Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Anti-semitism |
The suffering of the chosen

Anti-semitism is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 75, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Anti-Semitic massacres long predate Christianity as the gifted become the resented

Anti-semitism - The suffering of the chosen

Anti-semitism - The suffering of the chosen
This relief is just one of several from the palace of King Sennacherib at Nineveh in modern Iraq chronicling the capture of the Jews. It depicts Jewish families with their belongings on their way into exile following the Assyrian conquest of the fortified town of Lachish in 701 B.C. Little better than a century later, a rebuilt Lachish would again be subdued, this time by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In the various exiles they endured or after voluntary migrations to other lands, the Jews might become despised and persecuted aliens, or sometimes rise to prosperity as merchants and the advisors and tutors of kings, thereby evoking the jealousy of the local populace.

The persecution of the Jews, a phenomenon that would darken some of the pages of Christian history for two thousand years, did not, however, begin with Christianity. Anti-Jewish pogroms occurred in the eastern Roman Empire while Christianity was itself a tiny Jewish sect, or before it existed at all.

Campaigns against Jews go back, in fact, to the mass deportations after the Babylonians captured and sacked Jerusalem in 586 b.c. and brought much of the Jewish population home as slaves.

Soon after their arrival in Babylon, the Jews won the confidence and respect of their captors. Thus, forty-eight years later, when Cyrus the Great of Persia had defeated the Babylonians and was allowing the Jews to return to their homeland, many opted to remain behind in Babylon. A major Jewish presence then developed outside the “Holy Land.” This became known as the Diaspora, from a Greek word meaning “Dispersion.”

When Alexander the Great defeated the Persians and marched on Judea in 332 b.c., the high priests surrendered the city unresistingly, and Judea fell under the control of Alexander and his Greek-speaking successors. So a further exodus of Jews began, to the Hellenistic cities around the Mediterranean, and particularly to Alexandria, the city that Alexander founded and named for himself. By the first century a.d., Alexandria’s population was forty per cent Jewish, and the Diaspora consisted of five million people, four million of them in the Roman Empire.

However, the Jews of the Diaspora never could become completely assimilated with the people around them. The Torah taught that they had been set apart as God’s chosen people (Deut. 7:6). To remain Jews, they had to be different. Their faith forbade them to marry Gentiles or eat with them. Their strict Sabbath laws prevented them from lifting so much as a finger to any work on Saturdays, even if their city were threatened. Their male children had to be circumcised. Their religion, their critics charged, caused them to look down on everyone else. All these factors made Alexandria a hotbed of anti-Semitism that frequently became violent.

By the year a.d. 38, the prefect of Egypt, by then a Roman province, could sneeringly ask Alexandria’s Jews a dangerously loaded question: If there were a fire, earthquake, or flood on a Saturday, would they do nothing? Would they still walk determinedly down the street with their thumbs hidden in their clothing so as not to be tempted into helping meet the civic crisis? The prefect thought not. He was sure they would at least rescue their own families.

Making things worse, many of the Jews were clever, industrious, imaginative, and they soon became wealthy as a result. The satirical poets Juvenal and Horace jeered them and their exclusivist religion. The orator-philosopher Seneca called them “an evil nation,” and the lawyer-statesman Cicero told a public hearing, “You know how large a group they are, how unanimously they stick together, how influential they are in politics. I will lower my voice and speak just loudly enough for the jury to hear me; for there are plenty of people to stir up those Jews against me.”

Cicero died in 43 b.c. Apart from such snide comments, and recurring persecutions of the Jews in Alexandria, serious violence against the Diaspora anywhere else was infrequent. Then came the year 66, when the nationalistic Jewish Zealots gained control of Jerusalem, butchered the city’s Roman garrison, defeated the Twelfth Legion and launched the Jewish War (see Roman Siege of Jerusalem). A wild slaughter of the local Jews broke out in cities around the eastern Mediterranean area.

The Jewish historian Josephus tells how on the same day and at the same hour when the Jerusalem garrison was destroyed, an anti-Jewish rampage broke out in the Roman garrison city of Caesarea, sixty miles to the northwest, in which twenty thousand men, women and children were slaughtered. This, he said, claimed every last living Jew in the coastal city. Though the number was certainly exaggerated, the scope of the slaughter was probably not.

In Syria to the north, a similar genocide went on for days because the Jews there were armed and pitched battles broke out. Josephus writes that in cities throughout the province the streets were “choked” with corpses, the bodies of the aged, children, and women stripped of their clothing. Again, he places the death toll at twenty thousand. Thirteen thousand Jews were murdered in the city of Scythopolis, fifty miles north of Jerusalem near the Upper Jordan. At Ascalon in Syria, he reports twenty-five hundred Jews slain, at Ptolemais two thousand, and at Hippos and Gadara more still. All this Josephus attributes to the “hate or fear” with which they regarded their Jewish neighbors.

But as might be expected, the worst holocaust occurred at Alexandria. With the example of the anti-Jewish outbreaks in other cities to spur them, a Greek mob assailed a big Jewish crowd assembled in the Alexandria amphitheater. Most of the Jews fled, but the rioters dragged three of them away to be burned alive.

Josephus records that the entire Jewish populace in the city arose to their defense, creating a far bigger mob than the Greek one. These rushed on the Greeks, hurling stones at them and threatening to burn them all to death. Standing above the melee, Tiberius Alexander, the Roman governor, pleaded with both sides to desist, but this met with jeers and abuse.

The Romans would not countenance defiance. The governor called into action two legions then stationed in the city, along with another two thousand troops that happened to be passing through from Libya. He sent these into the “Delta,” the Jewish quarter, with authority to kill and loot. The Jews, who were themselves well armed, resisted stoutly, but they were no match for the highly disciplined and organized Roman units.

The result was wholesale carnage. Josephus writes of the Jews: “They were destroyed unmercifully, some being caught in the open field, and others forced into their houses, which were first plundered of what was in them, and then set on fire by the Romans. No mercy was shown to the infants and no regard for the aged, and the whole place overflowed with blood. Fifty thousand lay dead in heaps. Finally, those still alive pleaded to be spared. Having pity for them, Alexander gave the order for the troops to withdraw.

“Being accustomed to obey orders, the Romans did so immediately. But the populace of Alexandria bore such a great hatred for the Jews that it was difficult to recall them. They hated to leave the dead bodies alone.”

Behind each of these calamities lies the same factor, a pent-up hatred of Jews that gripped the Roman world when few in it had even heard of Christianity. The explanation lay almost wholly in the fact that the Jews divorced themselves from the general society around them.

But if they had not done so, noted the celebrated nineteenth-century Oxford historian Alfred Edersheim, the Jews would almost certainly have vanished into Hellenistic and Roman society and thereby lost the message that was delivered to the world.

This is the end of the Anti-semitism category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 75, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about Anti-semitism from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at