The Seventh-Century Christian
Obsession with the Jews:
A Historical Parallel
for the Present?
Rivkah Duker Fishman
In the seventh century, the Arabs embarked on the conquest of the world
in the name of Islam. The Caliphate replaced the Persian Empire and
Christian Spain and conquered much of the Byzantine Empire. The
latter, however, seemed to ignore the threat of the new invaders and their
religion. Instead, the Byzantine political and intellectual elite focused
increasingly on the Jews in tracts and legal measures. The situation has
certain parallels with the present.
During the early and mid-seventh century, when Islam was on the
rise, the Arabs began their conquest of vast areas of the known world.
Imbued with religious zeal and possessing great military skill, they
spread their new creed for nearly a century and put an end to long-reigning
kingdoms. These included the Christian Byzantine Empire
in the Eastern Mediterranean, which encompassed Syria, Palestine,
and Egypt; the Zoroastrian Persian Empire, whose lands embraced
Persia and Babylonia - renamed Iraq by its new masters; and western
Christian areas of North Africa and Visigothic Spain. Charles Martel
stopped the Muslim advance in Poitiers, now France, in 732.
Although the Persian East and the Iberian West were important
acquisitions for Islam, the focus here is on the powerful heir to the
glory of ancient Rome, the Byzantine Empire (whose capital Constantinople
was not conquered). Why did Jerusalem, a prosperous
center of religious pilgrimage and locus of historical memory, the pride
of Orthodox Christianity, surrender in 638 to the "Saracens," the
strange and barbarous hordes from the desert?
Why did the Byzantine Imperial leadership miscalculate the power
of the invader and lose so much territory and prestige? And how did
intellectual and political figures of the time explain and cope with this
major moral and military setback?
The answers to these questions may provide insight into our own
times, though historical parallels must always be viewed with caution.
It is noteworthy that the imminent Arab-Islamic advance did not
seem to occupy the intellectual, religious, and political elite of Byzantium.
The Imperial forces had entered Jerusalem in 628, reasserting
their power after fourteen years of rule by the Persians, who destroyed
nearly all the churches and monasteries in Palestine and decimated
its Christian population. The Emperor Heraclius consecrated the
Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 630 and restored the "True Cross,"
the physical relic of the Crucifixion, venerated by Christians.
Was Byzantium blinded by the victory over its formidable foe? Or
had the Empire grown used to the frequent border raids by Arabs
and others, so that it did not view the Muslim advance as out of the
Indeed, Byzantine attention was not directed toward the enemy
at the doorstep, but against Jews of the realm. The Emperor and the
two leading churchmen, Maximus the Confessor and his friend and
colleague, Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, increasingly expressed
virulent criticism of the Jews and Judaism.1
On 31 May 632, apparently under the influence of these churchmen,
Emperor Heraclius took the unprecedented step of issuing a decree
of forced conversion of his Jewish subjects to Christianity.2 This edict
encompassed the areas of Asia Minor (now Turkey), Syria, Palestine,
Greece, Egypt, and the Balkans. Although it was not implemented,
the decree alienated the Jews, many of whom had allied themselves
with the Persians earlier in the century. Longstanding discriminatory
policies and laws influenced Samaritans and non-Orthodox Christians,
along with Jews, in favor of the Arab invaders.
Furthermore, in 633-34, Maximus and Sophronius devoted exaggerated
attention to anti-Jewish arguments including verbal violence.
At the same time, Maximus called the Arabs "harsh and foreign." He
first viewed them as a passing annoyance, and later regarded their
conquest of Jerusalem as an act of God against Christian sinners. As
for Sophronius, his lament on the fall of Jerusalem castigates the Jews
more than the Arab conquerors.3
According to the scholar Carl Laga, "the preoccupation...with the
Jewish problem had obviously come to the point of turning into an
obsession, which blinded the Christians to the real historical impact
of the Arab onslaught, reducible, in their opinion, to a new phase
of God's actualized punishment of the Christians for their sins, but
especially of the Jews for their eternal apistia" (unbelief ).4
Inability to Confront the Real Enemy
Why is it that Byzantium was unable to confront the real enemy that
threatened Christendom with physical destruction and lethal consequences
but engaged instead in a sustained anti-Jewish outburst?
