The Way of the Rabbi
religions might spin off from old Judaism, the parent religion
inevitably to refashion itself for the new era. After the disaster
of 135 AD, a number of Jews retreated into asceticism,
banning meat and wine altogether, since sacrifice in the temple
was no longer possible. Others lost themselves in mysticism, attempting
to reach the "celestial throne" via their imagination (the apostle Paul
would have understood!) the forerunners of the
But for all
their suffering, most Jews were not ready to bastardise their
traditional creed by infusing it with the dying godman mythology.
The vacuum was filled by"Rabbinic Judaism", the
inheritor of the Pharisee tradition.
a smallish group (perhaps a hundred or so in the whole
Roman empire) of religious specialists descended from the Pharisees,
gradually enhanced their status and developed a specifically
Jewish way of arguing, which marked them off quite dramatically
from both Christians and Romans."
– Keith Hopkins,
A World Full of Gods, p234.
itself, where the Jews were now a minority, what remained of
Judaism turned inward. No longer could its priests use the "temple
magic" once used to summon divine favour, no longer could
Judaism be proselytised.
obsessed with cultic rules as a practical substitute
for the lost temple. They peopled the air itself with beneficent
and malign spirits. A Jewish "code to live by" - the Mitzvoth (the
forerunner of monastic rules) detailed no fewer
than 613 rules, governing every pious moment from waking to sleeping,
to keep the Jew on the right side of an all-seeing God.
rising from his bed, his manner of putting on the different articles
of dress, the disposition of his fringed tallith, his phylacteries
on his head and arms, his ablutions, his meals, even the calls of
nature were subjected to scrupulous rules both reminding
him that he was of a peculiar race, and perpetually reducing
to ask the advice of the Wise Men, which alone could set at rest
the trembling and scrupulous conscience."
– Milman, History of the Jews, p165.
Within a few generations Judaism would be codified anew, into a
portable (albeit confining) religion which could accompany
and fatally identify this pseudo-race in the centuries ahead. Roman historians attest to Judaism's successful evangelization in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and archaelogy reveals substantial synagogues built in this period. Proselytizing rabbis – perhaps a few hundred at the most – established
enclaves of Judaism (and "Jewishness") in the major cities of the Roman empire. As a result of their energetic missionary activity, most "diaspora" Jews were not exiles at all, but converts and the descendants of converts from the indigenous pagan populations.
But the new Judaism also had its factions and with the 4th century triumph of Judaism's most wayward heresy – Christianity – the momentum within the empire for conversion to Judaism ceased. Indeed, "adoption of Jewish manners" became an illegal activity and, faced with official hostility, many descendents of the original pagan converts found it prudent to embrace the now favoured Christianity.
In regions beyond the reach of Rome, Jewish proselytizing continued. Iranians of Adiabene, Ethiopic tribes of the Horn of Africa, and Arab tribes of the Yemen and Spasinou/Charax were among those pagans who found an enthusiasm for the religion of Abraham and Moses. Subsequently, even greater numbers from the Turkic tribes of the Caucasus and Berber tribes of north Africa also embraced the Mosaic faith.
From India to Spain, from Arabia
Gaul, the Jewish
"people" bonded by a
faith not chromosomes – capitalising upon a network of safe havens,
and a filial presence in every major resource, from African
ivory to Germanic slaves, to throw themselves into the commerce
of the ancient world.
traversed with impunity the hostile frontiers between Rome and
the sea lanes from the chilly rivers of Germany to the balmy seas
off the Horn of Africa. The Jews became dealers in amber and
gold and silver, slave-traders and money-lenders. But they were
also dealers in superstition as well as produce:
empire swarmed with Jewish wonder-workers, mathematicians, astrologers,
or whatever other name or office they assumed or received
– MiIlman, History of the Jews, p158.
Levies on their new wealth paid for a programme of synagogue building,
and in turn, the synagogues strengthened the bonds of the
communities. Maintaining a detachment from their host cultures, and convinced
they were especially favoured by the deity (and thus strengthened
in their faith), the heady mix of piety and mercantilism rewarded
the Jews with an unparalleled financial success and an
unequalled and universal opprobrium.
