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Chapter 11 | Table of Contents | Chapter 13

The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia
W. M. Ramsay
1904

Chapter 12: The Jews in the Asian Cities


In chapter 11 we recognised how important an element the Jewish colonists were in the cities which the Seleucid kings founded or re-founded as strongholds of their power, and as centres of the Graeco-Asiatic civilisation amid the dreary ocean of Oriental monotony; and we also saw what were the reasons which made them trusty supporters of the Seleucid regime and specially useful to counterbalance the Greek element in those cities, all the more trusty and useful because they were unpopular, and even hated by their fellow-citizens.

Considering how important a part the Jewish Christians must have played in the Asian Churches (Acts 18:20, 19:1-8, 20:21), it is necessary to examine their position in the cities more closely. The point of view taken in the Apocalypse is that the Christians were the true Jews (just as they constitute the real element in the city where they dwell), and the national Jews who clung to the old Hebrew ideas were not the true Jews but merely the synagogue of Satan. The Palestinian Jew who could express such a view had travelled far along the Pauline path of development.

The Jews were too clever for their fellow-townsmen. They regarded with supreme contempt the gross obscene ritual and the vulgar superstitions of their neighbours; but many of them were ready to turn those superstitions to their own profit; and a species of magic and soothsaying, a sort of syncretism of Hebrew and pagan religious ideas, afforded a popular and lucrative occupation to the sons of Sceva in Ephesus and to many another Jew throughout the Asiatic Greek cities. It was probably an art of this kind that was practised in the Chaldean's holy precinct at Thyatira, which is mentioned in an inscription of the Roman period (see chapter 23).

There were among those Jews, of course, persons of every moral class, from the destined prophet, Saul of Tarsus, whose eyes were fixed on the spiritual future of his people, down to the lowest Jew who traded on the superstitions and vices of those pagan dogs whom he despised and abhorred, while he ministered to the excesses from which in his own person he held aloof. But among them all there was, in contrast to the pagan population around them, a certain unity of feeling and aspiration bred in them by their religion, their holy books, the Sabbath meetings and the weekly lessons and exhortations, the home training and the annual family meal of the Passover. These made an environment which exercised a strong influence even on the most unworthy.

Of their numbers we can form no estimate, but they were very great. In preparing for the final struggle in western Asia Minor about 210 BC, Antiochus III moved 2,000 Jewish families from Babylonia into Lydia and Phrygia, and that was a single act of one king, whose predecessors and successors carried out the same policy on a similar scale. The statistics which Cicero gives, when he describes how a Roman Governor in 66 BC arrested the half-shekel tribute which the Jews sent to Jerusalem, show a very large Jewish population in Phrygia and a large Jewish population in Lydia.

Except in a few such references history is silent about that great Jewish population of Asia Minor. But inscriptions are now slowly revealing, by here a trace and there a trace, that nobles and officers under the Roman Empire who have all the outward appearance of ordinary Roman provincial citizens were really part of the Phrygian Jewish population. The original Jews of Asia Minor seem to have perished entirely, for the Turkish Jews of the present day are Spanish-speaking Jews, whose ancestors were expelled from Spain by the most famous of Spanish sovereigns and sheltered in Turkey by Mohammedan Sultans. In the dearth of evidence one can only speculate as to their fate. Reasons have elsewhere been stated showing that a considerable part of that original Jewish population adopted Christianity, and thus lost their isolation and cohesion, and became merged in the Christian Empire of the fourth and following centuries after Christ.

As to those Jews, very many in number, who clung unfalteringly to their own faith, what was likely to be their fate in the Christian Empire? The Eastern Empire was largely Greek in language and in spirit alike; and any one who has become familiar with the intensity and bitterness of the hatred that separates the Greek from the Jew, will recognise that in general the alternative of extermination or expulsion was presented to them. There was no place and no mercy for the Jew in the Greek Christian Empire. The barbarous lands of Europe and the steppes and villages of Russia were a gentler home to them than the most civilised of lands.

When one thinks of the character of the Hellenic cities, one must ask how and on what conditions the Jews were able to live in them.

