Jews under Roman Rule - W. D. Morrison

The Jews Abroad

While under Roman domination Palestine possessed an importance altogether out of proportion either to the size of its territory, the number of its inhabitants, or even to the fact of its being a great military highway between Asia Minor and Northeastern Africa. It acquired this position of importance in consequence of the large Jewish population which at that time existed in all the great commercial centres of the ancient world. The number of Jews outside Palestine was probably greater than the population of Palestine itself. These emigrants, Jews of the Dispersion as they were called, often rich and influential as well as numerous, were capable of making their power felt in the courts of emperors and kings. All the Jews, scattered up and down the Persian and Roman Empires, continued to retain a profound affection for the Holy Land. Jerusalem was the common centre of the race; the Temple on Mount Sion was the visible symbol of their common faith; the decrees of the Sanhedrin were recognized as binding upon all, and the Temple tax paid by Jews of all ranks and conditions of life, in all parts of the world, impressed them with the consciousness of their national unity. At this epoch, religious and patriotic feelings were indissolubly blended together; they were also kept alive by pilgrimages to the home of their fathers and the sanctuary of their God. Many disintegrating forces were at work in the first century of our era to break up the unity of the Jewish race. Among the educated in the West, Greek thought had undermined the ancient basis of their faith, and almost the only thing they had in common with the fanatical population of Judaea was an outward adhesion to its external forms. The Jews, both in Palestine and abroad, had ceased to speak the language of their sacred books, and when coming to Jerusalem as pilgrims they were unable to understand each other, and found themselves in a city containing a Babel of tongues. But notwithstanding these discordant and repelling influences, the Jews clung steadfastly to one another, and in face of opposition from the Gentile world they felt and acted as one. It was this intense cohesion of the Jewish race which made Palestine so formidable to the Roman conquerors.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


The existence of these powerful Jewish communities in different parts of the world is attributable to various causes. After the breakup of the old Israelitish kingdom, a great number of Jews were forcibly deported from Palestine, and many of them never returned. When Palestine fell into the hands of Alexander the Great and his marshals, this event was followed by emigration from Judaea on an extensive scale. It was part of the policy of these rulers to found new cities, and to bring about the amalgamation of the mixed nationalities over whom they ruled. All the inhabitants of these new cities were accorded equal rights and privileges. The Jews largely availed themselves of these advantages, and in the first century of the present era all the commercial centres of Northern Africa, the East of Europe, and Western Asia were thronged with Jewish traders and merchants. In this way," says Philo, "Jerusalem became the capital, not only of Judaea, but of many other lands, on account of the colonies which it sent out from time to time into the bordering districts of Egypt, Phoenicia, Syria, Coelo-Syria, and into the more distant regions of Pamphylia Cilicia, the greater part of Asia Minor as far as Bithynia, and the remotest corners of Pontus. And in like manner into Europe; into Thessaly, and Boeotia, and Macedonia, and Aetolia, and Attica, and Argos, and Corinth, and into the most fertile and fairest parts of the Peloponnesus. And not only is the continent full of Jewish colonists, but also the most important islands, such as Euboea, Cyprus, and Crete. I say nothing of the countries beyond the Euphrates. All of them, except a very small portion, and Babylon, and all the satrapies which contain fruitful land, have Jewish inhabitants." The incorporation of Palestine into the Roman commonwealth by Pompey had also a powerful effect in increasing the numbers of the Dispersion. Not only did the conqueror carry off many Jewish captives to Rome itself, but the result of his conquest was to open up the vast dominions of the empire to the Jewish trader, and henceforth Jewish colonies began to spring up and multiply in the West of Europe. Thus it came to pass that, partly by forcible deportation, and partly by voluntary emigration, every land and every sea, as the "Sibylline Oracles" say, was filled with Jews.

We are informed by Josephus that, in Babylonia and Mesopotamia, the Jewish population was not to be counted by thousands, but by millions. There is nothing remarkable in this statement when it is remembered that only members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin returned to Jerusalem after the days of captivity had come to an end. Most of these Eastern Jews dwelt in and around the fortified cities of Naarda and Nisibis in Mesopotamia. So powerful were they that the Romans deemed it prudent not to provoke their enmity, and they constituted a serious danger to Trajan in his campaign against the Parthians. But the Jews were even more numerous in Syria than in the regions watered by the Tigris and the Euphrates. At the time of the great war with Rome from ten to eighteen thousand Jews were massacred in Damascus alone. An immense Jewish population inhabited Antioch, the Syrian capital, and Jewish colonies were thickly planted in other parts of the country. In Antioch they possessed full civil rights, and the great splendour of their synagogue in that city was an outward token of their material prosperity. The provinces of Asia Minor were also densely populated with Jews, and wherever Christian missionaries went they were certain to find Jewish synagogues and a Jewish community. In Bithynia, Phrygia, Lydia, and Pontus, there were Jewish settlements, and some of the Dispersion had even wandered as far as the Crimea.

