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(3760 - 2080 BCE)
(2080 - 1240 BCE)
(1240 - 400 BCE)
(400 BCE - 440 CE)
(440 - 1280 CE)
(1280 - 2120 CE)
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Emperor Septimus Severus
(3960 AM - 200 CE)
Edict of Caracalla
(3972 AM - 212 CE)
Emperor Alexander Severus
(3982 AM - 222 CE)
The crisis of the Third Century
(3995 AM - 235 CE)
The Sefer Yetzirah (Book the Creation)
(4000 AM - 240 CE)
Resh Lakish and the number of stars in the Universe
Samuel and the Pleiades
The Jews of Dura-Europos
(4004 AM - 244 CE)
(4045 AM - 285 CE)
Persecutions of the Christians
(4063 AM - 303 CE)
Emperor Constantine and the edict of Milan
(4073 AM - 313 CE)
The New Testament
(4075 AM - 315 CE)
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Hebrew years 3960 to 4080 (200-320 CE)
~~~ Part I ~~~ Part II ~~~
The new emperor Septimus Severus was not too tolerant towards foreign religions and rather persecuted the communities with decrees when he came to Syria for a campaign in the East from the year 195:~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
After this, having first raised his soldiers' pay, he turned his steps toward Alexandria, and while on his way thither he conferred numerous rights upon the communities of Palestine. He forbade conversion to Judaism under heavy penalties and enacted a similar law in regard to the Christians. --- Historia Augusta, Severus, chapter 17
His policy will be continued during his entire reign. In one city of the Empire however, in Apameia (North-Western Syria), the Jews constituted a nation within the Empire, with the right to apply their own laws dictated by religion. This large Jewish community, dating from the time of the Seleucid Empire, seems to have also enjoyed some form of political autonomy, with officials at their head, and even the right to issue their own money as proven by silver coins struck with the Biblical character of Noah:
Coins from Apameia with Noah written in Greek
(source: Marvin Tameanko)
He also raised several Roman settlements of Judean province to the status of 'polis': Beth-Guvrin became Euleuthopolis (meaning city of the free men), Lydda became Diospolis (city of god), Emmaus became Nicopolis (city of victory-- the modern-day sport brand 'Nike' comes from the same word Nico to say 'victory'). As a result, these cities were extended with public buildings in order to entertain their residents and encourage Romans to settle there after their military life. Religious persecutions also enabled the Romans to use Jews (and Christians) in the arena games, as gladiators or as bait for wild beasts released on them. One passage of the Talmud even makes a point that attendance to Roman games were allowed for specific reasons:
For it has been taught: One should not go to stadiums because [they are] ‘the seat of the scornful’, but Rabbi Nathan permits it for two reasons: first, because by shouting one may save [the victim], secondly, because one might be able to give evidence [of death] for the wife [of a victim] and so enable her to remarry. --- Talmud, Avoda Zara, 18b
What were these two reasons? The first one refers to the traditional ending of a gladiator combat: the winner asked the crowd what should be done of the loser; if the majority of the crowd would shout the word mitte, meaning life, then the life of the loser was spared. At the contrary if they shouted iugula, it meant they wanted the loser to kill killed. And thus Rabbi Nathan declared that attending the Roman games was permitted in order to save a life and shout for his life. The second reason relates to the fate of the loser, in case he gets killed: Jewish law requires witnesses to declare he indeed died otherwise his wife would not be considered a widow and thus could not remarry.
In 202, Septimus Severus endeavoured to increase the Roman empire in Northern Africa and, from 208, he campaigned in Britain beyond the Hadrian Wall. When he died in York (England) in 211, his two sons Caracalla and Geta succeeded him. But the former, the older one, had his younger brother Geta murdered after a few months, so Caracalla reigned alone from the end of 211.
At the beginning of his reign, Caracalla made an unprecedented move by granting Roman citizenship to all free men and women of the Empire whereas, previously, only the citizens of Italy could enjoy such privilege. The motives are unclear but Roman historians assumed it was a mean to increase the number of taxpayers, because non-citizens were not obligated to the Roman taxes. Although this can be contended because Jews, for example, were imposed special tax so the same could have been applied to other foreigners, one way or another, without granting full citizenship.
