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date: 18 September 2020

The Jewish Patriarchate

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

From the turn of the 3rd to the early 5th centuries ce, the Patriarchal dynasty was the leading force in Jewish affairs throughout the Roman Empire. Quite likely in the 3rd century, but certainly in the 4th, all relevant sources—Jewish and non-Jewish, literary and archaeological—indicate the central role the Patriarchate played in Jewish life (see religion, Jewish). Although once posited that this office remained fairly stable and consistent during this period, most scholars today assume that it continued to evolve and develop throughout this era, peaking in the late 4th century, until its enigmatic and total disappearance.

Earlier Scholarship

Opinion has been divided over the past generation as to when the Patriarchate emerged as a prominent and recognized communal institution. The traditional, maximalist, position, relying heavily on rabbinic material, assumes that these sources are historically reliable, and posits the appearance of the Patriarchate around the turn of the 2nd century ce (the so-called Yavneh period).1 Since the late 20th century, however, a minimalist approach has surfaced that seriously questions the historical reliability of this material and thus dismisses or severely restricts the information that might be gleaned from such rabbinic sources. This approach is based almost exclusively on 4th-century Roman and Christian evidence (particularly the Theodosian Code) and assumes that Patriarchal prominence crystallized only in the 4th century and thus lasted only a very short time.2

A 3rd approach eschews the two above-noted positions (both chronologically and methodologically) and views the early 3rd-century Severan era, corresponding to the time of Rabbi Judah I, as the historical setting that most likely witnessed the initial appearance of the Patriarchate as a recognized communal institution.3 Proponents of this approach point to the unique circumstances of this era, during which Severan rule supported political recognition of the Jews in general and their prominent leader in particular, and the ample evidence attesting to the expansion of the office in the course of the 3rd century as it began to assume a significant measure of authority within the Jewish world.4 By this time, Patriarchal authority had already extended to the various spheres of Jewish society in Palestine as well as to relations with Diaspora communities and communal Jewish leadership generally, including a measure of involvement in synagogue affairs.5

The Proto-Patriarchal Era—The Late 1st and 2nd Centuries

Evidence for the existence of a Patriarchal office in this initial era is meager and, at best, of questionable veracity, based as it is, in large part, on late rabbinic sources, especially those found in the expanded accounts of the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds (Yerushalmi and Bavli, respectively) as well as later midrashim. The office is not mentioned as such in Roman sources until the 4th century, and in a very significant Christian one already in the 3rd century. Moreover, the larger historical context of the 70-year period, when all three Jewish revolts against Rome failed (66–74, 116–117, 132–135 ce), would not augur well for Rome’s support of an office granting Jews a measure of autonomy that might replace, mutatis mutandis, the now defunct pre-70 arrangement. The title Patriarch (Hebr. Nasi) is mentioned in this early period in connection with 2nd-century Rabban Gamaliel II (c. 90–120) and his son Simeon (c. 140–175), but only in late rabbinic works (e.g., the Yerushalmi and Bavli, and especially the latter, which was edited only in the 6th and 7th centuries).6 Moreover, given the different types of relationships between the Patriarchs and the rabbis in Late Antiquity, which include periods of tension and mistrust, this era undoubtedly affected not only the attitudes of later generations but also how they chose to depict the memory of this office earlier on.

Gamaliel II’s contact with Rome, though quite limited, was unique; no other rabbi is mentioned as having traveled to Rome as often as Gamaliel, and while our sources refer to these visits only in the context of halakhic or homiletical matters, as might well be expected, the fact remains that such visits (if historical, as they quite possibly were), as well as the very impetus to visit the city, may have had political ramifications (y. Sanh. 7.10.25d and elsewhere). Another tradition tells of several Roman officials who purportedly visited Gamaliel’s academy (bet midrash). While the circumstances of this visit are never disclosed, such interest (if trustworthy) is attested, once again, only with respect to Gamaliel (Sifre Deut 344; b. B. Qam. 38a). Similarly, Gamaliel is singled out for his many visits to Jewish communities throughout Roman Palestine, a practice well attested for Roman officials at the time.

However, the clearest statement regarding Gamaliel’s contact with Roman officialdom is the mention of his visit to Syria, where he asked the Roman governor (hēgemōn) to grant him “authority” of some sort (m. ‘Ed. 7:7). While the precise nature of this authority is never spelled out, based on the context of this Mishnaic statement, it may have been related to a calendrical issue.7

Why Rome would have granted any sort of recognition to Gamaliel is another issue. Perhaps the Romans were simply following their long-established policy in conquered provinces of seeking support among local aristocracies to stabilize their rule. Gamaliel would have been in this regard a logical candidate for the Romans to cultivate, given his pedigree and status within some Jewish circles (see, e.g., Acts 5:34–39; t. Sanh. 2:6). If we accept the above-noted nuggets as reasonably reliable, then some measure of Roman recognition may have been conferred on Gamaliel around the turn of the 2nd century.

