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Jewish revolt against Heraclius

Jewish revolt against Heraclius
Part of the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628
Date614 CE
LocationPalaestina Prima of the Diocese of the East (Byzantine Empire)

Jewish surrender and expulsion

  • Byzantine defeat and temporal rule of Persians and Jews over parts of Diocese of the East
  • Expulsion of Jews from the region
  • Brief restoration of Byzantine rule 630–640
Palaestina Prima and Secunda temporarily annexed to the Persian Empire.
Byzantine Empire

Sasanian Empire,

23px Jewish allies
Commanders and leaders
Emperor Heraclius
Patriarch Zacharias (614) (POW)
Abba Modestus (from 617)
Nehemiah ben Hushiel Executed
Benjamin of Tiberias

Byzantine Empire

Sasanian Empire

  • Persian forces
  • 20,000 or 26,000 Jewish rebels[1]: 81
Casualties and losses
Tens of thousands Tens of thousands

The Jewish revolt against Heraclius was the final in a series of Samaritan and Jewish revolts. The revolt was part of the Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628. Many historians view this war as marking the end of antiquity.

Some historians believe the war reduced and weakened the Christian population not just in Jerusalem but across the near east, allowing the success of the following Arab invasion. However, over the past thirty years the archaeological evidence has not supported the ancient manuscripts which record the devastation of the Christian community in Jerusalem.[2]: 353


Jews and Samaritans were persecuted frequently by the Byzantines resulting in numerous revolts. Byzantine religious propaganda developed strong anti-Jewish elements.[3]: lxiii, 195[4]: 81–83, 790–791[5] In several cases Jews tried to help support the Sasanian advance. A pogrom in Antioch in 608 would lead to a Jewish revolt in 610 which was crushed. Jews also revolted in both Tyre and Acre in 610. The Jews of Tyre were massacred in reprisal. Unlike in earlier times when Jews had supported Christians in the fight against Shapur I, the Byzantines had now become viewed as oppressors.[6]: 122

Following the Battle of Antioch in 613 Shahrbaraz lead his forces through Palaestina Secunda and into Palaestina Prima.[6]: 123 Shahrbaraz conquered Caesarea Maritima, the administrative capital of the province.[3]: 206 When Shahrbaraz had entered the Galilee a significant Jewish revolt took place with some 20,000 Jewish rebels joined the war against the Byzantines.[6]: 123[7] Depending on the chronicler figures of either 20,000 or 26,000 are given.[1]: 81 The territory is said to have had a substantial indigenous Jewish population at this time. James Parkes estimates that if ten percent of the Jewish population joined the revolt and the 20,000 figure is correct then 200,000 Jews where living in the territory at the time.[1]: 65 Others give a figure of 150,000 Jews living in 43 settlements throughout the territory.[8] Jews where a minority constituting ten to fifteen percent of the total population.[6]: 124 Jews are thought to have been concentrated in the Galilee during this time period. The Galilee is said had to have contained several cities which are thought to have been populated largely by a homogenous Jewish demographic, Tiberias being a center of Jewish learning. In fact the title of the Jerusalem Talmud is something of a misnomer as it was actually compiled in Tiberias,[9] as Jews where banned from Jerusalem.[10] The Sasanian Persians were joined by Nehemiah ben Hushiel[11] and Benjamin of Tiberias (a man of immense wealth), who enlisted and armed Jewish soldiers from Tiberias, Nazareth and the mountain cities of Galilee, and together with a band of Arabs and additional Jews from southern parts of the country they marched on Jerusalem.[7] The Persian army reinforced by Jewish forces lead by Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias would capture Jerusalem without resistance.[3]: 207

Capture of Jerusalem

The capture of Jerusalem was interpreted by Jewish writers in a messianic context. Sacrifices may even have been renewed on the temple mount.[12]:168–169 Control of the city was handed to Nehemiah ben Hushiel and Benjamin of Tiberias. Nehemiah was then appointed the ruler of Jerusalem.[11][13] He began making arrangements for the building of the Third Temple, and sorting out genealogies to establish a new High Priesthood.[14] After only a few months a Christian revolt occurred. Nehemiah ben Hushiel and his council of sixteen righteous were killed along with many other Jews, some throwing themselves off the city walls.[3]: 69–71[11][12]:169

