Salo Baron. Social and Religious History of the Jews

Chapter XVI The Pre-Islamic World. Selections

Withdrawing behind the rampart of talmudic law and religion, the Jewish people of the sixth century continued to pursue its historic career quietly, almost inarticulately. After the brilliant light-and shadows-emerging from the talmudic letters in both Palestine and Babylonia, Jewish life was now suddenly enveloped in a deep mist. The few flashes of light occasionally breaking through from the outside assumed a weird opaqueness from the general coloring of profound hostility in a world torn by sectarian strife and intolerance. Jews now experienced the bitter fate previously reserved for their own sectarian groups, such as the Samaritans or Sadducees; their history during the century and a half before Mohammed can no longer be reconstructed from their own records, but must painfully be pieced together, chiefly from stray data preserved by enemies. That most of these reports are concerned only with a few dramatic incidents and shed light only on either the political relations between Jews and Gentiles, or the laws issued by emperors and kings heaping ever new disabilities on the stubborn minority, lies in the very nature of these sources, in the main written by Christian ecclesiastics or jurists.

Nor could Judaism remain entirely unaffected by the general feeling of despondency and pessimism characteristic of that period of transition from the ancient to the medieval world. Both the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud were produced largely in an era of general well-being in Rome and Persia. Although Jews suffered increasingly from administrative oppression, their political and economic life reflected the general prosperity in a certain degree. The two empires began to decline, however, after the tannaitic age in Palestine, and in the generation following that of R. Ashi (died ca. 427) in Babylonia. Intensified discrimination against Jews, coupled with the widespread feeling that the end of the world was impending, likewise contributed to stifle Jewish economic and intellectual endeavor. Already in the second century, we recall, a Latin Spengler had spoken of the senectus of Roman civilization. Under these circumstances, it is truly astonishing that Hellenistic, Roman, and Persian pessimism, pagan and Christian alike, had so slightly affected that inveterate Jewish reliance in a better future which permeates all talmudic literature. When the downfall finally came, the Jews recoiled to await in their sheltered corner those better times which, they still confidently hoped, were soon to come.

Many new forces were at work, however; quietly gathering momentum, these prepared the Jews for the great historic role they were to play in the new era dawning upon mankind. The rapid spread of Islam in the century after its rise, the establishment of an enormous empire reaching from India and central Asia to Morocco and southern France, brought about a marvelous rejuvenation of these decaying countries. A new dynamic force transformed into a vast, flourishing realm most of the provinces of the Byzantine Empire, all of Persia, and many adjoining provinces of India, North Africa, and western Europe. The cultural and economic superiority of the Caliphate over its eastern and western neighbors, including Byzantium, was uncontested. The Jewish people, too, were quickened, and entered another great period of achievement. But first they had to suffer some of their greatest agonies under both Persia and Byzantium, and even amidst the newer civilizations slowly emerging from the smoldering ruins of Western Rome.


For a while it appeared as if the old Roman Empire, hereditary enemy of the Jewish people, were to be reestablished in its former glory. In his vigorous, though often confused and erratic, effort to stem its progressive disintegration and to reunite the long-lost western provinces with the essentially intact eastern half, Justinian encountered the resistance of many religious groups, including Jews. A "barbarian" by birth, a Latin by speech (he is said to have spoken Greek with a foreign accent all his life), and a despot by temperament, the emperor viewed his high office as a God-given trust to introduce order into the prevailing chaos. He sought, particularly, to replace the theretofore tenuous balance between the warring political parties and religious sects by a stable political system and ideology. More than any of his predecessors he combined in his outlook the heritage of ancient Rome's "manifest destiny" with the missionary zeal of the Greek Orthodox Church, and sincerely believed in the divine right of his autocratic caesaropapist regime.

