The Jewish identity of Jerusalem in Greek and Roman sources.
The Jewish identity of Jerusalem as recorded in the writings of Greek and Roman authors of classical antiquity is a subject worthy of study in its own right. This article draws on references to Jerusalem in nearly twenty different sources dating from the third century BCE to the third century CE, roughly six centuries.
An examination of the sources indicates their authors’ complete and unanimous agreement that Jerusalem was Jewish by virtue of the fact that it was founded by Jews, its inhabitants were Jews and that the Temple, located in Jerusalem, was the center of the Jewish religion. Despite the fact that some of these authors had distinctly negative views about Jews and Judaism, they were all in agreement about the Jewish identity of the city. These texts possess an importance which transcends their purely academic and cultural content. Newcomers to the historical stage and their apologists have based their political claims upon historical accounts which they have fabricated. For example, in his lengthy account of the Camp David Summit of July 2000, chief American negotiator Dennis Ross attributes much of its failure to the late Chairman Yasir Arafat of the Palestinian Authority who not only repeated "old mythologies" but invented "a new one … [that] the Temple did not exist in Jerusalem but in Nablus."The references to Jerusalem in these classical texts demonstrate the historical attachment of the Jewish people to Jerusalem.
While one may dismiss Arafat’s outrageous statement as a fabrication invented to promote his political agenda, this lie and similar assertions make up part of ongoing Muslim efforts to negate Israel’s claim to Jerusalem, challenge an essential element of the Jewish faith, and attack historical truth. Scholarly refutations of such false historical claims have usually drawn upon ancient and medieval Jewish and Christian sources, modern scholarship and archeological excavations. Despite the fact that the ancient pagan Greek and Roman sources have been known for centuries, they have not received a level of attention commensurate with their importance. The references to Jerusalem in these classical texts not only demonstrate the historical attachment of the Jewish people to Jerusalem, but also contribute to our knowledge of Jews and Judaism in the ancient world. It should be noted that such information, particularly of the negative variety regarding Jewish history, society and religion influenced later Christian and Western views of the Jews.The major source for most of the Greek views of the Jews is the treatise Against Apion written by the Jewish historian Josephus some time after 93CE in Rome. Apion, a Greek grammarian and intellectual in Alexandria, was active in the mid-first century CE in the struggle against the civic rights of Jews in his city, and a notorious defamer of Jews and Judaism. In Against Apion, Josephus presents lengthy citations from the works of numerous Greek writers and intellectuals from the third century BCE through the first century CE. In several instances, such writings are extant only in Josephus’ work.
While several sources are neutral or even positive toward Jews, many accounts portray the Jews and the Jewish religion negatively and are replete with outrageous lies and calumnies. Josephus meticulously and successfully debunks these anti-Jewish tracts and provides a vigorous defense of Judaism, pointing out its strength and greatness in contrast to Greek and Roman pagan beliefs and life style.Selections from other Greek and Latin works which are no longer extant may be found in other pagan anthologies, in the writings of Church Fathers, such as Origen or Eusebius of Caesarea, and in later Byzantine texts. In addition, the writings of major authors, such as the Roman orator Cicero and the historian Tacitus exist independently and provide information on the Jews.The entire corpus of texts in their original languages and English translation, with learned introductions, commentaries and explanations is available to the public in the form of the excellent comprehensive three volume collection of Menahem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism. The texts used in this article, quoted in English translation, come from Professor Stern’s magnum opus, which includes 554 selections of varying length and content, dating from the fifth century BCE to the sixth century CE.
