The Jews in the Land of Israel in the Fourth Century

The crisis of the age—and there assuredly was a crisis for Jews—began in politics but extended to matters of the mind: psychology, theology, and myth gone wrong, most of all. For what happened was something that Jews did not anticipate, the rise to power of the Christian faith, seen by Jews until then as a mere aberration and a heresy. What Jews did anticipate was never to come to pass: in the enormous shift of history and politics, the opportunity to rebuild the Temple came—and went. These two then, the rise to power of the formerly unimportant sect, the failure of the messianic expectation at the moment of its best hope—define the contours of the difficult and decisive century, the first in the history of the Christian—and Judaic—West as it would come into being, and the last in the history of the classical Mediterranean world.

While the Christian empire outlawed paganism, policy toward the Jews accorded limited toleration. We err if we identify the systematic destruction of Jews' lives and property in the Christian West, which took place after the Crusades, with the Roman policy of Constantine's age. Overall, the Jews of the land and of the Roman Empire in general continued to enjoy state recognition and protection. Worship was protected and not to be interrupted; synagogues were exempt from billeting; synagogue staffs were exempt from curial charges just as were Christian clergy; Jews did not have to go to court on the Sabbath; Jewish courts settled civil disputes (Jones 1966, 945-46). On the other hand, there were also disabilities:

Intermarriage between Jews and Christians was declared by Theodosius to be tantamount to adultery and subjected to the same penalties. . . . Constantine forbade Jews to circumcise their slaves, [violation being] a capital offense and furthermore forbade Jews to buy slaves of any religion but their own. . . .

Christianity added theological animus to the general dislike of the Jews, and the numerous diatribes against them, in the form of sermons or pamphlets, which Christian leaders produced, must have fanned the flames. It is surprising indeed that the emperors, most of whom shared the popular view, maintained such moderation in their legal enactments ... the attitude of the emperors seems to have been mainly inspired by respect for the established law. The Jews had since the days of Caesar been guaranteed the practice of their ancestral religion and the government shrank from annulling this ancient privilege. (Jones 1966, 946-47)

Still, Jones's judgment for the period at hand is positive: "Except for their exclusion from the public service and the bar the Jews . . . incurred no serious civil disabilities until the reign of Justin." True, on occasion mobs took over and burned down synagogues. But when that happened the government exacted compensation. Mass baptisms by force occurred only after this period and far from the land of Israel. In The Decline of the Ancient World Jones further comments, "The imperial government . . . consistently maintained and enforced their [the Jews'] religious liberty. . . . Most responsible bishops supported governmental policy. Some firebrands invited their congregations to burn down synagogues and forcibly baptize their congregations, but the church councils and popes condemned such actions" (1966, 342). So, in all, the problems of the age of Constantine affected morale more than they did the political or material welfare and well-being of the Jews of the land. But the changes that affected morale were of a political character. Given the Jews' long history of enjoying political toleration in the Roman Empire, the shifts made an enormous difference, even though, in light of what would happen centuries beyond, they do not appear intolerable.

The triumph of Christianity, as it unfolded through the fourth century, by no means provided Christians with a certainty of what was to come. For a long time the outcome was unsure, as Bickerman stresses. And, overall, the Jews' legal status remained secure. So the issues of the age, so far as they pressed, turn out to concern intellectual, not political or economic, problems.2 The matter of meaning predominated, because the condition of politics and social and material circumstances stood essentially unaffected (Wilken 1983,49-53; cf. Ari-Yonah 1976, 161-74). Changes to the Jews' detriment mainly affected narrowly religious matters, such as proselytism and, in particular, conversion of slaves. Constantine, to be sure, inaugurated a tradition of verbal abuse of Judaism and of Jews, and later in the century political change did take place. But, overall, we find slight evidence of a change in the Jews' legal rights and status in the fourth century (Wilken 1983, 53). Meyers, Kraabel, and Strange state: "The great flowering of Jewish material culture in this same period— usually thought to be a time of stress and growing tension between Jews and Christians—seems to suggest that the restrictive legislation against Jews had a far more limited impact than was thought heretofore" (in Wilken 1983, 55). What happened in the fourth century that can have made a difference to the sages of Judaism, living in the Land of Israel ("Palestine")? First, the Christians took a keen interest in the Land of Israel, now become the Holy Land

(Avi-Yonah 1976, 160). Second, the Christian church emerged "as an organization competing with the State itself . . . attractive to educated and influential persons." The bishops of the Church formed the center of large voluntary organizations, in politics, in charitable tasks, even in defending towns against attach (Momigliano 1963a, 9, 10). So Christianity attained prominence on the local scene.

