Judaism in Antioch



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Judaism in Antioch
Seleucus founded Antioch in the third century BC. Some of the original inhabitants of Antioch were Jewish mercenaries in Seleucus army so from the very beginning of Antioch Jews had a large influence.i Judaism also had a large influence in Antioch during the time of John Chrysostom. Since the second century BC the Jews in Antioch were assured their right to practice their religion and customs.ii The Jews continued to grow in size in Antioch. Consequently their influence also grew and, “by the end of the Hellenistic period, they constituted a sizeable, well-organized, and visible part of the city’s life.”iii

There were at least three distinct different Jewish communities in Antioch. Many Jews resided throughout the whole of Antioch. Wealthy Jews lived in Daphne and rural Jews lived to the northeast of Antioch and grew rice.iv Throughout the history of Antioch, its Jews maintained ties with the Jews in Palestine, as did Jews in many other cities in the empire.v

The Romans came into power in Syria in 64 BC and replaced older leaders in communities with Roman leaders. These changes had no immediate significant effect on the Jews living in Antioch.vi However they did have later effects on the Jews. Many Romans did not think the Antiochene Jews were disloyal but they did realize that they cared about what happened to the Jews in Palestine. These close ties between Jews throughout the empire is demonstrated by the fact that rabbis traveled to Syria to collect tithes. This relationship between the Jews of Palestine and the Jews of Syria is also demonstrated by the fact that wealthy Jews would travel to Jerusalem for important festivals.vii

Titus conquered the Jews in Palestine and then he marched north to Antioch. When he arrived in Antioch many non-Jews implored him to drive the Jews out of Antioch. Titus refused all of their requests.viii However the Jew in the Diaspora did have to pay the ficus Judaicus. This was, “an annual payment of two denarii, formerly sent to Jerusalem but now to be sent to Rome”.ix

The fourth century is the most well documented part of Antioch’s history involving the Jews. We know the Jews were well respected and very influential in Antioch.x Since the second century Antioch had a Jewish magistrate. He would have been an upper class Jew, which means he would be educated in the traditional Greek system.xi

Even after the empire became officially Christian the Jews in Antioch still had a large influence. In 391, Jews in Apamea, (fifty miles from Antioch), decided to construct a new synagogue. Many wealthy Jews from Antioch donated to the construction of this synagogue.xii Many of the same Jewish families who donated to the synagogue in Apamea also continued contact with Palestine. Burial inscriptions found throughout Palestine mention wealthy Antiochene Jews.xiii

Pagans, Christians, and Jews lived in Antioch. In the fourth century they did not live in separate communities but worked together as friends. This is demonstrated by the fact that several Jews petitioned Libanius (a non-Jew) to use his influence to keep an older Jew they did not like off the Jewish council. “It is not a matter of the weak appealing to the powerful, but men of equal status using friends and acquaintances to wield influence and power.”xiv

Most of the information we know about Antiochene Jews comes from the wealthy Jews. There were also many non-wealthy Jews living in Antioch. Some Jews were bakers, bathhouse attendants, metal workers, and weavers. Other Jews were so poor they could not afford to buy oil for their lamps on the Sabbath.xv

The Jews in Antioch observed all the major Jewish holidays including the Sabbath. They also practiced circumsion and some of the Palestinian Jews dietary codes. In addition the Antiochene Jews practiced ritual bathing. The depth of their desire to follow Jewish laws and customs is demonstrated by the fact that a rabbinical court existed in Antioch.xvi

By the end of the fourth century, Jews had been living in Antioch for over six hundred years, sharing the city’s good fortunes, suffering through its wars, its earthquakes, its economic woes. Yet, while sharing in the city’s culture and its way of life, the Jews stood apart. They belonged to an ancient and venerable people whose customs were an object of curiosity and whose way of life was a source of wonder and admiration. Libanius speaks of them with respect, and John says that many people “have a high regard for the Jews and think that their present way of life is holy” (Jud I.3; 847). It was this community of Jews that attracted the Christians of Antioch.xvii





i Robert L. Wilken, John Chrysostom and the Jews (Berkely: University of California Press, 1983) 35.

ii Wilken 36.

iii Wilken 36.

iv Wilken 37.

v Wilken 37.

vi Wilken 38.

vii Wilken 41.

viii Wilken 41-2.

ix Wilken 42.

x Wilken 43.

xi Wilken 55.

xii Wilken 56.

xiii Wilken 57.

xiv Wilken 61-2.

xv Wilken 62.

xvi Wilken 64-5.

xvii Wilken 65.

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