One of the most traumatic events for eastern Christians of the early Middle Ages was the capture of Jerusalem by the Sassanid Persians in 614 AD. The seizure of Jerusalem occurred within the context of the Byzantine-Sasanian wars between Emperor Heraclius of the Byzantine Empire and Chosroe II of Persia. The sixteen year Persian hegemony saw the fortunes of the Jews reversed, for, seeking to buttress their power against the Christian Byzantine population, they empowered Jews as their agents in Judea to enforce Sassanid policy. This article will focus on the role of the Jews during the Sassanid occupation of the city.
Jews in Early 7th Century Palestine
Jewish life went on side by side with Christian life in Byzantine Palestine. Indeed, there is even evidence that Judaism flourished during the Christian era. Archaeological excavations of the period reveal a steady continuity of Jewish life in Palestine as Rome transitioned from paganism to Christianity, then detached from the west, gradually becoming Byzantine. The Jewish community—concentrated in Upper Galilee but with representation across the region—was organized, affluent, and evidenced a strong religious life. New synagogues continued to be constructed throughout the Byzantine period, and life went on as always. Characteristic of this period is the synagogue of Rehov, near Beth Shean. Originally constructed in the fourth century, this synagogue was remodeled multiple times, the final and most lavish reconstruction dating from the early 7th century. The synagogue features a large mosaic, 14 feet by 9 feet, containing 360 lines of text in Hebrew and Aramaic detailing prescriptions of halakhic matters, specifically laws pertaining to the seventh year. The text of this mosaic is the longest in Aramaic or Hebrew ever discovered in Palestine. The size and artistry of this mosaic signifies an affluent, thriving synagogue whose members had sufficient resources to fund such artistic works.
Another example is the synagogue of Gaza, originally dating from the third century but, like the structure at Rehov, reconstructed later, in the second generation before the Arab conquest. The Gaza synagogue is impressive: it was constructed in the late Roman “basilica” style, with a main hall measuring 90 x 78 feet. The apse was a separate raised structure, featuring four rows of columns that created four side aisles. Enclosing the apse was a marble “chancel” railing and screen. The floor features an inscription reading, “Menahem and Yeshua the sons of the late Isses, wood merchants, as a sign of respect for a most holy place, have donated this mosaic in the month of Loos, 569.” A mosaic depicts a figure resembling pagan images of Orpheus, except instead of the traditional Oprhic pointed hat, the image wears a jeweled diadem. Above the image are inscribed the words “KING DAVID,” suggesting the Jews had adopted conventional classical visual themes to depict the Jewish king.
Thus, Judaism on the eve of the Persian and Arab conquests was vibrant and cosmopolitan, thriving alongside the Christian community of Palestine.
Tensions with the Byzantines
Nevertheless, the Jews groaned under the Gentile occupation of their ancient homeland. The decades leading up to the Persian invasion were years of messianic expectation. Byzantine power had been in disarray for some years, with military defeats and insurrections causing mayhem throughout the empire. The Jews took these as portents of an impending collapse of Roman power. The assassination of Emperor Maurice in 602 was celebrated in the Jewish city of Sycmania in Palestine, where it was taken as a sign of the decline of Roman’s authority; a Jew of Tiberias announced that “in eight years, the anointed one, the king of Israel, the Christ, will come…and he will raise up the nation of the Jews.” (1) Another rabbi predicted “Rome will fall into the hands of the Persians” (2).
The Jews maintained a simmering resentment towards Byzantine authorities. Several laws dating from the time of Justinian (d. 565) intervened needlessly on the internal affairs of Jews, legislating on what languages Jewish religious texts could be read in, when the Shema could be recited, and forcing Jews to move Passover if it fell on the same date as Easter. These sorts of intervention could not but provoke hostility, which sometimes erupted into violence. In 609, Jews rioted against Byzantine authority in Antioch, killing Patriarch Anastasius II.
These events gave rise to Jewish apocalyptic works, such as the Book of Elijah and the Book of Zerubbabel, both written in the years leading up to the Persian conquest. One passage of the Book of Zerubbabel anticipates the cleansing of the Gentile idols, which in the 7th century Jewish parlance, means signs of Christianity. Specifically singled out are Christian “asherah” (which may mean crosses), and a passages decrying the Virgin Mary, which it calls the “chief object of idolatry.” The main character, Zerubbabel the Prince, sees a stone statue of a woman (the Virgin Mary). She is impregnated by Satan and gives birth to a villain known as Armilius, who takes the role of the Antichrist:
There he showed me a marble stone in the shape of a maiden: her features and form were lovely and indeed very beautiful to behold. Then he said to me, ‘This statue is the wife of Belial. Satan will come and have intercourse with it, and a son named Armilius will emerge from it, [whose name in Greek means] “he will destroy a nation”…And he [Armilius] will begin to plant on the face of the land all the ashereth [idols, i.e. Christian crosses] of the goyim [i.e., Christians] which the Lord hates, and he will take the stone from which he was born and transport it to the Valley of Arbael, and he will build seven altars for it, and it will be the chief object of idolatry, and all the peoples will come from all places and worship this stone and offer incense to it and pour libations, and everyone who lifts up his heart to look at her will not be able to, because no man is able to look on her face because of her beauty. And Armilius angered the Lord with his evil deeds. (3)
When the war with Persia finally came, the Jews enthusiastically supported the Persians over the Byzantines. Long resenting Christian domination of the Holy Land and recalling Persia’s biblical role as Israel’s allies, they lent their aid to the invading army. An Armenian Christian historian Sebeos recorded that “When the Persians approached Palestine, the remnant of the Hebrew people rose up against the Christians. They committed great crimes out of national zeal and did many wrongs to the Christian community. Going to the Persians, the Jews united with them.” (4)
Let us now speak of the conquest itself and the Jewish collaboration with the Sassanids following the capture of Jerusalem.