Jews were both a stumbling block to unity and a lightning rod absorbing some raging storms of sectarian controversy. In contemporary letters the term "Jew" often lost its ethnic-religious connotations and became a fighting word freely employed to designate any opposing ideology. It was bandied around, often with even less intrinsic justification than the terms "fascist," "imperialist," or "communist" today. Because he had stressed the human nature of Christ's body, Nestorius and his followers were called "Jews" even by emperors in their official correspondence. Twenty years after the deposition of Nestorius as Patriarch of Constantinople by the third ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431), another great Council, meeting in Chalcedon, tried to restore peace in the Eastern Church by adopting a compromise formula: "We confess one Jesus, Lord, only Son, whom we acknowledge in two natures." After the rejection of a more moderate version, "of two natures," this formula closely resembled that previously advocated by Pope Leo in Rome, and it soon became the official credo of the Greek Orthodox Church as well. The radical spokesmen of Monophysitism, on the other hand, dominant in Egypt and Syria, insisted on the exclusively divine nature of Christ and denounced the doctrine of two natures as an outright Jewish heterodoxy. They circulated a story that the Jews, upon learning of the newly adopted canon, mockingly petitioned Emperor Marcian: "For a long time we were regarded as descendants of those who crucified a God and not a man, but since the Synod of Chalcedon has met and demonstrated that they had crucified a man and not a God we beg that we be forgiven for this offense, and that our synagogues be restored to us." The distinguished Patriarch Severus of Antioch now glibly lumped together Nestorians and Chalcedonians in his denunciation of "Jewish" heresies. When Severus was exiled in 519 his successor, Paul, a Chalcedonian, was generally surnamed "the Jew," and was driven out by his Monophysite flock.

Antioch was, indeed, the storm center of the Empire. Inheriting the role formerly played by Alexandria, it now was the scene of endless street riots between the various religious sects and political parties, often masked behind the cloak of the "Green" and the "Blue" circus factions. Despite the tongue-lashing they had received from Antioch's most renowned "golden-mouthed" preacher, Jews mingled freely with the Christian population and often took part in these controversies. Curiously, they seem more frequently to have taken the side of the "Blues," largely representative of the Orthodox middle classes, than that of the mostly lower-class, pro-Monophysite "Greens." Sometimes they paid a high price for such abandonment of their wonted neutrality. On one occasion, we learn, the Antioch "Greens" destroyed the synagogue in neighboring Daphne, where the Antiochian Jews worshiped after their loss of the city synagogues through mob violence instigated by Simeon Stylites the Elder some two generations earlier (after 423). After this attack Emperor Zeno, who through his Henoticon of 484 had tried to appease the Monophysites and certainly had no desire to appear as a protector of Jews, real or alleged, exclaimed, "Why did they not burn the living Jews with the dead?" There is no way of telling what connection there was between that attack of the "Greens," which occurred in 489-90, and an alleged general uprising of Antiochian Jewry against the imperial power in 486, reported by the generally well-informed Byzantine chronicler, Malalas, writing about sso. Malalas may have confused these events with some riots he himself was to record under the reign of Anastasius in 507. Anastasius (491-518), who once publicly denounced the Nestorian patriarch of Constantinople, Macedonius, as "this Jew who is amongst us," must through some hostile act have provoked the real Jews of Antioch to an overt uprising. Perhaps it was this new bloodletting which so weakened the Antiochian community that it apparently played no role in the Persian raids of 529 and 540. Even the hostile chroniclers of the period fail to record any Jewish "disloyal" acts on these occasions. There is no doubt, however, that the Jewish remnant suffered severely from the city's nearly total devastation in 540, although no Jews are recorded among the captives carried away by the Persians to the New Antioch in Persia.

Embarking upon the reconquest of the West, Justinian found it necessary to side with the "Jewish" Chalcedonians, whose doctrine agreed with that espoused by the Latin Church, even if it meant sacrificing the support of the Monophysite Egyptians and Syrians. He rode roughshod over the sensibilities of Empress Theodora, whose Monophysite sympathies he had allegedly promised before their marriage to respect. Little did he sense how much his policy of violent repression of the Eastern sectarian movements, reinforced by the semiconscious striving of the Egyptians and the Syrians for national self-preservation, was paving the way for the ultimate disintegration of the Eastern Empire. He was much more concerned with the immediate problem of captivating the benevolence of the western Catholics, and with the suppression of the western heresies. Arianism, especially among the North African Vandals, certainly appeared as a major obstacle. Of course, Arianism, teaching Christ's inferiority to God the Father, had long been viewed as a "Jewish" movement. One could readily argue that only complete elimination of professing Jews might remove a permanent source of heterodox infection from these threatened areas.

