Antisemitism: the beginnings of the blood libel in antiquity

By Dylan Fedelski


The Blood libel and Jewish conspiracy theories aren’t something that were capable of being constructed overight. They were formed slowly piece by piece, eventually shaping themselves into what we would now recognize them as today. In that case a firmer understanding of the Blood libel can be formed by first looking back, to classical ideas of the Jewish people in antiquity. By looking before Christianity, at the manner in which pagan cultures dealt with the Jewish people, it helps create a basic understanding of the changes that would later characterize the stormy relationship between the Christian and Jewish world. The extent to which pagan sources conform to hostile views of Judaism, and the extent to which they break from them, helps create a continuity with the later christian world.

This guide exists with the purpose of helping to show whether that continuity exists, whether the blood libel is an invention of the later Christian world or if its hazy outline can be seen lurking beneath the surface of the Classical society. The central question is therefore to what extent is Jewish conspiracy a christian construction. Was Christianity simply a successor to preexisting views when it declared the Jewish people ritual murderers? What purpose does christian hostility to Judaism serve? And the final question is whether accusations of Ritual murder could have existed and been taken seriously in a non-christian world.


Historical context of Judaism in Antiquity, as well as the Study of Judaism in Antiquity:

These sources all work towards providing a framework for understanding Jewish history in the relevant period, as well as also a firmer grasp on the particular scholastic history of Jewish relationships with Paganism. In addition the being background information the Gager, Radin, and Nirenberg books all present the Basic arguments of the research, and each is exceptionally well written and full of the components needed to answer the question of Antisemitism’s place in antiquity, as well as if the nature of the blood libel is of a contiguous narrative through history.


Israel People, Land, State A nation and its homeland

Avigdor Shinan

Primarily this book provides a brief overview of Jewish History in Antiquity, a more broad and general view of it that does not require any kind of prior knowledge, as does most of the others more microscopic looks at the history of the Jewish People. The first chapter is the only one dealing with history before Christianity, so it is the main useful segment of the work.

Shinʼan, Avigdor, Aharon Oppenheimer, Avraham Grossman, and Yehoshua Kaniel. Israel: People, Land, State. Jerusalem: Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi, 2005.


The Jews among the Greeks and Romans

Max Radin

Radins work is old, back from before even world war 1. This does mean it is a little dated in regards to access to research, But it also brings up an interesting look into a pre holocaust world. This work by a Jewish Historian is written before the curtain of the Holocaust fell across the world. In that way I think its discussion of Jewish History through antiquity provides a very unique and interesting point of comparison. It also has a section that talks directly towards opposition, and in particular social accusations made against the Jews, mentioning the ritual murder accusations of later Europe for comparison. On the whole the tone of the work is somewhat in line with Gager.

Radin, Max. The Jews among the Greeks and Romans. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1915. Print.


The Origin of Anti-Semitism

John Gager

John Gager’s book on the origins of antisemitism provide a very strong foundation and core of knowledge to work from, and even includes a chapter discussing the scholarship and discussions of the topic itself, from the end of world war 2 onward for the most part. This in of itself gives a strong foundational knowledge of the competing theories and scholastic ideas central to the study of Jewish relations in antiquity, and a wealth of resources to approach in understanding and delving further into the field. Of course this isn’t to undercut the actual body of the text, which is comprehensive work that helps highlight several assumptions of other work in the field to over accentuate negative relations between the pagan world and the Jewish people. It questions any attempt to link the Classical pagan world in a direct linear path to the antisemitism of later Europe. A very evenhanded work with a wealth of content and research.

Gager, John G.. The Origins of AntiSemitism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.


Anti-Judaism The Western Tradition

David Nirenberg

One of Nirenberg’s major works on the history and origins of Antisemitism. The book has a section dealing with Egypt during antiquity, and the antisemitic behavior of the native Egyptians and Greeks particularly in relation to the city of Alexandria.  This chapter is especially helpful in highlighting some of the major elements of pre-christian antisemitism and helps provide a very strong continuity between it and the blood libel of the future. This section also deals with some of the same major themes that surface in discussions of the medieval blood libel, namely the Jewish communities peculiar placement in the social hierarchy and their special relationship with the ruling element of society. The idea of attacks on the Jewish community being attacks on the ruler of a society is one such intersection with later blood libel and ritual murder cases. The Nirenberg work very strongly places Antisemitism in a developing and unfolding narrative, one in which its quite possible to see the evolution of the blood libel from this earlier time.

Nirenberg, David. Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013. Print.


Religious Toleration & persecution in ancient Rome

Simon Guterman

Mainly useful in a comprehensive discussion of the legal status of Judaism in the Roman empire, the book on the whole does not focus entirely on Judaism, which limits its use to a supplementary source mostly on legal terminology. The major useful terminology is of Religio Licita, Natio, and in explaining the privileges of the Jewish community.

Guterman, Simeon L. Religious Toleration and Persecution in Ancient Rome. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1971.


Judaism in the religious framework of Antiquity:

The place of Judaism in the communities of Antiquity provides the main avenue to explore the possible continuity in antisemitism from antiquity to the middle ages, by exploring the relationships between Gentiles and the Jewish. The proponents for this continuity battle with their opposites in trying present at times opposing views of Pagan views on Jewish ritual and purpose. The stagnant view of Judaism as an inwardly closed cult, with little interest in the greater society it is placed in, is challenged by a view of Judaism as a vital and proselytizing religion with a unique and strategic relationship with authority figures in its political environment.

