The Christian Minority Becomes a Majority


The history of Palestine has been a melting pot of religious groups throughout the two millennia of Christianity. It is practically impossible to study and follow the historical and juridical history of the Christian community without consideration of the other groups around it. In the first six centuries they can be reduced to Jews and Samaritans. This study of the Christian minority of Palestine would be far from complete if it did not place it in relation to the Jewish community from which it emerged and the Samaritan community from which Christians also arose. These were two groups whose historical and juridical relations had a deep influence on the youth and maturity of Christianity in these early centuries.

A. The Samaritan minority

In the early Christian era, until the Arabic conquest, the Samaritan minority often manifested itself in a violent manner. Hence it is worthy of mention in a study of the Palestinian minorities, above all in its relations with the Christian minority.


Its distant origin is known. After sending into exile the people of Israel, whose capital was Samaria, in 721 BC, the Assyrians recolonised the country with Babylonians and Syrians. They even provided the new population with a Jewish priest to teach them the local religion in this desolate country overrun by wild animals. On their return, the 'Zionists' of the time in Jerusalem resisted the Samaritan incursions. Sanballat II, who according to the Persians was the governor of Samaria, built a schismatic temple to Yahweh in Garizim, believed by the Samaritans to be the place of sacrifice for Adam, Melchizedek, Jacob and Joshua. The temple was ministered to by Jewish priests expelled from Jerusalem. Josephus gives Manasseh as the founder of the Samaritan sect; he was a priest of Eliyashu's line, high priest at Jerusalem, expelled by Nehemiah in 412 217 . Relations between Jews and Samaritans remained bad. In 128 Jean Hyrean destroyed the town of Samaria, which Alexander the Great had hellenised and populated with Syro-Babylonians. By then the Samaritans had moved their religious centre to Garizim, near Sichem, and to Jacob's well.

The Samaritans in confrontation with Jews and Romans

To the Jews, the schismatic Samaritans whom they had rejected were despised and treated as suspect, just as the Jews themselves would often be in the course of history. The term 'Swnaritan' was used as an insult; it was used against Christ:

Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan?218

The Samaritan woman was astonished that the Lord spoke to her and asked for a drink of water since there were 'no dealings"219 between them.

Christ reacted against this Jewish mentality. The Gospel sheds light on this point. Of the ten lepers cured, the only one to come and thank him, to 'give praise to God"220 was the Samaritan. The perennial model of fraternal charity is the 'good Samaritan' not the Jewish levite.

After the Samaritan woman, it is her compatriots who beg Jesus to stay with them:

Many Samaritan from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me all that I ever did." So when the Samaritan came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word"221.

Philip the deacon went after Pentecost to evangelise 'multitudes' of Samaritans222 , and the Apostles sent Peter and John who conferred on them the Holy Spirit223, and preached the Gospel to 'many villages of the Samaritans224.

The Samaritan - as always throughout history the inhabitants of central Palestine - were not the most peaceful of subjects.In 36 AD a mob of them, led by an agitator and in spite of Pilate's injunction, made their menacing presence felt at Garizim. the Procurator's forces blocked them there, killing several.

At the time of the first Jewish revolt they happened to hold the swne mistaken attitude towards the Romans and seemed to make conunon cause with the Jews. The Roman general Cerealis opposed their march towards Jerusalem, confronted them on Mount Garizim and ended by massacring I 1,000 on 27 June 67, according to Josephus 225 .

After the war of 70, the better to contain this agitated people, Titus founded Flavia Neapolis, now called Nabulus, with his veterans in 72. After 135 Hadrian raised a temple to Jupiter on a summit overlooking Neapolis and linked to the town by a marble stairway. All these revolts found their culmination in the so-called 'Samaritan uprising'of 529.

It is difficult to know what became of the Samaritan converted to Christianity at the beginning of the Christian era, among all this agitation, and whether they joined the Judaeo-Christians or the gentile converts at Neapolis. It is known that of the latter was born, around 110, Justinus, son of Priscus and the first Christian philosopher, who became a martyr in Rome.

