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Chapter 3: The Failure of Forced Conversion of Jews to Christianity under Byzantine Occupation / DR.Rivka Shapak Lissak
The Christian-Byzantine occupation’s policy towards the Jews (395 – 640 A.D)
included religious and economic decrees, pogroms, destruction of synagogues and
a focused policy on the part of the government and the church to convert the
Jews, along with other local non-Christians, into Christianity.
Israel’s population during the Christian-Byzantine occupation included, according to Avi-Yona in his study “In Roman and Byzantine Times”, between 1.5 and 2 million people (Avi-Yona was a world-renowned archaeologist who based his research on original sources and archaeological research). Another archaeologist, Maggen Broshi, estimated in his study “The Population of the Land of Israel in the Roman-Byzantine Period” that the province’s population was no greater than one million. Based on archaeological studies, Zeev Saffray estimated in his article “Population Size in the Land of Israel in the Roman-Byzantine Period” that it ranged between 2 and 2.5 million.
These divergent estimates for the country’s population are due to the fact
that no population census data is available for that period. Historiography and
literary evidence were the main sources used by researchers in the past, but
through comparative study these have been found to be at times unreliable,
containing inaccuracies and exaggerations. Today, archaeology is considered an
important tool for estimating the population size based on archaeological
surveys and excavations.
Avi-Yona estimated the Jews comprised 10% of the population during this
period and suggested their number was between 150,000 and 200,000. Various
sources, such as the Cairo Genizah, tell of the existence of 43 Jewish
settlements during this period – 12 cities and 31 villages. The villages were
situated mostly in the Galilee, and a few in the Jordan Valley. In the south and
in the Negev, Jews lived in cities. Jews also lived in the cities along the
Mediterranean coast. According to an archaeological survey conducted in the
Galilee by Mordechai Avi’am, reported in Prof. Ronny Ellenblum’s book “Frankish
Rural Settlements in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem”, 58 small, medium, and
large Jewish settlements existed in the Eastern Galilee during this period.
Yossef Braslavi in “This Land” was also of the opinion that a Jewish majority
existed in the mountainous Galilee during this period, which included two
metropolitan centres (Tiberias and Tzipori) and a scattering of rural villages.
In 358 , Provincia Palaestina was divided into two administrative units:
Palaestina Prima, which included the south, the coastal plains, and Samaria; and
Palaestina Secunda, which included the Galilee and the Golan. One of the
purposes of this administrative division was to cut off the Jewish population in
the Galilee from Jewish centres in the rest of the country. A third
administrative unit, Palaestina Tertia, was established, including the Arava and
Mt. Se’ir, along with Petra (previous capital of the Nabataeans) and the former
Christianity Becomes the Empire’s Official
In 313, Emperor Constantine decreed a new policy of tolerance towards the
Christian faith. This brought an end to the persecution of Christians in the
Roman Empire, and Christianity became an accepted religion in principle and the
preferred religion in practice. The next step in promoting Christianity was the
Emperor’s decree that Christianity be the official religion of the Roman Empire.
In the Nicaea Council in 325, the Emperor decreed One religion and One emperor
for One empire. The Christian Church became an ally of the Imperial court.
Policies towards the Jews, however, changed back and forth: During the reign
of Emperor Julian (“The Heretic”, 360-363), the Emperor’s adversity to
Christianity brought about an improvement in the Jews’ situation, and hopes rose
for the reconstruction of the Temple. Although all the Emperors from 363 on were
Christians, the ups-and-downs in Jewish policies continued. From 395, however,
with the final splitting of the Empire into Byzantium in the east and Rome in
the west, the influence of the Christian Church in the Byzantine Empire grew
gradually stronger and the Jews’ condition worsened accordingly.
The Church promoted the view that God had forsaken the Jewish people and that
the status of “the Chosen People” had been passed on to the Christians; The Jews
were the Chosen People in flesh, whereas the Christians were the Chosen People
in spirit, and therefore the Holy Land belonged to them. The Christian Church
persisted in its efforts to transform the Land of Israel into a Christian land.
