Sunday, April 3, 2016

A Rabbi asks a priest a question... part 13

Continued from last week…

For some reason or other Jews felt more and more uncomfortable in the Roman Empire. Judaism flourished east of the Jordan River, back in old Babylon there were great opportunities for Jews. A lot of the locals were monotheist Persian followers of the prophet Zoroaster, people spoke Aramaic, there were fewer of the pesky Christians insisting that you could be a good Israelite and eat pork, but above all, there was a thriving Jewish community. There had been one for at least 600 years. They had their own laws and were led by a descendant of King David called the exilarch, the respected leader of the Jewish community. 

It seems that when the exiles returned to Zion at the beginning of Persian rule in the area, a few stayed behind, quite a few it seems. Just as in 1949 everyone was ready to go back to the Holy Land and fight for the new Jewish state. 


“Well, I’ll be there next year. Be sure to write. I’ll send money. I just have to wrap a few things up back here in New York.” 

As it is now, so it was then. They had good lives in Babylon. Business was good. It seemed you found fewer and fewer Jews in places like Rome and Athens and Corinth. Some had the idea, “Christian, Jew, what’s the difference?”

In Babylon, a Jew was a Jew, a member of a respected community. The Romans were always worried about the Jews rising up, and then the Romans became Christians. Judaism found itself increasingly under pressure in the Greco-Roman world. There were three choices: Tough it out, join the Christians, or move. Then there was a brief moment of hope! In 361, there was new emperor, Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus (331-363) born in Constantine’s new capital and raised as a Christian, the nephew of Constantine the Great. As soon as he was emperor, he renounced Christianity with all its ridiculous theological squabbles and restored the old Roman religion dressed up in Greek philosophy. He also decided that it would be useful to rebuild the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in order to refute the claim that the Church was a superior spiritual temple, and that God had rejected the old temple and its adherents. The proposal was met with great enthusiasm by the Jews. It didn’t work out so well. The whole thing was a mess. It sounds like something from a low budget action film:

“He [Julian the Apostate] planned at vast cost to restore the once splendid Temple at Jerusalem, which after many mortal combats during the siege by Vespasian and later by Titus had barely been stormed. He had entrusted the speedy performance of this work to Alypius of Antioch... But though this Alypius pushed the work on with vigor, aided by the governor of the province, terrible balls of fire kept bursting forth near the foundations of the Temple and made the place inaccessible to the workmen, some of whom were burned to death; and since in this way the element persistently repelled them, the enterprise halted.” (Ammianus Marcellinus (330-395) Res Gestae Book 13) Goodness Gracious! Great Balls of Fire!

Note that Ammianus was a contemporary. There were a lot of contemporary authors who commented on the attempt to rebuild the temple and they add wind and storm and earthquake to the script. My favorite is St. Gregory Nazianzen in his “Second Invective against Julian” they just don’t write like that anymore. Julian died fighting the Persians after just three years on the throne.  Pierced by a spear, it is rumored his dying words were “Thou hast conquered, pale Galilean.”  He probably just said “Uhhhhh…”  But the “pale Galilean” stuff makes good copy. The Galilean had conquered and the Jews had egg on their face.  More restrictions were placed on the Jews and more of them gave up and accepted baptism. The center of Jewish life was clearly now on the east side of the Jordan in Babylon where the sages were busy compiling the Babylonian Talmud and codifying a Jewish way of life.

In 380, the emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica, which declared Nicene Trinitarian Christianity to be the legal imperial religion. He also ended state support for the traditional Roman religious cult, in effect making Roman paganism, illegal. He also had no great love for the Jews who remained in the west. In 404, Jews were barred from most governmental jobs. In 418, they were completely excluded for civil service and the military positions. In 425, they were banned from all government jobs, except of course from one: tax collector. If you are going to hate someone, might as well be a Jew and not a Roman. Still Judaism itself was never made illegal. Jew’s in the west made another mistake 300 years later.

The Romans and the Persians had never had an easy time of it and a war with the Persian or their kinsmen the Parthians had simmered since the times of Julius Caesar. This was one of the reasons that the Roman state had issues with the Judeans and their Jewish descendants. The Jews got along quite well with the Persians. The Persians, after all, had been the ones who freed them from Babylonian captivity in the old days and allowed them to rebuild the temple centuries before the birth of Jesus. There was always a chance they might do it once again. The Sassanid Persian dynasty had been good to the Jews. The Babylonian Talmud was composed between the third and sixth centuries in Sassanid Persia and the great Jewish centers in Sura and Pumbedita were the home of the best Jewish scholarship. War broke out once again between the Romans and the Persians in 602 and in 613, the Persian army captured Damascus with the help of Jews. They took Jerusalem in 614, burned Constantine’s magnificent Church of the Holy Sepulcher and captured the relics of the True Cross. The city was back in Jewish hands after five centuries of exile. Hopes were high, but in 622 the Emperor Heraclius launched a counter offensive and in 629 Heraclius recaptured Jerusalem, repaired the church of the Holy Sepulcher and restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in a majestic ceremony. The hopes of the Jews lay in Babylon, not in the west. The Persians and Romans were bankrupt and exhausted by the wars.

No one noticed a storm blowing up from the Arabian Desert, the storm called Mohammed.

Next week: meanwhile in the west.