It would have come as a surprise to the imperial peoples of antiquity—the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes and Persians, the Macedonians, the Romans—if they could have been induced to believe that they would all pass away into extinction, leaving in unbroken existence only an inconsiderable people, never even mentioned by the Greeks before the fourth century BCE, which each of them in turn had defeated, conquered, and ruled. Yet so it is. One ancient people has clung on to its existence: repeatedly subjected, repeatedly dispersed, but somehow never extinguished. In the modern world there are no Babylonians, no Medes, no Romans even, but the Jews are still here.

All the peoples of the ancient world, of course, were conquered in the end. The Jews had no monopoly of the experience of defeat. But their survival is all the more surprising when we add that they, and they alone, were intermittently the object of a special hostility. There is hardly a parallel to be found elsewhere in ancient history to the advice given by “most of his counselors” to the Syrian-Greek king Antiochus VII, as he besieged Jerusalem about 135 BCE, to

take the city by storm and wipe out the Jewish people completely. Of all nations they alone have no community with other peoples and regard all men as their enemies. They pointed out that the Jews’ ancestors had been driven right out of Egypt as offenders against religion, hated by the gods…. [Having seized Jerusalem], they had made their hatred for the human race hereditary, and for this reason they had devised the most outlandish laws and customs, never to break bread with outsiders nor to show them any form of good will whatever.

This passage from a Greek historian is, for us, heavy with future history; much more than it was for ancient readers, who knew that no such attempt at a final solution was in fact made. What the kings of Syria did sporadically attempt was the extinction not of the Jewish people, but of the Jewish religion and way of life, and its replacement with a regular Greek style and worship of the Greek gods.

The passage is duly recorded by Professor Schäfer, who holds the Chair of Jewish Studies and is Director of the Institute for Jewish Studies at the Free University, Berlin, in his well-informed and intelligently argued book. It is also admirably readable, especially for a work of which the author says, “This is the first book I have ever dared to write completely in English.” He shows a decent awareness that for a German to write on such a subject can raise problems. He opens with a wry and suggestive anecdote. The spell check on his German computer queried the word judenfreundlich, friendly to the Jews; it did not recognize the word; and as the nearest word that it did recognize it offered judenfeindlich, hostile to the Jews.

The composer of the spell check had ventured, not a bad joke, but a sophisticated judgment about the German language and the attitude toward the Jews expressed by it: the word “judenfreundlich” does not exist because Germans have never been, and never are, friendly toward the Jews. Nothing could illuminate better the terrain on which a German author writing on anti-Semitism, even if only on the “remote” history of ancient anti-Semitism, must tread.

Schäfer is perhaps a little more inhibited by such feelings than an author ideally would be. It might be thought, in the present instance, that there are some other parallels in ancient texts to this zeal for the complete destruction of a people. We might find them, not in Greek or Roman sources, but in the biblical accounts of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, of Jericho and Ai (“Joshua…utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai…. And Joshua burnt Ai, and made it an heap for ever, even a desolation unto this day” [Joshua 8:26-28]). We might be reminded too of the Amalekites, whom King Saul was commanded by God to destroy completely:

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3)

The prophet Ezekiel had a similar fate in mind for the city of Tyre (Ezekiel 26), and so on; the ferocious author of the Revelation, a Jew and a Christian, who gloats over the prospect of earthly destruction followed by eternal torment for most of mankind, only twelve thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel being saved, perhaps represents the logical end of this line of thought. None of this is mentioned by Schäfer.

There are a few other examples in Schäfer of misguided tenderness to the ancient Jews, who were a tougher lot than this book tends to suggest. Thus we find a number of discussions in pagan authors of the story of the exodus from Egypt, a narrative on which several different slants were put. Some said the ancestors of the Jews were expelled by force, from fear that they were growing too numerous; or because they were leprous; or because their leader Moses was “outstanding for his wisdom and courage”; or for some other reason. They came to Palestine. Some Greek sources report that the land was at that time desert and unoccupied; others that it was inhabited, and that the Jews enslaved or drove out the people living there. Schäfer regards the latter version as evidence of anti-Semitic tendencies:


…With regard to the occupation of Judaea, [Tacitus] chooses the most negative possibility, namely that Moses and his followers drove out the former inhabitants. This is in contrast to both Hecataeus and Strabo, who stress that the country was uninhabited.

This argument presumably has the consequence that the biblical account, which describes the conquest and destruction of the indigenous peoples, is more anti-Semitic still. Something must be wrong; our notions of the politically correct do not transfer so simply to that more frankly ferocious world.