When the Jews were present in such a city merely as resident aliens, their position is easier to understand. It was quite usual for strangers to reside in a Greek city for purposes of trade, and even to become permanent inhabitants with their families. But, as has been already pointed out, there was no ordinary way by which such inhabitants could attain the citizenship. They and their descendants continued to rank only as resident aliens. It was easy for them to retain and practise their own religious rites. Strangers naturally brought their religion with them; and their regular custom was to form an association among themselves for the common practice of their own rites. Such religious associations were numerous and recognised by law and custom; and Jewish residents could carry their religion with them under this legal form.

It was in this way as a rule that foreign religions spread in the Greek cities. The foreign Asiatic rites, by their more impressive and enthusiastic character, attracted devotees, especially among the humbler and less educated Greeks. Thus Oriental cults spread in such cities as Corinth, Athens, and other trading centres, in spite of the fact that those pagan cults were essentially non-proselytising, and preferred to keep their bounds narrow and to restrict the advantages of their religion to a small number.

Similarly the Jewish association, with its synagogue or place of prayer by sea-shore or river bank, attracted attention and proselytes, though it repelled and roused the hatred of the majority, because it was "so strange and mysterious and incomprehensible to the ordinary pagan, with its proud isolation, its lofty morality, its superiority to pagan ideas of life, its unhesitating confidence in its superiority." Thus the Jews became a power even where they ranked only as aliens.

It is much more difficult to understand the position of the Jews in those Hellenic cities where they possessed the rights of citizenship. Now, as a rule, in the cities founded by the Seleucid kings, the Jews were actually citizens. But it was to the ancient mind an outrage and an almost inconceivable thing, that people could be fellow-citizens without engaging in the worship of the same city gods. The bond of patriotism was really a religious bond. The citizen was encompassed by religious duties from his cradle to his grave. It was practically impossible for the Jew to be a citizen of a Greek city in the ordinary way. Some special provision was needed.

That special provision was made by the Seleucid kings in founding their cities. It was a noteworthy achievement, and a real step in the history of human civilisation and institutions, when they succeeded in so widening the essential theory of the Greek city as to enable the Jew to live in it as an integral part of it. The way in which this result was attained must be clearly understood, as it throws much light on the position of the Jews in the Graeco-Asiatic cities.

The Greek city was never simply an aggregation of citizens. The individual citizens were always grouped in bodies, usually called "Tribes," and the "Tribes" made up the city. This was a fundamental principle of Greek city organisation, and must form the starting-point of all reasoning on the subject. The city was an association of groups, not of individuals. It is generally admitted that the groups were older than the institution of cities, being a survival of a more primitive social system. As Mr. Greenidge says, Roman Public Life, p. 66: "Simple membership of a State, which was not based on membership of some lower unit, was inconceivable to the Graeco-Roman world." In the Seleucid City-States that "lower unit" was generally called the "Tribe."

The "Tribe" was united by a religious bond (as was every union or association of human beings in the Graeco-Roman world): the members met in the worship of a common deity (or deities), and their unity lay in their participation in the same religion. It was, therefore, as utterly impossible for a Jew to belong to an ordinary Tribe, as it was for him to belong to an ordinary Hellenic city.

But, just as it was possible for a group of Jewish aliens to reside in a Greek city and practise their own religious rites in a private association, so it was possible to enroll a body of Jewish citizens in a special "Tribe" (or equivalent aggregation), which was united without any bond of pagan religion. That this must have been the method followed by the Seleucid kings is practically certain (so far as certainty can exist in that period of history), though the fact cannot everywhere be demonstrated in the absence of records. Josephus mentions that in Alexandria the "Tribe" of the Jews was called "Macedonians," i.e. all Jews who possessed the Alexandrian citizenship were enrolled in "the Tribe Macedones": this "Tribe" consisted of Jews only, as Josephus' words imply, and as was obviously necessary (for what Greek would or could belong to a Tribe which consisted mainly of the multitude of Jews with whom the rest of the Alexandrian population was almost constantly at war?).

The example of Alexandria may be taken as a proof that, by a sort of legal fiction, an appearance of Hellenism was given to the Jewish citizens in a Greek City-State. It was of the essence of both Ptolemaic and Seleucid cities that they should be centres of Hellenic civilisation and education. In the period of which we are treating the term "Hellenes" did not imply Greek blood and race, but only language and education and social manners. The Jews could never be, in the strict sense, Hellenes, for their manners and ways of thinking were too diverse from the Greek; but by enrolling them in a "Tribe," and giving this "Tribe" a Greek name and outward appearance, the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kings made them members of a city of Hellenes.

