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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 a lexicon on Homeric Greek and producing well-chiseled Greek epigrams.

Apion’s accusations against the Jews remain open to investigation. We are forced to rely mostly on his accuser for the list of charges, most of which Josephus probably culled from Apion’s Aegyptiaka, which survives only in fragmentary form. As Josephus tells the story, Apion claimed that the Hebrew nation was not as glorious or as ancient a race as the Greeks, citing as proof the fact that Greek historians hardly ever mentioned the Jews in referring to historic nations and their cultural accomplishments. Josephus also states that Apion accused the Jews of engaging in strange religious rituals, including occasional cannibalism.

This chilling vice was certainly not exclusively ascribed to Jews. Two Greek historians, Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, attribute cannibalism to various non-Greek peoples. Yet the Oedipus cycle is full of portentous references to the curse on the House of Atreus and its descendants, such as King Agamemnon. This series of disasters memorialized in Greek tragedy starts with two cannibalistic outrages, one committed by a distant ancestor, Tantalus, who tried to feed his son to the gods at a feast, and the other committed by Tantalus’s grandson, Atreus, King of Mycenae, who fed his nephews to his brother Thyestes.

What we know about Apion comes mostly from Josephus’s unfriendly account written about 60 years after Apion’s death. Millennia later, the attacks continue. A 2016 article in The Jerusalem Post depicts Apion as the quintessential anti-Semite, who pioneered both the blood libel charge thrown at medieval Jews and the denigration of the same ethnic group by educated Nazis. The author, Eli Kavon, turns Apion into the precursor of his people’s eternal enemy. One might think that Kavon had poured over Apion’s words and perhaps had even gone beyond Josephus in looking for evidence of his subject’s baseness. If so, then he might have revealed his special sources unknown to classical historians. 

Kavon assures us that Josephus’s charges must be true, because the author of Contra Apionem was a misunderstood Jewish patriot. Kavon even vouches for Josephus’s supposedly honorable relationship with the Romans, who were then brutally mopping up a Jewish rebellion. During the Roman siege of Jotapata in the North of Palestine, Josephus, who was commanding Galilean forces, surrendered himself to the enemy. Considerable debate has taken place about whether Josephus was, as he claimed, a war captive or a deserter. In any case, he was with the Roman legions when they besieged and then devastated Jerusalem. 

A member of the Jewish nobility who had initially opposed the revolt, Josephus subsequently wrote a History of the Jewish War (AD 75-79), and did so under Roman imperial supervision. In that work, as well as in his Vita and in Contra Apionem, Josephus is “conveniently taken captive” and then placed in the care of the Roman emperor and his son Titus. Eventually, the erstwhile captive finds himself living in opulence at the imperial court. 

Aside from Josephus’s account of his falling under Roman “captivity,” there are certain questionable statements which punctuate the opening section of Contra Apionem. Josephus stresses the care with which the Jewish high priests preserved intact all the sacred books of Hebrew scripture. Moreover, this “transmission” of Jewish antiquities was assisted by the Jewish prophets, who, on Josephus’s telling, also assured the literal transmission of biblical texts.

In point of fact, neither group was assigned that particular task. But the high priests were charged with maintaining genealogical registers, something that Josephus does point out, though he confuses keepers and transmitters of sacred documents with historians. He segues from an enumeration of the tasks of the priestly classes among the Jews, Babylonians, and Egyptians to noting the failure of Greek historians to accurately preserve historical accounts. This comparison falls flat, since it is not the same activities that Josephus describes in the two cases.

He then explains that the priesthood that preserved the relevant documents was “an aristocratic class whose very function was to guard holy books as a sacred obligation.” Moreover, they “were established as a class of priests that would remain unmixed and pure.” Careful genealogical records were kept concerning which spouses Jewish priests were allowed to wed; and these spouses came unfailingly from their own genos (shevet in Hebrew). Even when driven into exile, members of the priestly class would work to preserve their pure lineage, the tainting of which would result in their removal from their customary functions.

One may wonder how any genetic requirement was necessary for keeping documents intact. Conceivably, an archivist could do this work, whether married to the daughter of a priest or to a commoner. However, Josephus is probably trying to answer a specific charge by Apion, perhaps that Jews were ethnically mixed with some particularly despised group of foreigners. But if that were the case, Josephus does not show that the charge is uniformly untrue. What he demonstrates is that this hypothetical charge wouldn’t apply to his own caste.

Perhaps the most egregious error in the opening pages of the Contra Apionem, and one that is repeated intermittently in this polemic, is the denigration of Greek historiography. Because Greek chroniclers were “ignorant or feigned ignorance of our antiquities,” we are led to assume that they were not serious about their craft.

Not surprisingly, those whom Josephus cites as idle dabblers are mostly minor figures who produced forgettable histories of the Athenians or Argives, or those writing in Greek who presumed to challenge his account of the Jewish uprising against Rome. He characterizes these writers as lacking any high purpose: The Greeks put together words “in an off-handed fashion in accordance with their whims.”

Even when Greek historians write about events that actually occurred, “they seek fame without inquiring very deeply on the basis of their conceptions.” Still worse, these dabblers were equally neglectful in depicting the Jewish War, “having never ventured into the places affected nor proceeding anywhere even close to the events, but preparing their exiguous accounts from hearsay and confusing their shameless drunken revelry with history.”

One must ask whether Josephus ever heard of Thucydides, Polybius, and other Greek historians, who scrupulously examined sources and often wrote about events at which they had been present. According to Charles Norris Cochrane in his Thucydides and the Science of History (1929), Thucydides and those Greek historians who adopted his method of inquiry, devised an approach to studying human events that foreshadowed modern research techniques. 

Given Josephus’s thorough classical education, we may assume that he knew something about the advances of Greek historiography, which had begun several centuries before his birth. Moreover, Josephus’s identification of true historical writing with the investigation of “events” (pragmata) follows the definitions that had come down from Thucydides and Polybius. Josephus clearly had some idea of this Greek endeavor to separate the study of history from myth and to apply carefully constructed concepts of historical causation.

His snide remarks about the low quality of Greek historiography did not likely arise from ignorance. Rather, Josephus was irritated by the unwillingness of Greek historians to acknowledge the antiquity of the Jewish nation. He had dwelt on this subject in The Antiquities of the Jews, a treatise completed in AD 93, just before he settled scores with the long-dead Apion. Much of Contra Apionem is in fact devoted to demonstrating from Egyptian, Phoenician, and Chaldean sources how far back in time the Jewish people went.

Like other Greek writers, Apion had committed the cardinal sin of treating dismissively Josephus’s ancestral nation. As a member of the Jewish aristocracy—a fact that he never lets us forget—Josephus probably found this anti-Semitic snub particularly offensive. 

Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried

Paul Gottfried is editor in chief of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is also the Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.

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