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Transformation of a City: The Christianization of Jerusalem in the Fourth Century

Transformation of a City: The Christianization of Jerusalem in the Fourth Century

By Jan Willem Drijvers

Cults, Creeds and Identities in the Greek City After the Classical Age, edited by R. Alston, O. M. van Nijf, & C. G. Williamson (Peeters, 2013)

Madaba map of Jerusalem

Introduction: Jerusalem was a backwater in the Roman Empire by the beginning of the fourth century CE, with nothing left of its former first-century splendour. The suppression of the Jewish revolt in 70 CE resulted in the partial destruction of the city and the Jewish temple. The overthrow of the Bar Kochba rising in 135 CE was followed by the city’s refoundation by Hadrian; the emperor renamed the city Colonia Aelia Capitolina after himself and Jupiter Capitolinus. Hadrian expelled the Jewish inhabitants from Jerusalem and did not allow them to live in the city and its immediate vicinity. The Jews were replaced by a gentile population, many of them veterans coming from Syria and other nearby regions.

The presence of units of the 10th legion –the Legio X Fretensis– made Aelia Capitolina very much a garrison town. However in spite of the presence of these military contingents, Aelia was an insignificant provincial town, and it was considerably smaller than Jewish Jerusalem had been in the first century CE in terms of residential area and number of inhabitants. It is a reasonable estimate that the city had no more than 15,000 inhabitants in the second and third centuries. Along with the change of its ethnic identity and demography went a transformation of the physical layout of the city. A pagan infrastructure was created with temples and other sanctuaries, sometimes on sacred Jewish sites, as a consequence of which the city completely lost its Jewish character. Jupiter, Aphrodite, Serapis, Dionysus, Mars, Tyche and other deities were venerated in Aelia. Their temples and shrines were set up on Aelia’s forum and other central places in the city. However, the Temple Mount (some 20% of the city’s area) remained a conspicuously desolate part of the city. Administratively, Aelia seems to have been organised as any other Roman colony with a municipal council, duumvirs, aediles and decurions. Aelia’s magistrates were subordinate to the provincial administration of Syria-Palaestina in Caesarea, the provincial capital. The Roman legion, the presence of which must have influenced life in Aelia socially, religiously and economically, remained until the end of the third century when it was relocated, perhaps by Diocletian, to Aila (modern Eilat) on the Red Sea.

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See also Jan Willem Drijvers speaking at Brown University on the topic of ‘The Christianization of Jerusalem in the Fourth Century’

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