Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice

Vittore Carpaccio: Saint Augustine in His Study, circa 1502–1507

It is a pleasure to write on a book that derives from a modern scholar’s brain wave about the fateful insight of a thinker over a millennium and a half ago. Paula Frederiksen’s sudden inspiration occurred in an altogether appropriate place—Jerusalem:

I remember staring out the window of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim at daybreak, watching the walls of the Old City glow gold.

She realized that, between 394–395 and 399–400, Augustine, bishop of Hippo in Roman North Africa (modern Bône/Annaba in Algeria), had his own brain wave—or rather, a series of brain waves. As a result,

Augustine had come to a view of Jews and of Judaism that differed dramatically not only from his own prior teachings but also from the prevailing traditions of his church.

This was nothing less than “a Christian affirmation of Jews and Judaism.” It is the thrill of this book that we are encouraged, by Frederiksen, to “witness…the birth of an idea.”

But we have to wait for this to happen. Before Frederiksen turns to Augustine’s thought, she describes at great length the attitudes toward Jews and Judaism that emerged in the first three centuries of Christianity. This was the accepted wisdom that Augustine confronted and rethought. In the best tradition of the Religious Studies world from which this book emerges, Frederiksen is, when need be, didactic. There are many idées reçues about the relations between Christians, Jews, and pagans in the Roman world of the first centuries that readers are urged not even to think of thinking.

Thus, Frederiksen urges readers not to think that Saint Paul intended to replace Judaism outright with brand-new Christianity. Rather, she argues, “Paul was always an excellent Jew in both phases of his life.” He converted pagans not to make them Christian, but because he saw them as Jews of the Last Days. They would be gathered by Christ into a rejuvenated Israel, as all nations turned to face the true God, who had waited, silent and barely known, for their return.

As for the denunciations of Jews and Jewish leaders in the Gospels, Frederiksen advises the reader to take them for what they were—“fraternal name calling” between factions within Judaism itself. Fierce rhetoric of this kind was “one of the most unmistakably Jewish things about the Jesus movement…. The gospels are no more intrinsically ‘anti-Jewish’ than is the Bible itself.”

Her main point in this long introduction to Augustine is that the parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism was by no means inevitable. It cannot be seen as the result of a supposed “monotheistic” closure of Judaism to the outside, gentile world. Nor can it be said to have grown, fatefully, from the preaching of Paul, and still less from the remembered sayings of Jesus of Nazareth. Above all, the real Roman world had no use for the rigid boundaries assumed in these notions. It was a world of impenitent diversity. We are eons away from the cramped ghettos of the Western Middle Ages. This was very definitely not

a society where the lives of Jews are under threat…. Jews are Ro-man citizens. They sit on city councils. They own land. And the legal precedent for assurances regarding their ancestral customs stretch back for centuries before the ascent of Christianity…. Late-fourth-century Jews are still part of “the system.”

So what went wrong, and how did Augustine attempt to put it right? Very briefly, Frederiksen believes that the Christians of the second and third centuries were caught in the grip of a peculiarly late-antique high-mindedness. They strove for the spiritual. Worse than that, they believed strongly in progress. They looked to a bright future, freed from the weight of the past. For them, history was junk. And the worst junk they could imagine was Judaism. Here, they thought, was a religion irreparably locked into the material world. It imposed circumcision on the penis, the most intimate and distastefully material part of the entire body. It favored fecundity and warfare. It practiced blood sacrifice. Its worshipers remained locked into the past, through nostalgia for a temple whose destruction by the Romans had declared Judaism as a whole to be passé.

As Frederiksen points out, none of this image of Judaism bore any relation to the real thing. It was an image of “rhetorical Jews” generated by anxious debates among Christians about how much of their own bodies they could accept and how much of the weight of the past might be allowed to linger in their own present. High-mindedness, when combined with a heady faith in progress toward better things, is not always the best recipe for tolerance of the ways of others. When Constantine unexpectedly became a Christian in 312, it was this image of a squeaky-clean Christianity, committed to the spiritual and purged of the past, that drew the attention of a crowned revolutionary. The past could be junked. Judaism and paganism alike could be declared, by imperial fiat, to belong to the dust heap of history.


