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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Egyptian Beginning of Anti-Semitism’s Long History

Filed under: Anti-Semitism
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

  • Most anti-Jewish material from Greek and Latin authors is pre-Christian. The main protagonists in the anti-Jewish propaganda came from Alexandria. There also the first anti-Jewish pogrom in history took place in 38 CE.
  • The initial indication of a negative attitude toward Jews is found at the beginning of the third century BCE in the writings of an Egyptian priest called Manetho. This Greek-speaking Egyptian devotes a large section of his main work, which deals with the history of Egypt, to the Exodus of the Israelites.
  • Alongside the history of anti-Jewish literature there is an outspoken pro-Jewish line. These voices are to be heard all the time side by side-one of admiration and one of scorn and detestation.
  • One aspect of the history of Jew-hatred, that is, the twenty-three known centuries of anti-Semitism, is the tenacity of many motifs such as that Jews are dangerous and enemies of humankind. These notions are easily demonstrable as nonsense, yet they have been kept alive among many millions of people all over the world until today. It is apparently impossible to break through these perceptions.

“As far as we know Alexandria in Egypt was the birthplace of anti-Semitism’s ideology. There also the first pogrom in history-as we now would call it-took place. In Asia Minor, which is now Turkey, there also were large Jewish communities from the fourth or third century BCE onward. One finds there no endemic hatred of the Jews as in Alexandria.

“The initial indication of a negative attitude toward Jews is found at the beginning of the third century BCE in the writings of an Egyptian priest called Manetho. This Greek-speaking Egyptian devotes a large section of his main work, which deals with the history of Egypt, to the Exodus of the Israelites.”

Prof. Pieter van der Horst studied classical philology and literature. In 1978 he received his PhD in theology from Utrecht University. After his studies he taught there, among other things as professor of Jewish studies. Van der Horst is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“Manetho turns the story of the Exodus upside down. In the Bible it is an act of liberation of the Jewish people by God from Egyptian bondage. In Manetho’s antibiblical history it is an expulsion of the Jews from Egypt at the command of the Egyptian gods, because their country has to be purified of unclean people.

“Manetho tells that when the Egyptians take measures to expel these unclean people, the Jews organize themselves around a priest whose name later turns out to be Moses. They start a regime of terror in which the Egyptian population becomes the victim of brutal violence. Indeed, these people display large-scale sacrilegious behavior by killing, roasting, and eating the Egyptian gods-that is, the sacred animals. Finally the Pharaoh succeeds in expelling them, whereupon they found their own rogue state in and around Jerusalem where they build their temple.”

An Anti-Jewish Exodus

“This ‘anti-Jewish version of Exodus’ sets the tone for a series of such retellings of the biblical story by subsequent writers in the second and first centuries BCE and later. 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.”

When asked whether the biblical story of the Book of Esther including Haman’s attempted genocide of the Jewish people does not precede the Egyptian anti-Semitic writings, Van der Horst replies: “The problem is that the dating of the Book of Esther is very uncertain. The events are supposed to have taken place in the court of the Persian king. Usually scholars, however, date this book only to the second century BCE. Moreover, Haman’s threat could not be carried out.”

Flavius Josephus

“Jew-hatred on a growing scale began after the conquest of the Middle East by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. Before that time there were only incidental and individual contacts between members of various nations. The exposure of one nation to another is typical of the Hellenistic era, the period from Alexander onward. Then also, for the first time, other nations come into contact with the Jewish people on a larger scale. From then we see this kind of hatred gradually spreading more and more in Greek and later also in Roman society.

“Manetho’s texts are lost. The major first-century Jewish apologist Flavius Josephus dedicates a book-commonly known as Contra Apionem, Against Apion-to anti-Jewish slander in Greek and Egyptian-Greek literature of the preceding centuries. Josephus’ text deals, among other things, with the climax of this literature by an Alexandrian Greek-speaking Egyptian named Apion who lived in the first half of the first century CE.

“Apion’s writings were so influential that even half a century after his death Josephus still finds it necessary to refute his anti-Jewish slander. In Josephus’ book many anti-Jewish quotations from Manetho’s history have been preserved. He gives the impression that they are literal quotes.