The Talmud has many references to Caracalla, whose real name was Antoninus Augustus, who came to the Eastern provinces in 216 to wage a war against the Parthians. In the Levant, he remained for some time:
The emperor [Caracalla] then left Troy and traveled through the rest of Asia, Bithynia, and the remaining provinces. After tending to affairs in these regions, he came to Antioch. Given a warm welcome there, he remained for some time. --- Herodian, Roman History, 4:8, paragraph 6
Caracalla had several discussions with the rabbis of the time. The Talmud put him on a high scale by stating:
Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina said: Three treasures did Joseph hide in Egypt: one was revealed to Korah; one to Antoninus the son of Severus; and the third is stored up for the righteous for the future time. --- Talmud, Pesachim, 119b
But Caracalla’s campaign against Parthia was not successful. He was assassinated a year later in 217 by one of his officers in a field near Charan (Northern Syria), when he stopped to urinate. He was succeeded by Macrinus, a bureaucrat of Berber origin (North Africa) who also was assassinated after a few months in 218. He was succeeded by 14 years old Elagabalus, of Syrian origin by his mother side. The latter was assassinated too in 222, due to his disregard for religion and morality, and replaced by his cousin Alexander Severus.
Judah the Prince also died in 217 CE (although some say he died in 222 CE). He died in Sepphoris but asked to be buried in Beth-Shearim. After his burial, Beth-Shearim became a necropolis as we can see today by visiting the site in Galilee. Other Jews wanted to be buried next to the Sage.
The emperor Alexander Severus was born in a town of modern-day northern Lebanon, which was part of the Roman province of "Syria-Palestina", and started to reign at the age of 13. So he was greatly influenced by his mother, of Syrian origin, who educated him for his role and advised him on every affair. On religious affairs, he was very tolerant and gave freedom of cult to Jews and Christians in the Empire:
He respected the privileges of the Jews and allowed the Christians to exist unmolested. --- Historia Augusta, The Life of Severus Alexander, chapter 22
He authorized the construction of a synagogue in Rome and gave as a gift a scroll of Torah that had been brought back by Titus from the Temple of Jerusalem in 70. This scroll, also called Codex Severi, has been lost since. He lived a life of modesty and even adopted the great maxim of Hillel:
When in the field or on a campaign he lunched and dined in an open tent and ate the soldiers' ordinary food in the sight of all and greatly to their pleasure; and he used to go about to all the tents and never permitted anyone to be absent from the colours. Moreover, if any man turned aside from the road into someone's private property, he was punished in the Emperor's presence according to the character of his rank, either by the club or by the rod or by condemnation to death, or, if his rank placed him above all these penalties, by the sternest sort of a rebuke, the Emperor saying, "Do you desire this to be done to your land which you are doing to another's?" He used often to exclaim what he had heard from someone, either a Jew or a Christian, and always remembered, and he also had it announced by a herald whenever he was disciplining anyone, "What you do not wish that a man should do to you, do not do to him." And so highly did he value this sentiment that he had it written up in the Palace and in public buildings. --- Historia Augusta, The Life of Severus Alexander, chapter 51
But Severus reign was also marked by troubles on the borders of the empire, with both Persian and German attacks that resulted in territorial losses for Rome. The Emperor was assassinated by his own troops in 235 while campaigning in Germany: they had lost faith in his leadership after the defeats that the German tribes inflicted to the Roman legions. This led the Roman Empire to another crisis of succession that has been called by Historians the "Crisis of the Third Century" because it lasted a long time until the year 284, and during which the Empire was divided between various parts, each ruled by different claimants to the emperorship.
The Roman Empire in 271 CE (source Wikipedia)
Some passages in the Talmud refer to a mystical book of very ancient origin, the Sefer Yetzirah or Book of Creation (it should rather have been called Book of Formation). For example:
R. Hanina and R. Oshaia spent every Sabbath eve in studying the ‘Book of Creation’, by means of which they created a third-grown calf and ate it. --- Talmud, Sanhedrin, 65b (the same is also mentioned in 67b)
The Book of Creation was obviously a work known during the Talmudic period as some important Rabbis were studying it. It is based on the belief that the Creation was done by God using the Hebrew letters. This is the principle behind the Kabbalah, that each letter is assigned specific mystical powers. The divine utterances during the Creation (such as God said etc.) are these manifestations of the usage of the letters and words, and this was a known oral tradition expressed in the following statement:
Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: Bezalel [the son of Uri, who was tasked by God and Moses to build the Tabernacle, the Ark and the holy vessels] knew how to combine the letters by which the heavens and earth were created. --- Talmud, Berachot, 55a
The Book of Creation is so ancient that the Sages ascribed it to Abraham. It surely was known as Oral Tradition for a very long time and was only committed in writing at the time of danger to lose such tradition once the Jewish state was no longer in existence. It is also possible that it was committed in writing some time before the end of the 4th millennium from Creation, maybe as a commemoration of God's will to create the world and mankind in it. Its written form corresponded to the time of the lives of Talmudists such as Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Oshaia who studied it.
