By: Emil Schürer
Historic city situated on the Mediterranean sea; fourteen miles west of the Canopic mouth of the Nile.
The history of the Jews of Alexandria dates from the foundation of the city by Alexander the Great, 332
According to Josephus, the fourth or "delta" district was populated by the Jews ("B. J." ii. 18, § 8); which fact warrants the inference that this isolation already existed in the time of Josephus (compare also "Contra Ap." ii. 4). At that time, however, the isolation was not strictly enforced; for, according to Philo, there were many Jewish dwellings scattered throughout the city. There were even synagogues distributed all over the city (Philo, "De Legatione ad Cajum," § 20; ed. Mangey, ii. 565). As regards number and position, the Jews in Alexandria enjoyed a greater degree of political independence there than elsewhere. While the Jewish inhabitants of other cities of the Roman empire, without any political separation, formed private societies for religious purposes, or else became a corporation of foreigners like the Egyptian and Phenician merchants in the large commercial centers, those of Alexandria constituted an independent political community, side by side with that of the heathen population. Strabo thus describes their constitution ("Ant." xiv. 7, § 2): "At their head stands an ethnarch, who rules and judges the people; and, like the archon of an independent city, gives special attention to the proper fulfilment of the duties and to the compliance with the various regulations."Government.
At the time of Augustus, a gerusia (council of elders) seems to have stepped into the place of this individual ruler. It appears indeed from a decree of the emperor Claudius that upon the death of the Jewish ethnarch, during the governorship of Aquila, Augustus permitted the appointment of an ethnarch ("Ant." xix. 5, § 2); but Philo distinctly states that at the time of Augustus the gerusia assumed the position of the genarch—this is the word he uses for ethnarch ("In Flaccum," § 10; ed. Mangey, ii. 527 et seq.). Since Philo mentions another governor than the one referred to by Claudius, it might be supposed that Augustus promulgated two different decrees upon this subject, and that during Aquila's tenure of office—the ethnarch having died—the emperor consented to a new election; but later, during the term of Magnus Maximus, the office of ethnarch again becoming vacant through death, he replaced it by the gerusia. But in this decree of Claudius, which gives a retrospect of the constitutional rights of the Alexandrian Jews, some mention of such a second decree would have been made. It is evident that Claudius refers to an ordinance which was still in force. Nor do the different names of the governors prove that there were different ordinances.
Soon after the death of the ethnarch, under the governorship of Aquila, a change took place in the governors, and the decree of Claudius was sent to Magnus Maximus, the successor of Aquila. As this occurred before his installation, it must refer to the same decree. Claudius intends only to make it apparent that Augustus permitted the Jews to retain their own government. Philo relates, more particularly, that the ethnarch was replaced by a gerusia. To the latter he frequently alludes in another passage of his work. The gerusia was presided over by archons or chief magistrates (Philo, "In Flaccum," § 10; ed. Mangey, ii. 528 et seq.). It numbered, as in Jerusalem, seventy-one members (Tosef., Suk. ed. Zuckermandel, iv. 198; Yer. Suk. v. 1). Josephus, also, refers occasionally to the "chiefs of the gerusia" ("B. J." viii. 10, § 1).
In consequence of their isolation, the Jews of Alexandria were unhampered in the exercise of their ceremonies, and were also enabled to regulate their civil affairs independently. The only restriction from which they suffered was due to official supervision delegated to royal, and afterward to imperial, representatives. The Jews of Alexandria, however, were quite independent of the council and civil government of the city proper. They formed a smaller political corporation by the side of the larger one. Moreover, there was no such thing as a council (βōυλέ) during the first two centuries of the Greek domination; this having been abolished by the Ptolemies, or, at the very latest, by Augustus, and only revived under Septimius Severus.
