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date: 06 February 2023

anti-Semitism, paganfree

anti-Semitism, paganfree

  • Catherine Hezser


Whether the modern term anti-Semitism, popularized by the German anti-Semitic agitator and founder of the League of Antisemites Wilhelm Marr (1819–1904), is appropriate for antiquity is controversial. Scholars have proposed to use alternative terms such as Judeophobia or hatred against Jews instead. Similarly controversial is the question whether racism existed and was directed against Jews in antiquity. Greek and Latin writers’ expression of anti-Jewish arguments and slanderous allegations against Jews need to be investigated within the respective social, political, and cultural contexts in which they occur. Several anti-Jewish writers lived in Egypt and created variant versions of a counter-narrative to the biblical exodus story. Egyptian “anti-Semitism” is usually explained by reference to relations between Jews and non-Jews in Alexandria and the Hellenistic and Roman rulers’ treatment of the different ethnic groups. Recurrent anti-Jewish arguments are directed against beliefs and practices associated with Jews, such as Jewish monotheism, Sabbath observance, circumcision, and abstinence from pork. Rather than being based on detailed knowledge of Judaism or close observance of Jewish practices, they reflect misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Some allegations were entirely fictional. Greek and Roman authors’ claims of their own culture’s superiority over Jews as an ethnic and religious minority flared up in times of rebellion and defeat. Conflicts and clashes also happened in Antioch, Caesarea, and Rome, where Jews were frequently expelled. Major Roman authors expressed hostile views of Jews and Judaism. Roman emperors’ policies shifted between submission and toleration. Not every form of conflict between Jews and others can be called anti-Semitism. When pagans became Christian, traditional pagan attitudes towards Jews merged with Christian anti-Judaism.


  • Jewish Studies

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

Anti-Semitism, Racism, and Judeophobia

The term “anti-Semitism” was coined in the 19th century and applied to the racist categorization and discriminatory treatment of Jews in Europe at that time. It relates to modern social, economic, and political conditions that emerged in connection with the establishment of European nation states. Despite its reference to “Semites,” anti-Semitism always meant discrimination against Jews. In the late 19th century, Jews were categorized as “Semites” and viewed as an inferior “race” by the so-called Aryans, with whom the Nazis identified themselves. The modern use of the term anti-Semitism is therefore connected to pseudo-scientific approaches to “race,” which illegitimately categorized people on the basis of alleged genetic and physical characteristics and created hierarchies of superior and inferior “races.”

Since these modern views and political conditions cannot simply be applied to antiquity, scholars have questioned the adequacy of the term anti-Semitism to describe anti-Jewish remarks found in ancient Latin and Greek literary sources. Zvi Yavetz suggested to use the term “Judeophobia” for classical antiquity instead.1 Peter Schäfer, who adopted Yavetz’s term, argued that ancient descriptions of Jewish practices are not always polemic. They may even express an interest in customs that were different from the author’s own.2 These practices were sometimes considered threatening from a Greek, Roman, or Egyptian standpoint. According to Schäfer, negative statements about Jews reveal the Graeco-Roman authors’ anxiety (phobia) over practices and views they considered “strange.” At times when Jews were politically or religiously successful, for example, with the Maccabean expansion or through proselytism, hostile remarks against them increased in Greek and Roman texts. John J. Collins locates Judeophobia in imperial Rome: after the first Jewish revolt (66–73 ce) the hostility against Jews expressed by Roman writers such as Tacitus was “animated by Roman paranoia about the dilution of Roman culture and values by eastern cults.”3 In Egypt, “much of the hostile propaganda focused on the ‘strangeness’ of the Jews, their refusal to worship the gods of the lands and their alleged hostility to other people.”4

One might argue that these approaches seek the roots of Judeophobia amongst ancient Jews themselves, by considering the flaring up of hostilities a consequence of Jewish military successes, proselytism, or “strange” beliefs and practices. Benjamin Isaac has therefore looked at attitudes of cultural and ethnic superiority amongst Greeks and Romans and argued that racism in the sense of ethnic prejudice or xenophobia was “invented” in classical antiquity.5 Whereas Isaac identifies the roots of racism as a “set of ideas” expressed in “forms of hostility towards strangers and foreigners” in antiquity already, the (pseudo-)scientific foundations and forms of 19th-century racism were absent at that time.6 He points to the historical situation of Jews being subjugated first by Hellenistic rulers and then by Roman imperialism. The politically powerful rulers and the intellectual elites of imperialist governments tend to view the subjugated populations as “servile” and inferior to themselves not only in political but also in ethnic and cultural terms. The situation was exacerbated by the two Jewish revolts (66–73 ce and 132–35 ce). The Roman defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple lowered the image of Jews amongst non-Jews, a situation that increased anti-Jewish rhetoric amongst both pagans and Christians.7 It is therefore necessary to always analyse Greek and Latin authors’ references to Jews in the historical, political, social, and geographical contexts in which they occurred. While some negative remarks may have been directed at Jews specifically, others would have been shared with other subjugated people. By slandering subjugated ethnic minorities, the political elites justified imperial rule.8