One of the principles described in the book is that man is a microcosm of the Creation, so each letter of the alphabet also corresponds to a spiritual or a physical human feature. God used the alphabet of 22 letters to create the world, including Shabbat, in 7 days. For the Book of Creation, this was the perfect secret combination because the ratio between the circonference and the diameter of a circle is about 22 over 7 (this 22/7 ratio was established already in the Antiquity, about 250 BCE in the time of Archimedes, and is good enough human approximation of the number Pi).
And He [the Lord] created His universe with three books [sefarim]: with text [sefer], with number [sefar] and with utterance [sippur]. --- Sefer Yetzirah, 1:1
The 'text' refers to the 22 letters of the alphabet, the 'number' to the 10 digits from which every number is formed (and 10 is also the Ten Sefirot which are the fundamentals of the Kabbalah), and both together gave the 32 'utterances' that God used in the Creation. The Sefer Yetzirah mentions them as 32 paths. The number 32 is also written as לב [pronounced lev] which means 'heart' in Hebrew, a human organ that gives life by connecting every organs and body parts to it. The two letters of the word Lev are also the first letter (ב) and the last letter (ל) of the Torah.
There are several books and commentaries written about the Book of Creation (Sefer Yetzirah) and the reader will certainly find them if interested to study the matter further.
Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish, well-known in the Talmud as Resh Lakish, was one of the most prominent Amora of his generation (the Second Generation of Amoraim). He was born about 200 CE in the Syrian-Roman province and it is said that he had to fight as a gladiator in his youth, as many Jews were used in Roman games. He then became religious and moved down to Sepphoris where Judah ha-Nassi had lived. He had therefore been educated under the guidance of the fathers of the Mishna. In one passage of the Talmud, he made a statement about the number of stars in the Universe, at a time when the naked eye could only see hundreds of them. In the time of Galileo, when mankind invented the telescope, astronomers could then assess a number of stars of the magnitude of several thousands. But, it was not until the early 20th century, when mankind invented the photographic film, which could record a portion of the sky with long exposure of weak light sources (such as very remote stars) that the understanding of the number of stars grew to a much much larger number, typically assumed to be in the range of 1 followed by 20 zeros or more.
The number of stars in a same portion of the sky,
with shorter and longer exposure of film, on the left and on the right respectively
Yet, with no telescope and no knowledge other than the Scriptures, this is what Resh Lakish stated about 240 CE quoting from what God said of Israel in a language that they could understand by comparing the size of the Roman imperial army:
My daughter [the community of Israel], twelve constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty maniples, and for each maniple I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of myriads of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and all of them I have created only for your sake. --- Talmud, Berachot, 32b
Now, let's do the maths: the number of stars is 12 * 30 * 30 * 30 * 30 * 30 * 365,000 * myriads = 1 with 14 zeros of "myriads". And what is a myriad? The word is vague enough in the Talmud text which says רבוא which designates a very large quantity, which has been translated as 'myriad' in English. If we take the Greek meaning of myriad, it is the number 10,000 so it adds 4 zeros to our previous number of stars to reach the very large number of 1 followed 18 zeros. But this is only an approximation based on a supposed translation of the Hebrew word רבוא as a value 10,000. The exact number of stars is not known today by Science, which only offers a very broad range of high numbers. But the point was not to know the exact number. The Hebrew word רבוא only suggests to add a "very large factor" to the number 1 with 14 zeros. In other words, the Sages of the Talmud already knew, without telescope nor photographic film, that the number of stars exceeded very vastly what the human naked eye could possibly see.
Another example of this knowledge is reflected in the comment made by Samuel, an Amora born in Nehardea about 165 CE, who was also an astronomer, which was recorded in the Talmud. The discussion was about the understanding of Job 9:9: "Who makes the Bear, Orion, and the Pleiades (Hebrew word כִימָה, pronounced Kimah) and the Chambers of the South."
What is meant by Kimah [Pleiades, כִימָה ] Samuel said: About a hundred [ke'me-ah כִי מאה] stars.--- Talmud, Berachot, 58b
This comment is astonishing because the Pleiades is a cluster of stars which was believed, since the ancient times, to be composed of a handful of stars which could be seen by the naked eye. The Pleiades were then nicknamed the Six Sisters. And since the end of the 18th century, the astronomers, with the help of their telescopes, estimated that the Pleiades contained 64 objects.
The Nebra sky disk, ca. 1600 BCE, depicts the cluster of stars of the Pleiades
The Roman city of Dura-Europos, in the Eastern province, at the edge of modern-day Syria and Iraq, had a large Jewish community. This is testified by the ruins of a synagogue that have been found on the site by an archaeological dig in 1932.