For this reason the western campaigns of Belisarius, Justinian's famous general, were characterized by outbursts of total intolerance in sharp deviation from the Empire's long-established policies. Remembering the sufferings of their ancestors during the last decades of the Western regime and deeply imbued by their own homilists with a deep distrust of the hereditary "kingdom of evil," Jews evidently joined the most stubborn resisters. Their last-ditch defense of Naples in 536 evoked the grudging admiration of the Byzantine historian, Procopius. They not only fought valiantly in the positions assigned to them, but had in part been responsible for persuading their fellow citizens to reject Belisarius' tempting offers to surrender. Evidently, North African Jews had proved no less intractable two years earlier. Their resistance must have appeared doubly dangerous, as their missionary successes among the Berber tribes secured for them strong allies among these turbulent neighbors, who were repeatedly to overrun the exposed province. Hence came Belisarius' apparently gradual elimination of the Jewish community of the small but strategically important city of Borion, and the conversion into a church of its ancient synagogue, attributed by local legends to the days of King Solomon. More, the general, backed by imperial legislation, tried to impede any form of organized Jewish life in North Africa; he confiscated all synagogues and prohibited Jewish public worship in any form. This abrupt departure from the traditional toleration of synagogues may perhaps be explained by a local tradition. According to a martyrology, apparently composed in the fourth or fifth century, a Christian saint, Marciana, had allegedly been grievously insulted by Jews during Diocletian's persecutions of 304-5. Thereupon the martyr was said to have cursed the offenders, and predicted that their synagogue would burn down and never be rebuilt.

Neither Belisarius nor Justinian, however, seems to have intended this outburst to be followed by any general outlawry of Judaism throughout the Empire. Although the emperor failed to reproduce in his code the significant general affirmation by Theodosius I that "the Jews' sect has not been prohibited by any law," the tenor of his entire legislation and administrative practice clearly reflected basic adherence to this principle. Apart from theological considerations, simple prudence often stayed the hand of persecutors. Many an imperial administrator must have thought along the lines of Emperor Arcadius, when in 400 he refused to permit the bishop of Gaza to destroy a pagan temple. "I know well," the emperor had stated, "that this town is full of idols; but it pays its taxes loyally and contributes much to the Treasury. If, suddenly, we terrorize these people, they will take to flight and we shall lose considerable revenues." Doubtless cognizant of the stream of Jewish refugees to Persia in the preceding centuries, the emperors had the less reason to encourage such a flight, as they must have realized how much the escape of thousands of "Jewish" Nestorians to the Sassanian Empire had strengthened the hand of that hereditary enemy of Rome. Certainly the presence of real Jews was far less threatening to the unity of empire. Even the outlawry of synagogue worship in North Africa was evidently intended as but a temporary punitive measure. To all intents and purposes it was abrogated ten years later by Justinian himself in his Novella 131, in which he merely renewed the old prohibition of erecting new synagogues and by implication allowed the maintenance of all existing structures, including those which may have survived the confiscation in the African province. That is undoubtedly why the earlier Novella was not considered part and parcel of the permanent legislation by later jurists.

We must bear in mind, however, that, once despoiled of their synagogues for any length of time! Jews of any locality found it extremely difficult to replace them by new houses of worship because of the permanent outlawry of new structures. This may well have been the reason why the community of Alexandria, though it had doubtless successfully weathered the mob onslaught led by Cyril in 414 (who, incidentally, had used some of the same demagogic arguments which proved so effective against the local Jews in his subsequent major struggle against the "new Jew," Nestorius) had to get along for several generations without a public place of worship. This is evidently the meaning of the saying attributed by a later chronicler to the Coptic sect of Theodosians who allegedly decided to build a church in the Egyptian capital, "lest they be like the Jews."

Nevertheless, the basic continuity in the Empire's general toleration of Judaism becomes doubly evident when one considers Justinian's contrasting treatment of the Samaritans. We shall see in another context how troublesome these sectarians, after their great religious revival under Baba Rabba, had become to the Byzantine administration. Justinian thought that he could settle the problem by a sleight of hand. By declaring the Samaritans a Christian rather than a Jewish sect, in 529 he removed from under their legal status whatever props had been lent them by their traditional toleration as adherents of the Jewish faith, long recognized as a religio licita. Not only was their temple on Gerizim to be permanently replaced by a church, but their synagogues were to be destroyed everywhere. In the subsequent legislation, too, their faith appears as merely part and parcel of the Christian heretical movements. While heresies were much too widespread throughout the empire and embraced too large and influential segments in the population to be placed under the sanction of capital punishment as they later were in Western laws, the very continuity of existence of the Samaritan denomination was now severely threatened.

