Love and Hate of the Jews in Ancient Rome

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The Colosseum in Rome, Italy (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As is evident from Paul’s writings, the Apostle did not plant the congregation in the imperial capital that he is addressing in the book known as the Epistle to the Romans. This fact alone makes this letter to the Romans different in approach and style to the one he sent earlier to the Galatians. But the basic reason why the message of the book of Romans is so very different to the book of Galatians is because the Romans found themselves in a completely different context to that of the Galatians, and therefore challenges met by both groups of Jewish Christ-following Gentiles were very different.

First of all, a few words about the numbers and strength of the Jewish population in the Roman Empire as a whole. Most people are surprised to realize that the Israelite movement in the Roman Empire consisted of anywhere between 6-10% of the entire population, which means there was a very formidable minority present in every city, including the capital itself – Rome. This minority was large and influential enough to cause a real headache to the Roman government. Rome itself boasted at least eleven exquisite Jewish synagogues. Remember that the synagogue, although a completely Jewish institution today, was not so in the time of Paul. Synagogues, or the places of gathering, were Roman public institutions that were heavily used by the Jewish community, but continued to be open to the Roman public as well. This fact sets Acts 15:21 in its proper historical context. There we read that when Jacob/Yakov/James announced that the members of the Nations who follow the Jewish Christ needed to ensure they observed the set of laws enjoined by the Torah upon the sojourners with Israel, he explained his reasoning: “For the Torah of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

Opinions about the Jews

While Jewish influence in the Roman Empire and Rome itself was significant, the opinions of the Roman power-brokers varied from adoration and great respect for the Jews, to complete disgust and distrust.

Here are a few examples of positive, although confused, statements about the Jews by the Greco-Roman authors:

Josephus writes that one Clearchus of Soli (ca. 300 B.C.E.) narrates a story in which his teacher, Aristotle, had met a Judean. Aristotle was duly impressed and finds the Judean to be “Greek in both language and soul” in spite of the fact that Judeans are “descended from the Indian philosophers.”  (Josephus, Against Apion 1.180 = Stern no. 15).

Tacitus, a Roman senator and a historian and orator, famous for his surviving works Annals and Histories, writes:

“As I am about to describe the last days of a famous city, it seems proper for me to give some account of its origin. It is said that the Jews were originally exiles from the island of Crete who settled in the farthest parts of Libya at the time when Saturn had been deposed and expelled by Jove. An argument in favor of this is derived from the name; there is a famous mountain in Crete called Ida, and hence the inhabitants were called the Idaei, which was later lengthened into the barbarous form ludaei…” (Tacitus, Histories 5.2)

Even the great Roman writer Varro, who was a Roman scholar and prolific writer of hundreds of books on jurisprudence, astronomy, geography, education, satires, poems and orations, when he argues that the gods of Rome must not have pictures, pointing out to the Jews and their God.

He [Varro] also says that for more than 170 years the ancient Romans worshipped the gods without an image. “If this usage had continued to our own day,” he says, “our worship of the gods would be more devout. And in support of his opinion he adduces, among other things, the testimony of the Jewish race.” (Varro, Antiquities, c. 116-27 BCE, cited by Augustine, City of God 4.31, c. 354-430 CE)

Here are a few examples of negative statements (these are some that I did not mention in previous sections) about the Jews by Greco-Roman authors, some surviving only in much later sources as quotations:

Joseph relates a common Roman myth as used by Apion about the Jews: “kidnap a Greek foreigner, fatten him up for a year, and then convey him to a wood, where they slew him, sacrificed his body with their customary ritual, partook of his flesh, and, while immolating the Greek, swore an oath of hostility to the Greeks.” (Josephus, Against Apion 2.94-96)

Or consider this: “…the Judeans then took up residence in Jerusalem and its environs” and “made their hatred of people into a tradition” and “introduced outlandish laws: not to break bread, with any other race, nor to show them any good will at all.”  (Photius, Bibliotheca 244.379)

When speaking of the Jews, Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist, says:

“Meanwhile the customs of this accursed race have gained such influence that they are now received throughout all the world. The vanquished have given laws to their victors.” (Seneca quoted by Augustine, City of God, c. 5 BCE–65 CE)

As we can see, the attitudes of the Greco-Roman authors were varied and no doubt in some way represented the situation on the ground among the citizens of Rome as well. It was difficult because when the Roman God-fearers first joined the Jesus movement in Rome, they did so just like others – in connection with the Jewish community. As far as they were concerned they were now in some way part of the Jewish-friendly community that, in a sense, acted as a political buffer zone between the Jews and the Nations residing in the confines of the Roman Empire. However, at some point Emperor Claudius expelled all the Jews from the city of Rome. This is how Ancient Roman history relates it:

“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestos [misspelling of Christ?], he [the Emperor Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” (Divius Claudius 25)

This is the same Emperor who executed several members of his own family for conversion to Judaism, seeking to show himself as the true protector of the honor and service of the Roman gods. The New Testament decisively confirms this account: “After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.” (Acts 18:1-2)

Political pressure on Roman Christ-followers

Now, taking all of these things into consideration, imagine yourself a follower of the Jewish Christ in Rome. Can you see yourself and others like you being under tremendous pressure from your family and other governmental/patriotic forces that would naturally push you to disassociate from the Jews? I think the answer must be given in the affirmative – but that is not all!

Not only were the Roman Gentile Christ-followers pressured to disassociate from the “Jewish community”, but the mainstream Jewish community also, were not happy with their allegiance to Jesus and there was a very important political and social reason for that – the Roman Godfearers served as a buffer zone between Jews and Romans for decades. They were the most powerful advocates for religious freedom for the Jews within the Roman Empire – they were indeed the buffer zone the Jews badly needed. But now things were changing rapidly. Gentile Roman citizens were now joining this new Jesus Jewish movement by the thousands, and that threatened to change the slowly dripping status quo in Roman-Jewish relationships, putting into grave danger the otherwise comfortable political climate achieved between Jewish leadership and the Roman authorities. The Roman Empire-wide Gentile Jewish Jesus movement was politically unacceptable to both the Roman government and the Jewish leadership that lived under its firm, but more or less benevolent, reign. Both opponents hated it for the same reason – it was bound to change the status quo.

As you continue to place yourself, through the medium of God given human imagination, into the shoes of the first century Roman followers of Jesus, you can now see that both Jewish and Roman opposition would pose some real challenges to your faith and practice. The close connection with Israel and the Jews in Rome, unlike in Galatia, simply did not make sense. “It was wildly counter-intuitive and fully unproductive”, thought the Roman Christ-followers. Apostle Paul, however, sought to advocate for his people according to the flesh (Israel/Jews) and convince the Roman Christ-followers that, in spite of governmental opposition to the Jews in general, and in spite of Jewish leadership that was able to influence the majority of other Jews in opposition to the Messiahship of Jesus, their participation in this spiritual “Jewish coalition” was very well justified.

This article originally appeared on Jewish Studies Blog by Dr. Eli, April 12, 2016 and reposted with permission.

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One of Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg's greatest passions is building of bridges of trust, respect and understanding between Christians and Jews, overcoming centuries of difficult, but almost always joined history. He strongly believes that both Hebrew Bible and the New Testament scriptures have much to teach both communities. Outside of his expertise in the ancient languages (Biblical Hebrew, Koine Greek, Syriac and Old Church Slovanic), he has a command of three other modern languages (English, Russian and Hebrew).