In the first century Egypt contained a Jewish community numbering about a million souls. After the fall of the southern kingdom and the destruction of the first temple by Nebuchadnezzar, many Jews fled from Palestine to the valley of the Nile. When the great Macedonian conqueror founded Alexandria, in the fourth century before Christ, large numbers of Jews took up their abode in the new city, which was afterwards to become a rival in greatness to Athens and Rome. Two of the five quarters into which Alexandria was divided were chiefly inhabited by Jews. Here many of them rose to eminence as merchants, magistrates, poets, and philosophers, and the proud position which Alexandria occupied in the ancient world was in no small degree owing to the genius and ability of its Jewish inhabitants. The Jews in Egypt enjoyed equal rights with their Greek fellow-citizens, and continued to possess the favour of the Greek kings of Egypt till these monarchs finally passed away before the power of Rome. Under the new order of things the Jews were permitted to retain their ancient privileges, and Augustus, at the close of his successful struggle with Antony, rewarded them for their devotion to his cause. It has always been the misfortune of the Jews to arouse the hatred of the populations among whom they lived, and this was also the case at Alexandria. In the time of Caligula the animosity which existed between the Jewish and Gentile sections of the Alexandrian populace culminated in tumult and bloodshed. The Jews were driven out of every quarter of the city except one; their buildings and property were destroyed; Flaccus, the Roman viceroy, openly sided with the opponents of the Jews, and cast many of the most eminent Jewish citizens into prison. Caligula made this anarchial state of things still worse by ordering the Jews to erect his statue in their places of worship, and it was not till the accession of Claudius that the Jews regained their privileges and repose. Later on, in the reigns of Vespasian and Trajan, the Jews of Alexandria made common cause with other portions of their co-religionists who had revolted against Roman rule. On each occasion they were unsuccessful, and the insurrections in which they participated were drowned in blood.

Cyrene, another town in the north of Africa, contained many Jews, and there are traces of Jewish settlements all along the southern coasts of the Mediterranean. According to Josephus and the Acts of the Apostles there were Jews in Crete and Cyprus, and St. Paul in his wanderings found Jewish synagogues in all the important cities of Greece. Jewish inscriptions have been discovered in Athens, and Jewish colonists even dwelt in the small islands which are dotted over the Aegean Sea.

As may be imagined, such a migratory people flocked in large numbers to Rome itself No less than five Jewish cemeteries have been discovered on the site of ancient Rome, and some of them date back to the second century of the Christian era. Besides the Jewish captives taken to Rome by Pompey, most of whom were soon liberated on account of their peculiar customs, there must have been numbers who settled in the great capital of their own free-will. Roman Jews listened to the oratory of Cicero, and mourned over the corpse of Caesar. In the reign of Augustus eight thousand Roman Jews accompanied a deputation from Palestine to complain of the government of the country. Under the influence of Sejanus, Tiberius banished them from Rome, sending four thousand to Sardinia to suppress brigandage in that island. Josephus ascribes this action of the emperor to the fact that some Jewish impostors had succeeded in swindling a Roman matron named Fulvia who was favourably disposed towards Judaism. But it is more probable that he used this incident as a pretext for putting a stop to the proselytizing propaganda which the Jews at Rome were then prosecuting with so much success, especially among the female members of the Roman aristocracy. The measures of Tiberius, however, were not permanently successful, and Jews were once more established in their old quarter beyond the Tiber during the reign of the next emperor, Caligula. Claudius, his successor, issued an edict soon after his accession to the throne granting complete toleration to all Jews within his dominions, but he was afterwards compelled, on account of the tumultuous proceedings at their assemblies, to forbid them meeting together in the capital. Under succeeding emperors the Jews of Rome had sometimes to pass through periods of trial and persecution, but as a rule they only shared this fate with other subjects of the empire, and no record remains of any further attempts to drive them from the city.

What position before the law did the Jews occupy in the different provinces of the Roman Empire? In Rome itself some of them had acquired the coveted right of citizenship, and many of the provincial Jews were also Roman citizens. Jews who were Roman citizens are mentioned .as dwelling in Ephesus, Sardes, Delos, and other towns of Asia Minor. Some Jews of Jerusalem also possessed this honour; but it must have been of peculiar value to the Jewish population who lived outside Palestine, and were often exposed to the bitter animosity of the Gentiles. At times when religious and national antipathies ran high it would be difficult for the Jew who was not a Roman citizen to be sure of justice. Armed with this privilege he could if he chose have his case, whether it was civil or criminal, adjudicated upon by Roman judges. He had thus a reasonable assurance that his cause would be removed from the arena of passion and prejudice, and judged entirely upon its merits. A Jew in this favoured position had always the right of appeal to the imperial tribunal at Rome, and even if he were convicted by Roman magistrates of a criminal offence, he was exempted from the ignominious punishments of scourging and crucifixion.

Unless a Jew was a Roman citizen he only enjoyed the privileges accorded to a stranger in the ancient cities of the provinces. At Cyrene and Ephesus and a few towns on the Ionian coast the Jewish communities settled there had managed to obtain equal civil rights from their Macedonian rulers, but it was exceptional for Jews to possess these rights in cities founded before the conquests of Alexander the Great. It was part of the cosmopolitan policy of Alexander and his successors in Syria and Egypt to admit all the inhabitants of the new cities which sprang up after the Greek conquest of the East to equal rights and privileges. In this way the Jews of Alexandria and Antioch stood on a footing of perfect equality with their Greek fellow-citizens, and this state of things remained unaltered after these great capitals had come under the dominion of Rome. Under the delirious reign of Caligula the Alexandrian Jews were for a brief period deprived of their ancient civic status, but it was restored to them by Claudius immediately after his accession to the throne. It is also a remarkable instance of Roman respect for established usages that notwithstanding the rebellious disposition of the Jewish community in different parts of the empire, the Romans continued to allow the Jews to retain their civic privileges in all those cities where they originally possessed them. After the destruction of Jerusalem the inhabitants of Antioch conceived that a favourable moment had arrived for getting the Jews deprived of their ancient privileges. The Roman general was exasperated with the whole nation, nevertheless when the people of Antioch brought forward their petition Titus refused to accede to it.

