Judaism in the Ancient World

[1]3,418 words

“L’ebraismo nel mondo antico,La Vita Italiana, July 1938
Trans. Das Gletscherkreuz

One of the tactical arguments most commonly used against those who bring up the Jewish problem today, is that anti-Semitism is a mere fad, an imported ideology, an attempt to emulate German racism and Nazism, something which has no real place in our country.

We have already countered claims of this type in last year’s June issue, by demonstrating that in Italy the Jewish problem can and should be formulated independently of racist or Nazi premises, and that it does not arise artificially, but rather, in its highest form, in direct connection with the Roman imperial idea.[1]

Another tactical argument consists in claiming that anti-Semitism today is merely the secularized residue of religious prejudice. Christianity, it is claimed, created anti-Semitism. Coudenhove-Kalergi, on that basis, has even attempted to explain the instinctive aversion many non-Jews feel with regard to jews on the basis of a subconscious inheritance. At the root of that instinct, he claims, there is the hatred once inculcated by Christianity against those who led Jesus to his torture and death, and who cried out that his blood should fall upon them. This view, too, is tendentious and inaccurate. The principal refutation of it is the fact that anti-Semitism already existed in a world in which Christianity had not yet appeared. The ancient pre-Christian, Aryan, classical and Mediterranean world already knew clearly defined forms of anti-Semitism and already intuitively sensed the Jewish threat, often in terms strikingly similar to those of today. We believe it very appropriate to emphasize this fact. Therefore, although many anti-Semitic documents from classical antiquity are already generally known to the public, it will not hurt to quickly review them, so as to finally liquidate the polemical argument mentioned above. Moreover, it is well-known that anti-Semitism on a Christian basis has, to a degree, produced a boomerang effect: once launched by Christianity against the Jews, it ultimately threatens to spin back onto Christianity itself. The most radical forms of contemporary anti-Semitism attack the Jewish element in the Christian tradition itself. However, we repeat, the fact that anti-Semitism already existed in antiquity is an important factor in freeing the Jewish problem from any Christian premises.

When referring to the world of classical antiquity, one must clarify the meaning of the term “anti-Semitism.” The attitude this term refers to was, in classical antiquity, never directed against the Assyrians, the Babylonians or the Arabs, for example, all of which are Semitic peoples. Thus, it would be more correct to speak of “anti-Judaism”. One might, it is true, justify the use of the now current term “anti-Semitism” on the basis of a broader opposition between general types of civilization and world-view [https://www.counter-currents.com/2015/07/the-jewish-question-in-the-spiritual-world/ [2]]: but this would lead us too far afield, and away from the matter that we here intend to discuss specifically. It should thus be made clear from the start that when we speak of “anti-Semitism” in the ancient world, this should be understood to mean “anti-Judaism”.

In our return to origins, we do not quite follow Monsignor Trzeciak, who traces the beginnings of anti-Semitism in the Bible itself, which – from Deuteronomy onward – contains a plethora of accusations directed against the Jewish people, as well as prophecies of the punishments that it should expect as a consequence of its guilt and its wickedness. As far as the Bible goes, we want instead to point out that the Egyptian monarchs already had a premonition of the threat represented by this alien people, and attempted to deal with it. In Exodus 1:9-10, we read:

And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land.

Already then, the Jews were viewed as a domestic threat, as a race rising mighty and powerful in the midst of the people that harbors it and that is, in addition, capable of betraying it to its enemies, whenever an appropriate opportunity might arise. The consequence was the so-called “captivity” in Egypt, the first instance of practical anti-Semitic measures taken in the ancient world.

Another document of the beginnings of anti-Semitism is in the Book of Esther: from this text we can deduce that already in the fourth-century BC, Jews were scattered throughout the Persian Empire, where, however, they were far from enjoying a good reputation. This is what Haman says about the Jews of that time, addressing king Xerxes (Ahasuerus):

There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them. (Esther, 3:8).

