Judea Under Byzantine Rule

(4th Century CE-Sixth Century CE)


Tensions continued to mount in Judea between Christians and Jews. It was official Christian policy to convert Jews to Christianity, and the Christian leadership used the official power of Rome in their attempts. In 351 CE the Jews revolted against the added pressures of a bad ruler named Gallus. Gallus put down the revolt and destroyed all of the major cities in the Galilee where the revolt had started. Tzippori and Lydda (site of two of the major legal academies) never recovered.

While the Jews of Judea struggled against Christian pressure, Rome itself was undergoing splits and crises. There were already two kingdoms. One, the Western kingdom, had its capitol in Rome. The second, the Eastern kingdom, had its capitol in Constantinople. Both kingdoms were plagued by inflation, civil wars, corrupt government, and marauding barbarians who kept trying to conquer them.

At about this time, the Nasi in Tiberias, Hillel II, did a revolutionary thing. Rather than maintaining the political control over the rest of the Jewish world by insisting that the Diaspora wait every month for calendrical verification from Judea, he created an official calendar which needed no monthly sightings of the moon. The months were set, and the calendar needed no further authority from Judea. This effectively shifted the Jewish legal authority from Judea to Babylonia. Babylonian Jewry were no longer dependent upon Judea for anything.

At about the same time, the academy at Tiberius began to write down all of the chunks of combined Mishnah, braitot, explanations, and interpretations developed by generations of scholars who studied after Judah HaNasi's death. They organized this large work according to the order of the Mishnah. Each paragraph of Mishnah was followed by a compilation of all of the interpretations, stories, and responses associated with that Mishnah. This text is called the Jerusalem Talmud.

The Jews of Judea received a brief respite in 363 CE when Julian the Apostate became Emperor of the Eastern Kingdom. He tried to return the kingdom to Hellenism and encouraged the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem. The Jews were ecstatic, but their joy was short-lived; Julian was assassinated, and Christian emperors took over, never to lose control again.

In 476 CE, the Western Kingdom of Rome was conquered by the barbarian hordes (as they were fondly called by the Romans). The Eastern Kingdom (called Byzantine) survived the onslaught and kept possession of her lands, including Judea. The "barbarians" settled down in the Western Empire and became Christians. As it had been before Rome fell, the Byzantine political structure was influenced very strongly by the Church, and the Jews of Judea continued to suffer.

In the beginning of the fifth century, Emperor Theodosius ruled that because the Jews were the perfidious group that had rejected Jesus, they were to be persecuted. Jews couldn't own slaves (making agriculture difficult). They couldn't build new synagogues. They couldn't hold public office. The Jewish courts couldn't try cases between a Jew and a non-Jew. Intermarriage between Jew and non-Jew was a capital offense as was a Christian converting to Judaism. In addition, Theodosius did away with the Sanhedrin and abolished the post of "Nasi." The Jews received extra tax burdens as well.

The Church represented by the Byzantine government was struggling with its own identity. Rooting out heresy within the Church occupied much of the energy of the Church leaders. With it came a virulent anti-Semitism. The Jews were accused of every imaginable evil. John Chrysostom, speaking in Antioch, delivered a series of sermons which became the source for Medieval Christian anti-Semitism. Justinian, things got worse for the Jews. Keeping the edicts of Theodosius, Justinian added some details to the list in two Edicts. Regulation 37 prohibited Jews from occupying North Africa. The most outrageous edict, however, was Regulation 146, created in 553 CE. Jews were forbidden to read the torah or any other book in Hebrew. Only the Greek version (the Septuagint) could be used. The "Shma" was forbidden. Studying of the Mishnah was forbidden. Justinian encouraged Christians to destroy synagogues, stores, and Jewish houses.

Fortunately, Justinian and the Byzantines had problems outside the province of Judea, and there weren't enough troops to enforce these regulations. As a result, ironically, the sixth century saw a wave of new synagogues built with beautiful mosaic floors. Jews assimilated into their lives the art forms of the Byzantine culture. We find mosaics showing people, animals, menorahs, zodiacs, and Biblical characters.

Excellent examples of these synagogue floors have been found at Beit Alpha (which includes the scene of Abraham sacrificing a ram instead of his son Isaac along with a gorgeous zodiac), Tiberius (not a surprise; it was the center of Jewish life), Beit Shean, and Tzippori.

Christians, meanwhile, were also building and settling in Judea. Although their most important centers were Jerusalem and Caesarea, many Christians came for a different reason: monasticism.

Copying directly from the Essenic sect in Judaism, monastic orders were established in Christianity. Quoting the same Biblical verse from Isaiah, "The voice of him cries, "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord," Christians established monasteries in both likely and unlikely spots all over Judea. There's a magnificent one over- looking Jericho, St. George's monastery is fond by Wadi Kelt; Mar Saba is in the Judean Wilderness, in the middle of nowhere. Large monasteries were built at Avdat, Masada, and Zohar.

Churches were established at the traditional sites (via Helena's royal finger) of miracles in Jesus' life. Tavcha has a beautiful mosaic floor full of birds and flowers. There's a lovely monastery on the top of Mount Tabor, commemorating the transfiguration of Jesus before his disciples.

All of these monasteries, churches, and synagogues were built during the reigns of the anti-Jewish, pro-Christian emperors of the Byzantine Empire.


Source: JewishGates.org