From 132 to 1799 A.D.

The Great Jewish Diaspora
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And they shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall scatter them among the nations, and disperse them in the countries.—Ezekiel 12:15

Richard Doctor

The last agonized moans of the crucified on Jerusalem’s walls fell still, drowned out by the steady tramp of a heavy military occupation that followed the failed Great Jewish Revolt in 70-73 A.D. As prophesied, the temple lay in ruins and the site was salted as a further special insult. After two generations Judea seemed sufficiently pacified that Emperor Hadrian paid a personal visit in 130 A.D. and promised to rebuild. This hopeful promise quickly revealed its dark character, for Hadrian’s vision was that on the ruins would rise a model city re-named Aelia Capitolina, not a Jewish capital. The Roman sacred plough roughly bit through the salt-deadened rubble of the temple mount to mark the site of the new pagan temple. The seeds of rebellion were sown in 131 A.D.

With the temple’s destruction, a Sanhedrin composed solely of Pharisees had reassembled on the coast. Citing a prophecy from Numbers 24:17—“There shall come a Star out of Jacob” —they organized the impending revolt, proclaiming its commander Simon as the Jewish Messiah and naming him “Bar Kokhba” meaning “son of a star.” The outbreak took the Romans by surprise, but remembering the lessons of the earlier revolt, two full armies were recalled from Britain and the Danube River to meet the rebellion with a more massive force than in the earlier campaign. The desperate struggle lasted for three years before it was brutally crushed on the fateful ninth of Av (135 A.D.).1

This second epic defeat marks the beginning of the Great Jewish Diaspora. Hadrian built a wall around Jerusalem and expelled all Jews. It was only at a later period that they were permitted to go to the Mount of Olives, to cast a mournful, sorrowing look toward the seat of their ancient glory on the anniversary of its destruction. Vanquished Judea was renamed Syria Palaestina (the origin of the present name Palestine) honoring Israel’s two most intractable enemies, the Syrians and the Philistines.

To 381 A.D.

Many Jews lived beyond Rome’s borders in Persia, Mesopotamia, Oman, Yemen, Aden, and even as far distant as India and China where they had migrated since the Babylonian captivity. Scholars in these communities continued to influence Judaism throughout the world. Within the Roman Empire there were probably at least three million Jews in 312 A.D. They were guaranteed freedom of religion and were allowed to practice Jewish law in disputes with fellow Jews. Prosperous Jewish communities lived in Alexandria, Egypt, where about one-quarter of the population was Jewish. There were also significant Jewish communities in Carthage (Tunisia) and the major cities on the coast of North Africa, Asia Minor, and Greece. Within Italy itself, most of the major urban areas from Genoa, Rome, and Sicily supported Jewish communities, as did southern Spain and most of Gaul. Jews were settled into every part of the Roman Empire except Britain, and served equally in agricultural and urban professions.

Christianity’s emergence challenged Rome in a way Judaism never had. Its radical message of a “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” who was not the Roman emperor continued to attract sporadic, but brutal, persecution, culminating with Diocletian’s edicts that sought nothing less than the extermination of Christianity (303 A.D.). His sullied name forever is linked to some of the severest and most inhumane of the persecutions devised by fallen human imagination.

His successor Constantine then engaged in one of history’s most startling reversals of state policy. He claimed two visions, the first of the sun emblazoned with the despised Christian cross and reading, “By this sign shall you conquer,” followed by a vision of Christ himself the next night. Heeding this, his armies now marched to victory bearing this new insignia on their shields (312 A.D.). Constantine founded a new Christian capital called “Constantinople” on the border between Asia and Europe (May 11, 330), thus ushering in an era of new challenge for Christianity and unprecedented woes for the Jews. While localities such as Alexandria had experienced sporadic anti-Jewish riots inspired by Christian mobs since the 200s, Constantine’s rise meant that Jews were now the object of scorn throughout the empire. Joseph, a Jewish convert to Christianity obtained Constantine’s permission to proselytize the Jews in Palestine. Following his predictable lack of success an angry Constantine imposed heavy taxes and executed many of the unrelenting Jewish leaders.

