The Specter of the Jews: Emperor Julian and the Rhetoric of Ethnicity in Syrian Antioch

The Specter of the Jews: Emperor Julian and the Rhetoric of Ethnicity in Syrian Antioch

by Ari Finkelstein

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In the generation after Constantine the Great elevated Christianity to a dominant position in the Roman Empire, his nephew, the Emperor Julian, sought to reinstate the old gods to their former place of prominence—in the face of intense opposition from the newly powerful Christian church. In early 363 c.e., while living in Syrian Antioch, Julian redoubled his efforts to hellenize the Roman Empire by turning to an unlikely source: the Jews. With a war against Persia on the horizon, Julian thought it crucial that all Romans propitiate the true gods and gain their favor through proper practice. To convince his people, he drew on Jews, whom he characterized as Judeans, using their scriptures, institutions, practices, and heroes sometimes as sources for his program and often as models to emulate. In The Specter of the Jews, Ari Finkelstein examines Julian’s writings and views on Jews as Judeans, a venerable group whose religious practices and values would help delegitimize Christianity and, surprisingly, shape a new imperial Hellenic pagan identity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520298729
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/06/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 235
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ari Finkelstein is Associate Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati, where he works as a historian of Jews and Judaism in the antique and late antique Greco-Roman world. 

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Julian's Hellenizing Program and the Jews

For all Emperor Julian's rhetoric, his Hellenizing program was not merely a return to traditional forms of worship. Julian dresses it up as a return to each ethnos's ancestral laws. In fact, in his role of pontifex maximus, Julian interpreted ancestral laws using an interpretatio Graeca as a hermeneutical tool to ensure the "correct" worship of the gods. In this chapter Julian's Hellenizing program, and his definition of Hellenes, Judeans, and Christians qua Galileans are examined and the place of Judeans within his program is elucidated. This analysis will be followed by a discussion of the emperor's sources for his knowledge of Jews, as well as by a brief exploration of identity in Antioch.


Julian was born a Christian into the Flavian family but turned to Hellenism in his teens after studying Neoplatonism with Aedesius's students, especially the theurgic Neoplatonist Maximus of Ephesus, who initiated him into the Mystery of Mithras. Later he would study philosophy in Athens and be initiated into the cult of Eleusis. Julian's studies were cut short by Emperor Constantius II, who raised him to the rank of Caesar and sent him to subdue the peoples of Gaul. Six years later, having met with success there, Julian, in an act of rebellion, claims to have been elevated by his troops to the status of emperor. Sprinting southeast through Europe, Julian prepares to meet his cousin, Emperor Constantius II, in battle. Before crossing over into Asia, Julian learns of Constantius's sudden death and declares himself a Hellene openly for the first time and sacrifices to the gods.

In his Against Heraclius (Or. 7), written in Constantinople in early 362, Julian stakes his claim to rule on his Flavian dynastic heritage and on his assertion of divine favor. That dynasty had long been associated with Sol Invictus, also known as Helios. Not only did Julian declare his divine patron to be Helios, but he produced a myth that he was the son of Helios (229C), who raised him, gave him perfect wisdom, including a perfect understanding of the cosmos and all things, and sent him back to Earth to correct the errors of the Flavian Dynasty (234C). Constantine's and Constantius II's support of Christianity had mischaracterized the correct cosmic order, destroyed sacred temples (228C), and erected sepulchers. Having met Zeus, Helios, and other gods and received divine knowledge, Julian falls back to Earth with perfect philosophy to guide the Roman oikoumene to health, security, and success. The knowledge that Julian obtains from Zeus, Helios, and the other gods in Against Heraclius is similar to that achieved by henosis — unification with the One. Henosis was the sought-after goal of Neoplatonist philosophers. Having gained this knowledge, Julian believes it is his divine mission to use his special knowledge to reestablish the correct cosmic order and with it correct divine worship in the Roman oikoumene. This myth authorizes Julian's Hellenizing program.

