WHY THEN had the Roman world in the time of Constantine become so much more hostile to Jews and Judaism than it had been in the time of Jesus, three centuries earlier? Was there a seam of malevolence which had simply taken time to surface, a latent suspicion of Jews as strange which inevitably led to dislike and suppression? Was it the unruli-ness of the Jews that was to blame, or their aspirations for their nation and their God? Was it their prickly exclusiveness, or their acceptance of outsiders as proselytes? Was it just the fact that they were different, and that, although they adopted much of the culture around them, they did not adapt quite enough? Or had the hostility of Rome to the Jews arisen by accident, unintended by either side, propelled by events which the Jews were unable to influence and whose impact on their own concerns they could not have imagined?
Much has been written on the origins of antisemitism in classical antiquity. Hatred of the Jews has been traced by some to Egypt in the third century BCE, by others to the propaganda against the Jews produced by Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century BCE. Some have emphasized the resentment aroused in neighbouring Greek cities by the expansionist policies of the Hasmonaeans in Judaea, others the separateness of Jewish communities in the diaspora which made Jews distinctive and therefore vulnerable as scapegoats. There has been much discussion of the differences between theological roots of Christian anti-Judaism, based on the assertion that the Jewish covenant with God is rendered obsolete by the new covenant of Christ, and the less focused anti-Jewish comments to be found in pagan Greek and Latin authors. It is not my purpose to dispute the value of any of these discussions, which all have their merits, but to emphasize something which has not received the attention it deserves.1
I have tried to show that the Jewish world in which Jesus lived was under Roman rule but was not, and did not feel, oppressed by Rome. The power wielded by Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem did indeed rest ultimately on military might, and occasionally he, like other governors, deployed his troops with devastating and unsurprising insensitivity, but for the most part the agents of the Roman state were invisible, their presence felt only in the occasional demand for payment of taxes, the building of a few main roads, and a minimal police presence in the Antonia fortress and the palace of Herod.
The Jerusalem to which Jesus came at Passover in 30 CE was a glorious city, adorned with new gleaming buildings and awash with enthusiastic pilgrims from all over the Roman empire and beyond. The might of the God of the Jews was patent in the astonishing spectacle of the rebuilt Temple. Roman peace had been good for Jerusalem. The Jews prayed for the well-being of the emperor as they had prayed for other royal benefactors in earlier times, and as they still revered the Persian king Cyrus who had restored their ancestors from exile over five centuries before.
It is hard to appreciate the felicity of Judaea in those days only because later events have cast a pall of gloom over memory. Jesus was to be crucified by Pilate and some of his followers thrown to the lions by Roman governors. The magnificent Temple would be reduced to rubble. But at the time no one knew this. Herod had built a city to last. Jerusalem could hope to stand eternally alongside Rome. Jewish society was more open than it had ever been to new ideas. Jews felt free to argue about deep philosophical issues such as the limits of free will, and to debate the finer points of the way of life laid down by the Torah, discussing what it should mean in practice to rest on the Sabbath or conscientiously to pay the tithes due to the priests who served at the altar where sacrifices were performed on behalf of all. They did so secure in the knowledge that all was well in a world in which God was worshipped as he had prescribed. They remembered that they had once been in exile in Babylon and that they had once been ground down by the abomination of desolation with which Anti-ochus Epiphanes had desecrated God's holy place, but they knew that they themselves lived in better times, in which Roman power deterred assaults by neighbouring peoples and left Jews at liberty to worship as their forefathers had.
The Romans were well aware that Jews were different in many aspects of their lifestyle and outlook, but they were used to ruling over strange peoples and revelled in the variety of their subjects. The presence of a Jewish community in Rome gave them opportunities to discover rather more about this nation than others, although they did not always understand what they saw. They thought that Jewish taboos against worshipping other gods than their own or engraving human images on coins were bizarre, but that they could easily be accommodated. Appreciation of Jewish customs led occasionally to emulation, as in the popularity of the weekly Sabbath rest, and occasionally to full adoption, by proselytes, but more often to tolerant amusement. Jews were exotic in the eyes of Romans and the Roman state, and they were sometimes treated as despicable because they were a defeated nation, but they were not seen as dangerous or hostile.