As before, the imperial masters were mainly concerned with the protection of the dominant faith against the inroads of Jews and Judaism. For this reason they readily approved of the various anti-Jewish canons adopted by Church councils, often convoked by themselves. Ironically, however, they allowed their general legislation to become deeply permeated with the spirit of canon law. They thus unwittingly injected many Jewish legal concepts into the ancient legal heritage of pagan Rome. Conversion of a Christian to the Jewish faith still was severely prohibited, though characteristically not punishable by death, but merely by exile and confiscation of property. On the other hand, to encourage conversion from Judaism, baptism of children with the consent of either parent was declared valid. The inheritance rights of converts were protected against discriminatory testamentary provisions by angry parents. Outright assaults on Jewish converts actually carried the extreme penalty. Intermarriage still was strictly prohibited, except in cases of previous conversion of the Jewish mate to Christianity. Of course, neither the Byzantine state nor Church was interested in racial origins. Even clerics and their sons could marry converted Jewesses, according to a canon adopted at the Council of Chalcedon.

Jews could not legally erect new synagogues, but, at least outside the province of Africa, they were allowed to maintain their old houses of worship. There probably were innumerable bureaucratic chicaneries which made extremely awkward the maintenance of even older synagogues in a state of good repair. That is perhaps why an earthquake in Laodicaea caused the collapse of all synagogues while all churches survived, if we are to believe a contemporary report which bears the earmarks of a miracle tale. Undoubtedly synagogues suffered from extralegal expropriation at times, although we hear less frequently of mob violence on this score. On the other hand, many disabilities were doubtless mollified by such vested Christian interests as those of the Church of Amida and the usual douceurs offered to highly receptive Byzantine officials.

More important, and in many ways entirely unprecedented, was Justinian's interference in inner Jewish religious and communal affairs. He evidently believed, with Theodosius II, in the therapeutic power of the law "to bring them [the Jews] back to sanity." Himself the author of three controversial tracts, he was a "theological amateur", constantly awake also to the religious controversies among the sectarian groups. Without clearly spelling out the principle, reiterated by later medieval inquisitors, he arrogated to his caesaropapist office the power of defining the proper bounds of heterodoxy within the Jewish community as well. He, therefore, not only passed over in silence the ancient immunities granted by the older Roman laws to synagogue officials, but also futilely tried to safeguard the uniform observance of the orthodox Easter among his Christian subjects by forcing the Jews to postpone their Passover celebration until after the Christian holiday (543). More significantly, he believed that regulation of higher Jewish education might serve his centralizing and ecclesiastical aims equally as well as had his transfer of the famous law school from Beirut to Constantinople and his closing down of the still more renowned philosophic academy in Athens. The latter, incidentally, had included among its latest leading members, two Jews or Samaritans, Domninus and Marinus.

In his much-debated Novella 146 enacted in 553, Justinian laid down the law concerning certain controversial subjects of the Jewish credo and ritual. That he was instigated to this extraordinary measure by the ever turbulent Jewish factions of Constantinople doubtless made imperial intervention doubly effective. Evidently but a small minority in that overcrowded metropolis which increasingly became the heart of the empire, Jews were quite early segregated in a quarter of their own established not by law but by mutual consent. Nevertheless they managed to make their voices heard in imperial circles. When Belisarius brought back from his western campaigns the seven-branched candelabrum and other Roman trophies from the Temple of Jerusalem-he had captured them from the Vandals who had taken them to Africa after their sack of Rome-a Jew predicted that the presence of these relics would bring bad luck to any locality other than Jerusalem. The superstitious emperor required only this hint to decide to transfer the sacred objects back to the Holy City. At times Constantinople Jewry even dared to stage riots of its own.

In the prolix style so characteristic of his Novellae, in contrast to the succinct and pithy formulas taken over from the ancient legislators in his Digest and Code, Justinian informed Areobindas, and, through him, all provincial governors, of the complaints which had reached him from the Jewish community about a controversy raging in its ranks with respect to the reading of Scripture. While the Constantinople elders insisted upon the recitation of the weekly lesson in Hebrew only, a dissident group wished to follow such readings, or possibly even replace them entirely, by the recitation of a Greek version. This limited debate, with either party doubtless invoking older precedents, gave the emperor the opportunity to broaden the scope of his intervention.