In addition to their other privileges and immunities under Roman rule the Jews of the Dispersion also enjoyed the right of meeting together—a right which was frequently denied to the Romans themselves after the establishment of the empire. If worship in common at the synagogue was to exist at all it was indispensable that the Jews should have free permission to assemble on the Sabbath day. But this right of association was in many respects an immense concession on the part of Rome, and unless the empire had been extremely powerful it would have been attended with disastrous consequences. The distinction which the modern world draws between spiritual and patriotic interests hardly existed in ancient times. Among the Jews of the first century religion and the sentiment of nationality were indissolubly interfused; it was not a mere religious sect that the Romans were permitting to exist and associate for purposes of devotion; it was likewise the members of a nation which at that particular time cherished exalted visions of one day dominating the world. It is indubitable that these visions of world-wide empire for the Jewish race were frequently fanned by the teachings of the synagogue. Some of the Jewish insurrections which burst out in several parts of the empire with such uncontrollable and sanguinary fury are to be attributed to the abuse by the Jews of the right of association. Nowhere is it recorded that the Romans withdrew this privilege, much as they must have been tempted to do so by the turbulent conduct of the people who enjoyed it. On the contrary, Judaism, in spite of its dangerous tendencies towards the public peace, continued to be treated by the Romans in the words of Tertullian as a "religio licita"; it had a regular and valid legal status, and the favourable treatment which the Jews received in comparison with the Christians is attested by the fact that it was no uncommon thing for the latter in times of persecution to profess the Jewish faith.

The Jews of the Dispersion were also permitted by the Romans to establish tribunals of their own for adjudicating upon all matters pertaining to the welfare of the community. The Mosaic Law, with the innumerable traditions that had grown up around it, embraced every department of life; it was a civil as well as a religious code; all parts of it were equally binding upon the faithful Jew, and certain definite pains and penalties were attached to the transgression of its provisions. Over and above obedience to the law of the land the Jews were also amenable to their own law. The interpretation of this law required a special tribunal, and the Romans not only allowed this tribunal extensive powers, but also supported its decisions with the imperial executive. Some of the scourgings to which St. Paul was subjected were no doubt inflicted on him by order of Jewish tribunals. Being a Jew he was under the jurisdiction of the Jewish courts, and it was only in his capacity as a Roman citizen that he could appeal against their decisions. In all disputes in which only Jews were concerned, and in all matters relating to the internal organization of the sect, the Romans appear to have given the Jewish courts full powers of action. These powers included the right of fining, imprisonment, and scourging, but probably the Romans reserved to themselves among the Dispersion, as well as in Palestine, the authority to pronounce a sentence of death. Where Gentile interests were involved a Jewish tribunal was of course incompetent to act, and in all cases where a Jew became a disturber of the public peace he would be dealt with by the imperial authorities.

Finally, the Jews of the Dispersion were permitted by the Roman authorities to collect the Temple tax and transmit it to Jerusalem. The annual transmission of large sums of money to the Temple treasury was a serious grievance to many of the provincials, who considered that their cities were being impoverished by the loss of gold which the Temple tax entailed. It is certain that the Jews in several cities would not have been allowed to send the proceeds of this tax to the Holy City unless they had been under the tolerant rule of Roman law. As it was, the provincials of Cyrene and Asia Minor required to be warned by imperial decree not to interfere with the Jews in the matter of this tax, and one edict declared that to touch money dedicated to the Temple would be treated as robbery of the Temple itself. The Romans also respected Jewish susceptibilities on the subject of the Sabbath day. On that day a Jew could not be summoned to appear before an ordinary court of justice, and if the public distribution of money or corn happened to fall on the Sabbath, it was decreed by Augustus that the Jews should receive their portion on the following day. On account of the restrictions imposed on them by the Sabbath, the Jews were also exempted from military service in the legions.

Excepting Caligula, whose insistence on the cult of the Caesars was fatal to the fundamental principle of Judaism—the unity of God none of the emperors seriously interfered with the privileges of the Jews. Owing to a misunderstanding respecting the nature of circumcision, which was confounded with certain pernicious practices of mutilation, a law forbidding this rite came into operation in the reign of Hadrian. This law had the purification of morals as its object, and was not in the remotest degree aimed at religious belief, but it was naturally regarded by the Jews as a direct attack upon their faith. Antoninus Pius repealed the law in so far as it affected the children of Jewish parents; it only continued to remain in force against those citizens who were bent on embracing Judaism. In the reign of Severus it was made a penal offence to openly become a Jew, and some of the Christian emperors legislated in the same spirit. But all these measures were dictated by political considerations. The Romans learned from experience that the Jews were indifferent subjects; that they created a community within the community; that they lived in a state of perpetual friction with their non-Jewish fellow-citizens, and were ready to take up arms against the empire itself in defense of ideas and customs which had little or no meaning to the practical Roman mind.