Such tolerance came under stress when revolt broke out in Jerusalem in 66 CE, sparked not by Jewish revulsion against Roman imperialism as a whole but in reaction to maladministration by an individual low-grade governor. The initial Roman response was little more than a police action, a show of force, but it escalated in response to the disaster suffered by Ces-tius Gallus in his incompetent withdrawal after he had almost conquered the city. His loss of the equivalent of a complete legion at the hands of the inhabitants of an established province of the empire was without precedent and could not be kept quiet. Punitive action was required before other subjects of Rome tried to follow suit.
But the punitive action planned in 66 escalated much further in 70, into an intensive siege of Jerusalem and the eventual destruction of the city. The cause was less the strength of Jewish resistance than a series of coups d'état in Rome which culminated in the decision of Vespasian to seek supreme power for himself. The total defeat of the Jews was needed to provide him with the aura of a victorious general which might justify his rise to power. It was not the first or last time that a foreign war had been used to disguise embarrassing truths in domestic Roman politics, and such practices are not unknown in the modern world. But it was unusual for the enemy to be a people who had been within the Roman sphere for over a century, and it was even more unusual for the demonization of the defeated nation to have effects which lasted for centuries. The reasons, again, were political.
Once the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by Roman troops, it was imperative for Vespasian and Titus to claim that what they had done was good for Rome. The centre of Rome was remodelled under the Flavians to reflect the glory of the war. The story of the victory in Judaea became part of the historical consciousness of ordinary Romans, so that poets could evoke it by oblique allusion, and Cassius Dio, a century and a half later, could still describe its course in detail. Once the Flavians had established their power on the back of the defeat of the Jews, it was not in the interest of most subsequent emperors to tamper with the image so carefully constructed, let alone to challenge it directly by allowing the Jews to rebuild their Temple. The exception was Nerva in 96, the only emperor concerned to distance himself from his Flavian predecessors. He did indeed institute change but, as we have seen in Chapter 12, it did not last.
Demonization of the Jews was made easier because, as we have seen in Chapter 10, they were a distinctive group in the city of Rome. In certain political conditions, when mainstream society is looking for a scapegoat, even minor peculiarities in lifestyle can be treated as a reason for hatred. In any case, the lists of those who paid the annual Jewish tax ensured that it was public knowledge who was a Jew. It was still known in the third century that this tax, which was still being collected each year, was a punishment for the revolt of 66—70 CE.2
I charted in Chapter 12 the growing despair of the Jews after 70 as their new status in the Roman world began to dawn on them, as also the violence that ensued in 115 and 132, and the even more violent Roman response. But in the long term the most significant development in the century after 70 was a by-product of the hostility of Rome to the Jews, the emergence of Christian antisemitism. Roman imperial power gradually disintegrated in the western Mediterranean and northern Europe from the beginning of the fifth century CE, and although the empire of New Rome, in Byzantium, continued far longer, it too fell in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks. But Rome's living legacy in Europe throughout the Middle Ages to our own times has been the institution and ideology of the Church, and in the eyes of some Christians, ever since the first generation, Judaism has been a religion that ought to have ceased to exist in the first century CE : the Old Testament had been wholly superseded by the New. It is of course important to stress that anti-Judaism based on such religious convictions does not necessarily lead to antisemitism, but it was not by accident that some Christians began in the second century to distance themselves from Jews with language of increasing vitriol at the same time that similar terminology was being used in the centre of imperial power at Rome.
The impetus to the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity had come less from the Jewish side than from the Christian. Ordinary Jews in the first century CE accepted that there were many odd Jewish groups who interpreted the Torah in idiosyncratic ways and, in some cases, attributed authority to teachers of their own without claiming biblical warrant, as the Dead Sea sectarians followed the Teacher of Righteousness and the rabbis the decrees of their sages. Jews were used to disagreeing about belief and practice without denying to their opponents a place within the nation of Israel. That the authorities in Jerusalem before 70 CE could also tolerate the doctrines of the earliest followers of Jesus is evident from the report in Acts that the first generation of Christians preached openly in the Temple, occasionally arousing suspicion and being instructed to stop, but mostly being left in peace, so that “daily in the Temple … they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.”3 When the Christians claimed that Jesus was the expected Messiah, in the eyes of non-Christian Jews they were simply mistaken. They could be pitied or mocked for their folly, but there was no need to expel them from the Jewish fold.
