The Solidification of Rabbinic Judaism
The Jewish people had to pay a high price in suffering and humiliation from the three wars that took place between C.E. 66 and 135, but the outcome brought into being a Judaism that was basically united and solidified ― that is, solidified into what we call Rabbinic Judaism today. With the full ruin of Jerusalem in C.E. 70 the Jewish authorities who maintained the Sanhedrin (the central law courts of the Jews and the body which was responsible for calendar matters and other ritual questions of Jewish religion) moved from the ruined area of Jerusalem to a town near the Mediterranean called Jamnia. This was on a parallel line geographically with Jerusalem and gave the authorities a reasonable confidence that their calendar observations and calculations for the maintenance of the Jewish festival seasons would continue to be accurate in accordance with the legislation give by Moses in the Holy Scripture.
After the war in C.E. 135, however, Judaea was so decimated and Jews were prohibited from living in the central regions (including Jamnia) that the Jewish authorities moved the Sanhedrin to a town in Galilee called Usha. They remained there, paying their annual tribute (simply because they were Jews) which was called in Latin the fiscus iudaicus. There was much talk in the few years after C.E. 135 of moving the headquarters of Judaism to Mesopotamia where there was a large number of Jews in residence. The Jews, however, finally decided to keep the Sanhedrin and other Jewish religious authorities in the Holy Land which Galilee was considered a part.
After about 60 years of isolation from the rest of the world (for all practical purposes) and with the Jews causing no further problems to the Roman Empire, a most extraordinary thing occurred which benefited the Jews very much. They sided with Septimus Severus in his wars and to their good fortune Severus became emperor of the Romans in C.E. 193. The Severide dynasty ruled over Rome until C.E. 235 and during those 40 some odd years the Jews prospered greatly. One of the reasons for this, besides the fact that they sided with Septimus, was because the Severide family was from an old Phoenician region of North Africa. In effect, these new emperors were not from the old Italian/Spanish stock that had previously governed the Empire.
Septimus Severus was the first emperor to govern Rome who was not of what we call Roman racial stock. He and his descendants were Phoenicians and with a mixture of Syrian stock. We will see in the second part of this book that this racial make-up of the Severides (who governed the Roman Empire from C.E. 193 to 235) was one of the reasons the Jews fared so well. In actual fact, the Jewish authorities began to reckon that the Roman emperors were a brother people in race to the Jews themselves. More on this in the next section of this book.
The Samaritans, however, were not so blessed. They sided against Septimus Severus and were severely punished by Septimus (and according to the Samaritan Chronicle they were kept under religious restrictions until the time of Baba Rabban in the early 4th century). The Jews, on the other hand, were given many privileges that reversed almost all the humiliation they had endured for the previous 60 years. Though they were not given back Judaea as a homeland or allowed to return to Jerusalem (they remained a people without a country and they were not allowed to proselytize), they were nevertheless blessed in a number of ways. The Rabbi (called Judah) became close friends with the Severide emperors and he was granted the title of "ethnarch" or "ruler" of the Jews. Most importantly, Rabbi Judah was commissioned by the emperors to collect the fiscus iudaicus (the annual tribute tax ― which was still sent to the Roman treasury as Origen tells us ― Ad Africanum, 14). An extra blessing for the Rabbi was the Roman allowance that the Patriarch of the Jewish people could himself tax the Jewish people within the Roman Empire in order to maintain the Sanhedrin and numerous other government functions which pertained exclusively to the Jewish people.
In short, Rabbi Judah (who became so famous among later Jews that they came to refer to him simply by his title "The Rabbi") became for all practical purposes the sole "king" of the Jewish people wherever they lived in the world. He claimed to have Davidic connections in order to justify his role as the ruler of the Jews. He was even criticized by other Jews for living so regally because of all the money and prestige that was coming to the Patriarchate in Galilee. And in all of this the Roman imperial government backed up the Rabbi’s authority to rule with the Roman military forces.
This is the time when Rabbinic Judaism (as we know of it today) came into its real existence. The Rabbi was so powerful (and supported by the imperial government) that he commissioned Jewish scholars under his command to garner together all of the "Oral Laws" as they were called which had been given by the earlier rabbis, some of them going back to Temple times. They were finally codified and called the Mishnah. Like the "Men of Hezekiah" (Proverbs 25:1) who copied out various proverbs that became a part of the Holy Scriptures, "The Rabbi" was given the code name "Hezekiah" because he codified the Mishnah (which became a semi-canon for the beliefs of Rabbinic Judaism). So important was the Mishnah that after "The Rabbi’s" death, there were commentaries made on the Mishnah in both Palestine and Mesopotamia and these were called the Gemara (the "completion"). The commentaries were written down from the third to the beginning of the 5th century and the Mishnah combined with the Gemara are today called the Talmud.
For the 40 odd years that the Severide dynasty controlled the Roman Empire, the Jews fared very well indeed. They still had to pay the tribute tax and all Jews in the Empire also had to pay special taxes to the Patriarchate for the running of this "Jewish government" within a government (that of Rome). But even this had salutary effects upon the Jews as far as the Patriarchate was concerned. Since by this time the Samaritans were reckoned as clearly a distinct people and out of favor with the Romans government (and with the former proselytes and God-fearers of a hundred and fifty years before in the time of the Temple now having disappeared from Jewish roll books), the Patriarchate had the power to rule who was to be a "Jew" and who was not. Indeed, most Samaritans and even those who still sympathized with Jewish religious beliefs did not want to become practicing Jews because they were then forced to pay the annual tribute to the imperial treasury as well as pay taxes to the Patriarchate (and even more galling) to come under the strict and absolute control of the Patriarchate in Galilee.