Prejudices against Jews

The texts of Greek and Latin authors on Jews and Judaism, collected by Menahem Stern, indicate recurring thematic patterns that focus on specific practices and beliefs associated with Jews.9 Some of the texts have survived through references in the works of other authors only. Some Hellenistic Jewish texts can be read as rejections of the pagan allegations and apologies for Jewish beliefs and practices.10 With his treatise Contra Apionem, the 1st-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus engaged in such an apology himself.11

Most fundamentally, Jewish monotheism, that is, the claim that only one God existed for all humankind, and that he may not be represented figuratively in statues and paintings, clashed with pagan polytheism. While some Graeco-Roman philosophers considered Zeus the highest god and ridiculed popular mythology, the Jewish theological exclusiveness was difficult to understand by those who were accustomed to a pagan pantheon and its ability to include the gods of other people. The invisibility and lack of access to the Jewish God led some writers to assume that he did not exist at all, and that Jews were therefore atheists, rejecting the pagan ubiquity of the divine. According to Hecataeus, Moses rejected anthropomorphic representations of God and assumed that heaven was divine (Diod. Sic. 40.3). As a consequence of their theological beliefs, Jews allegedly were “somewhat unsocial and hostile to foreigners” (40.3).12

The allegation of misoxenia was repeated by other Graeco-Roman writers such as Manetho, Apion, and Tacitus. While “such assertions are not reserved for Jews alone, ... Jews are the prime example of this category of hostility.”13 According to Bar-Kochva, the attitude of misoxenia or apanthropia, associated with Egyptians, Spartans, and Jews, was viewed very negatively by Greek intellectuals.14 In the case of Jews, Jewish customs, such as the rejection of sharing meals (for reasons of kashrut) and of having sexual relations with non-Jews, led to their being viewed as unsociable. At the same time, “there is a clear sense that unsociable people are not desirable.”15 Tacitus, in particular, mentions the “new religious practices,” introduced by Moses, which separate Jews from “those of all other religions” (Hist. 5.4.1). According to this view, “The Jews are thought to have cut themselves off from the remainder of humanity by adopting religious customs and morals distinct from or even opposed to those of all other people.”16

The practices associated with Jews often indicate a misunderstanding or misinterpretation by the Greek and Roman authors. For example, Petronius explains Jewish abstinence from pork by an alleged worship of pigs in Judaism (Fragments 37). Similarly, Plutarch suggests that either reverence or aversion makes Jews refrain from eating pork (Quaest. Conv. 4.5.1). Since a weekly day of rest was unknown by Greeks and Romans, the Jewish Sabbath observance was associated with idleness by writers such as Tacitus (Hist. 5.4.3). Male circumcision, a marker of Jewishness that was visible in the gymnasia and bathhouses, was identified with physical mutilation by some Roman writers (SHA Hadr. 14.2). It was also considered a physical marker of separateness and self-distinction from other people, although other ethnic groups such as Egyptians, Syrians, and Ethiopians also practised male circumcision (Hdt. Hist. 2.104). Tacitus and Martial also attribute “lecherous” urges to circumcised Jews (Mart. Ep. 7.30.5; Tac. Hist. 5.5.2).

Amongst the allegations that cannot be related to any known Jewish practices, not even as misinterpretations, is the claim that Jews worshipped an ass and had a statue of an ass erected in the Jerusalem Temple. Bickerman associated this allegation with Seleucid anti-Jewish polemics at the time of the Maccabean revolt, whereas Schäfer locates it “in the milieu of the Alexandrian anti-Semites” familiar with animal worship from the Egyptian context.17 Another absurd claim was that Jews practised human sacrifice (Democr. On the Jews, mentioned in the Suda), a custom associated with so-called barbarism by Greek and Romans but occasionally practised in their own societies until at least the 1st century bce, when the Roman senate banned the ritual (Plin. HN 30.12). The claim resembles the allegation of cannibalism, made by Cassius Dio in connection with the Jewish Diaspora revolt under Trajan (Cass. Dio 68.32.1). Such myths were based on Roman ideas about barbarian people, with whom they categorized Jews. While Jews were sometimes associated with other “barbarians,” their particular customs also stood out and were ridiculed, misinterpreted, and misconstrued by Greek and Roman writers.

