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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Classical Writers and the Jews

The name Ιουδαὶος is apparently first mentioned by Theophrastus, a philosopher of the fourth century B.C. He regards the Jews as a nation of philosophers who "spend their days in discussions about God, and their nights in observing the stars." Aristotle met a Jew in Asia who knew Greek perfectly and was, according to Clearchus, a Greek at heart and a philosopher. Megasthenes, a historian of the first half of the third century B.C., says that "all the ideas expressed by the ancients in regard to the laws of physics were also known to non-Greek philosophers, partly to the Brahmans of India, and partly to those in Syria called Jews." The learned Greeks were naturally in sympathy with the monotheistic doctrines of the Jews, and at first assumed a friendly attitude toward them. Hecatæus of Abdera, Strabo, Varro, and even Tacitus himself have words of praise for the religious beliefs and for many of the institutions of Judaism. It was not long, however, before the religious isolation of the Jews, and their contempt of the heathen beliefs, created much antagonism.

As early as the third century B.C. the unfriendly feelings toward the Jews found expression. This is particularly true of Egypt, where the fable originated of the Jews being the descendants of lepers and unclean persons. Hecatæus, of Abdera (third century B.C.) tells of the expulsion of the Jews from Egypt in his history of that country. According to him there was a plague in Egypt, which the people ascribed to the anger of the gods. This they thought was caused by the increase in the land of foreigners not believing in their divinity. It was decided to expel them. The bravest and strongest of the foreigners united and moved to Greece and other places; the lower classes settled in Judea, which had been uninhabited theretofore. Describing the laws and customs of the Jews as established by Moses, Hecatæus says that Moses persuaded his followers that God has no form, and that He is the "sky surrounding the earth." Moses, he adds, established laws prohibiting humanity and hospitality.

Manetho, a learned Egyptian priest, is quoted by Josephus as describing the origin of the Jews, in substance, as follows: Amenophis, the king, compelled all the unclean persons and lepers, numbering 80,000, to work with criminals in the stone-quarries along the Nile. Among the lepers were some learned priests. After some time the king allowed them to leave the quarries, and gave them the city of Avario for their habitation. Settling there, they appointed a priest named Osarsiph—who afterward changed his name to Moses—as their leader, repaired the walls of the city, and called to their aid the inhabitants of Jerusalem, which city had been settled by shepherds expelled from Egypt. They made war on Egypt, and reigned there for thirteen years, after which the fugitive king returned with a great force and drove the shepherds and lepers into Syria ("Contra Ap." 1:26-27).

The same story with variations is repeated by Diodorus Siculus (first century B.C.). Cleomedes refers to the "beggars ever present near the synagogues"; and Agatharchides (second century B.C.) says that the Jews spend every seventh day in idleness, discarding their weapons, and playing in their temple. According to Josephus, Apollonius Molo (a contemporary of Cicero) wrote a treatise against the Jews, "in which he scattered his aspersions in all directions throughout the work." He calls Moses "a conjurer and deceiver," and the Jews he describes as "godless and hostile to other men." Strabo, the geographer (c. 60 B.C.-25 C.E.), does not repeat the story of the Jews being descendants of lepers, though he evidently follows Diodorus in his representation of Jewish theology. While Manetho ascribes the expulsion of the Jews to the king's desire to regain the favor of the gods, Chæremon, a Stoic of the first half of the first century B.C., traces it to a dream which Amenophis had and in which the goddess Isis appeared to him. Isis rebuked the king for allowing her temples to be demolished in the war. "Phritiphantes, the sacred scribe, informed him that if he would purge Egypt of the men who were diseased he should no longer be troubled with such apparitions. Amenophis thereupon collected 250,000 unclean persons and drove them out of Egypt. The leaders of these people, called Moses and Joseph, made their way to Pelusium, united with 380,000 men whom Amenophis would not allow to enter the country, made war on Egypt, and overran the land for thirteen years. The son of Amenophis, when he attained to manhood, drove these persons into Syria."