The Greeks probably were the first to record information about the customs, life styles and societies of the different peoples whom they encountered or heard about during their travels in various parts of the world. Jews were one of the many peoples whom they met and observed. The "father of history", Herodotus, who visited Egypt under Persian rule in the 450s BCE, wrote extensively about the Egyptians and referred to the "Syrians of Palestine" who were circumcised and were assumed to be the Jews. In fact, it is likely that it was Herodotus who coined the name "Palestine," namely, the area of the Land of Israel, as his encounter was with the descendants of the Philistines who inhabited the coastal towns of Gaza, Ashdod, and Ashkelon. The Jews inhabited the landlocked region of Jerusalem and its surrounding hills, known as Judea.During the decades and centuries following the conquest of the Near East by Alexander the Great in the 330s and 320s BCE, Greek soldiers and civilians populated and colonized the entire area, established major cities, such as Alexandria in Egypt, and spread their system of local government, language, culture, art, religion, and way of life throughout the region. The Greeks promoted and advocated the adoption of their life style and mores; namely, Hellenization, which in contemporary parlance may be termed the first manifestation of "globalization." All the peoples whom they ruled and amongst whom they lived, including the Jews in the Land of Israel and the Diaspora (a Greek term), had to contend with the challenge of Hellenization through assimilation, adaptation or resistance.In the late fourth century BCE, several texts portray Jews in a complimentary fashion, as philosophers. Throughout the third century BCE, however, less favorable comments about the Jews circulated throughout Ptolemaic Egypt, which had undergone rapid Hellenization. Outstanding among the anti-Jewish accusations was an alternative to the Biblical narrative of the Exodus. One of the anti-Exodus tales, presented by the Egyptian priest Manetho (mid-third century BCE) portrayed the Jews as foreigners, descendants of shepherd-kings who had taken over Egypt and had joined with others who were ridden with disease and killed the animals which the Egyptians venerated as gods. Subsequently, they were expelled from Egypt and established their own polity under their leader Moses who gave them a way of life which differed from that of the rest of mankind. Hence, the Jews were accused of xenophobia and disrespect for the gods of other nations and were viewed as practitioners of a strange way of life.Some writers recall distinctive Jewish customs, such as the absence of representations of the deity, male circumcision, dietary laws and the observance of the weekly day of rest, the Sabbath. Indeed, in 167 BCE, the Greek Seleucid King Antiochus IV ordered Jews to place an idol of Zeus in the Temple, outlawed circumcision, demanded the sacrifice of swine and forbade Sabbath observance (I Maccabees 1:41-50). He thus desired to eliminate those unique features of the Jewish religion which had been noted by pagan writers.
Anti-Exodus narratives and accusations of Jewish sacrilege against other nations’ gods emerged in times of political and cultural crises and may have been a reaction to the fact that Judaism was attractive to many Greeks and Romans. By the middle to late first century BCE, the Romans dominated much of the known world west of the Euphrates, with its large Greek and Jewish populations. The Romans adopted many of the Greek charges against the Jews, to which they added accusations of insubordination to Roman rule.
So embedded were the Greek libels, that even several decades after the brutal suppression of the Jewish revolt against Rome (66-70 CE) and the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem (70 CE), the Roman historian Tacitus repeated the standard anti-Exodus canard and expressed himself as though the Jews were still a major threat to Imperial world domination, as follows: "… Moses introduced new religious practices, quite opposed to those of all other religions. The Jews regard as profane all that we hold sacred; on the other hand, they permit all that we abhor."Most Greek and Roman items on Jerusalem, therefore, must be viewed within the context of the general background described above. This applies to the texts quoted in Josephus’ Against Apion and in later works and to the books which survived as independent works, such as the Histories of Tacitus.
Josephus devotes much attention to presenting and refuting the foundation narratives and the calumnies against Judaism and Temple practices.
Mention of Jerusalem occurs in several contexts. First, it is the climax of the largely pejorative foundation narratives of Judea and of the Jewish people, which begin with the expulsion from Egypt. Second, Jerusalem is associated with the construction and the existence of the Jewish Temple and the Temple cult and practices, which Greeks and Romans viewed with fascination, despite the fact that they may have found them highly distasteful and offensive. Josephus devotes much attention to presenting and refuting the foundation narratives and the calumnies against Judaism and Temple practices.
Third, depending on the date of their works, several authors record historical events, namely invasions of Jerusalem by Greeks or Romans. The major captures of the city were the seizure of the Temple by the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV in 167 BCE; the invasion of Jerusalem and entry into the Temple by the Roman general Pompey the Great in 63 BCE, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Titus during the Great Revolt against Rome in 70 CE.
Fourth, physical descriptions of Jerusalem appear in geographical and ethnographical works, with or without the occasional historical fact. Finally, in several Roman sources the term "Solyma" (Jerusalem) appears as part of an insult. Some authors combine several of the features listed above: foundation narratives, focus on the Temple, historical events, physical descriptions and use of name of the city in an demeaning manner.
