Summary and Keywords
The Jewish Patriarch (Hebr. Nasi) was the leading Jewish communal official in the late Roman and early Byzantine Empires, in both Palestine and the Diaspora. The Patriarchate, which emerged around the turn of the 3rd century under the leadership of Rabbi Judah I, had the support of the Severan dynasty (193–235 ce). The testimony of Origen (Letter to Africanus 14), who lived in Caesarea c. 230, views the function of the “Jewish ethnarch” (another term for Patriarch) as that of a king, enjoying, inter alia, the power of capital punishment.
Non-Jewish sources from the 4th century attest that the Patriarch enjoyed extensive prestige and recognition. The Theodosian Code is particularly revealing in this regard. One decree, issued by the emperors Arcadius and Honorius in 397, spells out the dominance of the Patriarch in a wide range of synagogue affairs; he stood at the head of a network of officials, including archisynagogues, presbyters, and others—all of whom had privileges on a par with the Christian clergy. Together with other realms of Patriarchal authority noted in earlier rabbinic literature, such as making calendrical decisions, declaring public fast days, and issuing bans, the prominence of this office in Jewish communal and religious life had become quite pronounced at this time.
The Patriarchate’s disappearance around 425 ce (for reasons unknown) was the last vestige of a unifying public office for Jews living under Roman domination.
Keywords: patriarch, Late Antiquity, Severan dynasty, Origen, Epiphanius, Libanius, Julian, Theodosian Code, Rabbi Judah I, Rabban Gamaliel II, rabbinic literature, synagogues, Bet She‘arim, Ḥammat Tiberias, Sepphoris, Galilee
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