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History of clashes in and around Jewish synagogues

One Sabbath day in the late-second century CE, a slave and future pope named Callistus (Calixtus I) entered a synagogue and, hoping to die, picked a fight with the Jews. For the opening salvo, he stood and confessed that he was a Christian. A melee ensued. But the Jews only dragged Callistus before Rome’s city prefect Fuscianus and accused him of violating their legal right to congregate. His owner Carpophous appears and exclaims that Callistus is not even a Christian. Sensing a ruse, the Jews press their case and prevail upon Fuscianus. With his plans now spoiled, Callistus is sentenced to hard labor in Sardinia.

It is an odd tale. But parts of it resemble the two most recent attacks against Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue (October 27, 2018) and at the Chabad of Poway synagogue (April 27, 2019): perpetrators entered synagogues on the Sabbath while Jews were gathered, executed their suicide mission, and Christianity was implicated. John 8:44 was evidently a battle cry for the Tree of Life attacker, and Christian theology an inspiration for the Chabad of Poway attacker.

Clashes in and around Jewish synagogues goes back to the earliest days of Christianity when followers of Jesus were trying to define themselves within and eventually apart from Judaism. According to the New Testament, both Jesus and the apostle Paul were often victims. Their fellow Jews drove them out of their synagogues with blows, sometimes on the point of death (Luke 4:16-30; Acts 14:1-19). Many other accounts of synagogue violence have come down to us from antiquity, mostly from Christians sources.

Explaining the violence, however, requires wading through complex theological, political, and rhetorical issues. The emerging picture is much closer to sectarian violence than to Christian-infused white-supremacy. The story about Callistus blends the theological, the political, and the rhetorical with personal animosity. Published in a multi-volume, anti-heretical treatise, it is part of a lager defamation of Callistus’s life by his bitter opponent, an author conventionally known as Hippolytus of Rome, the first antipope. He was out of the Roman church and out to prove that Callistus was a heretic. Behind the story was a theological controversy. Hippolytus was convinced that Callistus’s teachings on the Trinity were too close to strict monotheism, and by extension, too close to a Jewish understanding of God. Besides that, the entire story about Callistus is satirical, bordering on fiction. It is a total smear campaign. Whether Callistus ever set foot in a synagogue is open to question. But describing Callistus as venturing into one, attempting a bogus martyrdom there, then being ensnared in arguments before the city prefect over Jews’ civil rights, does show the synagogue as a unique flashpoint in Jewish and Christian relations.

In the following centuries, as ecclesiastical and imperial authority intertwined, synagogues were occasionally targets. Imperial legislation (397 CE) also sought to protect Jews and their synagogues from acts of violence. The common lack of enforcement, however, meant complex political jockeying, especially at the local level. Bishops were often left with distinct powers. Turmoil could result. In a letter to the emperor Theodosius I in 388 CE, Ambrose, bishop of Milan, excuses Christians at Callinicum (northeastern Syria) for torching a synagogue, reportedly at the instigation of their bishop. Theodosius wanted the arsonists punished and synagogue to be rebuilt at the bishop’s expense. Ambrose disagrees. During the reign of the last pagan emperor Julian “the Apostate”, he argues, many of the Church’s basilicas were burned by Jews, so their synagogue should remain in ashes (Ep. 40). Here, a Jewish synagogue was caught in the crosshairs of regional and imperial politics.

Later in Alexandria, a dispute over a civic institution became a pretext for action. As the story goes, agitations between Jews and Christians over rowdy pantomime shows led the city-prefect Orestes to regulate the theatre’s use, to the chagrin of the Jews. Many Alexandrians were gathered in the theatre for “Orestes’ publication” of the ensuing edict, he yielded to the “Jews accusations” that Hierax, an attendee and admirer of the bishop Cyril, was a spy sent to incite sedition. Reputedly wary of the power of Christian bishops anyway, Orestes had Hierax tortured. Conspiring Jews, the story continues, he then massacred a group of Christians, who in response, charged into the synagogues, rounded up the Jews and, under Cyril’s authority, drove them out of the city. In the fallout, Cyril wrote to the emperor Theodosius II  indicting the Jews, through mediation, attempted an ultimately unsuccessful reconciliation with Orestes that eventuated a riot. In this case, power politics and culture wars in Alexandria precipitated the violence.

Verbal pugilism could further raise the potential for conflict. John Chrysostom of Antioch, in eight brutal homilies, repeatedly condemns Jewish synagogues as a “dwelling of demons” and vilifies those who congregate there. Whether his homilies induced his audience to harm their co-residents or ransack synagogues is unclear. (Later, the Nazis weaponized Chrysostom’s homilies). But Chrysostom’s blistering rhetoric reveals that even in fifth-century Antioch, some of his own flock continued to attend synagogues — whether as spectators enticed by the Jews’ festival trumpet blowing (4.7.4), or as participants in Jewish rituals (6.7.3). The blurred lines between Christians and Jews infuriated Chrysostom. Rhetoric is also tricky. Other times, Christian writers were railing against “rhetorical Jews” rather than real ones.

Overall, relations between Jews and Christians were variable. And in antiquity, just as now, either side could enact violence. So it is worthwhile to ask what forces gave rise to confrontations in synagogues by first unpacking the incidents in their own contexts and by probing the often partisan sources that relate them.

Featured Image: Photograph taken by Dr. Avishai Teicher.

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