It may be assumed, however, that, following the failure of the Bar-Kokhba revolt in 135 ce, whatever recognition may have been extended to Gamaliel beforehand, whether de facto or de iure, was now seriously reduced, if not completely eliminated. Gamaliel’s son, Simeon, is never referred to as a Patriarch in Palestinian sources and, unlike his father (Gamaliel II) and son (Judah I), he is never associated with any sort of communal authority or activity either within the Galilean Jewish community or in the Diaspora. Even in rabbinic circles Simeon was conspicuously absent from a number of important decision-making forums of contemporary sages. Moreover, several rabbinic sources report an alleged attempt by some sages in Babylonia to circumvent Simeon and implement calendrical changes through other channels (y. Sanh. 1.2. 19a; y. Ned. 6.9.40a; b. Ber. 63a). Finally, there is no evidence of Simeon ever having been in contact with Roman officials. Indeed, his negligible political profile should not be surprising and is best explained, at least in part, as the result of the decline in the status of Jewish leadership following the three failed revolts against Rome. Therefore, any sort of authority or prestige granted to Simeon as Patriarch (or even as a proto-Patriarch, like his father) is highly improbable.

The Severan Era and the Emergence of the Patriarchate in the 3rd Century ce

The rule of the Severan dynasty (193–235 ce), corresponding roughly to the time of R. Judah I, was undoubtedly instrumental in the creation of a new kind of Jewish political-communal office—the Patriarchate—which became, as noted, the primary Jewish communal institution for several centuries. Severan rule was characterized by a significant measure of tolerance, integration, and inclusion of indigenous peoples and cultures within the Roman orbit (such as granting citizenship to virtually all its residents in 212 ce). This new context played a role in the establishment of a strong and recognized Jewish leadership that was meant to instill within this community a degree of autonomy and confidence. This suggestion rests upon three types of evidence:

  1. 1. Archaeological evidence in this vein is attested in (a) the remains of the Patriarchal cemetery in Bet She‘arim, which began with Rabbi Judah’s interment (c. 220 ce); (b) an inscription dating to 197 or 198 ce, from the northern Galilean village of Qatzion, which records the dedication of an unidentified building to the emperor Septimius Severus and his family by the local Jewish population; and (c) coins minted in Sepphoris bearing the image of the emperor Caracalla and attesting to a bond of friendship between the local city council (curia) and the Roman senate.8


  2. 2. The Severan dynasty’s politically supportive stance vis-à-vis the Patriarch (or his equivalent title, “ethnarch”) is best evidenced by a comment made by the contemporary church father Origen:

    Now, for instance . . . how great is the power wielded by the ethnarch granted by Caesar . . . he differs in no way from a king of a nation (ethnos). Secret trials are held according to the Law, and some people are condemned to death, neither with explicit permission nor without the knowledge of the rulers. And this we learned in the land of this nation, where we spent much time and were fully convinced. (Origen, Epistle to Africanus 1, SC 14)

    The implications of Origen’s statement are far-reaching. The ethnarch is said to have wielded a great deal of power; compared to a king, he adjudicates according to Jewish law and has the judicial authority to sentence people to death, de facto though not de iure. This testimony is especially poignant, given the fact that it was transmitted by a church father who was generally unsympathetic to the Jews; having spent decades in Caesarea, Origen was clearly aware of the circumstances in contemporary Jewish society and explicitly claimed to be a reliable witness—quite justifiably, it would seem, since the issue at hand was the current political-judicial power of a Jewish leader. Origen’s report constitutes the earliest attestation of the Patriarchate as a recognized office. The judicial powers granted to the Patriarch in the 3rd century may have continued later on as well, although there is no evidence attesting to this in subsequent years.9

    Thus, after several generations of hostility between Rome and the Jews (66–135 ce), the era of Severan rule paved the way for rapprochement and the emergence of a series of significant developments. Rome, for its part, welcomed Jews into the municipal curiae with the provision that nothing was to interfere with their religious observance (Cod. Theod. 16.8.13, Linder, no. 27, 201–204); traditions reflecting sympathetic relations and attitudes between Severan emperors on the one hand and the Jews and Judaism on the other are noted in the 4th-century SHA (a somewhat problematic historical source): Sev. 14.6; Alex. Sev. 22.4‒5, 29.2, 45.7, and 51.7; finally, reports in tannaitic literature regarding cordial relations between Rabbi Judah and the emperor Antoninus (presumably Caracalla) may indeed corroborate such a development.10

    The Jews, for their part, reciprocated by honoring the Severan emperors in a number of inscriptions on their buildings and coins (e.g., in Sepphoris, Rome, Ostia, and Pannonia).11 Rabbi Judah himself is credited with a number of legal decisions that attempted to change Jewish attitudes toward Rome, the most dramatic being his attempt to abolish two fast days intended to recall Rome’s destruction of the Temple (y. Ta‘an. 4.7.69c; b. Meg. 5a–b). The Bet She‘arim necropolis, for centuries closely associated with Rabbi Judah and the Patriarchal dynasty, displays a range of data connecting those interred there with current Graeco-Roman practice—the overwhelming use of Greek (some 80%), an appropriation of pagan mythological motifs, and the earliest use of a cluster of Jewish religious symbols that appear concurrently in pagan contexts throughout the Roman East.12


  3. 3. Finally, many rabbinic traditions should not be summarily dismissed with respect to the Patriarchate, as a critical use of selective rabbinic material fully corroborates the existence of this publicly recognized office in the 3rd century. It is certainly not coincidental that such sources, all of which can be dated to that century and to the 4th as well, relate to Patriarchal authority in the areas of taxation, judicial appointments, religious decrees, calendrical determinations, and educational supervision. Admittedly, the historical accuracy of many of these traditions cannot be fully confirmed by non-rabbinic sources, but their cumulative effect remains compelling.13

Moreover, several additional sources indicate the international stature of the 3rd-century Patriarch. One synagogue inscription, discovered in Stobi, Macedonia and dating to 281 ce, names the Patriarch as the beneficiary in an agreement between a wealthy local personage who donated a building to the community and the community at large. The agreement stipulated that whichever side violates the agreement has to pay an onerous fine to the Patriarch.14

A second source, from 293 ce, is an imperial rescript issued by Diocletian supporting the judicial authority of one Judah, almost assuredly the late 3rd-century Patriarch Judah III (commonly known as Nesiah II):

the same two augusti (diocletian and maximian—l. l.) and caesars (galerius and constantius—l. l.) to iuda.