Characteristically, Justinian put only the radical heresies under the sanction of the extreme penalty. Disobedience toward the other provisions of the Novella was to be punished less severely. For example, the Jewish "elders, archipherekitai and presbyters, and those called magistrates" who would dare to prevent the worshipers from reciting Scripture in translation, were threatened only with corporal punishment and the confiscation of their property. Nor did Justinian try to conceal his basically missionary aims. In his preamble he clearly stated that he expected the Jews not to confine themselves to the letter of Scripture, "but they should also devote their attention to those sacred prophecies that are hidden from them, and which announce the mighty Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." So important was this objective that the emperor was prepared to overlook his general diffidence toward translations which made him insist upon the exclusive validity of the official Latin and Greek versions of his Code. It is small wonder then, that, generally distrusting commentaries, the annexing of which to his Code he had forbidden in a special decree, he was doubly opposed to the Jewish "second Torah."

Compared with this far-reaching infringement of Jewish religious autonomy, Justinian's renewal of the maxim that the Jewish community should control the market prices among Jews indicated that, despite the emperor's silence on this score, Judaism still was a religio licita, and that its adherents still enjoyed many rights refused to Christian heretics. Justinian and his legal advisers, headed by Trebonian, evidently exercised considerable restraint in changing the long-established legal status of the Jewish minority. They realized that the modus vivendi established by Theodosius II and his predecessors, which had proved sufficiently acceptable to both sides to obviate the necessity of any major legislation between 439 and 527, could not be disturbed without unbalancing the rather tenuous relationships. That is why they took over more than a score of provisions from the Theodosian Code and incorporated them, with but minor modifications, into the new Corpus. True, even the omission of a single word could have serious juridical connotations. For example, by deleting the word non before ad superstitionem eorum . . . pertinent in the law of 398, Justinian's advisers clearly subjected Jewish religious affairs, too to the jurisdiction of state courts. This intent was fully borne out by the emperor's far-reaching Novella. But such intentional, substantive alterations were relatively rare. If Trebonian and his collaborators omitted some thirty other regulations, the reason was more often technically legalistic (elimination of repetitions or outworn qualifications) than the reflection of intent to establish a new legal status.

Omission of the general principle of Jewish toleration might have had serious consequences if the imperial administration had wished to extend its intolerant decrees from newly conquered Africa to the other provinces. Somewhat later, as we shall see, Byzantine emperors repeatedly made use of their legal prerogative of completely outlawing Judaism in their realm. Under Justinian, however, even the African prohibition extended outside Borion only to the domain of public worship. The emperor and his advisers doubtless knew how tenuous was the Christian faith of the relatively few and more easily controlled Samaritans, who had embraced Christianity under duress. Not long thereafter the author of the Chronicon Paschale bitterly commented that many of them "to the present day profess either religion. When they face strict governors, they publicly behave as Christians in a perfidious and misleading way. But, encouraged by the weakness and indulgence of avaricious governors, the Samaritans turn into as many haters of Christians and pretend as if they knew nothing about Christianity. By bribing the governors, they even consider it permissible to samaritize [publicly]." Clearly, with the vast extension of the Jewish dispersion and the constant changes in local law enforcement agents, close supervision of the orthodoxy of unwilling Jewish converts must have appeared utterly hopeless. That is probably why no Roman lawgiver of the period dared to classify a relapse of a Jewish convert to his ancestral faith as outright apostasy-a legal doctrine which was to play so much havoc with Jewish life under western Christendom. The Byzantine administration continued to encourage voluntary conversion, and, like its predecessors, tried to tempt pagan slaves of Jews to secure freedom through baptism. After the conquest of North Africa it made a special effort to persuade the Arian slaves there to turn Orthodox by promising them freedom, even if their Jewish masters were likewise to become Christian. To secure execution, Justinian exceptionally placed the operation of this law under the direct supervision of ecclesiastical authorities, and threatened lawbreakers with capital punishment. FIsewhere he was satisfied with the imposition of a heavy fine of thirty pounds, doubtless a reminiscence of the slave's valuation at thirty shekels in the Bible.