Christian rebellion

Following the outburst of violence in Jerusalem the surviving Jews fled to Shahrbaraz’s encampment at Caesarea. Christians were able to briefly retake the city before the walls were breached by Shahrbaraz’s forces who lay siege to the city.[3]: 207 Sources vary on how long the siege lasted. Depending on the source it lasted 19, 20 or 21 days.

According to the Armenian bishop and historian Sebeos the siege resulted in a total Christian death toll of 17,000,[3]: 207 4,518 prisoners were massacred near Mamilla reservoir per Antiochus Strategos[15] in reprisal for the Christian rebellion and pogrom of the Jews. Christian sources later exaggerated the extent of the massacre, claiming a death toll as high as 90,000.[3]: 207–208 In addition 35,000 or 37,000 people including the patriarch Zacharias are said to have been deported to Mesopotamia.[3]: 69–71[16][6]: 123 The city is said to have been burnt down. However, neither wide spread burning nor destruction of churches have been found in the archaeological record.[13][15]

Unlike Sebeos, Antiochus uses polemical language.[3]: 206–207, 195 Antiochus wrote that the Jews offered to help them escape death if they "become Jews and deny Christ." The Christian captives refused. In anger, the Jews then purchased Christians to kill them.[17] A significant number of burial sites were allocated according to Antiochus. A mass burial grave at Mamilla cave was discovered in 1989 by Israeli archeologist Ronny Reich. Near the site where Antiochus recorded the massacre took place. The human remains were in poor condition containing a minimum of 526 individuals.[18]

Jewish expedition to Tyre

According to Eutychius (887-940), the Jews launched an expedition against Tyre.[19]: 39–40 Bands of Jews from Jerusalem, Tiberias, Galilee, Damascus, and even from Cyprus, united and undertook an incursion against Tyre, having been invited by the 4,000 Jewish inhabitants of that city to surprise and massacre the Christians on Easter night. The Jewish army is said to have consisted of 20,000 men. The expedition, however, miscarried, as the Christians of Tyre learned of the impending danger, and seized the 4,000 Tyrian Jews as hostages. The Jewish invaders destroyed the churches around Tyre, an act which the Christians avenged by killing two thousand of their Jewish prisoners. The besiegers, to save the remaining prisoners, withdrew,[7] having had to suffer the humiliation of watching the heads of the Jewish captives as they were thrown over the walls.[20]: 37

Jewish control of Jerusalem

The Jews had hoped that Khosrau II would give them all of the Land of Israel in exchange for their support. However they were too few to make this a reality.[6]: 124 For a time they are said to have enjoyed relative dominance in Jerusalem.[11] Although it may have been in a state of anarchy.[3]: 208–209 By 617 CE the Persians had reversed their policy and sided with the Christians over the Jews, probably because of pressure from Mesopotamian Christians in Persia itself.[3]: 208[21] Further Jewish settlers were banned from settling in or around Jerusalem and a small synagogue on the Temple Mount was also demolished.[3]: 209–210 Instead of supporting the Jews Khosrau is said to have imposed heavy taxes on them.[7][20]: 37

End of conflict

By 622 CE, the Roman Emperor Heraclius had assembled an army to retake the territory lost to the Sasanian Empire.[11] In 628, following the deposition of Khosrau II, Kavadh II made peace with Heraclius, but Kavadh II would only have a brief reign. The conquered city and the Cross would remain in Sasanian hands until they were returned by Shahrbaraz. Ancient manuscripts date Heraclius' entry into Jerusalem as 21 March 629. Modern scholars increasingly doubt this date for a number of reasons.