The agreement of private individuals does not make one a judge who is not in charge of any jurisdiction, neither has his decision the force of legal verdict (Cod. Iust. 3.13.3, Linder, no. 5, 113–117).

This rescript confirms the authority and precedence of an officially appointed judge and of a recognized judicial system over any private arrangement agreed upon by individuals. It is therefore most likely that the addressee, Iuda (or Judah), was acknowledged as an officially designated judge who presided over a court. Given the fact that Judah III Nesiah functioned at this time and enjoyed considerable influence, if not control, over internal judicial affairs, at least according to rabbinic sources (e.g., y. Bikk. 3.3.65d), it would be remiss to assume that this source refers to the existence of some other high-ranking figure by the name of Judah who functioned in this capacity when the involvement of a Patriarch by that name is well documented at this particular time. Thus, this rescript as well seems to confirm Roman recognition of Patriarchal status toward the end of the 3rd century.

Finally, a rabbinic tradition also from the time of Judah III likewise points to the Patriarch’s substantial ties with and influence on Diaspora communities:

Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba came to Rabbi Lazar and said to him: “Persuade Rabbi Judah the Patriarch on my behalf to write a letter of recommendation for me to go abroad and make a living.” He (Rabbi Lazar) persuaded him (the Patriarch), and he (Rabbi Judah) wrote (the following) for him: “Behold we have sent you a great man. He is our envoy (שליח‎) and represents us until he returns to us” (y. Ḥag. 1.8.76d).

This testimony, which jibes well with Roman and Jewish (especially Patriarchal) practice regarding letters of recommendation during these centuries, indicates, at the very least, a strong connection between the Patriarchate and Diaspora communities. Isaiah Gafni has suggested that the phrase “to make a living” (לצאת לפרנסתו‎) may have referred to Rabbi Ḥiyya’s responsibilities as a Patriarchal apostolos, one officially dispatched to Diaspora communities to collect funds and oversee certain local arrangements.15 If Gafni is correct, then this story testifies not only to Patriarchal ties with the Diaspora but also to the existence of the apostolic system, which is well documented for the coming decades by Eusebius, Epiphanius, and the Theodosian Code.16

In light of the above-cited sources, it seems quite clear that the 3rd century attests to the emergence of an officially recognized Patriarchate. Enjoying at the outset a supportive Severan policy, the Jews of Palestine demonstrated renewed vigor and economic stability, resulting in the emergence of autonomous communities that wielded authority in local political, social, and religious matters, including the construction of synagogues, the creation of new types of art, and an unprecedented flourish of literary creativity within rabbinic circles.17

Patriarchal Prominence as Reflected in Diverse 4th-Century Sources

The 1st century of Christian rule, commencing with Constantine, witnessed a change in the status and position of the Jews in the Roman Empire, often in quite contrasting directions. On the one hand, many aspects of Jewish life continued to flourish and even expand in the socio-economic, religious, and cultural realms; on the other, many rights and privileges of the Jews were gradually curtailed and in some cases eliminated. Both these processes continued over several centuries, until the end of Late Antiquity in the 7th century.

The Patriarchate exhibited both these processes. The 4th century witnessed a dramatic rise in the prestige and standing of the office, reaching its peak in the late 4th–early 5th centuries. For example, in a law issued early on by Constantine, only a few Jewish leaders are associated with the Patriarch (Cod. Theod. 16.8.2, Linder, no. 9, 132–138 [330 ce]), while in a law from the end of the century virtually all Jewish leaders are subsumed under his authority (Cod. Theod. 16.8.13, Linder, no. 27, 201–204 [397 ce]). Ironically, it was precisely at this time that the first signs of the office’s vulnerability and insecurity surfaced. A definite change took place during the early 5th century, and within several decades the office itself had disappeared. These two aspects in the history of the Patriarchate, its rise and fall, will be discussed in what follows.

The status of the Patriarch is reflected in four very different types of sources from the 4th century: (a) the church father Epiphanius; (b) the emperor Julian; (c) the pagan rhetor Libanius of Antioch; and (d) the Theodosian Code.18

  1. 1. Epiphanius’s Panarion preserves an account of Joseph, an emissary (apostolos) and second-in-command to the Patriarch in the time of Constantine, who, together with other Patriarchal appointees, served the Patriarch night and day, studied with him, and advised him on halakhic matters. Epiphanius reports that the Patriarch secretly converted to Christianity not long before his death and that his library contained books of the New Testament (Matthew, John, and Acts are specifically mentioned), some of which were translated into Hebrew. At one point in the narrative, Joseph was sent by the Patriarch to Jewish communities in Cilicia to collect taxes (what Epiphanius refers to as “tithes” and “first-fruit offerings”). In his capacity as an emissary, Joseph sought to reinforce religious observance in these communities, dismissing officials he deemed incompetent or corrupt, including “heads of synagogues” (archisynagogoi), priests, elders, and ḥazzanim.19

    However, the purpose of Epiphanius’s rather long narrative was to describe Joseph’s own gradual conversion to Christianity and his subsequent activities on its behalf. After having converted to Christianity, Joseph returned to Palestine to spread the “gospel” among the Jews, and this included the alleged building of churches in Jewish centers such as Tiberias, Sepphoris, Capernaum, and Nazareth.

