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 polytheists. 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 non-Jews who found the Jewish lifestyle and faith attractive and worthwhile. We read repeatedly of proselytes (converts) and “God-fearers” (Gentiles who visited synagogues, learned about the Torah, and adopted some Jewish practices). Gentile Christianity emerged out of this Greco-Roman environment where polytheists encountered Jewish ideas and beliefs, reacting in extremely varied ways.