Egyptian Counter-Narratives to the Biblical Exodus Story

Some of the most virulent anti-Jewish accounts were written by Egyptian writers, who presented counter-narratives to the biblical exodus story from the Egyptian point of view. In these accounts, Moses is presented as someone whom all gods rejected and who was opposed to true religion.18 This counter-narrative first appears under the name of Manetho, an Egyptian priest and writer of the 3rd century bce. In its various versions it survived for nearly six hundred years, reappearing in the writings of Helladius of Antinoupolis at the beginning of the 4th century ce. Gager has argued that the anti-Jewish accounts of the exodus, proposed by writers such as Manetho, Lysimachus, Chaeremon, and Apion, mentioned in Josephus’s Contra Apionem, were based on indigenous Egyptian legends and formulated in opposition to Jewish accounts, which were probably known through hearsay rather than by reading the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible created in the Ptolemaic period.

In the Egyptian accounts, Moses is not presented as a Jewish leader and lawgiver but as a rebellious and polluted Egyptian priest, who was expelled from Egypt together with a group of impure, leprous people, who developed a religion and social system motivated by hatred against everything non-Jewish. It is obvious that the above-mentioned allegation of misoxenia, widespread amongst pagan writers, contributed to this slanderous myth. According to Josephus, Manetho used the term “Hyksos,” shepherds of an unknown ethnic origin, for Jews, who allegedly launched a rebellion against the Egyptian rulers and were subdued, captured, and deported by them (Ap. 1.14). While Josephus accepts some aspects of Manetho’s account (shepherds from abroad, captives in Egypt), he rejects most of it as “incredible fables” (Ap. 1.15). In modern Egyptology, the term Hyksos refers to “rulers of foreign lands” who came to Egypt and formed the fifteenth dynasty in the 17th and 16th centuries bce. Historically, not much is known about them.

Traces of the above-mentioned stories reappear in the writings of later Egyptian grammarians: Nicarchus son of Ammonius, Ptolemy Chennos of Alexandria, and the already-mentioned Helladius of Antinoupolis.19 They claim that Moses was called Alpha because he was covered with alphoi (“leprous spots”). The authors thereby perpetuated the notion that the exodus generation consisted of lepers. Although Gager considers this renaming of Moses “nothing more than a rhetorical exercise,” it is a “tradition which survived to the time of Photius in the 9th century ad.”20

These hostile counter-narratives to the exodus tradition appeared in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt, where Jews constituted a significant ethnic and religious minority, especially in Alexandria. At times, quarrels between Egyptians, Jews, and Greeks flared up in a political environment in which both the Egyptians and Jews could suffer political, social, and legal discrimination. Manetho and Chaeremon were Egyptian priests. According to Gager, their representation of Jews as a godless people may have represented the official attitude that led to violent clashes between Jews and Egyptians and justified countermeasures by the respective rulers. Aryeh Kasher has suggested that Alexandrian Jews enjoyed certain privileges over the Egyptian population by being allowed to organize themselves as a politeuma and live in accordance with their ancestral laws.21 The anti-Jewish literary propaganda was linked to “recurrent hostilities and violent clashes” between Jews and non-Jews in Alexandria that continued until Trajan’s reign and led to the Diaspora revolt in 115 ce.22

Hostility and Conflicts in the Roman Empire and Its Provinces

Major Roman authors such as Tacitus, Cicero, Horace, Seneca, Martial, and Juvenal expressed hostile attitudes towards the Jews in their speeches and writings. They claimed that the Jews had “cut themselves off from the remainder of humanity by adopting religious customs and morals distinct from or even opposed to those of all other people.”23 Cicero, who was Roman consul when Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 bce, strongly disliked the Jews. Like the Syrians, he considered the Jews “people who were born for slavery” (Prov. cons. 5.10). When the Roman proconsul Valerius Flaccus had confiscated money meant for the Jerusalem Temple, Cicero defended him. At the end of his speech he claims that “the religious ceremonies and observances of that people were very much at variance with the splendour of this empire and the dignity of our name and the institutions of our ancestors” (Flac. 28). The Roman defeat of the Jews is seen as divinely sanctioned: “How dear it was to the immortal gods is proved by its having been defeated, by its revenues having been farmed out to our contractors, by its being reduced to a state of subjection” (Flac. 28).

Conflicts between the Roman government and the Jews were not limited to Judaea. In the 1st century ce, Tiberius (19 ce) and Claudius (49 ce) expelled parts of the Jewish population from the city of Rome. The edict by Claudius mentions “disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” as the reason (Suet. Claud. 25.3–5; cf. Acts 18:2), but the alleged culprit’s identity remains unknown.

As far as Roman imperial policies toward the Jews from Vespasian to Hadrian are concerned, Berthelot understands them “as an attempt to eradicate the Jewish cult and replace Jerusalem with Rome.”24 Besides the first (66–70 ce) and second (132–35 ce) Jewish revolts against Rome, violent Jewish uprisings erupted in several places in the Mediterranean world towards the end of Trajan’s reign (116–17 ce), probably caused by armed local attacks against Jews as well as imperial policies such as the fiscus Judaicus, the annual tax Jews had to pay to the Roman state. Whereas these revolts were suppressed and Syria-Palaestina became a Roman province, later emperors evinced greater tolerance towards the Jews.


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