We often hear about the kings and queens of Ancient Egypt but what about the lives of the general populace? How can we learn about them? The daily life of the Ancient Egyptians can be assessed by the wide range of archaeological evidence, philological evidence and art history available to us. Through the use of modern archaeological and chronological dating methods we can gain a better understanding of what daily life entailed in the world of the Ancient Egyptians.
Evidence of daily life from the early periods is limited, but there is still some available to us. Grave goods provide a wealth of evidence for daily life as the deceased were buried increasingly over time with personal possessions. Excavations of burials at Badari for instance have uncovered a variety of artefacts and adornments that were used in everyday life. For example grave 5225 at Badari contained a number of pots that could have been used in the daily life of a household and a cosmetic slate palette. The pottery and vessels found as grave goods provides us with evidence of the types of crafts and trades that appear in the daily life of the period.
There is also evidence in the form of small figurines and gaming pieces from which we can assess leisure in pre-dynastic daily life. Such is found in tombs like tomb M.VIII at Abu Roash where a number of lion-shaped playing pieces were uncovered. Everyday items like these help illustrate the refined lifestyle of the upper class. We have a vast amount more to assess from in later periods, but as you can see the pottery, grave goods and archaeology of the pre/early-dynastic period does allow for some assessment of daily life.
The vast majority of evidence available for daily life in the early periods comes from burials such as those at Helwan, Saqqara and Abydos, evidence of everyday activities for instance, is seen in the form of copper vessels from the tomb of Idi at Abydos. Tomb 24 H5 at Helwan also contained alabaster water jugs and pans. A large number of cooking vessels, pots, jars and pans have been excavated from all periods providing us with assessable evidence for domestic activities.
From the old kingdom onwards we have increasingly available evidence of the dress and clothing styles in daily life from wall paintings and statuary. Statuary from the new and middle kingdoms allows for the assessment of daily dress, some showing the long kilts wore by men that reached from the chest or hips to their ankles, and wide cloaks. These statues also provide us with evidence from which we can assess hairstyles and wigs, showing a range of styles from shoulder length wigs to clean shaven heads. Daily dress and cosmetics are also examinable from burials from the early dynastic period onward. For instance, jewelry found in cemeteries 5400, 5700 and 5100 at Badari, including necklaces and earrings, and a range of actual styled clothing and cloth making materials as well as what may be interpreted as pieces of looms and cosmetic items and jewelry from Helwan.
From around the beginning of the Old Kingdom significant new forms of evidence starts to dominate and become more available for the assessment of daily life, these are wall paintings and art. Before this period there are very few examples of tomb wall decoration such as the painting in the Chalcolithic Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis showing scenes of hunting and domestic activities. Wall paintings in Old Kingdom chapels often show a range of images in tombs of both officials and lower status individuals like tradesmen, as the afterlife was conceived similarly for all non-royals.
The inclusion of temporal ordering within these tomb paintings also provides us with a timeline of the daily activities. For instance the agricultural and cattle-rearing year’s activities are shown often in order from the upper register continuing down. The scenes in old kingdom tombs often portrayed trade and craft activities with the tomb owner supervising them.  In doing so, they provide us with evidence of the daily life of the general population as craftsmen and farmers. This theme continues well into the New Kingdom with wall decoration such as from the tomb of Menkheperran-sonb at Thebes (Dynasty 18) showing artisans at work. Employment is a large part of the daily lives of individuals in all communities and these depictions allow this aspect to be further analysed concerning the Ancient Egyptians.
Tomb and chapel scenes provide for much of the basis of assessment of daily life. This fifth dynasty wall painting from the tomb of Nefer and Kahay is a prime example of the many parts of life depicted (See image above). Not only does this wall painting show us areas of agricultural life, farming and fowling, but also preparation of food and what could be interpreted as a scene of leisure with dancers. In certain later periods such as the Amarna Period in the New Kingdom, artistic evidence becomes less useful to the assessment of daily life, as with the reign of Akhenaten, artistic expression was based on the Royal Family. This allows for a rare view of the daily lives of the Royals, but not of the common people.
Middle Kingdom scenes of everyday activities generally follow the traditional scenes of the Old Kingdom. Scenes of daily life are found in fragments of reliefs from both Royal and Private tombs and chapels, especially at sites like Beni Hasan which is the location of many privately owned tombs of the Middle Kingdom. Scenes continue in this period to depict hunting and fishing, and food preparation; some scholars believe that these scenes were simply copied from the Old Kingdom prototypes but they still provide us with a foundation from which to assess activities of daily life.
From the Middle Kingdom we witness a number of literary pieces of evidence for daily life in Ancient Egypt. One such example of this evidence is the ‘Hekanakhte papers’ (12th dynasty) which are a collection of Middle Kingdom letters providing a detailed explanation of agricultural life in the period. These letters also provide rare evidence of the literacy skill of Egyptian women as one letter is from a woman to her mother. This provides us with philological evidence from which we can assess the extent of literacy of Egyptian women in daily life. The shabti spells are another example of this type of evidence providing lists of daily activities which the shabti is to participate in.
