Let’s rewind a little. It is 130AD. Jerusalem was in ruins. Roman vengeance was thorough and devastating. A story is told of Rabbi Akiva, the spiritual giant of his day. One day he travelled to the ruined city with four other rabbis and, when they arrived, the desolate sight that greeted them filled them with such sorrow that they each rent their garments and mourned. As they approached the site of the ruined Temple they saw a fox prowling through what was left of the Holy of Holies. At this sight his four companions wept, but Rabbi Akiva was filled with joy.
“Why are you so happy?” they exclaimed.
“Why do you weep?” was his reply.
“In the holiest of all places, where once only the High Priest was permitted, foxes now roam. Isn’t that enough to make you weep?” they replied.
“And for that very same reason I am joyful”, said Rabbi Akiva. “In the Book of Micah it says ‘Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble, the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets’. In the Book of Zechariah it says, ‘Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with cane in hand because of his age.’ Until the first prophecy came to pass, I may have doubted the truth of the second. Now that the first prophecy has been fulfilled, I can have no doubt at all that the second will also, one day, come true!”
There’s something about this story that speaks volumes about the Jewish spirit and perhaps gives us a key to understanding how God’s kingdom of priests was going to survive in the Galut.
After the second Jewish revolt the centre of Judaism moved to the north, to Galilee, which held the largest concentration of Jews in the country. Gentiles were concentrated on the coastal plain. The next event of historical note was the Christianisation of Europe under Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century and the official beginning of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, on the grounds that the Church had supplanted the Jewish people as ‘God’s chosen’ and therefore the Jews ‘must be utterly rejected by God’, giving the Church the right to ‘carry out God’s will’ in persecuting Jews at every opportunity.
Christianity returned to Palestine with a vengeance, under the banner of the Byzantine Empire. In 326 AD Constantine built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on the supposed site of Jesus’ burial and the city became the spiritual capital of the Empire. Missionary work commenced in Galilee, provoking a Jewish revolt in 351 AD and, although this area continued being an important Jewish centre, many churches were built there alongside the synagogues. There were also troubles between Jews and Christians in Samaria. The revolt, already mentioned, led to the destruction of many Jewish settlements there.
The coastal cities, such as Gaza and Ashkelon, with a lower Jewish population, became important commercial centres, exporting, among other things, religious paraphernalia – after all, this was a Holy Land – to the rest of the Christian world. The southern area of the land, the Negev, became a favourite among the new Christian inhabitants. The deep south was used as a place of exile for misbehaving bishops and the Sinai area was already attracting the interest of pilgrims and religious tourists.
In 614 AD the Persian Empire came to visit, conquering Jerusalem in the usual brutal manner of despotic empires, burning many of the churches that had sprung up there and killing many priests. For the only time in history there were no Jewish deaths – Jews, if you remember, had been largely expelled from the city by the Romans five hundred years earlier.
As Christianity, through Emperor Constantine, had become the state religion, there was now a good living to be made as professional Christians. Overnight the common man found out that whereas yesterday he had been a pagan, indulging in vile practices and worshipping a selection of gods, today he was officially ‘Christian’, whatever that meant, now worshipping only one God (and his mother, Mary). It didn’t stop the vile practices though and, as no-one was given Bibles to read (that was a privilege left to the clergy), they had no idea what was acceptable behaviour. Mind you no-one seemed to mind how you treated the Jew; in fact the clergy positively encouraged nasty behaviour towards this ‘accursed’ people.
The ‘official version’ of Christianity, though, was, at that time, by and large a trillion miles away from anything written about in the New Testament, and God showed what He thought about this state of affairs by allowing them to sink into the ‘Dark Ages’, a period of intellectual and spiritual darkness in the ‘civilized world’, lasting for centuries. As a further punishment, there was a stirring in the Arabian desert … but more of that later.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book Outcast Nation )
What happened to Israel when the Romans left?
Written by: Miriam Emenike
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