It is interesting to quote this passage in the Greek redaction of the text, because there, the Jewish character is even more vividly highlighted. Here, with regard to the Aryan king’s decree against the Jews, we read:

When I asked my counselors how this might be accomplished, Haman—who excels among us in sound judgment, and is distinguished for his unchanging goodwill and steadfast fidelity, and has attained the second place in the kingdom— pointed out to us that among all the nations in the world there is scattered a certain hostile people, who have laws contrary to those of every nation and continually disregard the ordinances of kings, so that the unifying of the kingdom that we honorably intend cannot be brought about. We understand that this people, and it alone, stands constantly in opposition to every nation, perversely following a strange manner of life and laws, and is ill-disposed to our government, doing all the harm they can so that our kingdom may not attain stability.

Therefore we have decreed that those indicated to you in the letters written by Haman, who is in charge of affairs and is our second father, shall all—wives and children included—be utterly destroyed by the swords of their enemies, without pity or restraint, on the fourteenth day of the twelfth month, Adar, of this present year, so that those who have long been hostile and remain so may in a single day go down in violence to Hades, and leave our government completely secure and untroubled hereafter.

In the biblical text, however, the episode ends with a victory of the Jews, who are able to take revenge on Haman and gain the favor of the king (significantly, this is achieved through the graces of the Jewess Esther and by having a Jew become selected as a royal official: a well known mos judaicus). In any case, the text informs us that already in the fourth-century Persia, a front of anti-Semitic resistance had been formed, which had already denounced the same Jewish traits that polemicists have brought attention to in later times, right up to the present day.

Beginning in the fourth century, Jewry expands more and more throughout the ancient world, and correspondingly, the aversion towards Jews grows stronger, first in the Greek world, and then in the Latin.

Now, one must not make the mistake of believing that the diaspora of the Jews began with the second destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70), and that it therefore was the result of external causes. By then, for quite some time already, the Jews had spread throughout the Mediterranean world of their own free will, and in pursuit of their own interests. When the Persian king Cyrus gave them permission to go back home, for example, most Jews did not dream of leaving the host countries which they termed their “captivity”: they were doing good business, had accumulated wealth and property and the idea of repatriating to their squalid homeland was not a tempting prospect. Exactly the same thing is true of the leaders of the Jewish international scattered around the world, who smirk in pity at those who want to build a “Zionist” state in Palestine and expect them to abandon their magnificent positions of command among the Aryan peoples and retreat to that dingy patch of Asian land. At this point in history, already in a state of voluntary exile in the ancient Mediterranean world, that is, before the so-called diaspora, the Jews manifested their character of a race without a homeland, parasitical and hostile towards the rest of mankind in its entirety, ever ready to join the ranks of the enemies of the states that had harbored and even protected them, from the moment those enemies happen to prove themselves to be stronger than their host nations. From the point of view of Greek civilization, the most characteristic judgment about the Jews is that of Apollonius Molon (first century BC), who called the Jews “the most witless of all barbarians, being the only people who have contributed no useful invention to civilization” (cited in Josephus, Contra Apionem, II, 148).

Later, in an obscure but profound intuition expressed in the language of myth, St. Jerome (XX, 14) called the seed of Israel “Typhonic”, which is extremely significant. Typhon-Set, in Egyptian mythology, represented the enemy of the sun God, the force of a demonic agitation, and hence the “sons of Set” were also called “the sons of impotent rebellion”: already in the ancient world the Jewish element acted as a ferment of dark and incessant agitation, of slow corrosion and sudden revolt. We know that from the time of the Emperor Claudius, this revolt also took on tangible and direct forms, numerous conflicts between Jews and non-Jews in Egypt and Syria are documented, with a link already emerging between revolutionary political activity and a confused messianic mysticism, fuelled by “prophetic” exhortations, with the recurrent theme of Israel having been chosen to rule over all nations. In this respect, it is also interesting to note that the moral motives that originally contributed to the anti-Semitic attitude of the Romans are extremely similar to those that led to the proscription of the cult of Dionysius (cf. Johannes Leipoldt, Antisemitismus in der alten Welt, Leipzig, 1933, pp. 5, 17): the Jewish spirit seemed highly suspicious to them, and the Romans even accused the Jews of “atheism”, since their religious exclusivism focused on their only God, along with an intense proselytizing activity, seemed to the Romans, and rightly so, to be in practice equivalent to the negation of the cults and religious traditions of all other peoples – for which, after all, the Jews did not hide their arrogant contempt. Here, let us mention the judgments of the best-known Roman anti-Semites, such as Cicero, Seneca, and Tacitus. Cicero declared the necessity of combatting the “barbarous superstition of the Jews,” pointing out that they flaunted their disdain for the glory of Roman power, and he denounced those who detached themselves from Rome, looking toward the distant city of Jerusalem and supporting it the with money taken from the coffers of the Republic (Pro Flaccus, 28, 67). According to Cicero, Jews and Syrians are races born for slavery (De provinciis consularibus, V, 10). Seneca (cited in Saint Augustine, City of God, VI, 11) noted that “the customs of this most wicked people” — “sceleratissimae gentis consuetudo” — were prevailing to the “point of spreading in all countries, so that the conquered impose the law upon their conquerors. ” Tacitus goes even further, stating that the Jews “regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor […] The earliest lesson they receive is to despise the gods, to disown their country [Tacitus means whatever country the Jews are currently living in], and to regard their parents, children, and brothers as of little account. […] the customs of the Jews are base and abominable [absurdus sordidusque]. While the East was under the dominion of the Assyrians, Medes, and Persians, the Jews were regarded as the meanest of their subjects: but after the Macedonians gained supremacy, King Antiochus endeavoured to abolish Jewish superstition and to introduce Greek civilization; the war with the Parthians, however, prevented his improving this basest of races [taeterrimam gentem]” (Hist., V, 3-8).