Very little information has come down to us respecting the internal organization of the Jewish communities of the Dispersion. At Antioch there was an archon of the Jews, and at Alexandria the head of the Jewish population was called an ethnarch. It is probable that the Jews possessed the right of nominating the ethnarch, but his nomination would require to be confirmed by the imperial authorities. The duties of this official were both administrative and judicial, and within his own jurisdiction he had many of the prerogatives of an independent prince. After a time Augustus apparently replaced the ethnarch by a council of elders; this council was not appointed by the Jews, but by the emperor himself, and it very probably acquired most of the powers that were formerly vested in the ethnarch. Whether this council, like the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem, was composed of seventy members is unknown. The only trustworthy reference to its numbers is contained in the statement of Philo that thirty-eight elders of the council were scourged when. Flaccus was viceroy of Egypt. At Rome the Jewish community was organized on a different principle from the Alexandrian. It had neither a supreme council nor an ethnarch. It was split up into as many divisions as there were synagogues, and each synagogue was an independent unit managing its own affairs and appointing its own officers. The interests of the synagogue were looked after by a council; at the head of this council was a president; the president was assisted in his duties by a committee of the council called archons, and the members of this committee had to be re-elected once a year. It does not appear that any of these officers were recognized by the State, or possessed any authority other than that which was willingly conceded to them by the Jewish community.

Among the Jews of the Dispersion the visible bond and centre of unity for all classes and sections of the community was the synagogue. The habit which this people had acquired during the Babylonian captivity of meeting together at regular intervals to hear the words of the Law and the exhortations of the prophets was a habit which they ever afterwards retained. Into whatever quarter of the world a little band of Jews might be tempted to wander, it became their invariable custom to meet together on the Sabbath day for purposes of religious instruction and edification. Sometimes when the number of settlers was too small, or the colony was too poor, they would assemble in each other's houses, but as soon as sufficient funds had been collected it was the practice to erect a synagogue. In this way it came to pass that synagogues were to be found in almost every place of any consequence throughout the Roman Empire. Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Caesarea, Antioch, all contained synagogues, and there were many synagogues in such cities as Alexandria, Damascus, and Rome. In Rome, and very likely in other places where synagogues were numerous, it was usual for each synagogue to have a distinctive name, and just as Christian churches are known by the name of some patron saint so were many Jewish synagogues in Rome at least known by the name of some distinguished patron or protector of the race.

In what language was the religious service of the synagogue conducted among the Jews of the Roman Empire outside Palestine? On this matter it is impossible to speak with certainty. It may have been that the lessons from the Old Testament and the liturgical portion of the service were first read in Hebrew, and then for the edification of the hearers translated into Greek. Or it may have been and this supposition is more probable that only one or two Hebrew prayers were used, and that all the other parts of the service were performed in Greek. In any case, it is certain that the Greek translation of the Bible was made use of in the synagogues; this is expressly stated by several of the early Christian apologists. This translation was also better known to the Jews of the Dispersion than the original Hebrew; otherwise it is hardly likely St. Paul would have quoted from it in writing to Christian converts, many of whom must at one time have been Jews.

Just as the synagogue was a local centre for a particular community, so was the Temple at Jerusalem a general centre for the whole Jewish race. Here pilgrims coming from all parts of the civilized world were accustomed to meet each other. Philo says they came by tens of thousands by land and sea from the north and from the south, from the east and from the west, and Josephus, in exaggerated language, reckons these pilgrims by the million. Some of them came on behalf of the community among which they lived to pay the temple tribute; others came to witness the solemn sacrifices on the altar, and as an act of devotion to their God. A common meeting-place, such as Jerusalem then was for Jews from all quarters of the world, had unquestionably a unifying effect upon the race, and when each band of pilgrims returned to their home among the Gentiles they would carry back with them a more ardent enthusiasm for their people and their faith.

The warm affection entertained by the Jews outside the Holy Land for the beliefs and customs of their fathers, did not enable them to escape the powerful influence of Gentile ideas. Surrounded in the cities where they had settled by a heathen population, mixing in some places in the affairs of public life speaking the language of Greece, and educated in its literature and philosophy, the Jews in the Roman Empire would have been more than human if they had not fallen into Gentile ways of thought. Even the Jews of Palestine, with the advantage of comparative isolation from the great world, could not entirely shut out Western influences; it is not surprising therefore that their co-religionists among the Gentiles were, to a great extent, submerged in them. Among the Hellenic Jews, historians, poets, and philosophers arose, whose minds had been formed by the great masterpieces of Greece, and who followed the footsteps of Greek writers, both in their style and modes of thought. These Hellenized Jews pursued a twofold object; they aimed, on the one hand, at so modifying Judaism as to make it more attractive to the Gentiles, while, on the other hand, they presented Gentile beliefs in such a guise to the Jewish mind that they assumed a remarkable affinity with many cherished doctrines of Judaism. The outcome of this harmonizing process was a strange compound which was neither Gentilism nor Judaism; but it served to testify .to the fact that men were then groping for some higher form of faith which would combine the elements of truth contained in both.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


These attempts at effecting a fusion between Jewish and Hellenic ideas had begun at least two centuries before the Christian era, and reached their climax in the reign of the early Roman emperors. The fundamental assumption on which the Jews proceeded was that the heathen had derived all their wisdom from the ancient Hebrew records, that all the learning and philosophy of Greece were contained in the Pentateuch and the prophets, and that the pagan divinities were only Jewish patriarchs disguised under foreign names. Accordingly the legend of Hercules was identified with the story of Abraham. Moses was the same person as Musaeus, the teacher of Orpheus; he was worshipped by the Egyptians under the name of Thoth, and by the Greeks under the name of Mercury. He was the founder of Egyptian religion and civilization; to him philosophy owed its origin; and the discovery of hieroglyphics, as well as the invention of shipbuilding, was the product of his genius. Hercules and the sons of Abraham went on expeditions together, and Abraham himself was a descendant of the giants who built the tower of Babel. The Mosaic Law only required to be philosophically interpreted, said the Hellenic Jews, in order to show that it contained every important truth enunciated by the great thinkers of Greece.