The Samaritans and Christianity

Christianity in the Roman Empire under Constantine parried the blows of this belligerent minority against the Christian element to become increasingly dominant. This situation would lead to violence detrimental to both communities. In the rule of Julian the Apostate, around 363, the 'Samaritan infidels' desecrated the sepulchres of St. John the Baptist, Eliseus and Abdias: they mingled their remains with those of animals, burned them and scattered them to the winds226'.

In 415, in the reign of Theodosius the Younger, the Byzantines in search of relics for constantinople, searched the area around the 'Field of Jacob' and found an intact sepulchre. They sent the remains to Byzantium for their main church, in the belief that they had found the remains of Joseph 227.

In 450, the Byzantines made further attempts, this time for the remains of Eleazar, Ithmar and Phineas, believed by the Samaritans to be in their possession and whom they venerated as ancestors. Clashes between Christians and Samaritans ensued. In 484 came the backlash; the Samaritans attacked the Christians on Pentecost day in the very cathedral of Neapolis, massacring the faithful and removing the fingers of Bishop Terebinthus 228 . The state army of Byzantium was too weak and at first was unable to prevent the sedition. It spread and, led by a certain Justa, gained control of Cesarea, thanks to the connivance of the strong Samaritan community there. These organised games to bring together the inhabitants, who were then slaughtered. Emperor Zeno put down the troubles with an iron hand. He also crushed the pride of the Samaritans by building, in place of the razed Samaritan synagogue, an octagonal church in honour of the Blessed Virgin at Garizim. At the same time he strengthened the garrison of Neapolis.

The old resentments kept smouldering in spite of everything.In the reign of Anastasius (491-518), a new Samaritan attack surprised and massacred the Byzantine post at Garizim by night and captured the church. But the town garrison had been alerted and put to death all the attackers who had the misfortune to be captured.

The most serious manifestation of the Samaritan spirit of independence was the uprising of 529, which devastated Palestine in the reign of Justinian (527-565). It seems that it was sparked by the emperor's promulgation of a code which branded the Samaritans as heretics 229 .The current war between the Byzantines and Persians was favourable to such an uprising. The Samaritans went as far as planning to support the Persians with the booty taken from Christian sanctuaries in Palestine 230. Once again, the local Byzantine force was overwhelmed. The Samaritan chief, Julian ben-Sabar, who claimed to be sent by God, like Jeroboam, won the hearts of many and his early success won him the whole of Samaria. The element of surprise enabled him to ravage a large part of the country, the regions of Scythopolis and Cesarea. The Samaritans pillaged and destroyed churches, as at Neapolis, Emmaus and Bethlehem, torturing and killing priests and burning their corpses along with the martyrs' remains"231.

Justinian had to resort to great force to subdue them, and called on the help of neighbouring Arabs led by the philarch Abu Kharab. Julian was cornered and killed, and his crowned head sent to Constantinople. The rebels, after scattering in all directions, were pursued mercilessly as far as the Nebo232 . The Arab philarch received in payment 20,000 prisoners whom he sold as far as Persia. Nevertheless, some Samaritans had managed to win the favour of the emperor at Constantinople. The son of one put to death at Besain schemed with Justinian, deceiving him into wishing to punish the Christians. Alarmed, the bishops of Palestine sent to Constantinople the nonagenarian St Sabas with a list of grievances from the Jerusalem patriarchate. This time Justinian was convinced. Justinian had the churches rebuilt, particularly those of Nablus, Emmaus and Bethlehem, and the Samaritan accuser only saved himself by undertaking baptism. Legislation against the Samaritan was toughened and the ringleaders were put to death. The Palestinian Christian episcopate presented the emperor with the rim of Jacob's well as a relic.

