How Byzantine Jews Appropriated, and Satirized, Christian Messianism

March 31 2017

The Book of Zerubbabel—a purported Hebrew prophecy about the coming of the messiah, thought to have been written by a 7th-century Jew living in the Byzantine empire—circulated in rabbinic circles throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. In Jewish Messiahs in a Christian Empire, Martha Himmelfarb explores the origins, history, and impact of the book, arguing that much of its content was inspired by the author’s (or authors’) exposure to Christian ideas about the life and death of Jesus. Jae H. Han writes in her review:

This slim book rewards close reading. Through her careful analysis of . . . the Book of Zerubbabel and other contemporaneous sources, Himmelfarb finds evidence of a body of popular traditions about messianic figures circulating among ordinary Jews in the late-antique Byzantine milieu. . . . [T]hese traditions suggest that Jews were both deeply attracted to and repulsed by Christian descriptions of a suffering and dying messiah, his mother Mary, and the figure of an anti-Christ.

The Book of Zerubbabel passes itself off as a work of biblical prophecy, as evidenced by its debt to Ezekiel and its tendency to employ archaic biblical grammatical forms. . . . [Among its characters is] Hephzibah, the warrior-mother of the messiah. [Himmelfarb] argues that the authors of the Book of Zerubbabel responded to the Byzantine military’s deployment of icons and statues of the Virgin Mary by appropriating and fashioning Hephzibah as a militant mother of the messiah.

In exploring early traditions concerning Hephzibah, Himmelfarb first turns to the figure of a negligent mother of the messiah in the Jerusalem Talmud and argues that the rabbinic story mocks a more popular, positive tradition about this mother. She then discusses the Book of Zerubbabel’s figure of the “Beautiful Statue”—undoubtedly a reference to statues of the Virgin Mary—and its son, Armilos, the Jewish “anti-Christ,” who “is at once the Christian messiah and the equivalent of the Christian anti-Christ.” She argues that book’s depiction of the beautiful statue, which is impregnated by Satan and gives birth to Armilos, is in fact a “parody of the narrative of the virgin birth.”

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More about: ancient Judaism, Byzantine Empire, Christianity, History & Ideas, Messianism

Palestinian Leaders Fight Economic Growth

Jan. 15 2019

This month, a new shopping mall opened in northeastern Jerusalem, easily accessible to most of the city’s Arab residents. Rami Levy, the supermarket magnate who owns the mall, already employs some 2,000 Israeli Arabs and Palestinians at his other stores, and the mall will no doubt bring more jobs to Arab Jerusalemites. But the leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are railing against it, and one newspaper calls its opening “an economic catastrophe [nakba].” Bassam Tawil writes:

For [the PA president] Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah officials . . . the image of Palestinians and Jews working in harmony is loathsome. . . . Instead of welcoming the inauguration of the shopping mall for providing job opportunities to dozens of Palestinians and lower prices [to consumers], Fatah officials are taking about an Israeli plan to “undermine” the Palestinian economy. . . . The hundreds of Palestinians who flooded the new mall on its first day, however, seem to disagree with the grim picture painted by [these officials]. . . .

The campaign of incitement against Levy’s shopping mall began several months ago, as it was being built, and has continued until today. Now that the campaign has failed to prevent the opening of the mall, Fatah and its followers have turned to outright threats and violence. The threats are being directed toward Palestinian shoppers and Palestinian merchants who rented space in the new mall. On the day the mall was opened, Palestinians threw a number of firebombs at the compound, [which] could have injured or killed Palestinians. The [bomb-throwers], who are believed to be affiliated with Fatah, would rather see their own people dead than having fun or buying attractively-priced products at an Israeli mall.

By spearheading this campaign of incitement and intimidation, Abbas’s Fatah is again showing its true colors. How is it possible to imagine that Abbas or any of his Fatah lieutenants would ever make peace with Israel when they cannot even tolerate the idea of Palestinians and Jews working together for a simple common good? If a Palestinian who buys Israeli milk is a traitor in the eyes of Fatah, it is not difficult to imagine the fate of any Palestinian who would dare to discuss compromise with Israel.

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More about: East Jerusalem, Israeli Arabs, Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Authority, Palestinian economy