Joshua the Stylite on the Jews

Joshua the Stylite on the Jews

Joshua the Stylite is the name given to the sixth century Christian author - or more correctly compiler - of a chronicle in Syriac of the later Roman Empire and in particular the relations between the late Roman Empire and the Persian Empire. The document is one of the most important we have for this period as the author is generally adjudged to have been an eye-witness to the events they are describing in spite of their anonymity.

What is interesting to us is that the chronicle includes several mentions of the jews, which are obviously important to quote and examine so that we can understand Joshua the Stylite's view of them.

The first of these is as follows:

'The governor himself set out to visit the emperor, girt with his sword, and left Eusebius to hold his post and govern the city. When this Eusebius saw that the bakers were not sufficient to make bread for the market, because of the multitude of country people, of whom the city was full, and because of the poor who had no bread in their houses, he gave an order that every one who chose might make bread and sell it in the market. And there came Jewish women, to whom he gave wheat from the public granary, and they made bread for the market. But even so the poor were in straits, because they had not money with which to buy bread; and they wandered about the streets and porticoes and courtyards to beg a morsel of bread, but there was no one in whose house bread was in superfluity. And when one of them had begged a few coins, but was unable to buy bread, he used it to purchase a turnip or a cabbage or a marrow, and eat it raw. And for this reason there was a scarcity of vegetables, and a lack of everything in the city and villages, so that people actually dared to enter the holy places and for sheer hunger to eat the consecrated bread as if it had been common bread. Others cut pieces off dead carcasses that ought not to be eaten, and cooked and ate them; to which things you in your truthfulness can bear witness.' (1)

Now in the above: the first reaction the reader may have upon reading the text is that it is a fairly common story of suffering in a city suffering the privations of war and housing a large number of additional people from country villages and towns who are sheltering behind its stout walls. However if we take a closer a look at what precisely Joshua the Stylite is saying we can divine a different sub-text in relation to the jews.

Joshua is relating how the city was ruled; in the absence of the appointed governor, by a man named Eusebius who - enacting a similar policy to that of the Emperor Julian when dealing with a crisis of food in the Syrian city of Antioch a century earlier - (2) decided to try and stabilize prices for the staple foodstuffs in the city by increasing the amount of bread available by breaking the monopoly on the baking of bread naturally held by the bakers.

So far so good, but then we come to what Joshua says next: in so far as he states that the jewish women of the city turned up at the public granary on the grounds that they wished to bake bread. Now it is not stated whether the jews had to purchase the grain from Eusebius or whether they received it gratis on the explicit understanding that they were to use it to bake bread and then sell that bread to the poor with Joshua implicitly suggesting that this was to be at an affordable price.

We are then told by Joshua that the poor were not able to beg for bread due to a lack of supply of it (even though the jewesses were supposed to be baking it for them) and had to beg for coins with which to buy cheaper foodstuffs such as vegetables. This then in turn drove the prices of vegetables up as demand easily outstripped supply leading to the (non-jewish) poor turning up at Christian religious services simply in order to receive the communion wafer as some kind of meagre sustenance for their bodies.

Now the question we have to ask ourselves in this harrowing story of the starving poor is what happened to the public grain allotted to the jewesses by Eusebius so that they could bake bread for sale for a few coins to the poor?

It is clear that what Eusebius intended to happen was that public-spirited citizens would bake bread and then use that bread to both feed themselves and the poor, which would in turn alleviate the pressure on the other food resources of the city. This is the only possible rationale for why it is implied that Eusebius distributed grain to the jewesses of the city from the public granaries free of charge.

From Joshua's wording it is clear that this jewish bread never reached non-jews and rather stayed among the jews: who had taken advantage of Eusebius' desperation and naivete in order to make sure they had plenty of food without having to pay for it. This meant that the jews could then spend their money (which Joshua necessarily implies they had an abundance of) on supplementing their diet with other rarer foodstuffs such as meat.

However in order to not seem to be disobeying Eusebius' requirement for the distribution of grain in the first place: the jews put their excess bread on sale to the non-jewish inhabitants of the city, but at such high prices that the poor were never able to get enough money to purchase one loaf. This meant that the wealthier non-jews could purchase the bread made by the jews, which meant that the jews got rich off the desperation of others while not breaking the letter of their agreement (although outrageously flouting the spirit of it) with Eusebius to use the public grain to bake bread for the inhabitants of the city.

This means that the jews in effect gained control - as with the story of Joseph and Pharaoh in the Torah - of the food resources of a country (in this case the Roman province of Syria and in the Biblical case Egypt) and used it for speculative profiteering, while disregarding the suffering of the non-jewish poor who simply couldn't afford to pay the high prices the jews were demanding.

The moral of the story of the jewish monopoly on the food supply is clearly intended by Joshua to indicate the politically subversive and dangerous nature of the jews (3) and that they should not be given charge of anything.

