“I pray you think you question with the Jew.”
—William Shakespeare,
The Merchant of Venice

The Jews Under Roman and Byzantine Rule has already appeared in German and Hebrew editions by the same polyglot author who has now produced the English translation. Avi-Yonah has mined Greek, Hebrew, and Latin sources and puts into his footnotes whatever space does not permit him to treat elsewhere. His stated reason for writing his work is that “the period after the destruction of the Jewish state [unlike the earlier postbiblical period] remained as the so-called ‘period of the Mishnah and Talmud,’ the preserve of specialized historians who regarded it as the ‘history of suffering and scholarship’ and nothing more. This book has been written in order to restore it to its proper place in the political history of the Jewish nation as a whole.”

From the death agony of the Second Jewish Commonwealth through the establishment of a Roman (rather than Hebrew) form of Christianity as the imperial state religion, up to the Arab conquest of the Middle East, Jews, or those perceived as such, were a generally persecuted group. Jewish communities did harrass Christianizing Jews—known disparagingly as “Minim [types]”—and would, in some cases, have put them to death, had their punitive power not been taken away by the Romans. Yet, the polihcally weakened Jews could do little from the second century on to afflict Christians, while the triumphant adherents of what began as a Jewish sect tried to eradicate their mother religion. It is not surprising that kindred religions should fight. The struggles within Christianity and Islam have been at least as violent as their struggles against each other. And though 16th-century Jesuits could speak sympathetically of Oriental religion, they were unsparing in their attacks on the Lutherans.

Still, there is something disturbing about the pervasiveness of medieval anti-Semitism. Outbreaks of violence and institutionalized discrimination against Ashkenazic Jews (those of Rhenish and Central European origin) occurred in Northwestern and Central Europe from the 11th century on; the same things also happened to Sephardic Jews (those of Spanish origin) and to Near Eastern Jews in Christian states even earlier. In the sixth century the Byzantine Empire classified Jews as Christian heretics and reserved the right to treat them as enemies of the Church. Indeed anti-Jewish legislation was enacted in the Roman Empire soon after Constantine’s son, Constantius II, proclaimed Christianity the state religion.

In a magisterial study of Spanish Jewry, Luis Suarez Fernandez examines the rise of political and social anti-Semitism in the medieval Christian kingdoms of Asturias, Castile, and Aragon. Fernandez shows that the edict of expulsion issued against the Jews by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 did not abruptly end a happy age for its victims. Popular outbursts against Jews, often abetted by church and state, had taken place throughout Castile and Navarre from the early 14th century on. Fernandez’s historiography is particularly noteworthy inasmuch as it comes from a devout Catholic and a political conservative. By no means a self-hating Christian trying to turn Western civilization against itself, Fernandez is troubled by the undeserved fate of a politically loyal and materially productive medieval Spanish minority.

Although Avi-Yonah tries to be objective in treating his subject, there are two cases in which his interpretations might be challenged. For all his discussion of the Roman persecution of Jews, he generally supports a conventional distinction between the Romans, as occasional political enemies, and the Christians, as persistent religious enemies of the Jews. This distinction is not only untenable, but shows the influence of an unexamined bias among liberal Jewish scholars. Anti-Semitism is made coextensive with Christian society while anti- Christian pagans are presented as religiously neutral, or even friendly, to the Jews: the enemies of one’s enemies being, after ah, one’s friends. Avi-Yonah makes much of Julian the Apostate (361-363), the anti-Christian emperor who tried to restore Roman pagan religion. Although Julian, in the short period that he ruled, treated Jews better than he did his Christian enemies, Roman pagans were rarely friendly to Jews and Judaism. Hostility to Jews was as much at home in Rome as it was in Alexandria and the great cities of the near East.