But the other difficulty remained. There was a religious bond uniting the whole city. The entire body of citizens was knit together by their common religion; and the Jews stood apart from this city cultus, abhorring and despising it.

The Seleucid practice trampled under foot this religious difficulty by creating an exception to the general principle. The Jews were simply declared by the founder of the dynasty, Seleucus, and his successors to be citizens, and yet free to disregard the common city cultus. They were absolved from the ordinary laws and regulations of the city, if these conflicted with the Jewish religion: especially, they could not be required to appear in court, or take any part in public life, on the Sabbath. Certain regulations were modified to suit Jewish scruples. When allowances of oil were given to the citizens, the royal law ordered that an equivalent in money should be given to the Jewish citizens, whose principles forbade them to use oil that a Gentile had handled or made. Their Hellenic fellow-citizens were never reconciled to this. It seemed to them an outrage that members of the city should despise and reject the gods of the city. This rankled in their minds, a wound that could not be healed. Time after time, wherever a favourable opportunity seemed to offer itself, they besought their masters--Greek king or Roman emperor--to deprive the Jews of their citizenship: for example, their argument to Agrippa in 15 BC was that fellow-citizens ought to reverence the same gods.

Therein lay the sting of the case to the Greeks or Hellenes. The Jews never merged themselves in the Hellenic unity. They always remained outside of it, a really alien body. In a time when patriotism was identified with community of religion, it was not possible to attain true unity in those mixed States. A religious revolution was needed, and to be effective it must take the direction of elevating thought. Then one great man, with the true prophet's insight, saw that unity could be introduced only by raising the Gentiles to a higher level through their adoption of the Jewish morality and religion; and to that man's mind this was expressed as the coming of the Messiah, an idea which was very differently conceived by different minds. Elsewhere we have attempted to show the effect upon St. Paul of this idea as it was forced on him in his position at Tarsus, which was pre-eminently the meeting-place of East and West.

It follows inevitably from the conditions, that there can never have been a case of a single and solitary Jewish citizen in a Hellenic city. It was impossible for a Jew to face the religious difficulty in an ordinary Greek city. He could not become a member of an ordinary "Tribe": he could become a member of a Hellenic city only where the act of some superior power had altered the regular Greek constitution in favour of the Jews as a whole. It may be set aside as impossible, as opposed to all evidence and reasonable inference, either that an ordinary Hellenic city would voluntarily set aside its own fundamental principles in order to welcome its most hated enemies and most dangerous commercial rivals, or that the superior power would or could violate the constitution of the city in favour of a single individual. Where Jews are proved or believed to have been citizens of a Hellenic city, the origin of their right must lie in a general principle laid down by a superior power, accompanied by the introduction of a body of Jewish citizens sufficiently strong to support one another and maintain their own unity and religion.

But might not a Jew occasionally desire the Hellenic citizenship for the practical advantages it might offer in trade? He might desire those advantages in some or many cases; but they could not be got without formal admission to a "Tribe," and if he were admitted to an ordinary Hellenic Tribe through a special decree, he must either participate in its religion or sacrifice the advantages which he aimed at. In fact, it may be doubted whether any person who avoided the meetings and ceremonies of the tribesmen could have retained the membership. The Jew must either abandon his nation and his birthright absolutely, or he must stand outside of the Hellenic citizenship, except in those cities whose constitution had been widened by the creation of a special "Tribe" or similar body for Jews.

The case may be set aside as almost inconceivable that any Jew in the pre-Roman period, except in the rarest cases, absolutely disowned his birthright and was willing to merge himself in the ordinary ranks of Hellenic citizenship. Professor E. Schurer has emphasised the thoroughly Hebraic character even of the most Hellenised Jews who had settled outside Palestine; and there can be no doubt that he is right. They were a people of higher education and nobler views than the Gentiles; and they could not descend entirely to the Gentile level. Even the lowest Jew who made his living out of Gentile superstitions or vices usually felt, as we may be sure, that he was of a higher stock, and was not willing to become a Gentile entirely.

Moreover, the race hatred was too strong. The Greeks would not have permitted it, even if a Jew had desired it. The Greeks had no desire to assimilate the Jews to themselves; they only desired to be rid of them.

