Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Christianity the State Church of Rome.

Rome's Decline.

Now we must turn our glance westward again—to Rome. At the death of Antoninus Pius in 161, two emperors reigned conjointly—Varus, a degenerate, and Marcus Aurelius, a philosopher. The Roman Empire was becoming steadily demoralized. It was at the mercy of a series of degraded creatures who engaged in scandalous conflicts for the bauble of royal power. At times the purple was offered to the highest bidder.

But in 222 the throne came into the hands of the high-minded Alexander Severus. Unlike most of his predecessors, he respected Judaism, and Hillel's Golden Rule was inscribed on the walls of his palace. So his reign meant thirteen pleasant years for the Jews—a little break of sunshine through the lowering clouds.

After the death of Severus, degeneracy again set in and usurper after usurper seized the throne. Rarely was the monotony of upstart emperors broken by a better type of man such as Diocletian. The demoralized condition of the State was reflected in the people at large. Paganism, even at its best, had failed as a scheme of life. Roman society was hopelessly corrupt and on the eve of collapse. The people no longer believed in the supposed divinities Jupiter and Apollo. The philosophers tried to explain them away as abstract ideas. The ceremonies of the temple became mummeries. The augurs (priests who were supposed to indicate the nature of events by the flight and cries of birds) could not look each other in the face without laughing.

The more earnest prayed for something better. Had Judaism not been discredited and under a ban and its observers spurned as an alien race, it might have been more largely sought—though its ceremonial code was exacting, its moral code severe, and its sole spiritual God seemed abstract and aloof to worshippers of divinities that could be seen. Judaism made not an iota of concession to win a single pagan to the fold. As it was, in spite of discouraging conditions, many would-be proselytes knocked at the doors of the Synagogue.

Why Christianity Appealed to Romans.

But for many reasons, Christianity was in a better condition to make converts. Most of its adherents had come through conversion, and proselytism was a cardinal item in its program. The eagerness of the Christians to bring a religious message to the heathen, deserves high praise and must not be underrated, though they betrayed weakness in being too ready to make concessions to pagan nations for the sake of winning converts. The semi-idolatrous idea that Jesus was at once man and God was a familiar conception to the pagan mind. The dramatic picture of his dying on the cross to save mankind appealed to their emotions. The treatment of the Hebrew expression "holy spirit," as a being—a separate divinity, introduced a third element into the God-idea—the "Holy Ghost," (old English: spirit.) This made the Christian divinity a Trinity: God, the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Ghost. But a three-headed God, so revolting to Jewish ideas, was quite a recognized theological notion in the heathen world.

With these additions, so alluring to the pagan mind, the nobler Jewish teachings, which were Christianity's ethical foundations, were more readily accepted. Christianity became popular in Rome. Its adherents were found in all ranks. When they were a small and feeble group, the Roman emperors had persecuted them. But now, they were in the majority. The tables were turned. Only minorities are persecuted. Alas the Jews remained a minority.


Thus it was that an emperor named Constantine decided first to give toleration to all cults and ultimately to adopt Christianity—"partly from a genuine moral sympathy, yet doubtless far more in the well-grounded belief that he had more to gain from the zealous sympathy of its professors than to lose by the aversion of those who still cultivated a languid paganism." This act made it the religion of the empire. But since Rome was mistress of half the civilized world, this acquisition of power and numbers at once gave to the new Faith an eminence it has never lost. The effect of this promotion was profound and lasting and vitally affected the destiny of Israel.

Judaism and Christianity Contrasted.

The attitude of enthroned Christianity was at once inimical to the parent Faith. At first sight it would seem that it might be more kindly disposed to a religion to which it owed so much and to which it was so closely related. Alas to confess it—for such is human nature—the very closeness of the relationship was the cause of its enmity. It regarded the very persistence of Judaism as a denial of its theories and as a challenge to its claims. Christianity declared the law abrogated; Judaism called it religion's keystone. Christianity declared that the Messiah had come; Judaism maintained he had not. Christians called Jesus a divinity—Son of God; the Jews spurned this as blasphemy. The Church taught a Trinity; the Synagogue made the indivisible Unity of God its cardinal principle. Spiritual monotheism became for the Jew a passion.

The first act by which Christianity exercised its new power was to prohibit Jews from making converts to Judaism and to reward those who deserted it. Thus it conspired for the gradual elimination of the Jewish Faith.

As its ranks rapidly swelled, Christianity continued to make consciously and unconsciously more and more concessions to the heathen beliefs and customs that were deeply rooted in the hearts of people, who accepted the new creed more or less superficially. The original Essene ideas from which it had sprung were completely lost to view. Taking the imperial government as its model, the Church reproduced Roman administration in its systematic organization, even to its despotic demand of sole sway. It enforced a rigid uniformity of doctrine; it organized a hierarchy of patriarchs and bishops whose power was enforced by the State and whose provinces corresponded with the administrative divisions of the Empire, the emperor being head of the Church.

In the year 325 a Council was called at Nicaea (Asia Minor) to draw up the official creed of Christianity. For it laid great stress on belief. This marked another distinction from Judaism, which, so far, had formulated no creed and had no particular theory of salvation. The Nicaean Council condemned the doctrines of the followers of Arius, a Christian whose idea of God was closer to Judaism, and declared the equal eternity and divinity of the three persons of the Trinity, with more decided emphasis. So the Arians were henceforth regarded as heretics. It further decided, that the Festival of Easter (which was the Jewish Passover readapted to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus) should now be arranged independently of the Jewish calendar.

The policy of suppression directed against Judaism commenced by Constantine was continued with greater ardor by his son, Constantius. He forbade intermarriage and imposed the penalty of death on Jews who made proselytes of Christian slaves. He even prohibited their converting heathen slaves. Further prohibitive acts followed. This hostile attitude was continued for centuries.

Thus the Jews in the Roman Empire were transferred from a heathen to a Christian regime. Quietly they continued on the even tenor of their way and prayed with greater fervency for the restoration of their ancestral home and for the speedy coming of the Messiah; it meant for them the coming of light and liberty.

The Calendar.

It became necessary for Hillel II., Palestinian Patriarch, in 359, to establish a fixed calendar based on that of Samuel of Babylon, to guide the people as to the time of celebrating New Moon and Festivals, as in these troublous times they could not always transmit the news obtained by observing the heavens. But the "second" day of the Festivals, for lands outside of Palestine, now no longer needed, was maintained as a matter of sentiment and is maintained still in conservative Judaism.

This planning of a Jewish calendar by which the Festivals were computed perpetually and yet kept in their natural seasons, was a wonderful piece of astronomical and arithmetical ingenuity. For a lunar year of twelve months is shorter than a solar year of three-hundred and sixty-five and a quarter days. To average the difference and thus prevent, for example, Passover eventually occurring in Autumn and Tabernacles in Spring, an additional month (second Adar) was added seven times in every nineteen years. Further, the calendar had to be so devised that certain Festivals should not fall on undesirable days—for example to prevent the Day of Atonement falling on Friday or Sunday. This ancient calendar is still our guide for the Jewish year.