Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXIII.1.1-3

Julian’s attempt to rebuild the temple of Jerusalem
Name of the author: 
Ammianus Marcellinus
390 CE to 392 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Res Gestae

For a presentation of Ammianus’s life and of his work, the Res Gestae, see Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XIV.6.3-6.

It is commonly assumed that Ammianus composed books XXIII to XXV of his Res Gestae between 390 and 392 CE (on the dating see Fontaine, Ammien Marcellin, IV, 1ère partie, p. 10-11). The text presented here is an excerpt from the very beginning of book XXIII dealing with the preparations and the start of Julian’s military campaigns against the Persians in 363 CE. To prepare this campaign Julian stayed at Antioch between July 362 CE and the 5th of March 363 CE. It is important to remember that Ammianus himself came from Antioch and that in 363 CE he was present beside Julian, a situation that adds some credibility to the event narrated here (Blanchetière, “Julien Philhellène,” p. 72). This passage is of particular interest, as it is one of the two non-Christian authors dealing with Julian’s attempt to reconstruct the temple of Jerusalem. Because in § 1 Ammianus highlights the fact that this project took place during the fourth consulship of Julian with Flavius Sallustius as a colleague, we can date the event from 363 CE.

It is important to compare Ammianus’s testimony with the other testimonies, and especially with that of Julian. According to Bidez’s edition, Julian’s fragmentary letter 89b must have been part of the letter 89a that he wrote at Antioch, around January 363 CE, and that he addressed to the High priest Theodorus (Julian, Letters 89a and 89b in Bidez’s edition, p. 151-174). In this letter he wanted to inform Theodorus of the religious reforms he wanted to undertake in order to prevent impiety and to restore the traditional cults, but also of the fact that he promoted him High priest of Asia (Theodorus had then to control all the temples and priests of the province). In a passage of letter 89a, Julian contrasts the impiety of the followers of the traditional polytheistic religion with the fervour of the Jews who prefer to endure starvation rather than to eat pork (Letter 89a, 453c, p. 154 of Bidez’s edition). Julian then expresses his admiration for the religious nature of the Jews: “But these men (i.e. the Jews) are actually extremely religious (θεοσεβεῖς / theosebeis), seeing that they revere a god who is truly most powerful and most good and governs this world of sense, and, as I know, is worshipped by us also under other names,” before finally regretting that Jews only serve their god and do not consider worshipping the others that they consider to be reserved for gentiles (ἔθνεσιν / ethnesin)” (Letter 89a, 453d-454a, p. 154-155 of Bidez’s edition). As rightly underlined by François Blanchetière, even if according to the circumstances Julian could say some positive things about the religious nature of the Jews, he also used to criticize explicitly Jewish monotheism. That is why he always refers to the Jewish God with neutral expressions in order that everyone can interpret his words according to his own beliefs (see Blanchetière, “Julien Philhellène,” p. 73-74).
The existence of these rebuilding operations is confirmed in another letter of Julian whose beginning has been lost, meaning its dating remains debated. According to Joseph Bidez, it is the following part of letter 89a composed at Antioch in January 363 CE (see Bidez, L’empereur Julien, p. 102). In a passage of this letter, Julian deals with some Jewish religious authorities who proclaimed that idols could be freely destroyed, and writes: “These very men who address these insulting objections to us, the prophets of the Jews, what will they say about their temple which had been destroyed three times and which is not yet rebuilt? I do not say these words to insult them, as myself I have planned to re-establish this temple which is ruined for long, in honour of the god which is worshiped inside” (Julian, Letter 89b, 295c, p. 163 of Bidez’s edition). Finally, in a passage of the work of the Byzantine antiquarian John the Lydian (who lived during the sixth century), entitled De Mensibus, one line of a letter that Julian addressed to the Jews at the time of his expedition against Persians is preserved (ὃτε πρὸς Πέρας ἐστρατεύετο / hote pros Peras estrateueto). The quotation is as follows: “I build up, with all my eagerness, the temple of the Most High God (τὸν ναὸν τοῦ Ὑψίστου θεοῦ / ton naon Hupsistou theou)” (Letter 134, p. 197 of Bidez’s edition). As the Jews here mentioned in the address of this letter have been interpreted by some scholars as being Babylonian Jews, it has been suggested that Julian chose to authorise the re-building of the Jerusalem Temple to try to obtain their support against the Persians (see for instance Avi-Yonah, The Jews, p. 199). However, we are totally ignorant of which Jewish community Julian addressed this letter to, as with the date of its composition, meaning that it remains very uncertain whether Julian decided to rebuild the Temple mainly for strategic reasons.

