Constantine’s vision at Milvian Bridge north of Rome transformed him and transformed history. In a decisive battle for control of the Roman Empire in October 312, Constantine looked up at the sky and saw a cross of light above the sun that bore the inscription “Conquer by this.” This vision seemed to be the beginning of the end of paganism in the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity to the status of the religion of the state.
While during his life he remained in the position of the pontifex maximus – chief pagan priest of the empire – by the time of his death in 337, he had already converted to Christianity and had bolstered the power of the Church in its fight to wipe out heresies within Christendom. The status of the Jews, especially in the Land of Israel, was not immediately affected by the Christianization of the Roman Empire, although the emperor forbade Patriarch Hillel II announcing the date of Passover to Diaspora communities. This led to the Jewish leader adopting a fixed calendar. The situation of the Jews under control of Rome would later deteriorate. Constantine did outlaw Jews from proselytizing. Eventually, the post of patriarch (nasi in Hebrew) would be abolished by the Romans, thus depriving Jewish leadership in Eretz Yisrael of the hope of rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple.
Yet, there seemed to be some hope of messianic restoration only 30 years after Constantine’s death. His nephew Julian wanted to return to the pagan heritage and ritual that was so central to Greco-Roman culture and politics. In 361, Julian defied the Christianization that was the hallmark of his uncle’s rule and issued edicts that favored Roman cults and minimized the influence of Christianity. He even allowed heretics within the Christian world to occupy positions of ecclesiastical power. Julian’s policies were meant to weaken the power of the established Church. The Church and history would always remember him as “Julian the Apostate.”
Historian Peter Schafer states that Julian’s “attitude to Judaism was ambivalent.” The emperor rejected Judaism as the foundation of the Christianity he despised and he did not consider Jews God’s chosen people. But the promotion of Judaism and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple would revive the cult of sacrifice that had long been part of the world while pagans ruled. As well, Julian had hopes of enlisting Jews in the Middle East as allies in his war against the Persians. By 363, the Jews in Jerusalem began to build a third temple. Julian composed a letter in Greek to the Jews of the Land of Israel in which, according to historian Jacob R. Marcus, “He abolished the special taxes paid to the Roman government and sought also to stop the payment of tax paid by Jews for the support of the Jewish patriarchate in Palestine. In this same letter he also encouraged the rebuilding of Jerusalem and, we may assume, of the Jewish Temple. Had this attempt been successful it would have meant the reestablishment of the Jewish state with its sacrifices, priests, and more important, its Sanhedrin or Senate.”
We have few sources that describe the Jewish response to Julian’s startling offer. It seems that Jews from throughout the Diaspora and in the Land of Israel were indeed eager and willing to fulfill their messianic hopes and dreams. Jews attempted to travel to Jerusalem from Babylonia – they were murdered en route by the Persians. But the Christians who dominated Jerusalem would not allow the rebuilding to succeed. Christian sources blame the end of the restoration by claiming a great fire and earthquake destroyed the Temple’s foundations, thus proving that Jesus Christ looked upon the Jews with disfavor. These sources are suspect: Most likely the Christians in the city burned down whatever had been constructed. Julian’s death in battle in 363 and the end of the pagan experiment in the Christian Roman Empire dashed Jewish hopes for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple and the return of the Sanhedrin. It is also likely that the rabbinic establishment in the Land of Israel viewed with suspicion the elevation of the kohanim (members of the priestly line) to power in a third temple and were quite ambiguous themselves about Julian’s offer. This whole series of events could be reduced to a footnote of history. Yet, Jews today have, in part, realized the offer of rebuilding Jerusalem and establishing Jewish sovereignty over Israel. The dream of Jews in Julian’s time has, in part, been fulfilled.
The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.