Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Heritage Civilization and the Jews
About the Series Historical Timeline Resources Lesson Plans Episodes
sidecurve1 The Power of the Word
Interactive Presentation
Interactive Atlas
Historical Documents
Video Resources
Laws granting Jews freedom of religion

Recognizing that Jews could not be expected to obey foreign laws that required them to violate Jewish sacred law, Rome granted Jews a unique, privileged status. It gave them the right to govern themselves by their own laws and maintain their customs no matter the country of their residence.

Other states under Roman control felt compelled to grant the same privileges to Jews in their territory. These four decrees, preserved by Josephus, show that Jews anywhere in the empire could appeal to Rome if they faced persecution.

Julius Gaius, praetor, consul of the Romans, to the magistrates, Senate, and people of Parium, sends greeting.

The Jews of Delos and some other Jews who sojourn there in the presence of your ambassadors, signified to us that, by a decree of yours, you forbade them from observing the customs of their forefathers and their way of sacred worship. Now it does not please me that such decrees should be made against our friends and allies whereby they are forbidden to live according to their own customs or to contribute money for common meals and holy festivals, for they are not forbidden to do so even in Rome itself. For even Gaius Caesar, our imperator and consul, in that decree wherein he forbade the religious societies to meet in the city, did yet permit these Jews and these only, both to collect contributions and to hold their common meals. Accordingly, when I forbid other religious societies, I permit these Jews and these only, both to collect contributions and to hold their common meals. Accordingly, when I forbid other religious societies, I permit these Jews to gather together and feast according to the customs and laws of their forefathers. It will therefore be good for you that if you have made any decree against these our friends and allies, to abrogate the same by reason of their virtue and good will toward us. . . ."

The decree of the people of Halicarnassus. . . . Since we have ever a great regard to piety toward God and to holiness; and since we aim to follow the people of the Romans who are the benefactors of all men, and what they have written to us about an alliance of friendship and mutual assistance between the Jews and our city to the effect that their sacred services and accustomed festivals and assemblies may be observed by them; we have decreed that as many men and women of the Jews as are willing to do so may celebrate their Sabbaths and perform their sacred rites according to the Jewish laws; and may make their places of prayer at the seaside, according to the customs of their forefathers. If anyone, whether he be a magistrate or a private person, hinders them from so doing, he shall be liable to a fine to be applied to the uses of the city.

The decree of the people of Sardis: This decree was made by the Senate and people upon the representation of the praetors: 'Whereas those Jews who are our fellow citizens and live with us in this city have always had great privileges bestowed upon them by the people, and have come now before the Senate and the people, and have requested that, upon the restitution of their law and their liberty by the Senate and people of Rome, they may assemble together according to their ancient legal custom and adjudicate suits among themselves, and that a place may be given them where they may have their wives and children, and that they may offer, as did their forefathers, their prayers and offerings to God; now the Senate and people have decreed to permit them to assemble together on the days formerly appointed according to their own laws; and that a place be set apart for them by the praetors for them to build and inhabit as they shall deem fit for that purpose; and that the market officials of the city shall take care that such sorts of food as they esteem fit for their eating may be imported into the city.

The decree of the people of Ephesus: . . . Since the Jews that dwell in this city have petitioned Marcus Julius Pomperus, the son of Brutus, the proconsul, that they might be allowed to observe their Sabbaths and to act in all things according to the customs of their forefathers without impediment from anyone, the praetor (proconsul) has granted their petition. Accordingly, it was decreed by the Senate and people that since this affair concerns the Romans, none of them should be hindered from keeping the Sabbath day nor be fined for so doing; but that they may be allowed to do all things according to their own laws.