It pressured the Imperial rulers to consider the Jews as enemies of the Empire
because they resisted conversion, which would have proven the truth of the
The official policy in Provincia Syria-Palaestina through the
Christian-Byzantine period was to encourage the settlement of Christians from
around the Christian world in the Land of Israel, and to convert the local
population, which included pagans (Greeks, Nabataeans, remnants of other ancient
peoples), Samaritans, Jews, and others, into Christianity.
The religious persecution of the Jews was a continuation of the Roman
policies to break the Jewish national and cultural spirit and to destroy their
national unity, while applying economic sanctions to strangle the Jewish
economy, and in addition, convert them to Christianity. The Church was not
averse to pogroms and the destruction of synagogues. For religious and political
reasons, the Christian government also objected to the relations between the
Province’s Jews and the Jewry of Babylon and other diasporas, and made efforts
to cut those ties.
When did the Christians become a majority in
Scholars are divided over this issue. Some are of the opinion that the
Christians gained majority some time between the second half of the 4th
century and the first half of the 5th. Most are of the opinion that
some pagans, mostly Hellenistic, objected to conversion and Christians gained
majority only at the end of the 5th century or the beginning of the 6th.
The monk Bar Tzoma who came to the Land of Israel around 400 wrote that pagans
held the majority in the country, the Christians were few, and the Jews and the
Samaritans were in control, persecuting the Christians.
On the eve of the reign of Constantine the Great (306—337) Christians were a
minority in the Land of Israel. During the 3rd century eight
Christian communities were in existence, during the 4th century there
were 18, but in the 5th century there were already 58 Christian
communities. Up to the 4th century there were no Christians in the
Galilee. Christian sources mention only three Christian villages at the
beginning of the 5th century. The Hellenistic cities, however,
including Acre, Aelia Capitolina, Caesarea, Beth Shean, Tzipori, Tiberias,
Soussita, Banias, Bet Gouvrin, Ovdat, Memshit, Samaria, Lod, Emaus, and others,
were gradually losing their Hellenistic character (these cities were given
Hellenistic names when they became Polis during the Roman or Byzantine periods).
The idols and statues were breaking down, the temples, theatres, and
amphitheatres had been neglected, and their place as the centre of city life was
taken by the newly built churches. The common language in the
Hellenistic-Byzantine cities was still Greek and the Hellenistic influence had
not completely disappeared (some believe the spoken language was Aramaic).
According to Prof Ronny Ellenblum’s book, “Frankish Rural Settlements in the
Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem”, the western Galilee, southern Samaria, and Judaea
were the centres of the Greek Orthodox population, and so were the coastal
cities. Up to the 4th century there were no Christians in the
Galilee, but from the 5th century Christian population increased in
places that were sacred to Christianity.
The Christian population was made up of foreign inhabitants of the
Hellenistic cities: Greeks, Syrian-Greeks, and Byzantines, who mixed with other
non-Jewish inhabitants and were joined by Christian pilgrims and Christian
European refugees fleeing the Germanic and Hunnish tribes invading the Roman
Empire. In his article “The Population of the Land of Israel in the Roman
Byzantine Period”, Maggen Broshi estimates that one third of the country’s
population, about 330,000 persons, was urban. This calculation is based on the
population density (30 persons per 1000 square metres) in relation to the total
urban area (12.4 square kilometers). When Christianity became the religion of
the Empire, the cities became Episcopalian (bishopric) seats, and the population
living in and around those cities were their subjects.
The Conversion Efforts and Their Results
Prof Zeev Rubin wrote in his article “The Spread of Christianity in the Land
of Israel”, that following the death of the Emperor Julian (363), Christians
continued to be a minority in a population which included pagans (many along the
coast and in the south), Jews (most living in the Galilee), and Samaritans
(concentrated in the mountainous area of Samaria). According to Prof Moshe David
Har in “The Land and its Settlement: Areas and Population”, the Samaritans used
the population vacuum formed as a result of the destruction of Jewish
settlements after the Bar Cochva revolt and spread into Judaea, the coastal
cities and other areas.