    As intriguing as many of the above details are, the account as a whole is quite problematic, not least because of Epiphanius’s obvious and blatant tendentiousness. This narrative, as well as the remainder of the Panarion, constitutes a sharp polemic against all sorts of Christian heretics, in this particular instance against the Jews, Judaism, and especially the Patriarch. Much of his depiction of the Patriarchal court, especially, the lewd behavior of the Patriarch’s son and others in his cohort, borders on the scandalous. Moreover, the very historicity of Epiphanius’s report is in itself problematic; Joseph presumably functioned during the time of Constantine (the 320s or 330s), related these events to Epiphanius decades later (c. 350–360 ce), while the latter then recorded this information in his Panarion c. 375 ce, some 15 to 25 years after the events were related to him. The prolonged timeline of this narrative clearly raises further questions regarding the veracity of the data provided therein.

    Nevertheless, some of the information recorded by Epiphanius is both rich and, at times, even reliable. No other single account, Jewish or non-Jewish, offers such a trove of information regarding the workings of the Patriarchal court, especially its relationship vis-à-vis Jewish communities in the Diaspora. There does not appear to be any reason to reject the specific information noted in Epiphanius’s descriptions of the Patriarch’s communal activities, and particularly his very high status among Diaspora communities, collecting taxes, appointing local officials, and ruling on communal matters. In this regard at least, this source appears trustworthy; it bears no signs of prejudice or hostility, and reinforces and substantiates information known from other sources, especially the Theodosian Code.


  2. 2. Julian’s letter to the Jewish community in 363 ce regarding the heavy tax it must pay the imperial authorities emphasizes the emperor’s intention to reduce this levy by destroying tax records and punishing those responsible for imposing these taxes. Moreover, Julian claims to have asked the Patriarch Julus (presumably Hillel II) to abolish the heavy taxes that he had imposed, describing the latter’s taxes as a “burden” on the people. While such a declaration might have been an attempt by the emperor to ingratiate himself with the Jews, one must be cautious in giving too much weight to such expressions since Julian was wont to criticize over-taxation elsewhere in his empire. Of more importance, however, are Julian’s personal references to the Patriarch. He calls him “my brother Julus” and refers to him as “the most reverent Patriarch” (Epistula 51, Linder, no. 13, 154–157). Furthermore, the testimony that, at this time, the Patriarch was empowered to collect from the Jews an aurum coronarium is most significant for our discussion.


  3. 3. Libanius, the famous rhetor of Antioch who lived in the second half of the 4th century, corresponded frequently with a number of Patriarchs (probably Hillel son of Judah IV and Rabban Gamaliel V). The nine known letters, one dating to 364 and the rest to 388–393, tell us not only of the cordial relations between these Patriarchs and Libanius, but also of the extensive political activity and significant influence of the former in affairs of the province generally. On several occasions, Libanius even approached the Patriarch for aid on behalf of Roman officials in Palestine.20

    Yet another letter tells us that the Patriarch, here referred to as the “archon of archons,” had a fair amount of clout in the Jewish community of Syria and was able, through his intervention, to have a Jewish archon in Antioch reinstated after being dismissed because of his heavy-handed measures.


  4. 4. The Theodosian Code, published by the emperor Theodosius II in 438 ce, is the key source for determining the Patriarch’s rise to unprecedented status around the turn of the 5th century. The following two laws are among the most salient:

    1. a. Cod. Theod. 16.8.8, 392 ce (Linder, no. 20, 186–189):

      the three emperors and augusti theodosius, arcadius and honorius to tatian, praefectus praetorio

      In the complaints of the Jews it was affirmed, that some people are received in their sect on the authority of the (non-Jewish—L. L.) judges, against the opposition of the Primates of their Law, who had cast them out by their judgement and will. We order that this injury should be utterly removed, and that a tenacious group in their superstition (among the Jews—L.L.) shall not earn aid for their undue readmission through the authority of judges or of ill-gotten rescript, against the will of their Primates, who are manifestly authorized to pass judgement concerning their religion, under the authority of the Most Renowned and the Illustrious Patriarchs.

      The import of this law is that three concurrent emperors (Theodosius I and his sons, Arcadius and Honorius) backed the decision of Jewish leaders, referred to as Primates, to repeal that of Roman judges in cases of excommunicating Jews, thereby permitting them to be readmitted into the Jewish fold. A further clause declares that only Jewish officials can decide on this and other religious matters. What is of interest for our purposes is that these Primates are described as officiating under the authority of the Patriarch, who now bore the titles reserved for the highest magistrates in the empire—clarissimi (Most Renowned), spectabiles (Excellent), and clarissimi et illustres (Most Renowned and Illustrious).21

    2. b. Cod. Theod. 16.8.13, 397 ce (Linder, no. 27, 201–204):

      the same two augusti (arcadius and honorius—l.l.) to caesarius (flavius caesarius), praefectus praetorio

      The Jews shall be bound to their rites; while we shall imitate the ancients in conserving their privileges, for it was established in their laws and confirmed by our divinity, that those who are subject to the rule of the Illustrious Patriarchs, that is the archsynagogues, the Patriarchs, the presbyters and the others who are occupied in the rite of that religion, shall persevere in keeping the same privileges that are reverently bestowed on the first clerics of the venerable Christian law. For this was decreed in divine order also by the divine Emperors Constantine and Constantius, Valentinian and Valens. Let them (the Jews—L. L.) therefore be exempt even from the curial liturgies and obey their laws.