Walter Emil Kaegi puts the death of Kavadh II in September 629.[22]:187 The Persian succession between 628 and 632 becomes confused and different historians give different succession timelines.[6]: 117 In the period following the death of Kavadh II, up to six different individual are said to have reigned, these are Ardashir III, Shahrbaraz, Borandukht, Shapur-i Shahrvaraz, Azarmidokht and Farrukh Hormizd. Negations continued with Shahrbaraz being the real power. Antiochus records that Heraclius made an agreement with Ardashir III with Shahrbaraz acting as intermediary,[22]:187 Nikephoros gives a date of July 629 at Arabissos.[22]:185 Walter Emil Kaegi sees this July 629 meeting as representing an earlier negotiation with Shahrbaraz preceding Kavadh II death.[22]:187 Nikephoros exaggerate and confused the record by claiming that Hormizd succeeded Kavadh II. Claiming Hormizd sent his son to Heraclius' court.[22]:185

Heraclius was in Constantinople in 629 where he issued a Noval, that went into effect on 1 April 629.[22]:186 At Arabissos Heraclius and Shahrbaraz would agree on new borders.[22]:188 To seal the deal Shahrbaraz's son Niketas and another of his brothers came to live in the Byzantine court, having been held for a time in central Mesopotamia practically as hostages. They arrived along with the True Cross. The Holy Sponge was attached to the cross in a special ceremony in Constantinople on 14 September 629. The Holy Lance followed reaching Constantinople on 28 October 629. It is probable that at this time, Niketas converted to Christianity; as he was his father's heir-apparent, this opened the prospect of the Christianization of Persia should Shahrbaraz be able to maintain his power there.[22]:188–189, 206

Heraclius would not have entered Jerusalem while the Persian troop presence persisted. Heraclius brother Theodore had encounter resistance at Edessa and Heraclius would not have exposed himself to similar danger. Shahrbaraz had Ardashir III assassinated and took control of the Persian Empire from 27 April 630 to 9 June 630.[22]:185 The 630 date would also have the advantage of matching the date for the Fast of Heraclius.[23]

Restoration of Byzantine rule

On 21 March 630 Heraclius would marched in triumph into Jerusalem with the True Cross.[24] Heraclius came as victor into the Land of Israel and the Jews of Tiberias and Nazareth, under the leadership of Benjamin of Tiberias, surrendered and asked for his protection. It is said that Benjamin even accompanied Heraclius on his voyage to Jerusalem and Benjamin was persuaded to convert, Benjamin obtained a general pardon for himself and the Jews.[25] He was baptized in Nablus in the house of Eustathios, an influential Christian. However once Heraclius reached Jerusalem he was persuaded to go back on his promise to Benjamin of Tiberias.[26] According to Eutychius (887-940), the Christians population and monks of Jerusalem convinced the Emperor to break his word.[19]: 48–49 Some modern scholars ascribe the story of the "Oath of Heraclius" to the realm of legend, doubting that Heraclius ever made such a promise,[20]: 38 instead ascribing this as a product of later apologists.[27] In atonement for the violation of the emperor's oath to the Jews, the monks are said to have pledged themselves to a yearly fast, which is still observed by the Copts,[23][28][29] called the Fast of Heraclius.[23][30] Only those Jews who could flee to the mountains or Egypt are said to have been spared.[20]: 38

In 628 Heraclius reportedly rescinded a decision made by his brother which would have exterminated the Jews of Edessa for supporting the Persians. Robert Bonfil suggests that Heraclius’ change of heart in 630 cannot be separated from the "Jewish Question" and the anti-Jewish world view ubiquitous to Christian thought at that time. He sees the decision as being based more on politics than religion.[4]: 81-84 Heraclius is one of the few Byzantine emperors to have had an imperial conversion campaign. The rarity of such campaigns is thought to be due to Christian theological constraints. In Christian apocalyptic literature some Jews must remain until the end of time.[4]: 878 Christian theologians of the time also had other core theological reasons for rejecting the forced conversion of Jews.[4]: 84-85