The Samaritans' revenge came 85 years later, in 614, with the Persian invasion. In Chosroes' army were descendants of Samaritans sold after the uprising of 529 had been crushed. In Palestine, a country divided and deprived of military forces, the Persian general made a 'military procession"233, and was welcomed and guided by the Jews and Samaritans. The irksome resistance put up at Jerusalem tried the patience of the assailants. On the 20 May 614 they made a breach and took the city, burning the churches and massacring those who had sought sanctuary there234 .

Chosroes seems to have quickly become aware of the excesses carried out by the Jews and Samaritans, and banished the Jews from the district of Jerusalem235. He was equally unaccommodating to the Samaritans, some of whom suffered crucifixion at the hands of the Persian invaders.

A violent millennium was brought to a close for the Samaritans when a very small minority survived to undergo domination in 638 by the Islainic Arab regime.

B The Jewish Minority

In 33 the Judeo-Christian minority was born, as we have seen, from the overwhelmingly Jewish majority in the country then. However, under the effect of two disastrous wars and the increase first in the Christian of the Circumcision, then in the number of Gentile Christians, the Jewish majority wasted away to become for many centuries a minority.

The dwindling of the Jews

The effect of three wars led to the reduction of the Jews: the revolt of 66, the war of 70 and that of 132.

The Jewish revolt of 66, ending in 70 with the merciless siege of Jerusalem, was the first to cut the Palestinian Jewish population. The revolt, due to the provocations of the procurator Florus and the outrages of Jewish extremists, began in May 66. The killing, by a dishonourable felony, of the Roman garrison at Jerusalem caused a chain reaction of reprisals in the mainly Hellenist towns of the coast as well as Alexandria and Damascus. These were truly methodical massacres of Jews: more than 20,000 in one hour at Cesarea 236, 13,000 at Scythopolis237, 10,000 at Ascalon 238, Ptolemais, and Cesarea Philippi. In November the legate of Syria, Sextus GalIns, who had come to suppress the Jewish revolt, was defeated in his attack on Jerusalem, losing 4,000 soldiers as he retreated. Nero decided to send into Palestine his best general, Vespasian239, with a force of 60,000 made up of Romans and auxiliaries from neighbouring countries240 . The army began by ravaging Gaillee, where the Jewish head, Josephus, later to write the history of this war, had enrolled, by his account, 100,000 men. The taking of Jewish fortified towns in Galilee led to new massacres: 40,000 killed at Jotapat241, 44,000 at Taricheus and Tiberias 242 12,000 at Jaffa of Galilee243, 4,200 drowned at Jaffa 244 , without mentioning murderous and devastating combat throughout the whole of Galilee. In a few months, the Jews lost well over 100,000 people.

But it was in the struggle of 70 and the siege of Jerusalem that the Jewish losses were the most terrifying, when losses to death and slavery accounted for more than half the population.The Roman army began by reducing Peroea. Josephus writes that 15,000 deserters were killed on the banks of the Jordan, as many again were drowned and 2,200 were taken prisoner. Idumaea also suffered great losses in the suppression, and the environs of Jerusalem were devastated mercilessly as far as Hebron.The siege of Jerusalem, where a multitude of Jews took refuge and were trapped, was one of the most lethal in history ' Already merciless Jewish infighting had made numerous victims; then there was fwnine, and finally furious military operations. Josephus writes how in a single night Roman auxiliary forces disembowelled as many as 2,000 Jewish deserters in search of gold 245. When the Temple was taken and burned on 29 August 70, all the districts were beaten into submission; Josephus speaks of I 1,000 dead 246; there were also 97,000 prisoners taken 247 However, the price of slaves was so reduced that Titus finally liberated up to 40,000.

In 117, 47 years later Lusius Quietus, a Moroccan sheik who had become legate of Judaea, provoked a new start to Jewish revolts by setting up an I idol, a statue of Trajan, on the ruins of the Temple. He had no mercy for the revolting Jews. This legate was executed in 1 18 on the orders of the Senate for having schemed against the accession of Hadrian; the latter removed the statue that had been the cause of the disputes.

