Primary Texts on History of Relations

Dialogika Resources

AMBROSE OF MILAN, "Letters about a Synagogue Burning" (August, 388)

[From Jacob R. Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World, pp. 107-110.]

When the Emperor Theodosius I received word that a bishop had instigated the burning of a synagogue in Mesopotamia, he ordered that same bishop to rebuild it. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan intervened, writing to the Emperor to rescind his command. Shortly after, Ambrose wrote to his sister about a personal encounter with the Emperor on the matter.

Ambrose, Bishop, to the Most Clement Prince, and Blessed Emperor, Theodosius the Augustus

A report was made by the military Count of the East that a synagogue had been burnt and that this was done by the authority of the Bishop. You gave command that the perpetrators should be punished and the synagogue be rebuilt by the Bishop himself.

I do not urge that the Bishop's account ought to have been waited for; for priests are the calmers of disturbances and anxious for peace, except when they, too, are moved by some offense against God or insult to the Church. Let us suppose that that Bishop was too eager in the matter of burning the synagogue and too timid at the judgment-seat; are you not afraid, O Emperor, that he may comply with your sentence; do you not fear that he may fail in his faith?

But let it granted that no one will enforce this command [to rebuild the synagogue] upon the Bishop, for I have requested your clemency; and although I have not yet read that the edict is revoked, let us notwithstanding assume that it is revoked. What if others more timid- because they shrink from death-offer that the synagogue be rebuilt at their cost; or that the Count, having found this previously determined, himself orders it to be rebuilt out of the funds of Christians? ... Shall the Jews write this inscription on the front of their synagogue: "The temple of impiety erected from the plunder of Christians"?

But perhaps the cause of discipline under the law moves you, O Emperor. Which, then, is of greater importance, the show of legal discipline or the cause of religion? It is needful that legal censure should yield to religion.

There is, then, no adequate cause for such a commotion, that the people should be punished so severely for the burning of a building; and much less since it is the burning of a synagogue, a home of unbelief, a house of impiety, a recep¬tacle of folly which God himself has condemned. ...

And certainly, if I were pleading according to the law of nations, I could tell how many of the Church's basilicas the Jews burnt in the time of the Emperor Julian: two at Damascus, one of which is scarcely now repaired, and this at the cost of the Church, not of the Synagogue; the other basilica still is a rough mass of shapeless ruins. Basilicas were burnt at Gaza, Ascalon, Beirut, and in almost every place in those parts, and no one demanded punishment. And at Alexandria a basilica, which alone surpassed all the rest, was burnt by pagans and Jews. The Church was not avenged; shall the Synagogue be so?

The buildings of our churches were burnt by the Jews, and nothing was restored, nothing was asked back, nothing demanded. Now what could the synagogue have possessed in a far distant town, when the whole of what there is there is not much; there is nothing of value and no abundance. And what then could the scheming Jews lose by the fire? These are artifices of the Jews who wish to calumniate us, that because of their complaints an extraordinary military inquiry may be ordered. ...

Will you give this triumph over the Church of God to the Jews? this victory over Christ's people? this exultation, O Emperor, to the unbelievers? this rejoicing to the Synagogue, this sorrow to the Church? The people of the Jews will set this solemnity among amongst their feast-days and will doubtless number it amongst those on which they triumphed either over the Amorites or the Canaanites, or were delivered from the hand of Pharaoh, King of Egypt, or of Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon. They will add this solemnity, in memory of their having triumphed over the people of Christ. ...

On this point I pledge myself to our God for you, do not fear your oath. Is it possible that that should displease God which is amended for His honor? You need not alter anything in that letter, whether it be sent or is not yet sent. Order another to be written, which shall be full of faith, full of piety. For you it is possible to change for the better; for me it is not possible to hide the truth. ...

Ambrose to his sister, Marcellina

You were good enough to write me that your holiness was still anxious, because I had written that I was anxious; so that I am surprised that you did not receive the letter in which I wrote word that satisfaction had not been granted me. For when it was reported that a synagogue of the Jews and a conventicler of the Valentinians had been burnt by Christians, by the authority of the Bishop, an order was made, while I was at Aquileia, that the synagogue should be rebuilt and the monks who burnt the Valentinian building punished. Then, since I gained little by frequent endeavors, I wrote and sent a letter to the Emperor; and when he came to church I delivered a discourse ... [which declared that if you do not care for God's Church, God will not care for you.]

When I came down from the pulpit, the Emperor said to me, "You spoke about me." I replied, "I dealt with matters intended for your benefit." Then he said, "I had indeed decided too harshly about the repairing of the synagogue by the Bishop, but that has been rectified. The monks commit many crimes." Then Timasius, the general of the cavalry and the infantry, began to be over-vehement against the Bishop, and I answered him: "I deal with the Emperor as is fitting, because I know that he has the fear of God; but with you, who speak so roughly, one must deal otherwise."

Then, after standing for some time, I said to the Emperor: "Let me offer [Mass] for you without anxiety; set my mind at ease." As he continued sitting and nodding but did not give an open promise, and I remained standing, he said at last that he would amend the edict. I went on at once to say that he must end the whole investigation lest the Count should use the opportunity of the investigation to do some injury to the Christians. He promised that it should be so. I said to him: "I act on your promise." And repeated, "I act on your promise." "Act," he said, "Act on my promise." And so I went to the altar. I would not have gone unless he had given me a complete promise. And indeed so great was the grace attending the offering [of that Mass], that I myself felt that that favor [of rescinding the order] was very acceptable to our God, and that the divine presence was not wanting. And so everything was done as I wished.

Postscript: nevertheless, five years later (393) Theodosius issued an order to the Count of the East to punish any Christian who attacked and destroyed synagogues.