As Christians gained firm control of the government of the empire, Jews in the Land of Israel entered a situation formerly scarcely known, as Baron characterizes it: "For the first time since the brief outburst under Hadrian, their inner life, religious observance, community organization, and non-political public utterances became an important concern of the central government. . . . The Jewish question clearly was of religious concern to the Christian state" (1952, 172). Three important events stand out: first, the abortive rebuilding of the Temple, promised by Julian; second, the inclusion, in the law code of Theodosius, of provisions hostile to the Jews and Judaism; third, the end, in 429, of the patriarchate, political institution of Jewish self-administration in the Land of Israel and abroad (Jones 1966, 944). But the change in the Jews' status found its mark in no such dramatic events. The policy, applied by emperors beyond Constantine, was "that no Jew should exercise authority over a Christian . . . Jews, for example, not being allowed to own Christian slaves" (Baron, 1952, 181). That prohibition of "Jewish lordship over Christians had a severe effect on Jewish economic life," for, as Ruether further points out, "In a slave economy, it was impossible to operate any large-scale manufacturing or agricultural enterprise without slaves " (1972, 187). With the Christianization of much of the population, a normal labor force was denied to Jewish entrepreneurs. Jews also could not proselytize and could not prevent Jews from converting to Christianity. Theodosius made it a crime for a Christian to marry a Jew. In all, as Ruether says, "By the late fourth century, new types of laws began to be added which drastically reduced Jewish social standing. Jews were excluded from all civil and military ranks and were gradually excluded from holding any type of public office" (1972, 189). Still, in the Theodosian code Jews did retain the right to govern their own religious affairs (Baron 1952, 191). They could not be forced to come to court on the Sabbath or to carry out forced labor on holy days. In 398 Theodosius I wrote:

It is sufficiently evident that the Jews' sect has not been prohibited by any law. Hence we are seriously aroused over the fact that their assemblies have been forbidden in various places. Your sublime Excellency will, therefore, upon receipt of this order, check with appropriate severity the overzealousness of those who, in the name of the Christian faith, arrogate to themselves illegal [powers] and attempt to destroy and despoil synagogues. (Baron 1982, 192)

The Christian emperors joined a policy of protection of Jews' rights and property and limited the exercise of Judaism to Jews alone. Baron maintains that the Jewish population of the Land of Israel declined. He cites Jerome: "In comparison to their previous multitude there hardly remained a tenth of them" (1952, 210). So much for trends, latent and manifest, in the changing status of the Jews and of Judaism in the age of Constantine. What of events? Only a single noteworthy event took place in the public history of Judaism in the fourth century. That was the fiasco of Emperor Julian's plan of rebuilding the Temple. To state what happened simply, the Emperor encouraged the Jews to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and to restore the animal sacrifices there. After a brief effort, the structure collapsed, and nothing came of the plan. What was at issue, and why did it matter to both Judaic sages and Christian theologians?

Christians had long cited the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem as proof of the prophetic powers of Jesus, who, in the Christian record, had predicted the matter before it happened. The ruin of Jerusalem had served for three centuries to testify to the truth of Christianity. The emperor Julian, as part of his policy of opposing Christianity, gave orders to permit the Jews to rebuild their Temple and to resume animal sacrifices, just as the pagan temples were to be restored and their animal sacrifices renewed. Julian in general favored Jews, remitted taxes that had applied to them in particular, and as part of that broader policy undertook to rebuild the Jews' Temple. Forbidden to worship in Jerusalem for the preceding two hundred years, the Jews took the emperor's decree as a mark of friendship. Some may have assumed that the emperor's action forecast the coming of the Messiah. Julian had moreover issued edicts of toleration, but, singling out Christianity, he pressured Christians to give up the faith and revert to paganism. He further declared war on Christianity by forbidding Christians to teach in the schools; Christians could not teach the classical authors, for Christians "despise the gods the [classics] honored." He took away the clergy's former legal power, withdrew recognition of bishops as judges in civil matters, and subjected the clergy to taxation. So, as Bowersock says, "Julian and the Jews had a common enemy in the Christians; their allegiance could be valuable in the Near East, particularly in Mesopotamia, where the emperor was going to conduct his campaign against the Persians." Julian undertook a more general policy of restoring temples Christians had closed, and, for their part, the Christians had turned Jerusalem into a Christian city. Constantine and his mother had built churches and shrines there. Since, moreover, Julian had in mind to restore sacrifices as part of normal prayer, he wanted the Jews to restore their cult as well. By securing the restoration of the Temple, he moreover would invalidate the prophesy of Jesus that not one stone of the Temple would be left upon another. But when Julian died in battle, in 363, nothing had been accomplished (Lietzmann 1950, 282; Bowersock 1978, 87-90; Jones 1966, 60; Frend 1984, 606; Labriolle 1953, 232-36). Frend explains the matter very simply: "His aim may have been ... to strike at the heart of Constantinian Jerusalem, to upstage the Holy Places by a new, rebuilt 'sacred city of Jerusalem.' Unfortunately workers struck hidden gaseous deposits when they began to lay the new founda tions. Explosions and fire greeted their efforts, and the attempt was abandoned in confusion (1984, 606). So ended the last attempt to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem from then to now. Julian's successors dismantled all of his programs and restored the privileges the Church had lost (Goodenough 1970, 61). We need hardly speculate on the profound disappointment that overtook the Jews of the empire and beyond. The seemingly trivial incident— a failed project of restoring a building—proved profoundly consequential for Judaic and Christian thinkers. We know that a quarter of a century later, John Chrysostom dwelt on the matter of the destruction of the Temple—and the Jews' failure to rebuild it—as proof of the divinity of Jesus.

