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Antisemitism in antiquity

There have been many important historical accounts of antisemitism, which have charted its nature and development since the Greco-Roman and pre-Christian eras until the present day (Schwartz, 1999; Perry and Schweitzer, 2002). Schäfer (1998) locates the origins of antisemitism in Egypt's pre-Hellenistic era, and argues that this was the temporal and geographical context in which antisemitic representations began to emerge. In his analysis of Greek and Roman writings on Jews, he describes the focus on Jewish distinctiveness, namely the nature of the Jewish God, Jewish dietary restrictions, the Jewish Holy Sabbath, Jewish sexual customs and the religious practice of circumcision, which served to construct Jews as possessing an “alien culture”. Moreover, it has been observed that the Romans generally regarded the Jews as traitorous and rebellious (Perry and Schweitzer, 2002). Focussing upon the destruction of a Jewish temple in Elephantine in 410 BCE and the violent disturbances in Alexandria in 38 CE, Schäfer shows how the aforementioned negative markers of ethnic difference were entwined with threatening characteristics (e.g. impiety and misanthropy) and, thus, led to fear of and hostility towards Jews. Similarly, Isaac (2010, p. 35) describes in his analysis of Alexandrian texts of the third century BCE a prevalent representation that “the Jews, rather than being God's chosen, were descendants of a group of polluted outcasts, suffering from leprosy and other diseases”. Moreover, he highlights that Jews were accused of practicing human sacrifice and cannibalism, which in antiquity served to dehumanise and animalise foreign people (see also Stern, 1974–84). A modified version of this representation was to re-emerge in the Middle Ages with deadly consequences. Conversely, in the Hellenistic, non-Alexandrian era, there was a claim that Jews made no meaningful contribution to civilisation, which decreased their social value. Moreover, in his overview of Roman literature, Isaac (2010) demonstrates the perceived threat of Judaism (often regarded in terms of a “foreign cult”) to Roman institutions and to the wellbeing of the state. Seneca, a first century Roman philosopher, and Cleomedes, a Roman astronomer, described Jews as a “most villainous people” and “much lower than reptiles”, respectively (Isaac, 2010, p. 38). During this era, antipathy towards Jews appears to have been both religious and ethno-cultural in focus. Despite the clear negativity attributed to Jews in the pre-Christian era, it appears that the overarching representation constructed Jews as wretched and impoverished, rather than as greedy and materialistic, representations which were to emerge and crystallise in the Middle Ages (see Lindemann and Levy, 2010b).


Although antisemitism clearly existed in pre-Christian antiquity, Western Christian civilisation is generally thought of as having created a persisting and vicious tradition of religiously-based anti-Jewishness (Wistrich, 1999a). Yet, as Cunningham (2010) observes, there is much debate concerning the historical divide between Christianity and Judaism and the consequential triggers for antisemitism among Christians, with some scholars attributing this to the Crucifi of Jesus (c. 30 CE), and others to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem following the Jewish-Roman War (66–70 CE). Cunningham's account of Jewish and Christian antipathy echoes social psychological theorising around intergroup relations (e.g. Stephan and Stephan, 2000; Tajfel, 1982). He argues that, in order to safeguard its own emerging identity, Christendom attacked the respectability and integrity of Judaism through the rhetorical strategies of delegitimisation and dehumanisation. During this time, the charge of deicide against the Jews emerged and was to remain a fundamental tenet of European antisemitism over the next two millennia (Wistrich, 1991). Following the fourth century CE, when Theodosius I made Nicene Christianity the preferred religion of the Roman Empire, the power balance shifted radically in favour of Christianity. This led to an increase in Christian attacks upon synagogues, the curtailment of Jewish rights and privileges and growing marginalisation of Jews in the Empire. Echoing Isaac's (2010) distinction between antisemitism and anti-Judaism, Cunningham (2010, p. 61) argues that hostility towards Jews in early Christianity is better understood as “opposition to Jewish religious tenets and
practices” rather than as a racially-based hostility, given that it arose primarily from

religious intergroup competition in the Roman Empire.

Theologians and other scholars have examined the theological representations from the New Testament which were appropriated by Christians and which gradually came to inform antisemitism in Western Christian civilisation. In the Christian world, Jews were charged with the archcrime of deicide, the killing of the son of God, and were therefore viewed as “the embodiment of evil, a 'criminal people' cursed by God and doomed to wander and suffer tribulation to the end of time” (Perry and Schweitzer, 2002, p. 18; see also Maccoby, 1996). The charge of deicide was unprecedented in the history of religion – in fact, no other religious group has been collectively accused of killing God. This served to attribute to the Jews an exceptional position in the social and historical matrix, depicting them as extraordinarily evil. For centuries, Jews have been charged not only with deicide but also with its ritualistic rehearsal (using Christian children) and with celebrating the death of Christ ever since (Lindemann and Levy, 2010b). Thus, it is easy to see how this accusation could have induced particularly negative representations of Jews as a collectivity and mobilised Christians against them. Indeed, Crossan (1996) has described the charge of deicide in the Gospel as “the matrix for Christian anti-Judaism and eventually for European anti-Semitism” (p.32).

The gospels (John 6:70 and 13:27) describe Judas as a “devil” under the infl of Satan, a representation which is echoed in relation to the Jews in John, 8:43–7. Just as Judas becomes a cultural symbol of greed, criminality and usury, the Jews too were attributed such traits in the Christian world. Indeed, Judas and Jew became synonymous in Christian cultural consciousness (Perry and Schweitzer, 2002). Similarly, there was an intertwinement of the [Jewish] crowd that accepted blame for Jesus's death (as described in Matthew, 27:24–5) and world Jewry to whom Christian antisemites have continued to attribute collective responsibility for the death of Christ (Crossan, 1996). The New Testament's representations of the Jew as deicide, deceitful, evil, satanic, and the Antichrist have been enthusiastically endorsed and reproduced by Christian antisemites for centuries, and have come to form part of the arsenal of contemporary antisemitic motifs.

Many in the Christian world proceeded to develop this arsenal of antisemitic motifs by accusing Jews of desecration of the Host, the ritual murder of Christian children, poisoning wells and spreading disease among Christians, colluding with the mythical Antichrist and attempting to destroy Christendom (Gold, 1988; Wistrich, 1999a). These anti-Jewish representations appeared to consist of two principal elements: firstly, there was an ideological theme of opposing the tenets of Christianity, rooted in the Jews' rejection of Christ (“Jews rejected Christ and hence they desecrate the Host”); and secondly, there was a theme of intergroup competition and conflict between Christianity and Judaism (“Jews wish to destroy Christianity and thus they spread disease among its followers”). These representations were persisting and enduring from the early days of Christianity and were modified and adapted to suit specific temporal and cultural contexts. Moreover, they were extended in order to foment and crystallise antipathy towards Jews in the general population.

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