Schäfer goes in detail through the ancient evidence for two anti-Jewish explosions. One took place at the town of Elephantine in Egypt, when in 410 BCE the longstanding hostility between a garrison of Jewish soldiers and the local Egyptian population, especially the priests of the god Khnum, broke out into violence. The Jews were stationed there by the Persian overlords, and it is clear that they were seen by the Egyptians as the agents of a hated imperial power. At a moment when the Persian governor was away, a subordinate Persian officer was induced to join in what seems to have had the character of a nationalist uprising. The local Jewish temple was destroyed. Later all concerned were punished by the Persians.

These events emerge from a cache of documents on papyrus, which also fascinatingly illuminate the difficult relations between the Jews in Elephantine and the authorities of the great Temple in Jerusalem, whose permission they had to seek in order to rebuild their own temple, and who granted it only with some delay and on sharply limiting terms. The Jerusalem priesthood took the opportunity to disallow animal sacrifice, which was reserved as the unique privilege of their own great Temple.

The second set of events is what might be called the first pogrom known to us, the famous affair of the riots in Alexandria in the Thirties CE, in the reigns of the Roman emperors Gaius (Caligula) and Claudius. We have a lot of evidence, including highly partisan pamphlets from both sides, Jewish and Greek. The problem was that the city of Alexandria, founded by Alexander as a Greek center in the conquered land of Egypt, had come to have a large Jewish population, in addition to the great numbers of Egyptians who lived there. The Greeks enjoyed the highest level of citizen rights; the Jews aspired to equal them (their propagandists alleged that they had been given equal rights from the founding of the city). The Greeks replied that, on the contrary, the Jews had, and should have, no more rights than the fellahin: that is to say, very few. Both sides were highly articulate, both had friends at court, and both furiously lobbied the Roman governors and emperors. In 38 CE there was a real pogrom. Jewish shops and houses were looted and burned; there were murders and rapine. Other outrages and provocations followed, not all on one side.

In this case, too, it could not have happened without the connivance of the representative of the imperial power, in this case the Roman governor who, in his turn, was duly deposed by Rome, sent into exile, and eventually executed. The Emperor Claudius can be seen intervening, after a second round of violence, with evident impatience (“Unless you stop this mutual enmity, obstinate and destructive, I shall be forced to show you what a benevolent ruler can really be, when he turns to justified anger”). The Jews had their sufferings to deplore; the Greeks had two of their leaders put to death by the Romans, and they commemorated them as martyrs. At issue, it seems, was the status of the Jews: Were they to have equality with the Greeks? But the violence was possible because of the background of smoldering hostility between different groups in Alexandria.

The Greeks of the city resented and disliked the Jews and their aspirations. The Egyptians (whom, in distinction from the Greeks, Schäfer wants to make more responsible for the violence than the sources suggest, or than seems to me plausible) were notorious for their unruliness and their dislike of all their rulers, right back to the time of the Ptolemies, the Macedonian dynasty which ruled before the coming of Rome. As for the Jews of the insubordinate city of Alexandria, we read that a century later the philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius, after long years of hard campaigning against half-civilized tribes on the Danube frontier, exclaimed sadly, in his weariness at their turbulence, “O Marcomanni, O Quadi, O Sarmatians. I have finally found a people more troublesome than you!”


Schäfer declares, in the light of these events, that “one may well maintain that anti-Semitism did, and could, emerge in Egypt alone,” and that “the mother of anti-Semitism” is “the very heart of Egypt itself.” That is not a new conclusion: Victor Tcherikover, in his Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, also argued that “anti-Semitism originated in Egypt.”1 The occasion of explosive outbursts like these was political: a Jewish garrison was acting for a hated occupying power; or a Jewish community was attempting to improve its status. It was not directly religious, as it was often to be in the Christian period.

Their occurrence was, however, made more likely by a deeper hostility, which was inseparable from the Jewish religion. Many ancient writers give as the motive for hostility to the Jews that they live a life which is “unsocial” and “misanthropic.” This centered on the Jewish refusal to eat with outsiders, to intermarry with them, or to worship with them. The English word “companion,” which comes from the Latin for “sharing bread” (panis), helps to show how central to human sociability is the act of eating together; while for a Greek the unforgettable last scene of the Iliad, the main set book in every school, showed the hero Achilles gently obliging the aged Trojan king Priam, who has come through the night to ransom the body of the son whom Achilles has slain, to eat with him, as they contemplate together the tragic lot of mankind.