In spite of the political isolation of the Jews of Alexandria they did not lose their franchise as citizens. The doubts that have been expressed in connection with this by a few modern scholars are not supported by decisive evidence, but are based upon a general mistrust of Josephus, whose testimony, however, on all material points, is corroborated by Philo as well as by the decree of Claudius. Josephus says ("Contra Ap." ii. 4); "Alexander gave them a place in which to live, and they received the same rights as the Macedonians [Greeks], and up to the present their race has retained the appellation Macedonians." In another place ("B. J." ii. 18, § 7) he declares: "Alexander permitted them the same rights as the Greeks. This privilege they preserved under the successors of Alexander, who permitted them to call themselves Macedonians. Nay, when the Romans took possession of Egypt neither the first Cæsar nor his successors suffered the rights, which had been bestowed upon the Jews by Alexander, to be diminished." The decree by which Augustus confirmed the rights of the Jews, especially the civil rights of those in Alexandria, was engraved upon a tablet of brass which still existed at the time of Josephus ("Contra Ap." ii. 4; "Ant." xiv. 10, § 1). Philo also gives prominence to the fact that the Jews enjoyed the civil rights of the Alexandrians (that is, of the Alexandrian citizens) and not those of the Egyptians ("In Flaccum," § 10; ed. Mangey, ii. 528).
In the persecutions that occurred during the reign of Caligula, Flaccus, governor of Alexandria, issued an edict in which he called the Jews "aliens and residents" ("In Flaccum," § 8; ed. Mangey, ii. 528).But Claudius, the successor of Caligula, soon after his accession took pains to restore to them their old rights. In this last decree, especial reference is made to the rescripts and ordinances of the preceding emperors, from which it may be seen that the Jews had equal rights with the other citizens of Alexandria ("Ant." xix. 5, § 2). Finally, even Vespasian had occasion to interfere on behalf of the Jews, when he denied the petition of the Alexandrians to deprive them of their civil rights in the city ("Ant." xii. 3, § 1). The Jews not only enjoyed civil rights in Alexandria, but in public life occupied a more influential position than anywhere else in the ancient world. There they did not form the lower classes, as in many other towns; but by their riches and education constituted a large and influential portion of society; possessing the confidence of the ruling powers, they attained also to public offices and posts of honor. The conduct of the Ptolemies toward them certainly varied, but that of the first members of that dynasty was uniformly favorable ("Contra Ap." ii. 4).
In connection with the alleged modern disinclination of the Jews to military service in foreign countries, it is curious to notice that they were often employed as soldiers in Egypt, and even attained to high military positions. Ptolemy I., Lagi, is said to have distributed 30,000 Jewish soldiers over the land as garrisons (Pseudo-Aristeas, ed. Wendland, 1900, § 13). Jewish camps have been found in several places in Egypt, which were without doubt the barracks of those Jewish troops; such a castra Judœorum was on the eastern side of the Delta ("Notitia Dignitatum Orientis," chap. xxv.), and a 'Іōυδαίων στρατόπεδōν on the western side of the Delta ("Ant." xiv. 8, § 2; "B. J." i. 9, § 4; compare Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., iii. 98). In an inscription found at Athribis in the southern part of the Delta, the first name on the list of those who built the synagogue is that of a "captain of the police" ("Rev. Ét. Juives," xvii. 235). Ptolemy VI., Philometor, and his consort, Cleopatra, "entrusted their whole kingdom to Jews, and the generals-in-chief of the army were the two Jews Onias and Dositheus ("Contra Ap." ii. 5). Another Cleopatra, their daughter, in a war that she waged against her son Ptolemy Lathyrus, also appointed two Jews as generals in her army, Helkias and Ananias sons of the high priest Onias, who built the temple at Leontopolis ("Ant." xiii. 10, § 4; 13, § 1).Jews as Public Officials.
Under the Romans, rich Jews occasionally held the office of alabarch, as for example Alexander, the brother of the philosopher Philo, and later a certain Demetrius (see for Alexander, "Ant." xviii. 6, § 3; 8, § 1; xix. 5, § 1; xx. 5, § 2; Demetrius, ib. xx. 7, § 3). This office must not be confounded with that of the Jewish ethnarch; it was a civic trust, and probably identical with the arabarch, the chief tax-collector on the Arabian or eastern shore of the Nile (Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., iii. 88 et seq.). Such an office could only be filled by one who controlled a large capital, but it also provided a source from which great profit might be drawn.Josephus' remark ("Contra Ap." ii. 5, end) that the Roman emperors continued the Jews of Alexandria "in the positions of trust bestowed upon them by the former kings—namely, 'the control of the river'"—refers probably to the frequent employment of the Jews as alabarchs. By "control of the river" must be understood the collection of taxes from the commerce thereon.
