Chapter

Reactive Anti-Semitism in the Late Roman Empire

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Abstract

This chapter considers the possibility that anti-Semitism played a prominent role in the development of hegemonic, corporate Catholicism in the late Roman Empire. Because of the scantiness of the historical record, this evidence is by no means overwhelming, but it is useful to describe the powerful overtones of anti-Semitism that accompanied the establishment of the corporate, collectivist social structure characteristic of the late Roman Empire. The view developed here is highly compatible with the proposal of several historians that the establishment of the Christian church represented a qualitative shift from the anti-Semitism typical of the ancient world. The mutual hostilities between Jews and gentiles in the ancient world involved the “normal” mutual animosity between groups with differing interests (Parkes 1976, 5; Ruether 1974). As expected in individualist societies, anti-Semitic violence in the ancient world was sporadic and decentralized, resulting from particular situations in particular areas. With the advent of the Christian church, however, anti-Semitism became based on a powerful, emotionally compelling ideology and was institutionalized in an organization that aspired to and often possessed a great deal of political power. I propose that the Christian church in late antiquity was in its very essence the embodiment of a powerful anti-Semitic movement that arose because of gentile concern with resource and reproductive competition with Jews.

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In order to be effective in achieving its political goals, an anti-Semitic movement must control the government. This doctrine became elaborated in later periods, with the eventual result that the Church became "the most influential and important governmental institution
  • St
  • Ambrose
St. Ambrose, who in 388 prevailed on Emperor Theodosius to rescind an order to a bishop to rebuild a synagogue destroyed by anti-Jewish actions, appears to have originated the idea that the emperor should be subservient to the Church rather than the reverse (see Ullman 1970, 13). In order to be effective in achieving its political goals, an anti-Semitic movement must control the government. This doctrine became elaborated in later periods, with the eventual result that the Church became "the most influential and important governmental institution [of Europe] during the medieval period" (Ullman 1970, 1).