Not all Romans shared Constantine’s vision and a notable reactionary movement arose when Julian, called the Apostate, became Emperor (361-363 A.D.). He was friendly to the Jews, persecuted the Christians, and ordered the rebuilding of the temple of Jehovah in Jerusalem. The brevity of his reign frustrated these plans and the course set by Constantine resumed. Theodosius I (379-395 A.D.) then established the empire as “Christian” and Jews as outcasts without full citizenship rights, something that persisted until 1791. During his reign, the Second Ecumenical Church Council (381 A.D.) solidified Trinitarian “Orthodoxy,” further alienating Jews from Church dogma. The Jewish Paschal week had marked the holiest week on the Church’s calendar since apostolic times. Now these times and seasons were changed to the still current method of predicting “Easter” so that it almost never coincides with the actual proper observance (Daniel 7:25).

The Fall of Rome to the Rise of Islam

Rome’s fall to Alaric the Vandal in 410 A.D. sent a shock through the civilized world and initiated a new period of isolation and persecution for the Jews. For the European portion of the empire in the west, Rome’s fall typically marks the beginning of the “Dark Ages.” From this point forward the history of the Roman world follows two tracks: the impoverished European portion in the west and the Greek-speaking “Byzantium” in the east with its capital in Constantinople.

Byzantine emperor Theodosius II (412 A.D.) was inimical to the Jews; in the eighth year of his reign he ordered all the Jews to be driven out of Alexandria and he confiscated their religious contributions for the imperial treasury. In the city of Rome itself, the military, political, and economic situation continued to deteriorate from the attack of the Vandals. While imperial armies did repeatedly march in from the east to rescue Rome from many incursions, the east could not be depended upon. Moving into this power vacuum in 539 A.D., the Bishop of Rome, now Pope, saw his ambitions fulfilled.3 While migrating tribes swallowed up the Roman Europe, the civilized “new Rome” of Byzantium was not much better off spiritually or intellectually. Byzantium prided itself on being both anti-intellectual and eager to believe in everyday miracles. Nazi-style library burnings took place during this era, and much knowledge from antiquity was lost. These attitudes led to the spiritual famine promised in Revelation 6:5,6. During this famine, a full day’s work would purchase barely enough on which to live. The true church, like Elijah, moved to a place prepared for it by God in the wilderness (see Revelation 12 for the details).

A major reversal of Jewish fortune followed Byzantine emperor Heraclius’ war with the Persian King, Chosroes II. The Jews of Palestine sided with Chosroes, who initially was successful in capturing and spoiling Jerusalem (614 A.D.). Heraclius then successfully counter-attacked, occupied Jerusalem, and expelled every Jew. Not content to stop there, he initiated a general Jewish persecution heeding his court astrologer who predicted, supposedly from his false arts, that the empire should soon fall to a circumcised nation. Heraclius interpreted this to be a reference to the Jews. He did not realize that just beyond the border, Islamic Arabs also practiced circumcision.

The Rise of Islam

Against the backdrop of a church and state spiritually sick, Islam’s sword came as a bolt of lightning from a clear sky. Emerging from Arabia (622 A.D.), Islam conquered Syria, Iraq, Israel, Egypt, Persia, North Africa, and Spain in less than ninety years. In short order Jerusalem was lost to Islam (637 A.D.). Omar, the conquering Islamic general, visited the temple mount which was alleged to be the site of two sacred acts in Islamic belief. Since Julian’s day the temple mount had served as a garbage dump in an exhibition of disrespect, but after he dismounted, Omar set an example by initiating a clean-up using his own best vestments to hold the offal. His example was soon taken up by all his enthusiastic troops. He then vowed to construct the most beautiful house of worship possible at the site, leading to the edifices that today dominate Jerusalem.