From these facts it may be concluded that the Ptolemies, as well as the Roman emperors, upon the whole, treated the Jews of Alexandria with consideration. Of the Ptolemies, according to Josephus, Ptolemy VII., Physcon, formed the only exception in his hostility toward them; and his conduct was not influenced by any dislike of the Jewish religion, but was due to their attitude in party politics. When Ptolemy VII. strove to wrest the throne of Egypt from Cleopatra—the mother of Ptolemy VI. —the Jews, led by the general Onias, fought on the side of Cleopatra. It is said that Ptolemy VII., angered by their opposition, ordered those Jews that remained in Alexandria to be put in chains and cast before elephants. Contrary to expectations, the animals turned upon the enemies of the Jews, and Ptolemy VII. was persuaded by one of his concubines to undertake no further repressive measures against them ("Contra Ap." ii. 5). The same story is told of Ptolemy IV. in the third book of Maccabees, which, however, can not be considered a trustworthy source. Josephus (l.c.), as well as the third book of the Maccabees (vi. 36), makes note of a thanksgiving festival, annually celebrated in Alexandria in commemoration of this miraculous preservation of the Jews. That the latter enjoyed perfect religious freedom under the Ptolemies is not gain-said. Some of their synagogues even seem to have exercised the right of asylum on an equality with the heathen temples. There is in the Egyptian Museum at Berlin a Greek inscription of the later Roman period ("Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum," t. iii. supplem. n. 6583) found in lower Egypt, which says that the queen and the king (supposed by Mommsen to be Zenobia and Vabalathus) commanded the renewal of an old inscription, the main contents of which were that King Ptolemy Euergetes declared the synagogue inviolable—that is, granted it the right of an asylum. Both Ptolemy III. and Ptolemy VII., Physcon, bore the cognomen Euergetes; but a pronounced friendly attitude toward the Jews is to be expected from the former rather than the latter. Moreover, it is in consonance with the custom prevalent during the reign of Ptolemy VII., that the queen should be mentioned together with himself.Under the Roman Empire.
Ptolemy VI. also permitted the building of the Jewish temple in Leontopolis. The rights of the Jews were not altered under the Roman emperors. The persecution under Caligula was only a passing episode. The Jews had express permission to discard the practise of the Cæsarean cult, which was so contrary to their religion. Nevertheless, repeated and sanguinary conflicts occurred; but the Roman emperors, Caligula excepted, were not responsible for these unfortunate events, which had their cause largely in the deep-seated antipathy toward each other of the pagan and the Jewish populations. In Roman times this feeling became more intense, and often culminated in bloody strife. This mutual aversion was due to the religious peculiarities of Jews and Egyptians, and was equally strong on both sides. The flame of popular passion burst forth, sometimes on one side and sometimes on the other. These strained relations between the two races existed also in other cities, especially where the Jews enjoyed civil or political rights. In Alexandria, however, the situation was particularly dangerous, because the Jews formed a powerful element in the city. The fundamental causes of the persecutions under Caligula may be traced to this circumstance; though the emperor himself contributed to it in no small degree, by demanding of the Jews that divine veneration which agreed with an ancient custom prevailing since the rule of the Ptolemies, and which the heathen population therefore were quite willing to accord him.Riot in Alexandria.