“The same is true of several other anti-Jewish writers from Greco-Roman antiquity including Apion. Most of their works have been lost apart from the quotations by Josephus or the later Christian Church Fathers, especially Eusebius of Caesarea.

“These quotes on Jews have been meticulously collected by the late Prof. Menachem Stern of Hebrew University in three volumes called Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism. It is a magnificent work about Greek and Roman attitudes toward Jews in antiquity, published by the Israel Academy of Sciences from 1974 to 1984. Sadly, after its completion, Stern was murdered by a Palestinian.”

Positive Witnesses

“Besides Josephus, there are only a few references to Jews in the ancient Greek authors who have been preserved. For instance, the Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily quotes another ancient Greek historian, Hecataeus, who expresses great admiration for Moses as a person who excelled in wisdom and courage. He views the beginning of Judaism as hugely promising because of Moses’ wisdom. Hecataeus adds that only in a later stage of history did the Jews introduce laws that created a kind of xenophobic mentality among them. He is thus somewhat critical of later developments but clearly expresses his admiration for Judaism’s founder.

“Some of the earliest Greek observers of Judaism were positive. For instance, two pupils of Aristotle, Theophrastus and Clearchus, make short, extremely favorable remarks about Jews. One calls them a nation of philosophers. He implies that their ideas about God and religion are so lofty and pure that they are examples to be followed. Others hold the same view. Thus in philosophical circles people sometimes expressed admiration for the Jews’ rejection of a plurality of gods. That their single God was not even mentioned by name nor pictured in whatever form made them commendable to philosophical thinkers who tended to develop an abstract concept of a deity.

“Such thinkers found some of their own ideas expressed in the Jews they met. This positive assessment of Judaism as a religion also stemmed from the beginning of the contacts between nations. It never disappeared; in the Roman Empire, in the first four to five centuries CE, we see that in many cities of the ancient world where there are synagogues there also are circles of the so-called God-fearers, gentiles who sympathize with Judaism. For that we have many literary and epigraphic testimonies.

“These gentiles did not become members of the Jewish community but were impressed by the Jewish religion, especially its ethical aspects. They sympathized sometimes very strongly with Jewish ideas and values. This phenomenon in turn inspired a certain Judeophobia among others, which emerges from several ancient documents.

“Some God-fearers supported various Jewish institutions with money and in other ways. Sometimes they attended synagogue services or even observed the Sabbath out of reverence for the Jewish religion, even without becoming members of the Jewish community.

“One finds these sympathizers in many places. For instance, in Turkey a priestess of the emperor cult is mentioned-one couldn’t think of something more un-Jewish than that-who donates a large amount of money to have a synagogue built for her city’s Jewish community. There are many striking examples of sympathy for Judaism on the part of pagans.”

Roman Attitudes

“There is no significant difference between Greek and Roman attitudes toward the Jews. When the Romans came into contact with Jews, they also were exposed to the anti-Jewish propaganda of several Greek authors. Often Roman authors just rehashed what they found in Greek writers about Jews, having already been influenced by these perspectives.

“The best-known example is a passage by Tacitus, the famous Roman historian of the second century CE, in Book 5 of his Histories. It is from beginning to end a recapitulation of everything one finds in earlier Greek authors on Jews and Judaism. He relates the anti-Jewish version of the Exodus and adds some very negative remarks about what he calls ‘the Jewish hatred of the human race.’ One also finds such statements in many other ancient Greek and Roman authors. It is often claimed that the Jews keep aloof from non-Jews because they hate them.

“The Jewish way of life that in some ways kept them separate from others was apparently quite often interpreted as xenophobia. It meant to the anti-Jewish authors that the Jews did not want to mix with other nations because they feared or hated, or even despised them. In these stereotypes among Greek and Latin authors, one regularly finds the word ‘unsocial’-in Greek apanthropos-which means ‘turned away from other people.’ Jewish separatism created irritation that in the long run became Jew-hatred among Greeks and Romans.”

The Double Approach

“Throughout antiquity, from the moment that Greek and Latin authors began to write about Jews and Judaism, one finds this double approach. Alongside the history of anti-Jewish literature there is an outspoken pro-Jewish line. These voices are to be heard all the time side by side-one of admiration and one of scorn and detestation.

