Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Beginning of the Jewish Middle Ages.

In the Byzantine Empire.

To turn again to the history proper. The production of the Talmud is part of the story of Babylonian Israel. Except that fanatic outbreak about the year 500 little occurred to disturb the even tenor of their way. They were "happy" because they "had no history."

But life was going hard for their brethren elsewhere. Many were settled in the lands of the Eastern half of the Roman Empire known as the Byzantine. It included all ancient Rome's conquests in Asia, Eastern Europe and Northern Africa. Our present Turkey forms the bulk of it.

Yes, the status of the Jew was growing still more precarious. In many Palestinian towns, notably Caesarea and Antioch, insurrections broke out, usually during the circus races. Ravages against the Jews were actually endorsed by the emperor Zeno. Churches were everywhere replacing synagogues in the land which had once been theirs, and Jerusalem became an archbishopric where Jews were not even admitted. Such are the changes of time!

Laws of Justinian.

Under Justinian, anti-Jewish legislation was systematized. He was the emperor who became famous because of the Digest of Roman law, accomplished in his reign, in the year 541. His theory was—"one religion, one law, one state." Against the fulfilment of such an ideal the Jews stood, so to speak, as an obstacle. Therefore the laws of this Digest (or rather of his later Novellae) that concern them, are severe. Among these, was the provision that Jewish witnesses could not testify against Christians. Justinian, who further made them bear the expense of the magistrate office without its privileges, also forbade their celebrating Passover prior to Easter! He even went so far as to prohibit the recital of the Shema since he regarded its declaration "God is one" as a protest against the Trinity! This meddlesome intruder, furthermore, tried so to modify the Synagogue service that it might encourage Christian ideas.

Altogether there was almost an unbroken monotony of suffering under Byzantine rule. Judaism was made to cost its followers dear. But their deep faith that Providence would ultimately usher in a glorious dawn if they were but patiently loyal, saved them from despair. Under the Byzantine rule at its best they were left contemptuously to themselves and were granted a certain autonomy in the management of their communal affairs.

Jews again Involved in War.

In the early part of the sixth century, Persia tried to wrest Palestine from the Byzantine Empire. Jews must look on while others fought for the country that was once theirs. Since Byzantium was treating them so badly and Persia (which included Babylonia), was treating their brethren humanely, the Jews settled in Palestine, decided to support Persia with its arms. If successful, they could live secure under its more tolerant sway. So under the leadership of one Benjamin, Jews mustered an army once more.

The Persians, however, were ungrateful to these allies, and when victory seemed to be theirs, not only refused to cede Jerusalem according to promise and for which the Jews had so longingly hoped, but even imposed oppressive taxes upon them, thus going back upon their own record. How cruel the world is to minorities! Further ill-treatment induced many to enlist under the banner of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius in 627. By solemn treaty he promised them immunity from all punishment for having taken up arms against him.

Fortune turned in his favor. Persia withdrew. The monks now urged the triumphant emperor to extirpate the Jews from Palestine. He reminded them of his solemn promise of protection made to them. They told him that a promise to Jews need not be kept; and, that to slay them would be an act of piety! Thus sanctioned, he began a severe massacre. Further, those old edicts of Hadrian and Constantine forbidding Jews to enter Jerusalem were once more enforced in 628. But Judea was not long to remain in Christian hands.

Rome's Successors.

As already stated in chapter xxxiv, the Western half of the Roman Empire had succumbed to Northern tribes by the year 476. The Ostrogoths, led by Theodoric, became masters of Italy, the Visigoths of Spain, the Franks and Burgundians of Gaul—the Gaul that had been great Caesar's pride to conquer. Here we see the beginning of the formation of the nations of Europe. They all accepted the Roman system of law and government to a modified extent, and also that which now became the Roman religion—Christianity. So the victors became the disciples of the vanquished—a not unusual experience in history. In each of these lands and under each of these peoples, Israel was pretty well represented by the beginning of the sixth century, and in each it had a distinct history. So, in continuing our story we shall have to follow many strands. They were treated better in these new European countries than in Byzantine lands—at least at first.