In the classical world food and religion went intimately together. After an animal sacrifice the worshippers shared the meat, and most good festivals involved wine. To refuse meat that had been offered to “idols,” as the Jews did, and the Christians did after them, was to refuse to join in any ceremonial meal at all. What was more, before they borrowed from the Jews that admirably convenient invention, the week, which breaks up time into regular and predictable slices, Greeks and Romans depended for breaks from toil on the irregular occurrence of holy days (the only holidays), in a calendar where some months contained many but others very few. To reject those festivals plunged life into chaos and gloom.

People in antiquity were polytheists. They had a set of gods of their own community to worship, and when they traveled, or met travelers, they encountered other gods, with different names, more or less like those they knew. It was a natural response to say, “Oh yes, our Aphrodite is your Venus, or your Astarte,” or, “Yes, we have a story rather like that one.” It was not sensible, nor was it good manners, to allege that other people’s gods simply did not exist. Only a madman makes fun of other people’s religious practices, says the historian Herodotus in the fifth century BCE, criticizing a Persian king for publicly insulting the religion of his Egyptian subjects: all men think their own ways the best. Eight hundred years later, at the other end of classical antiquity, the Roman senator Symmachus pleaded with a Christian emperor not to forbid the signs of the pagan cult: “We have not been granted one single path to reach so great a mystery.” The response of the Jews was felt to be shocking and uncouth, as well as dangerous for everybody. Socrates of Athens had been put to death on a charge of “not practicing the cults that the city practices.”

To reject the gods of the community was to reject the community itself. The Greek polemicist Apion of Alexandria is quoted as asking, at the time of the anti-Jewish riots of 38 CE, “If the Jews want to become citizens of Alexandria, why don’t they worship the gods of Alexandria?” The Jewish refusal to see the matter in that light, and to comply with what seemed both an obvious and also a simple demand, placed an insuperable barrier between them and full acceptance into the classical world; as later on, even more acutely, it did with the Christians.

Many Greeks were more or less antagonized by the exclusiveness of the Jews, to which they regularly give such terms as “arrogance,” “inhospitableness,” “rejection of humanity,” and “hatred of the human race.” This response was, however, by no means the only one. We find Greek and Roman writers who are impressed by the piety and the strictness of the Jewish way of life, sometimes using it as a standard by which to condemn, by comparison, the indifference of their own society to religious observance. They also were impressed by the ban among Jews on exposing unwanted infants.

The idea of a God who could not be represented in human form, who indeed could not be represented at all, is also sometimes treated with great respect: thoughtful pagans had long been rendered uneasy by some of the myths about their all too human gods, and as early as 500 BCE we find Greek philosophers theorizing that real gods would not be anthropomorphic, and preferring to speak in the singular of “god” and “the divine,” rather than “the gods.” It is in line with this that Aristotle’s greatest pupil, the philosopher and zoologist Theophrastus, called the Jews “a nation of philosophers,” devoted to the study of the stars; and that Varro, the greatest of Roman antiquarians, thought they kept up the purer cult of the gods, one without images, which had been practiced in ancient days by “our Roman ancestors,” too, but which had in time been corrupted. This could fit comfortably with another important classical notion, that of the Wise Barbarians. The Greeks were fond of attributing advanced philosophical ideas to exotic peoples: the Thracians (who taught Pythagoras), and the Indians (a nation of sages; another of Aristotle’s pupils said the Jews were descended from the Indian philosophers), and the Jews (whose teacher Moses, according to Strabo, taught a rather suspiciously Greek kind of pantheism: that “God is one thing alone, that which encompasses us all, and with us the land and the sea; that which we call the heaven, or the universe, or the nature of all that exists”).

There was also an idea, especially attractive to the Romans, that while the ancestral customs and rituals of the Jews were undoubtedly bizarre, still they were their ancestral customs, and so in an important sense the Jews were right to keep them up. This explains why, to an orthodox Roman eye, the Christians were worse than the Jews: for the Christians could make no such claim—theirs was a nasty new set of notions, and as such without any saving feature.

The word “anti-Semitism” sometimes appears in the book in quotes. There is a question of definition, which is pursued at some length: Do the manifestations of hostility to the Jews in ancient history and literature amount to anti-Semitism, or is it more appropriate to speak only of “anti-Judaism,” or of “hostility to Jews”? Many scholars prefer to reserve the term “anti-Semitism” until the period which begins with the outbreaks which accompanied the Crusades in the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE. Schäfer is convinced that full-blown anti-Semitism is indeed to be found before Christianity: specifically, in Hellenistic Egypt. It was created by a combination of age-old anti-Jewish feeling on the part of the Egyptians and a Greek culture which aspired to be universal:

One might argue that only the idea of a world-wide Greco-Hellenistic civilization made it possible for the phenomenon we call anti-Semitism to emerge.

