Forgotten revolt against Rome by Alexandria’s Jews

Contrary to popular belief,  the Jews of Hellenised Alexandria were loyal to their people and in their 2nd century rebellion against Rome, suffered thousands killed and the destruction of the Great Synagogue in Alexandria. Eli Kavon explains in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Imre):

 Ancient Alexandria (Jewish Encyclopedia.com)

 

The caricature of the civil
war that was a major component of the events that we celebrate on
Hanukka is one of loyal, Jewish, Torah-true guerrillas fighting against
Hellenized Jews who were all turncoats who rejected
Judaism. It is time to discard this portrait of Hellenized Jews as all
wrestlers in the Greek gymnasium who underwent surgery to reverse their
circumcision.

In fact, one of the reasons Judah Maccabee succeeded in liberating
Jerusalem and rededicating the Temple was the support he received from
moderate Hellenized Jews who were acculturated and influenced by Greek
philosophy and culture but nevertheless were loyal
Jews who rejected the extreme edicts and worldview of Seleucid King
Antiochus IV.

The reality of the ancient world is that of millions of Jews living in
the Hellenistic Mediterranean and Middle East who made significant
contributions to Jewish life and thought, despite knowing no Hebrew and
having to read the Hebrew Bible in the Greek Septuagint.
These Hellenized Jews, like many Jews throughout our history, were
highly acculturated but did not assimilate and forfeit their Jewish
identity and faith.

The greatest Jewish community in the ancient Hellenistic Diaspora was in
Alexandria. In the Egyptian port city founded by Alexander the Great
during his conquests of the known world in the fourth century BCE,
250,000 Jews were a significant part of the population
by the Roman period in the 1st century CE. First under the rule of the
Greek Ptolemies, then under Roman domination, Jews occupied professions
from bankers to artisans. The Jewish intellectual elite adopted the
genres of Greek literature – the epic poem, drama,
the writing of history, the penning of the novella and philosophy –
always writing in Greek but focusing on biblical and Jewish themes. In
this highly acculturated environment, Jews did not assimilate but rather
asserted their identity, especially when faced
by the hatred of the Greeks when Rome ruled Alexandria. This animus
would later lead to rebellion.

The greatest figure to emerge from the elite of the Jews of Alexandria
was philosopher and political activist Philo (c. 25-c. 50 CE). The scion
of a wealthy banking family with ties to the monarchy in Judea, Philo
read the Torah as both law and philosophy.
While he did read the Torah from a literal standpoint and was a pious
Jew, Philo added a layer of philosophical allegory on to the text that
understood anew the meaning of the text. He reconciled the Torah with
the philosophy of Plato. Philo was first great
Jewish philosopher and, although he is a harbinger of Saadia Gaon and
Maimonides, his writings – in Greek – were embraced by a Church that
skewed Philo by focusing solely on his use of allegory. Philo never
meant for Jews to abandon the Torah and ritual; he
merely took the ideas of the day and recalibrated them for Judaism.

Another great Hellenized Jew writing in Greek was Josephus (37- c. 100
CE). He composed his important works in Rome but had strong connections
to the Jewish community in Alexandria. His origins were in Judea and his
surrender to Rome while leading the Great
Revolt in the Galilee was not simply the act of a turncoat.

In his The Jewish War, Josephus described the 66-70 revolt against Rome
using the tools of Greek historiography, taking that insurrection
seriously though he often is an apologist for the Roman overlords. In
his later work, Jewish Antiquities, Josephus makes
Judaism and Jews the heirs of a great civilization and attempts to
explain the Jews to pagans by painting a portrait of Judaism as a
philosophy. Finally, he penned polemics against enemies of the Jews.
Apion, a scholar of Homer, was a Greek in Alexandria who
accused the Jews of ritual sacrifice and argued that the ancient
Israelites were ejected from Egypt because they were lepers. These
libels that were believed by pagans were challenged by Josephus who,
although he abandoned the fight against Rome and had as
patrons the Flavian emperors, still was proud of his Jewish identity
and Jewish heritage. Not exactly a Hellenized traitor.

Yet, the greatest proof that the Hellenized Jews of the Mediterranean
and the Middle East were loyal Jews was the rebellion against Rome
staged by the Jews against the Emperor Trajan in 115-117 CE, the Kitos
War. Little is known of this revolt. There was no
Josephus to record the conflict. And there were no letters like those
discovered by Israeli military hero, statesman and archeologist Yigael
Yadin that shed light on the Bar-Kochba Rebellion 60 years after the
first failed revolt. There is a paucity of sources
on the Jewish revolt against Trajan and this fight against Rome is
overshadowed by the earlier and later revolts in the Land of Israel.
While this conflict began in Babylonia with Jews participating in
rebellion against Rome’s ambitions in the east, revolt
spread to Jews living in the Greek-speaking world, including in
Alexandria.

Tensions between Greek and Jew in the Egyptian port city exploded into
war and the Roman overlords punished the Jews. The Great Synagogue of
Alexandria was destroyed by the Romans and thousands of Jews were killed
in the conflict. Jewish memory recounts the
devastation of the destruction of the Jews of Alexandria by describing a
Mediterranean that turned red with the blood of the Jewish victims. It
was a bitter battle that ended the glory and vitality of Jewish life in
Alexandria.

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