It was this conglomerate of confident notions that Augustine found himself confronting. They might not have challenged him if they had not been presented by advocates of Manichaeism, a sect to which he himself had adhered for twelve years as a young man. Today, Manichaeism tends to be treated as weird and wonderful, and even as slightly ridiculous—at best, a New Age fad. But it was not its exotic features that made Manichaeism so hated by the local clergy in Augustine’s era. It was its troubling resemblance to mainline Christianity. Believers in Manichaeism claimed that it was the reformed, the true “spiritual” Christianity of their age. As a result, the attitudes of the Manichees toward Jews and Judaism, and, above all, toward the body and the past, were a caricature of the high-minded progressivism of mainline Christians.

Thus it was the challenge of Manichaeism, represented by Faustus of Milevis, whom he had known in his Manichaean days in Carthage, that provoked Augustine to a reappraisal of his own past attitudes toward the Old Testament in general and toward Judaism in particular. His intellectual reappraisal was summed up, in 403, in a long and hitherto understudied work, Against Faustus, whose significance for the evolution of Augustine’s thought Frederiksen has realized and exploited to the full.

But as Frederiksen points out, the debate with Faustus had been preceded seven years before, in 396, by a better-known treatise written to another former mentor—this time to a priest in Milan, Simplicianus, who had aided Augustine’s own conversion. In Augustine’s treatise for Simplicianus we encounter, for the first time in Augustine’s life, a relentlessly argued rejection of the standard Christian optimism of his age. In Augustine’s opinion, human beings do not progress to higher things. They have to wait for the will of God alone. For only the will of God could wrench them from an inertia that they had no power of their own to overcome.

Novelty was not for this world. The past was not merely a dust heap, to which spiritually dead religions (such as Judaism and paganism) could be relegated, as Christianity progressed triumphantly. Without the special grace of God, the human condition in its entirety was its own unchanging dust heap. Declared passive, shorn of any chance of a future of their own making, forever locked into a primeval past begun (forever on the wrong foot) by the sin of Adam, human beings could not have been presented in a more glum manner, by late- antique standards, than by Augustine in 396 in his famous treatise To Simplicianus.

Yet it is Frederiksen’s insight to have realized how this singularly forbidding vision of the human condition enabled Augustine, within a few years, to emerge (in Against Faustus) with a view of the world of the Old Testament in general and the Jews of his own time in particular that is startlingly different from that of his Christian contemporaries. This is the story that Frederiksen tells with gusto. Her book is a masterpiece of passionately argued Augustinian scholarship.

What needs to be stressed is the imaginative upshot of Augustine’s prolonged intellectual struggle. Basically, it was about how much of the past could be condemned to the past, and how much could be allowed to linger, like a majestic shade, in the present. Unlike his more euphoric contemporaries, Augustine thought that Judaism could never be totally transcended, for the simple reason that the human condition itself admitted no startling fresh departures. Nor could the Judaism of ancient times be dismissed as a religion, irreparably tarnished (in the eyes of Christians) by disquieting overtones of physicality, for the simple reason that physicality itself was neutral. Material existence placed no bar between human beings and God. All that counted was God’s will.

If that was so, Augustine went on to argue, then God was free to leave the signs of His will as deep in flesh and blood as He wished. He could leave his mark on penises. He could bless sexual fertility and look with favor on a multiplicity of wives. He could ask for the shedding of blood in sacrifice. He could create an entire kingdom and a mighty temple supported by the wealth of a nation. These were God’s great words—each of them impenitently heavy with materiality—by which He spoke to the world through a chosen group of human beings, the Jews.

