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Jews in Rome

Why were Jews forbidden from meeting in Roman synagogues in 41 C.E. ?

Head of the Roman emperor Claudius
Head of the Roman emperor Claudius

Q. Why did Claudius prohibit Roman Jews from meeting in synagogues in 41 C.E.?

A. We know from the ancient Roman historian Cassius Dio that the emperor Claudius (reigned 41–54 C.E.) ordered the Jews not to hold meetings in Rome around 41 C.E. (Cassius Dio 60.6.6). And yet Cassius does not explicitly reveal why Claudius would prohibit Roman Jews from meeting in synagogues. If we look at Claudius’s Letter to Alexandria, we see that he explicitly warns the Jews not to engage in certain activities, which, if carried out, would entice his “wrath” upon them. For example, he warns them “not to agitate for more privileges than they formerly possessed, and not in the future to send out a separate embassy … and not to bring in or admit Jews who come down the river from Egypt or from Syria” or else he will “by all means take vengeance on them as fomenters of which is a general plague infecting the whole world.”

It seems plausible, then, that Claudius’s ban on Jewish synagogue meetings was an attempt to restrict Jewish activity in general terms, with the intention of limiting any further religious or political disturbances.

Many scholars contend that this ban failed to stifle Jewish activity in the manner envisioned by Claudius, leading him to expel the Jews from Rome later that decade. This appears to be the event referred to in Acts 18:2, which notes that Paul “found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.” Moreover, Suetonius (another Roman historian) wrote, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome” (Divus Claudius 25). Although scholars are not completely agreed on this point, it is likely that this Chrestus conflict involved disputes about Jesus.

If the expulsion of Jews from Rome was indeed a result of Christian disturbances, the question remains: was the synagogue ban also a result of conflict surrounding Jesus within Jewish circles? Helga Botermann is one scholar who argues that both the ban and the expulsion were results of various disputes surrounding early Christians. Though the data available is limited, the book of Acts does present quite a bit of conflict between Paul and his Jewish contemporaries, suggesting that this reconstruction is certainly possible.

  • Warren Campbell

    Warren Campbell is a graduate student in New Testament at Wycliffe College of the University of Toronto.