“Most anti-Jewish material from Greek and Latin authors is pre-Christian. Although there also is some anti-Jewish literature from outside Alexandria, it is significant that the main protagonists in the anti-Jewish propaganda came from that town; besides Manetho and Apion there also are others. Also in Alexandria the first anti-Jewish ‘pogrom’-which we can define as an organized and officially tolerated attack on Jews-took place in the year 38 CE.”

Van der Horst says that from a modern perspective there are parallels between the Alexandria “pogrom”-an anachronistic use of a far more recent word-of the year 38 and what happened in the German Kristallnacht in 1938.

The Alexandrian Pogrom

He explains: “There is only one work referring to this pogrom. It is commonly called In Flaccum and was written by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who lived from about 25 BCE to 50 CE. He was a witness of the events. That would seem to inspire confidence, but closer analysis of his book raises doubts.

“No one else makes mention of these dramatic events apart from Philo’s somewhat later contemporary Flavius Josephus. He tells us that in the reign of the emperor Gaius (better known as Caligula), after there had been civil strife between the Jewish and Greek inhabitants of Alexandria, both factions sent delegates to the emperor in Rome.1

“Josephus’ casual way of mentioning the event tells us that he had little information about the uprising or did not find it worth devoting any more words to it. On the other hand, he makes clear that what had happened was important enough to justify the sending of contingents to Rome by both parties, a fact that is amply confirmed elsewhere. Philo himself wrote a complete book about it (Legatio ad Gaium) because he had acted as the leader of the Jewish delegation.

“Josephus does confirm the historicity of the event. But his relative neglect of it-eleven words in Josephus compared to over eleven thousand  in Philo-makes us wonder whether the large scale of the pogrom as suggested by Philo was somewhat exaggerated.

“Another problem lies in the genre of Philo’s treatise. It is not just a piece of historiography. The best way to demonstrate this is to quote the final sentence of the work: ‘Thus Flaccus [the main culprit] became an indubitable proof that the Jewish people had not been deprived of the help of God.’2 So Philo has a theological message, which usually does not greatly contribute to the objectivity of history writing.”

Flaccus Persecutes the Jews

Van der Horst summarizes the contents of In Flaccum: “Flaccus was appointed Roman governor of Egypt and Alexandria by the emperor Tiberius in 32 CE. In the first five years he showed exemplary ability in fulfilling his responsibilities. That began to change, however, when Tiberius was succeeded on the throne by Caligula in 37. Flaccus became depressed because he had supported the rival candidate for this succession and also had played an active role in the prosecution of Caligula’s mother, Agrippina.

“The leaders of the anti-Jewish Greeks in Alexandria then advised him to win the emperor’s favor by supporting them in their planned actions against the Jews in the city as they knew Caligula hated the Jews. Philo speaks explicitly about an endemic Jew-hatred: ‘from the cradle onward, most people in Alexandria are taught that Jews are bad people. Children are instilled with hatred of Jews.’ He may exaggerate somewhat but he would not write such a thing baselessly.

“Bit by bit Flaccus began to persecute the Jews, first by partiality as a judge in lawsuits, later by other measures. The climax came when, in the early summer of 38 CE, Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, visited Alexandria on his way from Rome to his new kingdom in Palestine that he had just received from his friend Caligula.

“Herod Agrippa was enthusiastically welcomed by the Jews but the Greeks reacted furiously and staged a mock ceremony, bringing a local lunatic into the gymnasium, greeting him with royal honors, and hailing him as ‘our Lord.’ Instead of punishing the instigators of this insult to a friend of the emperor, Flaccus turned a blind eye. This encouraged the Greeks to proceed to erect statues of the emperor in synagogues: an act of desecration.”

Flaccus Makes the Jews Foreigners

“This was followed by Flaccus issuing a decree to the effect that Jews were from now on to be regarded as foreigners and aliens in the city. This opened the floodgates to massive plundering of Jewish homes and shops and the rounding up of the Jews in one quarter of the city, where already a great number of Jews lived, so that an overcrowded ‘ghetto’ was created where the Jews had to endure terrible conditions.