The history of Israel and of its institutions acquired a new majesty in this reading. They were like a mighty poem that unfolded across the centuries. The lived experience of Jews under the Law might seem mysterious and even alien to human judgment; but what was certain was that the life of the people of Israel had never been either trivial or disgusting, as so many “spiritual” Christians (quite as much as Manichees) were tempted to believe. Even in the present, Jews should be left alone to practice their ancient faith. Against so many of his contemporaries, “Augustine insisted that Jews were not a challenge to Christianity but a witness to it.” Jews and Judaism could never be put into the past. In an age in which so much of previous history was being flattened by Christian intolerance, they were to continue to stand out, protected by the aura of their own, God-given past.


In this way Augustine paused, for a moment, to bestow a deeply considered majesty upon what was to most of his contemporaries a peculiarly alien and distant fragment of the history of the ancient Middle East. To have done this was no small contribution to the emergent civilization of the medieval West. It is good for a culture to have to grapple with pasts that will not go away. A touch of an older, alien dispensation added moral roughage to a world that could all too easily have closed in upon itself. In future centuries, monks who were tempted to flee the body had to come to terms with stories of multiply married patriarchs on whom the blessing of God had fallen quite as majestically as on their own, highly spiritual ways of life. Missionaries who were tempted to expunge ancient ways in distant, barbarian lands had to realize that they carried with them a canon of the Holy Scriptures that had found a place for polygamy and for the observance of taboo, and that had described with archaic vigor the rise and fall of warlords not unlike members of their own flock.


Duomo, Monreale, Sicily/Bridgeman Art Library

‘Saint Paul preaching to the Jews in the synagogue at Damascus’; twelfth-century mosaic

Under the shadow of the distant majesty allowed by Christian followers of Augustine to the Jews, other pasts sidled back into the Middle Ages. Ancient gods began to walk the land again, like deposed dynasties, pushed to one side by the new religion, but never entirely exiled from the present, whether in the woods of Scandinavia or among the ruins of postclassical Rome. Above all, ancient pagans joined the Patriarchs. Virgil, appearing before Dante on the edge of the underworld, like “one who seemed hoarse from long silence,” was the imaginative heir of Augustine’s long search, in the depths of biblical time, for an age whose heroes would never be “condemned to history.” Little did Augustine know it, but the imaginative richness of Europe was at stake. In the words of the seventeenth-century clergyman and poet George Herbert: “If the Jews live, all the great wonders of old live in them.”

To come from the study of Augustine by Paula Frederiksen to Hagith Sivan’s Palestine in Late Antiquity is like coming from the shadowed, sunset porch of Chartres Cathedral, flanked by the statues of mighty Patriarchs and Prophets, to a landscape of dazzling concreteness. Let us first simply take account of the change of scene Sivan provides.

Hagith Sivan, a professor of history at the University of Kentucky, has a gift for late-antique provincial landscapes. Her first book evoked the Aquitaine of the fourth-century poet, courtier, and landowner Ausonius of Bordeaux.1 But that was a landscape filtered, largely, through the coy late-classical poetry of a Roman gentleman. Only the voices of Ausonius and his fellow villa owners are heard. In this book, by contrast, Sivan brings us to a land filled with contradictory voices—Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic; pagan, Jewish, Samaritan, and Christian. A vivid period of residence in Israel has made her a master travel guide. Every now and then, she encourages the reader to take a mental “trip” in time and space in order to visit different landscapes and cities at different moments in the history of late-antique Palestine—from the conversion of Constantine in 312 to the foundation of the Dome of the Rock by Abd al-Malik in 692. Each such trip is a remarkable piece of reconstruction, where literary sources in every language are blended with the most up-to-date archaeological information.