      The purpose of this law was specifically to exempt Jewish religious officials from serving on the often-burdensome city councils; however, a year later Honorius revoked this exemption in the western part of the empire (Cod. Theod. 12.1.158, Linder, no. 29, 212–215). The 397 law also identifies some of these officials—archisynagogues, Patriarchs, presbyters, and other religious officials—while mentioning two significant caveats: (a) these privileges are identical to those bestowed on Christian clerics; and (b) such privileges date back to the time of Constantine himself and thus may have been in effect throughout most of the 4th century.

      Several other laws were likewise supportive of the Patriarch, but they also reflect the existence of a degree of opposition to and criticism of that office. For example, in a law dating to 396 ce (Cod. Theod. 16.8.11, Linder, no. 24, 196–197), anyone insulting the Patriarch in public is to be punished. Thus, while some criticism of this office clearly existed (e.g., also among some rabbis), the imperial government was committed to its protection and defense. Similarly, in the judicial sphere, the Roman government distinguished between religious and non-religious issues (Cod. Theod. 2.1.10, Linder, no. 28, 204–211). With some exceptions (particularly regarding opportunities for arbitration), religious jurisdiction was assigned to Jewish authorities (e.g., those operating under the Patriarch), non-religious matters belonged to the Roman courts. Whether this represented a “victory” for Patriarchal interests (by preserving their authority in this area) or a “defeat” in that civil cases were now to be transferred to Roman courts, remains unclear; we simply do not know what the status quo ante had been.

The Social and Cultural Agendas of the Patriarchate

Aside from the political and communal dimensions of this office and its impact on Jewish society as a whole, as noted above, Patriarchal leadership also made its mark on important social and cultural dimensions of Jewish life, aspects that afford an opportunity to learn about otherwise little-known dimensions of Jewish society. As in Roman society generally, local aristocracies gravitated toward the center of power and authority. For the Jews of Late Antiquity (particularly, but not only, in Palestine), such a center was clearly to be identified with the Patriarch. Beginning in the 3rd century and continuing into the 4th and 5th centuries, the Patriarchate and urban aristocracy were often in close alliance. With their growing authority and influence in Jewish communal affairs, the Patriarchs were in need of a loyal cadre to share the burdens (and benefits) of their responsibilities, and the wealthy and influential upper classes could only gain from their close cooperation with the Patriarchate.

Thus, when the Bavli declared that Rabbi Judah I “accorded honor to the wealthy” (b. ‘Erub. 86a), it pointed to an important component of this dynasty’s internal social and political policy in the 3rd to 5th centuries. The Patriarchs appointed judges from this privileged circle, much to the chagrin of the sages (y. Bikk. 3.3.65d; b. Sanh. 7b), and it was this urban leadership that was accorded priority when visiting the Patriarch. In a ceremony (salutatio) reminiscent of a Roman imperial setting (see Suet., Vesp. 21), various groups of aristocrats would greet the Patriarch each day: “There were two leading groups (lit., families) in Sepphoris, the bouleutai (members of the boule) and the pagani (commoners or, more likely, wealthy landowners). They would greet the Patriarch daily, the bouleutai entering first and leaving first” (y. Shabb. 12.3.13c; y. Hor. 3.3.48c). The prominence of the wealthy in the Patriarchal cemetery of Bet She‘arim is thus not surprising. Leaders of various Jewish communities in both Syria and Palestine were undoubtedly allied with the Patriarch and thus chose to be interred in the Patriarchal necropolis; the Yerushalmi makes reference to “the wealthy and powerful of Caesarea who were buried in Bet She‘arim” (y. Mo‘ed Qat. 3.5.82c).

The Ḥammat Tiberias synagogue is also associated with Patriarchal circles, if not with the Patriarch himself. The patrons of this building are clearly identifiable in its Greek inscriptions (which contain Greek and Latin names, e.g., Ioullos, Zoilos, Maximos). As some of the wealthy and acculturated residents of Tiberias who were responsible for financing this building, several apparently held official positions in the synagogue or community. The main donor to this building, one Severus, is identified twice as “a protégé (θρεπτός‎) of the Illustrious Patriarchs,” once in an inscription in the eastern aisle, and again in one of the eight dedicatory inscriptions located in the northern panel of the nave, where he is accorded unusual prominence: each of the other seven inscriptions occupies one square, while that of Severus fills two. Thus, mention of the Patriarch in this synagogue inscription is a revealing feature of its epigraphic remains.

This nexus of Patriarchal and urban aristocratic circles, the latter represented by wealthy synagogue benefactors, goes a long way in explaining the significant degree of acculturation and the strikingly high quality of this synagogue’s mosaics, which are considered the most elegant and “hellenized” of their kind in ancient Jewish art. The emphasis on naturalism, the depiction of nude figures, and the sophisticated play of light and shadow render a vivid three-dimensional quality that epitomizes the highest of artistic standards in the 4th century. An unusually fine collection of such floors was discovered in Antioch, and it is quite possible that the artisans of the Ḥammat synagogue mosaics, or at least their sources of inspiration, may have hailed from this Syrian capital. The Patriarch’s close association with Libanius of Antioch strengthens the Tiberian connection with that city.

