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Jews and Christians in the Byzantine Empire: Problems and Prospects*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

N. R. M. de Lange
University of Cambridge


Heartening as it is for someone like myself, for whom the study of relations between Christianity and Judaism is a central concern, to see the Ecclesiastical History Society devote its annual conference to this subject, it is proper to recall that it has not been wholly neglected in the past. The very first volume of Studies in Church History (1964) contains a contribution by James Parkes under the title of Jews and Christians in the Constantinian Empire’, which is a short but well-judged summary of the attitudes to Judaism emerging from a reading of the Christian authors, Roman laws, and conciliar canons of the fourth century. I should like to begin now by paying tribute to James Parkes, partly because he was my own mentor, someone who encouraged and influenced my study of our subject, and also because he occupies an important place as a pioneer in the study of Jewish-Christian relations as a whole, and specifically in the part of the subject that concerns me today, the Byzantine phase.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 1992

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I am grateful for helpful criticisms to Professor Averil Cameron and Dr William Horbury.


1 Parkes, James, Voyage of Discoveries (London, 1969), p. 123.Google Scholar

2 Krauss had discussed some aspects of Christian-Jewish relations in his earlier work, Das Leben Jesu nach jûdischen Quellen (Berlin, 1902).

3 It has not been entirely superseded by the more comprehensive and up-to-date if less discursive treatment of Heinz Schreckenberg, Die christlichen Adversus-Judaeos-Texte und ihr literarisches und historisches Umfeld (1.-II.Jh.), 2nd edn (Frankfurt am Main, 1990); Die christlichen Adversus-Judaeos-Texte(11.–13.Jh.)(Frankfurt am Main, 1988).

4 I have discussed this problem elsewhere: de Lange, N., ‘Qui a tué les Juifs de Byzance?’ in Toilet, D., ed., Politique et religion dans le judaïsme ancien et médiéval (Paris, 1989), pp. 32733.Google Scholar It would be invidious to single out general works which fail to take proper account of the Jewish presence in Byzantium, or the importance of the Jewish problem’ for the Byzantine Church. On the credit side, it is only fair to mention the sections on the Jews in Louis Bréhier, La Civilization byzantine (Paris, 1950), Bon, Antoine, Le Péloponnèse byzantin jusau’en 1204 (Paris, 1951)Google Scholar, and Ducellier, Alain, Byzance et le monde orthodoxe (Paris, 1986).Google Scholar Amongjewish histories, there is a proper appreciation of the place of Byzantium in the Jewish world in Dubnow, S. M., Weltgeschichte des jüdischen Volites (Berlin, 1925)Google ScholarHistory of the Jews (New Brunswick, NJ, 1967) and Baron, S. W., A Social and Religious History of the jews, 2nd edn (New York and Philadelphia, 1952.)Google Scholar, esp. vol. 17. Cf. Roth, Cecil, ed., The Dark Ages: Jews in Christian Europe, 711-1096 (Tel Aviv, 1966).Google Scholar

5 See especially Starr, Joshua, The jews in the Byzantine Empire, 621-1204 (Athens, 1939);Google Scholar Ankori, Zvi, Karaites in Byzantium: the Formative Years, 970-1100 (New York and Jerusalem, 1959);Google Scholar Sharf, mes, Byzantine Jewry from Justinian to the Fourth Crusade (London and New York, 1971);Google Scholar Bowman, Steven B., The Jews of Byzantium 1204-1453 (University, Alabama, 1985).Google Scholar

6 Haldon, J. F., Byzantium in the Seventh Century (Cambridge, 1990), p. 345.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

7 I am grateful to Dr Pieter van der Horst, of Utrecht, for bringing this text to my notice. A fuller version of the story is preserved in the Arabic History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria: cf. Parkes, James, The Conflict of the Church and the Synagogue (London, 1934; New York, 1969), p. 290.Google Scholar See also Krauss, Lebenfesu, pp. 4–5.

