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Anti-Semitism - Overview - The Roman Empire

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The basic "Jew hatred" as defined by Manetho was expanded by a number of Greek or Roman writers, historians, and statesmen. To be sure, not all Hellenistic literature in its two languages, Greek and Latin, was dominated by anti-Semitism. Some writers admired the steadfastness of the Jews and their continuing search for righteousness and social justice—but the majority of the Hellenistic creative forces were arrayed against the Jews.

Within a century or so, the issues came to a head over the large number of Gentiles who became converts, or who wanted to become converts, to Judaism. The Pharisees insisted that all converts to Judaism were joining "a new and godly commonwealth" (Baron, 1983, vol. 1, p. 181). This definition offered by Philo Judaeus (c. 13 B.C.E.–between 45 and 50 C.E.), the leading Jewish intellectual figure of the first century B.C.E., was accepted to mean that a new convert was classified as a child who was now newly born as a Jew. This conversion meant that he disavowed his previous family, for according to Philo, such proselytes "have left their country, their kinfolk and their friends and their relations for sacred virtue and holiness" (Baron, 1983, vol. 1, p. 181). A generation later Cornelius Tacitus (c. 56–c. 120 C.E.) made the same point but he expressed it in the language of a pronounced distemper with the Jews. Once they became converts to Judaism, they "despised the gods, disowned their own country and regard their parents, children and brothers as of little account" (Baron, 1983, vol. 5, p. 182). As the Jews became more numerous and more powerful throughout the Roman Empire, Tacitus considered the Jews as subversive because they were the enemies of the three main pillars of society: religion, country, and family (Baron, 1983, vol. 5, p. 194).

In this outlook Tacitus was following the Stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca (14 B.C.E.?–65 C.E.): "The customs of that most criminal nation have gained such strength that they are now received in all lands. The conquered have given laws to the conquerors" (Baron, 1983, vol. 5, p. 191; quoted from De superstitione by Augustine in his City of God, 6:11). The same point had been argued by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 B.C.E.), the supreme orator of Rome, a generation earlier:

Even while Jerusalem was standing and the Jews were at peace with us, the practice of their sacred rites was at variance with the glory of our empire, the dignity of our name, the customs of our ancestors. But now it is even more so, when that nation by its armed resistance has shown what it thinks of our rule. (Baron, 1983, vol. 5, p. 192: quoting Cicero's defense in Pro Flacco, 28:69)

But the best summary of the anti-Semitism that recurs in major Hellenistic figures is present in the Book of Esther, the biblical account of the victory of the Jews over Haman, their archenemy in the Persian Court. This book was probably composed in the third century B.C.E. or perhaps even a bit later. Haman's arguments against the Jews are addressed to King Ahasuerus:

"There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king's laws; and it is not in Your Majesty's interest to tolerate them. If it please Your Majesty, let an edict be drawn for their destruction, and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the stewards for deposit in the royal treasury." Thereupon the king removed his signet ring from his hand and gave it to Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the foe of the Jews. (Esther 3:8–10)

In these brief verses the essential, classic doctrine of anti-Semitism is summarized: the Jews are different from everybody else; their very existence is an assault on the accepted standards of religion and good conduct. It would be best for the Persian Empire if the Jews were utterly removed. Anti-Semitism has now been defined as the doctrine by which all of the rest of human society can defend itself against the arrogance of Jewish monotheism.

Nonetheless, the question remained very much alive in the consciousness of the Roman Empire in the first century: What is one to do with the Jews? Clearly they would not obey the laws that Rome imposed on all of its own people. Jews refused to participate in civic celebrations because these invariably required worship of the gods and especially of the Roman emperors as gods. The Roman rulers in Alexandria, and even more in Judea, made allowances for the peculiar stubbornness of the Jews, but there were recurring clashes between Jews and the Roman authorities. These issues could not be resolved through negotiation between Jews and imperial officials. On the contrary, the Jews themselves had to find room for living in the larger society. So their traditions had to be changed.

By the middle of the second century after the suppression of the last great Jewish revolt under Bar Kokhba (131–135), the leading rabbis no longer expected a restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem and of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land. They made peace with the notion that the Messiah would come at some future date and redeem the Jews from exile and powerlessness, but the date was unknown and unpredictable. The Jews had to make peace with the notion that they would live as a minority among other religions.

The capital of Palestine was de facto in Caesarea, the port city from which the Roman Empire controlled all of its various subjects in Palestine. Rabbinic Judaism also had its headquarters in Caesarea, where the court of its religious leadership, headed by the descendants of Hillel, was situated. The leader in the last years of the first century and the beginning years of the second century C.E. was Rabban Gamaliel II. He regularly made use of the public bathhouse in Acre, even though entering that building required that he walk under an arch that was adorned at its apex by an image of the goddess Aphrodite. Gamaliel's critics regarded his use of the bathhouse as a form of worship of the pagan goddess. He responded that, of course, he intended no such conduct. The image of the goddess served a purely civic function at the entrance of the bathhouse, which was a facility that belonged equally to all the citizens of the region, including Jews.

Rabban Gamaliel II defended his conduct as religiously neutral, but soon those who defined rabbinic law went further. Later rabbis ruled that Jews were commanded to visit the sick even among the idolaters, to bury their dead together with the Jewish dead, and to support their poor among the Jewish poor. In the Middle Ages, these rabbinic rules were summarized by Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides; 1135–1204) in his Code of Jewish Law, in the section on political law in what is written in the Hilkhot Melakhim (10:12). All of this was to be done "for the sake of peace" because it was written in Scripture that "God is good to everyone and His mercy extended to all of His creatures." It was said further that "its ways [that is, the ways of Torah] are the ways of grace and all its paths are peace." To be sure, these are not the only rabbinic opinions. There are many counterviews in the Talmud that Jews must maintain distance from non-Jews, but the more giving rulings suggest that Jews were looking for ways of accommodating themselves to a society that they had little hope of controlling or of converting to the Jewish faith.

Nonetheless, despite the rulings of the more liberal rabbis, the distance between Jews and non-Jews remained. These descendants of the Pharisees could never give up the notion that their religion was God's true teaching and that, at some unpredictable moment, the whole world would come to Mount Zion to be received and converted to the one true faith, the monotheism that Abraham had once proclaimed.

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over 9 years ago

Thanks! This was very useful!