The impetus for Christians to distance themselves from Jews after 70 was much more clear-cut. By that date many, probably most, Christians lived outside Judaea, and most of them had not been born Jews. Many, probably most, of them had come under the influence of the doctrine, preached by Paul, that for gentile Christians to take onto themselves the Jewish law would be to show a lack of faith in Christ. Except in their wish to see themselves as descendants of Abraham and to claim the good parts of the ancient history of Israel as their own, they had no need to portray themselves as a variety of Judaism.
But, more crucially in the development of antisemitism, to gain credibility in the Roman world after 70 Christians needed not only to deny their own Jewishness but to attack Judaism altogether. It would have been quite possible for early Christians to have maintained a view of Judaism as another, older, relationship with God, as Paul had sometimes done, and as has become more common, too, among modern Christian theologians. But if Christians were to defend their own good name and seek converts in a Roman world in which, after 70, the name of the Jews excited opprobrium, it was easier to join in the attack and agree with the pagans that the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of the Temple were to be celebrated as the will of God. As we have seen (in Chapter 12), some Christians, like Augustine, made the even stronger claim that the miserable state of the Jews was testimony to the truth preached by the Church, and that it was necessary to preserve Jews in subjection, rather than convert them to Christianity, in order that observation of their parlous condition might strengthen the faithful. For Christians, as for pagan Romans, it was unthinkable for nearly two millennia, until 1948, to allow a Jewish state to rise again.
Of course the antagonism to Judaism found in many Christian writings of the second century was given a theological gloss. The Jews were those who had rejected Christ and suffered accordingly; in a more extreme form, the Jews were those who had killed him. The accusation is too familiar to appreciate readily how bizarre it is. According to the Gospels themselves, Jesus gained many Jewish followers in Jerusalem, as did his disciples after the crucifixion. It was no more (or less) true that “the Jews rejected Christ” than it was true that the other inhabitants of the Mediterranean world rejected the missionaries who came to them: in all such places, some were persuaded, some were not. Nor was it true that the Jews as a whole had killed Jesus. His death was engineered by the High Priestly authorities in the Temple, intent on avoiding disturbances in the volatile pilgrim season, but it was impossible to know how many other Jews considered that it was “right for one man to die for all the people.” The Gospels record that the crowd of Jews, asked by Pilate who should be released, asked for freedom to be given to a robber called Barabbas rather than Jesus, but how large or representative was the crowd? What is certain is that the order to execute Jesus was given ultimately by Pontius Pilate as Roman governor but that, when he washed his hands of responsibility, he succeeded in eventually whitewashing for later Christians not just himself but the Roman imperial regime as a whole.4
In any case, as during the second and third centuries Christian theological discourse took on a life of its own, attitudes towards the Jews hardened. By the time of Constantine, Christians took for granted that Jews were to be despised and shunned. The assumption was inherited by medieval Christendom from the Christian Roman empire, and has by no means wholly faded away in the modern world.
CAN PREJUDICES so firmly rooted in the soil of antiquity ever be eradicated? Can Jews ever be treated in a Christian world as a nation like any other? So hoped the visionary philosopher Moses Hess (1812—75). Originally from an orthodox Jewish background in Bonn, Hess devoted himself in the 1840s and 1850s to the analysis and promotion of European politics and ethical socialism, becoming in the process an associate of Marx and Engels. But in 1862, after twenty years of estrangement, he felt drawn back to his Jewish heritage, prompted by his observation of the liberation of oppressed nationalities around Europe. Might not the solution for other peoples also be valid for the Jews? Might not a Jewish state, founded on the soil of Palestine for the first time since antiquity, bring the travails of the Jews to an end? For Hess, there was no better evidence that such dreams were possible than the emergence in Italy in 1857 of an independent secular state, freed, after a war of liberation, from the power of the Vatican: “The liberation of the Eternal City on the Tiber marks the emancipation of the Eternal City on Mount Moriah. Jerusalem's orphaned children will also be allowed to participate in the awakening from the hibernation of the Middle Ages with its evil dreams.” Hence the name he gave to his visionary tract was Rom und Jerusalem.5
Nearly two thousand years after the Temple was destroyed, two hundred years after Hess's birth, and sixty years after the establishment of an independent Jewish state in Palestine, it is too early yet to say whether Hess's optimism was justified, and the legacy of prejudice created and entrenched as a result of the political ambitions of a series of Roman emperors after 70 CE finally expunged.