8 Two notable cases of Jewish states were Himyar, in southern Arabia, on the vital sea route to the Persian Gulf and India, and Khazaria, in southern Russia, likewise controlling important trade routes and constituting a potential military menace. The possible implications of relations with these Jewish states for the treatment of the Jewish minorities within the Empire have hardly begun to be explored. The Spanish Jewish courtier Hisdai Ibn Shiprut may perhaps have made the connection: see Golb, N. and Pritsak, O., Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century (Ithaca, NY, 1982).Google Scholar

9 See Dagron, Gilbert, ‘Judaïser’, Travaux et Mémoires, 11 (1991), pp. 35980 [hereafter TM].Google Scholar

10 The problem is more acute on the Jewish side, where very little of the literature actually originating in Byzantium is available in critical editions, and probably the majority has perished for ever. On the Christian side the situation is improving all the time. For some recent contributions see M. Hostens’s edition (1986) of a previously unpublished ninth-to tenth-century anonymous Dissertatio contra ludaeos (CChr.SG 14); the re-edition with translation of the important seventh-century Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati by Déroche V., together with a commentary by the editor and Dagron, G., in TM, 11 (1991), pp. 17273 Google Scholar; Déroche, ‘La Polémique anti-judaïque au Vie et Vile siècle. Un mémento inédit, les Képhalaia’, ibid., pp. 275-311; Dagron, ‘Le Traité de Grégoire de Nicée sur le baptême des Juifs’, ibid., pp. 313-57; also the exchange of views about the Apology against the Jews ascribed to Leontios of Neapolis and its authenticity by Déroche, in Bulletin de Correspondance Helténiaue, 110 (1986), pp. 65569 Google Scholar and Speck, P. in Poikila Byzantina, 4 (1984), pp. 2429, and 6 (1987), pp. 31522.Google Scholar From a later period, B. Englezalris is preparing an edition of an interesting anti-Jewish tract by Neophytos the Recluse of Cyprus (1186) from a Paris MS, and Patlagean, E. has studied a Debaie againsí the Jews by Nicholas of Otranto (c 1220)Google Scholar preserved in another Paris MS (in Muzzarelli, M.G. and Todeschini, G., eds, La Storia degli Ebrei nell’Italia medievale: tra filologia e metodologia (Rome, 1990), pp. 1927).Google Scholar

11 See Sharf, , Byzantine Jewry, pp. 201 Google Scholar; and for a more cynical interpretation Rabello, A. M., ‘The Legal Condition of the Jews in the Roman Empire’, in Temporini, H. and Haase, W., eds, Aufstieg unà Nieâergang der ròmischen Welt, lì.xix (Berlin, 1980), pp. 662762, esp. pp. 6934.Google Scholar

12 Parkes, , Conflict, pp. 17782 Google Scholar; ‘Jews and Christians’.

13 Sharf, , Byzantine Jewry, pp. 1936 Google Scholar, and see now the detailed study by Rabello, A M., Giustini ano, Ebrei e Samaritani alla luce delle fonti storico-letterarie, ecclesiastiche e giuridiche, 2 vols (Milan, 1987-8).Google Scholar

14 On this period see Sharf, Byzantine Jewry, pp. 42–57, Haldon, , Byzantium in lite Seventh Century, and the various contributions of Dagron and Déroche to TM II.Google Scholar

15 The recent work of Dagron in TM, 11 (1991), pp. 17-46, with references to earlier biblio graphy, marks a significant advance.

16 Sharf, Byzantine Jewry, pp. 61-74; Dagron, TM, 11 (1991), pp. 43-5.

17 Sharf, Byzantine Jewry, pp. 95-102.

18 Ibid., pp. 82–92; Dagron, ‘Le Traité’, pp. 347–53.

19 Bowman, Jews, pp. 16–18.

20 Ibid., pp. 102-27; Ankori, Karaites, passim.

21 See the positive assessment of Yannopoulos, P., La Société profane dans l’empire byzantin des VIIe, VIIIe et IXe siècles (Louvain, 1975), pp. 24351.Google Scholar He points out (p. 249) that the sister of the Empress Itene married a renegade Jew of Tiberias: there was no racial barrier against Jews.

22 Cf. Parkes, Conflict, pp. 397-8; Starr, Jews, pp. 173-80.

23 Parkes, Conflict, p. 401.

24 Full text and discussion in Patlagean, E., ‘Contribution juridique à l’histoire des Juifs dans la Méditeranée médiévale: les formules grecques de serment’, REJ, 124 (1965), pp. 13756 Google Scholar; cf. Starr, Jews, pp. 221-2.

25 Sharf, Byzantine Jewry, p. 157.

26 See Patlagean, ‘Contribution’.

27 See Bowman, Jews, pp. 9-40.

28 See Waegeman, M., ‘Les Traités advenus Judaeos: aspects des relations judéo-chrétiennes dans le monde grec’, Byzantion, 56 (1986), pp. 295313 Google Scholar, and Déroche, V. in MT, 11, pp. 28290.Google Scholar The former view is usually associated with A. von Harnack, the second is attributed, with some exaggeration, to A. L. Williams Déroche argues cogently that there is a substantial historical basis. J. A. Munitiz, ‘Catechetical Teaching-aids in Byzantium’, in J. Chrysostomides, ed., KA⊗HRHTPIA. Essays Presented to Joan Hussey for her Eightieth Birthday (Camberley, 1988), p. 78, suggests that the anti-Jewish literature served an education purpose.