To carry out its mission to convert the local population, the Church used its
influence and pressured the emperors to legislate against the Jews. The policy
was to isolate, humiliate, incite against the Jews and convert them.
The Imperial policy towards the Jews can be divided into three stages:
Stage I: Laws of Constantine the Great
After Christianity was recognized as the Imperial religion, anti-Jewish
legislation dealt with four issues: Conversion to Judaism was forbidden, those
converting to Christianity were given protection, Jews were conscripted for
service in the municipalities, and Jewish pilgrimage to Jerusalem was forbidden.
Rabbi Sharira Gaon speaks of religious persecutions in Israel during the time of
Abayey and Rabba, i.e., at the end of Constantine’s rule.
Stage II: Laws of Constantine II (337—361).
On 13 August 339 a law was passed to ensure complete separation between Jews
and Christians. It contained three sections: Forbidding marriage between Jews
and Christians under penalty of death; Protecting converts; And forbidding the
ownership of non-Jewish slaves. This third section had far reaching economic
consequences, for Jewish workshop owners and farmers were forbidden the use of
slaves in an economy driven by slave labour. In 353 a law was passed that
forbade Christians to convert to Judaism. Constantine II’s religious
persecutions were the cause of the Gallus revolt that broke out in 351.
Stage III: A concerted attack on Jews and
their establishments from the end of the 4th century to 429.
Between 451 and 527 the Jews enjoyed a respite while the Christian world was
in turmoil over dogmas, which brought about a rift in the Church. However, when
Justinian became emperor in 527 the anti-Jewish policy was renewed and continued
by his successors, during the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th.
This legislation was effective throughout the Roman Empire, although the article
explores only its effects in the Land of Israel.
Prof Rubin lists three ways by which the Church, along with the Imperial
rulers, tried to convert the province’s population into Christianity:
Persuasion, coercion by means of pogroms and terror by gangs of Christian
zealots, and governmental coercion by legislation.
The number of willing converts was relatively greater among the pagan urban
population. Prof Rubin, however, stated that “the tribes of the desert were more
amenable to conversion than Israel’s settled population. The desert tribes were
a source for soldiers the Empire needed to protect its borders. The Roman
military converted them to ensure their loyalty.”
Among the villagers conversion met with much lesser success. Most of the
increase in Christian population came from the large number of pilgrims who
visited the Christian holy sites in Israel and settled in the country, and from
refugees fleeing the Huns following Rome’s conquest in 410. Thousands of monks
engaged in widespread missionary works to convert the local population. Their
main areas of activity included, at first, Jerusalem and its environs, the
Judean desert, the Negev, the area of Jericho, Beth
Shean, and the coastal plain. The missionaries worked mostly among the
nomads, the Nabataeans, the Saracens (Arabs) in the Judean desert, and the
Bedouins in Trans Jordan.
Monks were not active in Samaria, the major areas of Samaritan settlement, or
in the Galilee, the major centre of Jewish settlement. They came from the
Greek-speaking world – Asia Minor and mainly from the centre of the Byzantine
Empire -- as well as other parts of the Roman Empire.
Coercion by zealot gangs
When persuasion failed, the Church turned to coercion. Groups of Christian
zealots formed to spread Christianity by force, backed by the Church. Their
gangs travelled from place to place, rioting, destroying Jewish and Samaritan
synagogues, murdering and forcefully baptising those who could not stand up to
them. In May 363 an earth quake hit the south of Israel and zealot gangs used
the opportunity to destroy the few Jewish settlements left in the area. This
violence met with conflicting responses from the government. An attempt to
prevent these attacks was thwarted by the Church. A monk named Bar Tzoma wrote
in his biography that he organised a gang of 40 monks who destroyed Jewish and
Samaritan synagogues and burned down pagan temples. Bar Tzoma visited Israel
three times, in around 400, in 437/8, and in 438/9. He acted in the regions of
Jerusalem and the Sinai, but did not go up to the Galilee to convert the Jews.