Rome and religion: a cross-disciplinary dialogue on the imperial cult

Jeffrey Brodd

A large cataloged article dealing primarily with the Roman Imperial cult, the emperor worship of the Roman Empire. It has a section explaining Jewish relations with the imperial cult in terms of negotiation, a spectrum of different interactions that are far more complicated than any attempt to summarize it in extremes of antisemitic and pro Jewish. Of particular note is the distinction between sacrifice to and for the emperor, and that Jewish law did not at times strictly limit Jewish interaction with the imperial cult. It has a variety of evidence showing members of prominent Jewish communities as working members of the administration of the roman government and imperial cult. What this does is temper ideas of Jewish non participation in Roman society. Also the ever prevalent theme of Jewish communities special relationship with the authorities comes up quite fully.

Brodd, Jeffrey. “HEB Book Cover Rome and Religion: A Cross-disciplinary Dialogue on the Imperial Cult.” Ed. Jonathan Reed. ACLS Humanities Ebooks. Society of Biblical Literature, 2011. Web. 14 Nov. 2015


The Jews among the Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire

Judith Lieu

Of particular note in this work is its section on Julian the Apostle and his views on Christianity, which provide a rare view of a pagan ruler on their Jewish subjects. He speaks of them commendably, and in an increasingly pro christian roman empire seems to view Judaism as closer to paganism than Christianity. There is a linking of Christianity to the foreign, which seems distinct but not entirely unrelated to later views of Judaism after (and in some cases before) this period.

Lieu, Judith, John North, and Tessa Rajak. The Jews among Pagans and Christians: In the Roman Empire. London: Routledge, 1992. 


Verus Israel : a study of the relations between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire, 135-425

Marcel Simon

One of the foundational works for the field referenced in Gager, it is especially important for our purposes in its distinguishing antisemitism, which to Simon is a system of hostility towards the Jewish, and  Anti Judaism, which is rather polemic and christian religious work, establishing its identity as opposed too but also built out of Judaism. Anit judaism is the ideological differences between Christianity and Judaism, while Antisemitism is more of a rejection of the entire religious community of the Jewish people. This distinction is both interesting and seemingly im

Simon, Marcel. Verus Israel: A Study of the Relations between Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire, 135-425. Oxford: Published for the Littman Library by Oxford UP, 1986.


A Socio-anthropological Analysis of Gentile-Jew Relationships in Rome and Antioch

Hood Viveen

Case studies dealing with the Jewish communities of Rome and Antoich, usefull in providing more specific and concrete examples of Pagan and Jewish relation in a more micro setting.

Hood, Viveen. A Socio-anthropological Analysis of Gentile-Jew Relationships in Rome and Antioch. Diss. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 2002. N.p.: ProQuest Information and Learning, 2002


“Reflections on Rutgers’s “Attitudes to Judaism in the Greco-Roman Period””

Louis Feldman

Helps refute the ideas of Judaism as a religion without vitality, and helps refine the idea of Judaism as being a religion actively proselytizing in the pagan society of antiquity, with great success as well. The large numbers of Jewish sympathizers, as well as partial and full converts helps showcase one of the major differences between the Jewish community of antiquity and medieval  Europe. Jewish society did face difficulties in its place as a minority population in antiquity, but it was still a living and growing religion with active converts. It challenges a more simplistic view of anti Jewish sources in the period as being a part of the greater voice of the masses.

Feldman, Louis H. “Reflections on Rutgers’s “Attitudes to Judaism in the Greco-Roman Period”” The Jewish Quarterly Review 86.1/2 (1995): 153.


The Complete Works of Josephus


Josephus is in many ways the premier primary source on Jewish Roman relations in the pre christian Roman Empire. The most important of his writings for our purposes is his writings Against Apian, which details a Jewish and Roman delegations arguments on the place of the Jewish community in Alexandria, and helps highlight the high tensions and strains between the populations of the city. In particular there is reference to the Jewish murder of gentiles for religious purposes, in some ways a prototype ritual murder. The other writings of Josephus also provide insight into the Jewish communities of the Roman Empire, and their relationship with the other religious groups in that empire.

Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Complete Works of Josephus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1981.


The Continuity of the Blood Libel:

The Gager and Nirenberg books are both hugely useful in understanding the meaning and purpose behind a study of Jewish relations in the antiquity. Both have a different idea about what those relations help reveal, with Nirenberg more sure that there is a continuous narrative of antisemitism handed  down from antiquity, which while based in part in Christianity does not owe all of it it. While Gager takes a much more neutral stance, revealing both difficulties of the Jewish community in being a ethnic minority in antiquity, but also that this can not be fully assumed to be antisemitism. Even so its clear that there are similar themes that can be seen between the blood libel of the Middle ages, and the actions and beliefs of the pagan world towards Judaism. This can be seen in the similar special role the Jewish minority played in both societies, both pre and post Christianity. As well as the fact that prototypical stories of Jewish religious murder exist even from this older period.