The position of the Jews in the Ionian cities is illustrated by an incident that occurred in 15 BC. There was a body of Jews in Ephesus; and the other citizens, i.e. the Hellenes, tried to induce Agrippa to expel these on the ground that they would not take part in the religion of the city. Their argument is instructive. They appealed to the settlement of the Ephesian constitution by Antiochus II, 261-246 BC, as authoritative; and this proves that there had been no serious change in the principles of the Ephesian constitution since that time.

That body of Jews in Ephesus did not consist simply of non-citizens, resident (perhaps for many generations) in the city for purposes of trade. That there were Ephesian citizens among them is clearly implied in the pleading of their fellow-citizens: the Hellenes of Ephesus made no charge against Jewish strangers: in the forefront of their case they put their claim that the Hellenes alone had any right to the citizenship, which was the gift of Antiochus II. These words are useless and unnecessary, unless there was a body of Jews claiming to be citizens of Ephesus, whom the Greeks desired to eject from the citizenship. They came to Agrippa asking permission, not to expel Jewish strangers from the town, but to deprive the Jews of their participation in the State.

Moreover, the next words quoted from the argument of the Hellenes are even stronger: they put the case that the Jews are kinsmen and members of the same race with themselves, "If the Jews are kinsmen to us, they ought to worship our gods." The only conceivable kinship between Jews and Greeks was that which they acquired through common citizenship. The idea that common citizenship implies and produces kingship is very characteristic of ancient feeling and language. We note in passing that this idea occurs in St. Paul, Romans 16:7, 11, where the word "kinsmen" will be understood as denoting Tarsian Jews by those who approach the Epistles from the side of ordinary contemporary Greek thought. It can hardly mean Jews simply (as "kinsmen according to the flesh" does in Romans 9:3); for many other persons in the same list are not so called, though they are Jews. Andronicus and a few others are characterised as members of the same city and "Tribe" as Paul.

The Jewish rights, therefore, must have originated from Antiochus II. Now, throughout his reign, that king was struggling with Ptolemy King of Egypt for predominance in the Ionian cities; and the constitution which he introduced in Ephesus must have been intended to attach the city to his side, partly by confirming its rights and freedom, partly by introducing a new body of colonists whose loyalty he could depend upon; and among those colonists were a number of Jews.

This conclusion seems inevitable; and Professor E. Schurer has rightly held it. But the common view has been hitherto that Antiochus II merely gave freedom to the Ionian cities, including Ephesus; and even so competent an authority as Professor Wilcken adopts the prevalent view. What Antiochus gave was not mere freedom in our vague sense, but a definite constitution. The ancients knew well that freedom among a large body of men is impossible without a constitution and written laws.

It is not likely to be suggested by any scholar that some Jews might have been made Ephesian citizens, when the resident aliens who had helped in the war against Mithridates were granted citizenship by the Ephesian State. No new Tribes were then instituted; the constitution remained undisturbed; and those aliens would have to accept enrollment in one of the pagan groups or "Tribes," out of which the city was constituted; and this we have seen that Jews could not accept. If there was a body of Jewish citizens in Ephesus (as seems certain), they must have been placed there by some external authority; and, as we have seen, the constitution was permanently settled by Antiochus II, so that no new Tribes had been instituted and no modification by external authority had been made.

It is pointed out in chapter 17 that a new Tribe, whose name is unknown (because it was changed afterwards to Sebaste), was instituted at this time for the new settlers whom Antiochus introduced. He doubtless brought colonists of several nationalities, and avoided any pagan religious bond of Tribal unity. The Jews constituted a special division (Chiliastys) in this Tribe.

Antiochus acted similarly in several of the Ionian cities, possibly even in them all. His changes are recorded to have been made in the Ionian cities, and not to have been confined to Ephesus. The case of Ephesus may be taken as typical of many other Asian cities; yet there are few cities in which it can be proved conclusively that there was a body of Jewish citizens. As a rule, the individual Jews escape our notice: only general facts and large numbers have been recorded.

A little more is known about the Jews of the Lycus Valley through the extremely important inscriptions preserved at Hierapolis. Laodicea and Hierapolis, lying so near one another, in full view across the valley, must be taken as a closely connected pair, and all that is recorded about the Jews of Hierapolis may be taken as applying to those of Laodicea (apart from certain differences in the constitution of the two cities). The subject will therefore find a more suitable place in chapter 29.