In spite of the problems of dating of the various letters of the emperor Julian, the passages presented here show that Julian’s project to rebuild the Jewish Temple must have actually existed. The rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple could have had as a consequence the fact that Jews could have then performed their sacrifices again. Thus, the restoration of the Jewish cult fitted in with the re-establishment of all the cults, and especially of sacrificial rites, in the Empire as a whole, as desired by Julian from the beginning of his reign (see Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXII.5; Ammianus was, however, far from being enthusiastic about Julian’s policy to massively encourage the performance of sacrifices; see Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXII.12.6 and 14.3). One of the speeches Against the Jews (Adversus Iudaeos) pronounced by John Chrysostom in 387 CE confirms the link existing between Julian’s authorisation to rebuild the Temple and its policy of re-establishment of sacrificial rites. However, John’s perspective is different, as it is radically hostile towards Jews and the emperor Julian (about this series of speeches see Pradels, Brändle and Heimgartner, “The Sequence”). In a passage of the fifth speech, John also deals with Julian’s hope that the Jews could one day perform sacrifices to the gods of the traditional religion. John then immediately implies that Jews refused to do so and that they recalled that in the past they used to sacrifice, but not outside Jerusalem. After having been banned from this city, then called colonia Aelia Capitolina, from Hadrian’s time onwards, and their most holy temple remaining destroyed, the Jews could not perform sacrifices. This situation is then presented by John Chrysostom as having motivated Julian to start the operation to reconstruct the Temple after Julian had first gathered them at Antioch (see John Chrysostom, Against the Jews V.11.4-5, for the Greek text see PG XLVIII.900-901 and De Sancta Babyla contra Iulianum et Gentiles 22, PG L.568; in a similar perspective, see Rufinus of Aquileia, Ecclesiastical History I.37, PL XXI.505; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History V.22.4 see the Sources Chrétiennes edition; Socrates, Ecclesiastical History III.20.1-5 see the Sources Chrétiennes edition; Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History III.20, see the Sources Chrétiennes edition). All the Christian authors thus agree on the fact that the initiative to encourage the Jews to perform sacrifices anew came from Julian (Blanchetière, “Julien Philhellène,” p.  70). This attitude of Julian constituted a real break in the attitude of most of the Roman emperors – be they Christian or not – towards Jewish cult from the Flavian period onwards. Actually, from Vespasian’s reign onwards, no emperor had authorised the Jews to rebuild their Temple. This can be explained by the fact that this rebuilding would have signified some kind of victorious religious rebirth for a rebellious people whose cult was considered by the imperial power as potentially dangerous (on this last idea see Goodman, Rome & Jerusalem, p. 500).
Many Christian authors have also mentioned Julian’s attempt to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple and explained it by his anti-Christian motivations (about the Christian sources see Blanchetière, “Julien Philhellène,” p. 63-68). Among the Christian testimonies dealing with the reconstruction of the Temple, the one of Gregory of Nazianzus in his second invective Against Julian, probably composed in 364 CE, is crucial to see which kind of speeches developed among Christians contemporary to the events. In one passage of this speech, Gregory of Nazianzus puts all the responsibility of the rebuilding on Julian and presents it as an orchestrated attack against the Christians by Julian through the Jews: “… he stirred up against us the nation of the Jews, making his accomplice in his machinations their well-known credulity, as well as that hatred for us which has smouldered in them from the very beginning” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration V.3; for a similar idea see Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History III.20). Some Christian authors also specify that Julian’s project was first motivated by the fact that he wanted to go against Jesus’s prophecy about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple as given in Matthew 24:2, Mark 13:2 and Luke 21:5. This is the case when John Chrysostom says about Julian in his fifth speech Against the Jews: “At the same time, in his mad folly, he was hoping to cancel out the sentence passed by Christ which forbade the rebuilding of the temple” (John Chrysostom, Against the Jews V.11.8; translation quoted from the Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers; for a similar idea see Philostorgius, Ecclesiastical History VII.9 see PG LXV.545-547; Rufinus of Aquileia, Ecclesiastical History I.37; Socrates, Ecclesiastical History III.20.7; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History V.22.5; Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History III.20; about this point see Blanchetière, “Julien Philhellène,” p. 70).