Lysimachus of Alexandria is also mentioned and criticized by Josephus. The version by Lysimachus—thanks to Apion and Tacitus—was well known in the ancient world. According to him, in the reign of Bochoris, King of Egypt, the Jewish people, being infected with leprosy, scurvy, and other diseases, took refuge in the temples, and begged there for food. In consequence of the vast number of the persons infected, there was a failure of crops in Egypt. The oracle of Ammon being consulted, the king was told to drive into desert places all impure and impious men, and to drown all those affected with scurvy and leprosy. The king ordered the first to be driven out, and caused the others to be wrapped in sheets of lead and thrown into the sea. The former took counsel together, selected a priest named Moses as their leader, traveled amid great privation until they reached Judea, conquered it, and founded a city which they named Hierosyla (from their disposition to rob temples), but later changed it to Hierosolyma.

Apion, a grammarian and lawyer of Alexandria, expressed his evident enmity to the Jews by collecting, from whatever source, all current stories unfavorable to them. He repeats the story of their descent from unclean persons, represents their laws as antagonistic to those of their neighbors, and describes also their Temple and its interior. He even goes a step further and adds another fable—an invention of his own most probably. He relates that it was the custom of the Jews to capture every year some Greek stranger, to fatten him with good food, to kill him in sacrifice, and to eat his entrails. Stories similar to the above found credulous hearers, made curious by the mysteries of the Jewish religion. The customs of the Jews, so different from those of other peoples, formed a fruitful subject for discussion; as, for instance, their abstinence from pork, their rite of circumcision, their Sabbath, etc.

The claim of the Jews that theirs was the only true religion created not only interest, but also enmity. Celsus (second century C.E.), who wrote against Christians, also mentions the Jews. He accuses them of never having given anything useful to the world and of never having earned the respect of other peoples. They worship the imaginary, and neglect what is real; they look down upon the beliefs of non-Jews, and try to induce others to adopt the same views. Philostratus (180-250 C.E.) can not understand why Rome takes so much interest in the kingdom of the Jews. "From olden times," he says, "they have been opposed not only to Rome, but to the rest of humanity. People who do not share with others their table, their libations, their prayers, their sacrifices, are further removed from us than Susa, or Bactria, or even farthest India."

At the beginning of the third century of the present era the character of the Jews seems to change in the eyes of pagans: they cease to be a nation, and come to be regarded as a religious body. Proselytism becomes a feature of their activity, and is beginning to cause concern. Dion Cassius (150-236 C.E.) writes: "I do not know the origin of the term 'Jew.' The name is used, however, to designate all who observe the customs of this people, even though they be of different race. Therefore we find them also among native Romans. The Jews differ from all other peoples in their whole manner of life, but especially in that they do not honor any of the other gods, but worship with much fervor only one. Even at Jerusalem they never had an image of their divinity; they believe Him to be ineffable and invisible. . . . The day of Saturn is devoted to him. On this day they carry out many peculiar rites, and consider it a sin to work. All that relates to this God, His nature, the origin of His worship, and of the great awe with which He inspires the Jews, has been told long ago by many writers." In the same century Porphyry, a Neo-platonic philosopher, gives some oracles of Apollo. Among other things, he says: "The way of the happy is steep and rough, . . . and the Phenicians, Assyrians, Lydians, and the race of Hebrew men taught many ways of the happy. . . . The Chaldeans and Hebrews alone received wisdom as their destiny, worshiping in a pure manner, the self-produced Ruler as God."

The Roman writers devote considerably more attention to the Jews than do the Greek. The reason for this is the greater familiarity of the Romans with the Jews, whose numbers in Rome had largely increased. Cicero, the great orator, philosopher, and statesman (103-43 B.C.), often refers to the Jews in his orations, and in a tone of evident enmity. He calls them "nations born to slavery"; and in his defense of Flaccus he says, among other things: "While Jerusalem maintained its ground and the Jews were in a peaceful state, their religious rites were repugnant to the splendor of this empire, the weight of our name, and the institutions of our ancestors; but they are more so now, because that race has shown by arms what were its feelings with regard to our supremacy; and how far it was dear to the immortal gods, we have learned from the fact that it has been conquered, let out to hire, and enslaved."