Greeks and Romans explored their own origins and the beginnings of the peoples, countries and cities which they conquered and ruled. Furthermore, they attempted to explain to their readers how existing locations, shrines and customs came into being and to answer possible queries as to when and under what circumstances contemporary events and customs began. Therefore, they presented and repeated foundation narratives. The earliest Greek material on the construction of Jerusalem appears as part of the conclusion of the anti-Exodus narratives mentioned above.
According to Manetho, for example, after Pharaoh expelled the sacrilegious Jews, a tribe of the usurper shepherd-kings called "Hyksos" dominated the land. They were joined by others who were afflicted with leprosy and diseases. "They journeyed over the desert … they built in the land now called Judaea a city large enough to hold all those thousands of people and gave it the name of Jerusalem." In a subsequent section, Josephus again quotes Manetho as stating that after the Jews "were driven out of the country, [they] occupied what is now Judea, founded Jerusalem, and built the temple." While Josephus wrongly cites Manetho’s history as attributing to Moses the building of the Temple, he mentions that Manetho notes that Moses "who framed their [the Jews’] constitution and their laws" was a native Egyptian.In an account by Hecataeus of Abdera (c. 300 BCE), Jerusalem appears toward the conclusion of his counter-Exodus account and before his description of Jewish society and practices. He attributes the expulsion of the Jews to the pestilence which the Egyptians blamed upon the presence of foreigners, not only Jews, who caused the natives to falter in religious observance. "Therefore, the aliens were driven from the country." While some went to Greece, most "were driven into what is now called Judaea … at that time utterly uninhabited … on taking possession of the land, he [Moses] founded, besides other cities, one that is the most renowned of all, called Jerusalem. In addition, he established the temple that they hold in chief veneration, instituted their forms of worship and ritual, drew up their laws and ordered their political institutions."Hecataeus and other writers designate Moses as founder of Jerusalem, builder of the Temple, and architect of the Jewish religion. This point differs substantially from the Hebrew Bible which names King David as the conqueror and builder of the city and his son King Solomon as the builder of the Temple (II Samuel 5:6-12; I Chronicles 11:4-9; I Kings 6:1-38; 7:15-51; II Chronicles 2:1-5:2). For a Greek, however, it would make sense that Moses built the Temple. Logically speaking, the first major leader of people, conqueror of its land and creator of its laws and social norms had to be regarded as the founder of its most important city and shrine. It is noteworthy that Moses "the Lawgiver" figures prominently as the founder of Judaism both in Greek and Roman writings and in Josephus’ defense of Judaism in the second half of his Against Apion.The link between the expulsion from Egypt and the building of Jerusalem appears in later sources which have a more negative view of the Jews and Judaism. This change took place after the invasion of Jerusalem and desecration of the Temple by Antiochus IV and his subsequent defeat by the Jews. For example, in his Bibliotheca Historica, the compiler Diodorus Siculus (first century BCE) recycles the essential anti-Exodus plot of Manetho. Here, the Jews were driven out of Egypt because they "were impious and detested by the gods." They were joined by others "with leprous marks on their bodies… The refugees occupied the territory round about Jerusalem, and having organized the nation of the Jews had made their hatred of mankind into a tradition, and on this account, had introduced utterly outlandish laws…" Later on, Diodorus refers to "Moses, the founder of Jerusalem."In a similar vein, Josephus includes an excerpt from Lysimachus (possibly first century BCE), whose work exhibits an anti-Jewish bias close to that of Apion. Lysimachus relates that the after the leprous Jews were expelled from the Egyptian temples, where they took refuge, "a certain Moses" taught them "to show goodwill to no man" and "to overthrow any temples and altars of the gods…" They eventually "came to the country now called Judaea where they built a city in which they settled. This town was called Hierosyla because of their sacrilegious propensities. At a later date … they altered the name to avoid the disgraceful imputation and called the city Hierosolyma and themselves Hierosolymites."In circa 110 CE, several decades after the defeat of the Jews by the Romans in 70 CE, the Roman historian Tacitus included a brief excursus on the Jews in his Histories. The Great Revolt against Rome and the siege and destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, which make up the major part of this section of Tacitus’ work, appear in the context of his extensive treatment of the Flavian dynasty, the theme of his work. Tacitus openly declares that Jerusalem is "the capital of the Jews." Before his description of its devastation, he gives a terse account of its origins and some of its history. Tacitus refers to the origin of the Jews as either from "Ida" in Crete or from Ethiopia, or Assyria and their leaders as "Hierosolymus and Iuda." He adds that "others say that the Jews are of illustrious origin, being the Solymi, a people celebrated in Homer’s poems, who founded a city and gave it the name Hierosolyma."A version of the Greek anti-Exodus story follows in which Tacitus notes that Moses, with his fellow exiles, seized a country, expelled the former inhabitants, founded a city and dedicated a temple. Afterwards, he launches a vicious attack against Moses’ xenophobic laws and way of life which persist even to his own times. A brief geographical description of the country and of Jerusalem precedes a terse summary of the history of Judea, its domination by Rome and the events leading up to the Great Revolt, the defeat of the Jews and the destruction of Jerusalem.Jerusalem clearly is the major city of the Jews, founded by a people expelled from Egypt under inauspicious circumstances.