The Middle Kingdom saw the introduction of fictional literature such as the ‘Tale of Sinuhe’ and the ‘Tale of the Eloquent Peasant’ that, though from their plots we see that they are fiction they purport to be historical, so provide us with information of daily life and tasks. For instance, the eloquent peasant provides evidence of trade and its importance to daily life and the use of domestic animals in daily tasks. The Middle Kingdom ‘Satire on Trades’ is another prime example as it describes aspects of all possible occupations in contrast to the easy life of being a scribe. Towards the beginning of the New Kingdom we also increasingly gain evidence in the form of Ostraka including letters, student writing exercises, such as numerous found at Deir el-Medina, and numerous more fictional texts.
As previously discussed, a vast amount of evidence for daily life in the early periods comes from burials, the same can be observed with all periods as objects of everyday use were placed in the tombs to ensure provisions for the dead, for their lives after death. After the Early Dynastic Period the amount of grave goods steadily increased. These artefacts allow for the assessment and interpretation of many parts of daily life, one such example of this is of dress. The eighteenth dynasty tomb of the architect Kha included piles of well preserved folded tunics and sheets. Subsidiary graves are also helpful in the interpretation of domestic practices and craft as they contain a more humble population and from these we gain deposits of pottery, domestic containers and implements. Subsidiary graves often held artisans, and tools uncovered from their graves provide evidence of crafts, for instance, carpentry, pottery production and building. And offerings to the dead give us an idea of the foods eaten. These pieces of evidence are not only important to assessment of the daily life within the home but also give us examples of the types of crafts and labor being participated in by the general population.
 Brunton, G. and Caton-Thompson, G., The Badarian Civilisation and Predynastic Remains Near Badari (London 1928), p.9
 Schulz, R., and Seidel, M., Egypt: The World of the Pharaohs, p.35 – 1st Dynasty, c.3000BC – many of these items are found in the tombs of the elite from the pre-dynastic times.
 Aldred, C., Egypt to the End of the Old Kingdom (London, 1988), p.58 – vessels such as those found in the tomb of Idi and all over Egypt in all periods allow for assessment of domestic tasks and food preparation as well trade due to a number of imported products identified by labels, markings and materials.
 Saad, Z.Y., The Excavations at Helwan (Oklahoma, 1969), p.40
Schulz, R., and Seidel, M., op.cit., p.129
 Brunton, op.cit., p. XXVII – cemetery sites at Badari and elsewhere also provide a means of assessing social stratigraphy in society with the comparisons of different grave goods and burial types and sizes from the pre-dynastic period onwards.
 Saad, Z.Y., op.cit., p.49
 Kemp, B.J., Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilisation (2nd Edition) (New York, 2006), p.80 – the domestic, and hunting and gathering scenes are a theme of the tomb 100 wall painting which surround the primary focus on a number of sea-faring vessels which remain open to interpretation
 Schulz, R., and Seidel, M., op.cit., p.82
 Ibid., p.85
 Ibid., p.85 – These scenes appear frequently as it was honourable to be put over such activities as they involved the working of possessions of the royal administration
 O’Connor, D., Ancient Egyptian Society (Pittsburgh, 1990), p.17
 Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., The British Museum: Dictionary of Ancient Egypt (London, 2003), p.40
 Shaw, I., The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt (Oxford, 2003), p.150 – The majority of these papers were written by the farmer Hekanakhte who left them as instructions for his family while he was absent.
 Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., op.cit., p.164
 Lythgoe, A.M., An Exhibit Illustrating the Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians, in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol.13, No.12 (Dec., 1918), p.283
 Ancient Egyptian Clothing, in K.M.T., Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, Vol.6, No.4, p.34 – tomb discovered in the artisan’s cemetery at Deir el-Medina in 1906
 Subsidiary graves mostly contained artisans and craftsmen so are more reliable in use to interpret the lives of the common Egyptian population rather than the lives of the Royal families
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Egyptian hieroglyphics have always been seen as a mysterious and exotic area that has captured the interest of society from the Roman occupation of Egypt, right down to the present day. Though they have always been a subject of interest, people’s understandings of this ancient script have been forever influenced by aspects that limited their understanding for hundreds of years. This postlooks into those influences passed down from generation to generation of scholars and within normal society, from the days of the Roman tourists in Egypt, where Egyptian guides purposely gave the Romans misinformation and the interpretation of hieroglyphs was mistaken by the Roman views. Through the renaissance and classical periods, scholars were still influenced by early writings and the society, in which they themselves lived, right down to the eighteen hundreds, until one man, Champollion, decided to take a different view after being introduced to other ideas. But before this sudden change, he, like hundreds of others was unable to accept any other possibilities. These early influences included the effects of Hor-Apollo’s writings, Kircher and Young, plus many others. There are however some historians who don’t believe these writings were major influence.
The understanding of hieroglyphs, has like the majority of areas in society, been partial to the past writings on the subject. Writers and in this case translators, can not help but be influenced by their own beliefs and understandings of the past. J.B Bury assesses that writings are influences by the writer’s background. R.M Crawford agrees, evaluating that there are always influences from training, from teacher to student, to teacher to student, down the generations. It is evident that the translations of hieroglyphs have been effected by this transition of beliefs down the ages. Therefore, the misinterpretations were also passed on, creating an obstacle that future generations were unable to avoid in their own interpretations.
