A Jewish kingdom in ancient Babylon

Least known is the kingdom of Mar Zutra, that rose to brief prominence in the period after the redaction and editing of the Talmud.

Cuneiform tablet detailing the daily life of exiled Jews in ancient Babylon (modern-day Iraq) 2,500 years ago, displayed at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Cuneiform tablet detailing the daily life of exiled Jews in ancient Babylon (modern-day Iraq) 2,500 years ago, displayed at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Although Bar Kokhba was the last leader of a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel, almost 1,900 years before the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, there are a few examples of Jewish kingdoms that existed in the Diaspora long before the modern Jewish state arose.
In considerable territory of eastern and southern Arabia, before the rise of Islam, the elite of the Kingdom of Himyar converted to Judaism. This kingdom was powerful, twice succeeding in repelling domination by Ethiopia, and preventing the anti-Jewish Byzantines from passing through its territory to India to conduct trade. This Jewish kingdom came to an end with a final war with Ethiopia that resulted in its destruction.
A more well-known example of a Jewish Diaspora kingdom is the Khazars. Located in Eastern Europe, this kingdom’s leaders converted to Judaism and adopted the hallmarks of Jewish civilization.
The kingdom flourished from 650 CE to 1016 CE, but was eventually overrun by enemies and scattered. The Khazars were known as brave warriors and ignited the imagination of medieval Hebrew poet Judah Halevi, whose philosophical work, The Kuzari, uses the adoption of Judaism by the Khazar king as a launching point to delve into an analysis and understanding of Judaism, revelation and prophecy.
Least known, however, is the kingdom of Mar Zutra, that rose to brief prominence in the period after the redaction and editing of the Talmud.
The background to the founding of this kingdom was a period of persecution of the Jews led by the priests of the Zoroastrian Persians, known as the magi. Starting in the year 440 CE, under King Yazdigar II, the magi’s major focus of hatred was the Christians in Babylonia, who were suspected of harboring sympathies for the enemies of Persia, the Byzantines. But soon the persecution by the Zoroastrian priests widened to include the Jews.
In 455 CE the Persians issued an edict abolishing the Shabbat. Persecutions continued under the next king, Peroz I, whom Jewish tradition remembers as “Peroz the Evil.” Study of Torah was banned under this king. The Persians closed synagogues. Jews were coerced into standing trial in Persian law courts and the magi kidnapped Jewish children and raised them in the Zoroastrian tradition. Huna V, a rabbi who was the son of Mar Zutra the exilarch – the exilarch was the leader of the Jewish community in Babylonia, claiming descent from the monarchy of King David – was imprisoned and eventually executed.
For the first time in an otherwise prosperous and successful community that had experienced centuries of tolerance by the Persian ruling authorities do we hear of Jewish martyrs in Babylonia.
Despite the persecution, the Jewish leadership in Babylonia was powerful. The fact that an exilarch founded a Jewish empire in Babylonia during this period is proof of this. The root of this kingdom was a clash between the exilarch and the rabbis who headed the great academies of Babylonia. Huna V, who had also been exilarch, clashed with his fatherin- law Rabbi Haninah by refusing to confirm a judge nominated by him. But after Huna was martyred by the magi, Rabbi Haninah raised Rabbi Huna’s son Mar Zutra II and restored him to the post of exilarch.
Together, Mar Zutra II and Rabbi Haninah took advantage of disorder that broke out throughout the Persian Empire. Mar Zutra raised a small army and founded a kingdom with its capital in Mahoza.
He proceeded to levy taxes and wage wars with his Jewish army. From 495 to 502 Mar Zutra II ruled with the complete support of his grandfather Rabbi Haninah. But the Persian king Kavadh I, who had been deposed during the disorder, regained his throne and destroyed Mar Zutra II’s Jewish state.
Both Mar Zutra II and Haninah were crucified by the Persian authorities.
The defeat was devastating. The rabbis had to establish academies out of the reach of the central Persian government. Eventually, however, life returned to normal for a short period under the Persian king and Jews were even drafted to serve as soldiers in the Persian army. A surviving son of Mar Zutra II, Mar Zutra III, escaped death by making his way to the Land of Israel as a young man and gained prominence there. Periods of hardship however continued under the pressure of the magi and it took years to restore order and reconstitute a thriving Jewish community of the kind that had been the hallmark of Jewish life in Babylonia.
The stories of the kingdoms of the ancient and medieval world – the Mar Zutra empire, the Himyar and the Khazars –smash the myth that Jews in the Diaspora after the defeat of Bar Kokhba were a meek people who submitted to the persecutions of non-Jewish authority.
While these kingdoms remain footnotes in Jewish history, they are proof that Jews rose up against their enemies even in the Exile. While the narrative of the rise of the modern State of Israel is correct in castigating Diaspora Jews for their passivity, the reality is that Jews remained a political and even a military people even after being exiled from Eretz Yisrael. These examples should, in part, recalibrate our understanding of Diaspora Jews and Judaism.
The second myth that is debunked is the belief that for the Jews in Babylonia under the Persians – in contrast to the declining community in the Land of Israel under the Christianized Roman Empire – life was devoid of persecution and difficulty.
Although Babylonian Jewry remained dominant and influential, the reality of persecution, although not the rule, was a part of Jewish life in this important center of the Exile.
The story of all these kingdoms can be found in A History of the Jewish People, edited by H. H. Ben-Sasson, and the story of the kingdom in Babylonia is described as early as the Geonic literature and in the Seder Olam Zuta, dating from the 8th century CE.