A Brief Note on Anti-Semitism – The Jew in the Ancient World

And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them. Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land”. (Exodus 1:7-10)

There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them. If it pleases the king, let a decree be issued to destroy them. (Esther, 3.8)

Manetho, Apion and Tacitus

Egypt, in the third and fourth centuries BCE was home to a large and quite powerful Jewish community. The local population was envious of the power of the Jewish community, and, most importantly, were angered by the political positions taken by the Jewish community with respect to foreign invaders and occupiers. Manetho, an Egyptian priest and historian of that era, wrote some very scathing remarks about the Jews, which were echoed in later literature especially in the writings of Apion and Tacitus.

Manetho wrote that the Jews were expelled Egyptian lepers who had been taught by Moses “not to adore the gods.”. Manetho’s main contention, an obvious rebuttal to the biblical account of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, is that the Jews did not leave Egypt as the victors in a revolt against the pharaoh who oppressed them. On the contrary, the Jews were expelled from Egypt because they were lepers and, on the side, engaged in nefarious and destructive acts. The Egyptians threw them out into the desert because the Jews endangered the existing civilization of Egypt. They were, in fact, a threat to all other civilizations, as well. According to Manetho, the Jews ought to be expelled into the desert or quarantined wherever they appeared or, if these means failed, society as a whole had the right to defend itself by destroying the Jews. Thus, Manetho’s “Jew hatred” was not a simple justification of a violent and vehement conflict.

One can only speculate why this motif begins to circulate at that time. It coincides more or less with the appearance of the Septuaginta, the first Greek translation of the Jewish Bible in Alexandria at the beginning of the third century BCE. We can guess that as the Exodus story became available in Greek, Manetho and other Egyptian intellectuals became familiar with it and were infuriated by Egypt’s negative image in the Book of Exodus.”

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 c.5-c.120C.E.).

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote a book Against Apion, 50 years after Apion, as a rebuttal and from which we can glean Apion’s accusations. In addition to memorializing Manetho’s themes of the “reverse Exodus” he added the following slanders

  • When the 110,000 lepers (this is the number also given by Lysimachus), expelled from Egypt, had traveled for six days, they developed buboes in their groins, and so they rested on the seventh day for their recuperation. The name for this malady being Sabbo in the Egyptian language, they called the day of rest Sabbath (Josephus, “Contra Ap.” ii. 2-3).
  • Apion next assails the Jews from the point of view of an Alexandrian. He asks how these Jews, coming from Syria, could claim the name and title of Alexandrian citizens, and he upbraids them for not worshiping the same gods as the Egyptians, and specifically for not erecting images to the emperors as all the rest were content to do.
  • He derides the religion of the Jews by reiterating all sorts of ridiculous slanders concerning the Temple of Jerusalem. Thus he writes that when Antiochus Epiphanes entered the holy place, he found there an ass’s head, made of gold and worth a great deal of money.
  • He lays the charge of human sacrifice upon the Jewish faith—a charge which despite all better knowledge of the fact has so often been repeated. He narrates the following story: “Antiochus found in the Temple a bed and a man lying upon it, with a small table before him laden with dainties, from the fish of the sea and the fowl of the land; the man, on being asked by the king the reason for his being there, told him amid sobs and tears that he was a Greek, who had been traveling through the land to earn his livelihood, when he was suddenly seized and brought to the Temple, and there locked up and fattened on those dainties before him. Wondering at these things, he learned upon inquiry that, according to a law of the Jews, they contrive each year at a certain time to capture a Greek foreigner, fatten him up, and then bring him to a certain forest, where they slay him with religious rites; then, tasting of his entrails, they take an oath upon the sacrifice to be at everlasting enmity with the Greeks, and afterward cast the carcass into a pit. And then the man implored Antiochus, out of reverence to the Greek gods, to rescue him from this peril, inasmuch as he was to be slain within a few days.”
  • He makes the statement that “the Jews swear by God, the Maker of heaven, earth, and sea, to bear no good-will to any foreigner and particularly to none of the Greeks” (“Contra Ap.” ii. 11). He ridicules the Jewish sacrifices, their abstention from swine’s flesh, and the rite of circumcision (ib. ii. 14). As special proof that the Jews have neither good laws nor the right worship of God, Apion singles out the fact that they are never rulers of other nations, but always subjects; wherefore their own city (Jerusalem) had often suffered siege and misfortune. But while Rome was always destined to rule them, the Jews would not even submit to her dominion, notwithstanding her great magnanimity (ib. ii. 12). Nor, says Apion, have they ever produced among them any pronounced no genius or inventor of any kind, or any one at all eminent for wisdom (ib. ii. 13).

These accusations have been repeated almost in the same form, mutatis mutandis, throughout the anti-Semitic writings of the centuries, from Tacitus, who re-echoed these charges in his “History,” v. 2-5, down to these days.

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

  • 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..
  • Jews were believed to be antisocial. They separated from the other people living in the ancient Mediterranean world.

The ‘mutilation of genitals’ was considered barbarous. The Greeks and Romans thought that the Jews circumcised their boys to prevent them from assimilating.

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