388 CE: Christians Burn Down Synagogue, Emperor Seethes

The appalled Emperor ordered the early Christians to compensate the Jews, but Bishop Ambrose would have none of that.

A modern replica of the Disc of Emperor Theodosius, in the National Museum of Roman Art, Merida (original in the Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid).
A replica of the Disc of Emperor Theodosius, who condemned the destruction of Jewish houses of worship, to the utter indifference of Bishop Ambrose. Wikimedia Commons

On August 1, 388, C.E., an angry mob of Christians in the town of Callinicum, in the Roman province of Osrhoene, burned a synagogue to the ground.

It was not the first time that a Jewish place of worship had been destroyed by Christians in the early decades after the adoption of Christianity by Emperor Constantine. But the responses elicited by the fire, first a condemnation by the current emperor, Theodosius, and then in reaction to that by a leading bishop, have gone down in history for the insight they give to the ambivalent attitudes held toward Jews in the ancient Christian world. 

Callinicum was a town on the Euphrates River, roughly equivalent to the contemporary town of Al-Raqqah, in more recent times the de facto capital of the Islamic State in Syria.

Much less is known about the background to the arson than about what followed, but apparently the bishop of Callinicum incited from the pulpit against the Jews and their evil teachings and ways. The burning of the synagogue was the response the bishop’s followers deemed appropriate.

'A house of impiety'

According to Edward Gibbon, who wrote about the incident in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” the secular legal authority of the Mesopotamian province ordered the rioters of Callinicum and their rabble-rousing priest to compensate the Jews – either by rebuilding the synagogue for them or by paying them so they could undertake the reconstruction themselves.

That judgment was then confirmed by Theodosius, at the time the emperor of the Eastern part of the empire, whose seat was in Milan.

What then ensued is gives the story its special drama.

The body of the bishop of Milan, Ambrose, in white vestments, housed in the crypt of Sant'Ambrogio basilica. His remains lie (behind glass) with those of two martyrs, the saints Gervase and Protase.
BathoryPeter, Wikimedia Commons

Ambrose (Aurelius Ambrosius), the bishop of Milan, addressed a letter to the emperor, in which he claimed that it was nothing less than the “glory of God” that was a stake in the affair, and that for this reason he had to speak out.

A synagogue, wrote Ambrose, is “a home of unbelief, a house of impiety, a receptacle of folly, which God himself has condemned” (translation from the site earlychurchtexts.com): How could Theodosius order the Christians to rebuild something that had deserved to be destroyed?

Ambrose then reminded the emperor that it was the Jews who had destroyed the Christian basilicas in Damascus, Gaza, Ashkelon and Alexandria (during the time of Julian the Apostate) – although there is no evidence that this was the case.

'Thou hast preached against me!'

The bishop of Milan – who after his death became Saint Ambrose – could understand that the emperor may have been acting in the cause of discipline, but to this he could only ask, “Which, then, is of greater importance, the show of discipline or the cause of religion?”  

Ambrose implored the emperor to consider him as having been the one who had burned down the synagogue, and that if someone is to be punished for the action, it should be him. “I declare that I set fire to the synagogue,” he reasoned, “or at least that I ordered those who did it, that there might not be a place where Christ was denied.”

Theodosius did not respond to Ambrose’s epistle, so the bishop upped the ante. He now addressed the emperor publicly from the altar, and refused to offer him holy communion until he had rescinded his order. Ambrose couched his entire appeal in a cloak of love and concern for Theodosius, so that, after the service, when the emperor reproached the priest, saying, "Thou hast preached against me!" Ambrose responded by declaring, "Not against thee, but in thy behalf!"

The appeal worked, and the emperor canceled the order he had imposed on the clergy and the churchgoers of Callinicum to rebuild the synagogue.

As a postscript, however, it should be noted that five years later, in 393, Theodosius, by now the emperor of a united empire, issued an instruction noting that the Jews had a right to congregate in their houses of prayer, and declaring that “those who presume to commit illegal deeds under the name of the Christian religion and attempt to destroy and despoil synagogues” must be punished.

An antique mosaic of Saint Ambrose in the church St. Ambrogio in Milan. This might be an actual portrait, made while Ambrose was living. If so, the bishop had hazel eyes.
Wikimedia Commons