Jews stood out in the Greek and Roman worlds. In a world where uniqueness was appreciated only to a point, Jewish differences became a source of anti-Jewish rhetoric and violence. Jews stood out because of their faith. Their belief in one God, theirs, and their unique relationship to Him as His chosen people meant they lived differently. They did not accept many of the practices and beliefs which went along with Greek and Roman religion, which penetrated every aspect of the lives of Greeks and Romans. Had the Jews been willing to identify their God as Zeus, no one would have had a problem. But they couldn’t.
Prior to the second century B.C., however, Greek writers spoke about Jews and Judaism in positive terms. This shifted in the second century with the successful Jewish revolt against the Greek Seleucids. This led to the establishment of an independent Jewish State under a family of priest-kings known as the Hasmoneans. Judaism came to see part of God’s will for His people was their freedom in the land He promised to their fathers. This added a dimension of religious nationalism to Judaism. Jews began to define themselves against idolatrous non-Jews and sought to eradicate all non-Jewish idolatry from the land of Israel. From this point on, Greek and Roman authors began to criticize Jews and Judaism.
The anti-Judaism of Greek and Roman writers focused on four primary Jewish beliefs and behaviors:
- Jewish monotheism and the Jewish God – The Jewish declaration of only one God, Israel’s God, struck Greeks and Romans as offensive. As polytheists, they would worship gods of other peoples, as long as other gods were recognized. Judaism would not do this. Therefore, Greeks and Romans accused the Jews of atheism and impiety. Greeks and Romans found the invisibility of the Jewish God equally strange. Every Greco-Roman temple had a statue of the god or goddess within it. The Temple in Jerusalem had no statue of its God.
- Circumcision – God gave Abraham the covenant of male circumcision as a sign of His covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Genesis 17). Greeks and Romans believed a man’s created form was the ideal. To them, circumcision was mutilation.
- Sabbaths – Greeks and Romans saw the Jewish practice of taking a day off during the week as laziness and idleness; thus, they criticized the Jews for observing the Sabbath.
- Diet – The eating of pork was common throughout the Greco-Roman world. Most non-Jews did not distinguish among foods in their diet. The Jews did.
The Jewish revolts (A.D. 66-136) exacerbated anti-Judaism within the Roman world. The revolts brought about the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple, as well as anti-Jewish legislation within the Roman world. These fermented anti-Jewish feelings among non-Jews, which also impacted the non-Jewish followers of Jesus.
When we look for the beginnings of Christian anti-Judaism, they lay in the Greco-Roman world. Christian anti-Judaism developed its own peculiarities. But the anti-Judaism of the Greco-Roman world certainly influenced its development.
Marc Turnage is President/CEO of Biblical Expeditions. He is an authority on ancient Judaism and Christian origins. He has published widely for both academic and popular audiences. His most recent book, Windows into the Bible, was named by Outreach Magazine as one of its top 100 Christian living resources. Marc is a widely sought-after speaker and a gifted teacher. He has been guiding groups to the lands of the Bible—Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, and Italy—for over twenty years.