Despite Justinian's powerful and, on the whole, prosperous regime, the feeling that the end of an era, perhaps of the world, was approaching persisted among the Christians, and even more strongly among the Jews. The fall of Western Rome had left an indelible imprint on the Mediterranean peoples. St. Jerome was not alone in mourning "the mother of nations [which] had also become their tomb" and in viewing the destruction as a realization of the ancient apocalyptic visions of Daniel and the Sibylline poets. The restoration of Byzantine rule over parts of Italy by Belisarius' armies did not completely wipe out that impression. Christian chronology reinforced both the hopes for millennial redemption and the fears of the preceding disasters which, according to the old lore, were to accompany the appearance of the Anti-christ. We shall see that, for reasons nurtured by Jewish messianic speculations, the Christian writers beginning with Julius Africanus (2d cent.) had placed the appearance of Jesus in the middle of the sixth millennium since the world's creation. Riding roughshod over Jewish objections, Christian experts merely argued as to whether the incarnation had taken place in 5490 anno mundi, according to the "Alexandrian," or in 5509 A.M. (since Heraclius 5508 A.M.), according to the "Byzantine" computation. In any case the sixth millennium, and with it the duration of the world corresponding to the six days of Creation, was drawing to a close shortly before, or after, 500 C.E. Even though the crucial reign of Anastasius had passed without any major catastrophies and was soon followed by the "glorious" days of Justinian, neither the fervent messianic hopes, nor the deep apprehensions, had lost their force.

While writers of the sixth century, learning from the mistakes of their predecessors, were less definitive concerning the actual date of the second coming of Christ, popular expectations received new nourishment from an extraordinary series of elementary disasters which befell the Byzantine world during the reign of Justinian. Apart from the appearance of a menacing comet, we are told by Barhebraeus on the basis of older sources, the sun darkened in 537 for eighteen months. During "that year," the Syrian chronicler added, "the fruits did not ripen, and the wine tasted like urine." In 544 there was a severe pestilence all over the empire, and many local inundations endangered especially the coastal areas of Phoenicia and Palestine. Time and again horror-stricken populations fled their houses during the recurrent earthquakes. One allegedly shook Constantinople for forty days. Nor were man-made disasters apt to contribute to the peace of mind of the masses. The picture drawn by the leading contemporary historian, Procopius, that "the whole earth was constantly drenched with human blood shed by both the Romans and practically all the barbarians," must have reinforced the feeling that such conditions could not last for ever.

If the Christian masses viewed these awesome events as messianic portents, how much more prepared were the minds of harassed Jewry to see in them signs of approaching redemption. Certainly those Jews who viewed the remnants of the ancient 105-foot Colossus of Rhodes, further destroyed by an earthquake in the days of Athanasius-one of them allegedly was to acquire these remnants as scrap iron from the Arabs in 653-could readily translate this shameful end of a glorified symbol of Gentile might into a messianic foreboding. That is why large segments of the populace were ready to follow any messianic pretender. It is almost unbelievable how many of these false messiahs, whether genuine ecstatics or ruthless careerists, from Moses of Crete in the fifth to Serenus- Severus in the eighth century, found immediate acceptance among the masses and little overt opposition on the part of the more sophisticated leaders. The contemporary revival of Jewish apocalyptic literature likewise testifies to this sudden upsurge of messianic hopes. We shall see how many of the newly created aggadic midrashim, though speaking in a lofty timeless verbiage, may confidently be dated to that period, shortly before and after the rise of Islam. One such aggadic apocalypse, especially, bearing the name of Elijah (Sefer Eliyahu or Pereq Eliyahu) has plausibly been attributed to the days of the emperors Phokas (602-10) and Heraclius (610-41). Through the haze of their mystic phraseology one can still sense the intensity of their authors' conviction that the great prophet and ultimate harbinger of the Messiah of the house of David would soon appear.

Sudden changes on the international scene added force to these extravagant hopes. Long inured to the idea, expressed by an ancient homilist, that God had divided the world between Christianity and Zoroastrianism (or later between Christianity and Islam) "only in order to preserve Israel," Jews shuddered at the thought of the Persian Empire crumbling before the onslaught of the Byzantine armies, or else becoming dependent on Byzantium In some other way. The sixth century had started with a thirty years' war (502-32) which, despite formal and informal truces lasted through the reign of the "brothers" Justin and Kavadh I and was not terminated until after Kavadh's death in 532. Justinian, to whom Kavadh had written in a characteristic letter, "Kavadh, king of kings and lord of the Eastern sun, to Flavius Justinian Caesar, lord of the Western moon," secured peace by the payment of regular tribute to the Eastern neighbor, so as to obtain a free hand for the reconquest of the Western Empire. However, the uneasy peace was often interrupted by raids of Persians or their Arab vassals, at times extending all the way to Antioch. It was against this background that Patriarch Severus informed Theodosius of Alexandria of his writing the letter "under the fear of the Jews." More significantly, if we are to believe the contemporary chronicler, Malalas, the Samaritans once sent a delegation to the king of Persia (Kavadh, or more likely Khosroe I), urging him to resume the war with Byzantium and allegedly promising to aid him with an auxiliary force.

