Diaspora

A technical term for Jewish communities outside Palestine from about 100 b.c. to a.d. 100; the Greek word thus transliterated means “dispersion.” Settlements of Hebrews outside the Holy Land began with the deportations to Assyria and Babylonia in the eighth-to-sixth centuries b.c., and later migrations to Egypt from about 525 b.c. The Jewish communities in Babylon and Alexandria became large and prosperous, and further migration led to the establishment of settlements in major cities throughout the Roman Empire as well as the East. During NT times, it is estimated, Jews represented eight to ten percent of the population of the Roman Empire. Synagogues of the Dispersion served as centers of the early Christian mission. The word occurs three times in the NT: once in the technical sense (John 7:35) and twice as a symbolic description of Christians (James 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1).


b

DIASPORA dī ăs’ pər rə (διάσπορα, scattered). The scattering of the Jews beyond the boundaries of Pal.

The term.

Diaspora in Gr. was generally equivalent to the Heb. golah and has come into Eng. as “dispersion.” There was, however, a distinction between the Gr. term which meant “scattered” and the Heb. which meant “exiled.” “Diaspora” referred to a voluntary moving of the Jews to lands other than their own. It set them apart both from their kindred that remained at home and the strangers among whom the transplanted Jews lived in other lands. Golah referred to the Jews who were moved by force, as a result of war, exiled and sometimes imprisoned. The descendants of such exiles were a large part of the diaspora of NT times.

The Sibylline Oracles (c. 250 b.c.) noted concerning the scattering of the Jews: “Every land and every sea is full of thee.” By NT times it was estimated that more Jews lived outside of Pal. (perhaps as many as three to five million) than lived in the homeland.

The primary cause of the Diaspora was deportation of the Jews into exile by their enemies. The Assyrians took Jews from Samaria to the E in 722 b.c., and the Babylonians took some from Jerusalem as early as 586 b.c. Later Pompey took Jews to Rome as slaves.

The Jews, being an industrious people, also went voluntarily to other lands where the opportunities in business and trade were better. The increasing population in Pal. kept pressure on the people there to look elsewhere, esp. to the large cities in surrounding countries, for livelihood. These circumstances helped to create the people called the Diaspora.

Geographic areas.

Egypt had one of the largest, if not the largest, concentrations of Jewish people outside Pal. in NT times. The Jews of Egypt came close to producing a religious center to rival Jerusalem. It was from Egyp. sources that the LXX came. Whether the Egyp. or Mesopotamian settlement came first has been debated, but unquestionably the scattering of the Jews to the E was quite early. The two main Jewish centers in Mesopotamia were at Nehardea and Nisibis. Syria was said by Josephus to have had the largest percentage of Jewish inhabitants in his day. In Syria the Jews were primarily found at Antioch. There were thousands also at Damascus. Judas Maccabaeus and his brother Jonathan had brought settlements of Jews into the borders of Syria as a protection for Judea. The nearness of Syria to Pal. was enough to draw the enterprising Jews to its cities.

There is considerable evidence both inside and outside the NT for the presence of Jews in Greece and Asia Minor. Philo, the Alexandrian Jew, preserved a letter from Herod Agrippa I to the Emperor Caligula which besought him to grant religious and civic freedom to the Jews in Pamphylia, Cilicia, and a greater part of Asia Minor as far as Bithynia, also in Thessaly, Boetia, Macedonia and Corinth. The Jews seem primarily to have been in these areas because of trade opportunities. A major trade route ran through Cilicia to Syria and Pal. Other trade routes in Macedonia and Achaia collected Jews also. In addition to trade there is evidence that Antiochus III transferred to Asia 2,000 Jewish families that were loyal to him, to help insure peace.

Jews were dispersed throughout Italy. Cicero wrote of them with hate and fear (62 b.c.). Tiberius Caesar persecuted the Jewish settlement in Rome. Claudius Caesar sought to drive the Jews out of Rome and forbade their assembling in their synagogues. The Jews seem to have been in Rome even prior to the deportation of Pompey’s captives from Jerusalem (63 b.c.).

Jewish settlements populated the islands of the Mediterranean as well. The letter of Agrippa I to Caligula mentioned Cyprus and Crete as possessing Jews in considerable numbers. Cyprus seems to have been the home of Barnabas, and Titus was associated with Crete.

Paul found well-established synagogues throughout Asia Minor. This was true also in Macedonia and Achaia. Habitually, he began his work among his own people in each new location.

Characteristics.

In many lands the Jews were given places of trust and enjoyed social freedom. Often they were entrusted with military positions and, because of their loyalty, even commanded armies. They became high officials in government also.

Most Jewish settlements were autonomous in affairs that were strictly their own. In many places they had equal, or almost equal rights with the strangers among whom they lived. In religious affairs the Jews of the Diaspora were devoted to their ancestral faith. When persecution came upon the Jews away from Pal., it was nearly always because of some religious fanaticism, as it was judged by the authorities of the nations where they lived. Tiberius Caesar hated the Jews because he believed that the Jews considered their religion to be above all other religions.

