Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian

Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian

Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian

Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World: Attitudes and Interactions from Alexander to Justinian


Relations between Jews and non-Jews in the Hellenistic-Roman period were marked by suspicion and hate, maintain most studies of that topic. But if such conjectures are true, asks Louis Feldman, how did Jews succeed in winning so many adherents, whether full-fledged proselytes or "sympathizers" who adopted one or more Jewish practices? Systematically evaluating attitudes toward Jews from the time of Alexander the Great to the fifth century A.D., Feldman finds that Judaism elicited strongly positive and not merely unfavorable responses from the non-Jewish population. Jews were a vigorous presence in the ancient world, and Judaism was strengthened substantially by the development of the Talmud. Although Jews in the Diaspora were deeply Hellenized, those who remained in Israel were able to resist the cultural inroads of Hellenism and even to initiate intellectual counterattacks.Feldman draws on a wide variety of material, from Philo, Josephus, and other Graeco-Jewish writers through the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, the Church Councils, Church Fathers, and imperial decrees to Talmudic and Midrashic writings and inscriptions and papyri. What emerges is a rich description of a long era to which conceptions of Jewish history as uninterrupted weakness and suffering do not apply.


This book began with a question: How can we explain why the Jews in antiquity—so bitterly hated, as so many scholars have insisted—succeeded in winning so many adherents, whether as “sympathizers” who observed one or more Jewish practices or as full-fledged proselytes?

Of course, we might conclude that they were not so bitterly hated after all, though that seems to contradict deep-seated assumptions and stereotypes. Some years ago, when I wrote an article entitled “Philo-Semitism among Ancient Intellectuals,” a colleague of mine at Yeshiva University indignantly objected to the very idea that non-Jews ever failed to hate Jews. He had quite clearly adopted the “lachrymose” conception of Jewish history as a narration of uninterrupted suffering; thus he felt uncomfortable with the notion that Jews were sometimes strong, self-confident, and influential, winning many to their cause.

Alternatively, we might deny that they had really been so successful in winning adherents, or in any case adopt a “show me” attitude, asking for hard evidence for large-scale proselytizing by Jews. How could the Jews have converted so many when we do not have a single missionary tract and when the only missionaries that we know of by name are those such as Paul, Peter, and Barnabas, who preached the Gospel? Indeed, it would seem that the proper question is, How, in view of the tremendous strength and attractiveness of Hellenism and of the various pagan cults, the Jews managed to avoid assimilation both in the Land of Israel and especially in the Diaspora.

The missing link that precipitated this book was the publication in 1987 of the Aphrodisias inscriptions from Asia Minor. These seemed to establish once and for all the existence of a large class of “G-d-fearers” or “sympathizers,” people who adopted certain practices of Judaism without actually converting. I had always assumed that Judaism's “outreach” to Gentiles had ended for all practical purposes with the Bar Kochba rebellion (132–135 C.E.), one result of which was to make proselytism a capital crime. and yet, in the third century, in an area where Christianity was supposedly making tremendous inroads, Judaism seemed to be counterattacking, as it were, with great success. This led me to re-examine the whole picture of the relationship between Jew and Gentile in the Hellenistic and Roman world.

Portions of this work have appeared in preliminary form in the following publications: Chapter 1: “Hengel's Judaism and Hellenism in Retro-

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