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.
diaspora, Jewish, 332 BCE–c. 600 CE
For some ancient Jews, “diaspora” (together with its cognates) was an actor’s and not an observer’s term. But its import was primarily theological: God punished the Jews for their sins by dispersing them from their native land of Israel. Yet “diaspora” retains analytic utility for historians, if taken to refer to the geographically and temporally varied modes of Jewish life outside Palestine. It is not known to what extent diaspora Jews were emigrants from Palestine and their descendants; nor do we know how numerous they were. But we can follow the evidence where it exists. The main lesson is that the onset of Roman rule created crises around the integration of the Jews into their host societies. Intentionally or not, in the cities of the east (and the big villages of Egypt) the Romans fomented discord between different elements of the population. In Egypt, this led at once to the ultimately lethal—for the Jews, anyhow—three-way competition between Jews, Greeks, and Egyptians. Even in Asia Minor, normally understood as the best-case scenario for Jews under Roman rule, the evidence indicates that Jewish life in the Roman imperial period was more fragile, constrained, fraught, and impermanent than is often supposed.