In most instances the Jews of the Diaspora enjoyed freedom of religion. This seems to have been the policy of Antiochus III who moved the 2,000 Jewish families to Asia Minor. The Rom. government considered Judaism as religio licita, licensed religion. The Jews, therefore, did not have to appear in court on the Sabbath; and when public dole was made to the poor, no strange foods or oils were given to the Jews. If the day of public distribution fell on a Sabbath the Jews were permitted to draw their relief the next day. Although some Jews served in military forces with distinction, the Jews as a whole in Asia Minor were exempted from military service because of their peculiar food laws and Sabbath observance.

The scattered Jews maintained strong ties with Jerusalem and the Temple. Frequent pilgrimages were made to Jerusalem for the religious festivals. Gifts of money were sent regularly to the Temple. A half-shekel was expected from the Jews of the Diaspora, but no doubt many people sent much more. Nearly every country had a collection point where the gifts were gathered, awaiting the annual journey to Jerusalem. Mithridates, king of Pontus in Asia Minor confiscated 800 talents of silver on the island of Cos which the Jews had collected in Ionia for the Temple. Pomponius Flaccus, a Rom. governor of Asia Minor, confiscated on another occasion 100 gold pounds which had been gathered for the Temple from Apamea, Laodicea, Pergamum and Adramyttium. It was esp. the treasure from the Diaspora that made the Temple in Jerusalem rich and beautiful.

Some of the Jews of the Diaspora obtained Rom. citizenship. In the NT Paul would serve as an example. How Jews came by such citizenship is not known precisely. Paul apparently inherited his citizenship. Some, no doubt, were able to purchase Rom. citizenship. Other Jews were apparently rewarded with citizenship for distinguished military service to the Caesars.

Proselyting was another characteristic of the Jews outside Pal. Those Jews were propagandists of the first order and zealous missionaries. The tr. of the OT into Gr. had enabled them to communicate their religion to the people among whom they lived. The high ethical content and monotheism of Judaism combined to appeal to a considerable segment of the pagan world. God-fearers stood in large numbers on the fringe of Judaism while many other Gentiles entered fully into it.

Contributions.

If it had not been for the Diaspora, there would have been no LXX. In addition to the LXX the Diaspora produced the Targum, trs. and paraphrases of the OT into other dialects of the E, esp. Aram. The Diaspora also gave rise to a significant body of lit. Some scholars have included the OT books of Job and Proverbs as well as some of the Psalms in that lit. The principal literary contributions were, however, the Apoc. and Pseudep. It is thought also that the synogogue had its rise in the Diaspora.

Influence.

Jews in foreign lands were inevitably influenced by the cultural and religious environment that surrounded them. Many scholars have felt that angelology and demonology among the Jews were doctrines esp. indebted to the Diaspora. However that may be, it is unquestioned that there was a considerable effort made to adjust Judaism to the thought world of the Greeks, witness Philo of Alexandria who was a foremost leader in the Hellenizing process.

It may be that the seeds of Jewish legalism were sown in the Diaspora. In the times of captivity it was not possible to carry out the Levitical requirements of sacrificial worship. The concentration of the synagogue was, therefore, directed toward the letter of the law. After the return to Pal. the preoccupation with legal observance and interpretation continued in Pharisaism.

On the other hand, the Diaspora also had an influence in the direction of personal religion. The conviction of sin was quickened; personal piety grew; spiritual elements in religion were emphasized. A universal outlook, a cosmopolitan view, came to Judaism through the mixing and mingling of Jews with people of other heritages.

Significance.

The Diaspora was indispensable to the spread of Christianity. The Judaism of the scattered was much more open to change than was the religion of the homeland. The presence of communities of Jews across the Mediterranean world made it possible for early Christian missionaries to move quickly from one area to another, preaching a message for which the people of the synagogues had a basic preparation, not to mention the large number of Gentile God-fearers who were ready to hear the Gospel. The LXX was also invaluable to the spread of Christianity because it was the Scriptures of the early churches. The Messianic expectation of the Jews of the Diaspora had prepared to a certain extent the whole civilized world for the message of Christ.

Bibliography

A. Causse, Les Disperses D’ Israel (1929); H. W. Robinson, The History of Israel (1938); R. H. Pfeiffer, History of New Testament Times (1949); J. M. Wilkie, “Nabonidus and the Later Jewish Exiles,” JTS, II (1951), 36-44; A. Schalit, “The Letter of Antiochus III to Zeuxis Regarding the Establishment of Jewish Military Colonies in Phrygia and Lydia,” JQR, 50 (1951), 289-318; F. Zweig, “Israel and the Diaspora,” Judaism, VII (1958), 147-150; N. H. Snaith, The Jews from Cyrus to Herod (n.d.).

See also

  • Dispersion