Julian emperor 298.88.
(photo credit: Courttesy)
On this day, as we mourn the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, it seems fitting to recall a little-known story of how a Roman emperor stood ready to rebuild the third temple. He acted not out of love for the Jewish people, but because he was a pagan who - despite its ascendency - despised Christianity.
The Roman Emperor Julian, who ruled 361-363 CE, called on the Jews to return to the Land of Israel and rebuild their Temple in Jerusalem. Whatever his motives, he showed our ancestors unusual respect and understanding.
Julian was hardly an ordinary emperor, though history has failed to pay sufficient attention to his policies. In Julian, the Romans had a just ruler and brave soldier. He was a modest man who labored to relieve the distress of his subjects while endeavoring to connect authority with merit and happiness with virtue.
As a young soldier Julian subdued, against the odds, the German threat in Gaul with a small force. He ruled ancient Gaul with wisdom and authority, hardly ever seeking a personal gain. He slept on the ground with his legionnaires, earning their respect. Julian was an excellent organizer, an honest judge, a writer and a philosopher.
Brought up as a Christian, Julian rejected the religion and turned back to the paganism of Greek and Roman days. He argued that Christianity would weaken and ultimately destroy the Roman Empire. As a result, he attempted to restore Hellenism, which earned him everlasting Christian disdain.
Known to Christians as Julian the Apostate, the emperor restored pagan temples and the cult of the old Roman gods. These were to be served by a reform-minded pagan clergy with high moral character, who would compete with the Christian clergy in meeting the religious needs of the people.
Julian remains famous for having declared absolute freedom for all religious beliefs - making him perhaps the first leader to extend toleration of religion to all Romans.
ON THE July 19, 362 C.E., Julian left Constantinople and arrived in Antioch to prepare for the invasion of Persia. However busy he must have been, he met with "the chiefs of the Jews."
The details of this fascinating meeting, preserved only in Christian sources, are cited in Michael Avi Yona's The Jews under Roman and Byzantine Rule - A Political History from the Bar Kochba War to the Arab Conquest.
Julian, who wanted to form a common cause with the Jews against Christianity, asked: "Why do you not sacrifice to God, as required by the laws of Moses?"
The Jews replied: "We are not allowed by our laws to sacrifice outside our Holy City. How can we do it now? Restore to us the City, rebuild the Temple and the altar, and we shall offer sacrifices, as in days of old."
He promised: "I shall endeavor with the utmost zeal to set up the Temple of the Most High God."
THE RESTORATION of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem would, in Julian's opinion, defeat the Christian argument of replacement theology - that the Church was the true Israel, and that the Temple's destruction and the subsequent exile was the just punishment suffered by the Jewish people for the Crucifixion. The Temple's restoration, Julian figured, would persuade Christian converts that God still favored the Jewish people.
As an army commander, embarking on a war against a formidable Persian enemy, Julian could also expect that the Jews of Mesopotamia would assist his legions. But there can also be no doubt that Julian's attitude of fairness and his respect for the stubborn stand of the Jewish remnant played a role in his desire to achieve a Jewish restoration.
In his "Four Letters" addressed to the Jewish people, Julian recognized their dire situation and appealed to them to join him in his campaign. That's a vast difference from the Persian ruler Cyrus, who had only allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple; Julian virtually ordered them to do so, and perhaps, upset by their initial hesitation, appointed Alypius, a pagan native of Antioch and his best friend, to supervise the work.
In a letter to the Jewish Patriarch Hillel II, residing in Tiberias, Julian abrogated the entire gamut of anti-Jewish legislation and recognized Jewish authority in Israel, including the right to levy taxes.
ACCORDING TO the Christian sources, there was considerable initial enthusiasm among the Jews of Diaspora. Many purses were opened. But other leading Jews were confused and apprehensive. The community had only recently suffered yet another painful defeat in the failed uprising against Gallus (351 C.E.), which erupted in protest against discriminatory anti-Jewish legislation. The Patriarchate had lost Lydda, the few remaining settlements in Judea and several vital Galilean villages.
The people quoted a verse from Daniel (11:34): "Now when they shall stumble, they shall be helped with a little help; but many shall join themselves unto them with blandishments."
The Jews were doubtless divided between those who believed that Julian was a savior and those who remembered Rabbi Simon Ben Eliezer's warning against the youthful enthusiasm of the second generation after the Bar Kochba disaster: "If children tell you: 'Go, build the Temple - do not listen to them.'"
Above all, could Jewish hopes depend on the fortunes of one man?
In the end, no attempt was made to set up a temporary altar and offer sacrifices on the former Temple grounds, as the Maccabeans had done. While the Jews could not oppose the will of the Roman emperor, they could drag their feet. Apparently the majority did. They remembered Rome as Amalek, not as a benefactor.
THE WORK ordered on the Temple's foundation advanced slowly. It took time to provide silver spades and pickaxes, since no iron was allowed to be used. And then, according to the Roman writer Ammianus, "balls of fire" supposedly erupted from the foundations and rendered the place inaccessible.
The Christian majority of Jerusalem described this fire in glowing terms, as a splendid miracle, a further proof of the rightness of Christianity. The Jews suspected Christian arson. Meanwhile Alypius, Julian's pagan friend, seemed hardly in a hurry to carry out the emperor's order.
At any rate, the opportunity to rebuild the Temple was lost. Notwithstanding the lack of Jewish sources for this fascinating episode, there can be little doubt that Julian's failure resulted in yet another deep national trauma, traces of which can be found among anti-Zionist circles in our own time.
Moreover, the failures of the 67, 112 and 135 CE Jewish uprisings, other bloody skirmishes with the Roman and Byzantine Christian regimes, and the further trauma of Julian's endeavor were more than the Jewish nation could bear for many generations.
With Julian's death came the Emperor Jovian, a faithful Christian, and a Church-led assault on Jews and Judaism.
And so it was that by the time of the Persian and finally Arab conquests of Jerusalem, the local Jewish population was a mere remnant of a once-thriving society.
The writer, a veteran Post staffer, edits the daily archives column.