The Jewish insurrection against Rome, as we know, began under Nero and ended with the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70). From the fact that the Temple was not only razed to the ground, but that its rebuilding was prohibited, one sees that the Romans intuited the salient point, i.e., the inseparable link between the subversive activity of Israel and its faith, the Messianic “promise” of which the Temple is a symbol. Despite this, under Trajan and Hadrian new Jewish revolutionary movements arose. Pompea Sabina, Nero’s wife, was the only Jewish empress. In later times, the Roman spirit already showed such an aversion towards the Jewish element that Titus, who had taken a Jewish princess, Berenice, as his mistress, fearing public opinion, did not dare to marry her (Suetonius, Titus, 7 et seq.). The most recent research in the fields of history and religion has established beyond any doubt the that a large part of the persecution and measures taken against Christians, was due to the fact that the Romans were unable to distinguish Christianity from Judaism, and in the former saw an acute and virulent form of the threat already represented by the latter.

The true meaning of the religious aspect of pre-Christian and Roman anti-Semitism is generally disregarded, since most people are content with the facile formula of “pagan polytheism”, imposed on the “modern mind” by a certain deleterious culture. In fact, the religions of antiquity were the equivalents of national traditions from a spiritual point of view, the ancient “gods” being very the souls of the ancient nations, the basis of their moral unity, of their original laws and of their world-view. Hence, men in antiquity were accusing the Jew more or less of the same attitude that the latter was to demonstrate in modern times, since the old Jewish contempt for national Aryan religions and, in general, for those religions permitted and protected by the Roman empire (in a spirit of deep understanding), is equivalent to the destructive action exerted by Jewish-Masonic universalism and internationalism in modern times, aimed against every national culture and tradition and against every principle of difference and hierarchy. Moreover, even a generally neutral historian like Mommsen noted that “already in antiquity, Judaism was a ferment of national decomposition and cosmopolitanism.”

The most decided forms of anti-Semitism in the ancient world, however, seem to have arisen during the period when the man of antiquity, and in particular the intellectual class, began to incline, on the basis the new Imperial civilization, toward universalism. This is not a contradiction. The fact is that universalism, or rather, internationalism, is only an external side of Judaism, which hated and despised every non-Jewish religion not in the name of a truly universal doctrine, but in the name of its own god: in other words, of a particular national god who does not tolerate any other gods beside himself. The anti-traditionalism of Israel is a counterpart of its own traditionalism, just as in the ancient world, as well as in the modern, the Jew remains indifferent and hostile towards the nation states in which he lives and where he does business, while simultaneously remaining strictly loyal to his own race, preserving its unity in the diaspora, almost as a single people within all other nations.

