In the ancient world, the nation of Israel stood apart. The Torah (Pentateuch) describes “a people dwelling alone, and not counted among the nations” (Num 23:9). In the book of Esther, the vizier Haman calls the Jews “one people scattered and dispersed among the peoples… whose laws are different from every [other] people” (Est 3:8). The word for “law” here is דת (dat), a borrowed foreign loanword that, in later Hebrew, would come to mean “religion.”

Indeed, many of Israel’s beliefs, customs, and rules contrasted with those of most other ancient societies. During the Second Temple Period (c. 530 BCE/BC – 70 CE/AD), large numbers of Jews found themselves living in Diaspora (i.e., dispersion outside the Land of Israel) among Greek- and Latin-speaking pagans. Even within Judea and the rest of Israel, Hellenistic and Roman language, thought, and lifestyle exerted a strong influence.

In this context, the Jews’ supposedly “narrowminded” adherence to just One God – when dozens of appealing gods and goddesses were on offer – raised more than a few eyebrows. Observances such as Shabbat and circumcision also seemed strange. So how did ancient Greeks and Romans view Jews?

The first thing to note is that they had a lot of comments! Menahem Stern, a famous historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, needed well over a thousand pages to compile selections from Greek and Latin authors about Jews and Judaism. Margaret Williams, a historian at the University of Edinburgh, writes: “The impact made by the Jews on the Greeks and Romans is dramatically illustrated by… the vast numbers of references to them in Greek and Latin literature.”

The opinions of ancient Greeks and Romans about Jews cover the entire range from extremely positive to extremely negative. The philosopher Theophrastus (4th-3rd centuries BCE/BC), a disciple of Aristotle, wrote about the Jews: “Being philosophers by race, they converse with each other about the deity, and at night-time they make observations of the stars, gazing at them and calling on God by prayer.” This use of the Greek term φιλόσοφοι (philosophoi), literally “lovers of wisdom,” likely represented the highest of all possible compliments in Theophrastus’ mind.

By contrast, the Roman senator and historian Tacitus (1st-2nd centuries CE/AD) called the Jewish people “a race detested by the gods…. [having] a novel form of worship, opposed to all that is practiced by other people. Things sacred to us, to them have no sanctity; while that which for us is forbidden, they allow.” He also accused Jews of “laziness” for resting on the seventh day (the Sabbath).

Many of the written sources express anti-Jewish views. However, they also tell of large numbers of pagans who found the Jewish lifestyle and faith attractive and worthwhile. We read repeatedly of proselytes (converts) and “God-fearers” (non-Jews who visited synagogues, learned about the Torah, and adopted some Jewish practices). Gentile Christianity emerged out of this Greco-Roman environment where pagans encountered Jewish ideas and beliefs, reacting in extremely varied ways.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. ** This comment is being reposted due to technical difficulties. **
    Thank you for this lesson. I too think of the Jews as being “lovers of wisdom” in a very positive way. I hope studying with the Jewish people will help me to learn some of this wisdom. Shalom

  2. Gretins in the name of Jesus Christ my svior and king. I am still waiting for a reply on a qeustion I asked. What light was greated in Gen.1 verse 3. awnser me please for I read a lot of what you are sending me but no awnser. Have a blessed day and enjoy Gods Love in all your doings for only if you have the love of God in you your soul will grow. Amen!!

    • Thank you for joining the discussion! Could you please let me know where (on which post) you asked this question?

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

    • Thanks for the comment, Fred. Could you perhaps explain what you mean? At the time, there were people referred to in Hebrew as יהודים (Yehudim), in Greek as Ἰουδαῖοι (Ioudaioi), and in Latin as Iudaei. These are the people we are talking about here. The English language did not exist at the time, but eventually it adapted the pronunciation of this ancient term to “Jews.” Other English translation options do exist, of course, especially “Judaeans” (which is itself just another Anglicization of the same ancient term). We should note that every translation choice has pros and cons, and is always at least a little bit inaccurate; however, I think it is reasonably clear which people group is being discussed.

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

  3. Please, what name were the Jews called right from ancient? Again, some people are arguing that the letter “j” came later, not quite long and thereby discrediting the name JESUS to be an ordinary name.

    • Oparaji, thank you for joining the conversation! We have to remember that “J” is an English letter (from Latin, of course), and “Jesus” is an English name. But the Bible was not written in English — rather in ancient Hebrew, which has its own letters (and names). The English letters are just not relevant for understanding the Hebrew names. To explain: “Jesus” is a customary Anglicization (≈English version) of Ἰησοῦς (Iēsous), which is itself a Hellenization (≈Greek version) of the Hebrew name ישוע (pronounced Yeshua, short form) or יהושע (Yehoshua, longer form). All this is well attested in ancient sources. As for the names of the Jewish people, the earliest ones we find are עברים (ivrim, “Hebrews”) and בני ישראל (bne Yisrael, “sons/children of Israel”). Later the term יהודים (Yehudim, “Jews”) became more common. But again, the letter “J” is only relevant for discussing the English name (not the Biblical one). Similarly, the fact that the English word “Hebrews” has an “H” in it does not help at all in understanding the original Hebrew word (which of course has no “H”).

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