“Synagogues and homes were sacked and set on fire. Then followed a long series of acts of unchecked savagery by the Greeks when they caught Jews who strayed outside the ghetto in search of help. Jews were set upon by mobs that patrolled the edge of the ghetto. They beat up their victims or burned them to death, or bound them together and dragged them through the market square, kicking them and trampling them until their bodies were mutilated beyond recognition.

“At the end of August, on Caligula’s birthday, a large group of Jews were arrested, marched through the streets to the theater where they were beaten and forced to eat pork. If they refused, they were killed as a form of birthday celebration for the emperor. Many also died of diseases that broke out because of the atrocious conditions in the ghetto. Some weeks later a detachment of troops suddenly arrived from Rome, sent by Caligula, to arrest Flaccus. He was condemned, his property confiscated, and he was sentenced to deportation to the miserable island of Andros in the Aegean Sea.

“Modern scholarship makes widely varying estimates of the number of Jews in ancient Alexandria. Some scholars think there were fewer than fifty thousand Jews in first-century Alexandria, and others speak of more than 150,000. Philo, our only source, says the enemies had destroyed four hundred Jewish houses. We also know for sure that there were more than forty victims because Philo says that forty members of the Jewish senate, the community’s council of elders, were killed in the local theater, and adds that ‘many others’ also were killed.

“Later in Rome, Caligula came to the conclusion that the fate of his many deportees was too mild a punishment and ordered them to be executed. Flaccus was at the top of that list. When soldiers landed on Andros, Flaccus fought back with the only result that, as Philo writes: ‘his body received the same number of wounds as that of the Jews who had been unlawfully murdered by him.’ This sentence also expresses Philo’s theological message.”

Being Different and Mistaken Beliefs

Van der Horst summarizes: “The ancient hatred of the Jews derived in part from their being different, as far as the interhuman side of the matter is concerned. A second, at least as important aspect is the negative views of Jewish monotheism. There was admiration for this monotheism in the more educated and philosophical circles, but elsewhere it evoked much anger because it was seen as a haughty exclusivism.

“The Jews said about the pagan gods that they were no gods at all and did not exist, while there was only one God, ours. With the Jews a nation appeared that said all others were wrong and their gods were at best demons. Greeks and Romans regarded this denial of their truths as sheer arrogance. They did not feel themselves taken seriously as believers and this created much resentment.

“Other nations that got acquainted with Greeks and Romans and saw that they had different gods from their own reacted otherwise. They said, for instance, ‘You have different names for the deities but of course your gods and ours must be the same.’ Everywhere in the ancient world people tried to find equations between their own gods and those of the Greeks or the Romans.

“For instance, the Egyptians said, ‘What we call Osiris is your god Dionysos.’ When there were differences in numbers they said something like: ‘You have one god, we have two. But it doesn’t matter.’ This approach avoided tensions.”

Parallels with Today

“The fact that the Jews are monotheistic is no longer a real issue these days. Contemporary anti-Semitism by and large comes from Christians and Muslims, who consider themselves monotheists. The Jew-hatred these days stems from different sources than in antiquity.

“There is, however, another parallel with antiquity. The otherness of the Jews played a large role in their image among Greek and Roman circles. That also is the case in our own times. Anti-Semites perceive the Jews as being different, and this leads them to see them as dangerous. This imagined danger leads to hatred of the Jews.

“One horrifying aspect of the history of Jew-hatred, namely, the twenty-three centuries of anti-Semitism that we know of, is the tenacity of so many motifs such as that Jews are dangerous and enemies of humankind. These ideas are and always have been demonstrably false. They are, however, much alive up to the present day. It is apparently impossible to break through these perceptions.

“The image of the Jew as an enemy is grotesque and easily exposed as pure nonsense. Still these images are kept alive among many millions of people all over the world. That this is possible is one of the most frightening aspects of the history of Jew-hatred.”

Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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Prof. Pieter van der Horst studied classical philology and literature. In 1978 he received his PhD in theology from Utrecht University. After his studies he taught there, among other things as professor of Jewish studies. His retirement lecture in 2006 on the myth of Jewish cannibalism and the censorship by Utrecht University of a part of the lecture dealing with contemporary Muslim anti-Semitism, led to a major debate in the Dutch national media and academic world that drew international attention. Prof. Van der Horst is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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1. Flavius Josephus, Ant. XVIII, 257.

2. Philo, In Flaccum, 191.