Whether some, or many, Jews reached the same conclusion in the aftermath of the fiasco, we do not know. All we know is the sages' response to the messianic question, to which we shall turn in due course. We have no reference in the sages' writings to the matter. But we can readily reconstruct an appropriate response, if not one particular to the event: the Temple will be rebuilt when the Messiah comes, not before; the Messiah will come when Israel attains that sanctification that the Torah requires, and the model of the sage provides the ideal for which Israel should strive. The attitude of mind required of Israel was humility and acceptance, humility before God and acceptance of the sages' authority. These attitudes, joined with actions aimed at living the holy life, will in due course prove Israel worthy of receiving the Messiah. That message, written across the pages of the Talmud of the Land of Israel but so far as we know not in any prior document in the sages' movement, assuredly addressed the crisis of disappointment (see Neusner 1984).

After Julian, the Christian restoration intensified the prior abridgement of the civil status of the Jews. Referring to the view that the Jews should be kept in a condition of misery but should not be exterminated, Ruether says, "Between 315 and 439 (from the reign of Constantine to the promulgation of the Theodosian Code), this view of the Jew was enforced through a steadily worsening legal status" (1972, 186). Avi-Yonah divides the period after Julian into three parts, the first, 363-83, until the accession of Theodosius, a period of "a truce between the hostile religions." The second, from the accession of Theodosius I to the death of his son, Arcadius, was marked by an "energetic attack on Judaism by the leaders of the church, mainly through pressure on the imperial government. The government ceded here and there but did not cause serious injury to the Jewish community as a whole or to Jews as individuals. This campaign against Judaism was part of a larger program of physical attacks on paganism and pagans and their places of worship, which sharpened after 380" (MacMullen 1984, 186). The third subperiod lasted from the accession of Theodosius II till the publication of his third Novella (408-38). "During this time the power of the church overcame the scruples of the government and both turned against the Jews" (Avi-Yonah 1976, 208). So, through to the end of the period at hand, the judgment with which we began, that the problems were those of morale, not of politics and economics, remains valid. Of interest in relation to this judgment are a few facts.

The first involved the official recognition of Christianity as the religion of the state. In 395 Theodosius declared the empire a Christian state and abolished paganism. Theodosius' suppression of paganism and of Christian deviation made its impact, also, on Judaism, as we have noted, but the success of the bonding of religion and patriotism, "welded into an unbreakable alliance that was to last as long as Byzantium, indeed as long as 'Holy Russia' lasted" (Frend 1984, 745), would preserve the Christian Roman Empire in the East long after Rome in the West faded from sight. And it was there, in the East, that the Judaism of the Christian West found definition. A second event of importance marking the end of the period was the last of the line of hereditary patriarchs in 429. The patriarchs had nominated the clergy of synagogues (Jones 1966, 945), sent out agents to collect dues and supervise synagogues, and, in general, had enjoyed high public standing (Ari-Yonah 1976, 225-29). So far as we know, many sages known from the rabbinic writings served in the administration of the patriarch, but they assuredly did not control that administration or its head. They were clerks and useful because they knew the law. In 429 the patriarchate came to an end, when the emperor declined to approve a new holder of the post. A third important event, though long in the unfolding, was the formation of a Christian majority in the Land of Israel. Between the mid-fourth and the mid-fifth centuries, the Jews became a minority in their own country (Avi-Yonah 1976, 220). This was the most profound change marked by the age of Constantine, and nothing in the history of Scripture had prepared Israel for that astonishing change.

Was this article helpful?

+1 0


  • anja
    What happened in the fourth century in judaism?
    2 years ago

Post a comment