The ruins of the Synagogue of Dura-Europos (photo: Ryoji, Google Earth)
The synagogue was richly decorated with frescoes that represented Biblical scenes. They are now displayed at the National Museum of Damascus in Syria.
Frescoes from Dura-Europos synagogue (photo: Albert Benhamou)
A Roman army commander, Diocletian, managed to conclude the crisis that plagued the Roman Empire in the 3rd Century by establishing the model of Tetrarchy whereas the ruling of the empire was divided between four individuals. Diocletian's last opponent was defeated in July 285, and this victory secured his model of the empire. This date marked the moment when the Roman Empire began to divide, most generally between Western and Eastern empires.
In the years that followed, Diocletian also brought success against the enemies of Rome at the borders of the empire. He also reorganised the empire with new administrative centres. For example, the province of Syria-Palaestina was divided into Palaestina Prima (Judea, Samaria, Idumea, Peraea and the coastal plain with Caesarea as capital), Palaestina Secunda (Galilee, the 10 cities of the Decapolis, Golan heights with Beit-shean / Scythopolis as capital) and Palaestina Tertia (the Negev and the Arabia province with Petra as capital). This division remained the same until the Byzantine Empire.
The 3 new divisions of Syria-Palaestina in the 3rd-5th centuries
In order to prevent attacks from the neighboring desert tribes, called Sarrasins, he also ordered to build several forts along the border with the Arabian desert: this line of forts was called the Diocletian Limes, although the work had started at the time of Trajan. In line with this new defence policy, Diocletian moved the 10th Legion Fretensis, which had been settled in Jerusalem (Aelia Capitolina) since the destruction by Titus in 70 CE, to the Red Sea fort (Aqaba or Eilat) in 300 CE.
The Christians had been discriminated during the reigns of some of the Roman emperors but not as much persecuted as in the time of Diocletian who issued a series of decrees against the followers of that religion. According to estimates, the persecutions that followed and lasted until the reign of Constantine costed the life of about 3500 Christians.
The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1883 (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA)
After the death of Diocletian in 311, the Empire went into political unstability again. At the end of 312 CE, Constantine won a decisive battle against the only other ruler of the empire, Maxentius, at the Milvian Bridge. This is where, according to Christian tradition, he had a vision before the battle: he saw the sign of the Christian cross and the message in hoc signo victo vinces (in this sign you will vanquish). This final victory paved the way for him to become the sole emperor of the Roman Empire, thus ending the period of the Tetrarchy for a certain time.
Constantine (Museo Chiaramonti, Vatican)
His reign was a turning point in the religious affairs too because, in 313, he decreed the Edict of Milan by which Christianity became the official religion in the empire (but other religions, and paganism, were still tolerated). It was said that this change was mostly due to his mother, Helena, who was greatly influenced by Christianity and was credited by Eusebius (Bishop of Caesarea), during a last trip to Judea in her old age, to have found the relics of the cross on which Jesus was crucified. In her lifetime, Jerusalem was being rebuilt and several churches were erected of which: the Calvary in Jerusalem (which will become the Saint Sepulchre), the Nativity in Beth-lehem, the Church of Ascension on the Mount of Olives, and the Church of Alon Mamre in Hebron (related to the early Christian cult of the Biblical patriarch Abraham). Helena died in 327 or 330 and was later canonized as Saint Helena.
The new policy opened up the road to the building of churches throughout the Roman provinces, not only on the holy sites as Helena directed.
In 315, Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, finalised the books to be included in the canon of Christian scripture: it became known as the New Testament. It is composed of the following 27 books: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Corinthians I & II, Timothy I & II, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, Peter I & II, John I & II & III, Jude, Revelation. In total, the Old and New Testaments represent 66 books. This was an important step to achieve for the official religion of the Empire. But it was done at the expense of destroying many other texts and gospels which were not wanted in the official canon.
 It refers to Deuteronomy 14:22: You shall surely tithe
 Johanan ben Zakkai established the first talmudic school (metaphorically a vineyard) in that city, away from the Judeo-Roman war that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple
 I can recommend the book from Aryeh Kaplan first published in 1997 as it also contains valuable commentaries without which the reading would be obscure; it is available on Amazon; follow the link => Sefer Yetzira: The Book of Creation: In Theory and Practice ; this edition is also available online through the Sribd service; to access it (requires login), click here
 For example, the Bible states (Jeremiah 33:22): "As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured; so will I multiply the seed of David My servant, and the Levites that minister unto Me." Here the "host of heaven" refers to the stars and all stellar objects, meaning that the stars, as the sand, cannot be numbered
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