Islam’s advance was welcomed by the persecuted Jews. Spain’s Visigoth kings from 500 A.D. onward embraced Roman Catholicism and wished to convert all their subjects. Many Jews yielded to compulsion, hoping that the severe measures would be of short duration. In this they were wrong. When Islam’s cavalry overran the Spanish peninsula, the Jews flung open Cordova’s gates to their conquerors (711 A.D.). A balanced view of history not caught up in the events of today’s headlines recognizes that Islam in its “Golden Age” was both more economically advanced, more tolerant than Christendom, and more compatible with Jewish belief. Abraham I. Katsch, a Jewish scholar fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, wrote:

“The Shahadah, or affirmation that “there is no God but Allah,” is the Islamic counterpart of the Jewish Shema Yisrael. Like Judaism, Islam does not recognize saints as mediators between the individual and his Creator. Like the Jews, the Muslim believes in the immortality of the soul and in personal accountability for his actions here on earth. Like Judaism, Islam denies the doctrines of original sin and salvation. And like the Jews, Muslims believe that each individual must follow a righteous path and secure atonement by improving his own conduct through sincere repentance.”2

Jews living in Islamic Spain (Andalusia) found much-needed respite and this era saw the flowering of Jewish scholarship in biblical, Talmudic, and scientific studies. Andalusian Jews later would serve a critical role as the translators of classical works from the now forgotten civilization of the Hebrews, Greece, and Rome when Europe was ready to awaken from its slumber in the Renaissance during the mid-1400s.

Charles Martel to the Crusades

Charles Martel met Islam’s strength in conquest with equal ferocity and finally arrested its advance in France at Tours near the Spanish border (732 A.D.). By then Islam had overrun every church crucial to the advancement of Trinitarian doctrine.{FOOTNOTE: For further discussion see “A Star called Wormwood,” Beauties of the Truth, 13(3), August 2002.} Within Europe those Jews who still wished to remain true to the faith of their fathers were protected by the Roman Catholic Church itself from compulsory conversion, a policy based on practical motive. Christian rule left a privileged niche for Jews in the new order since Church Law forbade Christians to loan money. Jews were deemed the most compatible non-Christians to meet this need and thus were drawn into banking. This status inevitably led to conflicts and persecution by desperate princes seeking a quick way out of debt, yet many Jews rose to prominence and Judaism was usually practiced in private to avoid persecution. Their fate in each particular country depended on the changing political conditions and they experienced dark days during the endless wars waged on the continent.

On Christmas Day in 800 A.D. Charlemagne was crowned through trickery by the Pope. Charlemagne was glad to use the Church for the purpose of welding together the loosely connected elements of his kingdom, but after his death in 843 his empire fell apart, and the rulers of Italy, France, and Germany left the Church free in her dealings with the Jews. By the turn of the first Millennium the Slavs were newly part of Christendom and only the wildest regions of Europe, such as Lithuania, were not under Christian rule.

The trials which the Jews had endured from time to time in the different kingdoms of the Christian West were only intimations of the catastrophe which broke over them at the time of the Crusades. As they prepared to take the cross to Jerusalem, wild throngs, enraged by fiery preachers, fell fanatically upon the peaceful Jews. In the First Crusade in 1096 A.D. flourishing Jewish communities on the Rhine and the Danube were utterly destroyed.

The first Papal bull protecting Jews was issued by Pope Calixtus II in 1120 A.D., after the mayhem and slaughter of the First Crusade. This bull was reaffirmed by many popes, as late as the fifteenth century. On pain of excommunication, the “Constitution for the Jews” forbade Christians from coercing Jewish conversion, harming Jews, taking their property, disturbing their festivals, or transgressing their cemeteries. Notwithstanding, in the Second Crusade the Jews in France especially suffered in 1147. Preparations for the Third Crusade in 1188 proved disastrous for English Jews who were attacked, as were Jews during the Shepherds’ Crusades (1251 and 1320).

Libels against the Jews and Expulsions

Outrageous libels were commonplace during the Middle Ages and Jews frequently were accused of ritual murder and using Christian children’s blood to make unleavened bread for Passover. The first of many ritual murder charges started in Norwich, England (1144). Attempts to win the Jews to Christianity through religious disputations also were made during this period. When these attempts failed, the Jews were ever more restricted in the exercise of their civil rights. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, called by Pope Innocent III, decreed that Jews must wear special dress, and badges or distinctive conical hats to distinguish them from other people. In Germany, alleged Jewish profaning of the Host was an excuse for a series of anti-Semitic massacres (1243). Europe suffered great devastation in the fourteenth century: disastrous harvests, severe famine, and the Black Plague’s reappearance (1361). Superstition and prejudice breed during dire times, and the Jews were blamed for these hardships. Expulsion of Jews continued throughout the continent. During this era Jews were gradually confined to ghettos, with the first compulsory ones established in Spain and Portugal at the end of the fourteenth century.