In each city where a body of Jewish citizens was formed, it was necessary to frame a set of rules safeguarding their peculiar position and rights; for no rights could exist in a Greek city without formal enactment in a written law. This body of law is called in an inscription of Apameia in Phrygia "the Law of the Jews"; and the character of the reference shows beyond question that municipal regulations, and not the Mosaic Law, are meant under that name. Apameia, therefore must have contained a class of Jewish citizens; and its character and history have been investigated elsewhere. A similar law and name must have existed in the other cities where there was a body of Jewish citizens.

The Jews had come, or been brought, into Asia Minor during the time when Palestine was growing Hellenised in the warmth of Seleucid favour. In their new homes they were even more kindly treated, and all the conditions of their life were calculated to strengthen their good feeling to the kings, and foster the Hellenising tendency among them, at least in externals. They necessarily used the Greek language; they became accustomed to Greek surroundings; they learned to appreciate Greek science and education; and doubtless they did not think gymnastic exercises and sports such an abomination as the authors of First and Second Maccabees did.

But, as Professor E. Schurer and others have rightly observed, there is not the slightest reason to think that the Jews of Asia Minor ceased to be true to their religion and their nation in their own way: they really commanded a wider outlook over the world and a more sane and balanced judgment on truth and right than their brethren in Palestine. They looked to Jerusalem as their centre and the home of their religion. They contributed to maintain the Temple with unfailing regularity. They went on pilgrimage in great numbers, and the pilgrim ships sailed regularly every spring from the Aegean harbours for Caesaria. They were in patriotism as truly Jews as the straitest Pharisee in Jerusalem. Doubtless Paul was far from being the only Jew of Asia Minor who could boast that he was "a Pharisee sprung from Pharisees." Yet they were looked at with disfavour by their more strait-laced Palestinian brethren, and regarded as little better than backsliders and Sadducees. They had often, we may be sure, to assert their true Pharisaism and spirituality, like Paul, in answer to the reproach of being mere Sadducees with their Greek speech and Greek ways.

In truth, there was great danger lest they should forget the essence of their Hebrew faith. Many of them undoubtedly did so, though they still remained Jews in name and profession, and in contempt for the Gentiles, even while they learned from them and cheated them and made money by pandering to their superstitions. Many such Jews were, in very truth, only "a Synagogue of Satan" (as at Smyrna and Philadelphia), but still they continued to be "a Synagogue." The national feeling was sound, though the religious feeling was blunted and degraded.

In such surroundings was Saul of Tarsus brought up, a member of a family which moved both in the narrow and exclusive circle of rich Tarsian citizenship and in the still more proud and aristocratic circle of Roman citizenship. In his writings we see how familiar he was with the Graeco-Asiatic city life, and how readily illustrations from Greek games and Roman soldiers and triumphs suggest themselves to him. In him are brought to a focus all the experiences of the Jews of Asia Minor. He saw clearly from childhood that the Maccabean reaction had not saved Palestine, that the Pharisaic policy of excluding Gentile civilisation and manners had failed, and that the only possible salvation for his nation was to include the Gentiles by raising them to the Jewish level in morality and religion. Judaism, he saw, must either lose its vigour amid the sunshine of prosperity in Asia Minor, and gradually die, or it must conquer the Gentiles by assimilating them. The issue was, however, certain. The promise of God had been given and could not fail. This new prophet saw that the time of the Messiah and His conquest of the Gentiles had come.

And amid such surroundings the Jew that wrote the Apocalypse had lived for years. He had come much in contact both with the Hellenist Jews of the Diaspora and with the Christianised pagans in the Asian cities. He had been all the more influenced by those surroundings, because his whole outlook on the world had long ago been modified by the ardent spirit of St. Paul. He was still bound to Jewish models and literary forms in composing the Apocalypse; but sometimes the spirit and the thought which he expresses in those forms are essentially non-Judaic though their wider character is concealed from most of the commentators under the outward show of Judaism. His growing mind was on the point of bursting the last Jewish fetters that still contained it, the reverence for traditional Jewish literary forms; it had not yet done so, but in the composition of this book it was working towards full freedom.


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