Julian's role as philosopher did not prevent him from engaging in political life, as scholars once believed. Philosophers of the school of Ammonius Saccas, Iamblichus of Chalcis among them, were taught that the high priest acting as a spiritual guide had a duty to ensure that their communities kept divine laws and, if they achieved divine union, they were obligated to shape the law of the politeia. As heir to this philosophical legacy and an acolyte of Iamblichus's teachings, Julian saw no problem assuming a political role. However, it required extreme discipline. Iamblichus taught that strict asceticism and some distance from worldly matters allowed for participation in civic, religious and political life. This Julian achieved by adopting the Pythagorean life, growing his beard, donning the philosopher's cloak, maintaining a strict diet, and sleeping on a pallet even as he stayed away from the games, the market, and the theater.

As philosopher and emperor, Julian set out a program to repair the damage done by Constantine and Constantius II, just as Zeus and Helios had wanted. Susanna Elm articulately lays out the key aspects of Julian's Hellenizing program. She writes:

Roman universalism, Romanitas, properly understood, has many facets, not least the proper hierarchical arrangement of the various ethnicities Rome encompassed. What mixture of Greekness, or Hellenism, and Romanness best expressed Roman supremacy? Even more crucial, what constellation of (ethnically connoted) divinities had caused Rome's greatness and was thus the guarantor of its security?

Acting as a philosopher imbued with divine knowledge, Julian set out to define both the correct ethnic divinities who secured the Roman oikoumene and their proper worship. A number of Julian's works specifically address the cosmic order. In March 362, immediately after publishing Against Heraclius, Julian publishes the Hymn to the Mother of the Gods, in which, as Elm explains, he sets out his "interpretation of the relationship of Greece, Rome, and the gods, and contrasts it with Constantius's conception." The Mother of the Gods is a "universal divinity, who subsumed in her divine person the expanse of the oikoumene and the hierarchy of its ethnic composition." She is first worshipped in Phrygia and has made her way to Rome and then on to Constantinople through Greece. Elm states that Julian's explication of her path presents the emperor's "personal understanding of Romanitas as the perfect mixture of divinely inspired, universal Greek and Roman wisdom," which was anticipated by cosmology and was therefore "divinely authorized, and as such presumably universal and eternal." In the Hymn to King Helios, published on December 25, 362, Julian lays out a cosmic order and positions Helios within it. Just as the emperor's patron, Helios, mediates between the gods and the different cosmic realms, so too Julian is the center of the Roman oikoumene, protecting it and bestowing his benevolence upon it.

In Against Heraclius, Julian identifies his god-given role as protector of the Roman oikoumene by safeguarding its laws. Indeed, the central piece of Julian's Hellenizing program was his insistence that each people keep their ancestral laws (ta patria). In his effort to define the ancestral laws of the ethne, Julian monopolized all the key roles and controlled all sources of divine wisdom. Not only did he have divine insight; he was pontifex maximus and prophet of Didymean Apollo, the most important oracle left on Earth by the gods. Given the inactive state of the oracles, Julian sought other sources of divine wisdom and found them in the texts and ancestral laws of certain wise barbarian ethne. Traditionally, the pontifex maximus had been in charge of the cult in Rome, but Julian expanded his portfolio. He was now chief priest and interpreter of all the ancestral customs of the multitude of ethne in his empire. This enabled him to determine the proper form of worship via the correct interpretation of ancestral laws and texts. He was therefore able to investigate Scripture, observe Judean practices, and expound on their true meaning, including their hidden theurgy.

Of all the ethne Julian was particularly interested in the Chaldeans, just as Iamblichus had been; but he also found wisdom in the ancestral laws of the Egyptians, Syrians, Phoenicians, and especially the Hebrews, all ethne that Neoplatonist philosophers believed possessed divine wisdom. Embedded within these ancestral laws was mysterious divine wisdom, which when executed played a part in the ascent of the soul. Armed with divine wisdom and acting in his role as pontifex maximus, Julian set out to interpret the texts, laws, and practices of these ethne. Their wisdom helped shape Hellenic identity and sometimes became sources for Julian's Hellenizing efforts. Like Porphyry, Julian uses their wisdom as ethnic exempla to define Hellenes and to support his Neoplatonist goal of the ascent ofthe Soul to the One. Aaron Johnson defines ethnic exempla as an author's use of the practice or law of an ethnos to support some aspect of Hellenic identity. Only in Galileans do Julian's Judeans move beyond ethnic exempla and begin to drive Julian's argument defining Hellenic and Christian identities.