Instead, he organised a skirmish with Galilean Jews who came on pilgrimage to
the Temple Mount during the Feast of Tabernacles (the Empress Theodocia, wife of
Theodosius II, gave the Jews permission to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem). Even
so, Jews in the Galilee still suffered from the Christian gangs.
Prof Rubin concludes that violence did not bring about a significant wave of
conversions either; on the contrary, it created resistance in the population.
Government Coercion – The Imperial
government passed laws to enforce Christian conversion.
Jews suffered constant harassment by the Church, as part of its extreme
anti-Jewish policy. The aim of the Church was to isolate the Jews, to humiliate
them, to break up their central and local organisation, and to convert them. The
Church’s Jewish policy was designed during the Christian conferences of 306 and
341. In total, the Church influenced the passing of 17 anti-Jewish laws during
the Byzantine period.
The Emperors repeatedly confirmed existing laws while adding new ones. Jews
were forbidden to convert others into their faith, with conversion and the
circumcision of converts becoming a criminal act. Marriage between Jews and
non-Jews was forbidden, and Jews were not allowed to own non-Jewish slaves,
under penalty of death. As mentioned earlier, this had severe economic
consequences because Jewish workshop owners and Jewish farmers were prevented
from employing slaves in an economy based on slave labour. Purim celebrations
were limited in 408 under the pretext that the holiday has elements that scorn
Christianity. Construction of new synagogues and renovations of old ones was
forbidden in 423, and this law was used by the Church to prevent the
reconstruction of old synagogues that had been destroyed or damaged, and to
prevent the handing back of synagogues that had been transformed into churches.
Archaeological evidence, however, shows that these laws were not always
enforced. Emperor Justinian (527-565) confirmed older anti-Jewish legislation
and added new laws. One new law declared Jews were heretics, and thereby removed
them from the protection of the Christian rule and exposed them to random
violence. Justinian forbade the celebration of Passover in years where the
holiday fell before or during Easter, and forced Jews to read the Torah from the
Greek translation (the Septuagint) or the Latin one (the Achilles translation)
in order to prevent their study of the oral commentaries and to force them to
favour the Christian commentaries. These harsher conditions caused the rebellion
of 556 in which the Samaritans, who suffered religious persecution as well,
participated along with the Jews, and which was cruelly suppressed.
Violation of Civil Rights
Jews’ civil rights were violated by legislation which limited these rights.
They were removed from public offices and their participation in urban
municipalities was forbidden, although they were never exempt from the municipal
financial taxes and duties.
Abolition of the Central and Local Jewish
Jewish local organisation was centred in the synagogues, while the central
organisation comprised the Presidency and the Sanhedrin. To destroy the Jewish
local and central organisation it was necessary to undermine the Jewish internal
autonomy, their independent courts of law and the synagogues. Abolition of the
Presidency was meant to bring an end to the central organisation. From 398 Jews
were made subject to Roman law in roman courts, and in 415 the Jewish courts
lost their authority. Mob attacks on the synagogues and demolition of synagogues
were meant to hasten the dissolution of the community autonomy.
For 300 years, the Presidency managed to protect the Jewish population in the
Land of Israel by maintaining more or less good relations with the ruling
authorities. Presidential messengers were sent abroad to collect donations for
the Jewish population in Israel. The Church became interested in the
“Presidential Treasures”. Up until 415, the Presidents enjoyed Imperial
protection, but from that time on the Presidency was the target of a concerted
attack by the Church. Presidents were accused of building new synagogues against
the law, converting slaves against the law, and violating other anti-Jewish
laws. The death without heirs of the last President descending from Hillel in
429, was used as a pretext to end the Presidency. From then on, the Jewish
leadership in the Province was split according to its administrative sections,
and the link between the Jewish population in Palaestina Secunda (the Galilee)
and the Jewish population in the rest of the country (Palaestina Prima) was
thereby severed. The Land of Israel lost its status as leader of the Jewish
nation, connections between the different communities were weakened, and the
donations collected abroad for the use of the Jewish population in Israel were
transferred to the State Treasury.
