Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 14 

King Wamba focused his attention on the Spanish Church itself and the organization of its hierarchy and orthodoxy, rather than on the persecution and forced conversion of Jews. Wamba was also busy: the Moors were raiding, the troops were deserting, and he was calling for slaves to be freed to fill out the ranks. The vengeful and bloody laws were dropped from the books. His reign from 672-680 was a period of relief for the Hebrew population of the Visigothic kingdom. But it was not to last forever. 

King Erwig gained the throne when Wamba was suddenly ill, signed papers naming Erwig his successor, chose a monastic life – and then got better. Poison and a planned palace coup were suspected but it was too late. Erwig was confirmed by nobles and bishops who henceforth owned him. It is difficult to say if he had a lust for Jewish blood or no moral will to fight for Jewish human rights. He enacted 28 anti Jewish laws. His only mercy compared to predecessors like Sisebut was the end of the death penalty for Judaism. 

The other dominant figure involved in the history of Spanish Jewish persecution at this time was the Archbishop of Toledo, Julian, the son of baptised Jews who had been forced into Catholicism. Yet he had risen to the highest ranks of the Church. Western non Jewish history remembers Julian as the harsh antisemite in the story, the self-hating Jew who pushed the hapless Erwig along in his crusade. This Jewish history book authored in 1850 offers a more nuanced perspective.

Under the government of this king, the highest dignity in the Church was possessed by Julian, Archbishop of Toledo, through whose instrumentality Erwig (Erviga) was made king, and he was at the same time the most important man of his age in Spain. Julian was the son of parents who had been compelled to embrace Christianity, as is proved by Isidore, of Badajoz (Colonia Pacensis), in the middle of the eighth century. He was also an author of ecclesiastical works. This Julian, the soul of the government of Erwig, a descendant from Jews as he was, was compelled, probably against his will, to compose a work against the Jews. 

Notwithstanding the forcible conversions, the Jews had the courage to make objections against the Messiahship of Jesus. They offered many reasons why Jesus could not have been the Messiah, and among these was also one which maintained that according to Scripture the Messiah should not come before the sixth millennium; and as it was then only from 4440 to ’47, they argued that Jesus could not be the Messiah. The Jewish reasons must at that time have appeared quite cogent, since, according to Julian’s work, many believing Christians had been induced thereby to renounce their faith…By degrees Julian became a persecutor of the Jews.

– from “The Jews in Spain Under the Visigoths” by Dr. Julius Fürst

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 13

King Sisebut ascended the Visigothic throne in 614 CE and began an earnest persecution of Jews in his kingdom.  He decreed that every Jewish man who did not have his children and servants baptised within the year would receive 100 lashes, be deprived of all his property, and be banished from the kingdom. 614 CE was also the year Jerusalem fell out of Catholic Byzantine hands and under Jewish autonomy for the first time since Hellenization. This enraged Catholic clergymen across the continent, and in Visigothic Spain it started a proto Inquisition complete with the introduction of the rack as torture device. 

Over the next six years, Sisebut and his Catholic bishops compelled some 90,000 Jews to be baptised. Border guards patrolled the edges of the kingdom to prevent Jewish escape, although a few were amenable to bribery. The Archbishop of Seville Isidore protested the use of violence and force to compel Jewish conversion, passing a canon law at the fourth Synod of Toledo to that effect, but it was weak and never enforced. With the death of Sisebut’s son and successor, the plight of the Jews finally relaxed some. Some baptised Jews continued worshiping in secret. 

When the Visigoths had converted to Catholicism, it had redistributed power from the nobles to the church. Under Arianism, Jesus was considered a created being – first among equals. Likewise the king was considered the first among the nobles, slightly elevated but not so different. Not a god. Catholicism lent itself to monarchy over democracy. The price of entry was giving the bishops power, and one way they wanted to express that power was antisemitism. Another was way taking it from the nobles. 

In the Synod of 633 the bishops gave themselves the power to choose the king from among the members of the royal family, a right previously held by the nobility. The clergymen also declared that every Jew must be baptised. Four years later the king would issue an unenforced decree kicking out all Jews, before being distracted by a period of war and many successors. King Chindeswinth took the throne in 641 CE and fought back against a clergy grown too powerful, giving Jews a nine year reprieve until his death. 