The writings of Cicero, Pliny, Tacitus, and Juvenal all betray a distaste for both Jews and their exotic way of life. In a voluminous study, the German Jewish scholar Guido Kiseh showed that most medieval charges against Jews (with the obvious exception of deicide) originated in ancient Roman society. The Roman Emperor Hadrian, who destroyed the Second Jewish Commonwealth, despised Jews not only as troublesome subjects, but as a culturally disagreeable nation. The ancient Rabbis were certainly aware of Roman hostility to their way of life and to their national existence. In the Talmudic writings Rome is identified with Edom, the descendants of Esau and the perpetual adversary of the Jews. The same identification was later transferred to Roman Christianity, which the Rabbis understood to be continuous with pagan Rome, as a persecutor of their people.

The Rabbis grasped something about later medieval anti-Semitism which the modern Jewish historians have largely ignored. Christianity became anti-Jewish to the extent that it identified itself with Roman civilization and absorbed a pre-Christian set of prejudices. If Romanization was a necessary condition for the transmission of ancient civilization to Germanic barbarians, it was also the means by which Roman anti-Semitism was spread. Christian Spain did not persecute Jews as long as it remained Arian, non-Roman, Christian. When the Visigoths joined the Roman Church in the seventh century, they turned furiously against Jewish settlers in Spain.

Christians who have stressed the Hebraic and rejected the Roman roots of Christianity—e.g., Calvinists and Evangelicals—have generally been well-disposed toward Jews. Jews have fared best in Protestant, Christian countries. This is not to discredit Roman civilization, either its strong family values or its legacy of literature, architecture, and law bequeathed to the Western world. The spread of Romanitis had the disagreeable side effect, however, of perpetuating ancient anti-Semitism.

Another bone to be picked with the author is his tendency to contrast Judaism as a religion “that corresponded to the natural feeling of what was right” with Christianity as a “conglomerate” of oriental superstitions and of “magic formulae” taken from the Gnostics. Avi-Yonah’s understanding of Judaism and Christianity shows the marks of the Jewish Enlightenment. This is the tradition from which he seems to have come and which in Germany, his country of origin, goes back to Moses Mendelssohn and the mid-18th century. Mendelssohn, a Hebrew scholar and philosopher, and his many epigones were reacting to their Protestant counterparts who claimed to have discovered a “rational religion [Vernunftsreligion]” in the primitive church. Not to be outdone, Mendelssohn defined authentic Judaism as a rational ethical system. Jewish rationalists contrasted it with Christianity, which they tried to present as a Judaized version of an Oriental mystery cult. The new polemical weapon proved stronger than historical evidence. To the charge of Christian rationalists that Judaism was an outworn code of ritual, Mendelssohn and his successors responded with their own exaggeration: they identified Jewish ritual with natural reason, while equating Christianity with irrational, and therefore non- Judaic, beliefs.

This interpretative line has resulted in a misrepresentation of both early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism. It has conveniently ignored the historic overlap between the two religions, a subject which the great religious historian Samuel Sandmel spent much of his life exploring. As Avi-Yonah points out. Christianizing Jews remained within the Palestinian Jewish community into the middle of the second century. Although they and the Rabbis of the Mishnah (the first part of the oral law, compiled around 150) engaged in heated disputes, Christian Jews were considered (and considered themselves) to be Jews. The definitive split between the two groups occurred in the 130’s, during the last Jewish rebellion against Rome, led by the resourceful guerrilla commander Bar Kokhba.

Rabbinic leaders rallied to Bar Kokhba and even proclaimed him to be the Messiah destined to rebuild the Temple. Jewish Christians, in contrast, refused to join the revolt, being convinced that their Messiah had already come. Christ had prophesied the fall of the Second Temple, without giving instructions to have it rebuilt. The bitterness caused by the Christian Jews’ refusing to join the bloody, unsuccessful rebellion irreversibly poisoned the relations between the two Jewish communities. The source of enmity was primarily this political rift—and perhaps secondarily the lax attitude of Christian Jews toward ritual observance, particularly for converts. No Jewish opponent of the early church accused it of introducing irrational beliefs into the Jewish religion. Such an attack would have been anachronistic before the 18th century, when nonbelieving Christians and Westernized Jews began to dispute over whose religion had more fully anticipated the Enlightenment.