The Sassanid Capture of Jerusalem
The Byzantines and Persians had been at war since 602. In 613, the Sassanid armies swept through the Levant, seizing Antioch and Damascus under the capable Persian general Sharvahaz. Jews enthusiastically enlisted under the Persian banner, led by two named Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias; these recruits may have been as many as 26,000. His army swollen with Jewish recruits, Sharvahaz marched for Jerusalem. The city was captured without a fight. Sharvahaz handed control of the city over to Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias. A “Council of Sixteen Righteous” was established; it is unclear what the role of this council of sixteen was; some sources say the Council of Sixteen Righteous were actually delegated by the Persians to rule Jerusalem; others say the Council was dealt solely with Jewish religious affairs, the government of the city remaining firmly in the hands of the Persians. (5)
To the Jews, the peaceful conquest of Jerusalem was an occasion of messianic fervor. Poems by the Jew Eleazar ben Killir state that an altar was erected on the Temple Mount and sacrifices were renewed; the poem also mentions a rabble rouser claiming to be the Messiah who is subsequently executed by the Persians. Plans were laid for the establishment of a Third Temple as Jewish authorities began the arduous task of sorting out genealogies to see who would be able to serve in the new edifice.
This new Jewish domination was too much for the city’s Christian inhabitants. After a few months there was a furious rebellion against the occupying forces. Nehemiah ben Hushiel and the Council of Sixteen Righteous were killed, along with many other Jews. Sebeos says that many Jews flung themselves to their deaths by jumping off the walls of Jerusalem rather than fall into Christian hands.
Sharvahaz, with great irritation, returned to Jerusalem to pacify the city. The city suffered a brief siege before being stormed in spring of 614. Sharvahaz wished to punish the Christians for their killing of the Jews, and the taking of the city was the occasion of a frightful massacre; monks, nuns, and priests were singled out for torment and death. The True Cross was seized—allegedly after the torture of clergymen—and carried off to the Persian capital of Ctesiphon.
A monk from the monastery of St. Sabas in Judea named Strategos was an eyewitness to these events. He mentioned the Jewish complicity in the Persian takeover of the city:
When the hostile Jews saw that the Christians had been handed over into the hands of the Persians, they rejoiced with exceeding joy, because they hated the Christians. At that time they thought up an evil plan against the Christians, because their standing with the Persians was great. So the Jews went to the edge of a reservoir and called out to the Christians who were in the lake of Mamila: ‘Who among you wishes to become Jewish come up to us that we might ransom you from the Persians.’ But their evil plan did not work out, and their efforts were in vain. (6)
Strategos says that the Jews were furious at the refusal of the Christians on the lake to convert. A slaughter ensued:
Then the Jews… as of old they bought the Lord from the Jews with silver, so they purchased Christians out of the reservoir; for they gave the Persians silver, and they bought a Christian and slew him like a sheep. (7)
Various sources mention the massacre of Christians at the Mamila reservoir. Some place the death toll as high as 24,000, while Strategos says it was closer to 4,500. The total amount of Christians killed in the conquest is estimated around 66,000, although some ancient sources placed it as high as 90,000 (though most historians do not accept this latter estimate).
After the killing had ceased, 35,000 Christians were rounded up and deported to Mesopotamia, among them the Patriach Zacharias, who would spend 14 years in exile. Meanwhile, Jewish settlers from around Palestine flocked to Jerusalem to assume control of the lands forfeited by the Christian exiles.
The Expedition Against Tyre
With the Persians and Jews again firmly in control of Jerusalem, a plot was hatched to seize the Christian city of Tyre on the coast. This plan was unique in that it was to be carried out entirely by Jewish forces, apparently without Persian organization or support. The plot involved a secret invitation from the Jews of Tyre who, upon hearing of the capture of Jerusalem, asked for Jewish forces to launch a surprise attack on the city to kill the Christian population during the Easter Vigil. Jewish volunteers from Jerusalem, Tiberias, Galilee, Damascus, and even from Cyprus united to carry out the massacre. Their army numbered some 20,000, plus the 4,000 Jews living in Tyre.
The Christians, however, got wind of the plot and seized the entire Jewish population of Tyre as hostages. When the army arrived, they found the city barricaded against them and their Jewish confreres held hostage. Enraged, they began destroying Christian churches in the vicinity around Tyre. In response to this, the Christians beheaded half of the hostages, approximately 2,000 Jews, and flung the heads over the walls of the city with threats to behead the remaining 2,000 if the Jewish army did not move off. This butchery broke the nerve of the besieging force and they withdrew to save their companions within the city.