29 Englezakis B. has shown (in an unpublished communication) that the anti-Jewish tract of Neophytos of Cyprus is closely related to Jewish eschatological expectations which were current at the time of its composition. Doubtless similar demonstrations could be applied to other works of this type.

30 On Judaizing practices and recourse to Jews see now the excellent study by Dagron, ‘Judai’ser’.

31 One sometimes senses a reluctance. E.g. Euthymios, in the early eleventh century, unwillingly becomes involved in disputations with two learned Jews; he achieves their conversion by miraculous means. See Stan, Jews, pp. 170-1.

32 Quoted by Déroche in MT, II, p. 285.

33 E.g. a Christmas homily attributed to Andrew of Crete, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Laud. Gr. 81, fol. 164r.

34 Cf. Parkes, Conflict, pp. 173-4.

35 See Rembaum,, J. E.The influence of Sefer Nestor Hakomer on medieval Jewish polemics’, Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 45 (1978), pp. 15585;Google Scholar de Lange,, N. R. M.A fragment of Byzantine anti-Christian polemic’, JJS, 41 (1990), pp. 92100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36 See Schlichting, G., Ein jűdisches Leben Jesu (Tűbingen, 1982)Google Scholar and Di Segni, R., Il Vangelo del Ghetto (Rome, 1985).Google Scholar

37 Translated from a Genizah fragment, CUL, T—S 8H10.12 (2). There are many different texts of this prayer. Some add after ‘no hope’ the words ‘unless they return to your Torah’; others begin ‘For the Christians let there be no hope …’ We may contrast the maxim, supposedly going back to pre-Hadrianic times, ‘Pray for the welfare of the empire, for were it not for the fear of it, men would swallow each other alive’ (Aboth, 3.2).

38 The anthology edited by Leon Weinberger,, J. Rabbonite and Karaite Liturgical Poetry in South-Eastern Europe (Cincinnati, 1991)Google Scholar [hereafter Weinberger], containing nearly 500 compositions, is a major resource for the study of Byzantine Jewish hymnology.

39 Abmelech, son of Jeshuah, Weinberger, no. 54, lines 25-30.

40 See, for example, Weinberger, English introduction, p. 13; S. Bowman, ‘Messianic expectations in the Peloponnesos’, Hebrew Union College Annual, 52 (1981), pp. 195–202.

41 See the brief summary in Weinberger, English introduction, pp. 12-13.

42 I have argued elsewhere that the Midrash is a peculiar Byzantine genre, to be compared with the Greek Christian catenae: ‘Midrach et Byzance. Une traduction française du “Midrach Rabba”, Revue d’histoire des religions, 206 (1989), pp. 171–81.

43 Ibid., pp. 180–1. For the pre-Christian Empire see de Lange, N. R. M.Jewish Attitudes to the Roman Empire’, in Garnsey, P. D. A. and Whittaker, C. R., eds, Imperialism in the Ancient World (Cambridge, 1978), pp. 25581.Google Scholar

44 See Patlagean,, E.Une image de Salomon en basileus byzantin’, REJ, 121 (1962), pp. 933.Google Scholar

45 Starr, Jews, pp. 57-9.

46 Translated excerpts, ibid., p. 127–31. For a similar curse on Constantinople in a private letter of the mid-eleventh century see ibid., pp. 199-200.

47 For particulars see Nicholas de Lange, ‘Byzantium in the Cairo Genizah’, forthcoming in Byzantine and Modem Creek Studies.

48 In Constantinople itself, a Spanish visitor, Benjamin of Tudela, reports (ci 165) that ‘the Greeks hate the Jews, good and bad alike, and subject them to severe restrictions; they beat them in the streets and force them to hard labour’ (Starr, Jews, p. 231).

49 See Goitein, S. D., ‘A letter from Seleucia (Cilicia) dated 21 July 1137’, Speculum, 39 (1964), pp. 298303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

50 On Tobias see Ankori, Zvi, ‘The Correspondence of Tobias ben Moses the Karaite of Constantinople’, in Blau, J. L. et al., eds, Essays on Jewish life and Though Presented in Honor of Salo Wittmayer Baron (New York, 1959), pp. 138.Google Scholar The letters mentioned here are discussed by Moshe Gil, A History of Palestine, 634-1099 (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 814-18.

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