In light of the above, we suggest that this synagogue floor’s stunning central panel of a zodiac design and Helios was a conscious choice of the building’s patrons, who had close ties to the Patriarchate and quite likely to the Patriarch himself. While the zodiac motif was to reappear in other Palestinian synagogues in subsequent centuries, the Tiberias depiction remains the earliest and most impressive example of this representation in a synagogue context. The figure of Helios, represented here in the guise of Sol Invictus, with his array of attributes, had become a universal symbol by the 4th century. Heretofore such a motif was shunned by Jews, at least in the Jerusalem Temple. Josephus reports that the zodiac design was categorically prohibited there (BJ 5.213). Thus, the first appearance of this pagan motif in the center of a mosaic floor in this important Tiberian synagogue requires an explanation.

The Ḥammat Tiberias mosaic is a unique example of the importance of a historical (political, social, and cultural) context for determining the art forms appearing in a Jewish public space. First, the depictions of Helios and the zodiac motifs are indicative of the wider cultural and political ambience of this synagogue’s leadership—the Patriarchal circle—in the latter part of the 4th century. Second, the use of these motifs befits a hellenized provincial elite with noteworthy ties to pagan and Christian imperial circles. The Patriarchs were not responsible for all or even most Jewish art in Late Antiquity; such art was first and foremost a local communal creation. Yet, together with the urban aristocracy with whom, as noted, the Patriarch maintained a close alliance, innovative and, for the first time (according to the data known to date), revolutionary components were introduced into Late Antique Jewish art. Some of the most impressive and widespread creations of Jewish art in this period (ranging from Jewish symbols to pagan motifs) made their first appearance in Patriarchal settings, and these motifs continued to be used for generations, long after the disappearance of this office toward the mid-5th century.22

The socio-political bonds between the Patriarchal and wealthy circles which, more than elsewhere, found expression in a cosmopolitan and inclusive cultural orientation, are reflected in the dominant role of Greek in this synagogue floor as well as in its striking mosaic. The acculturation within Patriarchal circles, from the very first (proto-) stage under Rabban Gamaliel II (who visited a bathhouse of Aphrodite in Acco—m. ‘Abod. Zar. 3:4) until the last of this dynasty’s line, Rabban Gamaliel VI (who is noted for having discovered a treatment for a spleen illness), was expressed by their tolerant attitude toward figural and even pagan art, as well as by a degree of immersion in general cultural interests, which undoubtedly would have upset many contemporary rabbis and others.23

The Decline and Disappearance of the Patriarchate in the 5th Century

Patriarchal authority was often influenced by the interests and lobbies operating within the imperial court. This is reflected in the dramatic 399 ce reversal of the law regarding the Patriarchal collection of taxes from Jewish communities throughout the empire (Cod. Theod. 16.8.14, Linder no. 30, 215–217). This privilege, however, was reinstated five years later (Cod. Theod. 16.8.15, Linder no. 32, 220–222), ironically, when the Patriarch’s prestige seems to have been somewhat downgraded at this time (referred to here only by the title spectabilis).

Despite this pattern of fairly consistent imperial support, even in the face of popular/ecclesiastical criticism, the fate of the Patriarchate suffered in the early 5th century from several sudden, unparalleled, and presumably unanticipated restrictions:

Since Gamaliel supposed that he could transgress the law with impunity, all the more because he was elevated to the pinnacle of dignities, Your Illustrious Authority shall know that Our Serenity has directed orders to the Illustrious Master of the Offices, that the appointment documents to the honorary prefecture shall be taken from him, so that he shall remain in the honour that was his before he was granted the prefecture; and henceforth he shall cause no synagogues to be founded, and if there are any in deserted places, he shall see to it that they are destroyed, if it can be done without sedition. He shall have no power to judge Christians; if any contention shall arise between them and Jews it shall be settled by the governors of the province. If he himself, or one of the Jews, shall attempt to defile a Christian or a member of any sect whatsoever, slave and freeman alike, with the Jewish mark of infamy, he shall be subjected to the laws’ severity. If he holds slaves who partake of the Christian sanctity, they shall be handed over to the Church according to the law of Constantine. (Cod. Theod.16.8.22, Linder, no. 41, 267–272 [415 ce])

This law turned out to be the final preserved piece of legislation relating to the Patriarchate, which disappeared shortly after. Unfortunately, no formal declaration in this regard exists, but a law dated to 429 ce indicates that the Patriarchate had already ceased to exist and stipulates that all funds previously collected by the Patriarch were now to be given to the two Sanhedrins of Palestine (Prima and Secunda):

The Primates of the Jews, who are nominated in the Sanhedrins of either of the provinces of Palestine or stay in other provinces, shall be forced to pay all that they had received as tax since the cessation of the Patriarchs. In the future, however, an annual payment shall be demanded from all synagogues, on the Primates’ responsibility and under the supervision of the Palatins, in the same way that the Patriarchs used in the past to demand under the name of Crown Gold; examine in a skillful investigation its amount; and what was used to be transmitted from the Western regions to the Patriarchs should be entered in our Largesses. (Cod. Theod.16.8.29, Linder, no. 53, 320–323)