The writings associated with the translations of hieroglyphs have greatly influenced the general interpretation of their meanings even in the Roman times. Hilary Wilson demonstrates in her book ‘Understanding Hieroglyphs’ that the writings of early translators influenced the understanding of the script until the nineteenth century AD. Robinson, author of ‘The Story of Writing’, evaluates that the understanding of the Romans was misguided by an Egyptian priest by the name of Hor-Apollo. Wilson asserts that Hor-Apollo wrote a book in Coptic which had a dramatic effect on the study of Hieroglyphs for many hundreds of years. Hor-Apollo’s work insisted that each sign had a single pictorial or symbolic meaning, this makes it clear that he completely misunderstood the writing system used by his ancestors. Unfortunately, because it was considered to have been written by someone informed, Hor-Apollo’s work was used as a guide for all future students of hieroglyphs.
Though the translations of Hor-Apollo were meant to be correct and did not intentionally lead people into thinking incorrectly, there were other influences on the Roman understanding of hieroglyphs that were purposely trying to lead them astray. Pierre Montet asserts that under the Greek and Roman occupations, it gave the Egyptian community great satisfaction to mislead their foreign masters. They did this by concocting unintelligible documents, of which the foreigners could make nothing. Perrottet explains that because of this misinformation; it was misguidedly thought that hieroglyphs were only magical riddles, enchantments and spells. Perrottet however disagrees with Hor-Apollo being the original major source of the misinterpretation. He assesses that the Roman tourists were misled by spell books supposedly written ten thousand years earlier by Hermes Trismegistus. These writings however were nothing more than items to entice tourist.
Hoijer is one of a group of historians who believe differently. Hoijer evaluates that the Romans were not influenced by the writings and misinterpretations of others, but by the fact that like the majority of historians and society, they viewed the land and its culture through the distorted prism of their own culture. Due to this, we can evaluate that as a result they misinterpreted almost everything. Parkinson agrees with the point relating to culture, but also attributes the misinterpretation to the before-mentioned points concerning historians in the ancient world fueling the beliefs of the Romans, mentioning that the Egyptians also contributed to this, by fueling the disinformation. The majority of translations supplied to the Roman tourists in the occupation of Egypt were catering for the tourist industry, showing that the first explanations of hieroglyphs were made to cater for needs of the ‘writers’.
This is an element of historical writing that can not be avoided, as assessed by J.B. Bury. With the Roman’s great depth of superstition and with nobody to contradict the Egyptian guides’ explanations; they had no reason to doubt what they were being told. This concept is explained by Carl L Becker, that we write history according to own present purposes, desires, prepossessions and prejudices. These influences corrupted the understanding of the Romans and the future understandings of the hieroglyphic script.
The understanding of the Romans set groundwork for classical writers, along with the influence of ancient writers. Robinson outlines that with the renaissance, the revival of classical learning, came with a revival of the Roman belief in Egyptian hieroglyphic wisdom. Due to this revival, renaissance writers continued to write and translate hieroglyphs to the standards set out by the Roman beliefs. This led to the first book, written in the sixteenth century by Pierius Valerianus, on hieroglyphs, being basically fictitious. This is because Valerianus took a narrow-minded view in his translations, taking his cue directly from Hor-Apollo’s incorrect translations and not even attempting to look at them in any other way. Though, I must add even in the sixteenth century, they could be seen as obviously flawed as they accounted for little in the actual translations of texts. Valerianus’ writings are in direct contradiction to Hoijer’s idea that the writers are influenced only by their beliefs. This is evident because it was Roman influence that renaissance writers based their works on, if Hoijer was correct then Valerianus’ work would not have taken much, if any cue from Hor-Apollo, but more from his own culture and teachings. This point is also conveyed by Sacks, who demonstrates the limitations of the sixteenth century interpretations. Sacks assesses that because the translations of text were flawed and made no logical sense, classical scholars continued to believe long after the time of the Romans, that hieroglyphs were nothing more than riddles and enchantments.
Scholars and philosophers continued to attempt to translate the hieroglyphs as they believed they would find ancient wisdom and long-forgotten truths. Wilson assesses that spiritual and religious scholars wished to find confirmation of biblical stories and some proof of the existence of figures such as Abraham, Joseph and Moses. This is another example of how the writing of history affected the understandings of hieroglyphs. In this case, the religious scholars were taking their experience of the Bible and religious areas, and trying to link it to the translation of the hieroglyphs. This was mainly because of the writings in the Bible illustrating the land and culture of the Egyptians, so they alleged that the Bible would be confirmed by the ancient script. Wilson is therefore acknowledging that the understandings were based on both ideas of influence: the writers and the cultures and experiences of society and individuals.
In the late seventeenth century, the Coptic language was revived and would later be essential in the deciphering of the hieroglyphs. But scholars were still under the impression that the writing of Hor-Apollo and Valerianus held the key to translating the hieroglyphs. In the renaissance, scholars were interested in Egypt and were anxious to discover the meaning of the hieroglyphic writing. The Jesuit, Kircher, was the best known of these pioneers. Kircher outlined that Egyptian hieroglyphics for the most part, only expressed ideas, rather than sounds and ideas. Due to this misinterpretation, Champollion was still possessed by this idea in the nineteenth century. In the mid seventeenth century, Athanasius translated a cartouche for a priest and came out with a long rambling paragraph, however the cartouche really only read the name ‘Psamtik’ spelt phonetically. This mistake is an example of how the ideas and experiences of others have caused a distortion in finding the truth and what is thought of as the truth.
Robinson evaluates that it was only later that the enlightenment made by the revival of the Coptic language brought about questions of the classical views of the hieroglyphs. Though the views did start to be questioned by the few, the original views were still held by the majority. It was the few who made progress towards the actual deciphering of the hieroglyphics. This shows progress could only be made by those who took a more impartial view over their work. As in the writing of history, scholars cannot create a reasonable view of the truth without looking at all the evidence; the academics on the path to decipherment had to do the same to find progress to a true understanding. For instance, Barthélemy discovered that the cartouches contained the names of pharaohs only by looking outside society’s understandings and beliefs drawn from Hor-Apollo’s writings. However it was Zoëga who finally commented that some hieroglyphs might be phonetic signs. This was only because, unlike other academics, Zoëga thought more on his own terms, rather than further illustrating the writings of others, this independence of thought further contradicts the idea that it was only culture and experience that led to a misguided understanding.
Napoleon Bonaparte played a large role leading up to decipherment. When he traveled to Egypt he took with him a large number of scholars. These scholars studied and measured every site and every visible monument, finally publishing their findings in ‘La Description de l’Egypt’. However the influence of past work in the decipherment of hieroglyphs prevented them from deciphering the elements they studied. Scholars in the case of the Rosetta stone immediately concluded that the inscription was wholly non-phonetic, its symbols expressing ideas in the manner of Hor-Apollo. This demonstrates that even in the early eighteen hundreds, scholars were bound by the words of Hor-Apollo.
In the mid-seventeenth century, certain European scholars theorized that Egyptian hieroglyphs were the source of inspiration for the ancient Hebrew letters. This was because of their need to find a source for their own studies and a desire to inflate the importance of these studies by linking them to the ever mysterious hieroglyphs. The wants and needs of these scholars show that in research and writing of history and historical elements, writers write for their own needs and desires, rather than looking at the full picture. This reiterates Crawford’s explanation for writing history. There was no real evidence that backed up their theory, but only small insignificant links that could have applied to a large number of scripts. Therefore, the decipherment of hieroglyphics in 1823 didn’t agree with their theory, for the two scripts were shown to work on completely different principles. None the less, the scholars were convinced for some time that their theory was correct because they were influenced by the mysterious and fantastic mystery behind the hieroglyphs, again showing that ideas of understanding are influenced by both writings and experiences.
Parkinson outlines that, in the decipherment efforts in the early nineteenth century, it was seen that there was a difference between the hieroglyphic and the Egyptian Demotic writings found on the Rosetta stone. With the weight of the renaissance tradition concerning Egyptian hieroglyphs, scholars were convinced that the invisible principles of operation of the two scripts were completely different. This, however, was later proven untrue, but the scholars could not see past the understandings of yesteryear. It was Thomas Young who first noted what he called a ‘striking resemblance’ between some demotic symbols and the ‘corresponding hieroglyphs’, he noted that ‘none of these characters could be reconciled, without inconceivable violence, to the forms of any imaginable alphabet’. Young put a step forward in right direction but came unstuck as the spell of Hor-Apollo’s writings was too strong. The influence of the early work of Hor-Apollo and Young’s experience and teachings, made Young unable to accept anything but that all hieroglyphs (apart from foreign names) were non-phonetic.
Even Jean-Francois Champollion, the final decipherer of the hieroglyphic script, at first continued to believe that the hieroglyphs were entirely non-phonetic. Champollion was not only influenced by Hor-Apollo and other past historians and translators, but also by the scholars of his own time. He was mostly influenced by Young’s work. Unlike Young, Champollion had an originality and rigour, which was based on a knowledge of Egypt and its languages far superior to his predecessors. This was a key component in translating the hieroglyphs, as it allowed Champollion to look at a far bigger picture, yet he was still caught in the webs of disinformation from the past. Robinson outlines that the early efforts of Champollion in 1822 were based on the premise that non-Egyptian names and words in both demotic and hieroglyphic were spelt alphabetically.
Champollion did not expect that this decipherment would apply to the entire hieroglyphic system. The idea dating back from the classical times, that hieroglyphics for the most part only expressed ideas, rather than sounds and ideas, still possessed Champollion’s mind. Champollion was also greatly possessed by the work of Kircher, therefore his progress was impaired because he did not want to even think of challenging the work of these writers who were said to be educated in the true values of the hieroglyphs, though this was not true.
Adkins evaluates that Champollion, though for unknown reasons, later changed his mind about the phonetic issues with hieroglyphs, this was most likely due to yet another outside influence. A French scholar of the Chinese language suggested that there were phonetic elements even in the indigenous spellings of the Chinese script with its thousands of characters. This outside influence, though not directed at hieroglyphics, could have made Champollion wonder whether the same philosophy could be assumed for deciphering Egyptian Hieroglyphics.
Champollion also realized that among the one thousand four hundred and nineteen signs in hieroglyphs on the Rosetta stone it contained only sixty-six different signs. Through his understanding of languages and his experience and teachings of them, Champollion grasped an understanding of hieroglyphs never before realized. His experience told him that if the signs were truly and only semantic symbols, there would logically expected to be more than sixty six signs on the Rosetta stone, each one representing a different word as they would have been logograms. It was only through Champollion’s change of mind that we today understand the true nature of hieroglyphics, that the writing system is a mixture of semantic symbols, phonetic signs, phonograms and pictograms.
The understanding of the Egyptian hieroglyphs has been influenced greatly by misguided writings and explanations. It is only through evaluation of these influences that we can grasp an idea of how the writings have influenced and changed that understanding. Though scholars have varying views on these influences, whether they believe that understanding was based on writings, culture and experiences, or solely on culture and distorted views, we see that understanding has indeed changed throughout time. It has evolved from a misguided, narrow-minded view, to one only achieved by people thinking outside society’s understandings.
Adkins, L and R. (2001), The Keys of Egypt, Harper Collins, London, pp. 1-12, 34-35, 37-43, 63, 82
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Parkinson, R., Cracking Codes: The Rosetta Stone and Decipherment (London, 1999)
Parkinson, R.B., The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640BC (New York, 1998)
Parkinson, R.B., Voices From Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Middle Kingdom Writings (London, 1991)
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Pontius Pilate asked ‘What is truth?’ Both Christians and Jews viewed themselves as the portrayers of truth; The Romans viewed both as conveyers of false religion. But how and why did the Christians differentiate themselves from Jews in the second and third centuries and how did the Romans distinguish the Christians and the Jews from each other? This essay will explore the how these groups were differentiated and distinguished in this period and what implications the Roman perspective has for the way we view the relationship between Christians and Jews.
In order to assess how and why Christians differentiated themselves from Jews in the second and third centuries it is necessary to explore texts by Christian writers in this period. Unfortunately there is a limited corpus of texts available from the second and third centuries. Despite this, the words of writers such as Aristides, Tertullian, Ignatius and Justin give us some understanding of the differentiation made and why they were distinguished by the Christians. Regardless of which group is being referred to, the overriding theme is prescription of correct practices.
In examining the Christian texts, one of the main points of differentiation relates to the concept of truth. The Christians saw themselves as the conveyors and students of truth and the Jews as a people who had erred from true knowledge. Aristides, a second century writer, asserts that the Christians have come nearer to truth and genuine knowledge than the rest of the nations and the Jews have strayed from truth and instead make observances to angels and not to God. Tertullian, writing from the end of the first century and into the second, in his Apology also makes this differentiation, explaining that with truth comes hatred of truth, Jews are strangers to the truth and hence Christians are the enemies.
The Christians also differentiated themselves from the Jews in terms of origins. Tertullian explains that the Christians traced the origins of their religion to the reign of Tiberius, from Jesus the ‘son of God.’ Aristides also expresses this in his Apology, saying that the Christians trace their religion to the Messiah. Aristides explains that this is a significant difference between the Jews and the Christians as the Jews trace their origins of their religion from Abraham, ‘who begat Isaac, of whom was born Jacob. And he begat twelve sons who migrated from Syria to Egypt; and there they were called the nation of the Hebrews, by him who made their laws; and at length they were named Jews…’ The Christians appear to be very determined, moving through the second and third centuries to express that there was little place in the Christian religion for Jewish laws and customs, this may be a significant reason why the Christians differentiated themselves in relation to origins. But Christian writers in most cases do not attempt to completely divorce themselves from origins from Abraham. Justin, for instance, asserts that Christians are the true spiritual descendants from Abraham; this terminology though still gives a distinct sense of differentiation between the Christians and the Jews.
Christian texts from the second and third centuries illustrate that customs and laws were also used as a basis for differentiation. Frend assesses that Christians saw themselves as the ‘true Jews’, ‘the true vine’, but rejected Jewish ceremonial law. It was the rejection of this claim by Jews and Romans alike that led to the Christian’s often precarious situation. One of the most evident of these differences is that of food laws. Barnabas lays out the food-laws of the Jews; “Ye shall not eat swine, nor an eagle, nor a hawk, nor a crow, nor any fish…” Jews were also distinguished often by their clothes and dwellings in a separate quarter of the urban community, distinctions that the Christians rejected explicitly. Aristides also outlines some of these distinctions; he explains that unlike the Christians, the Jews celebrate the beginning of months, feasts of unleavened bread and a great fast, and fasting and circumcision and the purification of meats. Tertullian again illustrates how the Christians differentiated themselves from Jews in this way, stating that ‘we neither accord with Jews in their peculiarities in regard to food…sacred days…bodily signs, nor in the possession of a common name;’ which he suggests surely the Christians would if their God and religion were the same. The Didache even lays out the situation in reference to fasting and how Christians should make a point of fasting on days which are not fasting days of Judaism, of ‘hypocrites.’
Justin Martyr wrote that the Jews ‘did not recognise Christ even when He came…He was crucified by them.’ In examining how the Christians distinguished themselves we see that many saw the Jews’ unrecognition of Jesus as Son of God as a key point. The Jews were seen as having rejected Christ and so were rejected by Christ. The rejection of Christ by the Jews is an important point when assessing why the Christians took the liberty to differentiate themselves from the Jews so explicitly. Aristides expressed that the Jews were the murderers of Jesus; pierced and crucified by them. Not only did the Jews reject the basis for the Christians origins but expressed it as blasphemy as Justin notes with Barchochebas, the leader of the Jewish revolt, who gave orders that Christians alone should be led to cruel punishments unless they would deny Jesus Christ and utter blasphemy.
Melito in relation to the Jews and their rejection of Christ appears to even accuse them of deicide. The Jews are said not to have understood that which their own prophets predicted and therefore did not recognise Christ when he did come and so in seeing Jesus treated him with contempt. In comparison, the Christians embraced him despite their lack of knowledge and prophecy. In the minds of the Christians the Jews had killed Christ which is probably why this accusation of deicide appears in the likes of Melito. It seems a fair assessment that this ideology of the Jews would have been a key factor in why the Christians wished to be defined apart from the Jews as they had rejected the saviour, especially since the Christians saw themselves as the chosen people, despite lacking the wealth and the antiquity of the Jews. Whether this rejection was out of ignorance or divine will is a subject which was debated and questioned even in the period under examination.
Throughout the majority of Christian texts addressing the Jewish religion a recurring theme of differentiation is the idea of old and new. For instance, Tertullian asserts that the Jews had false trust in their ‘noble ancestors’; and Ignatius advises in his letter to the Magnesians not to be led astray by ‘old fables’ and that the Jewish converts walked in ‘ancient customs’ where as the Christians walked in a ‘new hope’. The Christians did not have the antiquity that the Jews had and differentiated themselves through a sense of newness and regeneration. Barnabas illustrates this stating that he made us new by the remission of sins he made us ‘another type’, that we should have the soul of children, as though he were creating us afresh.” This idea of Christianity as new is also seen in the Roman texts but is seen in a different, more negative light. Ignatius in his letter to the Philadelphians expresses that in the end Christianity was seen by the Christians as the superior group and their teachings and religion was to be preferred before all others. The Jews were seen as the lesser group and should only relate to the Christian teachings to show the superiority of the Christians.
The question remains of how the Romans distinguished the Jews and the Christians in the second and third centuries. The Romans distinguished the Jews as a special people in contrast to other groups due to their imageless worship (ἀθεότης), refusal to participate in the traditional and their exclusiveness (ἀμιξία). This exclusiveness and separation from the rest of society was a key point of differentiation that the Romans made between the Christians and the Jews. The Jews kept to themselves whereas the Christians interacted with the rest of the community. Caecilius illustrates this, describing the Jews as a people who ‘skulk and shun the light of day, silent in pubic…the lonely and wretched race of the Jews…but the Christians! What marvels, what monsters to they feign!’ This indicates that the Jews were distinguished from the Christians as not only a separate group but as a people who purposely isolated themselves from society. Tacitus also expresses this idea of isolation, explaining that the Jews sit apart at meals, sleep apart and do not associate with strangers and foreigners. The exclusivity of the Jews seems to have been also a way that the groups were distinguished. Jews were exclusive, Christians were not.
There are unfortunately few pagan references to Christianity in the second century but from the few sources available it appears that Romans also distinguished the Christians from the Jews in relation to the idea of a third race the ‘genus tertium’, though this idea is often debated by modern scholarship. The Treatise Scorpiace, for instance, indicates that the designation of Christians as a third race was common in Carthage in the third century. This designation was made on the grounds of faith and is implicit of a distinction between the Jews and the Christians; the Romans being the first race, the Jews the second, and the Christians the third. Tertullian also refers to this distinction made by the Romans, stating ‘Tertium genus [dicimur] de ritu.’ This distinction of Ἕλληνες, Ἰουδαῖοι, and Γαλιλαῖοι is seen throughout literary evidence, both Christian and Roman, and appears to be a key way that the groups were distinguished by the Romans. This distinction is one that was made in relation to Roman society and is not to be confused with other ideas of race distinction based on locality which was also a common distinction in the period, as the Christians and the Jews were ‘genos’ based within the Roman populace.