In conclusion, Jerusalem clearly is the major city of the Jews, founded by a people expelled from Egypt under inauspicious circumstances. The Jews were either oppressive foreigners or carriers of a plague or leprosy or both. Their leader Moses turned them against humanity with strange customs and laws, founded a city, Jerusalem, and built a Temple. Its interior and cultic practices will be discussed below. By the early second century CE, when Tacitus wrote his history, it is clear that this narrative of the circumstances of Jerusalem’s foundation had become a standard depiction among Greeks and Roman writers.
The Temple of the Jews was a famous building, although it was not one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. According to Greek and Roman sources, it definitely was located in Jerusalem, a city founded and inhabited by Jews. While the narratives noted above feature Moses as the founder of the Temple, three relatively obscure sources of the second century BCE link the Temple to King Solomon and point out his association with King Hiram of Tyre, who assisted in its construction. These sources are brief and contain no historical background or material on the Jews.Several of the selections in Against Apion which include the anti-Exodus narrative also provide descriptions of the interior and exterior of the Temple and some of its rituals. For example, Hecataeus states that in the center of the city is an enclosure where there is "a square altar built of heaped up stones, unhewn and unwrought." The Temple itself is "a great edifice containing and altar and a lamp stand, both made of gold … upon these is a light which is never extinguished … there is not a single statue or votive offering, no trace of a plant in the form of a sacred grove, or the like." And in his account of Titus’ siege of Jerusalem, Tacitus describes the Temple as "… built like a citadel, with walls of its own … the very colonnades made a splendid defense. Within the enclosure is an ever-flowing spring."The Jews do not state "to which deity pertains the temple at Jerusalem, nor is any image found there, since they do not think the God partakes of any figure."
In addition to physical descriptions, the authors mention the religious aspect of the Temple which differed radically from Greek and Roman paganism. In the text preserved by Diodorus, Hecataeus mentions the priests and their duties in the Temple and even describes a worship service and sacrifice. Similarly, the first century Roman historian Livy remarks that the Jews do not state "to which deity pertains the temple at Jerusalem, nor is any image found there, since they do not think the God partakes of any figure."
