate was forbidden to collect money in the West. Yet this was only a minor setback. In 415 the patriarch Gamaliel VI was accused of building synagogues, circumcising Christian slaves, and rendering judgments in cases involving Jews and Christians. These were violations of the anti-Semitic measures mentioned earlier, but the patriarch probably claimed that he was exercising ancestral rights granted in the time of the undivided Roman Empire and still legally valid. Nonetheless, the eastern emperor deprived the patriarch of the honorary title of praetor which had been traditionally associated with his office since its establishment and ordered that Jews free Christian slaves and demolish the synagogues which had been built. This set off a process which led, by 425 C.E. (or perhaps 429), to the complete elimination of the patriarchate. When the patriarch Gamaliel VI died in that year, and the empire did not confirm a successor,Jewish self-government in Palestine finally came to its official end.

The years 451–527 C.E. saw the Christians engaged in internal struggles over religious matters and their political repercussions (or perhaps we should say, in political struggles expressed through religious conflicts). During this period, because the Christians were distracted by these matters, Palestine’s Jews suffered much less interference in their affairs. The economy improved and many synagogues with beautiful mosaics were built in the Galilee. Synagogues and houses of study were constructed in the Golan as well. The laws prohibiting the building of synagogues and Jews from holding public office were largely ignored. Jews even returned to Jerusalem. They constituted some ten percent
of the population of Palestine. New institutions revolving around the rabbinic academies replaced the defunct patriarchate.

With the accession of Justinian in 527 C.E., things took a turn for the worse. Under the influence of the church, Judaism was again persecuted. New laws denied Judaism any official sanction. Jews were forbidden to hold office, even including serving on local councils in predominantly Jewish areas; Jews were also forbidden to own Christian slaves and were not accepted as witnesses against Christians, and various other proscriptions were enacted as well. These regulations all resulted from the Christian doctrine that the Jews should be kept in a lowly position as witnesses to the truth of Christianity. Under Justinian, persecution of Jews was now legal. Indeed, this may have led Jews to join in the Samaritan revolt of 529 C.E. From the sixth and early seventh centuries we begin to hear, in the Diaspora and even in Jerusalem, of Jews being forcibly converted to Christianity on the threat of death.

It is not difficult to see why the Jews hoped for deliverance at the hands of the Persians or why they aided the Persians when they invaded Palestine in 601–614 C.E. Yet the Jews were quickly disappointed when the conquerors, after permitting them to rule Jerusalem for a short time, turned against them. Finally, the Byzantine Empire, in campaigns between 622 and 629 C.E., retook Palestine from the Persians. Now, the Byzantine Christians slaughtered Jews throughout Palestine in revenge for their having sided with the Persians. From this point on the Jews became a minor factor in Palestine. When the Arabs conquered Palestine in 638 C. E., they found only a small Jewish community.

Excerpted from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.

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