A stunning challenge to some widely accepted ideas on the genesis of anti-Semitism. Gager (Religion, Princeton) has no...


THE ORIGINS OF ANTISEMITISM: Attitudes Toward Judaism in Pagan and Christian Antiquity

A stunning challenge to some widely accepted ideas on the genesis of anti-Semitism. Gager (Religion, Princeton) has no original theories or historical Finds to advance, but he brings a vast body of scholarship into such illuminating focus that a lot of theologians and historians are going to have to revise, or at least double-check, their thinking. Gager strongly refutes efforts to deny or downplay the legacy of early Christianity to modern anti-Semitism. The latter cannot be explained as a revival of pagan hostility toward the Jews, because the record shows that the Greco-Roman world by and large never felt such hostility. Many writers (Nicolaus of Damascus, Diodorus of Sicily, Pompeius Trogus, Strabo) treated Judaism sympathetically; the most common description of the Jews was as a ""nation of philosophers""; St. Jerome notes that Septimus Severus and Caracalla ""regarded the Jews most highly."" Though there were pagan anti-Semites (Cicero, Tacitus, Seneca), Gager argues that their importance has been overblown--because their writings were seized upon by secular anti-Semites like Voltaire and other philosophes (who went back to the classics ""with a preconception of Judaism fostered by centuries of Christianity""). Judaism's continuing appeal to pagans meant that Christians were competing with Jews for converts and, more critically, that thousands of Christian proselytes, from 1st-century Galatia to late-4th-century Constantinople, were also enthusiastic Judaizers, which provoked anti-Judaic and then anti-Semitic reactions within the Christian community--reactions that won the day and hardened into a permanent tradition. Gager, not surprisingly, sees this as a tragedy, and an especially ironic one in that the anti-Judaizers (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, etc.) made Paul their star witness. But Paul, as Gager maintains in a piece of extremely complex but plausible exegesis, really believed that ""Torah remains the path of righteousness for Israel; Christ had become the promised way of righteousness for Gentiles."" Beneath the dry obscurities of Gager's text lie wellsprings of blood and guilt, and he is to be congratulated for the sensitivity and honesty with which he treats them. Priority reading for church historians--and anyone else who wants to study the religious roots of the Holocaust.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 1983

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