His son King Reckeswinth seems not to have had his resolve. Jewish persecution laws were reinstated and even baptised Jews were horribly mistreated. A letter to the Eighth Synod of Toledo from converted Jews begs for their persecution to end, swears they have forsaken their Jewish roots, and promises to burn or stone to death any of their members who “relapse” into Judaism. The conditions that must have existed to compel them to write that entreaty are difficult to imagine. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 12

Hebrew peoples who fled Roman Christian persecution westward, or who were simply living in Hispania when it was conquered by the Visigoths, found themselves in the Visigothic Kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula. Today we call it mainly Spain. The Visigoths were Germanic Christians and they followed Arianism, rather than Trinitarianism. They considered Jesus to be the Son of God, holy and divine, necessary for Christian atonement, but not himself a deity. Trinitarian belief is founded on the proposition that God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit make up a triune three-in-one God: each a deity, and all the same deity. 

The First Council of Nicea Constantine presided over in 325 CE had established trinitarianism as the official faith of the Roman Empire, with death by burning as the punishment for anyone who kept writings of the heretic Arius after the Council. But Arianism didn’t die, it just spread north into the Balkans and the Germanic territories. By the time the Visigoths established their kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula, they’d been practicing a monotheistic Christianity for more than a century. 

In previous conquered territory of Gaul (western France) they had tried simply tolerating the religious differences between them and their Catholic peasants, but that hadn’t gone very well. They’d also tried slaughtering clergy, burning churches, and forcibly converting trinitarians to arianism, without much success there either. In Visigothic Spain they decided to try something entirely new. They would convert to Catholicism themselves to ease relations with their conquered peoples. 

Life in the peninsula hadn’t been too bad for Jews up until this point. They had integrated into all levels of society, with most as farmers and herders, but some as merchants and textile makers, and others in the capital as scholars, rabbis, and bankers. There are even records of gentile farmers paying rabbis to come bless their fields. Catholic clergy hated Jewish people, but that antisemitism was to be expected. During the long war years when Spain was a battleground, Rome did not enforce anti Jewish laws in the region. 

As soon as the Visigoths won the war and declared theirs a new Catholic country in 586 CE, the first King established a series of anti Jewish laws. Jews were forbidden from offending Christianity in word or deed, from testifying against a Christian in court, from trying to flee a baptism by leaving the country. Jews were not allowed to circumcise their children, keep the Sabbath, observe Passover or high holy days, follow dietary Kosher laws, or celebrate Jewish marriages.The penalty for breaking these laws was death by stoning or burning. Conversely, any Jewish slave who converted to Christianity would be instantly granted their freedom. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 11

Content warning for a particularly gory massacre involving decapitation. 

The minority Jewish community of about 4,000 living in Tyre reached out to the veteran victors in Jerusalem. They wanted a Jewish incursion to overtake the Christian city on Easter night. An army of 20,000 Jewish soldiers amassed from as far away as Damascus, the modern capital of besieged Syria, to the Mediterranean island city (now country) of Cyprus for a sneak attack. But they were betrayed. Christians in Tyre got word of the planned assault and captured the entire Jewish population in retaliation before their reinforcements could arrive. 

When the Jewish army came riding through and started to burn down churches, the Christians claimed they were justified in killing one hundred Jews for every ruined church. They slaughtered 20,000 that night. Unable to breach the walls, the Jewish army was forced to fall back and wait out the bloodlust as the Christians threw the heads of fallen Jews over the walls to taunt them. Christian antisemitism had grown tremendously under Byzantine rule, encouraged by religious wartime propaganda. Losing the Holy City to the Persians had been interpreted by many as Divine Wrath. If it could instead be blamed on the treachery of the Jews, the Christians would not have to shoulder any portion of culpability. 

Jerusalem remained under Jewish autonomy for a few years, but Khosrau became increasingly less generous with his allies. By 617 he had ordered that no new Jewish immigrants could settle in Jerusalem or within three miles of its borders, probably in response to Christian pressure. Khosrau also imposed heavy taxes on the Jews at Jerusalem. Records of this era are incomplete and missing. We don’t know much about what life was like for the Hebrews living in Jerusalem amidst war, how chaotic or structured their lives became over the years. 

In 622 Heraclius the Byzantine assembled an army to retake his lands. Khosrau was deposed and murdered by his own son Kavadh, who in turn was killed by the Boar of the Empire Shahrbaraz. It was Kavadh who made peace with Heraclius but Shahrbaraz who returned the True Cross in 628 in a ceremony of great spectacle. The Holy Sponge was attached to it and the whole thing was hoisted up into the Hagia Sophia (which had had all its precious metals stripped to help fund the decades long continents crossing world war of its era.) 

