By the time of the Roman conquest of Crete in the first century BCE, Jewish communities were thriving in most of the major cities including Gortyna, Kissamos, Hania, Rethymnon, Knossos and Sitia. According to Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the larger Greek islands including Crete were “full of Jewish settlements.”
In the 1st century CE, Roman historian Tacitus provides an intriguing theory regarding the origin of Jews. He claims that the Jews were, in fact, Cretans and that their original name was “Idaeans” (in other words “from Mt. Ida”). Beyond the obvious etymological similarity, his theory may also be based on part of the tradition linking the Philistines to the Eteo-Cretans who were fleeing the island following the arrival of the so-called Sea Peoples ca. 1200 BCE.
Jewish communities in Crete are also referred to in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles as having been present at Pentecost in Jerusalem (2:11). Equally, the Letter to Titus provides an indirect testimony to the Jewish presence in Crete.
Jewish historian Josephus Flavius mentions in his autobiography that his second wife came from Kissamos. He also describes how an impostor claiming to be Alexander, the son of King Herod, gained quite a following, as well as financial support among Cretan Jews in the early 1st century CE.
A second messianic fervour captured Cretan Jews in the mid-5th century CE when Moses of Crete, a self-proclaimed Messiah, spent a year traveling around the island proclaiming to be the same Moses who had led the Israelites through the Red Sea and into the Sinai. He promised that in the following year he would lead Crete’s Jews to the Holy Land. Commercial and economic interests were abandoned in anticipation of that miracle and on a specified day, the Jews of Crete met together and, to the horror and amazement of Christians watching the event, threw themselves off the cliffs and into the sea. Many individuals drowned; still others were saved by fishermen assembled in nearby boats to watch this unfolding episode. Recounting this event in his Historia Ecclesiastica, Christian historian Socrates Scholasticus claims that there was allegedly a general conversion to Christianity on the part of the survivors. This episode took place during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II (408-450 CE). During his rule over the recently Christianized empire, Jews were singled out for prohibitive legislation. Jews of Egypt and Palestine especially bore the brunt of a wave of anti-Jewish sentiment that, among other things, led to restrictions on the building of synagogues, closure of rabbinical schools and the abolition of the office of Nasi (Patriarch).
After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West in 476 CE, Roman rule continued in the eastern part of the empire (later termed the Byzantine Empire) where its citizens continued to view themselves as “Romans”, a term that should eventually be associated with the Greek-speaking Jews, the Romaniotes. At this time, Crete was one of the 64 provinces of the Byzantine Empire with its capital in Constantinople, the prevailing seat of the Greek Orthodox Church. Crete was part of this empire until the Arab invasion of the island some five centuries later
Photo 1: © Barry J. Beitzel: The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands, 2000.
Photos 2, 3
Source: public domain