All such hopes seemed to be dashed when, in 562, Justinian concluded with Persia a peace treaty for fifty years. Although that treaty was broken within ten years by Justin II, who by his refusal to cononue paying the tribute provoked Khosroe I to invade both Armenia and Cappadocia, the Persians were defeated and had to withdraw in 575. Fifteen years later Khosroe II, faced by an internal uprising led by Bahram Tshubin, escaped to Byzantium and, with the aid of Emperor Maurice, his adoptive "father," reconquered his country. Until the end of Maurice's regime (602), the political entente between the two emperors, as well as domestic pressures, made any expectation of Persian help to the suffering Jews of the Byzantine Empire entirely illusory. In fact, when Maurice's relative, Domitian, entered Melitene in Armenia, he forced the Jews and Samaritans of that city, or perhaps the entire province, to accept Christianity. The Egyptian chronicler, John of Nikiu, to whom we owe this information, complained, however, of the insincerity of these new converts, as well as of Domitian's obstinacy in compelling the Christian clergy to admit them to ecclesiastical functions.


By a sudden reversal, however, a new war started almost immediately after the assassination of Maurice in 602. Claiming that he felt obliged to avenge the death of his "father," Khosroe II resumed the hostilities. At first he merely sought to reconquer the territories voluntarily ceded in 592. But, encountering little Byzantine resistance, his armies gradually occupied all of western Asia and ultimately penetrated Egypt. They thus momentarily reestablished the boundaries of the ancient Achaemenid Empire. After the conquest of Chalcedon in 610, and again in 626 when they were aided by an Avar invasion of Byzantium's Balkan possessions from the north, Persian troops seriously threatened Constantinople, whose conquest might have ended Byzantine rule nine centuries before the Turkish occupation. Unused to major naval warfare, however, the Persians neglected to build up maritime support for their invasions. As often happened in history, naval power ultimately won out. Heraclius, who had fought ineffectively since his accession to the imperial throne in 610, transferred a sizable army to the eastern shores of the Black Sea and, with the aid of Caucasian tribes including the Khazars, attacked the Persian armies from their rear. After the loss of Ctesiphon, Khosroe's enlarged empire collapsed more speedily than it had been built up, and eventually (in 628) the king of kings himself lost his life at the hand of Persian assassins.

During that crucial quarter century (604-30) Jews took an active part in abetting the Persian campaigns. Their vivid expectations of the approaching redemption are well illustrated by the aforementioned Elijah Apocalypse. Quoting, as was customary, some of the recognized ancient authorities, the homilist betrayed his messianic objective through transparent allusions to the various names of the "last king of Persia." Apart from the traditional name Armilus, the equivalent of the Antichrist in Christian terminology that monarch was called Cyrus or Artaxerxes, an obvious reference to those Achaemenid kings who had helped rebuild the Second Commonwealth, or, even more specifically and definitively, hakhasra (in one version Khosri), to contemporary readers doubtless a clear enough reference to Khosroe II. That "last king" was to "go up to Rome for three years in succession." He also was to defeat three heroes descending from the sea to meet him-an allusion to the landing of Byzantine troops as long as the sea lanes were controlled by the western Empire, after the severance of land communications with Palestine and following the conquest of Chalcedon and Antioch-including a king "the lowest among kings, son of a slave girl [Phokas]." Of course, we must discount many reports about Jewish "treacheries" and "atrocities" in the Christian chronicles of that or a later period. But we need not doubt that Jews generally welcomed the Iranian invaders as liberators from the hostility and heavy yoke of Justinian's successors. In 610 they staged a sanguinary riot in Antioch, killed the patriarch, and so greatly weakened the city's defenses that it surrendered almost without resistance to the approaching Persians (611). Antiochian Jews thus avenged the patriarch's policy of repression which, ever since his return to the patriarchal see in 593, had also led to the massacre of Monophysites in Edessa and forced conversions of pagans. Jews had an additional score to settle for the humiliating punishment meted out to their entire community for the transgression of a single coreligionist by Emperor Maurice in 592-93. Possibly in reprisal Phokas ordered his prefect Georgios forcibly to convert Jews not only in Antioch, but also in Palestine and Alexandria, though not in the European provinces (610).

