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0 – 500 CE

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  • During the first half of the 1st Century, Jewish Diaspora communities throughout the Roman Empire grew, prospered, and proselytized. The availability of the Bible in Greek (the Septuagint) was a major factor in the influence of Judaism among the pagans, as well as maintaining the cohesion of the Jewish Diaspora, since most of the Jews in the Mediterranean area were not conversant in Hebrew. It is variously estimated that 10% to 20% of the population of the Roman Empire at this time were Jews or “God Fearers.” Contributions and pilgrimages to the Temple from the Diaspora helped make Jerusalem one of the richest cities in the Empire. Pharisees, represented by Hillel, emphasized individual prayer and study as the foundations of Jewish life, while the Sadducees, represented by Shammai, constituted the Temple cult. In later rabbinic literature on the disputes between Hillel and Shammai, Hillel always wins. The Essenes, an ascetic fundamentalist group centered near the Dead Sea, rejected both the Pharisees and Sadducees and preached that the “end time” was near. Examples of apocalyptic literature from many authors date from this period. Precursors of synagogues––prayer, study, and discussion groups––are also believed to date from this period.
  • Although the Romans had been invited by feuding Jewish leaders to rule Judah in 63 BCE, the kings and procurators installed by Rome were cruel and incompetent, most notably the prefect Pontius Pilate (26-36). The completion in about 60 of the vast Temple area building project that had been started by Herod left Judea with two major problems––very high taxes and unemployment of 18,000 laborers who had worked on the Temple project. The society split between the wealthy aristocrats, who were allied with the Romans, and the very poor, many of whom resorted to pillaging in the countryside. During the 20 years prior to 66, the violent acts of class warfare began to be directed specifically at the incompetent Roman appointed authorities. In 66, the Roman garrison in Jerusalem was massacred in a riot that originated when the procurator stole money from the Temple treasury to make up for unpaid taxes. The governor of Syria attempted to retake Jerusalem, but his troops were defeated and slaughtered when retreating. Judea was then in open revolt against Rome. Vespasian was sent with two new legions to conquer Judea. The Romans methodically advanced from the north, secured the Galilee and seacoast, and besieged Jerusalem. Many Jewish leaders were prepared to surrender Jerusalem but were prevented from doing so by arch-patriots, Siicari and Zealots. Later rabbinic literature refers to these groups as “thugs.” Titus, the son of Vespasian, besieged and captured Jerusalem, massacred the inhabitants, and destroyed the Temple. The annual contributions to the Temple formerly made by all Jews were then taxed by the Romans to support the temple of Jupiter.
  • Before the fall of Jerusalem, a group of Pharisees led by Yohanan ben Zakkai was permitted by the Romans to leave the city. They established a religious academy at Yavneh, in the former Philistine territory, marking the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism. Gamaliel II, who became head of the academy about 100, achieved standing as the Patriarch, the representative of the Jewish community in dealings with the Romans. The Patriarchate maintained its role until 429, when it was abolished by the Romans. In 140, Simon bar Kochba led an ill-advised revolt against Rome. The revolt, centered primarily in the south, was crushed, and Jews were forbidden from living in Jerusalem. The academy moved north to the Galilee, where under the direction of Judah ha-Nasi, they completed the Mishnah (about 220), a compilation of rabbinic legal decisions and commentary. Following the bar Kochba revolt, the Jewish population in the Galilee increased significantly, Tiberias became a major Jewish center, and a number of monumental synagogues were constructed in the Galilee. The Diaspora from Judea to Babylonia and to the Roman Empire also increased at this time. One effect of the revolts in Judea was a large increase in the city of Rome of Jewish captive slaves who were eventually redeemed by the Jewish community, with the result that the city of Rome had one of the largest Jewish populations in the empire. Synagogues evolved into all-purpose communal institutions in the Diaspora in the Roman Empire.
  • The Euphrates River was accepted as the boundary between the Roman Empire and Persia when Hadrian decreed a halt to Roman expansion (114). The Jewish community east of the Euphrates, never under continuous Roman control, was augmented by the Diaspora from Judea, following the revolts. Academies which developed in Babylonia after about 200 became the pre-eminent Jewish institutions in the world. The Babylonian Talmud was the product of discussions at these academies, compiled from about 220 to 600. The Sassanids, a tribe which came into power in Persia about 250, fought Rome to a standstill at the Euphrates River and established strong ties to the Jewish community. The fabled Sassanian ruler Barham V, cited as the great hunter in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was the grandson of a Sassanid emperor and the daughter of the Exilarch, the head of the Jewish community.
