In the Roman Empire there were two strains of anti-Jewish writings, those of the Christians and those of the secular Greco-Roman intellectuals. If one considers that the Jews made up 5-10% of the population of the Empire, mostly concentrated in cities (Alexandria, Cyrene, Antioch, Rome, …), the secular literature is not directed against a tiny fringe group but rather against a visible subset of the Empire’s population. And, numerous non-Christian Greco-Roman texts with anti-Jewish references have been preserved. To drop a name, one can start with Cicero who, in his legal defense Pro Flacco (59 BC) blames the Jews for resisting the Roman takeover:
“… that nation has shown by arms what were its feelings towards our supremacy. How dear it was to the immortal gods is proved by its having been defeated, by its revenues having been farmed out to our contractors, by its being reduced to a state of subjection.”
Cicero’s hostility is not based on race or religion but on politics – for him, the problem is that the Jews have not proved grateful for having been dragged into the Empire.
In the Augustan era, the poet Horace mentions Jews three times in poems which are called Sermones in Latin and Satires in English. These allusions are playful but mischievous, poking fun at male circumcision, for example. In one place, Horace implies that the Jews were ardent proselytizers [Satires, 1.4]
When I have spare time I scribble.
That is one of those venial faults
Of mine; and if you refuse to indulge it
A great band of poets would come to my aid,
For we’re in the clear majority, and, like the Jews, we’ll force you to join our gang.
This can strike today’s reader as odd in that Judaism is not associated with missionary work in the modern world; however, there is debate among scholars as to what the situation was in the ancient world – in any case, it seems logical that strict and universalist monotheism would impel believers to try to convert others out of simple human solidarity.
Judaism, as a religion, had the respect of the Roman state which was very tolerant of the traditional religious systems of the subject peoples of the Empire. Indeed, under Julius Caesar, Judaism became an officially recognized religion and was protected as such. Jews thus were not required to participate in Roman religious ceremonies and their behavior, though thought strange, was officially accepted.
However, in the first century AD, the political situation in the Holy Land became explosive – to what extent the movements of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth are implicated in these developments is a topic for historians. The First Jewish War (67-74) led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. Moreover, after that the Jews had to pay a tax, the “Fiscus Judaicus,” to practice their religion; however, this tax did not apply to Christians meaning that there was a perceived break between them and the Jews well before the end of the First Century.
However, once Christianity frankly broke with Judaism it was no longer part of a traditional religion but rather what the Romans called a “superstitio” and, to cite the Roman historian Tacitus, a catastrophic one: “exitiabilis superstitio”! (Some other religious movements were also categorized as superstitions by the Romans such as the Druidism of the Celts.) Ironically, this break with Judaism made Christianity eligible to be the target of persecutions – which lasted into the 4th Century; mostly these were local in nature, organized by regional governors but some were organized from the very top down under Roman emperors such as Domitian, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Diocletian, … .
After the First Jewish War, there was the Kitos War (115-117) which was launched by Jewish uprisings in Cyrenaica (present day Libya), Egypt and Cyprus; this was followed by the Second Jewish War (132-135, also known as the Bar- Kokbah Revolt).
In 135 AD with the end of the Second Jewish War, the emperor Hadrian changed the name of Judea to Syria Palaestina and that of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina; in addition after 135 AD, Judaism really only could continue on in the Diaspora as the Jews were henceforth barred from Aelia Capitolina except for the Tisha B’Av, the saddest day in the Hebrew calendar, the day when disasters that have befallen the Jewish people are commemorated. Hadrian himself was not a war-monger; on the contrary, his reign was peaceful except for the Second Jewish War; Machiavelli, the Father of Political Science, lists him among the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome – a ruler very different from Tiberius and Caligula, earlier emperors who exhibited hostility toward the Jews.
The Jews’ falling out of favor politically was mirrored in the Roman literature. In the satires of Juvenal (early 2nd Century AD), the Jewish way of life is ridiculed in rougher terms. To start, Juvenal especially finds it bizarre that the Jews’ deity is immaterial and is not represented by idols [Satire XIV]:
… [The Jews] worship nothing save clouds and the divinity of heaven
He then mocks Moses, makes fun of male circumcision and criticizes the Sabbath
… [The Jews] treat every seventh day
As a day of idleness, separate from the rest of daily life.
