On May 29th 408, a constitution issued by Anthemius, praetorian prefect of the east, makes a curious accusation against eastern Jews; the law is subsequently incorporated into the Theodosian code, promulgated by emperor Theodosius II in 438:
Emperors Honorius and Theodosius Augustuses to Anthemius, praetorian prefect. The governors of the provinces shall prohibit the Jews from setting fire to Haman in memory of his past punishment, in a certain ceremony of their festival, and from burning with sacrilegious intent a form made to resemble the holy Cross in contempt of the Christian faith, lest they introduce the sign of our faith into their places, and they shall restrain their rites from ridiculing the Christian law, for they are bound to lose what had been permitted them till now unless they abstain from those matters which are forbidden. Given the fourth day before the calends of June at Constantinople, in the consulate of Bassus and Philippus1.
This law suggests that in their celebrations of the festival of Purim, Jews deliberately mock Christianity by burning a crucified effigy of Haman. Not only does the law prohibit this custom, but the emperors Honorius and Theodosius, under whose authority the law is issued, warn Jews to refrain from associating Christian symbols with Jewish rites and in general from ridiculing Christianity. The implicit threat is that if they fail to heed this injunction, they risk losing their privileges in Christian Roman society.
As often with isolated legal texts, it is difficult, if not impossible to comprehend the historical reality underlying the text. Did 4th century Jews in fact burn a crucified Haman in effigy as part of Purim celebrations? If so, how widespread was this practice? The emperors affirm that the practice deliberately mocked Christianity, and that this is part of a wider tendency to deride the Christian faith. This is one of a number of laws in the Theodosian Code, which seem to reflect a preoccupation with the borders between Jewish and Christian communities, Jewish and Christian symbols and rituals.
Reflection and Prayer: This fascinating insight into the relations between Jews and Christians shows the existence of mutual misunderstanding that would develop further into outright repression of one group by the other. Here, Jews and Christians live side by side, and the Roman authorities try to keep the peace.
Lord, help us, wherever possible, to live at peace with all, Help us to protect the rights of others, particularly their freedom of faith and expression, especially where their views differ to ours. In the name of Yeshua, the Prince of Peace we pray. Amen.
1«impp. honorius et Theodosius aa. anthemo praefecto praetorio. iudaeos quodam festiuitatis suae sollemni aman ad poenae quondam recordationem incendere et sanctae crucis adsimulatam speciem in contemptum christianae fidei sacrilega mente exurere prouinciarum rectores prohibeant, ne locis suis fidei nostrae signum inmisceant, sed ritus suos citra contemptum christianae legis retineant, amissuri sine dubio permissa hactenus, nisi ab inlicitis temperauerint. dat. iiii kal. iun. Constantinopoli Basso et Philippo conss.» (TheodosiusII, Theodosiani [hereafter CTh), 16.8.18, p.891; The Corpus of Roman Law, trans. by C. Pharr. I prefer the reading «locis» to «iocis» (extant in some manuscripts), and have modified the citations of the Latin text and english translation accordingly. for the text, commentary and bibliography on this law, see <http://www.cn-telma.fr/relmin/extrait979/>. This publication is part of the research project ReLMIn «The Legal status of Religious Minorities in the euro-Mediterranean World (5th-15th centuries)»; The research leading to this publication has received funding from the european Research Council under the european union’s seventh framework Progamme (fP7/2007-2013)/eRC grant agreement no 249416. see <www.relmin.eu>.
José Martínez Gázquez y John Victor Tolan (eds.), Ritus Infidelium. Miradas interconfesionales sobre las prácticas religiosas en la Edad Media, Collection de la Casa de Velázquez (138), Madrid, 2013, pp. 165-173.
The Rites of Purim as seen by The Christian Legislator: Codex Theodosianvs 16.8.18
Prohibition to Mock Christianity on Purim
Emperors Theodosius II and Honorius, May 29, 408
The governors of the provinces shall prohibit the Jews from setting fire to Haman in memory [effigy] of his past punishment, in a certain ceremony of their festival, and from burning with sacrilegious intent a form made to resemble the holy cross in contempt of the Christian faith, lest they mingle the sign of our faith with their jests, and they shall restrain their rites from ridiculing the Christian Law, for they are bound to lose what had been permitted them till now unless they abstain from those matters which are forbidden.