The word "diaspora" is a transliteration of the Greek word διασπορά "dispersion." In historical writing the word is used to designate the diffusion of Jews through the Greek and Roman world in the Hellenistic and early Christian eras. This diffusion is here treated in its origin and extent, and in its influences on Judaism and early Christianity.
Origin and Extent. The diffusion of the people of Israel outside Palestine began late in the eighth century b.c. When the northern kingdom, Israel, was destroyed by the Assyrians (734–721 b.c.) and its territory incorporated into the Assyrian empire, much of the population was deported to other parts of the empire. These, "the Lost Ten Tribes" of popular tradition, lost their distinct ethnic and religious identity by assimilation with the foreign peoples among whom they lived. Similar removals were made from Judah in the Babylonian campaigns that ended that kingdom (598–587 b.c.). There were migrations, voluntary or forced, to other regions, especially to Egypt; a Jewish military colony was stationed under Persian rule at the frontier post of Elephantine on the Nile (near the modern Aswan) before 525 b.c. A migration to Egypt is related in Jeremia, ch. 42 to 43. The colony from Juda in Babylon, however, was the most notable and historically significant group of exiles; it retained its ethnic and religious identity, and when the Persians conquered Babylon in 539 b.c., it furnished wealth and people for the restoration in Palestine. The Babylonian community was also largely responsible for the beginning of the collection of sacred books that became the Old Testament.
The conquest of the Persian empire by Alexander (d. 323 b.c.) effected a cultural revolution in the Near East. Along with Greek rule, Greek culture flooded the area. A great development of trade and commerce resulted, and migration was encouraged in the kingdoms of Alexander's successors. In this movement the Jews were very active. There is no history of their migrations, but under the Ptolemies Jews could easily migrate to Egypt, and many Jewish communities appear by the end of the 1st century b.c. in Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Italy. In Acts 2.9–10, Jews who are Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Cyrene, Rome, Crete, and Arabia are mentioned. The largest Jewish centers of the Diaspora were in Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, the three largest cities of the Roman Empire. Jews probably did not reach Antioch before 150 b.c., and Rome later. Alexandria's Jewish population was the largest, richest, and most influential. They dwelt in their own quarter and enjoyed municipal autonomy under their own ethnarch. The number of Jews of the Diaspora is estimated in the millions, possibly 8 to 10 per cent of the Roman Empire's population.
Influences on Judaism and Early Christianity. Jews of the Diaspora were much more open to Greek culture than the Palestinian Jews. They spoke Greek, and only a few were acquainted with Hebrew or Aramaic. They often had Greek names or deliberately altered a Hebrew name to an assonant Greek name (Joshua-Jason, Eliakim-Alcimus). Most of them were engaged in trade and the crafts, in many cases having migrated because of better opportunities presented in the Hellenistic cities. As a group they had a higher income than Palestinian Jews. Their commercial importance normally brought them privileges from royal and local governments. Their position at Alexandria was better than that of the natives. Because of their religious scruples about military emblems, which they considered idols, the Romans exempted them from military service. When the Romans began to extend Roman citizenship throughout the empire, Paul was one of many Jews who acquired it.
Because they lived surrounded by Greek culture, the Hellenistic Jews did not exhibit as much hostility to it as was shown by Pharisaic Judaism. As a result, Alexandria, the great center of Greek scholarship, also became a center of Jewish Hellenistic learning. The Jews of Alexandria very likely produced the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, and thus performed a work of incalculable importance for Christianity. Scholars and authors appeared among them, of whom philo Judaeus is the most renowned.
In spite of immersion in Greek civilization, Jews looked to Palestine for spiritual leadership. Their contributions were essential for support of the temple and the priests. A network of communications knit them with Jerusalem and with each other; thus, the exiles remained solidly Jewish. Since sacrifice could be offered only in Jerusalem, the synagogue was instituted by the Diaspora and spread into Palestine itself. Through synagogical worship Judaism survived after Jerusalem, its spiritual home, was destroyed. The network of synagogues was a path for Paul on his missionary journeys.
Among the Disapora anti-Judaism first appeared. The exclusiveness of Jews, their prosperity and privileges, aroused a harsh xenophobia in many great cities. Anti-Jewish riots occurred at Antioch, Alexandria, and Caesarea, and charges were frequently laid against them in courts. At Alexandria a nearly perpetual feud developed into a brief but genuine persecution under Caligula; a Jewish delegation headed by Philo presented the Jewish case at Rome, but Caligula's assassination ended his oppressive measures. Jews were expelled from Rome more than once, and elsewhere their privileges were temporarily revoked. Anti-Jewish prejudice was expressed by such figures of Roman literature as Cicero, Seneca, Persius, Quintilian, Statius, Juvenal, and Tacitus. Flavius Josephus composed an apology for Judaism in response to an attack by a certain Apion.
Bibliography: w. o. e. oesterley, The Jews and Judaism During the Greek Period (New York 1941). s. w. baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 8 v. (2d ed. rev. and enl. New York 1952). e. schÜrer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Christ, 5 v. (Edinburgh 1897–98).
[j. l. mckenzie]