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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Christian Rome and the Jews

Although the legislation of the earliest Christian emperors did not significantly alter the rights and privileges of the empire's Jews, the laws reflected the desire of the government to limit the spread of Judaism. The language of some of the legislation, even from the reign of Constantine, was harsh, a marked change from the neutral tone of laws promulgated by pagan Rome, and a reflection of the government's changing perception of Jews and Judaism. For example, Constantine issued legislation that both imposed penalties on anyone who converted to Judaism and forbade Jews to disturb those who had been converted from Judaism to Christianity. Constantine also issued an edict, similar to earlier legislation, demanding that a Jew forfeit any slave whom he had purchased and circumcised. Under such conditions, the slave would receive his freedom.

The legislation of Constantine II (337–40) and Constantius (337–61), sons of Constantine, reiterated and developed that of their father. In a law issued in 339, Jews were again prohibited from purchasing non-Jewish slaves. Such slaves would be immediately forfeited. If a Jew circumcised a slave, he would both forfeit him and be subject to capital punishment. Although this edict was similar to the law issued by Constantine only four years earlier, now the punishment for circumcising a non-Jewish slave was death. Also, a non-Jewish slave was to be forfeited, even if he were uncircumcised.

Another decree commanded that women converts to Judaism who had formerly been bound to the imperial weaving factory be returned to the factory. Jews who converted Christian women to Judaism were subject to capital punishment. Finally, in 353, Constantius issued legislation ordering that the property of Christian converts to Judaism be confiscated. The language of the latter two decrees was again harsh in its identification of Judaism with turpitude, villainy, and sacrilege.

By the close of the fourth century, marriages between Jews and Christians had been prohibited; such marriages were to be treated as adultery. During the fifth and sixth centuries, legislation designed to limit the spread of Judaism continued to be promulgated. As in the earlier fourth-century legislation, decrees were issued to eliminate both Jewish proselytism and the Jewish ownership of non-Jewish slaves. Also, the building of new synagogues was repeatedly prohibited. To be sure, the degree to which such legislation was enforced is unclear. In fifth- and sixth-century Palestine, for example, despite the prohibitions, new synagogues were built, and in fifth-century Capernaum, a grand synagogue and church stood in close proximity. Jews were also excluded from most imperial offices, with a few lowly and burdensome exceptions, including service in the financially oppressive municipal councils. Increasingly, much of the legislation concerning Jews and Judaism was embodied in laws that also addressed pagans and heretics, and that limited the rights of individuals in these groups in a number of venues, including the courts.

In contrast to pagan worship, however, the practice of Judaism was never banned. A decree issued by Theodosius in 393 and addressed to the supreme military command in the east stated: “It is sufficiently established that the sect of the Jews is prohibited by no law. We are therefore gravely disturbed by the interdiction imposed in some places on their assemblies. Your Sublime Magnitude shall, upon reception of this order, repress with due severity the excess of those who presume to commit illegal deeds under the name of the Christian religion and attempt to destroy and despoil synagogues” (Codex Theodosianus 16.8.9, trans. A. Linder, The Jews in Imperial Roman Legislation, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987, p. 190). Similar protective legislation would also be issued in the early fifth century, reflecting not only the state's concern with law and order and its desire to assert its power in relationship to the church, but also, even if in weakened form, the acceptance of Judaism as a “licit religion.”

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