Jews were driven out of England in 1290, out of France in 1394, and out of numerous districts of Germany, Italy, and the Balkan Peninsula between 1350 and 1450. The Balkans became more attractive when they came under Islam’s control in the Ottoman Turk advance into Europe after their historic capture of Constantinople (1453). This conquest closes the history of the Byzantine Roman Empire. Thenceforth the most preferred asylum for the Jews was the new Slavic kingdoms. For a while the Jewish faith was tolerated there.

As early as the thirteenth century Islam could no longer offer a real resistance to the advancing force of Christian kings on Andalusia (Spain), and Islamic culture began to decline. As the Christian re-conquest advanced, thousands of Jews were thrown into prison, tortured, and burned, until a project was formed to sweep all Spain clean of “unbelievers.” The plan matured when the last Moorish fortress fell into the hands of the Christians in 1492. Several hundred thousand Jews were forced from the country and resolved to flee to the Balkans. Sultan Bayazid II of the Ottoman Empire, learning about their expulsion, dispatched the Ottoman Navy to bring the Jews safely to his lands. A handful took refuge sailing into the unknown with an adventurer named Christopher Columbus. Fugitives from Spain and Germany also came to Italy as teachers of Hebrew, and became the leaders and guides of the humanists in what became known as the Renaissance (1454-1530).

The Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation in Germany in 1517 initially sympathized with the Jews, but Martin Luther’s temper became inflamed when his proselytizing was rebuffed. His harsh anti-Semitic invectives have echoed down the centuries. With the Reformation came civil war in Europe that ravaged the continent for a hundred fifty years until the Peace of Westphalia established the map of modern Europe (1648). Despite Luther’s setback, the Reformation changed Europe, both socially and economically in ways advantageous to the Jews. The Catholic feudal countries did not want Jewish settlement for religious reasons and, having no economic need of them, kept them out. But the Protestant countries, having an economic need of the merchant Jews, permitted them to settle. Holland allowed Jews to practice their religion freely, and a thriving Jewish community began to develop (1579). Exiled Spanish Jews were allowed to settle in England in 1655 and were never again expelled.

But against these positive developments, it must be noted that while Poland had served as a safe haven for Jews and became the center for Jewish learning, a horrible reversal occurred in a series of widespread massacres upon the Polish and Lithuanian Jews through the Ukrainian Cossack Bogdan Chmielnicki (1648) followed by the Swedish wars (1655). Hundreds of thousands of Jews were slaughtered in these few years in what was the worst persecution of the Diaspora up until the twentieth century holocaust. Following this, Poland was pummeled by a second Cossack uprising, a second invasion by Sweden, and a war with Turkey. In the 1790s, Poland was divided three ways and fell under the rule of Russia, Germany, and Austria.

In 1780, in the Hapsburg territories of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia and Moravia, Emperor Joseph II abolished the Jewish badge. Jews were free to leave the ghetto, learn any trade, engage in commerce, and attend public schools and universities. But the first real liberty came from across the sea, when the newly independent United States of America adopted its present Constitution in 1791. Under this liberal rule Jews enjoyed full rights as citizens for the first time since Theodosius I had taken away their citizenship rights in 381. Both Jews and their host country prospered.

The French Revolution brought the winds of change for liberty, equality, and fraternity to the heart of one of Europe’s most powerful monarchies. In 1799 the French Revolutionary government was holding Pope Pius VI when he died in prison; Napoleon, the charismatic leader of the army, was fighting with the Ottomans in Egypt and Palestine.

Through all this, Jews for the first time since their homeland was lost, were breathing the air of a new era in World History: the divinely appointed “Time of the End” had arrived. There would soon be stirrings for Jews to once again seize their divine appointment with destiny.

1. For further discussion see, “The 9th of Av,” Beauties of the Truth, 17(4), November 2006.

2. Katsh, A.I., Judaism in Islam, Sepher-Hermon Press, Inc. NY (1980) introduction.

3. For further discussion see, Studies in the Scriptures, vol. 2, p. 269.