Why the Roman Empire Tried to Crack Down on Wild Purim Celebrations

March 13 2019

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.

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Read more at Jewish Telegraphic Agency

More about: ancient Judaism, Blood libel, Byzantine Empire, Michelangelo, Purim, Religion & Holidays

What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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Read more at BESA Center

More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy