Climbing the Ethnic Ladder: The Case of Judeans and Egyptians

(RESTtalk Jan. 27, 2020, Philip A. Harland)


Lucian of Samosata (ca. 170 CE): “Please do not resent my comparing myself to a man of royal status [the Scythian Anacharsis], for he too was a barbarian, and no one could say that we Syrians are inferior to Scythians” (The Scythian 9.6–7).

Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire (DARE)

Social-Scientific Insights on Ethnic Hierarchies

Hagendoorn: “In a multi-ethnic context, each group will have stereotypes about several out-groups [outsiders] accentuating negative differences from the ingroup [insiders]. Outgroups will be placed further away from or further below the ingroup, the larger and more important these differences are. This means that the process of differentiation unavoidably entails a rank-ordering. In this way stereotypes generate an ethnic hierarchy.” Louk Hagendoorn, “Ethnic Categorization and Outgroup Exclusion: Cultural Values and Social Stereotypes in the Construction of Ethnic Hierarchies,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 16 (1993): 26–51, at 36.

The Low Starting Position of Judeans and Egyptians on the Hegemonic Ladder

Herodotos of Halikarnassos (ca. 420 BCE): “They [Persians] honor most highly those who live closest to them, next those who are next closest, and so on, assigning honor by this reasoning. Those who live farthest away they consider least honorable of all. For they think that they are the best of all people in every respect and that others rightly cling to some virtue until those who live farthest away are the worst.” (Histories 1.134.2; Godley, LCL, adapted)

Tacitus (ca. 110 CE): “The Judeans regard as profane all that we consider sacred; on the other hand, they permit everything that we consider impure” (Histories 5.4.1; Moore, LCL, adapted).

Plutarch (ca. 120 CE): Among Egyptians, a “terrible belief develops which plunges the weak and innocent into pure fear of divine forces [δεισιδαιμονίαν] and, in the case of the more cynical and bold, goes off into atheistic and beastly thinking” (Isis and Osiris 70 [379e]; Babbitt, LCL adapted).

Climbing the Ladder or Building a New One: The Cases of Philo, Paul and Josephus

Philo of Alexandria (30s-40s CE): “We may fairly say that those from east to west, from every country, people and city, show an aversion to foreign customs. They think that they will enhance honor for their own by shοwing dishonor for those of other countries. It is not so with our customs. They attract and draw the attention of everyone: barbarians, Greeks, inhabitants of the main-land and islands, peoples [ἔθνη] of the east and the west, of Europe and of Asia, and of the whole world from end to end” (Moses 2.19–20).

Josephus of Jerusalem (ca. 95 CE): “It was Egyptians who initiated the slanders against us … neither admitting the arrival of our ancestors in Egypt as it actually took place, nor truthfully recounting their departure [ἔξοδον]. They had many reasons for hate and envy: … Οur piety differs from what is customary among them to the same degree that the nature of God stands removed from irrational animals. It is their common ancestral tradition [πάτριον] to consider these [animals] gods, but they differ from one another in the honors they pay them in their own particular ways. Empty-headed and utterly mindless people, accustomed from the beginning to depraved opinions about gods, they did not succeed in imitating the dignity of our discourses about God, but envied us when they saw us emulated by many.” (trans. adapted from Barclay, Against Apion 2.223–226).