In another legend Heraclius’ astrologers are said to have revealed to him that a circumcised people would conquer his empire. Heraclius set out to forcible convert the Jews of the Byzantine Empire. Reportedly advising his friend Dagobert, king of the Franks, to do likewise.[21][31] Jews were expelled from Jerusalem and were not allowed to settle within a three mile radius. A general massacre of the Jewish population ensued.[13][23] The massacre devastated the Jewish communities of the Galilee and Jerusalem.[32][33][29][34]

In apocalyptic literature

The events of the Persian-Byzantine struggle in the Levant and the consequent Arab conquest inspired several apocalyptic Jewish writings of the early Middle Ages. Helping to popularize the idea of a war messiah, the Messiah ben Joseph, who would die paving the way for the Messiah ben David.[12]:168–171[35] Among these are the Apocalypse of Zerubbabel, which is partially attributed to the events between the Persian conquest of Palaestina and subsequent Muslim conquest of Syria.[36]

The Tiburtine Sibyl records that the Jews of the Byzantine Empire would be converted in one hundred and twenty years, seeming to refer to these occurrences, since about one hundred and twenty years elapsed from the time of the Persian war under Anastasius, in 505, to the victory of Heraclius in 628.[31] Some scholars see similarities between these Christian works and their Jewish counterparts.[37][38]


After the defeat of the Persian Empire, a new threat, the Islamic Empire, would emerge in the region. By 640, the Byzantine Empire completely lost control of Judea to the Arabs, with Caesarea holding out until 640.[39] The Arab Islamic Empire under Caliph Umar conquered Jerusalem and the lands of Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Egypt.

