Britain’s First Jew Was a Woman

Jewish Roman family

And Her Name Was Pomponia Graecina

The following excerpt is taken from Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Donald N. Yates, The Early Jews and Muslims of England and Wales:  A Genetic and Genealogical History (forthcoming Summer 2013 from McFarland & Co. Publishers).

If Roman Britain had cities, and we know it did, there were Jews in them. In fact, we have a tantalizing record of what may be the first British Jew. Pomponia Graecina was the aristocratic wife of the conqueror of Britain, the commander Aulus Plautius, who defeated the sons of Cunobelinus (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline), seized the Celtic or Belgic capital of Camulodunum (Colchester) in Essex and secured the conquest of Britain for the emperor Claudius in 43 ce. Plautius became the first governor of the new colony. It is reasonable to think his wife lived with him during his governorship (43-47).

Ten years later, Pomponia Graecina was put on trial in Rome for a crime of character described as a “foreign superstition.” She was a member of the imperial Julio-Claudian family. The same charge was brought about the same time against Poppaea, the future wife of Nero. Poppaea was rumored to be privately a Jewish convert and to favor Jews.[i] Although many commentators and fiction writers believe Pomponia Graecina’s crime was the practice of Christianity, in the year 57 this would have been extremely unlikely. There were at that time very few Christians anywhere outside of Galilee. The apostles Peter and Paul were not yet dead. No Gospels had been set down in writing yet. In Rome Christians were a rarity far into the second century. They were so exotic even in the East that around 112 ce Pliny the Younger, then governor of Pontus and Bithynia, wrote the emperor Trajan for advice on how to identify and deal with them.[ii]

The Christian epigrapher Giovanni Battista de Rossi in 1879 associated Pomponia with family members buried in the catacombs of St. Callistus in the third century. She was gradually transformed into the apocryphal St. Lucina, even figuring in the historical novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz, Quo Vadis. But a gap of over a hundred and fifty years seriously weakens de Rossi’s theory. Sand identifies Pomponia Graecina as a Jewish convert, not a Christian.[iii]  She survived her husband by twenty years and died about 83 ce.

Christianity struggled for several centuries to differentiate and distance itself from Judaism. Many of Britain’s Jews around 300 were undoubtedly “semi-converts—people who formed broad peripheries around the Jewish community, took part in its ceremonies, attended the synagogues, but did not keep all the commandments.”[iv] After the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in 313, some Jews and “semi-Jews” presented themselves publicly as Christian, while thinking of themselves and their ancestors as still wholly Jewish. Sometimes families were divided in their allegiances. Timothy of the New Testament had a Jewish grandmother, Lois, and Jewish mother, Eunice, but a Greek father. When Timothy converted to Christianity in his native Anatolia, the apostle Paul performed a ceremony of circumcision on him (Acts 16:1-3). Most of Christianity’s early converts came from Jews. Paul made a habit of preaching in synagogues.

As the Christianization of the Roman Empire accelerated during the fourth century, circumcision was forbidden to males who were not born Jews, the practice of converting one’s slaves to Judaism or of owning Christian slaves was proscribed, Jewish women who were not born Jewish were barred from ritual baths and Jewish men of all persuasions were outlawed from marrying Christian women.[v] Endogamy—marrying cousins and other close relations—became ingrained among Jews attempting to hold themselves apart from Christians. All these developments tended to make secret Jews out of people who defiantly regarded themselves as Jewish and honored the commandments of Judaism to varying degrees, often without benefit of a rabbi, community, synagogue or Torah. It was not until the eleventh century that the Hebrew language was introduced to Europe, and its dissemination was spotty. Moreover, that Hebrew was no product of an autochthonous linguistic development, but the artificial creation of Jewish scholars.[vi] In the rift, which covered most of the Middle Ages, the vast majority of European Jews were totally ignorant of Hebrew and were probably also not acquainted with rabbinical Judaism as it took shape in Judea and Western Asia.

Christianity’s final triumph put an end to all proselytizing by Jews “and perhaps also prompted the desire to erase it from Jewish history.”[vii] In the centuries that followed, especially after the rise of Islam, rabbis and other keepers of the collective memory were pained by the apostasy of the Jewish people on such a continuingly large scale. They sought to deny what was obvious, considering anyone who gave up their Jewishness “dead.” “Zionist historiography . . . [turned] its back on any meaningful discussion of the issue,” writes Sand. “Abandoning the Jewish religion was generally interpreted by modern sensibilities as betraying the ‘nation,’ and was best forgotten.”[viii]

Photo:  A Roman crypto-Jewish family. Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum.


[i] Josephus, Ant. Iud. XX.viii.11, p. 423.

[ii] Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96-97.

[iii] Sand 171.

[iv] Ibid 171-72.

[v] Ibid 177.

[vi] “During the first millennium ce, Jewish believers in Europe knew no Hebrew or Aramaic” (ibid 208). It remained for the twentieth century to “revive” Hebrew as a living language.

[vii] Ibid 174.

[viii] Ibid 182.

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