The initial period of 40 years for the establishment of the Jewish Patriarchate was one that solidified Judaism among all Jews, and that solidification (in spite of many attempts to overthrow it) has in the main been sustained unto modern times. It made Judaism a very unique and specialized religious society that the later Roman emperors until the time of Constantine (over a hundred years later) acknowledged and protected. In all the later persecutions the Roman government exercised against the various Christian groups, the Jews were in no way involved. When the emperor Diocletian commenced his persecution against Christians in C.E. 303, he gave orders to leave the Jews alone in their worship and society. Professor David Rokeah in his book states:
"Not only is there no evidence that the Jews suffered from the persecutions instigated by the emperors Decius and Diocletian but, on the contrary, we have an explicit source in the Jerusalem Talmud (Avodah Zarah, chap.5, 44d end), informing us that the Jews were distinguished from the other peoples of the empire when emperor worship was enforced by Diocletian ‘All the nations must offer libations, apart from the Jews’"
- pp. 49–50
Jews, Pagans and Christians in Conflict,
This moderation to Jewish people (which they had for about 125 years) came to an end with Constantine. He caused a reversal of Jewish favoritism by Rome. But this reversal was not begun until about C.E. 324. In that year Constantine gave permission to rebuild the Temple of God at Jerusalem — it was in the form of a prayer to God (Eusebius, Life of Constantine, II.55) and the Jews actually started to build it in C.E. 324 (John Chrysostom, Against the Jews, VI). But when some of Constantine’s Christian advisors went to him about the matter, the emperor had his mind changed and he forbade them to continue building the Temple by cutting off the ears of those who were starting the construction (Chrysostom, Against the Jews, VI). The Holy Scriptures forbade any maimed person from entering the Temple, let alone work on it (Leviticus 21:17–23). So Constantine cut off the ears of the priests building the Temple. This put a stop to the work.
Constantine then became hateful toward the Jews and they were not honored for the rest of his emperorship. The Jews only came back into grace with the Roman authorities at the time of the emperor Julian (C.E. 361 to 363). Because of his hate for Christian belief, Julian favored the Jewish people and granted them permission to rebuild the Temple at Jerusalem (which was started but again frustrated because of Julian’.s death). Julian also rescinded the annual tribute (the half-shekel poll tax) which the Jewish people had paid since C.E. 70. After his death, the tribute was re-instated which the Patriarchate collected for the imperial treasury, but near the end of the 4th century that right for the Patriarchate to collect the money was annulled and Roman government officials took over the collecting until the Patriarchate was abolished by the Romans in C.E. 429.
For the two and a quarter centuries that the Patriarchate ruled the Jews from Galilee till its demise in C.E. 429, the Jews became a distinct religious society in the world. This is when the Mishnah and the Talmud were brought into existence. For the 1st century and a quarter, the Patriarchate ruled all the Jewish people (without outward proselytes flocking into Jewish society) and this effectively sealed-off Judaism from all other religions in almost dictatorial power among the people. And during this whole time, there is not a single complaint by Christian authorities that the Jewish people in their synagogues or in their homes were allowing paintings of the pagan deities to be displayed.
Up to the time of Constantine all mainline Christians themselves forbade such paintings, and the Jews did too. The paintings at the synagogue in Dura Europos (along with the small church that was there) were not devised by mainline Jews nor mainline Christians. They were primarily heretics who came be known as Gnostics. The Jews even referred to their own heretics by the term "minim" and some of the statements in the Talmud which describe their doctrines almost certainly equates many of them with Gnosticism. Indeed, Friedlander believed that all of the "minim" were Gnostics, and Hereford thought they were Jews with Christian tendencies (M. Simon, Verus Israel, p.180), but almost all Gnostics (whether of Jewish extraction, Samaritan origin, or whatever) had some kind of Christian interpretations attached to their doctrines. The fact is, the "minim" who were either Jewish and/or Christian schematics were not a part of either mainline (Rabbinic) Judaism or mainline (Orthodox) Christianity. To those who made up Rabbinic Judaism, the ″minim" were heretics. They were actually followers of Simon Magus and his successors.
And as far as the synagogues in Galilee are concerned which show idolatrous designs, these can be reasonably assigned to Samaritan attempts to build synagogues in the region while the Jewish Patriarchate was at its lowest ebb and when Baba Rabban was in the prime of his 40 years of rule or in the time of his successors. Some burial tombs at Beth Shearim with a few pagan decorations can also be assigned to this same period when Baba Rabban controlled much of Palestine and Galilee and when he was building synagogues in the regions.
The conclusion to the matter is this. In my view it is a mistake to accuse mainline Rabbinic Judaism of sanctioning idolatrous paintings and symbols in certain synagogues and burial places. There were numerous other peoples within the first four centuries of our era who used symbols from the Tabernacle or the Old Testament (there were Samaritans, Proselytes, God-Fearers, Gnostics, etc.) who would also have been prone to use such religious depictions. The universal testimony of the Mishnah and Talmud in stating an abhorrence of idolatrous designs, and the universal testimony of Christian scholars up to the time of Epiphanius (mid-4th century) to show an equal abhorrence (and yet never once accusing the Jews of such practices) are strong witnesses that the pagan designs and symbols were placed in certain synagogues and burial places by people other than mainline Jews.
One must allow, of course, individual Jews or even families the possibility of relapsing into paganism throughout the four centuries of our discussion, but even granting this, even those few exceptions would still buttress the rule that mainline Judaism did not advocate idolatrous paintings or symbols either in a public or private manner among practicing Jews. The ones who were advocating the depiction of the various deities of the pagans in their synagogues and burial places must, in the main, be individuals or groups who had left the circle of Rabbinic Judaism.
Part two of this book will provide some historical information on the people who brought the paganized form of "Judaism" and "Christianity" into the western world.
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