Given the meager evidence at our disposal, the reasons for the demise of this office are baffling. The simplest explanation is biological—the dynasty came to an end since Gamaliel VI had no son. Besides this option, one might assume that the cause had to do with pressures from bishops or other ecclesiastical officials, or perhaps from other figures active in Constantinople’s imperial circles who may have borne a grudge against the Patriarch, not the least of whom might have been the governor of Palestine. Whatever the reason(s), it seems that the Patriarchal claim on Jewish life continued for some time. The necropolis of Bet She‘arim continued to accommodate Jewish burials well into the 5th and perhaps even 6th centuries, and at least one inscription refers to the functioning of Patriarchal (?) apostles in 6th-century Venosa, long after the Patriarchate disappeared.24

The Historical Contexts of the Emergence and Development of the Patriarchate

It would be hard to exaggerate the prominence of the Patriarchate in the period preceding its disappearance. The office had gained prestige and power that even beforehand an unsympathetic church father such as Origen had associated with royalty. In this regard, the evidence culled from rabbinic sources, the church fathers, the Theodosian Code, archaeological finds, and other scattered sources all point to a remarkable accumulation of power and authority that continued, and even increased, over several centuries.

No less intriguing than the very existence of the Patriarchal office in Jewish society is the issue of accounting for how and why this situation developed. Scholarly attempts to explain the appearance of a (proto-) Patriarch following the destruction of Jerusalem and the disappearance of earlier leadership frameworks are well documented, and we have already addressed the when and why of the institutionalization of the Patriarchal office in the 3rd century ce. However, the final and most dramatic increase of Patriarchal dominance, which took place in the 4th century, ironically under Byzantine Christian rule, is indeed remarkable.

Why should such expanded authority and prestige have occurred after Christianity had triumphed, especially in light of the church’s religious and political hostility toward the Jews and Judaism? The following explanations for this phenomenon have been offered: it was in the interest of the emperors (even Christian ones) to control Jewish communities via a strong Jewish leadership; this development was due, at least in part, to personal ties, either with a particular emperor or an important imperial official; alternatively, this development may not have emerged ex nihilo in the 4th century but, as noted above, might have begun already in the 3rd. According to this last option, then, the dramatic rise of the Patriarchate under Christian rule may have been only the continuation of a process that had commenced earlier.

However, one further methodological caveat is necessary to fully understand this unexpected reality. The historical context of the 4th century can be appreciated only if we are able to eschew the traditional view of total Christian theological and political hostility and animosity toward the Jews and Judaism under Byzantine Christendom while, at the same time, realizing that a Jewish resilience was now emerging and would remain strong, particularly in northern Palestine organized as a densely populated Jewish region c. 400 (Palaestina Secunda), which allowed the Jews to retain their cultural, religious, and social vigor for several centuries, at least until the Arab conquest in 640.25


Cohen, Shaye J. D. “Pagan and Christian Evidence on the Ancient synagogue.” In The Synagogue in Late Antiquity, edited by Lee I. Levine, 159–181. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Theological Seminary and American Schools of Oriental Research, 1987.Find this resource:

Goodblatt, David. The Monarchic Principle: Studies in Jewish Self-Government in Antiquity. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1994.Find this resource:

Goodblatt, David. “The Political and Social History of the Jewish Community in the Land of Israel, c. 235–638.” In The Cambridge History of Judaism, 4: The Late Roman–Rabbinic Period. Edited by Steven T. Katz, 404–430. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Goodman, Martin. “The Roman State and the Jewish Patriarch in the Third Century.” In The Galilee in Late Antiquity. Edited by Lee I. Levine, 127–139. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992.Find this resource:

Jacobs, Martin. Die Institution des jüdischen Patriarchen: Eine quellen- und traditionskritische Studie zur Geschichte der Juden in der Spätantike. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1995.Find this resource:

Levine, Lee I. “The Jewish Patriarch (Nasi) in Third Century Palestine.” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II 19, no. 2 (1979): 649–688.Find this resource:

Levine, Lee I. “The Status of the Patriarch in the Third and Fourth Centuries: Sources and Methodology.” Journal of Jewish Studies 47 (1996): 1–32.Find this resource:

Levine, Lee I. “The Emergence of the Patriarchate in the Third Century.” In Envisioning Judaism: Studies in Honor of Peter Schäfer on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday. Edited by Ra‘anan S. Boustan, Alex Ramos, and Peter Schäfer, 235–264. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2013.Find this resource:

Levine, Lee I. “Palaestina Secunda: The Geographical-Historical Setting for Jewish Resilience in Late Antiquity.” In Essays in Honor of Shaye J. D. Cohen. Edited by Michael L. Satlow (manuscript in preparation).Find this resource:

Linder, Amnon. The Jews in Roman Imperial Legislation. Detroit, MI: Wayne University Press; Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1987.Find this resource:

Mantel, Hugo. Studies in the History of the Sanhedrin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961.Find this resource:

Schwartz, Seth. “The Patriarchs and the Diaspora.” Journal of Jewish Studies 50 (1999): 208–222.Find this resource:

Stern, Sacha. “Rabbi and the Origins of the Patriarchate.” Journal of Jewish Studies 54 (2003): 193–215.Find this resource:


(1.) On the maximalist position, see, e.g., Gedaliah Alon, The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age, 70–640 C.E., 2 vols. (Jerusalem: Magness, Hebrew University, 1980–1984), 1.18–29.

(2.) On the minimalist position, see Shaye J. D. Cohen, “Pagan and Christian Evidence on the Ancient Synagogue,” in The Synagogue in Late Antiquity, ed. Lee I. Levine (Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1987), 170–175; and Seth Schwartz, “The Patriarchs and the Diaspora,” Journal of Jewish Studies 50 (1999): 208–222.