The Jewish leadership, however, recovered quickly. The attempt to split the
Jewish population failed when Jews throughout the country accepted the
leadership of the sages in Tiberias. Both the local and central organisation
continued to function, albeit informally.
Administrative Measures for Constricting
Other administrative measures for constricting Jewish life included
distributing the Province’s land among the cities. The urbanization process
which began during the time of the Ptolemy’s and the Seleucids and continued
during the Roman period, was completed during the Byzantine period. Urbanisation
was accompanied by the process of transforming Jewish cities into Polis.
Tzipory, Tiberias, and Beth Shean had become Polis during Roman times; Lod
became Diospolis, Emaus became Niccopolis, Bet Guvrin became Eleutheropolis
during the Byzantine period. Although only about one third of the population
lived in the cities, the country’s population as a whole was divided among the
cities and made subject to their municipal councils in which Jews were forbidden
to hold office. All of the coastal plain became a region annexed to the coastal
cities; Part of Judea had already been annexed to Aelia Capitolina, formerly
Jerusalem; Mt Tabor and its environs, including Nazareth, were separated from
Tzipori’s region and annexed to the Dabouriye region, which had become a Polis
named Helenopolis after Constantine’s mother. Only the rural upper Galilee
remained independent of any urban centre. Annexing the cities’ environs to the
municipal councils hurt the daily life of the Jews, as the urbanisation had a
social and economic impact. For example, tax collection was in the hands of the
city councils, which were governed by Christians and influenced by the heads of
the cities’ churches.
Forced Conversion Decrees
The Emperor Phocas (602-610) decreed that the Jews must convert. In 607 he
sent the proconsul Georgius to Jerusalem and other cities in Israel in order to
baptise the Jews by force. Georgius met with representatives of the Jews and
demanded their conversion. When they refused, he slapped one across his face and
ordered their forced baptism. The motive for this decree was the Persians’
invasion of Syria and the Emperor’s belief that the Jews will not be loyal to
the Byzantine Empire. The Jews pretended to accept Christianity but continued to
practice the Jewish faith in secret.
The Persians conquered Israel in 614 and were welcomed by the Jews who
quickly and openly returned to Judaism. A force of 20,000 Jewish volunteers
aided the Persians against the Byzantine army, but when the Persians were forced
out in 628 the Jews found themselves in a difficult position. A delegation of
Jews from Tiberias, Nazareth, and the Galilee presented itself before the
Emperor Heraclius and offered gifts. The Emperor promised not to punish the Jews
for their support of the Persians and took an oath to remain on their side, but
when he arrived in Jerusalem he came under pressure from the Church. The Church
incited against the Jews, claiming they killed the Christians and destroyed
churches during the Persian conquest. This claim is rejected by Michael Avi
Yona, who points out that the massacre of the Christians in Jerusalem was
carried out by the Persians, who afterwards gave temporary control of the city
to the Jews. The Jews then evicted those Christians who remained. Heraclius
succumbed to the pressures and accepted a legal charge against the Jews for
murdering Christians and destroying churches in Jerusalem and the Galilee. Many
Jews were executed and others fled to the desert, the mountains, and to Egypt,
while others were massacred by a Christian mob. Following the massacre many more
Jews fled the country and the number of Jews in the Land of Israel dwindled to a
negligible minority. In 634, at the start of the Arabic invasion of Israel,
Heraclius’ decree of conversion was made effective throughout the Byzantine
Empire, but according to Avi Yona “it remained on paper only, for within a few
years the Byzantine Emperor had no power to realise his orders”.