Finally one might question whether Rabbinic Judaism differed from the early Church by virtue of its stress on rationality. Here the distinction might be used which Max Weber draws for early Protestantism and modern rationalism, between a systematic-methodical and a rationalist way of thinking. Like Calvinism, Rabbinic Judaism affirms the supernatural undergirding of its teaching, but also treats salvation as a problem to be planned for. Normative,- or Rabbinic, Judaism prescribes a life of ritual observance and the intricate study of ritual law as the path to salvation. It provides the assurance that all Jews who live in the appropriate way and who avoid heresy will have a place in the world to come. To the extent that Rabbinic Judaism teaches that the Jewish people, by systematic application to its divinely revealed code of law, can achieve absolution from sin, it does encourage the virtues of diligence and self-improvement. Yet, it is doubtful whether this belief system can be described as “natural religion,” a term that Avi-Yonah borrows from the German Enlightenment.

Avi-Yonah speaks of the “heavy yoke of ritual commandments” and the “indissoluble bond between Judaism and the Jewish nation” as factors that may have driven away potential converts. The ritual observances of Judaism were obviously not reducible to simply ethical precepts unless ethics are made to include, among other things, the separation of meat and dairy dishes, the prohibition of the wearing of cotton mixed with hnen in garments, and the study of sacrificial offerings and of the preparation of incense for Temple worship. One might note that Rabbinic Judaism anchors dietary and other laws in the Masoretic text of the Five Books of Moses, even those laws not explicitly stated there. The repetition of prescriptions and apparent orthographic redundancies in the authoritative text are used to lend biblical support for a wide variety of Jewish ritual and other practices. All Talmudic laws are viewed, from the standpoint of Rabbinic Judaism, as part of the unchanging Mosaic revelation. Although such a belief can be easily appreciated when seen in context of an evolving national community bound by custom and ritual, the Rabbinic opponents of the primitive Church were not formulating universal rules of conduct on the basis of natural reason. Like the Christians, the Rabbis appeal to the faith of a believing community.

In a recently published book, L’éclipse du sacré, the Catholic thinker Thomas Molnar speaks of the essential but not exclusive relationship between the Judeo-Christian universe and human rationality. Since the universe and history are both presented by this religious tradition as the “intelligible work of the Supreme Being who guarantees its transparence to human intelligence,” those within this tradition have been more apt than those outside of it to look for rational explanations. This tendency, however, has proceeded in Western society to the point that another aspect of its religious heritage and of all other religious traditions, the sense of the sacral, has gone by the boards.

Molnar blames the rationalist perspective for creating a void rather than attempting a balance between faith and reason. Significantly, the same kind of objection is raised by Alain de Benoist, the neopagan vitalist with whom Molnar coauthored his volume, as a débat dialogué. Both writers, though each from a different theological perspective, lament the passing of the sense of transcendence from our desacralized civilization. Although critical differences, aired in the discussion parts of their book, continue to separate the two thinkers, neither one would accept the Enlightenment’s notion of “natural religion.” Both affirm the metarational and mystical character of religious consciousness and, even more importantly, the dependence of society upon a shared sense of the sacral. It is in discovering the philosophic overlap between Molnar, an ultramontane Catholic, and Benoist, an exponent of Indo-European animism, that one can appreciate the magnitude and implications of at least one current religious debate; between religionists and secular rationalists. In this particular struggle, Jerry Falwell may find himself with strange and unexpected allies.


[The Jews Under Roman and Byzantine Rule, by M. Avi-Yonah; New York: Shocken Books]

[Judios, Espanoles en la Edad Media, by Luis Suarez Fernandez; Madrid: Ediciones Rialp]

[L’éclipse du sacré, by Alain de Benoist and Thomas Molnar; Paris: la Table Ronde]