The Ostrogoths, the new rulers in Italy, were Arians. The other group of Christians—the orthodox—called themselves Roman Catholics. Catholic means universal. Christianity claimed to be a universal Church and Rome had once claimed a universal Empire. This religious monopoly, the theory that this church offered the only saving creed, did sad mischief in the coming centuries. These Arian Ostrogoths were kinder to the Jews than were the catholics. The greater tolerance of the Arians may perhaps have been due to the fact that their idea of God was a little closer to that of the Jewish. But Arian Christians, always a small minority, soon disappeared, just as in the early days of the church, Jewish Christians were absorbed by pagan Christians. But as long as these two divisions of Christendom lasted, they were very bitter against each other. When a Byzantine army threatened the Ostrogoths, the Jews loyally stood by those who, if they had not treated them generously, had treated them justly. Later we find the Jews defending the seacoast of Naples for the Ostrogoths in 536. Only when overwhelmed by superior numbers did they at last surrender. Thus Italy, once the country of which Rome was the capital, was becoming the sport of nations. From the Ostrogoths it passed to the Byzantine Empire. Then in 589 it was seized by a tribe from the Elbe called Lombards. Its later story is told in the sequel to this book (History of the Mediaeval Jews).

The Popes.

But through all these changes, the city of Rome remained the religious centre of the Church as Jerusalem had been the religious centre of Judaism.

The Roman bishop (overseer) acquired power over all bishops in other Christian centres, and became the head of the Church with the title pope (Greek-father). In the course of time these popes exercised immense power, and we shall see kings trembling before them. For they came to be regarded as the representatives of God on earth. Whoever dared oppose their will was excommunicated, i.e., cut off. Then all shrunk from the person thus put under the ban as from a person smitten with leprosy; for the superstitious age regarded him as accursed and doomed. Very terrible was it when this dangerous power was in the hands of an unscrupulous pope, which not infrequently happened. But there were many good popes, too, and the Jews found among them, as we shall see, friends as well as foes.

Gregory I, one of the earliest and also one of the greatest, would not allow his bishops to molest the Jews, "whom God had found worthy to be bearers of His truth"; though he offered the bribe of remission of taxes for their conversion!

Slavery and Trade.

Slavery was still a recognized institution of society, due in part to constant warfare, the daily business of life and to the custom of enslaving prisoners of war. So slaves were in nearly every household and in the fields, taking the place of the humble toilers of to-day.

So we find Jews holding them likewise. They often converted them to Judaism and in all cases were kinder to them than most masters. But Gregory vigorously objected—not to slavery, but to the enslaving of Christians, and particularly to the possession of Christian slaves by Jews. The Church greatly feared that by proselytizing their slaves the Jews might increase their numbers. This was to be prevented at any cost.

If the question were asked why Jews came to trade in slaves, the answer would be because they were becoming traders in general, and traffic in slaves was part of the commerce of the age. It is then part of a larger question—how came the Jews to seek trade as a means of livelihood? First, by the law of necessity. Most other avenues of activity were being closed to them. Not permitted to own lands, they could hardly be agriculturists. Gradually the army, the public service and most of the professions were forbidden to Jews.

Secondly, on account of their dispersion through the world, which had its compensating advantages. United to their brethren by close fraternal ties, speaking a common tongue and moving frequently from place to place, the exchange of commodities was facilitated. Then having smaller opportunities of expenditure, and in any case of moderate tastes, they naturally possessed ready means.

Lastly, their hard fate in lands of exile, the growing precariousness of their position under fanatic powers, quickened their wits in the life struggle and endowed them with the capacities that earn success in trade. (We are not therefore surprised to learn that the Jews invented bills of exchange.)

This is all there was to justify the medieval belief in the colossal wealth of the Jews and the fantastic notions as to its acquisition.


Slavery and the Jews:—The humanity of the Hebrew slave laws is one of the commonplaces of history. See Exodus xxi and Deut. xxiii.

The Slave Trade, chapter vi in Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, Abrahams, J. P. S. A.

Theme for discussion:—In what respect did medieval slavery differ from Russian serfdom and from the bond service in the early colonial era of America?