Of her many tours, I most recommend the one in which she invites us to follow a Purim procession as it makes its boisterous way along the open streets of Scythopolis (Beth Shean). In 400, the procession would have passed five pagan temples. A century later, four of these were still standing, but they had been joined by two synagogues (one Jewish, one Samaritan); a monastery, endowed with remarkable latrines; and the large private house of a Jewish magnate, which lay across a courtyard from the synagogue. The mosaic floors of that house were resplendent with scenes from Homer’s Odyssey and with a representation of a festival of the Nile, a magic river whose divinely effortless inundation brought a tingle of delight to pagans, Jews, and Christians alike at the very thought of so much damp fertility, carried by art into the midst of a hot, dry city.

But perhaps the trip which Sivan herself would recommend most strongly is that to Gaza in the sixth century. Anyone in search of “quality of life” in the later Roman Empire would be well advised to consider settling in that once happy city. Here they would find a representation of David, in the guise of Orpheus charming the beasts, laid on the floor of a synagogue by Jewish lumber merchants. They could visit public baths still frescoed with a beautiful Venus (whose public statue had long been removed by the city’s first bishop) or sit down to a pantomime show defended with zest by a well-known Christian rhetorician. Those in search of spiritual counsel might go out a few miles into the desert, where an Egyptian holy man would answer questions in writing from behind a door so permanently closed that there were those who doubted whether he existed. Asked whether a Christian could accept the grapes of Jews to press in his wine press, the holy man answered:

If, when it rains, God causes the rain to fall on your fields and not on those of the Jew, then you can refuse to press his wine. But He is full of love for all mankind…. Why do you then wish to be inhumane rather than merciful?

All this is God’s plenty. Sivan is to be particularly commended for having adopted, throughout this book, a resolutely panoramic vision. She makes us look at everything and everybody. This is not the usual scholarly perspective, content to see the world through narrow slits. Sivan’s book is not a history of Jews in Palestine, nor is it a history of Christians in Palestine. It is a history of Palestine and of all the groups within it. For that reason, for all its exuberance and magnificently fair-minded outreach to every group and every religion, it is not intended to be reassuring. It is a book, alas, for good or ill, written “for anyone interested in the Middle East, then and now.” There are no happy endings in Sivan’s study, such as Paula Frederiksen can offer, if only by exploring the powerful mind of Augustine. In Palestine in Late Antiquity, we do not linger in the mind. We are firmly led back to earth. It is a book that explores “Palestine…through a single theme, that of conflict.”

Faced with conflict, Sivan has a humane, historian’s sense of the horizons of the possible. She avoids presenting late-antique Palestine as a witches’ brew of inevitable ethnic and religious violence. She is well aware that conflict is itself “a form of human association.” She insists that in late-antique Palestine, much of the aggression associated with conflictual situations was not directed toward external enemies. Conflict was invoked as a form of inner mobilization, for “conflict has a collectivizing effect”—it makes a group feel more of a group.

Sivan is also aware that at many times and in many areas, groups can take time off from feeling groupish. To take one pertinent example: far from “the pressure cooker which was Jerusalem,” the eastern side of the plain of Galilee was characterized by an extraordinary efflorescence of new synagogues. These had arisen as if the current Christian laws against the building of synagogues did not exist. The tone, however, was not of assertion. It was of business as usual. Even the synagogue of Nazareth was open to Christian pilgrims, who came to visit the school desk at which the young Jesus was said to have studied and the book from which he learned his alphabet. Endowed with lavish mosaic floors, in which profane and Jewish motifs were mingled, the synagogues of Galilee “project not defiance but nonchalance.”

Yet there was always something disquieting about the province. The sheer diversity of late-antique Palestine, which Sivan evokes so well, “showed that it was possible to live, side by side, in self-created cocoons.” We are in a province where too many sightlines were blocked. In Christian Jerusalem, for instance, the immense ruin of the Jewish Temple was literally erased from the map. In the great mosaic of the cities of the region found on the floor of the church of Madaba in Jordan, the ruins of the Temple are nowhere to be seen.