End of Jewish Domination
After the deportation of Patriarch Zecharias, the leadership of the Christian community devolved upon the Archpriest Modestos, who became acting Patriarch. Modestos was a skilled administrator, a man of charisma and influence. He organized the remaining Christians of Jerusalem to help rebuild the churches, most notably the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He was successful in soliciting help from John the Merciful, Patriarch of Alexandria and proved a stabilizing force in the city. The Persians recognized his abilities and appointed to administer the civil affairs of the city as well. By 616 order had returned, and the Persian authorities were second-guessing their support of the Jews. The Jews had begun petitioning the Persians to return control of Palestine to them in return for their service. But it was unlikely the Jews could successfully govern the territory. After all, Christians were more populous, and the elevation of Jews after 614 was already a sore spot with Christians; if the Jews were to reestablish the Kingdom of Israel, would the Christian community of Palestine tolerate it?
In 617 the Persians definitively sided with the Christians. Further Jewish settlement in and around Jerusalem was halted; the synagogue and altar on the Temple Mount were demolished. The Armenian historian Sebeos says that the Jews were actually expelled from the city, but Modestos does not report this. The Persians also worked to improve the condition of the Christian exiles living in Mesopotamia. It became clear that Persian Palestine was to remain a Christian entity.
Return of Heraclius and Aftermath
King Chosroe II was killed in 628 and peace was restored. It took a further two years to negotiate the return of Jerusalem, which was still in the hands of Sharvahaz. The True Cross was returned, the exiles were allowed to go home, and on March 21, 630, Emperor Heraclius marched into Jerusalem to restore the relic of the cross and celebrate restored Byzantine hegemony.
With Byzantine power restored, what would be the fate of the Jews, who had defected to the Persians?
Benjamin of Tiberias, one of the original Jewish leaders who helped Sharvahaz seize Jerusalem in 614, was still living at this time. Benjamin went out to meet Heraclius and pledged fealty to him. Heraclius persuaded him to convert, an act for which Heraclius allegedly promised pardon for Benjamin and all the Jews.(8) Benjamin was accordingly baptized at Nablus in the house of one Eustathios. Benjamin rode with Heraclius when the latter entered Jerusalem in triumph in March, 630.
However, once in Jerusalem, the Christians of the city gave Heraclius a very poor report of Jewish conduct during the Persian occupation, persuading Heraclius to go back on his promise of pardon. A decree was issued banishing all Jews from Jerusalem and forbidding them to settle within three miles of the city. A general massacre of Jews ensued, with killings reaching as far north as Galilee. These killings devastated the Jewish population of Palestine, signaling the end of the period of prosperity they had enjoyed since late Roman times. (9) The ultimate fate of Benjamin of Tiberias is unknown.
Modern scholars do not believe Heraclius ever made an oath of protection to the Jews. Even so, the tale of Heraclius’s broken oath was a popular one in the Middle Ages; among the eastern Churches, there is a week of fasting during the Great Fast that is known as “Heraclius Week,” or the “Fast of Heraclius.” According to medieval legend, the Christians persuaded Heraclius to break his promise to Benjamin of Tiberias if, in exchange, Christians would fast for him one week out of the year. Heraclius agreed, going back on his oath and allowing the massacre of Jews. Consequently, the Bishops of Palestine sent letters to other bishops asking them to add the new days to the Great Fast. For some reason, this story has become particularly associated with the Copts, who nevertheless reject this historical explanation of the fast. (10) It is possible that the Copts dedicated the first seven days of the Great Fast to the cause of Heraclius during the Persian Wars, which years later came to be erroneously associated with the story of Benjamin of Tiberias and the Jews of Jerusalem. The Great Fast had already assumed its 55 day structure by the late 4th century, making the story of Heraclius’ oath redundant.
(1) Robert Louis Wilken, The Land Called Holy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 203
(2) Ibid., 204
(3) Sefer Zerubbabel, trans. by John C. Reeves.
(4) Sebeos’ History, Chap. 24, trans. by Robert Bedrosian, available online at http://www.attalus.org/armenian/sebtoc.html
(5) For the former view, see Michael Avi Yonah, Encyclopedia of Archaeological Investigations in the Holy Land, Vol. 2 (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1976), 256; for the latter view, see Robert Louis Wilken, The Land Called Holy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 213
(6) Antiochus Strategos, Capture of Jerusalem, trans. by F. Conybeare, “Antiochus Strategos’ Account of the Sack of Jersualem in 614 A.D.,” The English Historical Review 25 (1910): 502-17
(8) There are no contemporary records of Heraclius making any such promise.
(9) David Nicolle, Yarmuk AD 636: The Muslim Conquest of Syria (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1994), 93.
(10) See https://coptic-wiki.org/fast-of-heraclius
Phillip Campbell, “Jews and the Sassanid Capture of Jerusalem,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, November 6, 2022. Available online at https://unamsantcamcatholicam.com/2022/11/jews-and-the-sassanid-capture-of-jerusalem