In 610, another chronicler reports, the 4,000 Jews inhabiting Tyre staged a rebellion and called to their assistance a Jewish force of 20,000 men assembled from Palestine, Damascus, and Cyprus. The latter island evidently now again embraced a sizable Jewish community in defiance of Trajan's sharp outlawry of Judaism half a millennium earlier, which decree had never been formally revoked. Whatever we think of the accuracy of the chronicler's figures, the city, forewarned, closed its gates and treated the local Jews as hostages. For every church outside its walls destroyed by the Jews, we are told, one hundred Jewish captives were executed, and their heads thrown across the walls to the besiegers. It seems true, in any case, that this strategically located natural fortress, as frequently before in its long and checkered history, withstood the Jewish siege and that its local Jewish community suffered severely.

Palestine, understandably enough, was the main scene of Persian-Jewish collaboration. Far beyond its military and economic importance that province had lovingly been cultivated by Christian emperors ever since Constantine and his mother Helena. Its loss to "infidels" was now deeply mourned throughout the Christian world. Although apparently reduced to but 10-15 percent of the population, Palestinian Jews still were sufficiently numerous and concentrated, particularly in the northern districts, to make their weight felt in the country's affairs. Most of their thirty-one rural and twelve urban settlements recorded in that period were located in Galilee, on the military route leading from Damascus, which the Persians occupied in 611, to Palestine's provincial capital of Caesarea. The Jewish communities were effectively led by the Tiberian elders, whose intellectual prowess, buttressed by the prestige of the Davidic descent of the successors of Mar Zutra III, made up for the lack of imperial recognition since the abolition of the patriarchate. Some Jews had also long defied the imperial prohibition and settled in Jerusalem. They were sufficiently numerous in the Holy City for the local governor to force them to accept baptism en masse in 607, at a time when the storm was slowly gathering momentum.

Like the Persians, the Jews owed their military successes to a large extent to the inner divisions in the Christian population. The old ecclesiastical rivalry between Jerusalem and Caesarea, to be sure, had given way to the former's recognized supremacy. Owing to the machinations of Bishop Juvenal in the era of the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, his see in Jerusalem was raised to a patriarchate, fifth in rank after those of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch. Monophysitism, too, and other sectarian movements were far less widespread in the Holy Land than in Egypt or Syria. Nevertheless, the sharp theological controversies, nurtured by the frequent reversals of imperial policies, sharply divided also the Palestinians. Even the Orthodox of the Holy Land repudiated the new compromise formulas emanating from Constantinople and known in Christian theology as monenergism and monotheletism. Although economically the country benefited greatly from the inpouring of pilgrims and pious donations, Byzantine maladministration created conditions favorable to constant breaches of public order and even to organized highway robbery. Among the local gangsters was Jacob, son of Tanumas (Tanhuma), who, after his forced conversion to Christianity, left behind an interesting controversial tract interspersed with autobiographical data. If we are to believe him, he constantly switched his allegiance from the "Blues" to the "Greens," so long as the internecine struggles between these parties gave him the opportunity of killing Christians.

Hearing of the irresistible march of Persian troops, the Palestinian Jews were perfectly convinced that these were signs of the approaching Messiah. Already in the reign of Maurice a dream of the head of the academy in Tiberias about the Messiah's birth within eight years had found widespread credence. Unfortunately, Persia's military campaign in the Holy Land and the Jewish part therein have been described only on the basis of hostile Christian reports. The only Jewish source which seems to shed some light on the events during that final armed uprising of Palestinian Jewry against their Roman masters, the apocalyptic Book of Zerubbabel, was not only composed after the suppression of that revolt, but, by its very nature, it is too vague and obscure to enable us to reconstruct any significant details.

At any rate it appears that the Jewish communities around Tiberias, led by the wealthy and learned Benjamin, opened the road for the Persian conquest of the administrative capital of Caesarea. When the Persians finally turned toward Jerusalem, the Jews seem to have obtained from them a formal promise that the city would be handed over to Jewish rule. After a twenty-day siege the Holy City surrendered (614). Following their old practice, the Persians deported some 37,000 Christian inhabitants led by Patriarch Zechariah. As a symbol of their great victory they carried away the True Cross to Ctesiphon. The impression this booty made on all of Christendom may easily be gauged from the fact that only a few decades before the Frankish princess, Radegund, had "sent clerics into the East to procure wood of the True Cross." Many more thousand Christian captives were sold to the Jews, who allegedly slew all those who refused to adopt Judaism. More circumspectly, Eutychius spoke of "Jews together with the Persians killing innumerable Christians." That, however, Persians rather than Jews were