One difficulty in calculating the answer to this question is that the Jews are by no means the only people about whom prejudice and hostility are freely expressed in the ancient world. Egyptians, for example, are repeatedly denounced, sometimes apparently with real loathing; yet there was also a tradition of respect for the religious traditions of Egypt, and Egyptian priests, too, are often credited with exotic and impressive philosophical doctrines. Syrians, Carians, Sardinians, Germans, Gauls, Britons: the list of peoples on whom the free speech of the Greeks and Romans was exercised without fear of any p.c. criticism would be a very long one. We should not forget, either, that what the Greeks have to say about the Romans, and what the Romans have to say about the Greeks, is often extremely hostile.

Louis H. Feldman, in his recent book Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World,2 reckons that of the writings exhaustively collected by the late Menahem Stern in Greek and Latin Authors on the Jews and Judaism,3 which assembles all the references that survive in Latin and Greek writers, 18 percent are substantially favorable, 59 percent neutral, and 23 percent substantially unfavorable; and that last statistic includes what we know of the theological works entitled Against the Jews written by the early Christian polemicists. That is to say: among the pagan authors there is no significant preponderance of hostile judgments. It is, by the way, striking that references in the classical authors to Jews are in the modern world collected, analyzed, and discussed so much more intensively than their references to other peoples. It would not be easy to produce comparable statistics collected by modern scholars for ancient judgments on other groups or nations.

Among the Greeks we find a number of expressions of antipathy to the Jews because of their “unsocial” or “hostile” refusal to mix with outsiders. With the Romans, we find fewer expressions of this kind, but (in the first centuries CE) more evidence that the Jews were becoming so numerous that there were fears that they might be starting to pose a threat to the traditional Roman way of life, and even to the Empire itself. Here another difficult problem comes up: Was Judaism a proselytizing religion in this period? Some believe, as Feldman does, that there was successful proselytization, in which a large fraction of the population of the Empire was converted to Judaism in the first two centuries CE. Schäfer takes the view which is now more commonly held, that there were conversions but not proselytization. The evidence is very nicely balanced; and in any case it seems that Roman responses were more political, and less cultural, than those of the Greeks.

In 66 CE a series of minor incidents led up to a great Jewish rebellion against Rome. It ended with the Romans conquering Judaea, and in 70 CE Titus destroyed the Temple, a momentous fact for the subsequent history of Judaism; but the Jewish religion continued to be recognized, though without the Temple, and the Jews continued to be treated as a community. Even after the defeat of the revolt of Bar Kokhba, sixty years later, the efforts of the Romans aimed at political control, not at the disappearance of the Jews from the world.

It is clear that when it came to imposing political control, both Greeks and Romans found the Jews difficult and irritating to deal with. Other defeated peoples submitted more completely: to the power of Rome, and to the high culture of Greece. Greek literature from the time of the conquests of Alexander (who died in 323 BCE) contains more and more names of writers who were not Greek by origin, but who wrote in Greek, the international language of intellectual communication. Many Jews wrote in it, too; in fact, it was their growing alienation from Hebrew that created the need for what we call the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Some Jews became prominent intellectual figures and friends of emperors; but collectively the Jews were always ready to explode into rebellion at any moment about things which seemed to outsiders unimportant, and they remained attached, inexplicably but unalterably, to their own outlandish traditions and un-Hellenic way of life. Some pagans were attracted to this way of life; others were repelled. In places ill feeling could ripen into violence. There were a few instances of projecting onto the Jews fantasies of human sacrifice and oaths ratified in human blood, but such stories appear only rarely, and they were told about other groups, too: about the Druids, and the Christians, and the confederates of the aristocratic revolutionary Catiline. They were not peculiarly attached to the Jews.

For that reason it still perhaps seems better to keep the name and the conception of “anti-Semitism” for a later period. Let us reserve it for the Christian age, when the uniquely dreadful allegation was generally accepted that Jews were the murderers of God, with the deadly text constantly quoted, “His blood be upon us, and upon our children”; and for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when sophisticated people at last rejected the theological fantasy of deicide, and turned instead to the scientific fantasy of race.

This Issue

December 18, 1997