In the mid-years
of the second century, the centre of commercial/religious Judaism
lay on an axis between Palestine and Babylon. The light
hand of Rome allowed the displaced Jews of Siria Palestinia to re-establish their ancestral faith, complete with religious
and a self-appointed hierarchy, with a new corporate headquarters
at Tiberias, in Galilee. At its head stood a "CEO" in the guise of an hereditary Patriarch of the West,
the recipient of tithes which had once gone to the Temple. Every
was visited by legates of the Patriarch – they were called Apostles! –
who collected contributions.
As a high
dignitary of the Empire, the Illustrious
the status and privileges enjoyed by Rome's consuls, top military
commanders and chief ministers. One provincial governor of Palestine
learned the hard way the folly of insulting the
Patriarch, who out-ranked him in the official hierarchy. He was
executed by the ferocious Christian
Lamented the Christian
"Even now, when the Jews are under the dominion of Rome,
and pay the didrachm, how great, by the permission of Caesar,
is the power of their Ethnarch!
I myself have been a witness
that it is little less than that of a king."
History of the Jews, p149.
The Patriarch ultimately controlled his far-flung corporation by
the power to censure. The issue of an anathema, an excommunication
from the chosen people or a curse, could confer social death. After
the fearful cost of rebellions, delinquency was not tolerated. The
Jews settled down to business.
reign of the Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161), and under a
wary Roman eye,
Jewish schools of the Law were allowed to re-open.
The Jewish scribes
began codifying Gods ineffable word at the very time Christian
scribes were furiously at work writing and revising their own holy
Persian (Parthian) frontier, another hierarch, the so-called
Prince of the Captivity, had also furnished
himself with a fabulously appointed ecclesiastic court, financed
Jews of Persia. Here in Parthia, prestigious centres of Judaism
"It was Babylonia,
with great academies in Sura, Puapeditha, Nehardea, Mehoza and
Nersh, active from 200 C.E. until the Arab Conquest (c. 640 C.E.),
which fashioned that marvellous structure of Jewish law called
H. Friedlander, This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence
Yet soon after
the ascension of Marcus Aurelius (161) Parthia advanced into
Roman Syria and
destroyed an entire legion (XXII Deiotariana) at Elegeia, on the
Armenian frontier. For the second time in a century, Rome was
into a costly and protracted conflict over a wide area in the east Syria,
Armenia, Cappadocia, Mesopotamia and Media.
The five year war ended
in a painful triumph for Rome. Returning troops were to bring plague
into the heart of the Empire and in the long term, the withdrawal
of legions to fight in the east was to fatally weaken the Danubian
front. But, with the capture of Ctesiphon, once again Mesopotamian
Jews were brought under the dominion of Rome. Unfortunately for
them, they threw in their lot with a rebellious Roman commander,
Avidius Cassius, which set the normally tolerant Marcus Aurelius
As a result
of a power struggle between the two pontiffs in
the 3rd century very reminiscent of the conflict between
Rome and Constantinople the Babylonian Jews became subordinate
to the Western patriarch (business merger?)
wearied by recurring rebellions of the Jews, came to regard them
with suspicion and disdain but the Christian
Empire which was to follow refined this contempt into a bloody
Though tolerated for their commercial usefulness the Jews would
ever-after face the murderous intent of those who were "Loving
Servants of the Lord."
Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (Phoenix Grant,
Israel Shahak, Jewish History,
Jewish Religion (Pluto Press, 1994)
Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Crucified Jew (Harper Collins,1992)
Henry Hart Milman, The History of the Jews (Everyman, 1939)
Josephus, The Jewish War (Penguin, 1959)
Leslie Houlden (Ed.), Judaism & Christianity (Routledge, 1988)
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (Harper Collins, 1999))
Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People (Verso, 2009)
Norman Cantor, The Sacred Chain - A History of the Jews (Harper
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Copyright © 2004
by Kenneth Humphreys.
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