The actual conflict was begun by the heathen rabble of Alexandria; in the refusal of the Jews to obey the imperial decree, they saw an excuse for opening up hostilities against them. The persecution broke out in the autumn of the year 38, at the time when the Jewish king Agrippa was on a visit to Alexandria. The king was first made the subject of ridicule in a pantomime, in which an imbecile, named Karabas, was arrayed in imitation royal insignia, and scoffingly hailed as king, with the Syrian title Maran (Lord). Once aroused, the populace was not easily satisfied, and demanded that statues of the emperor be erected in the synagogues. Flaccus, the Roman governor, from his knowledge of the emperor's peculiarities, did not dare to oppose them; he acceded to all the demands of the Jew-baiters, who became more importunate with every concession made by the governor. In quick succession, Flaccus ordered the placing of statues in the synagogues; deprived the Jews of civil franchise by an edict; and finally permitted a general persecution of them. The enraged heathens now fell upon the Jewish inhabitants of Alexandria; their dwellings and shops were plundered; the Jews themselves were cruelly maltreated and killed, and their dead bodies mutilated. Some were publicly burned, and others dragged alive through the streets. Some of the synagogues were destroyed, and some desecrated with an image of Caligula. Flaccus not only made no attempt to restrain the violence of the mobs, but of his own initiative instituted barbarous regulations against the Jews. He caused thirty-eight members of the gerusia to be manacled and hurried to the theater, where, before the eyes of their enemies, they were publicly scourged, some of them to death.Philo's Commission to Rome.
The subsequent events, from the autumn of 38 till the death of Caligula in 41, are not recorded in detail. Flaccus was suddenly recalled in the year 38, and banished to the island of Andros, where he was put to death by order of the emperor. It is highly improbable, however, that the condition of the Jews underwent any favorable change during the reign of Caligula. The commission that proceeded to Rome under the leadership of the philosopher Philo was treated with contempt by the emperor, and seems to have met with utter failure, due, no doubt, to the simultaneous appearance, before the emperor, of another delegation from Alexandria—headed by Apion, the well-known opponent of the Jews—which counteracted the endeavors of the Jewish commissioners. It was only upon the death of Caligula and the accession of Claudius that the Jews were enabled to regain their former rights; and this was followed by a considerable period of quiet.
New conflicts arose under Nero and Vespasian, closely connected with the great Jewish uprising in Palestine. In Alexandria a very serious struggle broke out, at about the same time as in Palestine, the cause of which was insignificant, but in which the Jews took such a threatening stand that the governor, Tiberius Alexander, a Jew by birth and a son of the alabarch Alexander, was obliged to call out the Roman troops against them. Peace was restored only after much shedding of blood ("B. J." ii. 18, § 7). A few years later, after the close of the war in Palestine, a serious revolt, instigated by the Sicarii in Alexandria, was suppressed by the more considerate element of the Jewish population. Nevertheless, the governor, Lupus, thought it advisable, after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, to close the one at Leontopolis ("B. J." vii. 10). The great revolt of the Egyptian Jews under Trajan (114-117) was attended by enormous loss of life. At first the Jews had the advantage over the Greeks, who in a battle outside the gates of Alexandria were beaten and compelled to retreat into the city; but here they gained the upper hand, and massacred the Jewish inhabitants.
Notwithstanding the marked contrast between the views of life held by the Jews and the pagans, the influence of Hellenism did not fail to impress a peculiar stamp upon the intellectual development of the Alexandrian Jews. Indeed, the commingling of the Jewish religious teachings with the spirit of Hellenism nowhere went so far as in that city; though here, as elsewhere, the Jews remained true, in all essentials, to the religion of their forefathers. Of this statement there are many convincing confirmations. Like their brethren in Palestine, they assembled in the synagogue every Sabbath to hear the reading of the Law and the Prophets, and for the other religious services. According to Philo, there were many synagogues (πρōσευχαί) scattered throughout the city of Alexandria. One of them is mentioned by him as being especially large and magnificent ("De Legatione ad Cajum," § 20; ed. Mangey, ii. 568). It is, without doubt, the same synagogue which is described in the rabbinical writings as being constructed in the form of a large basilica. It contained seventy-one golden chairs corresponding with the number of the elders. In the center was a wooden platform, upon which stood the ḥazan, who, at the conclusion of each blessing, gave the signal with a flag for the congregation to respond with the Amen. The worshipers were not indiscriminately seated, but were separated according to their respective trades (Tosef., Suk. iv.ed. Zuckermandel, p. 198; Yer. Suk. v. i.). There can be little doubt that the Alexandrian Jews also observed the new moon and the annual festivities in the same manner as did the other Jews. Two feasts peculiar to the Alexandrians are casually mentioned; one in commemoration of the translation of the Bible into Greek (Philo, "Vita Moysis," ii. § 7; ed. Mangey, ii. 140 et seq.), and a second in celebration of the miraculous deliverance from the elephants. Very little reliable information is at hand concerning the part taken by the Alexandrians in the cult of the temple at Leontopolis. It is probable that they offered sacrifices there without in the least neglecting their duties toward the Temple of Jerusalem. Philo remarks incidentally that he himself proceeded to the paternal sanctuary (in Jerusalem) as a delegate to pray and to sacrifice ("De Providentia"; Eusebius, "Præparatio Evangelica," VIII. xiv. 64, ed. Gaisford; according to the Armenian translation in Aucher, "Philonis Judæi Sermones Tres," etc., p. 116).
