Skip to 0 minutes and 1 second Let’s now turn to explore the historical roots of antisemitism. As we have heard when discussing the nature of antisemitism, there are scholars dealing with the history of the phenomenon who find its roots with the rise of Christianity and with Christian anti-Jewish theology. However, there are those who trace the roots of the phenomenon to earlier times. The historiographical debate on this matter usually focuses on the Greco-Roman world, a period in which a variety of textual sources presenting different perceptions of Jews were created. Throughout this period, the encounters of both Greeks and Romans with various “others” brought about varied attitudes and perceptions, including different forms of xenophobia.
Skip to 0 minutes and 39 seconds An important stage in the formulation of these attitudes took place in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, in 333 BCE. Alexander invaded the Near East and Mediterranean region and made it all the way into modern day India. During the times of Alexander’s successors, a period known as the Hellenistic period, Greek Culture spread throughout these vast regions. Among the many civilizations that now came under Hellenistic rule and influence were the Jews, who were mainly concentrated in the Eastern Mediterranean area as well as in the Mesopotamian region. As we will now see, negative attitudes were formulated during this time, deriving mainly from the Jews’ unique traditions and customs.
Skip to 1 minute and 25 seconds Before the time of Alexander the Great, Jews were simply not on the radar of classical authors. What happened under Alexander the Great, who basically extended the range of Greek culture From Greece all the way to India, was that the Greek world encountered a whole new series of civilizations that it had never really known before, and so began to write about these civilizations with a special interest in how they differed from their own. And so there began to be a whole new genre of ethnographic descriptions, and in that genre, it turns out that Greeks encountered Jews for the first time and began to write about them.
Skip to 2 minutes and 15 seconds One of the things that they found unusual about the Jews, and it’s not at all surprising that they focused on what was unusual because that’s what they were looking for. One of the things that they found unusual about the Jews was their regulations regarding food. And the fact that Jews, by and large, could not eat at the table of an ordinary Greek, and this seemed peculiar to the Greeks, especially since one of the most cherished foods among the Greeks was pork.
Skip to 2 minutes and 56 seconds And of course pork, which is no more or less unkosher than other unkosher foods, came to be the focus of what Greeks wrote about Jews, and there emerged the notion that Jews were somehow unsocial, that they didn’t integrate, they didn’t get along well with other people. And I think that what lies behind this is simply the Greek encounter with food regulations of the Jews. Derogatory perceptions of the Jews continued to develop in the Mediterranean throughout the Hellenistic period, as well as under the Roman Empire in the first century CE. Jewish religious dietary laws were not the only form of Jewish custom to be perceived negatively by Greco-Roman writers.
Skip to 3 minutes and 47 seconds Monotheism and other Jewish religious requirements, such as circumcision, were perceived in negative ways as well. Jews no matter where they were in the Mediterranean and no matter how they were doing it in particular, Jews did circumcise in the Diaspora. They did avoid eating pork in the Diaspora. They also didn’t show respect to foreign gods in general, which is considered just rude in antiquity, in a world where all gods are assumed to exist and at minimum the polite thing to do - not to mention the commonsensical thing to do - is to be polite to other people’s gods too. And Jews had issues with this because the Jewish God had issues with it.
Skip to 4 minutes and 29 seconds So we know from these pagan anti-Jewish remarks that this was something that Jewish populations were known to do. And, finally, Greco-Roman culture had a horror of circumcision as a form of genital mutilation. And this would be evident particularly in Jews who were getting a gymnasium education, or Jews who were professional athletes, because these things were performed in the nude, and to be circumcised was considered an unthinkable voluntary mutilation. So for all these reasons, Jewish difference stood out as a kind of troubling oddness for watching, critical, pagan commentators.
Anti-Jewish perceptions in the Greco-Roman world
Prof. John G. Gager, Prof. Paula Fredriksen
As we have heard, there are scholars dealing with the history of the phenomenon who find the roots of antisemitism with the rise of Christianity and with Christian anti-Jewish theology. However, there are those who trace the roots of the phenomenon to earlier times. The historiographical debate on this matter usually focuses on the Greco-Roman world.
What was the context for the formulation of anti-Jewish perceptions in the Greco-Roman World?
For additional visual materials please see “downloads” below.
Gager, John G., The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Attitudes toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).
Gruen, Erich S., Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).
Gruen, Erich S, Cultural Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2011).
Isaac, Benjamin, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
Stern, Menachem, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, 3 vols. (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1974 - 1984) .
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