Jewish Studies Ancient Anti-Semitism
René Bloch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0140


Ancient “anti-Semitism” has long been a controversial subject in Jewish studies and classics alike. Greco-Roman literature includes a number of negative statements on the Jews, ranging from casual mockery to overt animosity. Moreover, various sources report expulsions (repeatedly from the city of Rome), attacks (most explicitly in Alexandria during the riots of 38 CE), and the prohibition of Jewish customs (in Jerusalem at the time of Antiochus IV). While it would be greatly exaggerated to assume that contempt, let alone oppression, characterizes the typical situation of Jews in Greco-Roman Antiquity, there is no doubt that at various times Jews did become the target of pagan assaults. Three principal questions have been debated extensively in scholarship. (1) Was the treatment of the Jews different from that of other “barbarian” peoples? This question is further complicated by the fact that due to the Christian interest in sources related to Judaism, the amount of the preserved anti-Jewish material may be somewhat disproportionate. (2) Were anti-Jewish arguments or actions grounded in circumstantial conflicts or did they relate to the “essence” of Judaism? (3) Which term should be used to describe the negative treatment of Jews in Greco-Roman Antiquity? As for the last question, a variety of suggestions have been made; next to anti-Semitism, most prominently anti-Judaism and Judeophobia. However, all these labels are problematic in one way or another: thus, “Judeophobia” one-sidedly implies psychological issues, and “anti-Judaism” is often reserved for the indeed rather different early Christian phenomenon. As for “anti-Semitism,” the term is problematic in the sense that it has its origins in a late-19th-century self-reference coined by German anti-Semites. Moreover, the term “anti-Semitism” includes a racial categorization that at least in its modern use was foreign to the ancient Greek and Roman world. At the same time, “anti-Semitism” has become the general denominator for any kind of anti-Jewish movement or agitation. In accordance with the title of this article and for reasons of readability, only the term “anti-Semitism” will be used in the annotations to the listed titles. The following survey does not include Christian anti-Semitism, since that is treated in a separate entry (see Jeffrey Siker’s Oxford Bibliographies in Biblical Studies article Anti-Semitism and the New Testament).

History of Research

The phenomenon of ancient anti-Semitism has been widely discussed in scholarship since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Different political impulses at times led to very intense arguments on the topic: deliberations about the social and civil status of Jews in modern Europe (beginning in the 19th century), anti-Semitic propaganda in Germany before and during World War II, the Holocaust and its enduring aftermath, and the foundation of the state of Israel all led to a great number of very different interpretations of ancient anti-Semitism. The literature on ancient anti-Semitism is vast, and many questions remain controversial. Bibliographic scholarship on ancient anti-Semitism is rare. A very good survey is provided in de Lange 1991, and a brief and helpful presentation of the history of research on ancient anti-Semitism can be found in Schäfer 1997. For an evaluation of the intense debate on ancient anti-Semitism in the 19th and early 20th centuries, see Interpretations in the 19th Century and Up to World War II.

  • De Lange, Nicholas. “The Origins of Anti-Semitism: Ancient Evidence and Modern Interpretations.” In Anti-Semitism in Times of Crisis. Edited by Sander L. Gilman and Steven T. Katz, 21–37. New York: New York University Press, 1991.

    A balanced and informative survey of earlier scholarship on ancient anti-Semitism. Argues with caution that in Antiquity, a certain “progression” in the manifestation of anti-Semitism can be discerned.

  • Schäfer, Peter. Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

    Sets out with a helpful brief history of research on the study of ancient anti-Semitism.

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