This is a cross question from Quora: What was Pope Sylvester's attitude towards Jews?

When searching for this issue I just did find newspaper articles without citing anything.

Celebrating an anti-semitic pope on Sylvester (The Jerusalem Post)

Did he really cause that Jews were prohibited living in Jerusalem? Was he antisemitic?

Was he tolerant against Jews? I would like to have sources in answers if they exist.


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    I noticed some inconsistences in The Jerusalem Post article. Pope Sylvester was not present at the Council of Nicaea (324), but did have two Legates represent him. Also Pope Sylvester (314-335) died on December 31, 335 and physically could not have overseen Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity which occurred on his deathbed on May 22, 337.
    – Ken Graham
    Jan 4, 2017 at 14:27
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    Nitpick: Contrary to what the article says, Sylvester (or Saint Sylvester) refers to December 31st, not January 1st. And of course, it has been a long time since anybody in Europe used the name of the Saint of the day to reference dates (although I could understand Jewish people keeping the name to avoid confussions with the Jewish New Year). The only reference to a celebration related to Sylvester is a popular marathon in Madrid, Spain, and it is a completely non-religious event related to the change of year that got the name only because it is always scheduled for New Year Eve.
    – SJuan76
    Jan 4, 2017 at 14:35
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    FWIW, the title of the Jerusalem Post article is click-bait. Antisemitism (the modern phenomenon) is very different to Jew hatred in the ancient world. The latter was both theologically and politically motivated, and even if it were true that St Sylvester I was instrumental in having Jews banned from Jerusalem, referring to him as being therefore "antisemitic" is misleading. His general attitude towards Jews is probably evident from his position within the church, but whether it extended beyond that into anything malicious, I don't know.
    – Shimon bM
    Jan 4, 2017 at 23:16
  • 4
    Eichmann's general attitude towards Jews is probably evident from his position within the SS but whether it extended beyond that into anything malicious, I don't know. Jan 5, 2017 at 13:02

2 Answers 2


We don't know.
Reliable information about him is sparse. The claims presented in the question have to be called "wholly unfounded".

Important to distinguish anti-judaism and antisemitism. One is directed against the believers of a faith, assaulting this 'fasle belief* and trying to 'better' them by conversion; the other does that too but goes one step further and assigns an essentialist (genetic) trait to people, also defining them as a 'race', with often just eliminatory goals in mind.

Anti-judaism was widespread in antiquity, medieval and early modern times. Despite some remaining doubts towards them people under pressure of being a Jew could escape that by being baptised. 'Blind Synagogue' having lost another sheep to 'seeing Ecclesia'. With the advent of 'scientific racism' a simple baptism would not suffice anymore.

Seeing that pope Silvester was late antiquity, early medieval, his attitudes should be described as anti-judaistic. If at all.

Pope Sylvester I (also Silvester, died 31 December 335), was the 33rd Pope of the Catholic Church from 314 to his death in 335.[…] He filled the See of Rome at an important era in the history of the Western Church, yet very little is known of him.

Since legends and known forgeries don't count much, describing him as anything seems like quite the stretch.

As the Jerusalem Post article is now used as base for a horrendously sourced Wikipedia article:

The decrees of Nicea are here. They were authorized by Constantine. Silvester was not present at this council. More official decrees seen as harsh towards Jews around that time had not much to do with Jerusalem.

James Everett Seaver: "The Persecution of the Jews in the Roman Empire (300-428)" sheds some light on doubtfulness of exitant sources.

Steven J Katz: "The Cambridge History of Judaism. Volume 4. The Late-Roman-Rabbinic Period", Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, New York, 2006. Here: Chapter 38: Paula Frederiksen & Oded Irshai: "Christian Anti-Judaism: Polemics and Policies" (p 977–1034).
Note the page numbers of this standard reference work! It mentions Silvester – wait for it – one time, exactly:

In particular, the wave of so-called "public disputations" placed in legendary settings imagined capitulations of Jews to the new Christian imperial order inaugurated by Constantine. One such legend presented a debate between Pope Sylvester and twelve rabbis (accompanied by scriptural allusions, discussions of Jesus’ descent, and miraculous revelations), culminating in the conversion of 3,000 Roman Jews; similar themes characterized another fiction set in Jerusalem, the "Invention of the True Cross." While each of these stories may have originated in the late fourth century, their earliest redactions date from the fifth and sixth, and they circulated mainly in the East.

Were Jews at any time prohibited from living in Jerusalem? If they were, then they were before Silvester could have had a say on deciding that. It's commonly viewed that after the Bar-Kokhba revolt Hadrian forbade it. But were they, really?