Regarding the building operations, some Christian sources partially match the testimony of Ammianus (see Drijvers, “Ammianus Marcellinus 23.1.2-3, p. 21). Concerning the funding of the project, Ammianus states that Julian wanted to restore the Temple of Jerusalem “at vast cost” (sumptibus) and that the work had been performed with the help of the provincial governor, under the supervision of Julian’s near relation Alypius. These details show that the operations may have been funded, at least partially, by the public fiscus. Some Christian authors actually insist upon that very idea that Julian furnished all the means necessary for the building operations (John Chrysostom, Against the Jews V.11.8; Socrates, Ecclesiastical History III.20.6). Some other Christian authors, on the contrary, highlight that Jews sent a lot of riches to fund the work and/or took part personally in the operations (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration V.4; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History V.22.5; Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History III.20.2).
Ammianus and some Christian narratives of the rebuilding operations of the Jerusalem Temple agree on another point: the fact that some levelling operations may have been performed and that the first supernatural events occurred when the foundations (fundamenta, § 3) of the temple had started to be settled. Ammianus describes these supernatural events as follows: “terrifying balls of flame kept bursting forth near the foundations of the temple” (§ 3), a detail that appears also in John Chrysostom’s version of the events: “a fire leaped forth from the foundations” and killed many workmen (see John Chrysostom, Against the Jews V.11.9, see PG XLVIII.901; and De Sancta Babyla contra Iulianum et Gentiles 22 see PG L.568; for a fire coming from heaven see Ambrose, Letter 74.12). Some Christian authors propose a different, and often more complex, version of these supernatural events in which an earthquake plays a significant role into the destruction of the foundations and the killing of the workmen (earthquake: see Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration V.4; storm, earthquake and then fire coming from the heaven: see Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History V.22.7-11; Socrates, Ecclesiastical History III.20.8-10; earthquake and then fire coming from the excavations: see Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History III.20.4-6). Based on the debated testimony of a Syriac letter allegedly attributed to the bishop of Jerusalem, Cyril, some scholars have concluded that the earthquake responsible for the destruction of the new temple may have occurred on the 18-19th of May 363 CE, that is, after Julian’s departure from Antioch to lead the Persian campaigns. As a consequence, these scholars argue that Ammianus may have misplaced the foundation of the temple at the time Julian was still in Antioch in order to not interrupt the narrative of the military campaigns (see Matthews, The Roman Empire, p. 495; the historicity of the earthquake and fire balls causing the destruction of the foundations is also admitted in Thélamon, Païens et Chrétiens, p. 305-306; though it is contested in Bowersock, Julian, p. 120-122). Finally, in contrast to Ammianus, some of the Christian authors dealing with these extraordinary events that had caused the end of the reconstruction process associate them with the advent of other Christian miracles such as the appearance of crosses on the clothes of the Jews or in the sky (see Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration V.4; Socrates, Ecclesiastical History III.20.14; Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History V.22.12; Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History III.20.7). Leaving aside these Christian re-interpretations of the events, both Ammianus and all the Christian authors dealing with this event agree on the idea that the advent of some supernatural events/miracles put an end to the building operations.

