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Ancient anti-Semitism



Anti-Semitism is the idea that people who speak a Semitic language -e.g., the Arabs and the Jews- belong to an inferior race. This nineteenth-century idea is mistaken, because there is no link between language and race; besides, the concept of 'race' is epistemologically weak and probably senseless. This is the second part of an article on its roots in Antiquity; the first part can be found here.
The first incidents
Antiochus IV


The ancient anti-Semitic ideas are well known to us. Even though the most notorious anti-Jewish libel, the five books of Egyptian history by Apion of Alexandria (c.20 BCE - 45 CE), are now lost, they were used by other authors, such as the Roman historian Tacitus (55-c.120) - and his works survive. The text of his description of the Jews can be read over here. Moreover, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote a book Against Apion; this is also a source for Apion's ideas.

But Apion was not the only one who detested the Jews. The following accusations were common.

  • The Exodus-story was inverted. The Jews were considered to be the descendants of  lepers, who had been exiled by the Egyptians. In Antiquity, statements like these were considered extremely insulting.
  • Because the Jews were said to have been rescued in the desert by a wild ass, the Jews were believed to venerate this animal as their God. A similar statement can be found in the Symposium of the Greek philosopher Plutarch of Chaeronea (c.45-120), where he says that the object of the Jewish cult was the pig.
  • The Jews did not worship the usual gods, like others did. This was, of course, true, but was held against the Jews, who were sometimes considered to be responsible for the divine anger when disasters befell a community. It should be added, however, that many Greeks and Romans were fascinated by the radical monotheism of the Jews, which was philosophically elegant.
  • In their temple in Jerusalem, the Jews sacrificed human beings. For example, it was widely believed that when the Roman general Pompey took the city and entered the temple, he liberated a Greek prisoner who was being fattened for the sacrifice.
  • Jews were considered to be lazy: this was clear to all Greeks and Romans, because the Jews maintained the sabbath. This thought can be found in the Fourteenth satire of the Roman poet Juvenal (c.67-c.145).
  • The Jews had strange customs. The Food and Purity Laws -the difference was never clear to the Greeks and Romans- were the object of many jokes, sometimes good-natured, usually not.
  • Those who followed the Law of Moses were thought to ignore the law of the state in which they resided. Of all accusations against the Jews, this one is the oldest; we have encountered it in the story about Esther.
  • Jews were believed to be antisocial. They separated from the other people living in the ancient Mediterranean world. (As a matter of fact, pious Jews were forced to live in the neighborhood of their synagogues -there was a maximum distance they were allowed to walk on a sabbath-, which explains the existence of Jewish quarters. For example, in Rome, the quarter on the other side of the Tiber was entirely Jewish. So, the Jews were indeed separated from the others, but this does not mean that they were antisocial.)
  • The 'mutilation of genitals' was considered barbarous. The Greeks and Romans thought that the Jews circumcised their boys to prevent them from assimilating. In 132, the Roman emperor Hadrian tried to root out this practice, which led to war. Probably, he was influenced by Greek philosophical ideas about the integrity of the body (which was, after all, the vehicle of the soul). This may also apply to the persecution by Antiochus IV.
These are all very unkind ideas. However, few would deny that the Jews were human beings. The Greek author Philostratus (170-c.244) makes precisely this claim in his vie romancée of the first-century charismatic teacher Apollonius of Tyana.
For the Jews have long been in revolt [...] against humanity; and a race that has made its own a life apart and irreconcilable, that cannot share with the rest of mankind in the pleasures of the table nor join in their libations or prayers or sacrifices, are separated from ourselves by a greater gulf than divides us from Susa or Bactra or the more distant Indies.
[Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 5.33; 
tr. F.C. Conybeare]
This statement, which does not necessarily represent Philostratus' own opinions, is probably the strongest expression of Judaeophobia in Antiquity. It is remarkable, because Philostratus was a courtier of the Roman emperors Septimius Severus (193-211) and Caracalla (211-217), who were unusually kind towards the Jews. 
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The words of Philostratus -'they are in revolt against humanity'- are shockingly similar to certain remarks by politicians of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Hitler writes in the second chapter of Mein Kampf (1925):
Wherever I went, I began to see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity.
And when we read the story of the Alexandrine pogrom, we cannot help but think about the gradual isolation of and the violence against the Jews during the Second World War. It is tempting to compare ancient and modern anti-Semitism.

Tempting though this may be, this would be mistaken. There are three very important differences between nineteenth- and twentieth-century anti-Semitism and its ancient predecessor.

In the first place, the most frequent accusation made by Christian authors, was that the Jews had killed Jesus of Nazareth; in other words, modern anti-Semitism was in the first place a religious hatred. This important aspect is absent from ancient anti-Semitism.

In the second place, the economic accusations were absent. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, many believed that the European Jews were looking for economic world domination; there was some discussion whether this dominance was to be liberal or marxist (both Ricardo and Marx were Jews), but many people knew for certain that the Jews were trying to dominate world trade. In Antiquity, it is the other way round: the Jews are despised because they were very poor. (An example can be found at the beginning of the Third satire of Juvenal.)

Christ between Paul (with open church) and Peter (with closed church). Santa Costanza, Roma (Italy). Photo Marco Prins.
Christ between Paul (left, with an open church for former pagans) and Peter (right, with closed church for Jews) (Santa Costanza, Roma; ©**)

The third and most important difference is that the more elaborate aspects of racism were absent in Antiquity. In the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, many serious scientists believed that they could establish the characteristics of human races; in their theories, Jews were always recognizable because they had -for example- large noses and dark eyes. This biological racism is (to the best of my knowledge) completely absent from our ancient sources.

The accusations that were made by the ancients are absent from the anti-Semitic writings of the modern age. Few anti-Semitic writers in the nineteenth and twentieth century have believed the inverted Exodus-story and the other accusations mentioned above. The exception is the accusation of human sacrifice, which has been made frequently in European history.

This leaves us with two completely different types of anti-Semitism, or even three: an ancient type, a Christian type (in which the accusation of killing Christ was the central theme), and a modern type, in which economic and biological accusations were important. The only thing they have in common is an irrational hatred of the Jews.

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