The Christians differentiated themselves from the Jews in terms of presenting themselves as a new hope, a new faith. The Romans also made distinctions between Christians and Jews by distinguishing Christians as new. Benko explains that Christianity was seen as a new superstition that could not claim the sanction of antiquity like Judaism could. Even Tacitus who describes the Jews as ‘perverse and disgusting’ admits that ‘Jewish worship is vindicated by its antiquity.’ Christianity, like Judaism, was seen by the Romans as ‘perverse and disgusting’ but was distinguished by also being ‘foreign and new’ and therefore much worse than Judaism. Frend also asserts that in the second and third centuries the Jews needed not the introduction that the Christians did. This further suggests that the Romans distinguished the Jews and the Christians as old and new. The newness of Christianity and that Christians did not offer tangible substitute of loyalty to the Empire like the Jews did was regarded as proof of subversive intent. Saying this, Christianity was seen as a new thing but not necessarily as a new religion in itself but an invading one, new to society, and Christians were seen as people who had turned their backs on the traditions of their forefathers.
Literary sources also indicate that the Romans distinguished Christians and Jews in relation to physical attributes, for instance, circumcision and imagery. The pagan writer Tacitus shows this distinction by asserting that the Jews adopted circumcision as a mark of difference from other men. A difference between the Jews and the Christians that the Romans also exhibited knowledge of was the idea of imagery and idolatry that was practiced by the Christians but not by the Jews. Tacitus again alludes to this distinction, stating that the Jews ‘do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples.’ This indicates that the Romans, not unlike the Christians, made distinctions between the two groups on a basis of customs as well as beliefs.
The Romans also distinguished Christians from Jews as they regarded Judaism as a genuine faith and Christianity as a subversive counterfeit. This, along with the distinction of old and new, relates significantly to the large number of stories about the Christians which contributed to the distinctions made. Tertullian shows this distinction through accusations that the Christians killed children as part of holy rites, practiced incest and impious lusts. He explains that this was the type of thing that Christians had long been accused of and that no pains had been taken on the part of the Romans to elicit the truth of the accusations. Frend also alludes to Octavius 150-160 which distinguishes the Christians as users of black magic, initiators of scandal and Bacchanalianism. Suetonius also accuses Christians of using magic and introducing a new and dangerous superstition. This is indicative of one means of distinction used by the Romans. The Jews do not seem to be subject to such explicit accusations in this period as they were regarded as a genuine faith; the Christians on the other hand were distinguished as a superstitio through rumours and ideas created through distinct lack of knowledge.
The majority of points of distinction made by the Romans are of a particularly negative nature during this period, especially in regards to the Christians, who they regarded as new and dangerous. Examination of some texts though illustrates namely two things; firstly that little was known about the Christians and so many distinctions were made in relation to rumours or other groups such as the Jews, and secondly that in this period there appears to have been a sense of leniency towards the Christians that distinguished them from the Jews on behalf of the Romans. For instance, under Hadrian in the second century the Roman imperial powers appear to have made a distinction in favour of the Christians. Granianus thought it unjust to kill Christians without accusation or trial, to appease popular clamour. Hadrian wrote back saying that petitions and popular accusations should not be recognised. In light of the suppression of Jews in Asia Minor at the time this presents a distinction lenient to the Christians, despite Hadrian leaving the general question of Christianity rather vague. It also expresses that while popular view was that Christians were a threat, Roman imperial powers saw them more as just a nuisance.
This sense of distinction is also seen in Pliny and Trajan’s correspondence. These letters display a lack of knowledge in regards to the Christians and a leniency by imperial powers. Pliny shows this lack of knowledge, stating that he does ‘not know what offenses it is practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent.’ Whether it is the name itself, even without offenses or only the offenses associated with the name that are to be punished.’ Pliny and Trajan do not appear to believe that Christians constituted a threat to the security of the State, though popular belief was that Christians detracted from the unified empire. Trajan almost seems tolerant and tells Pliny that Christians aren’t to be hunted but if denounced put to trial. The Roman perspective in many cases appears to be that the Christians were not a religious problem but one of disloyalty where as the Jews still paid their due to the Empire. This suggests that the rulers were mostly acting on the demands of the pagan majority and common opinion. In a period where the Jews were revolting and causing extensive problems, these ideas indicate a differentiation between groups.
The list of ways that the Romans distinguished Jews and Christians is diverse and variable throughout time and localities, so what is discussed above is a collection of some of the most widely spread and explicit ideas. The way that the Romans saw the Jews and the Christians in the second and third centuries cannot be fully recognised in the present day, even when one attempts to fully explore these ideas and the branches of information and ideologies that spring from them. Like the modern scholar, the writings of the second and third centuries were greatly hampered by bias and influence, and this again makes it difficult to assess how and why differentiations were made. In order to create a better picture of how and why, a more extensive study needs to be made than is possible here.
The Roman perspective that we can reproduce from texts does have a variety of implications on the way we view the relationship between Christians and Jews in this period. At first thought one might think that the Jews and Christians were both groups separate from Roman society and so understood each other’s predicaments. This is the kind of idea the Roman perspective often implies. There is the distinction of races; Romans as the first, Jews as the second and Christians as the third; despite this being a somewhat clear distinction by the Romans, the idea remains of there being the Romans and then the others. The implication here is that the relationship between the Jews and the Christians was not a bad one, as they both fell into the category of degraded foreign cults. Other distinctions though are implicit of bad relations between Jews and Christians. The distinction of old and new which is often imposed by the Romans has the implication that we view the relationship between Christians and Jews in this period on those terms, as a contest between old Israel and the new.