  • The Jewish-Christian community, which maintained Mosaic law while accepting Jesus as the Messiah, formed in Judea following the death of Jesus (30). However, following the destruction of the Temple in 70, the influence of this group diminished rapidly. Paul (d. 64) and others proselytized in the Roman Empire, particularly in Asia Minor, and found major success in converting pagans to early Christianity by emphasizing faith and the promise of afterlife, rather than adherence to Mosaic law. Major Christian centers grew in Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. As the Church hierarchy developed, the Episcopate of Rome emerged as a primary center. Doctrinal disputes between “orthodoxy” and Gnosticism, Arianism, Manichaeism, and Nestorianism (among others) provoked fierce conflict among Christian sects. One doctrine that united all factions was “the perfidy of the Jews,” refusing to accept Jesus as the Messiah and maintaining adherence to the ancient law. The charge of Jews as deicides dates from 190.
  • The Roman Empire was weakened by civil wars 245 to 263. Even when order was restored, it was recognized that the empire had grown too large and diverse to be ruled by one central authority in Rome. In 286 Diocletian divided the empire into the eastern (Greek speaking) and western (Latin speaking) parts. With the building of Constantinople by Constantine in 330––and partly because of the drain on western resources to establish the city––the eastern, or Byzantine, portion of the empire was the richer and more powerful half.
  • By 300 Christian converts had permeated the empire, although Gibbon puts the total at no more than 5% of the population at the start of Constantine’s reign. The Christians were a particularly troublesome minority because of their public rejection of the local gods, the ancient foundation of municipal allegiance and stability. Regarding the traditional Roman pagan religion Gibbon says: “The various modes of worship were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrates as equally useful.” Diocletian recognized that the Christians were a growing threat to authority and tried unsuccessfully to suppress the group by persecution, from 303 to 311. When Constantine became emperor in 312 he reversed the strategy and embraced the Christians as allies in maintaining and extending his power. In 313 he proclaimed religious freedom for Christians, and in 324 he made Christianity the preferred religion of the empire. The next task was to define which of the many competing forms of Christianity was the official Roman Christianity. The Council of Nicea in 325 defined the official dogma, the Nicene Creed. However, alternative or heretical forms of Christianity which did not conform to the Nicene Creed remained strong in Western Europe, North Africa, and Persia for hundreds of years. In addition, the Eastern Orthodox Church adopted a different dogma, leading eventually to the final schism of the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches in 1054.
  • In 392 Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and Rome was established as the site of the pope. With the resources of the empire behind it, exemption from taxation and military service, and an internal legal system that paralleled the Roman law, the Church became a secular power within the Western Empire which rivaled the strength of the Roman government. In the Eastern Empire the Church was always subservient to the emperor. The condition of the Jewish communities in the empire deteriorated drastically. In Judea, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built in 326, residence of Jews in Jerusalem was severely restricted, and the Patriarchate was abolished in 429. The Jerusalem Talmud was completed in 400, but the community in Judea recognized that the community in Babylonia, thriving under the Sassanids, was now the center of Jewish scholarship. In 414 the first charge of ritual murder (blood libel) was leveled against the Jews, and an organized assault was made on the Jews in Alexandria. In 429 building of new synagogues was forbidden throughout the Roman Empire. By 500 Christians became the majority in Judea.
  • As the power of the Church increased in the Western Roman Empire, the power of the empire itself decayed. For several hundred years the empire had been increasing the use of favored barbarian mercenaries for defense against other barbarian tribes. From 378 to 500, large numbers of Germanic tribes, under pressure from Huns and other tribes further east, settled in and gradually assumed control of much of the western empire. During this period, most of the leaders of the Germanic tribes were converted to Christianity (usually Arianism), partly by captive Roman Christians and partly by proselytizing bishops. In 378 the Goths destroyed the last western Roman army at the Battle of Adrianople. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and by the Vandals in 455. Finally in 493 the Western Empire fell to the Ostrogoths. At the same time, the Visigothic Kingdom was established in Iberia. Long settled Spanish Jews in the Visigothic Kingdom were increasingly persecuted, including periods of forced conversion, particularly after the conversion of the Visigoth royal family from Arianism to Roman Catholicism in 587. Tension and conflict in the Christian community were followed by serious problems for the Jewish community, a pattern to be repeated in history.