The Fate of the Samaritans
The attempt to convert the Samaritans in the mountains of Samaria resulted in
rebellion. The Samaritans rebelled in 484, 529, and 566 against the religious
decrees and the efforts to forcefully convert them to Christianity. These
rebellions were cruelly suppressed, many were killed in the battles or massacred
by the Byzantine Christian army and many more fled. Twenty thousand Samaritans
were killed during the rebellion of 529, 100,000 to 120,000 were massacred
following the rebellion in 566. The Samaritan Museum estimates that of 1,200,000
Samaritans living in the Land of Israel, only some 200,000 survived the
Byzantine persecution. According to an archaeological survey quoted in Prof
Ronny Ellenblum’s book, the number of Samaritan sites dropped by 50%, from 106
to 49, by the end of the Byzantine period.
Failure of the Conversion Efforts
Prof Rubin determined that “the only ones to survive as a significant
religious minority in the Land of Israel by the end of the Byzantine period were
the Jews. This minority group, whose centre was in the Galilee, suffered
government restrictions and sporadic persecutions, and evidence suggest their
response was to rebel”. Most scholars agree only a few Jews converted to
Christianity during the Byzantine period. In his book “In Roman and Byzantine
Times”, Prof Michael Avi Yona wrote that “the policy of persecution carried out
by Justinian and his heirs removed any possibility to bridge the abyss [of hate
between the government and the Jews ever since Christianity became the Empire’s
religion] and the attempts to turn the Jews into true Christians by force were
not successful”. Epiphanes, a Father of the Church, admitted that the efforts to
convert the Jews failed: “There, in Nazareth and Tzipori, one could never build
churches because there is none among them who is pagan or Samaritan or
Christian”. Yarron Dan wrote in his book, “Urban Life in the Land of Israel at
the End of Antiquity”, that “there were few cases of conversion to Christianity.
Most of the time, the Jews remained Jewish, except during the time of Heraclius’
decree of conversion”. According to Avi Yona, at that time the Jews continued to
practice Judaism in secret. Their forced Christianity was short lived, and soon
after the Arabic conquest they returned to Judaism.
There are two Jews famous for converting to Christianity: Joseph of Beth
Shean and Benjamin of Tiberias.
Joseph of Beth Shean, a city whose foreign residents converted to
Christianity, accepted orthodox Christianity during the time of Constantine II .
The Emperor gave him the title of “Comas” (“friend of the Emperor”) and
commissioned him to build churches in Jewish places. He built churches in
Tiberias, Tzipori, Capernaeum and Nazareth only after Christians settled there.
Prof Avi Yona writes in “In Roman and Byzantine Times” that “the messenger Comas
failed in his religious mission”. According to the Jewish sources he was
expelled from the Jewish settlements.
Benjamin was a Jewish businessman from Tiberias and a leader of the Jewish
community. He hosted the Emperor Heraclius and his retinue on the Emperor’s
visit to Tiberias in 629 following the expulsion of the Persians. He was coaxed
to convert by the Emperor, perhaps in return for the Emperor’s promise to not
punish the Jews for their support of the Persians (Shmuel Saffray, “The Jewish
Settlement in the Galilee: 3rd and 4th Centuries”; Avi
Yona; Yarron Dan, “The Land of Israel in the 5th and 6th
Jewish and Christian Settlement in the
The western Galilee gradually became Christian as a result of converting the
pagan inhabitants who were joined by Christians from Europe and the Byzantine
Empire who came on pilgrimage to Christian holy places and decided to settle in
the country. Jewish settlements were concentrated in the eastern Galilee, where
Christians began to settle, mostly in sites held sacred by Christians. The
Byzantines finally built churches in Tiberias and Tzipori, where pagan temples
once stood, although Jews still formed the majority of these cities’ population.
Christians settled also in Kfar Canna, which was sacred to them, but its Jewish
community was still significant. Jews also formed the majority in Nazareth in
570, according to the traveler Antonius of Placantia. He mentions also Jews
living in Acre, and nicknamed Shikmona (near Haifa) “city of the Jews”.