Linder believed that one should not suspect the Christian sources of a one-sided attitude towards the Jews, and claimed that the prohibitions of Hadrian were meant to “ensure the completely pagan character of Aelia Capitolina by its total detachment from Judaism and the prevention of the possibility of its rehabilitation as a Jewish Jerusalem.”
In his view, the prohibition was in force until the third century and the beginning of the fourth century. But I do not accept Linder’s argument against viewing these sources as one-sided in their attitude toward Judaism.
The interpretative nature of the testimonies that attribute the fate of the Jews first by divine decree and then by the decree of Hadrian, places their historical value in question.
The conclusions of Rokeah that the Jews themselves refrained from visiting the city and that this is in fact the basis for the descriptions in the Christian sources clearly reflect the deep affront this caused to the feelings of most of the Jewish population at the erection of a pagan military colony in their capital — at the site of their sacred temple. There were some, however, who did not reconcile themselves to the bitter reality and settled within the city area, for example, that group of sages who, at the end of the second century, composed the “Holy Community of Jerusalem.” The establishment of Aelia Capitolina as a pagan colonia should not be interpreted as a punitive measure, mainly because the plan for its erection preceded the Second Revolt and was one of its incentives. The background for its establishment was mainly a political one, and it should not be given a religious interpretation.
Menahem Mor: "The Second Jewish Revolt. The Bar Kokhba War, 132–136 CE", Brill: Leiden, Boston, 2016.

Even if we assume that Silvester had sway over Constantine's decisions, what were Constantine's decisions?

In 313, Constantine renewed the edict of toleration issued by Galerius in 311, thereby establishing parity for Christianity as an officially recognized religion (religio licita). For the Jews, this meant that Christianity was put on an equal footing with Judaism and was granted the same privileges (in particular, exemption from the obligation to participate in public sacrifices). Thus began the process which led to the eventual triumph of Christianity in Palestine, a triumph achieved at no little expense to Judaism. Under Constantine, Christian communities spread throughout Palestine, Christian pilgrimages became common (the earliest known account dates from the year 333 and was written by a pilgrim from Bordeaux), and Christian churches were erected at important Christian sites (including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem).
Peter Schäfer: "The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World", Routledge: London, New York, 1995.

Claims about anything regarding Silvester, including the assertion that he was antisemitic, or anti-judaistic, have a lot of explaining to do, to convince any historian why these claimants believe unbelievable legends to be true:


Bishop of Rome (31 January 314-31 December 335; the anniversary of his death is still named after him), probably a confessor in the persecution under Diocletianus. He received written communication of the resolutions of the first synod of Constantine (Constantinus 1 I) in Arles (1 August 314; Synodos II.); in it a Roman bishop is addressed for the first time as papa. Under S. the churches of Saint John Lateran and of Saint Peter came into being. He sent to the Synod of Nicaea 5 (325) only two priests (Vito/Victor and Vincentius). S. gained historical significance in legends: in the first half of the 5th century the Actus Silvestri (with a later appendix) appeared in Rome, their author claiming for S. the conversion and baptism of Constantine. The Actus Silvestri are also the basis for the Constitutum Constantini ('Donation of Constantine') of before c. 760.
Letsch-Brunner, Silvia (Zürich), “Silvester”, in: Brill’s New Pauly, Antiquity volumes edited by: Hubert Cancik and , Helmuth Schneider, English Edition by: Christine F. Salazar, Classical Tradition volumes edited by: Manfred Landfester, English Edition by: Francis G. Gentry. Consulted online on 23 May 2019 http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e1113350 First published online: 2006 First print edition: 9789004122598, 20110510

  • Does any of this really matter? The contest for domination of the abrahamic religions will never end. The thing about owning a god is... your actions are always justified.. You are always fighting for god against god's enemies (which is a weird concept if you think about it.. how can an omnipotent supreme being have enemies... ) but anyway.. everyone is fighting for a good cause against everyone else (who is fighting for an evil cause).... how can it end? and everyone who isn't you, is against you... May 22, 2019 at 17:37
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    @sofageneral One thing I'd sugest would be to not make concrete claims about a historical figure, when about this figure so little is known, that anachronistic judgements have a particular sour taste to them. Many medieval Christians who wrote show a 'fair' bit of intolerance towards Jews, but it's exactly this step in Reconquista Spain or in Luther's writings towards genuine antisemitism that transforms the spiritually motivated jealousy of competing superstitions and 'true' salvation programs from 'who cares' to 'everyone looses'; from: we'll see after death, to: we kill now. May 22, 2019 at 18:01
  • That is EXACTLY what i am saying... it doesn't matter because modern articles about a ancient obscure figures are just noise promoting the narrative du jour. and it really doesn't matter, everyone is fighting of a good cause, justice, god... against everyone else.. Oddly enough, no one says they fight of evil, injustice and the devil... and yet... all these good, just and godly people .. can't stop killing other good, just and godly people... so what does it matter how this dude that no one cares about felt about the jewish people or their faith? May 22, 2019 at 18:35
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    @sofa general I think you're missing the point of history.stackexchange....
    – user31561
    May 22, 2019 at 22:09
  • @Orangesandlemons: you are missing the point of history. May 23, 2019 at 13:58

Jews were prohibited from living in Jerusalem by the Emperor Hadrian around 136 as a response to the Bar Kochba revolt. (In fact, there was even a perimeter...i.e. not allowed to live within something like 20 miles of Jerusalem.) This was reversed by the emperor Julian in the early 360s. So it seems unlikely that Sylvester could have been the cause of a prohibition that had existed for 200 years before his papacy.

See the wikipedia article on the Bar Kochba revolt for more detail. You may also want to check the wikipedia articles on the Samaritans, whose relationship with Rome tended to be good when that of the Jews with Rome was bad, and vice versa.

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