At stake for Neoplatonist philosophers like Julian is the saving of people's souls and through them the entire Roman oikoumene. By the fourth century, the Neoplatonists were split between two opposing opinions of the titans of the Neoplatonist philosophical world on the nature of the Soul. Porphyry, born with the Syrian name Malchus in Tyre, Phoenicia, lived between approximately 234 and 305 C.E. He had studied with Longinus of Athens and then with Plotinus, considered the father of Neoplatonism, in Rome from 263 to 269 C.E. and followed his teachings until his death. He went on to become a key figure in the teaching of Neoplatonic thought, writing a Life of Plotinus and several other significant works, including the Philosophy from Oracles, On Abstinence, Life of Pythagoras, Letter to Gaurus, Letter to Anebo, On the Return of the Soul, Letter to Marcella, and Against the Christians. Porphyry's Neoplatonism could be practiced successfully only by elite philosophers who, through superior knowledge, were able to achieve union with the gods and thereby achieve salvation.

Porphyry's student Iamblichus was born circa 250 C.E. in Chalcis, Coele Syria, and died around 330 C.E. In Syria he founded a philosophical school where he taught that there were many ways to achieve salvation. Iamblichus was the first Neoplatonist to displace Plotinus's purely spiritual and intellectual mysticism in favor of theurgy, literally the "work of the gods." In this strand of Neoplatonism, the theurge was a priest who possessed the skill (techne) needed to guide the soul to the gods. Though only his minor philosophical works have survived, the basic elements of Iamblichus's system can be understood from the references to his teachings in the writings of the fifth-century philosopher, Proclus. A key work for our purposes is his On the Mysteries, but he also wrote On the Pythagorean Life; The Exhortation to Philosophy, or Protrepticus; On the General Science of Mathematics; On the Arithmetic of Nicomachus; and Theological Principles of Arithmetic.

A key controversy between Porphyry and Iamblichus was how to achieve union (henosis) with the One. The answer was dependent on where one stood in the debate between them on the state of the Soul. The argument between these two philosophers played out over the pages of Porphyry's Letter to Anebo and Iamblichus's response in On the Divine Mysteries, although Porphyry later added to the debate in On the Return of the Soul. Porphyry believed that the soul had not fully descended into the body. Therefore, blood sacrifice could only feed demons, who inhabited the world. Only philosophical contemplation could achieve henosis and therefore salvation. Since only a tiny percentage of philosophers could achieve unification with the divine, most people were unable to be saved. On the other hand, Iamblichus believed that the soul, the lowest divine entity, had fully descended into the body. Because there was an unbroken continuity through the cosmos that linked the Demiurge with all divine beings, including descended souls, it was possible that they could be turned toward the divine and, releasing themselves from their material or corporeal bonds, begin their ascent to the One.