The man who brought this process of assimilation to the highest pitch was Philo of Alexandria. Many others had preceded him in the task, but their labours have for the most part come down to us in fragments, and he may be taken as the typical representative of a very prevalent condition of mind among the Hellenic Jews in the early days of the Roman Empire. Little is known of Philo's personal history. He speaks of himself as being an old man at the time he went on an embassy to the Emperor Caligula, in the year 39 A.D. It is, therefore, likely that he was born some few years before the Christian era. He was a native of Alexandria, and was descended from one of the most eminent Jewish families of the city. His education must have been watched over with the greatest care, for he had imbibed all the highest learning of the age. Philosophy was his greatest study. "The encyclical sciences," he says, "attracted me like beautiful slave girls, but I turned from them to the queen—Philosophy." Public life had no charms for him, and he complains when he is forced into the vortex of worldly and political cares. He had the reputation of being a man of lofty and unblemished character, and he passed through life with a noble disregard for its wealth, honours, and ambitions. The same high sentiments animated his wife; when she was once spoken to about the simplicity of her attire, she answered that a husband's virtue was sufficient ornament for a wife.

The manner in which Philo addressed himself to the task of reconciling Judaism and Greek thought consisted in giving an allegorical interpretation to the Mosaic Law. He was not the originator of this method of interpretation; traces of it are to be found in the Old Testament itself; it was practiced by the Greeks; and it had been used by the Jews of Palestine and the Dispersion, long before Philo's time. But no one before Philo had adopted this method on such an extensive scale. According to Philo, the allegorical interpretation of Scripture was justifiable, on the ground that many of the sacred narratives will not bear to be taken literally. He considers it, for instance, absurd that God literally required six days to create the world, or that he literally assumed a material shape when communicating His will to the ancient patriarchs. The form in which these narratives were clothed he regards as a concession to human weakness; the form is only the external husk of Divine truths which lie concealed within. It is the task of the wise man to break open this husk, and to show the world what depths of heavenly wisdom lie unfolded in the simplest statements of Holy Writ. The effect of this process was to deprive the old Hebrew records of their plain original meaning, and to import into them the conceptions of a later age. With Philo, the four rivers which flowed out of the Garden of Eden, become the four cardinal virtues. The personages in the Book of Genesis lose their individuality, and are transformed into mere types of character. Noah is a type of righteousness, Abraham is a symbol of acquired virtue, and Isaac of innate virtue. Adam is a type of pure reason, Eve of sensual perception, and Enoch of repentance. The names of countries assumed a new and profound significance in Philo's hands; Egypt, for example, meant spiritless life; and Chaldea, false knowledge. In the story of Jacob's journey to Padanaram, it is recorded that he lay down to sleep at a certain place because the sun was set. According to Philo, the sun is reason, the place is God, and Jacob is wisdom acquired by discipline; the meaning of the passage being that man first attains Divine knowledge when the sun of human reason has set. The precepts of the Law were allegorized in the same manner. The Law forbids the use of camel's flesh for food, because although this animal chews the cud, it has no divided hoof. To chew the cud, according to Philo, is the symbol of memory; but the disciple of wisdom should not rely on memory unless it is accompanied by the divided hoof, which is a type of the difference between good and evil.

These are only a few practical illustrations of Philo's system of interpretation, but they are sufficient to exhibit the manner in which he went to work. Some of his explanations of the sacred text contain lofty and elevated ideas, and he frequently reaches heights of which the rabbis of Palestine had never dreamed. But neither the acuteness nor sublimity of his interpretations can conceal the fact that they are entirely foreign to the original meaning of the text, and can only be attached to it by a fanciful and elaborate juggling with words. Philo, it is hardly necessary to say, was not conscious that this was the case, he was acting in perfect good faith, and in his wildest flights truly believed that he was merely revealing the deeper significance of the Scripture records. Philo considered himself as a champion of the ancient faith of his people, but the symbolical processes in which he delighted was an infallible sign that its primitive simplicity no longer satisfied him. To place the symbolical meaning of circumcision above the positive injunction to perform the rite was certain finally to cause it to be dispensed with altogether. It was inevitable that people should ultimately cease to pay any heed to the positive commandments of the Mosaic Law, such as keeping the Sabbath, and abstaining from certain kinds of food when they were being constantly told that the highest value of these commandments did not consist in their outward observance, but in their symbolical meaning. The effects of Philo's teaching was in all probability made manifest in one of his own nephews, Tiberius Alexander, who was for a short time the Roman procurator of Judaea, and had abandoned Judaism. In fact, Philo's compromise with Greek ideas was too forced and unnatural a product to afford permanent satisfaction to the ordinary human being. It was popular for a time; it exercised an undoubted influence on large numbers of the Jewish people, but towards the close of the first century its power over Judaism came to an end. Most of the Jews who felt the attractions of Greek modes of thought, were drawn into the early Church, and it was henceforth on Christianity that the writings of Philo exercised their power. And it is a remarkable circumstance that, whilst his ideas were acquiring a commanding position in the Church, his followers were being denounced as heretics in the synagogue.