In the same vein, Tacitus reports that "there were no representations of the gods within, but … the place was empty and the secret shrine contained nothing" and "only a Jew may approach its doors, and that all save the priests were forbidden to cross its threshold." Cassius Dio (c.200 CE) recalls that the Jews "never had any statue of him [the deity] even in Jerusalem itself." The latter states that their temple "was extremely large and beautiful, except in so far as it was open and roofless."Hecataeus, Livy, and Cassius Dio explain the absence of representation as part of Jewish "otherness" in a factual manner. Several Greek writers, however, interpret the fact that there were no statues of the gods in the Temple not only as unusual, but also as barbaric and indicative of Jewish misanthropy. In their view, it would be inconceivable that a sacred shrine would be empty. Therefore, several authors offered their versions of what exactly stood in the Temple. Diodorus (first century BCE) writes that when "Antiochus, called Epiphanes, on defeating the Jews had entered the innermost sanctuary of the god’s temple, where it was lawful for the priest alone to enter. Finding there a marble statue of a heavily bearded man seated on an ass, with a book in his hands, he supposed it to be an image of Moses, founder of Jerusalem … who had ordained for the Jews their misanthropic and lawless customs. … Antiochus … sacrificed before the image of the founder and the open-air altar of the god a great sow." Diodorus asserts that what stood in Judaism’s holiest place was ridiculous and revolting; namely, the presence of a statue of an ass, a lowly beast of burden, whose rider had established Jewish xenophobia, and that Antiochus sacrificed an animal known by all to be forbidden to the Jews in their holiest shrine.Apion (mid-first century CE) conveys a malicious and defamatory description of the contents of the sanctuary in Jerusalem. In order to give his anti-Jewish arguments greater authority, Apion attributes this account to the well known Greek philosopher and ethnographer Posidonius (c.135-51 BCE) and the rhetorician Apollonius Molon (first century BCE). As in the case of Diodorus, the invasion of Antiochus Epiphanes serves as the point of departure for the description, as follows: "Within the sanctuary … the Jews kept an ass’s head [made of gold], worshipping that animal and deeming it of deepest reverence."The narrative continues with an astonishing calumny. Apion relates that when Antiochus entered the sanctuary, he discovered a Greek imprisoned inside, on a couch next to a table laden with excellent food. The Greek hailed Antiochus as his savior. For, according to Apion, the Jews kidnapped a Greek annually, brought him to the sanctuary, fattened him up with sumptuous meals, sacrificed him, ate his flesh and then swore an oath of hostility to the Greeks. While Josephus dismisses this canard as malicious rubbish and baseless lies, it is clear that the fact that Jews had no statues in their Temple in Jerusalem served as the background for the fabrication of accusations of kidnapping, human sacrifice, cannibalism and misanthropy on the part of the Jews. This libel provided a basis for the attempts to deprive them of their civic rights which were contested in Alexandria in the first century CE by figures such as Apion. Hence, the Temple appears as a salient feature of pagan anti-Judaism.
In addition, the fact that Jews contributed annually to the Temple thereby filling it with silver and gold objects and monies was considered as a point of contention. In 59 BCE, the great Roman orator Cicero defended Flaccus, when the latter sought to prevent the Jews of the Empire from sending large sums of money to Jerusalem. Cicero describes the collection of vast amounts of gold and calls Judaism a "barbaric superstition."Tacitus also adds a financial dimension to his critique of Judaism and the Temple, complaining that other peoples join the Jews, "renouncing their ancestral religions … sending tribute and contributing to Jerusalem, thereby increasing the wealth of the Jews." While both Cicero and Tacitus mention Jerusalem as the destination for the contributions of the Jews, it is clear from the context that their intention is the Temple, which the latter describes as "possessing enormous riches."In conclusion, descriptions of the Temple form part of the accounts on Jerusalem and on Judaism. They range from the factual to the libelous and bizarre. For the Greeks and Romans, Jerusalem was famous for its Temple which served as the focal point of the xenophobic, strange and possibly menacing rites of the Jews whose contributions brought much gold into the city. The latter may have encouraged a certain amount of envy among Gentiles. After its destruction in 70 CE, the memory of the Temple persisted in the retrospective histories by Tacitus and by Cassius Dio.
Jerusalem and the Temple also appear as the site of several major historical events, mainly invasions of Greek monarchs and Roman generals. We have seen the significance of Antiochus IV Ephiphanes’ entry into Jerusalem and his despoliation of the Temple which served as the pretext for anti-Jewish descriptions of the interior of the sanctuary, distortions of Judaism and slander of the Jews. Antiochus appears favorably in the works of Diodorus and Apion, cited above. Similarly, Tacitus presents Antiochus positively as the prototype of a leader who attempted to "abolish Jewish superstition and to introduce Greek civilization."It is noteworthy that an earlier capture of Jerusalem by the Greek-Egyptian King Ptolemy, son of Lagus, provided an opportunity for the obscure Agatharchides of Cnidus (second century BCE) to remark about the fact that "the people known as Jews, who inhabited the most strongly fortified of cities, called by the natives Jerusalem" lost their city because they would not defend it on the Sabbath. Josephus includes this selection in Against Apion as one of the early pagan critiques of the Jewish Sabbath which Agatharchides deemed as "folly," "dreams," and "traditional fancies about the law."In this instance, the capture of Jerusalem serves as background for the author’s unfavorable comments on the Sabbath. Similarly, Cassius Dio attributes the capture of the Temple by the Roman general Pompey the Great in 63 BCE to the fact that the Jews, given their "superstitious awe" did not defend the city on "the day of Saturn" (the Sabbath). Cassius Dio, however, concentrates on Roman victories and accomplishments and mentions the issue of the Sabbath in passing.
