History: Diaspora – Second Temple Period

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During the period of the Second Temple, Jewish history was mainly concentrated in Ereẓ Israel. Whatever may or may not have been the relative population figures inside and outside the country, the main currents which were subsequently to shape the Jewish destiny were within that country. These included the development of the elaborate Temple ceremonial as the sentimental focus of the life of the Jew everywhere; the establishment of the biblical canon; the beginnings of regular instruction in the Torah; the development of the *Oral Law and of the activities of the rabbis; the first elements of the liturgy; the national resurgence centering on the Hasmonean revolt; the development, if not the origin, of the *synagogue; and the evolution of Jewish sects and the triumph among these of the Pharisees. In comparison with all this, Jewish life outside Ereẓ Israel was anemic and unimportant. Indeed, we do not know at this period of any contribution to Judaism in its fundamental sense which was not a product of Ereẓ Israel.

On the other hand, it would be erroneous to imagine that the Jewish people were at this time concentrated in Ereẓ Israel. From the period of the Babylonian captivity there had been a considerable center in Mesopotamia (Babylonia), not all of whom by any means had returned to Ereẓ Israel in the Persian period. Of their history during the Second Temple period there is only sporadic information, but enough to make it certain that there remained in this area a solid Jewish nucleus, closely attached to Ereẓ Israel sentimentally and sometimes displaying an independent political cohesion and activity as evidenced in the first century. Whether deriving from Mesopotamia or from Ereẓ Israel, Jewish settlements were thick in *Asia Minor. There had been a Jewish settlement in Egypt from the days of the last pharaohs, which left its vestiges in the Jewish military colony in *Elephantine in the fifth century b.c.e. After the Greek occupation of Egypt in 333 b.c.e. there was a considerable Jewish colony, ultimately Greek-speaking and with Hellenic aspirations, settled in the Delta and especially in *Alexandria, which produced its finest flower in the philosopher *Philo: this extended along the coast westward, so that at least from the second century b.c.e. there was an important outpost in *Cyrene. Inscriptions show that there was a Jewish settlement in *Greece from the second century b.c.e. and the Acts of the Apostles demonstrate its importance in the generation before the fall of Jerusalem in 70. In *Italy, particularly in Rome, there was some infiltration as early as the second century b.c.e., which thereafter knew no interruption: and there is evidence too of the presence of Jews shortly after this period in *Spain, Gaul, (see *France), and other Roman provinces. That these settlements were profoundly influenced by the vicissitudes and experiences of the Jewish nucleus in Ereẓ Israel is obvious. There is some slight evidence of Jewish propaganda in Rome in the wake of the Hasmonean revolt, and the war of 66–70 had dramatic repercussions in Egypt and Cyrene at least. But it is only after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 that it is possible to think of Jewish history outside Ereẓ Israel in terms of the Diaspora communities.

[Cecil Roth]

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History: Diaspora – Second Temple Period

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