This week, Pope Francis is making his first visit to the United States. He is treated with a unique respect unlike any other world leader. But what if there was no Papacy? What if there was no Pope?
Most of us are aware of Emperor Constantine’s historic decision to convert to Christianity and to make it the official religion of the Roman Empire. It was a choice that truly changed Western Civilization and the world. Christians went from a persecuted minority to becoming the ruling majority with the power to define the world view of all of Europe. Today, Christianity is the largest of the world’s religions and the dominant faith of most developed nations. But, what if Rome had become Jewish? How might the world be different? This is more than mere speculation. It came close to happening with the rise to power of the Roman Emperor Julian in 361 A.D. It matters today in that it offers insight into how Judaism is different than Christianity and other religions and how we as Jews should define ourselves and advocate our faith to others.
The ascendancy of Julian the Apostate to the throne a mere quarter century after Emperor Constantine’s historic conversion temporarily crippled Christianity and threatened to wipe the emerging faith out of existence. The new emperor forbade the practice of Christianity and returned the Roman Empire to its pagan roots. He restored equal rights to the Jews, which had been restricted under Constantine and promised to help restore the temple in Jerusalem. Many scholars believe that he was ripe for conversion. It was only his untimely death two years later that prevented this and allowed for the reemergence of Christianity as the official faith of Rome. But what if he had reigned longer and had converted to Judaism? How might the world be different today? No one can say for sure, but the speculation is interesting and insightful.
An obvious difference is that Jerusalem would have been the religious capital of the empire rather than Rome. This would’ve meant massive enshrinement and development of the city and surrounding region and could’ve altered the development of Islam later. In a symbolic sense, it might have started the fulfillment of the Biblical prophecies that foresaw Jerusalem as a “light unto the nations” and the place that all of humanity would turn to in seeking God. But more importantly, the world view of Western Civilization would’ve been different. But how?
Unlike Christianity, which developed and was nurtured in Hellenistic society, Judaism is a faith of the East. Eastern religions tend to be more abstract and meditative in nature. For centuries, meditation and mysticism were strong components of Judaism that only started to decline in the late 1800’s, as Jews left the ghetto and sought to blend in with the Christian European society around them.
The “ghetto experience” itself would’ve never occurred, as Judaism would’ve been the mainstream norm rather than a minority threat to Christianity. This is especially important when one considers how much of Jewish thought and practice developed in reaction to outside pressures. I believe that in a more open setting, Judaism would’ve gone through a spiritual Rennaissance much earlier, similar to what is happening in America today. Also, it would have developed as a faith community, similar to that of the original followers of Abraham rather than an ethnic identity separated from outside society.
Many don’t realize that up until Rome officially became Christian in 330 A.D., Jews actively proselytized and attracted converts. The Rabbinic/Talmudic period from 300 B.C. to 500 A.D was a golden age for conversion to Judaism. Some experts say that the Jewish population grew from about 150,000 in 586 B.C to 8 million by the 1st Century A.D. This was due in large part to conversion. Philo, the Jewish philosopher from Alexandria in the 1st Century A.D., estimates there were 1 million Jews in Egypt, or 1/8 of the total population. Other estimates state approximately 4 million people, or 10% of the Roman Empire had converted to Judaism by this time. Flavious Josephus, a Jewish historian of this period, wrote, “There is not a city of the Grecians, nor any of the barbarians, nor any nation whatsoever, whither our custom of resting on the seventh day has not come and by which our fasts and lighting up lamps and many of our prohibitions as to food are not observed.”
For the most part, these converts came of their own free will. It is with rare exception that conversion was forced and these incidents were condemned by the rabbis and never repeated. Rather, converts were attracted by the ethical and moral behavior of the Jews, Jewish teachings and practices and the hospitality they received from the Jewish community. But, all of this changed when Rome officially became Christian and saw Judaism as a competitive threat. It is also due to this Christian conversion that Jews, rather than Romans, were blamed as the killers of Christ and anti-semitic sentiment grew. Obviously, if Rome had chosen Judaism instead, these feelings and allegations would have never been promoted and the persecution that historically followed would have never happened.
Christians in the Roman period also thought that the Second Coming of Christ and the Messianic Age were at hand and so neglected their civic duties. Rather, they focused on the afterlife. Many scholars blame, in part, the decline of the Roman Empire to this lack of governance by the new Christian officials.
Judaism has always been focused on the repair and improvement of this world. It is the concept of Tikkun Olam. We don’t even have an established concept of heaven, or the afterlife, but just discussion and speculation, as the emphasis has always been on the here and now. That is why Jews have always stood at the forefront of civil and equal rights movements and why we’ve historically been represented in government positions in larger numbers than our percentage of the population.
Another place that this manifests is with regard to environmental concerns. Our primary symbol of the concept of heavenly paradise is the Garden of Eden. This reminds us that we are stewards of our planet and partners with God in the process of creation.
Judaism also emphasizes personal responsibility over the concept of Original Sin. It is our belief that every child is born free of sin and without blemish. We are beholden to the consequences of our individual decisions and choices and not to those of our ancestors. This is in contrast to Christianity that teaches that we are all born sinners and it is only through the grace of God in the form of Jesus that we are “saved.”
The concept of salvation itself is different between Judaism and Christianity. Jews believe that all people who practice justice, good deeds and live a righteous life will be rewarded regardless of the creed they practice. Christianity, in contrast, teaches that only those who believe in Christ as their Savior will go to heaven and be spared eternal torment in the pits of Hell. This single belief has lead to greater injustice and intolerance than any other in the Western World, manifesting in various forms such as the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition. A similar conviction of the truth of their faith is fueling the savage acts of terrorism currently performed by Islamic extremists. It is only with the more recent secularization of Western society that this intolerance has diminished. Thus, I believe that a Jewish Rome would’ve lead to a more tolerant society sooner.
These are just a few representations of how a Jewish Rome could’ve lead to a Western World that is far different from that which developed under Christianity. That is not to say that Judaism is perfect, or that Christianity is inferior. We are all striving to be better. But it does illustrate some of the differences between our religions and how we as Jews can promote and advocate our faith better. As in politics, you can’t find success by just being against something. We can’t just dispute the messianic role of Jesus. We must also promote the virtues of our own beliefs and be proud of our religious heritage. Then we can truly be an alternative choice that will grow and contribute to the improvement of this world. I hope that this commentary and speculation can stir some discussion and contribute to that goal.
Samuel Griswold is the Publisher of JewishPrism.com and the author of the new historical thriller, True Identity, about a Mossad agent who experiences past-life visions of being a follower of the Hebrew Patriarch Abraham while working undercover in Iraqi Kurdistan. Available now on Amazon.com!