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Julian the Apostate and the Jews

It seems that this summer has been rich with many important archaeological finds in Israel and the latest one is a Roman mansion found in the City of David. Dr. Doron Ben-Ami, the excavation’s director said that “[the] building most likely met its end during a massive earthquake that shook Jerusalem in 363 CE.” In a post on this find at the Muqata, Lurker wrote that “[this] was the earthquake that marked the end of the Roman-sponsored plans to build the Third Temple, and which was apparently responsible for the institution of the fast day that we now know as Lag B’Omer.” For more on the possible Lag B’omer connection see here. But what about the building of the Third Temple?

The reference is to the attempt of the Roman Emperor Julian (361-363 CE), known as Julian the Apostate for his desire to return to pre-Christian paganism, to rebuild the Temple. There are many questions which have been asked about this episode, the first one being why would a Roman emperor want to rebuild the Temple? Two reasons that have been given are that Julian wanted Jewish support for his military campaign against Persia (“The Lobby”) and that this was part of his attempt to encourage religious worship other than Christianity. There is some controversy regarding the dating of the beginning of the Temple’s reconstruction and when it stopped. Here are some descriptions of Julian’s interactions with the Jews.

And since I wish that you should prosper yet more, I have admonished my brother Iulus [Hillel II, d. 365], your most venerable patriarch, that the levy which is said to exist among you [the taxes paid by world Jewry for support of the Palestinian patriarchate] should be prohibited, and that no one is any longer to have the power to oppress the masses of your people by such exactions; so that everywhere, during my reign, you may have security of mind, and in the enjoyment of peace may offer more fervid prayers for my reign to the Most High God, the Creator, who has deigned to crown me with his own immaculate right hand. For it is natural that men who are distracted by any anxiety should be hampered in spirit, and should not have so much confidence in raising their hands to pray; but that those who are in all respects free from care should rejoice with their whole hearts and offer their suppliant prayers on behalf of my imperial office to Mighty God, even to Him who is able to direct my reign to the noblest ends, according to my purpose.

This you ought to do, in order that, when I have successfully concluded the war with Persia, I may rebuild by my own efforts the sacred city of Jerusalem [closed to the Jews since Hadrian, 135 CE], which for so many years you have longed to see inhabited, and may bring settlers there, and, together with you, may glorify the Most High God therein.

Lurker’s comment that the earthquake caused the cessation of the rebuilding effort is the version found in the accounts of Church historians.

When they had removed the ruins of the former building, they dug up the ground and cleared away its foundation; it is said that on the following day when they were about to lay the first foundation, a great earthquake occurred, and by the violent agitation of the earth, stones were thrown up from the depths, by which those of the Jews who were engaged in the work were wounded, as likewise those who were merely looking on. The houses and public porticos, near the site of the Temple, in which they had diverted themselves, were suddenly thrown down; many were caught thereby, some perished immediately, others were found half dead and mutilated of hands or legs, others were injured in other parts of the body.

When God caused the earthquake to cease, the workmen who survived again returned to their task, partly because such was the edict of the emperor, and partly because they were themselves interested in the undertaking. Men often, in endeavoring to gratify their own passions, seek what is injurious to them, reject what would be truly advantageous, and are deluded by the idea that nothing is really useful except what is agreeable to them. When once led astray by this error, they are no longer able to act in a manner conducive to their own interests, or to take warning by the calamities which are visited upon them.

There was even a book published in 1750 titled Julian, or a Discourse Concerning the Earthquake and Fiery Eruption…(it’s a long title) As I stated above, the opinion of Church historians is that the earthquake and subsequent fires caused the work on rebuilding the Temple to cease. Others believe that the death of Julian in battle in 363 CE is what brought the rebuilding of the Temple to an end.

Historical dating and causation aside, another important aspect of this episode is that rabbinic texts are silent on this episode of potentially great historical significance for Jewish history. Some scholars have identified what they believe is rabbinic commentary on this episode, but nothing that is conclusive. Isaiah Gafni wrote the following on the silence of rabbinic literature.

One common view is that the rabbinic leadership of Palestine, headed by the patriarch from the house of David, was naturally wary of the resurgence of the priesthood and concomitant weakening of its own position should the Temple actually be restored, cf. Avi-Yonah, Jews Under Roman and Byzantine Rule, pp. 196-197. While doubts regarding Julian’s promise may indeed have arisen at the time, I wonder how much we can really conclude from the “silence” of the sources. Not only must we be constantly aware of the ahistorical nature of teh Palestinian Talmud and midrashim, but, as pointed out by various scholars, we would do well to note how little informationon the second half of the fourth century made its way into the Palestinian Talmud (even if Julian’s name is mentioned there.)
(Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, ed. Hershel Shanks, pp. 357-358, n. 77.)

Gafni has emphasized this point before, that just because something is not mentioned or described in rabbinic literature does not mean that it didn’t exist or happen. The most important example being his critique of David Goodblatt’s claim that there were no yeshivot in Talmudic Babylonia. Gafni countered and claimed that rabbinic literature paints only a partial picture of life at that time and just because an institution is not described in the Talmud does not mean that it didn’t exist. For a reassment of the history of the Babylonian Rabbinic academy which discusses the Goodblatt-Gafni disagreement see this article by Jeffrey Rubenstein.

One Response to “Julian the Apostate and the Jews”

  1. 1

    From the Rabbi’s Advocate, translation of Matteh Dan, by Meir Levin, Yashar Press
    Hadrian commanded that Jerusalem be re-established in the generation after R. Yochanan ben Zakkai and Rabon Gamliel III . This is why we find that in the days of R. Yehoshua ben Chanania the government ordered rebuilding of the Temple, as is told in Genesis Rabbah, end of Chapter 64. “Papus and Lulianus arose and set up kiosk on the roads to supply the pilgrims with provisions, food, silver and gold. The Samaritans went to the king and vilified the Jews, saying that, “If the city be built, they will no longer pay you taxes and they will rebel against you”. The Cesar said: “The monarch’s command cannot be voided”. They said to him: “Command that they should in some measure enlarge or diminish the building from the proportions that it was in the beginning, and it will void by itself.” When the Jews heard this evil thing, they burst into weeping in the valley of Beit Rimon. The Sages became apprehensive lest they rebel against the Romans. They said: “Let R. Yehoshua ben Chanania go and pacify the people.” He went to them and said: “A lion has torn prey and a bone stuck in his throat. He announced: “Whoever can remove it will be lavishly rewarded”. A bird with a long beak came and pulled it out and said, “Give me my reward”. The lion told him: “Go and boast that you entered onto the lion’s mouth in peace and pulled out in peace”. So also for us, it is enough that we entangled ourselves with this nation and leave in peace.” This R. Yehoshua ben Chanania was a student of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai and lived in the 52 years between the destruction of the Temple and destruction of Betar while the (better-known) order to rebuild the Temple was in the time of Emperor Julian, called (by the Christians) the Rebel, for he rebelled against their faith and restored Paganism . Turns out that between the attempt at rebuilding in the times of R. Yochanan ben Chanania and the one in the days of Julian more than 250 years passed. This leads us to have to conclude that there were two different attempts at rebuilding, one in the days of Trajan or Hadrian and the other in the days of Julian. The latter is not mentioned in our sources but it happened during the time of Pope Damasus in the year 366 C.E., as the Gentiles count, according to Platina in the Lives of the Popes.




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