The biographer Plutarch (mid-first-early second century CE) notes the siege of Jerusalem by the Seleucid monarch Antiochus VII Sidetes in 133-132 BCE at the time of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles. The author describes this festival at length in another work. According to Plutarch, Antiochus VII provided the sacrificial animals for the Temple and allowed a seven day truce, after which the Jews submitted to him. From this passage, it is clear that the inhabitants of Jerusalem are the Jews; that their Temple is located there; and their religious practices affect the outcome of the invasions of Greek rulers.
Jerusalem also serves as the venue for eliciting praise of Roman figures or glorifying the victories and history of Rome. The invasion of Jerusalem and the Temple by Pompey the Great in 63 BCE appears in several Roman sources. Livy erroneously states that Pompey was the first to capture Jerusalem and the Temple. Other authors focus on the fact that Pompey neither damaged the Temple nor removed any of the gold or he vessels of the Temple.While Jerusalem and the Temple are important in these sections, they serve as the background for praise of the Roman invader. Similarly, in the works of Tacitus and Cassius Dio, the city of Jerusalem and its destruction form part of the history of the Roman Empire, and in the case of Tacitus, the accomplishments of the Flavian dynasty. These historians assume Roman cultural superiority and political hegemony throughout the world and the conquest and subjugation of Jerusalem supported this world-view.
An outstanding example of the role of Jerusalem as the location for a minor event in the life of an emperor may be found in Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, a work replete with intimate details of the public and private lives of the first twelve Roman emperors. In his biography of Titus, then commander of his father Vespasian’s Imperial forces and later emperor, Suetonius writes that "in the final attack on Jerusalem he slew twelve of the defenders with as many arrows; and he took the city on his daughter’s birthday, so delighting the soldiers and winning their devotion …" In this case, "the personal is political" and Jerusalem serves as the location for commemorating an event in the private life of Titus.
Finally, Cassius Dio’s indispensable account of the Jewish revolt against the Emperor Hadrian (132-135 CE) designates the following as a cause of the revolt: "At Jerusalem he [Hadrian] founded a city in place of the one which had been razed to the ground, naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the god, he raised a new Temple to Zeus [Jupiter]." Dio then proceeds with his report of the revolt of the Jews and its methodical suppression by the Romans.
Although the source concentrates on the course of the revolt against Hadrian, the founding of a pagan city on the ruins of Jerusalem and a pagan temple on the Temple Mount is presented as a historical fact and not simply as background for the author’s views on the Jewish religion or his praise of a particular emperor. Once again, Jerusalem, the Temple and the Jews are linked together in the major Roman historical work, written over more than a century after the destruction of the city and its holiest place.
Greeks and Romans displayed a keen interest in their own surroundings, distant lands, natural phenomena, and landmarks, among them Jerusalem. Some of the descriptions of Jerusalem precede details about the Temple and Judaism and others occur within the context of historical events, such as the siege of Titus in 70 CE. Generally speaking, Jerusalem appears as a strongly fortified city with a temple which is difficult to capture. A few writers note that it has sources of water and several authors provide measurements of its area. Despite the tendency in the ancient world to exaggerate figures, it is clear that Jerusalem was relatively large and populous.
The selection by Hecataeus, cited in Against Apion, describes the city as follows: "The Jews have … only one fortified city, which has a circumference of about fifty stades and some hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants; they call it Jerusalem. Nearly in the centre of the city stands a stone wall, enclosing an area about five plethora long and a hundred cubits broad, approached by a pair of gates." He then proceeds to describe the Temple.
Agatharcides notes that Jerusalem is "the most
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