This theme is echoed by Joshua in a somewhat off-hand comment that he makes in relation to a perceived 'sign of God' in the night sky over the Middle East. To wit:

'We received, however, a letter from some acquaintances of ours, who were travelling to Jerusalem, in which it was stated that, on the same night in which that great blazing fire appeared, the city of Ptolemais or 'Akko was overturned, and nothing in it left standing. Again, a few days after, there came unto us some Tyrians and Sidonians, and told us that, on the very same day on which the fire appeared and Ptolemais was     overturned, half of their cities fell, namely of Tyre and Sidon. In Beirut only the synagogue of the Jews fell down on the day when 'Akko was overturned.' (4)

The moral of this short note by Joshua is very simply that the fiery 'sign of God' in the night sky over the Middle East signalled God's judgement of the wicked in that the city of Ptolemais (probably a reference to Antiochia Ptolemais [Acre]) was destroyed by an earthquake, which also caused damage to the houses of the wicked in the cites of Tyre and Sidon (in Lebanon). Part of that judgement of the wicked by earthquake - and the part which most concerns us - is that in the city of Beirut [ancient Berytus] the only building that collapsed was the city's synagogue.

The implication by Joshua is simple in so far as that the earthquake and the fiery astral symbol that preceded it is a judgement on the wicked elements of mankind, of which the jews are - to Joshua's mind - the premier example.

This jewish wickedness is demonstrated for Joshua by the jewish behaviour in relation to the siege of the city of Edessa by Kawad the King of Persia.

To wit:

'Not even this sign, however, restrained the wicked mind of Kawad from his evil purpose; but he set up a king in place of Na'man, and arose and went to battle. When he came to Tella, he encamped against it; and the Jews who were there plotted to surrender the city to him. They dug a hole in the tower of their synagogue, which had been committed to them to guard, and sent word to the Persians regarding it that they might dig into it and enter by it. This was found out by the Count Peter, who was in captivity, and he persuaded those who were guarding him to let him come near the wall, saying that there were clothes and articles of his of different kinds which he had left in the city, and he wished to ask the Tellenes to give them to him. The guards granted his request and let him go near. He said to the soldiers who were standing on the wall to call the Count Leontius, who at that time had charge of the city, and they called him and the             officers. Peter spoke with them in Roman, and disclosed to them the             treachery of the Jews. In order that the matter might not become known to the Persians, he asked them to give him a pair of trousers. They at first made a pretense of being angry with him; but afterwards they threw down to him from the wall a pair of trousers, because in reality he had need of clothes to wear. Then they went down from the wall, and as if they had learned nothing about the treachery of the Jews and did not know which was the place, they went round and examined the foundations of the whole wall, as if they wished to see whether it required strengthening. This they did for the sake of Peter, lest the Persians might become aware that he had disclosed the thing and might treat him much worse. At last they came to the place which the Jews were guarding, and found that it was mined, and that they had made ready in the centre of the tower a great hole, as they had been told. When the Romans saw what was there, they sallied out against them with great fury, and went round the whole city, and killed all the Jews whom they could find, men and women, old men and children. This they did for (several) days, and they would scarcely cease from killing them at the order of the Count Leontius and the entreaty of the blessed Bar-Hadad the bishop.' (5)

Now from the above we can unambiguously see that Joshua is telling us that when the Persians besieged the city of Edessa: the jews were told by Leontius - the governor of the city - that they were to guard the area of the city wall next to their synagogue. The jews promptly pretended to be guarding their section of the wall, but instead dug a tunnel outside of the walls from their synagogue in the direction of the Persian camp and then let the Persians know (presumably by firing a message wrapped around an arrow or by messages written on rocks etc) where it was so they can use it to infiltrate Edessa. In doing this the jews were consciously and readily betraying their fellow citizens of Edessa in order that they could profit from the fall of the city to the Persian king.

Had Count Peter not discovered this plot or had the wherewithal to alert the defenders of Edessa by guile of it: then Edessa would have surely fallen to the Persians and the jews would have ruled the city by proxy as the new elite given their act of allegiance to the Persian king implicit in their betrayal of their fellow citizens to rape, theft and murder by the Persian army.

The non-jewish response was predictable in both its intensity as well as the speed at which it occurred and as with other similar situations in history where the jews have sought to betray gentile cities to invaders in order to profit from: it was a very bloody episode that had the ferocity of a pogrom combined with an unerringly rational justification for that ferocity. After all the jews had declared themselves; by their deliberate action, the enemy and they were prepared to see the rest of Edessa burned and its inhabitants slaughtered: so the citizens of Edessa reacted in one of the few ways they could: they killed all the jews without sparing jewish women or children as would normally be the case.

In summary then we can see that Joshua the Stylite - from the remarks he makes on the jews - is placing the jews firmly in the historical category of political subversives who will stop at literally nothing to profit from a given situation: starving the poor of one city to make a profit while attempting to betray another so that it would burned and its inhabitants slaughtered.

Is it any wonder then that Joshua the Stylite believed that the jews - when a major earthquake occurred in the Middle East - were being judged by God for their wickedness?


(1) Josh. Sty. 40
(2) Glen Bowersock, 1978, 'Julian the Apostate', 1st Edition, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, p. 96
(3) We are also told (Josh. Sty. 68) that the jews are prone to disbelief of any kind of non-jewish religious happening and believe (by implication) that they are necessarily fraudulent.
(4) Ibid. 47
(5) Ibid. 58