The rabbis had good reason for distrusting Philo's learned speculations. It has been well said that probably no Jewish writer has done so much as Philo to impair the exclusiveness of Judaism and to break it up. "While literally believing the history of his people, he mainly treated it as a didactic and allegorical poem, intended to inculcate the doctrine that it is by mortification of the senses man acquires an insight into God. For this purpose he regarded the laws of Moses as the best guide; but as it was indisputably possible to attain the end in view without those laws, they lost their absolute value, and had besides their object outside themselves. Philo's God was no longer the old living God of Israel, but an unsubstantial abstraction of the mind, and required a Logos to become a force in the world. Israel was thus bereft of its Palladium, the unity of God." I

Notwithstanding the fatal concessions of Philo and the allegorical school, the Jews continued to be looked upon with contempt by the educated world of Greece and Rome. The claim of the race to an honourable and remote antiquity was treated with ridicule. Instead of being the teachers of Plato and the Greek philosophers, they were nothing but descendants of the dregs of the Egyptian populace. Moses was merely an Egyptian priest attached to the temple of Heliopolis, and when he led his people into Palestine they were simply a despicable rabble, consisting of the blind, the lame, and the leprous. All the fine reasons adduced by such men as Philo for keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest were brushed aside; it was asserted that this day was observed out of a spirit of indolence, and that its origin was to be traced to a sore disease the Jews had contracted in the Wilderness. It was preposterous for the Jews to assert that the gifts of civilization had been made the common property of the world through their instrumentality; what, it was asked, had they done for art, literature, or science? Some even hinted that the Jews offered human sacrifice and worshipped the head of an ass. But the most serious charges against them were accusations of atheism and exclusiveness. All the deities of Greece and Rome were represented in the temples in a plastic form, and it was inconceivable to these two peoples that the Jews should have no visible representation of their object of worship. Matters were made worse by the hostile attitude of the Jews towards the heathen divinities. Heathendom was perfectly prepared to recognize the Jewish God, and to assign him a place in its pantheon, why then, it was said, should not the Jews be equally willing to respect the gods of heathendom? The gods of Rome had proved themselves more powerful in battle than the God of Israel, as was manifest from the Roman conquest of Palestine.

Accordingly, the persistent hatred of the Jews for other gods, coupled with the fact that they had no visible divinity of their own, led many of the ancients to conclude that this people must be atheists. The accusation of exclusiveness had a better foundation than the charge of atheism, and was based upon a nobler sentiment. Rome in her triumphant career of conquest had broken down the barriers of nationality, and the free intercourse of races which ensued had given an accelerated impulse to the growing idea that all men ought to meet together in a fraternal spirit on the wide platform of their common manhood. The Jew repudiated these ideas of human brotherhood. He prided himself upon being a member of a chosen people; he lived within the charmed circle of Divine grace; the heathen were outside of it; they had no share in the inheritance of Abraham's children, and should be shunned as unclean. At a former period of their history this exclusive spirit was justifiable on the part of the Jews, for it was by means of it that they were able to preserve intact the precious heritage of their religious beliefs; but under the Roman Empire the necessity for this attitude of exclusiveness had departed, and it became, as the educated heathen truly observed, a hateful and anti-human feature in the life of the race.

Some of these attacks upon the Jews were openly met by such writers as Philo and Josephus, but tactics of a more covert description were also resorted to. In the first century of the Christian era and the one immediately preceding it, it was a very common device for men who wished to obtain a hearing or to further the interests of a cause, to hide the authorship of their productions and put forward their ideas under the cloak of some distinguished name. Books were put into circulation bearing the names of mythical personages or of people who had never written a line, and their contents were read as proceeding from the persons whose names they bore. The literary productions of yesterday were passed off as writings of the greatest antiquity; verses were forged in the names of Homer, or the Greek tragedians, which were not poetry at all, and some of the most famous philosophers had writings fathered upon them, the contents of which were in direct antagonism to all their genuine works. The immense value of these artifices was quickly appreciated by the Jews. It was difficult for them to gain a hearing in their own name, and so they adopted the expedient of defending themselves and propagating their faith under cover of the illustrious personages of antiquity. Heathen kings were made to take a profound interest in the Jewish Scriptures; heathen poets were made to bear witness to the sublimity of the Jewish faith, and heathen oracles were made to predict a mighty destiny for the Jewish race.