It was Hadrian who provoked the second war of the Jews when he wanted to turn Jerusalem into a Greco-Roman city with a complex of pagan temples. One to Jupiter was to be set up on the ruins of the Jewish temple. As a result the second Jewish revolt broke out in 132, concentrated in Judaea, and led by Slimon Bar Kokeba who had been master of Jerusalem for three years. To put it down Hadrian also sent his best general, who set out on a systematic and merciless destruction of the country. The last stronghold, Better, fell on 9 August 135. Though this war has not got its own historian like Josephus for that of the year 70, it is known through Dion Cassius248, that it cost the Jews of Judaea some 580,000 lives, without mention of those who died of hunger, fire or illness; it would have taken very little more to turn Judaea into a wilderness where wolves and hyenas gorged themselves on corpses. Dion reports 50 fortresses and 985 villages destroyed. Innumerable captives were put on sale in the markets of Mambre and Gaza. Hadrian had to repopulate the country. This second revolt followed by its pitiless repression proved decisive in reducing the Jews of Palestine to a small minority, a situation that was to continue over the following 1800 years.

The Jewish minority up to 638

Even during the war of 70, Vespasian, who tried to disrupt the forefront of the revolt before undertaking the decisive trial of strength, had received deserters from Jerusalem and set them up on the plain around Lydda. Thus Yabneh became, on the fall of Jerusalem, the religious and cultural centre of judaism; here Johanan ben-Zakkal established a kind of supreme court, Bein-din, which was to replace the Sanhedrin. Even while the siege was in progress, Johanan was able to stay in contact, for the sake of his proteges, with the Roman procurator of Judaea, Antonius Julianus. He had the acumen to place Gamaliel, a descendant of the famous line of Hillel, at the head of his Bein-din, which was recognised by the Romans. Thus he confronted Rome with a hereditary chief of the Jewish nation along with his council. Johanan maintained relations with Vespasian, travelled to Rome, and kept in contact with the Jewish communities surviving at Tiberias, Aelia and Jericho. In this way he succeeded in preserving the identity of the Jewish nation after the disaster of 70 249.

After the second revolt, the situation of the reduced Jewish minority worsened, especially in Judaea, the source of the Bar Kokeba uprising. Resolved to put a decisive end to Jewish resistance, Hadrian changed the name of the province: Judaea became 'Palestina Syria'. Jerusalem too suffered a change of name that lasted several centuries, to 'Aelia Hadriana Capitolina'. Jews were forbidden entry to Aelia on pain of death and there were surveillance posts as far as Emmaus250. Circumcision was forbidden. The religious centre, the Sanhedrin of Yabneh, emigrated to Gaillee where the Jews, who had not involved themselves in the Bar Kokeba uprising, were more numerous and relatively peaceful.

Under the Antonine rules conditions for Jews improved. The ban on entering Aelia remained in force, as witnessed by St. Justin in his Apologia to Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius251.The Jewish 'patriarch', chief of the Sanhedrin, emigrated to Galilee, and was established in turn at Ousha, Shefar'im, Beth-Shearim, Sephoris, and finally Tiberlas, where the Mishna was codified. At Beth-Shearim the great catacomb was discovered containing, along with Gamaliel 111, the necropolis of these rabbi. In the last of these towns the Jewish patriarch, under Judas II, son of Gamaliel, who was considerably hellenised and enjoying the favour of Severus Alexander (222-235), led a very privileged existence. He succeeded in raising levies among Jewish communities abroad for his own profit, on the strength of his patriarchate.

A century later, around 320, Joseph, one of the tax inspectors of the Jewish patriarch of Tiberias, converted to Christianity. After befriending Constantine, he undertook the building of gentile Christian churches in the places of Galllee he knew well. They had remained the exclusive domain of Judaeo-Christians and were passed over in silence in the great church of the Gentiles. Joseph did not remain in the Jewish environment, but lived at Scythopolis, where he was visited by St. Epiphanus 252.