Herein lies one of the main reasons of anti-Semitism in antiquity. We insist on the fact that the same anti-Semitism on religious grounds in the ancient world was founded on profound reasons and corresponded to an exact knowledge of the nature of Jews. If the Jew was persecuted and hated because he remained faithful to his religion, that was because it was known that a central element of that religion was the contempt for every other religion, along with a dream of having a “mission”, in which the people of Israel plays the part of the only “non-idolatrous” race, which must preserve itself and its traditions and rule over all other nations.

Even economic and social aspects were not unknown to the anti-Semitism of antiquity. Already in the ancient world, signs appeared of an animosity towards the Jew as merchant, capitalist and usurer. A record dating back to the second century BC containing the admonition to “never borrow money from Jews,” and others emphasizing the dishonesty of Jews in business (L. Mitteis – Ulrich Wilcken, Grundzüge und Chrestomathie der Papyrusurkunde, Leipzig and Berlin, 1912, 1, 2, n. 56, 57, 60).

Among other things, a document has been preserved of a characteristic case, in which Jews extracted from business a profit of no less than 900% (cf. Michael Rostovtzeff, Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft im römischen Kaiserreich, Leipzig, 1931, II, p. 322).

Moreover, the Jews claim that the Talmud is a late redaction of rules and laws that had already been in force for a long time, and it is well known that the Talmud legitimates and even prescribes all kinds of deception and dishonesty in dealing with the goyim, that is, with non-Jews, “idolaters.” And the fact that the Jews already in the Roman world had established the system of cliques, is reflected, for example, by the fourteenth satire of Juvenal, which noted the pernicious influence of Jewry in Rome, to the point that ambitious young careerists “do not hesitate to have themselves circumcised.” On general level, it has been noted that the Jewish way of conceiving human relations with the divine, relations characterized by a mercantile mechanism of exchange and rewards, of do ut des, manifest a mercantile spirit that, consequently, must have been an essential trait of Jews since ancient times; a spirit which, however, could not but arouse the contempt of Aryan peoples, who were accustomed to another type of morality and conduct. We know that already in the old Law, the Torah, the messianic idea is closely connected to wealth and earthly possessions, planting the seed of capitalist speculation, and ultimately of the economy as an instrument of power in the plans Israel.

Thus, for religious reasons (which are, however, closely linked to the national-political factor, as has already been indicated), for ethical reasons and for economic reasons, the Jews already in ancient times aroused feelings of antipathy, aversion and hostility, completely independently of any Christian basis. And the Jews were fully aware of this: in this regard, it is characteristic that the Talmud (b. Jeb., 47 a, b) prescribes that if a “pagan” wishes to become a Jew, the representatives of Judaism must remind him that this religion “is hated by the whole world.” This is required of rabbis, in order that neophytes be made aware in advance of the full gravity of their resolution.

Following this extremely brief survey, then, we can conclude that to those who, today, tell us that anti-Semitism is ”a fashion”, or that we bear within us, unawares, the prejudices of a medieval obscurantism based on Christian fanaticism, we ought to respond with a smile of pity. Anti-Semitism has a far older “tradition.”

The study and familiarity with testimonies from antiquity can effectively contribute to the formulation of the Jewish problem in objective terms that transcend confessional divides, and to recognize a fundamental continuity and persistence of the sources of anti-Semitism. And in an equally objective way, one may also determine the positive counterpart of anti-Semitism, that is, a set of values that are really capable of representing the antithesis of the Jewish spirit and character. We will not tire of repeating that the latter task is indeed the essential one, to avoid the danger of wielding against the enemy ideas that are, albeit in a different form, affected by the same evil one wishes to combat. And although this may sometimes be the case today – and in such cases anti-Semitism may rightly be said to be only a “fashion” and a polemical tool – one can be perfectly sure that this is not the case with us.


[1] La Vita Italiana, June 1937: “Gli ebrei in Italia e il vero problema ebraico” [“Jews in Italy and the Real Jewish Problem”]. Cf. the two essays, “Il problema ebraico dal punto di vista dell’Impero” [“The Jewish Problem from the Point of View of the Empire”], in Lo stato, October 1937, and “Erscheinungsformen der Judenfrage im heutigen Italien,” in Braune Wirtschafts-Post, n. 10, September 1937, and the ten points on the Jewish question published as an appendix to the 1937 Italian edition of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.