Although the religion of their forefathers was so faithfully followed, the Jews of Alexandria nevertheless imbibed, to a great degree, the culture of the Greeks. Not many generations after the founding of the community, the Torah was translated into Greek (perhaps under Ptolemy II.; at all events not much later). It was read in Greek in the synagogues; indeed this was the language chiefly used in the service (Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., iii. 93-95). Greek must, therefore, have been the vernacular of the lower classes also. The better classes studied Greek literature in the schools, and read Homer, the tragic poets, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. This intimate acquaintance with Greek literature naturally exerted a profound influence upon the Alexandrian Jews. They became Greeks without, however, ceasing to be Jews.
The philosophers whose views were accepted by a few of the highly educated Jews were Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. Under such influences the Jews of Alexandria produced an extensive and varied literature. They wrote history and philosophy, as well as epic and dramatic poetry. Apologetics and polemics against the heathen found an important place in their literature, for the battle between the two camps was fought out also in the literary arena. Distinguished Alexandrian literati attacked Judaism very bitterly (Manetho [or Manethon], Lysimachus, Chæremon, and Apion). The Jews, on their side, conducted their defense chiefly in such a manner as to bring out the sublimity of their faith and the grandeur of its history. They sometimes took the offensive, and disclosed the inanity of idolatry and the ethical evils of paganism, exhorting and admonishing the heathen population to conversion. Their favorite method was to attribute such admonitory utterances to pagan authorities, particularly the highly venerated Sibyl (see
The constant daily contact of the lower class of Jews with the pagans in Alexandria resulted in the absorption of many superstitions. Among the less intelligent, Jewish and pagan witchcraft joined hands, as did Jewish faith and Greek philosophy among the more enlightened (Schürer, "Gesch." 3d ed., iii. 294-304). This blending of religious ideas prevailedmore or less wherever Jews and Gentiles came into direct contact, but was especially strong and marked in Alexandria (Hadrian, "Letter to Servianus"; in Vopiscus, "Vita Saturnini," chap. viii.; in the "Scriptores Historiæ Augustæ," ed. Peter, 1865, ii. 209). In spite of all this, Judaism retained its peculiar characteristics even here. From Philo's intimation that because of the allegorical interpretation, many had failed to give due value to the literal meaning of the Law, it must not be concluded that large numbers of Jews habitually broke the Law. Philo himself affords proof that even those who most favored the allegorical interpretation still kept to the letter of Scripture ("De Migratione Abrahami," § 16; ed. Mangey, i. 450). A certain laxity may indeed have obtained in some quarters; but in its essential points, the law was everywhere observed by the Hellenizing Jews as long as they remained within the pale of the synagogue.Samaritans.
It may be well to append here whatever is known of the history of the Samaritans in Alexandria and in Egypt (compare Juynboll, "Commentarii in Historiam Gentis Samaritan§," pp. 38-41, 43-45, Leyden, 1846). Alexander the Great is said to have settled Samaritans in the Thebaid ("Ant." xi. 8, § 6, end). At the time Ptolemy I., Lagi, conquered Palestine, he took with him many prisoners, not from Judea or Jerusalem alone, but also from Samaria and from those living near Mount Gerizim, and settled them in Egypt ("Ant." xii. 1). In a papyrus belonging to the middle of the third century