See also


  1. ^ a b c James Parkes (1949). A history of Palestine from 135 A.D. to modern times. Victor Gollancz. 
  2. ^ Yuri Stoyanov (January 2011). "Archaeology Versus Written Sources: the Case of the Persian Conquest of Jerusalem in 614". Terra antique balcanica et mediterranea, Miscellanea in Honour of Alexandet Minchev, Acta Museii Varnaensis, VIII-1, 2011. Retrieved 27 January 2015. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l R. W. THOMSON Historical commentary by JAMES HOWARD-JOHNSTON Assistance from TIM GREENWOOD. (1999). The Armenian History Attributed to Sebeos. Liverpool University Press. Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d Robert Bonfil, Oded Ishai, Guy G. Stroumsa, Rina Talgam, ed. (2012). Jews in Byzantium: Dialectics of Minority and Majority Cultures. Hotei Publishing the Netherlands. Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  5. ^ J. D. Howard-Johnston (2006). East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: Historiographical and Historical Studies. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.,. pp. 124–125, 142. Retrieved 14 March 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Jacob Neusner (1970). a history of the jews in babylonia v. later sasanian times. Brill Archive. Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  7. ^ a b c d Th. Nöldeke, Grätz, Gesch (1906). Jewish Encyclopedia CHOSROES (KHOSRU) II. PARWIZ ("The Conqueror"):. Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20 January 2014. 
  8. ^ Melton, John Gordon (2013). Faiths Across Time: 5,000 Years of Religious History. ABC-CLIO. p. 499. ISBN 9781610690256. 
  9. ^ E. Robinson and E. Smith (1841). 269 Biblical researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai and Arabia Petraea a journal of travels in the year 1838 by E. Robinson and E. Smith, undertaken in reference to Biblical geography; drawn up from the original diaries, with historical illustrations by Edward Robinson. Crocker in Boston. pp. 268–270. Retrieved 28 June 2015. 
  10. ^ Zank, Michael. "Byzantian Jerusalem". Boston University. Retrieved 15 March 2014. 
  11. ^ a b c d e Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson (1976). A History of the Jewish People. Harvard University Press. p. 362. Retrieved 19 January 2014. 
  12. ^ a b c Günter Stemberger (2010). Judaica Minora: Geschichte und Literatur des rabbinischen Judentums. Mohr Siebeck. Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  13. ^ a b c Edward Lipiński (2004). Itineraria Phoenicia. Peeters Publishers. pp. 542–543. Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  14. ^ "Sefer Zerubbabel". Translated by John C. Reeves. University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Retrieved 2014-01-17. 
  15. ^ a b The Persian Conquest of Jerusalem (614 CE) – an archeological assessment by Gideon Avni, Director of the Excavations and Surveys Department of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
  16. ^ Jane S. Gerber (1994). Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience. Simon and Schuster. p. 15. Retrieved 27 January 2015. 
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  18. ^ "Human Skeletal Remains from the Mamilla cave, Jerusalem" by Yossi Nagar.
  19. ^ a b Eutychius (1896). Eucherius about certain holy places: The library of the Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society. Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund in London. Retrieved 28 June 2015. 
  20. ^ a b c d Elli Kohen (2007). History of the Byzantine Jews: A Microcosmos in the Thousand Year Empire. University Press of America. Retrieved 28 January 2015. 
  21. ^ a b Avner Falk (1996). A Psychoanalytic History of the Jews. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. pp. 353–354. Retrieved 2014-03-10. 
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h i Walter Emil Kaegi (2003). Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 12 March 2014. 
  23. ^ a b c d Alfred Joshua Butler (1902). Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion. Clarendon Press. p. 134. Retrieved 21 March 2014. 
  24. ^ Michael H. Dodgeon, Samuel N. C. Lieu, ed. (2002). The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars Ad 363-628, Part 2. Taylor & Francis. pp. 227–228. 
  25. ^ Hagith Sivan (2008). Palestine in Late Antiquity. Oxford University Press. p. 2: Anastasian Landscapes page 8. Retrieved 28 March 2014. 
  26. ^ Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 3. 2nd ed, ed. (2007). "Encyclopedia Judaica - Benjamin of Tiberias". Gale Virtual Reference Library. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. p. 362. Retrieved 14 January 2014. 
  27. ^ Lewis, David (2008). God's Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570–1215. Norton. p. 69. ISBN 9780393064728. 
  28. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia BYZANTINE EXPIRE: Heraclius. Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906. Retrieved 28 January 2015. In atonement for the violation of an oath to the Jews, the monks pledged themselves to a fast, which the Copts still observe; while the Syrians and the Melchite Greeks ceased to keep it after the death of Heraclius; Elijah of Nisibis ("Beweis der Wahrheit des Glaubens," translation by Horst, p. 108, Colmar, 1886) mocks at the observance. 
  29. ^ a b Walter Emil Kaegi (2003). Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium. Cambridge University Press. p. 205. Retrieved 28 January 2015. 
  30. ^ Abu Salih the Armenian; Abu al-Makarim (1895). Basil Thomas Alfred Evetts, ed. "History of Churches and Monasteries", Abu Salih the Armenian c. 1266 - Part 7 of Anecdota Oxoniensia: Semitic series Anecdota oxoniensia. [Semitic series--pt. VII]. Clarendon Press. pp. 39–. the emperor Heraclius, on his way to Jerusalem, promised his protection to the Jews of Palestine. (Abu Salih the Armenian, Abu al-Makarim, ed. Evetts 1895, p. 39, Part 7 of Anecdota Oxoniensia: Semitic series Anecdota oxoniensia. Semitic series--pt. VII) (Abu Salih the Armenian was just the Book's owner, the author is actually Abu al-Makarim.) 
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  36. ^ Silver, Abba Hillel (2003). "II The Mohammedan Period". History of Messianic Speculation in Israel. Kessinger Publishing. p. 49. ISBN 0-7661-3514-4. 
  37. ^ Alexei Sivertsev (2011). Judaism and Imperial Ideology in Late Antiquity. Cambridge University Press. p. 55-58. Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  38. ^ Paul Julius Alexander (1985). The Byzantine Apocalyptic Tradition. University of California Press. p. 180-181. Retrieved 29 January 2015. 
  39. ^ Avnēr Rabbān, Kenneth G. Holum, ed. (1996). Caesarea Maritima: A Retrospective After Two Millennia. BRILL. p. 187. Retrieved 21 March 2014.