It was not only Jews and Christians who were adroit at not seeing each other. The mosaic artists of the province (also studied brilliantly by Glen Bowersock in his recent book Mosaics as History2) produced a series of mosaic maps studded with vignettes of cities. On these maps, the monuments treasured by competing confessional groups were largely ignored. For instance: in one of the best chapters of the book, Sivan traces (from the accounts of contemporaries balanced by the epic memories of medieval writers) the intermittent revolts and savage repression of the Samaritans. On many occasions, and especially in the sixth century, Mount Gerazim was a war zone, and the surrounding cities were scenes of vicious rioting, cruel public burnings, and even, for one frightening moment, a failed usurpation by a would-be Samaritan emperor. Yet when another mosaic of the cities of Palestine was laid on the floor of the church of Saint Stephen in Umm al-Rasas, as late as the eighth century, the city of Neapolis (modern Nablûs) at the foot of Mount Gerazim was still identified through its classical temple of All Highest Zeus, as if the terrible burning-out of the heart of the fourth great religion of Palestine was a matter of no significance.

Sivan is clear about what had gone wrong: “Left to itself Palestine would have remained a provincial backwater.” But it was also a ground zero where God had once appeared, where God had walked the land, where God would come again, to hold His judgment. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, Palestine was a land of epiphanies. Because of this, each group, if each in different ways, set itself up as the only true guardians of the footsteps of God. Each was committed to “a permanent image [of themselves] that rooted them in the land while assigning impermanence to the other.”

Alas, we have heard all this before. But Sivan reminds us that late-antique Palestine was dogged by its very own formula for tragic intransigence. Throughout this period, Palestine was tied to a superpower whose very nature was in flux. The Roman Empire of Constantine and his Christian successors was caught in the unsteady process of losing its former secular face.

What Sivan sees clearly is the slow working out, over three centuries, of this situation. The “de-secularization” of Rome entailed “the delegitimation of religious pluralism and tolerance.” She has no simple answer as to why this happened. But she does tell us very clearly how the story unfolded. It happened in a piecemeal manner that was all the more insidious for being random. No great agenda was followed. A Christian ruler did not have to be a bigot or a crusader. He only had to listen to the squeak of new wheels, calling for ever more grease. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the court of Constantinople was open to strong Christian voices who clamored always in favor of taking sides—their side.

Here the Christians led the way in bringing division to Palestine. They exploited to the full the wish of an increasingly institutionally Christianized imperial entourage to be seen to have done the right thing—to have shown themselves to be good Christians in a suitably prestigious manner and, preferably, in a safely distant land. The “shakers and shapers” of the new Christian Holy Land that was mapped out within the boundaries of Palestine were all of them strangers to the land. They brought with them a lot of money and political muscle. They were a diverse lot. In the fourth century, senatorial ladies came from Rome. In the fifth century, imperial princesses were sent from Constantinople on a Grand Tour of the Holy Places (frequently so as to avoid the embarrassment of a divorce). In the sixth century, Georgian princes who had come as hostages to the Great Palace of Constantinople became monks and pilgrims. They would crawl on their knees with awe and longing at the first sight of the churches of Jerusalem, their roofs shining as if in the rising sun.

Sivan describes them all memorably and with her habitual empathy. But they were the danger. They came as men and women determined to make their own dreams come true. They were “outsiders for whom Palestine presented the sole terrain that could transpose the reality of the present into a mythical-biblical perspective.”

They were not the last to come in this manner. They were certainly not the most violent. They were often uncertain in their aims. But they had come in a hurry and, once in Palestine, they traded incessantly on the anxiety of a newly desecularized, Christian Roman state to prove that it was, indeed, authentically Christian. By the time the great golden Dome of the Rock rose above them in 692, three centuries of subjection to the Christian institutions of a Christian state had taught each group little more than the art of staying apart. Now Islam, precisely because it brought a form of frankly religious empire “rooted,” as Sivan points out, “not in panic but in unshakeable conviction,” would own them all.