Horace (65-8 B.C.) refers in his satires to the persistence with which the Jews try to convert people to their religion, and ridicules their Sabbath. Ovid also refers to "the seventh day kept holy by the Syrian Jew." Seneca (d. 65 C.E.) strongly attacks the Jewish Sabbath. He denies the utility of such an institution, and considers it even injurious; for the Jews, "by taking out every seventh day, lose almost a seventh part of their own life in inactivity, and many matters which are urgent at the same time suffer from not being attended to." Seneca admits the great moral power of "this most outrageous nation," and considers their successful proselytizing as an instance where "the conquered have given laws to their conquerors."

Martial (d. 104 C.E.) repeatedly pokes fun at the Jews, their Sabbath, the offensive odor of the keepers of the Sabbath, their custom of circumcision, and their beggars. Juvenal (d. 140 C.E.) also mentions the great swarms of Jewish beggars and their extreme poverty, the abstinence of the Jews from the flesh of swine, etc. Tacitus in his history, written between 104 and 109 C.E., devotes considerable space to the Jews. He derives his information from the Greek writers, and repeats the fable of the Jews being descendants of unclean persons, of lepers, etc.; tells of their wanderings and their suffering in the desert; discourses about Moses and the laws that heestablished contrary to those of other nations; and attempts to account for the origin of their various customs. He says:

"These rites and ceremonies, however introduced, have the support of antiquity; but other institutions have prevailed among them, which are tainted with low cunning. For the refuse of other nations, having renounced the religion of their own country, were in the habit of bringing gifts and offerings to Jerusalem; hence the wealth and growth of Jewish power. And, whilst among themselves they keep inviolate faith and are always prompt in showing compassion to their fellows, they cherish bitter enmity against all others, eating and lodging with one another only, and, though a people most prone to sensuality, having no intercourse with women of other nations. Among themselves no restraints are known; and in order that they may be known by a distinctive mark, they have established the practise of circumcision. . . . They show concern, however, for the increase of their population. For it is forbidden to put any of their brethren to death, and the souls of such as die in battle, or by the hand of the executioner, are thought to be immortal; hence their desire to have children, and their contempt of death. . . . The Jews acknowledge one god only, and conceive of him by the mind alone."

These, in brief, are the views held by the classical writers concerning the Jews. In most cases they are far from complimentary. These unfriendly, unjust, and at times very naive opinions are expressed by writers, many of whom in other cases show much kindly yet critical judgment. In fact, to them can be attributed the lack of familiarity of the ancient world with the life and customs of the Jews, as is amply proved by Josephus in his work "Contra Apionem"; and there is no doubt that it was the social and religious isolation of the Jews, and their contempt for the pagan beliefs, that gave birth to an enmity that has descended to more recent times.

  • Reinach, Textes d' Auteurs Grecs et Romains Relatifs au Judaäsme, Paris, 1895;
  • F. C. Meier, Judaica seu Veterum Scriptorum Profanorum de Rebus Judaicis Fragmenta, Jena, 1832;
  • Gill, Notices of the Jews and Their Country by the Classic Writers of Antiquity, London, 1872;
  • Pereferkovich, review of the above-cited work of Reinach, in Voskhod, 1896,;
  • M. Joël, Die Angriffe des Heidenthums Gegen die Juden und Christen, 1879;
  • idem, Blicke in die Religionsgesch. 2:96, Breslau, 1883;
  • Schürer, Gesch. 2:549 et seq.;
  • Hild, Les Juifs ă Rome Devant l'Opinion et Dans la Littérature, in Rev. Etudes Juives, 8:1 et seq.;
  • Frankel, in Monatsschrift, 5:81 et seq., 9:125 et seq.
J. G. L.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Classical Writers and the Jews'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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