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Jews under the Greeks and Romans
IN THE FOURTH CENTURY B.C., Alexander the Great brought Greek customs to the East in the wake of his military conquests, challenging the Jews' distinctive way of life. The Greek civilization they encountered was impressive. It was a culture of sophisticated science, philosophy, poetry, history, and drama, and it attracted many Jews.
Many Jews left Judea to settle in the new cities the Greeks had established in the ancient Near East. In these cities, Jews participated in the social and commercial life, even though the requirements of their religion kept them apart from non-Jews. Alexandria, in Egypt, was the greatest of these Greek cities. It was founded by and named after Alexander himself in 332 B.C., and Jews settled there in large numbers. Within a couple of generations, Jews had learned the Greek language and needed to have their sacred writings written in Greek (for the first time, the Jewish "Bible" was translated into a foreign language).
The Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 20 B.C. - c. A.D. 50) even tried to join together the beliefs of Greek philosophy and Jewish scripture. In Jerusalem itself, upper-class Jews gave their sons Greek education and Greek names.
However, there were limits to the Jews' acceptance of Greek ways, for their strong religious traditions went back to David, Moses, and Abraham. The Syrian emperor Antiochus Epiphanes IV (ruled 175 - 163 B.C.) even tried to stop them from practicing their religion. He forced the worship of the god Zeus Olympus upon the Jerusalem temple until the Jews revolted. Led by an old priest and his five sons, the revolt was successful. In 164 B.C., the Jews won the right to live by the law of Moses and regained control of the temple (celebrated yearly at the feast of Hanukkah).
From this religious revolt, the Jews went on to gain their political independence as well. Because of the decline of the Syrian empire, the Jews governed themselves for a century until the Romans took control of their land.
The Jews who continued to live in Alexandria were granted certain rights - to honor their sabbath and to refrain from participating in the city's religious observances (their religion prevented them from taking part in any ceremonies honoring other gods).
However, these privileges created tensions with the rest of the city's population. In fact, resentment against the Jews of Alexandria resulted in the first recorded anti-Jewish attacks.
Although the term "anti-Semitism" - which means "hostility toward Jews" - is only about a hundred years old, the prejudice it describes goes all the way back to Alexandria, where non-Jews resented Jews and the city's Greek writers attacked Jewish customs. In fact, one writer living around 300 B.C. challenged the claim of the Jews that they had escaped from slavery in Egypt. He wrote that they had in fact been expelled because they were lepers.
Apion was Alexandria's most prominent anti-Semitic writer. He lived in the third century B.C. and charged the Jews with every offense imaginable. He accused them of hating other people, and he claimed that they were traitorous because they wouldn't worship the gods of the city. He ridiculed their religious practices as well, saying that Jews rested on their sabbath day only because of injuries they sustained upon their expultion from Egypt. He even accused them of killing human beings for religious reasons. He claimed that every year the Jews kidnapped a Greek, locked him up in their temple until he got fat, and then killed him as a religious sacrifice. Thus Apion became the first to accuse the Jews of ritual murder, a charge that was repeated ofter in later centuries.
These tensions between Jews and non-Jews continued under the Romans, who became the new masters of the eastern Mediterranean in the first century B.C. The special demands of Jewish monotheism clashed with the polytheistic practices of Rome and other cultures. When the Romans granted Jews certain rights to practice their religion, resentment increased and Jews were labeled "clannish" and "hostile."
In Palestine (the area east of the Mediterranean where Israel now stands), friction between Jews and their Roman rulers reached crisis proportions in the first century A.D. The emperors sent officials called procurators to rule Judea directly. Religious Jews were especially upset by the presence of the pagan Romans in their midst. The tension exploded in A.D. 66 in a bloody war between Jews and Romans that ended four years later with the complete destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. Another Jewish revolt against Roman rule flared up in the next century, but it, too, was harshly put down.
Roman writers continued the anti-Semitic attacks that had begun in Alexandria. Seneca called the Jews "that most wicked nation" and Cicero, Horace, Ovid, Martial, and Juvenal all joined in the criticism. Foremost among the Roman anti-Semites was the historian Tacitus. He called Jewish religious practices "rites contrary to those of all other men" and claimed that they were "sinister, shameful, and have survived only because of their perversity." Like most anti-Semites then and later, he did not seem to know very much about Judaism. He was certain that Jews worshipped donkeys, which they consecrated in their temples. He also criticized the Jews for "their obstinate solidarity, which contrasts with the implacable hatred they harbor toward the rest of men."
After the second Jewish revolt (A.D. 132 - 135) destroyed Jerusalem, it was rebuilt as a Roman city (called Aclia Capitalina). Jews were barred from their holy city. They could only approach as far the outer wall of the temple. The Roman emperor Hadrian even instituted a ban on circumcision. Jews were isolated more than ever just at the time when Judaism faced a serious threat from a new direction: the spread of Christianity.
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Dr. Charles Patterson has a Ph.D. in Religion from Columbia University.
He is the author of:
Anti-Semitism: The Road to the Holocaust and Beyond
Excerpt - Chapter One
Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust
Excerpt from Chapter Three
From Buchenwald to Carnegie Hall (co-author).
Read more about Dr. Charles Patterson