Tacitus on the Jews

Reading Tacitus reminds me a little of reading articles written by Hitchens, Harris or Dawkins about ‘Christian fundamentalists’ except that Tacitus writes with a degree of hatred that can only be understood in the context of that ancient hatred that has been uniquely reserved for the Jewish people.

Tacitus writes of the Jewish traditions,

“Things sacred with us, with them have no sanctity, while they allow what with us is forbidden

[Jewish customs]…which are at once perverse and disgusting, owe their strength to their very badness. The most degraded out of other races…”

What are these customs that Tacitus finds so disgusting?

“They slay the ram, seemingly in derision of Hammon, and they sacrifice the ox, because the Egyptians worship it as Apis.”

Tacitus is not disgusted with the sacrifices themselves (he later criticizes them for not offering sacrifices) but with the idea that the Jews offer sacrifices to spite the Egyptians. Is this simply ignorance? Did Tacitus have no understanding of atonement? Or is this just polemics?

What other criticisms did he have?

They practiced circumcision, they do not sleep with foreign women, they do not expose their children, they keep one day for rest and they do not eat bacon.

Is this all that Tacitus can marshal against “the most base of races”?

Among other observations by Tacitus, I thought this one was most interesting,

“The Egyptians worship many animals and images of monstrous form; the Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples.”

While jeering, Tacitus unintentionally described the very aspects of the Jewish faith that make it timeless and profound.

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