The performance of theurgic ritual was essential to the project of salvation according to Iamblichus. Porphyry did concede that theurgy and divination might purify the lower soul and begin to lead it on a path toward the superlunary, ethereal realms where it could be granted visions of "marvelous things" but it could not achieve henosis with the Demiurge. For Iamblichus, only theurgic ritual acts could cause the sunthemata of the soul (the symbols or thoughts of the One present in every soul) to recognize its divine character and begin to ascend to the Demiurge. In his scheme, theurgy is the ritual manipulation of sunthemata and sumbola (tokens), spread by the Demiurge throughout the cosmos, to enable the soul to ascend to the gods and thereby attain henosis. In Iamblichus's work, theurgy is a "techne or episteme: a systematic body of knowledge and expertise with different sub-disciplines which the practitioner has to appropriate completely in order to achieve mastery of the whole art." This involved "the perfect accomplishment of ineffable acts religiously performed and beyond all understanding." It was the power of ineffable symbols that only the gods comprehended and not by intellectual acts that henosis was achieved. Iamblichus drew on the special wisdom of the Chaldeans and Egyptians and specifically from the Chaldean Oracles. In his opinion, certain pure and perfect objects could act as receptacles capable of receiving the gods because they bore the sunthemata of the gods. Through the appropriate use of the gods' sunthemata in nature, the soul could awaken its corresponding sunthemata and free itself from its enslavement to the daimones. These sunthemata could be activated in the soul by the chanting of the divine names in their original languages or by various other modes of theurgy. Suddenly alert to its divine character, the soul sought to return to the Demiurge of the intelligible world. Only a pure theurgist-priest had the techne to guide the soul to the Demiurge. Such theurgic activity need not become manifest only via rituals but could also by theology and by philosophical exegesis. Indeed, Iamblichus's exegetical guidelines and his philosophical commentaries are also an expression of theurgy. The key difference between Porphyry and Iamblichus was that the latter believed that everyone could attain henosis and therefore be saved whereas Porphyry reserved salvation to those very few elite philosophers.

To create stable and uniform cultic elements of Hellenic identity, Julian draws on several philosophical principles, most especially from theurgic Neoplatonism. Scholars debate just how much Julian made Iamblichean theurgy a key part of his program. Julian's knowledge of Iamblichus's works was likely limited and relied on intermediaries such as Maximus. Although he declares himself an acolyte of Iamblichus, Julian draws on only one strand of Iamblichean theurgy. Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler demonstrates that Julian adopts Iamblichus's religious expert as "exegete of divinely inspired wisdom and defender of theurgy."

Julian enters the debate between Porphyry of Tyre and Iamblichus of Chalcis over how souls may be saved for the first time in his Hymn to the Mother of the Gods. There Julian describes the role of the Sun and the precise time of the Roman festival of Meter as a "threefold anagogical hierarchy" activated by the Sun, including the everyday life, philosophy, and theurgical mystagogy. Theurgy here is presented as esoteric knowledge, "accessible only by the initiated few." The Chaldeans chant it; the "blessed theurgists" know it, and the chant leads souls up to the seven-rayed god. Here, as in Iamblichus, it is the secret wisdom of theurgists that enables salvation. This theme of anagogy is picked up in the Hymn to King Helios, where Helios, in his noeric form, is responsible for the descent of souls and receives souls on their ascent. In other words, theurgy is necessary for salvation.

Julian employs the Chaldean Oracles to support the effect of Metroac rites on the souls of the practitioners and links the process of the purified Soul's ascent with the efforts of the pure theurgists. Tanaseanu-Döbler argues that Julian's conception of theurgy is therefore "the highest degree of performance of whatever cultic activity, in the tradition of Iamblichus" and is associated with esoteric wisdom. It can be found in others cults as well. In fact, as she argues elsewhere, theurgy unites all the mystery cults by acting as a bridge through the rituals between "philosophical religion of Neoplatonism and Hellenic cult" and therefore completes Neoplatonism. Julian's conception of theurgy is not limited to Hellenic cults but intersects with his ethnological arguments. One finds theurgy in his description of Hellenic tradition as well as in Abraham's sacrificial practice because it is Chaldean, and in the Orphic myths. As we will see, Julian presents Judeans as a mystery cult in theurgic terms.


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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Introduction: Emperor Julian’s Jewish Gambit
1. Julian’s Hellenizing Program and the Jews
2. Setting the Stage: Hellenes, Christians, and Jews in Cosmopolitan Antioch
3. Hebrews, Jews, and Judeans: Julian’s Ethnographic Arguments and His Hellenizing Campaign
4. Propitiating the Gods, Saving the Empire: The Place of Jewish Sacrifice in Emperor Julian’s Hellenizing Program
5. A Priestly Nation: Th e Jewish Priesthood as a Model for Julian’s Priestly Program
6. Th e God of Jerusalem and His Temple: Fixing the Jewish God in Julian’s Cosmos
7. Creating and Maintaining Hellenic Places in Antioch
Conclusions: Antioch in the Aftermath of Julian

Appendix: The Letter to the Community of the Jews

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