As you can see, there are several ways that the relationship between Christians and Jews in this period can be viewed. This is particularly influenced by whether one is looking at the Roman perspective as seen through the eyes of the Romans or of the Christians and Jews. For instance, when looking at the Roman perspective of Christians in relation to accusations of magic, from the Roman writings we see mainly ignorance and rumour; but from looking at the Roman perspective from Christian writings we see an accusation of spreading rumours and hatred, accusations spread by the Jews to downsize and hurt the Christians, displaying a very negative relationship. When looking at Roman writings, the implication is that we look onto the relationship between Jews and Christians with a limited knowledge and habit of distinguishing groups only to a certain point. When looking at the Roman perspective from Christian and Jewish texts, the way we view the relationship is fairly different, more severe and distinct but is influenced by the perspective of the groups in question themselves. The Roman perspective in general implies a sense of ignorance or subjective thought in the way we view the relationship between Jews and Christians.
The Christians differentiated themselves explicitly from the Jews in the second and third centuries as can be seen in numerous Christian texts from the period. This was done in relation to differences in customs, ideologies and philosophies such as origins, physical differences like circumcision and the idea of truth. This differentiation was made based on ideas of competition and rivalry of old and new as well as clashes in ideology. The Romans also took time to distinguish them on the basis of antiquity, origins, customs and accusation and this Roman perspective, which is seen in Roman, Christian and Jewish texts, has implications on how we view the relationship between Christians and Jews as the Roman perspective presents a different picture of the relationship than the Christian and Jewish perspectives and is generally a more available perspective due to the limitations of sources.
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Barnabas, Epistle of Barnabas, from: Apostolic Fathers, Kirsopp Lake, (Loeb Classical Library) (1912)
Caecilius (in Minut. Felix, viii. f.), [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/harnack/mission.iv.viii.html]
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Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, trans. J. E. L. Oulton, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass. 1932)
Ignatius, The Letter to the Magnesians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm]
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Josephus, trans H. St. J. Thackeray et al., Loeb Classical Library, Vols 1-10 (Cambridge, Mass, 1926)
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Melito, From the Discourse on Soul and Body (Trans. Roberts-Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/melito.html]
Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html])
Polycarp, The Epistle of Polycarp (Trans. Lightfoot, J.B.,) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/polycarp-lightfoot.html]
Tacitus, The Histories [http://www.novaroma.org/camenaeum/tacitus5.html]
Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian08.html]
Tertullian, Apology (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html]
Tertullian, Scorpiace (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0318.htm]
The Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna (Trans. Hoole, C.H., (1885))
 Aristides, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher, (Trans. From the Syriac Version, by Kay, D.M., University of Edinburgh) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/aristides-kay.html] Chapter XV
 Tertullian, Apology (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/tertullian01.html] Chapter 7
 Ibid., Chapter 7
 Aristides, op.cit., Apology
 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-dialoguetrypho.html]
 Frend, W.H.C., Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford, 1967), p.130
 Ibid., p.130
 Barnabas, Epistle of Barnabas, from: Apostolic Fathers, Kirsopp Lake, (Loeb Classical Library) (1912), Chapter 10 – the food-law of the Jews
 Frend, op.cit., p.146
 Aristides, op.cit., Apology
 Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 21
 Diadache (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/didache-roberts.html] 8:1
 Justin Martyr, The First Apology of Justin (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/justinmartyr-firstapology.html] Chapter 36
 Aristides, op.cit., Apology
 Justin, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 31
 Melito, From the Discourse on Soul and Body (Trans. Roberts-Donaldson) [http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/melito.html] II 224-44
 Justin, Apology, op.cit., Chapter XLIX
 Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 21 and Ignatius, The Letter to the Magnesians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm] 8.1 and 9.1-2
 Barnabas, op.cit., 6.11
 Ignatius, The Letter to the Philadelphians (Trans. Roberts and Donaldson) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0108.htm]
 Caecilius (in Minut. Felix, viii. f.), [http://www.ccel.org/ccel/harnack/mission.iv.viii.html]
 Tertullian, Scorpiace (Trans. Rev. Thelwall, S., (Canterbury)) [http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0318.htm] x.: a word to heretics who shunned martyrdom
 Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., I.xx
 Benko, S., Pagan and the Early Christians (London, 1984), p.21
 Ibid., p.22
 Ibid., p.22
 Frend, op.cit., p.192
 Tacitus, op.cit., Book 5
 Tacitus, op.cit., Book 5
 Frend, op.cit., p.208
 Tertullian, Apology, op.cit., Chapter 7
 Frend, op.cit., p.187
 Ibid., p.124
 Ibid., p.169
 Ibid., p.168
 Pliny, Letters, Book X, 96-97 (Trans. Melmoth, W., Harvard Classics Series, reproduced from: Internet Medieval Source-Book, ed. P.Halsall [www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html]) Book X, 96
 Sordi, M., The Christians and the Roman Empire (London, 1986), p.58
 Trajan in Pliny, op.cit., Book X, 97
 Benko, op.cit., p.21
 Frend, op.cit., p.133