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above: the romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius Josephus appearing in William Whiston’s translation of his works (Wikimedia/public domain)

Society & Culture

Anti-Semitism in Antiquity: The Case of Apion

I have a passing interest in a first-century rhetorician and Hellenized Egyptian named Apion, who is the target of a famous polemic by Flavius Josephus, a member of the Jewish priestly class who became the court historian of the Flavian emperors. Published in Greek but known by its Latin name Contra Apionem, Josephus’s diatribe faults Apion for siding with the local Greek population in Alexandria in their quarrels with their Hellenized Jewish neighbors.

While Contra Apionem is not perhaps Josephus’s most admirable text, it provides insight into the personality of its author, whose historical writings are our most important source, after the New Testament, for understanding the Palestinian emergence of Christianity. It is also likely the first attempt in history to undermine an opponent through the charge of anti-Semitism: Josephus charged Apion with disrespecting the Jews by invidiously comparing them with the ancient Greeks. Given the present power of calling someone an anti-Semite, it is a polemic worth examining.

Apion argued that local Jews were seizing power from the descendants of a much more illustrious race—the ancient Greeks. The altercation resulted in a Jewish delegation traveling to Rome from Alexandria in AD 38 to appeal to the emperor, Caligula. Of course, Apion was not himself Greek, but he worked energetically as an upstart to associate himself with Hellenic culture, even writing...

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