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Emperor Julian and the Jews: UC Professor Explores How a Roman Emperor Might Have Changed History

UC professor explores how an ambitious emperor harnessed Jews and Judaic customs in attempt to unseat Christianity in the post-Constantine Roman Empire

Date: 7/20/2015 12:00:00 AM
By: Rachel Richardson
Phone: (513) 556-5219

UC ingot   Roman Emperor Julian’s reign was a brief one, ending in 363 after his untimely death in battle.  But the young emperor’s use of Jews and Judaism to restore a Greco-Roman empire in the wake of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity would hold lasting implications that reverberate today, a University of Cincinnati researcher has found. 

Ari Finkelstein, an assistant professor in Judaic Studies, explores this previously unexamined field of research at the Society of Biblical Literature’s international meeting taking place this week in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Ari Finkelstein
Ari Finkelstein, an assistant professor in Judaic Studies in the University of Cincinnati's McMicken College of Arts & Sciences


Finkelstein’s presentation, “Spatial Wars and the Making of a Pagan Roman Empire: Emperor Julian’s Use of Jewish Scriptures and Heroes to Contain the Cult of the Martyrs and Open Space for Pagan Orthopraxy,” focuses on how the ambitious emperor leveraged Jews and Judaism in an attempt to weaken Christianity and restore the empire to its pagan roots. 

His groundbreaking research also examines how Julian’s use of Jews and Judaism contributed to the formation of Roman religious identity in the Late Antiquity and the role it played in intensifying Christian anti-Jewish sentiment in the years after emperor’s death. 

“Jews are important in defining both Christians and pagans in the Roman world,” says Finkelstein, who’s working on a book about the subject.  “Had Julian ruled for a long time, it might have changed history.”

An empire in transition

The Roman Empire stood at a pivotal cultural and religious crossroads when Julian rose to power in 361.  The nephew of Constantine the Great – the Roman emperor credited with converting the empire to Christianity – Julian had been raised Christian, but later converted to pagan polytheism, earning him the moniker “the Apostate.”

Julian believed that only by restoring the empire to its ancestral traditions could it survive and prosper, Finkelstein explains. 

Thwarting Julian’s ambitions lied the Christian church, which had been granted political power and special privileges by his Christian imperial family.  Julian’s efforts to dismantle and delegitimize Christianity escalated in 362-363 when he traveled to the Syrian capital of Antioch to prepare for a military expedition against Persia.  

An emperor tackles Christianity

In the Roman east, Julian encountered stiff resistance from Christians and pagans who resisted the philosopher-king’s vision.  Julian turned to Jews – whose practices of sacrifice, prayer and purity he felt served as a proper model for his Hellenistic program – as a way to persuade a reluctant populace to embrace his reforms.

Julian believed Judaic beliefs and customs would be persuasive tools for pagans and Christians in the eastern empire, many of whom already regarded the Jewish God, scriptures and practices as sources of authenticity and practiced Jewish-inspired customs, explains Finkelstein.  

Christians, especially, had appropriated Jewish practices and martyrs as their own as a way to establish themselves as the “true Israel,” he says. 

“One of the charges against Christians was that they were a new people.  Authenticity as a people depended on your antiquity.  Christians, in order to claim they were not new, claimed they were the original Hebrews,” Finkelstein explains. 

Julian 'the Apostate'
A sketch of the Roman Emperor Julian

Julian used Jewish scriptures to call the origins of those claims into question, which Finkelstein argues not only discredited Christianity’s historical ties, but also stirred dissent among what was at the time a hotbed of internal debate over what ancestral laws Christians felt they should follow. 

A bold gamble

The emperor challenged the Christian claim to be God’s chosen people by boldly supporting plans to rebuild the destroyed Jewish temple at Jerusalem – the same temple Jesus prophesied would be destroyed and never rebuilt. 

The plan, had it succeeded, could have been an historical game-changer, Finkelstein says, allowing Julian to expose Jesus as a false prophet and not the divine central authority of the Christian faith. 

Although the venture stalled when a powerful earthquake rocked the land and then ended with Julian’s death, the specter of a Jewish revival sparked vociferous attacks by Christians against Jews and Judaism.  

“The attempt to rebuild the temple was a major near catastrophe for Christians,” Finkelstein says.  “This guy rules for a year and a half.  They comment on it for over a 1,000 years.”

The Society of Biblical Literature’s international meeting draws religious scholars from across the world.  The organization is the oldest society dedicated to supporting biblical scholarship and teaching from a variety of academic disciplines. 

Finkelstein will deliver his presentation Friday at the Universidad Católica Argentina.