Going through the latest issue of the Oxbow Books catalogue, I found an interesting item on the similarities and continuity between Judaism and Christianity in Byzantine Palestine. Oxbow Books are an Oxford bookseller which specialises in books on history and archaeology. Their stock ranges from popular history and archaeology, like Channel 4’s Time Team to very detailed, academic works, such as technical treatises on the precise significance of the prehistoric megafauna found at a particular cave from the standpoint of a particular archaeological school.
The piece that caught my eye was Eliya Ribak’s Religious Communities in Byzantine Palestina: The Relationship Between Judaism, Christian and Islam AD 400-700. The blurb for this states:
‘This study is an archaeological analysis of the relationship between religious communities in Byzantine Palestina, based on a catalogue of excavated Byzantine sites in teh region (forming an appendix to the work). This shows that, although there are clear-cut examples of Jewish and Samaritan synagogues and Christian churches, these buildings are often so similar that it is difficult to differentiate between them. It is also shown that Jewish and Christian burial practices were so similar that, unless accompanied by inscriptions or symbols, the religious identity of burials is often difficult to recognise. This evidence is used to argue for closer and more peaceful co-existence between religious communities in Byzantine Palestina than is usually supposed’.
The Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which survived the Fall of Rome in 415 until its capital at Constantinople was finally conquered by the Turks in 1454. Palestine and the other Byzantine provinces in the Levant and Egypt, were conquered in a series of campaigns by the Muslim Arabs in the 630s and 640s. Basically the book is discussing the relationship between Jews and Christians in Palestine under the Christian Byzantine Empire and very roughly the first half century of Muslim Arab occupation.
I can’t say I’m particularly surprised at the similarities between the places of worship and the burial practices of Jews and Christians in Palestine at this time. Christianity was originally a Jewish sect, and St. Paul, the pharisee and a son of pharisees, preached in synagogues. The language of the Peshitta, the version of the Bible used in the Maronite Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Syrian Jacobite Church,and the Nestorian Church, is Syriac, descended from Aramaic, the language of the Jews and other nations of the ancient Near East at the time of Christ. One particular dialect of Syriac, that spoken by communities around the village of Malula, north of Damascus and Mardin, east of Urfa in Turkey, is still called Aramaic today. The Roman Catholic priest and archaeologist, Carsten Peter Theide, in his book Jesus: Man or Myth? mentions an early Jewish Christian synagogue discovered by archaeologists in Palestine. Now used by an Orthodox Jewish community, the synagogue-church was identified by ancient Christian inscriptions on its walls and by the fact that the niche for the scrolls of the Torah was aligned not towards Jerusalem, but towards Golgotha, the site of Christ’s execution by the Romans.
Other archaeologists I’ve heard speak have also remarked on the continuity between places of worship in Palestine, even after the Muslim conquest. Last year I was fortunate enough to hear an archaeologist who had excavated such places of monuments in the Near East talk at Uni. He remarked on a particular Christian site he had excavated in one Middle Eastern state in the region, dedicated to the veneration of a local mar or saint. Excavating it, he found an inscription giving peace to all who entered the shrine’s precincts in Arabic, indicating that Muslims too had found sanctuary and spiritual benefit at the shrine. There were also indications that the pilgrims to this Christian shrine also included Jews.
Speaking of the transition from Paganism to Christianity in Egypt, the same archaeologist stated that while pagan temples in the towns were destroyed after the conversion, in the countryside they were largely respected and left untouched. In fact architectural elements from some ancient Egyptian temples even ended up in some Christian Coptic churches. One example of this which he showed was a slide of a beautifully decorated interior of a Coptic church in Cairo.
It was a fascinating lecture, and important because of the way the history of the relationship between the monotheist religions has often been presented as entirely violent. Yet despite the conquest of Palestine by Islam, relations between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim inhabitants appear to have been peaceful and respectful in this period. As for the continuity between ancient and Christian Egypt, this was in strong contradiction to the image presented by one of the BBC’s programmes on the subject. In the last of his series on Ancient Egypt about a year ago, Dan Cruikshank dwelt on the Christian destruction of pagan monuments and temples after the country’s conversion. Now that clearly occurred, but elsewhere the change was far less violent. However, that doesn’t make such dramatic television as images of angry mobs of fanatical Christians desecrating temples.
Now while as a Christian I think there are dangers with religious syncretism, I thought nevertheless that these indications of continuity and community between Jews, Christians and Muslims needed to be more widely known. The charictature of religious interaction that has become the received wisdom since the Enlightenment is that it is nearly always violent, a charicature that has taken on renewed relevance after 9/11. The evidence from archaeology shows otherwise. Violence is there, true, but so is respect and veneration, especially amongst Jews and Christians, who in Byzantine Palestine would have been the descendents of Jews, worshipping a Jewish saviour, in the language they shared with their Jewish friends and neighbours.