The Jewish holiday of Purim, which begins this year on March 20, is often celebrated with the consumption of alcohol and a carnival-like atmosphere. In the year 408 CE, the Byzantine empire attempted to rein in such celebrations by prohibiting the once-common practice of burning Haman—the villain of the Purim story—in effigy. Henry Abramson explains:
The Romans weren’t especially discomfited by the idea of vicariously punishing enemies, or even maintaining fire safety. They were, however, concerned that drunken Jewish celebrants might use the opportunity to mock Christians by portraying Haman as a sacrilegious stand-in for Jesus. This is especially true because the favored method of representing Haman’s death in the ancient world wasn’t hanging by the neck—he was crucified on a wooden cross.
The biblical passage that literally describes Haman’s “hanging on a tree” (Esther 7:10) was rendered as “crucified” in the ancient works of the Jewish historian Josephus, the early translations of the book of Esther into Greek (Septuagint) and Latin (Vulgate), and all through the Middle Ages in literary classics like Dante’s Purgatorio. Artistic representations also depicted Haman on the cross, such as the Dutch 15th-century Azor Masters and even by Michelangelo, who painted a muscular Haman on a cross on the Sistine Chapel.
It’s not hard to imagine how public Purim execrations of Haman, conducted by an inebriated crowd of Jews, could easily be misperceived by Christian observers, especially if the effigy of Haman was bound to a wooden cross. In fact, only a few years after the law in the Theodosian Code was promulgated, a Church historian named Socrates Scholasticus tendentiously described an event that sounded very much like a drunken Purim celebration gone horribly wrong: in Inmestar, Syria, a group allegedly seized a Christian child, bound him to a cross, and scourged him until he died.
Socrates Scholasticus is not especially reliable as a source for Jewish history, but . . . it didn’t take much to convince Christian audiences that Jews were in fact bent on committing acts of horrific violence.