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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Read more at Ancient Jew Review

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

 

Jerusalem’s Economic Crisis, Its Arabs, and Its Future

Oct. 18 2018

The population of Israel’s capital city is 38-percent Arab, making Arab eastern Jerusalem the largest Arab community in the country. Connected to this fact is Jerusalem’s 46-percent poverty rate—the highest of any Israeli municipality. The city’s economic condition stems in part from its large ultra-Orthodox population, but there is also rampant poverty among its Arab residents, whose legal status is different from that of both Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Haviv Rettig Gur explains:

Jerusalem’s Arab inhabitants are not Israeli citizens—in part because Palestinian society views acceptance of Israeli citizenship, [available to any Arab Jerusalemite who desires it], as acceptance of Israeli claims of sovereignty over the city, and in part because Israel is not eager to accept them, even as it formally views itself as having annexed the area. Nevertheless, they have a form of permanent residency that, unlike West Bank Palestinians, allows them unimpeded access to the rest of Israel. . . .

There are good reasons for this poverty among eastern Jerusalem’s Arabs, rooted in the political trap that has ensnared the Arab half of the city and with it the rest of the city as well. Right-wing Israeli political leaders have avoided investing in Arab eastern Jerusalem, fearing that such investments would increase the flow of Palestinians into the city. Left-wing leaders have done the same on the grounds that the Arab half would be given away in a future peace deal.

Meanwhile, eastern Jerusalem’s complicated situation, suspended between the Israeli and Palestinian worlds, means residents cannot take full advantage of their access to the Israeli economy. For example, while most Arab women elsewhere in Israel learn usable Hebrew in school, most Arab schools in eastern Jerusalem teach from the Palestinian curriculum, which does not offer students the Hebrew they will need to find work in the western half of the city. . . .

It is not unreasonable to argue that Jerusalem cannot really be divided, not for political reasons but for economic ones. If Jerusalem remains a solely Israeli capital, it will have to integrate better its disparate parts and massively develop its weaker communities if it hopes ever to become solvent and prosperous. Arabs must be able to find more and better work in Jewish Jerusalem—and in Arab Jerusalem, too. Conversely, if the city is divided into two capitals, that of a Jewish state and that of a Palestinian one, that won’t change the underlying economic reality that its prosperity, its capacity to accommodate tourism and develop efficient infrastructure, and its ability to ensure access for all religions to their many holy sites, will still require a unified urban space.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Arabs, Israeli economy, Jerusalem