Benjamin of Tiberius (remember him?) on behalf of the Jewish people met with the victorious Heraclius on his journey to Jerusalem. According to Coptic Christian tradition, Benjamin threw himself on Heraclius’s mercy, begging for the lives of the other Jews, and even himself converting. Heraclius is said to have sworn their safety, however by the time they arrived in Jerusalem Christian monks had persuaded him to go back an his word. Benjamin’s conversion and Heraclius’s promise of protection may well be later fabrications of apologists. 

The massacre of 628 CE, however, is certain. It was not contained to Jerusalem, but swept across the empire in a wave of anti Jewish pogroms. Only those who could escape to mountains or border countries survived. Egypt saw a great influx of Jewish refugees. Coptic Christians in Egypt still observe the occasion of Heraclius’s betrayal with an annual fast. The extended fighting had weakened both Byzantine and Sassanid empires economically and neither was prepared a few short years later for the Arab Muslim conquest. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 10

A map of Jerusalem, part of the Medaba floor mosaic of 542 CE in the Church of St. George in Jordan

There is a whole new cast of historic characters to introduce for this next part of the story (610-628 CE), when Jews in the Byzantine empire allied with Sassanid Persian invaders in their war against the Roman Christians. Khosrau II was the Sassanid emperor and in his realm he had ended Jewish self governance and turned over the great Jewish academies in Babylon to other purposes. This wasn’t known to the Jews in Galilee, however. 

Khosrau named a Byzantine Jew, Hushiel as Exilarch, a Sassanid recognized status of a Diaspora Jewish community leader. His son Nehemiah ben Hushiel was appointed symbolic leader of the Jewish troops.Nehemiah became something of a Messiah figure to many, bringing hope of a return to Israel and a rebuilding of the Temple, of fulfilling sacred prophecy and dreams deferred at last. Benjamin of Tiberius contributed much of his personal wealth to buying armor and weapons to outfit soldiers, and he mustered troops from Tiberius, Nazareth, and the nearby mountains. He led the Jewish contingent of 20-26,000 alongside Nehemiah. 

Along the way they were joined by more Jews living further to the south, and by Arabs loyal to their cause. But of course they were a small part of the whole Sassanid army, led for 24 years of the 26 year war by the same general, Shahrbaraz. That name is an honorific title he won for his military exploits in the war: it means “the Boar of the Empire”. After the war he briefly took the Persian throne for 40 days before being cut down by a mob of bloodthirsty nobles. Why do people think history is boring?

In 614 the combined forces marched on Jerusalem with little resistance. The Jewish people were elated and began making restoration plans. Nehemiah ben Hushiel was appointed the ruler of Jerusalem. Shahrbaraz and his forces continued onward to their next target. After a few months, there was a Christian revolt and many Jews were killed including Nehemiah and his council of sixteen. Those Jews who could escape made their way to the Persian encampment to seek Shahrbaraz’s aid. 

Shahrbaraz brought his forces back to Jerusalem and held the city siege for nineteen to twenty one days (records vary) until the Christians within relented. By that time more than 17,000 Christians hard died from the conflict and siege. Shahrbaraz had an additional 4,518 prisoners executed as collective punishment for the revolt and pogrom. Sassanids allegedly tortured a Christian clergyman in their search for the True Cross. When it was found, it was exported. Jews were blamed for this. This is a maddening bit of history and the start of the crusades of holy Christian relics, forced conversions, and blaming everything on Jews, a part of history we have not yet left. 

Jewish Persecution: 1 CE – Today, part 9

via Wikipedia, 600 AD

It could not have been easy being Emperor Maurice of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. Luxurious, pampered, and purple certainly, but never easy. He had been leading his country through war campaigns to retake territories lost by the fallen Western Empire, to defend the Baltic region from invasions from the Avar and Slav peoples, and through a twenty year war with the Sassanid Persians. That last affair had been settled amiably by Maurice helping to restore the deposed prince to his throne, and marrying his daughter to the foreign monarch. He’d won back Roman land in exchange. 