Archaeological excavations in Shikmona uncovered a Byzantine church, evidence of
Christian settlement, but the Christians there were a minority.
The Jewish Population in the Rest of the
Scholars determined the presence of Jewish population in the following places
based on synagogues found there: Jews were living in Hosifa (Ossafiye) on Mt
Carmel, and in the coastal cities of acre, Caesarea, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gaza, and
Yavne. Jews were living also in the Valley of Jezreel, in Beth Shean and its
environs, in Beth Alpha, Rehov (today Ein Hanatziv), on the site of the present
Ma’oz Hayim and in Hammat Gadder. In the south, in Judea and the Negev, Jews
lived in Hulda, Jericho, Na’aran, Ein Geddy, Tzo’ar, Soussia, Hebron, Eshtemo’a
(Samo’a), and also Lod. A large Jewish settlement of the 5th and 6th
centuries was discovered near Kibbutz Lahav.
The scholars Avi Yona and Maggen Broshi are divided over the size of Jewish
population living in the Negev at that time. Avi Yona estimated it between
52,000 and 71,000, while Broshi estimates approximately 24,000.
The Economic Conditions and Economic
The Jewish economic activity was severely harmed by economic restrictions.
Jews were pushed out of commerce, and the prohibition on slave ownership hurt
Jewish land and workshop owners, such as the Jewish textile industry in
Tiberias, Tzipori and Lod. Making a living from farming also became harder, as
harassment by robbers and ruffians and the heavy tax toll, on top of natural
disasters such as drought and locusts, caused many to leave the land.
Not all farmers owned their lands. At the end of the 4th century
the Colontus law was passed, which turned the owners into tenant farmers on
their own land. The confiscation of land by the Emperors created a situation
where some farmers would lease or become tenant farmers on their own land, and
their status was often hereditary. The government also sold confiscated land to
foreigners and the latter leased the land to Jews. A new class of hired
labourers was born. Land confiscation, natural disasters, heavy taxes, and
harassment combined to force Jews off their land into urban centres, or to
emigrate from the country altogether.
Because taxation was based on land and property evaluation, the tax burden
fell mostly on the farmers. They paid a tax that was made up of land rates plus
tax per head (human as well as animal). They were also burdened with Angariya
(payment in labour) which conscripted them to pave roads for the army. City
dwellers had an easier time – they paid the chrysargyron, a tax in gold and
During the 4th century the economy was in crisis, and farmers paid
their taxes in products since the value of the currency was low, but in the 5th
century the province’s economy began to recover, thanks partly to the large
numbers of Christian pilgrims who began touring the Christian holy places and
contributed to the province’s treasury. With the economic recovery and the
increase in currency value, taxes were paid in money. Around 540 the whole
population, including the Jews, was devastated by a break out of an epidemic.
To sum up: The process of decline in Jewish population which began with the
Great Revolt (66-70) and the Bar Cochva revolt (132-135) continued with the
religious persecution (Aaron Oppenheimer, “Rehabilitating the Jewish Population
in the Galilee”), the economic crisis in the 3rd century, the Gallus
rebellion (351), the religious persecution in the Christian Byzantine period,
and the massacre carried out by the Christians in revenge for the destruction of
churches and massacres of Christians (according to Christian sources) or in
revenge for their aid to the Persians in 614-628 (Yarron Dan, ibid.; Avi Yona,
ibid.). There is no data on the number of Jews executed, murdered, or who fled
at the end of the Christian-Byzantine rule in the Land of Israel. It is likely
that their numbers during the Byzantine period, estimated at 150,000 to 200,000,
declined further on the eve of the Arabic invasion in 638.
The attempts to convert the Jews by various means failed, with only a few
individuals converting. Jewish as well as Christian sources indicate that the
Jews held on to their faith and did not lose their hope for the revival of
sovereignty over their land. One of the Jewish reactions to the harassment and
incitement against them was the return to Jewish names in the 5th and