(3.) Lee I. Levine, “The Emergence of the Patriarchate in the Third Century,” in Envisioning Judaism: Studies in Honor of Peter Schäfer on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday, ed. Ra‘anan S. Boustan, Alex Ramos, and Peter Schäfer (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2013), 237–249; Martin Jacobs, Die Institution des jüdischen Patriarchen: Eine quellen- und traditionskritische Studie zur Geschichte der Juden in der Spätantike (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1995), 124, 348–350; David Goodblatt, “The Political and Social History of the Jewish Community in the Land of Israel, c. 235–638,” in The Cambridge History of Judaism 4: The Late Roman–Rabbinic Period, ed. Steven T. Katz (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 404–430.

(4.) On the expansion of Patriarchal authority in the course of the third century, see Levine, “Emergence of the Patriarchate,” 235‒264; Sacha Stern, “Rabbi and the Origins of the Patriarchate,” Journal of Jewish Studies 54 (2003): 193‒215; and Martin Goodman, “The Roman State and the Jewish Patriarch in the Third Century,” in The Galilee in Late Antiquity, ed. Lee I. Levine, 127‒139 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992).

(5.) Lee I. Levine, “The Jewish Patriarch (Nasi) in Third Century Palestine,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II/19, no. 2 (1979): 654–659.

(6.) David Goodblatt, The Monarchic Principle: Studies in Jewish Self-Government in Antiquity (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1994), 176–231.

(7.) Other suggestions regarding the nature of the authority granted to Rabban Gamaliel include permission to travel abroad or an official appointment as Patriarch of the Jews.

(8.) While the reason for the dedication of this building remains unknown (as does the type of building being dedicated), clearly a pro-Roman posture was not limited to Patriarchal or elitist circles but could be found in a remote Galilean village as well; see Paul B. Harvey Jr., “Appendix A: A Greek Inscription from Qazion,” Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 1 (2013): 161–168. On the numismatic evidence, see Yaakov Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins: From the Persian Period to Bar Kokhba (Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 2001), 103–105; and Yaakov Meshorer, “Sepphoris and Rome,” in Greek Numismatics and Archaeology: Essays in Honor of Margaret Thompson, ed. Otto Mørkholm and Nancy M. Waggoner (Wetteren, Belgium: Cultura, 1979), 159–172.

(9.) Attempts have been made to explain away and minimize the significance of Origen’s testimony, but see the well-argued critique of this approach by David Goodblatt, “Political and Social History,” 419–421.

(10.) All references to Roman imperial law vis-à-vis the Jews are cited from Amnon Linder, The Jews in Roman Imperial Legislation (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press; Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1987). On the overall relationship between Jews and Romans at this juncture, see Avi-Yonah, The Jews of Palestine (Berlin: Schocken, 1976), 35–83.

(11.) Sepphoris: Meshorer, Treasury of Jewish Coins, 103–105; Rome: Gen. Rabbati 45: 8 (ed. Albeck, p. 209); Ostia: David Noy, Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe, 1: Italy (excluding the City of Rome), Spain and Gaul, (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), no. 13. Pannonia: David Noy, A. Panayotov, and H. Bloedhorn, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis (IJO), 1: Eastern Europe (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 8–14 (Pan 3).

(12.) On Rabbi Judah and Bet She‘arim, see Lee I. Levine, Visual Judaism in Late Antiquity: Historical Contexts of Jewish Art (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 86‒91, 120‒128.

(13.) Lee I. Levine, “Jewish Patriarch,” 663–676.

(14.) Lee I. Levine, “Emergence of the Patriarchate,” 249‒254.

(15.) Isaiah M. Gafni, “Epistles of the Patriarchs in Talmudic Literature” in “Follow the Wise”: Studies in Jewish History and Culture in Honor of Lee I. Levine, ed. Zeev Weiss and Lee L. Levine (Winona Lake, IN: Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew University of Jerusalem & Eisenbrauns, 2010), 3–10, esp. 8–9 (Hebrew). It is interesting to note that this Rabbi Ḥiyya traveled to the Diaspora on numerous occasions and in one case is even credited with appointing a communal leader (an archon), something that Patriarchal apostoli were empowered to do (y. Peah 8.7.21a).

(16.) On a similar phenomenon in the Diaspora, see Euseb., Comm. in Isaiam 3.4, PG 24, 109; 18.1, PG 24, 213; Epiph., Panarion 30, in Philip R. Amidon, The Panarion of St. Epiphanius, Bishop of Salamis: Selected Passages, New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, 100–101; Cod. Theod. 16.8.14, Linder, no. 30, 215–217; 16.8.17, no. 34, 224–225.

(17.) See Levine, Visual Judaism, 69–176.

(18.) Lee Levine, “The Status of the Patriarch in the Third and Fourth Centuries: Sources and Methodology,” Journal of Jewish Studies 47 (1996): 27–29.

(19.) Goodblatt, Monarchic Principle, 134–142.

(20.) Menahem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, 2 (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1980), 589–599.

(21.) Arnold H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284–602: A Social, Economic, and Administrative Survey, 2 vols. (London: Blackwell, 1964), 1.143, 528–530.

(22.) Levine, Visual Judaism, 387–402.

(23.) Levine, Visual Judaism, 403–455.

(24.) Noy, Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe, 1, no. 86.

(25.) Lee I. Levine, “Palaestina Secunda: The Geographical-Historical Setting for Jewish Resilience in Late Antiquity,” in Essays in Honor of Shaye J. D. Cohen, ed. Michael L. Satlow (manuscript in preparation).

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