One of these pious frauds is an account of the translation of the Mosaic Law into Greek. In order to magnify the value of this translation in the eyes of the heathen world a certain unknown Jew, long after the event, concocted a wonderful story of the almost miraculous manner in which the Greek version of this part of the Old Testament came into existence. He clothed his tale in the form of a letter purporting to have been written about the middle of the third century before our era by Aristeas, a high official in the service of Ptolemy Philadelphus the second, king of Egypt. In this fictitious letter Aristeas tells his brother Philocrates how Ptolemy was informed by his librarian that he had no copy of the Jewish Law in his great library at Alexandria. Being apprised of its Divine origin and philosophic importance, the king was most desirous to have a translation of the sacred record. With this end in view he sent two ambassadors, one of whom was Aristeas, to Jerusalem. On his arrival in the Holy City Aristeas, in the name of the king, presented Eleazar the high priest with many valuable gifts, and asked him to send a certain number of skilled interpreters to Egypt to translate the Law. Eleazar complied with the request, and seventy-two scribes were selected, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. While at Jerusalem Aristeas came to know the true nature of the Jewish Law. The high priest showed him how it was based upon the principles of justice and moderation; he pointed out its reasonableness, its sanctity, its profound symbolic meaning, and how full of wisdom were its precepts on the folly and wickedness of idolatry. When the interpreters arrived in Egypt they were received with marked distinction by the king. For seven successive days he feasted them at the royal table, and ordered his servants to put before them such meats as the Law allowed. The wisdom of these interpreters on all the deepest problems of life on morals, politics, and philosophy filled the king and his councilors with admiration. The seventy-two scribes finished the translation in seventy-two days. The king was charmed with the treasures of wisdom it contained, and requested his librarian to tell him how it came to pass that the poets and philosophers of Greece made no reference to this wonderful book. The librarian informed him that it was too sacred to be handled lightly, and that the Divine vengeance descended upon all who put it to unworthy uses.

This legend, with its long panegyric on the Mosaic Law, fulfilled its purpose most successfully. It was accepted as the genuine testimony of a heathen statesman, a heathen librarian, and a heathen king, and as such it must have exercised a certain amount of influence on the ancient world. Other utterances of a similar nature were equally fortunate. The name of Orpheus was dragged into the service of the Jews; at the close of his career he is made to renounce all his previous beliefs concerning the heathen deities, and to teach his son that there is only one true God. "Oh, my son, I will show thee where I see his footsteps, and the powerful hand of the mighty God. But himself I cannot see. For wrapped around him is a cloud which hides him from me. . . . Of mortals gifted with speech none has seen God except one—a descendant of the Chaldean race." In like manner the Greek poets Hesiod and Homer are made to sing of the Jewish Sabbath; Aeschylus proclaims the majesty of God, and Euripides His omniscience. Under the name of Sophocles the following verses were spread about among the heathen by Jewish propagandists:

"One in very truth, God is one,

Who made the heaven and the far-stretching earth,

The deep's blue billow, and the might of winds.

But of us mortals, many erring far

In heart, as solace for our woes have raised

Images of Gods,—of stone or else of brass,

Or figures wrought of gold or ivory;

And sacrifices and vain festivals

To these appointing, deem ourselves devout."

But the most important fictitious compositions produced by the Jews outside Palestine was a large collection of Sibylline Oracles. The Sibyl, according to ancient belief, was a priestess of Apollo. She dwelt in caves and by the waters, and her functions among the Romans consisted not so much in revealing the future as in bestowing help and counsel upon mankind in times of unusual calamity. Asia Minor was the original home of the Sibyl. Her votaries sought her in solitude; she moved about from place to place, and this circumstance ultimately gave rise to the belief that there were several Sibyls gifted with oracular powers. One of the causes which led to the great popularity of the Sibylline utterances was the destruction of a number of these oracles in the Capitol at Rome. This took place in the first century before the Christian era (B.C. 83); the Senate sent a commission to Asia Minor in order to find documents to replace them, and from that time forward the Sibylline Oracles acquired an immense power over the popular mind. The private manner in which the Sibyl communicated counsel and warning to men rendered her an admirable instrument in the hands of Jewish propagandists. By them she was transformed from a heathen priestess into a prophetess of the God of Israel. She is made to reveal the past and the future, as it had been told to her by God, and she warns men who now call her false and mad that they will do so no longer when they see her great predictions come to pass. She solemnly exhorts all mortals to abandon idolatry and reverence the one true God. He is eternal and invisible, but He dwells within all men as a common light. Those who persist in bowing down before the demons of Hades, for such are the deities of heathendom, and neglect the infinite and omnipotent Creator of all things shall one day meet with a bitter reward. These makers of idols, these worshippers of birds and beasts and creeping things, shall finally be cast to the flames, and shall day by day be consumed in an eternal fire. But the servants of the true God shall taste the bread of heaven and dwell forever in the green fields of Paradise. At first, says the Sibyl, all men worshipped the one true God; it was only after the building of the Tower of Babel that they fell away into heathenism. These false gods are no gods at all; they are merely the departed spirits of ancient heroes and kings. The rule of the worshippers of these gods has been long and painful, but it is destined to come to an end. Even Rome, the greatest and most powerful of heathen principalities, shall fall. Her dissolution is approaching; terrible calamities will precede her final doom; but after that period of woe is over the Jews, the people of the great God, shall assume the supremacy and lead the nations into the way of life. Happy shall be the man or woman who lives in such a time. Righteous laws shall descend from heaven, and concord, love, and friendship shall fill the human family with delight. The age-long miseries of humanity shall at last disappear, and division and envy and hate and folly will be seen no more. The curse of poverty will be removed, and neither theft nor murder will disturb this blessed era of compassion and peace.

The solemn and consolatory utterances of the Sibyl fell upon fruitful soil. No doubt some of the educated classes could detect a Jewish accent in the words of the heathen oracle, and divine the proselytizing purpose that inspired them. But the masses of the people were not critical, and the promise of a golden age from whatever quarter it came, and under whatever conditions, was sufficient to attract many a baffled and distracted heart. The old divinities of Greece and Rome no longer satisfied the higher religious aspirations of the community, and belief in them was at the same time being shattered by the poets, dramatists, and philosophers of antiquity.