In 352 there was a Jewish uprising which surprised and killed the garrison of Sephoris-Diocesarea, and singled out the Samaritans of the region for attack. The repression carried out by Gallus attacked the places where the insurgents had placed themselves, such as Tiberias, Diospolis and especially Diocesarea, which was razed to the ground.

In 336 the imperial laws, which already constrained the freedom of the Jews, forbade them on pain of death from circumcising a slave not of Jewish descent, and from marrying Christian women 253.

From 362 to 365, Julian the Apostate, who spared no pains when it came to persecuting Christians, understandably favoured the Jews and was zealous in his desire to re-establish their temple. He entrusted the task to the prefect Alypius of Antioch. He only succeeded in further destroying the temple in order to rebuild it. Strange happenings, as told by the pagan commentator Ammien Marcellinus 254, proved an insurmountable obstacle to the works. The Jews, for fear of the charges that would have been levelled against them, kept their distance. St. Jerome was naturally gratified by the impression produced, even among the pagans, by the unexpected demise of the emperor 255.

The reign of Eutropius the eunuch (396-399) was exceptionally favourable to the Jews, giving those within the empire exorbitant privileges. An edict of 396 gave protection, even against insults, to the 'illustrious patriarch' of the Jews, who was granted the same rights as Christian clergy" (256). There were to be grim reactions to this situation. In 415, under Theodosius 11, the Jewish patriarch Gamaliel had his brief as honourary prefect and the right to open new synagogues"(257) removed on the grounds of abuse of authority. In 430, there was no patriarch; the position had become too inconvenient. There were only 'primates' nominated, for each province, by the Jewish assembly. These continued to levy the taxes previously received by the patriarch. But a law of 429 obliged them to pay the monies to the state fiscal authorities with payment of arrears from 430 (258).

The Samaritan uprising of 529 which shook the whole of Palestine, followed by its cruel suppression, affected the Jews indirectly through the pernickety legislation brought out by Justinian in consequence. The same restrictions, taken by the Byzantine powers and whose application could be enforced by the zeal of the clergy, affected first the Samaritan, but also heretics and Jews. A modem author has this to say:

this was the time when imperial legislators defined the set of laws that would consign Jews to an inferior situation in the medieval city state(259)'.

The treatment meted out to Jews goes some way to explain but not excuse the part they took in the Persian march on Palestine during the invasion of 614.

In this tortured country, if even the native Christians were disillusioned with the intrusiveness of Byzantine power, it is not surprising that the Jews and Samaritans had yet stronger cause for complaint. Jerusalem was the only town that offered any resistance. The patriarch Sophronius would have been willing to take advantage of the Persians' pacific intentions, but he was constrained by the Byzantines to put up resistance. On the 20 May 614, the wall was breached. Furious at the resistance, the Persians offered the Christian sanctuaries to their divinity Fire, helped by the Samaritan and Jews who had acted as their guides and who seized the opportunity for revenge. It is said that the Jews, who had also taken part in the plundering, thereafter bought prisoners at very low prices, enclosing them in the pool of Mamilla in order to torture and massacre them( 260). They may have gone too far, for in 622 a decree from Chosroes again banished them from Jerusalem. We find them once again at the taking of Jerusalem by the Arabs in 638:

Persuaded by the Jews that the presence of crosses at Jerusalem hindered the taking of the town, Omar had the emblems removed, notably the great cross on the Mount of Olives whose illumination had been visible for a great distance each night(261).

In summary, at the end of this first period of Palestinian history the situation of the Jews was clear-cut. Reduced by the two wars of attrition of 70 and 135, they were now forced to play the role of a minority under the various regimes. Yet it was a minority that never forgot its past as the majority of the country and could not resign itself to its new situation. Ever ready to rise up against whoever was in power, they took advantage of any opportunity for revenge. In spite of this, thirteen centuries would have to go by before they could alter their situation.


