This Day in Jewish History / The Theodosian Code Is Published, Spelling Bad News for Jews

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Emperor Theodosius II’s legal code governing the Byzantium Empire established Christianity as the official religion and circumscribed the rights of Jews.

January 31, 438 C.E. is the date that the legal Code of Emperor Theodosius II was published. Theodosius (401-450) ruled over Byzantium, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, based in Constantinople. In 429, he appointed a committee to compile and codify all the laws that the eastern empire had adopted since its establishment under Constantine in 312.

One of Theodosius’ goals in publishing the codex was to establish Eastern Orthodox Christianity as his empire’s official religion and to clarify church doctrine. This had an impact on the Jews of the reign, whose status was somewhere between that of Christians and pagans. Their continued presence was necessary to prove the theological superiority of Christianity, but they were not supposed to thrive.

Before the code came into effect, Jews had held equal citizenship to Christians and were even exempted from certain laws, such as the prohibition on circumcision; their right to observe the Sabbath was also protected. The Theodosian Code, however, introduced a number of anti-Jewish measures. It barred Jews from holding positions in the military and civil service. The only exception to that restriction was the office of decurion, tax collector, whose holder, by Byzantine law, was required to make up any shortfall in tax revenues out of his own pocket.

Jews were also prohibited from buying slaves, although not from holding them (slaves could be inherited) a restriction apparently designed to give Christians the opportunity to convert their pagan slaves and to deprive Jews of the same opportunity. The code stated: “He who misleads a slave or a freeman against his will or by punishable advice, from the service of the Christian religion to that of an abominable sect and ritual, is to be punished by loss of property and life.” Similarly ambivalent was a law that banned construction of new synagogues – although not repair of existing ones. 

The Theodosian Code was later adopted by the western empire, based in Rome. In Byzantium, it was superseded in 529 by the Justinian Code, which tightened restrictions on Jews in a number of realms.

A bust of Emperor Theodosius II.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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