Laga points out that the Jews fell easily into their traditional role as
a target of ecclesiastical odium that blamed them for the Empire's
According to leading Byzantinist Averil Cameron, the reasons for
the anti-Jewish bellicosity during the seventh century were cumulative:
long-term stigma resulting from the church fathers' writings, the intense
anti-Jewish and anti-heretical activities and legislation of the
Emperor Justinian in the mid-sixth century, the fact that Jews were
considered supporters of certain factions or contenders for the throne
in the late sixth century, and the Jews' reputation as sympathizers of
Other scholars believe that Jews mainly served as a surrogate or
a literary and artistic construct in place of the Muslims whose power
Christianity could not break.7 In any case, the persistence of the Jews,
who saw the decline of Christian power and may have felt or been
perceived to have felt a certain schadenfreude, evoked the old stereotypes
and prejudices more powerfully because of the Byzantine Empire's
defeat by the Caliphate. The stubborn Jews, therefore, became
an outlet for the frustrations of the churchmen.
The Contemporary Predicament of Christianity
Recalling the traumas of the seventh century brings to mind some of
the travails of Christianity in our times and the continuing obsessions
of large parts of the Christian and post-Christian world with the Jews.
Then, as now, Christianity was made up of many denominations. Over
a decade ago, after some seventy years of intermittent struggles, the
West - Christian and post-Christian - defeated a longstanding adversary,
the Soviet Empire, just as Byzantium first lost to Persia in 614, after
centuries of sporadic wars, and later overcame the Persian kingdom in
Today, a new group of people have immigrated into Europe and
North America, though not in the form of armed hordes. Substantial
parts of this Muslim population are not prepared to accept minority
status. They keep their distance from Christian or post-Christian majorities
whose lifestyles they eschew and condemn.8 They welcome
converts and are eager to spread their faith.
Despite these trends, a significant number of Christians and post-Christians in European governments, along with many churches and
Christian leaders, seem more preoccupied with issues relating to the
Jews and the Jewish state, like the clergymen Maximus and Sophronius
in the seventh century. The persistence of Judaism and the Jewish
people and the existence of a viable Jewish state apparently present
difficult challenges for many Christians.
The obsession with the Jews, which many of the established
churches have displayed as their ranks have thinned out, represents a
denial of external reality as manifested in the spread of Islam and
Islamist ambition. Thus, in addition to increasing anti-Semitism, blaming
the Jews could harm Christianity by deflecting it from the real
challenge it faces, as it did in the past.
If this is the case, the Christian legacy of patristic anti-Semitism
represents a flaw of such proportions that it could paralyze the healthy
tendency to self-defense in the face of existential danger.
* * *
1. Carl Laga, "Judaism and Jews in Maximus Confessor's Works: Theoretical
Controversy and Practical Attitude," Byzantinoslavica, No. 51, 1990, pp.
* * *
2. Ibid., p. 182.
3. Sophronius, Anacreontica, No. 14, ed. M. Gigante (Rome, 1957); Laga,
"Judaism and Jews," pp. 187-88.
4. Laga, "Judaism and Jews," p. 188.
6. Averil Cameron, "Blaming the Jews: The Seventh-Century Invasions of
Palestine in Context," in Melanges Gilbert Dagron, Travaux et Memoires,
No. 14 (Paris: College de France, 2002), pp. 57-78.
7. D. M. Olster, Roman Defeat, Christian Response and the Literary Construction
of the Jew (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994); Kathleen
Corrigan, Visual Polemics in Ninth-Century Byzantine Psalters (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1992).
8. David Pryce-Jones, "The Islamization of Europe?" Commentary, December
2004, pp. 29-33.
RIVKAH DUKER FISHMAN is a lecturer in Jewish history of the Second Temple and Talmudic (Roman/Byzantine) periods at the Rothberg International School, the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. She has written extensively on Byzantine chronicles and on Jewish history in Byzantine texts.
The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect
those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
The above essay appears in the Fall 2005 issue of the Jewish Political Studies Review, the first and only journal dedicated to the study of Jewish political institutions and behavior, Jewish political thought, and Jewish public affairs.
Published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (http://www.jcpa.org/), the JPSR appears twice a year in the form of two double issues, either of a general nature or thematic, with contributors including outstanding scholars from the United States, Israel, and abroad. The hard copy of the Spring 2005 issue will be available in the coming weeks."
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