However, there is one major discrepancy between Ammianus’s testimony and the ones of most of the Christian authors, concerning the reasons that may have motivated Julian to rebuild the Temple. While, as we have seen above, Christian authors have largely insisted upon the anti-Christian motivations of Julian, more especially his will to contradict Jesus’s prophecy, Ammianus does not insist upon the religious motivations that would explain Julian’s attempt to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple. Rather, he highlights the fact that Julian initiated the project to appear as a great builder and to reinforce the glory of his reign (§ 2). This explanation may seem a bit simplistic, and many scholars, arguing that Ammianus was not so interested in dealing with matters related to Christians – which is true – have taken the Christian testimonies for granted and reached the conclusion that Julian’s decision to rebuild the Temple was mainly motivated by anti-Christian aims (see for instance Bowersock, Julian, p. 88-89). Even though Julian’s project may have actually been perceived by many Christians as an extremely violent attack against Christ’s prophecy (Goodman, Rome & Jerusalem, p. 576), it is not certain that Julian’s decision to rebuild the Temple was actually mainly motivated by his will to attack Christianity. Jan W. Drijvers has thus convincingly suggested that it must have been less anti-Christian motivation and more Julian’s will to restore the old cults, to reopen the temples and to revive the practice of sacrifices that inspired his project to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple (Drijvers, “Ammianus Marcellinus 23.1.2-3”). By justifying Julian’s project to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple by his will “to extend the memory of his reign by great works (magnitudine operum), Ammianus may have had in mind Julian’s policy of “reintroducing sacrificial ceremonies and the reopening of the temples” (Drijvers, “Ammianus Marcellinus 23.1.2-3,” p. 25-26; see also the development about Julian’s will to be presented as a restaurator templorum, a “restorer of temples”).

In conclusion, with the letters of Julian, this extract from Ammianus Marcellinus’s Res Gestae is one of the few texts giving a non-Christian version of the operations of reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple that may have happened at the beginning of 363 CE (that is, slightly before or at the beginning of Julian’s military campaign in Persia). On various points, such as that the imperial power funded the operations, that some levelling operations were undertaken, or that the operations were suspended because of extraordinary events, Ammianus’s narrative matches some of the Christian ones. Ammianus’s explanation of the reason that motivated Julian to support this project seems, however, clearly different from his anti-Christian motivations exposed in the Christian sources. It is preferable to consider that Julian authorised the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple because it fitted in with his project of restoration of the cults and of the sacrificial practices, but also of reopening of the temples within the Empire. Finally, it is important to imagine that for the Jews of Palestine, as for those of the Diaspora, the announcement that rebuilding operations of the Jerusalem Temple had started at the beginning of 363 CE must have represented a real hope, and the end of these operations a cruel deception. Surprisingly, there is no reference to this episode in all of the rabbinic literature. This is even more surprising, because as rightly recalled by Martin Goodman, from the first century CE onwards Jews continued to desire to worship their God in their Temple. One perfect example of that feeling is that a large part of the Mishnah, composed at the very beginning of the third century, was about the rituals that had to be performed in a restored Jerusalem sanctuary (Goodman, Rome & Jerusalem, p. 499). This silence can be explained variously. First, the ephemeral character of Julian’s reign may explain the silence of Rabbinic testimonies. Second, some scholars explain it as being caused by the fact that the patriarch, who was present at Tiberias, would not have been favourable to a possible reconstruction of the Temple as it would have meant that his power was in competition with that of the High Priest. Thus, according to Michel Avi-Yonah, the silence of the Talmudic sources regarding Julian’s project would reflect the hesitation of many rabbis in Palestine towards the project of re-establishing the Temple cult (see Avi-Yonah, The Jews, p. 197; followed in Blanchetière, “Julien Philhellène,” p. 78). A final remark has to be made about the ideological implications that this attempt of reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple may have had. If from Constantine’s conversion onwards Jews increasingly perceived this of Christianising Rome as embodying more and more an overwhelming mimetic rival for them, they may have considered Julian’s project to be a salutary decision. Julian’s attempt to restore the Jerusalem Temple may have thus been experienced by many Jews as a manifestation of the fact that the traditional and polytheistic Rome – that Julien embodied and wanted to promote – could be by their side against the Christians. However, their hopes vanished with to the failure of the rebuilding operations and the shortness of Julian’s reign.

Bibliographical references: 

Julian the Apostate

Bowersock, Glen W.bookJulian the ApostateCambridge (Mass.)Harvard University Press1997
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