In his Histories (written 100-110 AD), Tacitus devotes multiple chapters to the Jews, the longest such discussion of any Greek or Roman author. He even traces their origins to Crete – a theory shared by other ancient writers and bolstered some by references to the Hebrew name for Cretans, Cherethites, in the Hebrew Bible; he even posits that the name Iudaeus [“I” not “J” since classical Latin did not have the letter “J”] is derived from Mt. Ida in Crete – in Greek mythology the site of The Judgment of Paris. For Botticelli’s surprisingly modest version of the event which launched the Trojan War, click HERE . In his treatment of the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, Tacitus defends his fellow Romans by slandering the enemy, for example
“The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor.”
Cicero, Juvenal and Tacitus are nastier than Horace but their anti-Judaism is not embedded in their pagan religion. Moreover, though they are treated as a group apart, the Jews are not treated as a race apart. Instead hostility toward Jews is fueled by military conflict with Rome.
The situation in the Christian writings is different. Already in the Gospels, the charge that “the Jews killed Jesus” is enshrined as doctrine. But it doesn’t stop with the accusation of deicide; in his 2013 book on global anti-Semitism The Devil That Never Dies, Daniel Goldhagen relates that in all there are 450 anti-Jewish verses in the New Testament. To cite the formulation used by French inter-faith activist Jules Isaac in his Has Anti-Semitism Roots in Christianity? (Genèse de l’Anti-Sémitisme, 1956): Christianity “added theology to historical xenophobia.”
In the period leading up to the time when Christianity became the official religion of the Empire towards the end of the 4th Century, there was another source of Christian-Jewish controversy. The Christians strove to calibrate the story of Christ with the prophecies of the coming Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. For that they took the position that Christian authority over these scriptures had superseded that of the Jews, a doctrine known as supersessionism. Even the learned Tertullian, “the Father of Western Theology,” got involved and wrote an influential tract Adversus Judaeos at the end of the second century; Tertullian argued that the Jews had rejected God’s grace and that now the Christians were the people of God; he analyzed the Jewish scriptures to align prophecies with the life of Christ and even proved that Jesus was the Messiah from dates and predictions in the Book of Daniel. (Isaac Newton did something similar to prove that the Second Coming would be in 2060 AD! Get ready!)
But as Christianity became a legal religion and then the official religion in the Empire, the tone mounted with such texts as St John Chrysostom’s sermons: in Greek Κατα Ἰουδαίων, again AdversusJudaeos in Latin (386-387 AD). St John was a formidable and influential force; the epithet “Chrysostomos” means “golden-mouthed” in Greek, and he was renowned as a speaker and writer; a Father of the Church, he rose to become Archbishop of Constantinople. His writings helped to make Christian anti-Judaism even more virulent, something especially dangerous given that Christianity had just become the official religion of the Empire (380 AD). In these texts, in addition to the usual accusations about the death of Jesus there is a lot of inflammatory trash such as
“the synagogue is not only a brothel and a theater; it also is a den of robbers and a lodging for wild beasts”
Chrysostom’s legacy itself has proved most grim: his writings stoked anti-Judaism throughout the Middle Ages and they were invoked by the Nazi machine to justify the Holocaust to Austrian and German Christians.
St. Augustine was the last great Christian writer of the Roman Empire. He coined the term “original sin” (peccatum originale, in Latin) and codified Catholic guilt forever – in all fairness the concept traces back to St Paul and, certainly in the popular imagination, to the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve. Augustine’s influence endured through the Middle Ages and onto the Reformation when reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin drew inspiration from him. Though he says harsh things about Jews in some of his writings, his view of the role of the Jews in history was original: the Jews must survive as witnesses to fact that they were behind the Crucifixion of Jesus; he compared the Christians to Abel and the Jews to Cain, saying how the Jews bore “the mark of Cain.” Technically, “the mark of Cain” meant that the Jews were to be protected from violence (as it protected Cain as he journeyed East of Eden), but it was not always interpreted correctly, alas. Augustine predicted that Jews would be there for the End of Time when they would at last be converted – which would fulfill a prophecy of St. Paul (Romans 11:25-27).
With anti-Judaism thus packed into the theology and lore of Christianity, it would survive the fall of Rome and be exported throughout Europe with the spread of Christendom in the Middle Ages. “The Jews Killed Jesus” remained a mantra of Christianity and the calumny survived the Middle Ages and the Reformation; with the voyages of discovery, it spread to European colonies throughout the world.