A New Emperor in Rome, A New Holy Temple in Jerusalem?
By the late fourth century, Jerusalem had been transformed into a Christian city. Throughout the Roman Empire, Christianity was rapidly becoming the established religion, displacing the pagan gods of old. But just as the Christian identity of Jerusalem seemed most assured, an emperor arose who sought to restore the status quo, proposing a radical change that would return Jerusalem to the Jewish people. Emperor Julian’s proposal: Rebuild the Jews’ Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Now Jerusalem had become a focal point of Christianity, and a myriad of Christian buildings sprung up all around the city. The huge Church of the Holy Sepulchre had been built on the torn-up foundations of a Temple of Aphrodite—underscoring the way in which Christianity had displaced paganism in Jerusalem and throughout the empire as the central religion.
It was also displacing Judaism. Christians in the early medieval period believed that the success of Christianity was directly interrelated with the downfall of Judaism. For that reason, Jews were only permitted to practice one ritual in Jerusalem every year, and that was the ritual of mourning at the Temple Mount on the Ninth of Av. On this day, Jews mourned the destruction of their Holy Temple.
Rebuilding the Jews’ Holy Temple
Julian had been raised a Christian, but rejected the teachings of his youth, opting instead to embrace the pagan practices of his ancestors. Julian believed that God must be appeased through sacrifices, or disaster was certain to befall the empire. So immediately upon his succession, Julian announced that he would reinstate paganism as the state religion. Christianity would not be banned, but Julian hoped to suppress its practice in the governing classes, and to diminish its hold on state legislation.
This proved fortunate for the Jews. Just as Julian sought to restore the practice of pagan sacrifice, so did he also want the Jews to resume their sacrifices at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Julian resolved to restore Jerusalem to the Jewish people, and rebuild the Holy Temple at his own expense.
Tremendous celebrations by the Jewish people ensued in the streets of Jerusalem, and they built a temporary synagogue on the Temple Mount. All the tools and materials that would be necessary to rebuild the Temple were gathered.
Meanwhile, the Christian community in Jerusalem was reeling from this heavy blow. It seemed that the Christian claim to Jerusalem had been revoked. On the day that the Jews commenced rebuilding the Temple, a huge prayer service was held in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, praying for a miracle that would stop the building.
It seemed that their prayers were answered. That year, an earthquake struck in Jerusalem, causing a fire in the chambers where the tools and materials had been stored and injuring several workmen. Shortly afterward, Julian was killed in battle. He was to be the last pagan ruler of the Roman Empire; from that time onward, Christianity was to hold sway in Jerusalem and throughout the empire.