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Christianity and Judaism |
In stormy seas, Judaism sails on

Christianity and Judaism is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 194, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Abuse flies from both sides, and occasional persecution sometimes becomes violent, as the Jews make clear that most will not convert, and that their faith is here to stay

Christianity and Judaism - In stormy seas, Judaism sails on

Christianity and Judaism - In stormy seas, Judaism sails on
Signs of the zodiac decorated the floor of the late fourth-century synagogue at Beth Alpha, Israel. Such motifs were not uncommon in synagogues of the Byzantine era.

With the era of Constantine in the fourth century, and the collapse of the western Roman Empire which followed, the Jews began their long trek through the Christian Middle Ages. The first two centuries of that journey would establish the pattern of the ensuing eleven. Sometimes they were tolerated. Often they were persecuted. But in the course of this they established one incontrovertible fact. They were not going to disappear. They were here to stay.

Christian leaders denounced them, often viciously, but their language was no more vitriolic than the language the Jews used in their own literature to describe Jesus and Christianity.1 The Christian emperors were generally much more tolerant of them than were Christian bishops, and historian B. J. Kidd (History of the Church, Oxford, 1922) cites recurring evidence of this.

He notes, for instance, that the emperor Valentinian I and his brother Valens promulgated laws protecting synagogues and Jewish rites. Arcadius ordered that prices for goods sold by Jews be fixed by Jews, not Christians, and that their reigning “illustrious patriarchs” be treated with respect. Honorius forbade insults to Jewish synagogues or interference with the Jewish Sabbath.

Theodosius the Great, the man who made Christianity the empire’s state religion, was also sympathetic, decreeing, among other measures, that the state not interfere in the internal discipline of Jewish communities. In 388, when Christians in Callinicum on the Euphrates burned down a synagogue, encouraged by their bishop to do so, Theodosius ordered him to rebuild it. But the emperor backed down and countermanded his order when Ambrose of Milan, his spiritual mentor, furiously objected. “The maintenance of the civil law is secondary to the religious interest,” Theodosius explained.

Particularly strident condemnation of the Jews came from the sainted John Chrysostom, who was appalled when they sought to proselytize Christians at Antioch, and some Christians began to attend synagogue services. His language would make later generations of Christians shudder. Synagogues were “whorehouses,” or “robbers’ caves,” or “places of refuge for unclean animals,” he stormed, and charged that Jews “live for their bellies, seek greedily after earthly riches, and are no better than swine or goats in their dissipation and excessive longing.” John did mellow somewhat with age, however. Upbraiding Christians for indolence in prayer and worship, he cited the exemplary devotion of religious Jews.

Anti-Jewish fervor frequently became violent, and one center of serious conflict was Palestine, where the Jewish community acquired an improbable ally. Following the breakdown of her marriage, (see page 187), the empress Eudocia, wife of Theodosius II and foe of his sister Pulcheria, left for Palestine to live the life of a devout woman, but with a difference. Rather than open a convent, she used her vast Holy Land estates to establish a palace suitable for herself as empress, and to enhance the grandeur of Jerusalem.

Since Pulcheria from childhood onward had expressed contempt for the Jews, Eudocia became their ally and gave them permission to worship again at the ruins of their ancient Temple. This set off a Zionist movement, with Jews from all over the empire flocking to the Holy City. When Syrian monks, in angry protest, ambushed and beat to death some Jewish pilgrims, Eudocia ordered them executed without trial. She had to release them when mobs besieged her palace, however, threatening to burn both it and her. The Christian historian Socrates did not conceal his scorn. Anti-Jewish violence, he wrote, “is utterly foreign to those who have the mind of Christ.”

A similar rampage occurred in Alexandria, although this time the violence began on the Jewish side. A certain Hierax, aide to the patriarch Cyril, happened to attend a meeting where the imperial prefect, Orestes, was talking to some Jewish leaders. When these men identified Hierax as a troublemaker, Orestes ordered him thrashed on the spot. Cyril formally warned the Jews that such conduct would be punished. In response, Jewish extremists attacked Christian homes at night, killing several of the occupants.

Patriarch Cyril thereupon put himself at the head of a mob that seized a synagogue, drove Jews out of Alexandria, and opened their homes to looters. The emperor ordered that they be allowed back and that the bishop and prefect reach an agreement. But by then, the desert monks had stormed into Alexandria to stone the prefect for persecuting their bishop. A crowd appeared, rescued the bleeding Orestes, drove off the monks, and then tortured and killed their leader. Cyril was dissuaded from burying him as a Christian martyr.

The strangest anti-Christian, pro-Jewish event of the era, however, was caused by neither Jews nor Christians, but by Julian, the emperor who succeeded Constantius II and who attempted to restore the pagan religion. To discredit Jesus Christ’s prophecy that the Temple would be left without one stone atop another (Matt. 24:2), and to recruit the support of the Jews against the Christians, Julian resolved to rebuild the Temple.

But things immediately began to go wrong with this massive undertaking. Earthquakes disrupted the work. A huge portico toppled, killing several workmen, while others took refuge in a nearby church. The Christians also said crosses kept appearing mysteriously on the building stones. Then “balls of flame” began bursting out near the foundations, burning several workers to death. Julian abandoned the project.

It is hard to dismiss this entirely as legend or lies, writes historian Giuseppe Ricciotti (Julian the Apostate, Milwaukee, 1960). The pagan historian Ammianus, the Arian Philostorgius, and the Christians Socrates, Sozomen, Theodoret and Gregory of Nazianzus all recount the story. And although some modern scholars attribute the “balls of fire” to bitumen deposits around the Dead Sea, dislodged by the earthquakes, the Dead Sea is twenty-five miles distant and four thousand feet downhill.

God simply stopped the Temple project, said the Christians. However, he did not stop the Jews. They continued and often thrived, an embarrassment to the Christians–just as the continuing spread of faith in Jesus as Messiah was an embarrassment to the Jews.

1. Certain verses in the Talmud, apparently dating from this period, appear to equate Gentiles with animals and to exempt Jews from all moral obligations to Gentiles. Rabbinical scholars contend that they are misinterpretations of the text, however, and that even if valid, would be in decided contradiction of other Talmudic teaching.

This is the end of the Christianity and Judaism category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 194, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Christianity and Judaism from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at