But the bellicosity had emptied the national treasury. Maurice raised taxes, which did not endear him to the nobles. Even worse, he cut soldier pay, leading to four mutinies.  During the final mutiny in 602 the soldiers named a young centurion Phocas as their new emperor. Maurice tried arming the sports fans to defend the city but they were not any good against trained soldiers and were quickly defeated. Maurice was killed. It wasn’t easy being emperor. They didn’t tend to stay emperor for very long. 

The governor of Mesopatamia Narses was loyal the old throne. He had been a high ranking soldier under Maurice and rebelled against Phocas’s grab for imperial power. Narses seized the city of Edessa and sent word to Maurice’s son-in-law, the newly crowned Sassanid Emperor. The emperor was pleased with such a genuine invitation for invasion and gladly accepted, beginning the Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602-628. Narses himself was killed in 605 while trying to engage Phocas in peace talks; Phocas ordered him burned alive, damaging his own reputation severely. 

In response to the Persian threat, in 608 Phocas commanded every resident of Antioch (in modern Turkey) to convert to Christianity. When the Christian patriarch Anastasius died, the Jewish community was accused of killing him. Many Jews resisted these allegations and forced conversion. Some rose up in rebellion, or simply protested their faith. A pogrom of intense proportions was visited upon them. Similar rebellions in Tyre and Acre were likewise repressed. 

Also in 608, Heraclius the Elder, Exarch of Africa started pulling strings to make his son the next emperor, and soon. While his son led a naval campaign, his nephew led land forces, and the Elder Heraclius conspired to have Phocas arrested – and executed. In 610 CE Heraclius the Younger became emperor. Phocas’s sporadic efforts at forced conversion would be nothing compared with Heraclius’s zealotry. He would set the course and characteristics for all future crusades. 

Further reading

Jewish Virtual Library – Antioch

 “The First Crusade” by Steven Runciman 

“A Short History of Byzantium” by John Julius Norwich 

Jewish Persecution:1 CE – Today, part 8


Before going further into the story of history, let’s take a moment to reflect on what the globe was like at that point in time. The Roman empire had overstretched itself. Unable to defend such huge borders from increasingly competent foes like the Huns, the Vandals, and the Visigoths, the Western Emire had been forced to pull back from expensive to maintain outposts like the British islands. Hispania and Gaul had been lost utterly. By 500 CE, the Western Roman Empire had fallen. The Eastern Byzantine empire recaptured most of its lost Mediterranean and African territory. 

The Eastern Byzantine empire was an oppressive place for the Hebrew peoples, both Rabbinical Jews and their ancestral cousins, the Samaritans. These fellow Levantine natives followed Samaritanism, a similar but distinctly different faith. They believed the Holy Land and the Temple must be in Samaria, the modern West Bank, not Israel’s Jerusalem. During the first century tensions between the groups were exploited by Rome, and Samaritans disavowed kinship with Jews to curry Roman favor. This is reflected in favorable representation of Samaritans in the Christian Gospels. 

However by the middle of the sixth century, Samaritans and Jews living in Galilee and greater Palestine had found common cause against their Byzantine oppressors. They joined together in revolts against the empire on at least three occasions in a quarter century. In 556 CE, following a restriction on rights for religious minorities, Jews joined a primarily Samaritan revolt. The rebellion stretched from Ceasera to Bethlehem, where they burned the Church of the Nativity, angering Christians. 

Samaritans and Jews banded together in rebellion again in 572 and in the summer of 573 or 578 because the records are not clear. The Samaritans in particular suffered devastating losses. They were already a religion with smaller numbers and their faith was outlawed by the Byzantines in retaliation. Many were forced to convert or flee. It was no longer safe for them to remain in the empire. Some stuck it out, praying privately at home, unwilling to leave their village.  

Today Samaritans are recognized as Jewish-ish. They have a stand alone religious status in Israel but must convert to be recognized as Jewish. Genetically Samaritans are closer related to other Jews than to their fellow Palestinians, suggesting they have maintained endogomy (ingroup marriage) throughout the millennia. Samaritans maintain they are the true followers of Abraham, the descendants of Joseph through his sons Ephraim and Manasseh. Since Israeli statehood Samaritans have had greater access to their holy sites at Mount Gerizan in the West Bank than when it was under Arab control. 

Further reading 

“A Vocabulary of Desire: The Song of Songs in the Early Synagogue” by Laura S. Lieber

Jerusalem Post: Samaritans Perform Passover Ritual

“The Samaritans, the earliest Jewish sect” by James A. Montgomery