Ancient thought was developing a more and more pronounced monotheistic tendency, and the ethical teaching of the age was in direct antagonism to the immoralities ascribed to many of the gods. In fact, religion in the Roman Empire had fallen into a condition of chaos, and it is not surprising to learn that in the first century of our era, and some time before it, the peoples of the West were looking to the East for light. Many of these Oriental forms of faith had a certain elevation of character in the midst of much extravagance, and offered some sort of satisfaction to the head, the imagination, and the conscience of mankind. Most of them contained monotheistic elements, and the deities of which their pantheon consisted were in many instances reduced to the position of mere attributes of one supreme divinity. The conspicuous position assigned in these religions to priests and women was attractive by its novelty, and the mysterious symbolism frequently involved in the exercise of worship was well calculated to stimulate and gratify the pious imagination. Ascetic natures were appealed to by the practices of fasting, penance, and mortification of the flesh. Habits of chastity were inculcated, and attempts were even made to appease the burdened conscience and to connect religion more intimately with the virtues of life.

Of all the Oriental religions claiming the attention of the West, Judaism in its Hellenic form was the most ethical and profound. As presented to seekers after light in such writings as the "Sibylline Oracles," it was either divested of several of its more repugnant peculiarities, or these ordinances were not made imperative. The merchant Ananias who converted Izates, king of Adiabene, told him that God could be honoured without submitting to the rite of circumcision, and Ananias may be taken as expressing the general spirit of Hellenic Judaism. While the Hellenic Jew obeyed all the injunctions of the Law himself, he did not insist upon them as imperative in the case of heathen converts. In fact, he purposely placed many of them in the background, and in propagating his faith relied chiefly on enunciating the cardinal doctrine of a God of justice and judgment who upheld the moral order of the world, and who would in due time usher in a blessed earthly future for mankind.

The simplicity and directness of these ideas, as well as their intrinsic value, made them a religious force of immense importance in the Roman Empire. People did not stop to scrutinize the fictitious forms in which Judaism was frequently clothed; its substance was to them a consolation and a stay, and with this they were content. Among multitudes of Greeks and Romans contempt for the Jew was superseded by veneration for his faith. The barriers which Jew and Gentile had erected against each other were broken down, and it was no uncommon thing for a Gentile to become a student of the Law, an observer of the Sabbath, a contributor to the Temple tax, and an humble participator in the services of the synagogue. Of course there were cases in which the eclectic spirit of the times led people to adopt Jewish practices who did not adhere to the fundamental beliefs of Judaism; and there were also cases in which Judaism was adopted as a consequence of matrimonial arrangements, or from a desire to escape the burden of military service, or from some other purely external reason. But in the majority of instances Judaism would be accepted for itself alone, and as a result of what it had to offer to the conscience and the heart.

It must, however, be acknowledged that one great stumbling-block stood in its way, namely, the practice of circumcision. It was impossible to overcome the justifiable repugnance of the Greek and Roman world to this barbarous rite. To secure complete incorporation into the community of Israel circumcision, baptism, and, as long as the Temple stood, the offering of sacrifice, were indispensable on the believer's part. It was only after this form of initiation had been submitted to that the convert became what was called a proselyte, and possessed in the eyes of the Jew all the essential privileges appertaining to the descendants of Abraham. We may safely infer from the invincible antipathy excited by circumcision that the number of proselytes was comparatively few, and that the great majority of adherents to Judaism belonged to the class of what was known as "devout and God-fearing men."

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison


This class was undoubtedly a large one. Of this fact there is abundant evidence from many quarters. "For a long time back," says Josephus, "great zeal for our religion has laid hold upon multitudes; nor is there any city of the Greeks, or indeed any city at all, even though barbarian, where the observance of the seventh day on which we rest from toil has not made its way, and where the fasts and lamp-lightings, and many of our prohibitions as to food are not observed."

The Roman philosopher Seneca confirms the words of the Jewish historian, and says that Jewish customs were adopted everywhere, adding bitterly that the conquered had given laws to the conquerors. It was among these Gentile adherents of Judaism that Christianity obtained its greatest triumphs. Christian missionaries addressed them in the synagogues. St. Paul preached to them at Antioch, in Pisidia, at Thessalonica, at Athens, and elsewhere; he induced many of them to embrace the Christian faith, and the task must have been a comparatively easy one. The proselyte cannot have felt altogether at home in Judaism. After submitting to every ordinance of the Law he still knew that he was not regarded as standing on a footing of equality with the born Jew. He was not of the seed of Abraham; no ceremonial initiation could bridge over that difficulty, or obviate the permanent disadvantages which it entailed. According to the Jewish system proselytes, as not being members of the chosen race, were condemned to a position of religious inferiority, a position out of which they could not possibly emerge.

It is true that the Hellenic Jews laudably attempted to thrust these facts into the background, but they were too deeply rooted in the vitals of Judaism to admit of being altogether suppressed. Such being the case, the proselyte must frequently have felt that his status was defective and unsatisfactory. It inclined him to listen eagerly to teachers who, retaining what was best in Judaism, added the important announcement that the Christian faith admitted of no distinction between the heathen and the Jew; that it was based upon the principle of equality among the nations; that it was human and not racial, and that every man who embraced it stood upon exactly the same footing, enjoying exactly the same rights and privileges, but no more. Such a doctrine satisfied the deepest needs of the Gentile adherents of Judaism, and soon succeeded in sweeping most of them into the Christian fold.

[Illustration] from The Jews Under Roman Rule by W. D. Morrison