217 RICCMOTU G., Histoire d’lsrael, 2 voll., Paris 1947-1948, H vol., p. 200.

218 Jn., VM, 48.

219 Ibid. IV, 9. Samaritans in Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jerusalem, vol. 14, p. 729.

220 Lc., XVII, 18.

221 Jn., IV, 39-41.

222 Act., VM, 6.

223 Ibid., VIH, 14-17.

224 Ibid., VIR, 25.

225 JOSEPHUS F., Histoire de la guerre des Juifs contre les Romains, vol. 2, Paris 1879, 1, p. 336.

226 ABEL, Histoire de la Palestine, 11, p. 281.

227 Ibid., p. 328.

228 Ibid., p. 350.

229 ABEL, Histoire de la Palestine, 11, p. 356.

230 Ibid.

231 Ibid.

232 Excavations at Nebo revealed 13 fragments of the same inscription. Fr Abel - in his commentary of SALLER SJ The memorial of Moses on Mount Nebo, in Revue Biblique, LM (1946), p. 456 - believes this to be proof of the Samaritans 'presence on Nebo after 530. YONICK S., (The Samaritan inscriptions from Siyagha, in Liber Annus, XVM (1967), p. 162-221), shares the opinion of Milik and Bagatii that, going by its content, the main one was made by Christian Samaritans. The Byzantine crusade against the Samaritans of Palestine, after the uprising of 529, must not have distinguished between orthodox and Christian Samaritans; all must have endured the same fate of exile together.

233 ABEL, Histoire de la Palestine, 11, p. 389.

234 Ibid., p. 390.

235 Ibid., p. 391.

236 JOSEPHUS, Histoire de la guerre des Juifs contre les Remains, I, p. 272.

237 Ibid., p. 274.

238 Ibid., p. 303.

239 Ibid., p. 801-802.

240 ABEL, Histoire de la Palestine, I, p. 497; JOSEPHIJS, op. cit., p. 308-309.

241 JOSEPHUS Ibid., p, 388

242 JOSEPHUS, Histoire de la guerre des Juifs centre les Romains, 1, p. 352 ss.

243 Ibid., p. 334.

244 Ibid., p. 350.

245 Ibid., ]I, p. 158.

246 Ibid., p. 219-220. In place of the 700,000 people in Josephus's account of Jerusalem, TACITUS (Hist., V, 13) writes of 600,000'multitudinis obsessae omnis aetatis virile ac muliebre sexus, sex centa milia fuisse accepimus'. It is estimated (Revue Biblique, LXXXH (1975), P. 13) that in 66 the inhabitants of Jerusalem numbered 82,500. However, Eastertide and the influx of refugees caused a large increase in the population, even if we reject the normally exaggerated figures put out by Josephus when he speaks of 2,556,000 people enclosed by the siege.

247 JOSEPHUS, Ibid., p. 219.

248 DIO CASSIUS, Historia Romana, Editionem primain curavit Ludovicus Dindorf recognovit Mellerg, 3 voll., Lipsiae-Teubner 1890-1928, LXIX.

249 ABEL, Histoire de la Palestine, H, p. 49-50.

250 Ibid., p. 107.

251 JUSTINIAN , Apol. I pro Christianis, XLVU (PG, VI,40OB): 'You know well that the order has been given by you to leave no Jew there and to punish with death all those who are caught trying to enter (to Jerusalem)'.

252 EPIPHANIUS, Adv. Haeres., 1, 2; XXX, 5 (PG, XLI, 412C).

253 ABEL, Histoire de la Palestine, 11, p. 274.

254 MARCELLINUS A., XXM. 1. in ABEL, op.cit., p. 282.

255 JEROME, In Habacue, ]I, c. M (PL, XXV, 1329D).

256 ABEL, op. cit., p. 318.

257 ABEL, Histoire de la Palestine, II, p. 323.

258 Ibid., p. 324.

259 CHOURAQUI A., Vivre pour Jerusalem, Paris 1973, p. 126.

260 ABEL, op. cit., p. 390.

261 ABEL, Histoire de la Palestine, H, p. 197.