The Jewish Diaspora

Exile is punishment. Eretz Yisrael is redemption.  Traditional Jewish
thought from the time of the post-exilic prophets adopted this simple
formula as the basic understanding of the flow of Jewish history. The Land
of Israel represented not only the physical homeland, but also was
understood as the territorial stage upon which the ultimate messianic drama
would some day be performed.  Conversely,  traditional Jewish thought
defined exile as the result of divine punishment on a disobedient nation.
However, the religious-philosophical construct of Exile did not prevent
Jews from choosing to live outside of the Land of Israel. The Jewish
Dispersion, or Diaspora, coexisted alongside the Jewish center in Eretz
Yisrael throughout the Second Temple Period.

In a historical sense, a differentiation is made between Exile and
Diaspora. Exile relates to a situation of forced expulsion, of a condition
where the majority of the nation resides outside the historic homeland as a
result of external oppression. Diaspora, from the Greek word for
dispersion, relates to the Jewish communities who exercise their free
choice to reside outside of the Land of Israel. Exile refers to a situation
where the nation no longer possesses any form of self-rule in it's
territorial residence. Diaspora refers to those Jewish communities outside
of the Land of Israel in relation to a living center. (For example, see the
two separate articles in the Encyclopedia Judaica enlarging on the
differences between "Galut" and "Diaspora.")

The Jewish communities outside of the Land of Israel during the Second
Temple period were concentrated in the Hellenistic-Roman world surrounding
the Mediterranean basin. They are mentioned by Josephus, and the route of
Paul-Saul of Tarsus brought him into contact with the major centers of
Mediterranean Jewry in the second half of the First Century CE.  Babylon,
from the time of the first destruction of Jerusalem, was home to the major
Jewish community beyond the Greco-Roman sphere of influence.  The Hasmonean
and Herodian periods witnessed a dramatic growth of the world Jewish
population, partially due to the forced conversion policies of the
Hasmonean kings, and partially due to active Jewish outreach that
encouraged conversion.

However,  it is extremely difficult to ascertain the numerical size of the
Jewish world in ancient times.  Ancient writers, including of course,
Josephus, tend to exaggerate statistics.  For example,  Josephus estimates
Jewish fatalities at the fall of Jerusalem at 1,100,000! (The Jewish War.
VI, 429)  With reference to the Galilee, Josephus counts up to 204 Jewish
villages, each one with a population of no less than 15,000. (The Jewish
War. III, 46)  Based on contemporary mathematical models employed by
historians and archaeologists to estimate population,  Josephus' Jerusalem
contained an approximate population of 80,000. (Magen Broshi. "Estimating
the Population of Ancient Jerusalem." Biblical Archaeological Review. (Vol.
4, No. 2, June 1978). The most plausible estimate of the world Jewish
population on the eve of the Great Revolt is taken from a census of the
Roman Empire from the reign of Claudius (48 CE). The Claudian census
numbers 6,944,000 Jewish residents of the Empire, nearly 10% of the
Empire's total population. If the Jewish communities outside of the Roman
Empire are added, and most importantly Babylon, the Jewish population in
the First Century CE may have reached up to 8,000,000. In Eretz Yisrael
alone, there may have been as many as 2,500,000 Jews. (See "Population."
Encyclopedia Judaica.  Vol. 13). Even if the Claudian census is not exact,
the proportional size of the Jewish people within the Hellenistic-Roman
world was most significant. In addition, although Eretz Yisrael was the
focus of Jewish life, already at the time of the Great Revolt, the majority
of the Jewish people lived outside of Eretz Yisrael.

The Jewish communities of the Diaspora were largely urban. Alexandria,
according to Philo (Contra Flacum 43), boasted a Jewish population of over
1,000,000.  Probably founded in the early years of the Ptolemy dynasty, at
it's height, the Jewish community of Alexandria formed the  majority in at
least two out of the city's five major  neighborhoods. While the
Alexandrian Jews welcomed the Hellenistic influence, they also developed a
rich Jewish culture. Greek largely replaced Hebrew as the major language of
daily life. For the very first time,  the  Bible was translated, according
to Jewish legend during the reign of Ptolemy II (285-246 BCE). The
Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made the sacred text
accessible to the entire Greek world. For Hellenized Jews, who may have
been unable to understand the original Hebrew text, the Septuagint was a
crucial educational tool in preserving Jewish continuity.  The great
synagogue of Alexandria was an exquisite palatial basilica adorned with
gold.  Talmudic sources add "Whoever has not seen the synagogue of
Alexandria has never seen Jewish glory." According to the sources, the
synagogue was so massive that it was impossible for all of the worshippers
to hear the prayer leader. A red flag was waved by a sexton to alert
worshippers the proper time to answer the prayer leader with a resounding
"Amen" (Sukkah 51 B, Tosefta Sukkah 4). The red flag may have also been a
signal convenient for those congregation members whose ignorance of Hebrew
prevented them from following the service themselves.

Alexandria also produced bold attempts to meld Jewish Learning with Greek
philosophy.  Philo of Alexandria (20 BCE - 50 CE) grew up in on of
Alexandria's finest Jewish homes.  His works reveal his intimate knowledge
of classical Greek learning; both in philosophy and the sciences.
Stylistically, his Greek was impeccable. However, many scholars doubt
whether he knew Hebrew at all.  His works include legal expositions on the
Mosaic code, philosophical discussions on the nature of revelation and
creation, historical works, and textual analysis  of Biblical non-legal
materials. Like in the case of Josephus, the works of Philo were forgotten
by Jewish tradition. Ironically, it was the Christian Church who preserved
Philo's work.  Philo fathered a great radical tradition. Later figures like
Maimonides, Moses Mendelsohhn, and Hermann Cohen all followed in his
figurative footsteps in their attempts  to synthesize Jewish learning with
the great philosophical teachings of the non-Jewish world.

However,  the Jewish attempt to integrate the best of both the Jewish and
Hellenistic worlds was not always welcomed by the pagan majority of the
Hellenistic-Roman world. As discussed in Lecture #2,  Hellenistic culture
perceived of Judaism as a primitive, xenophobic cult. Hellenism, as it saw
itself as attempting to unite humanity under one political-cultural system,
perceived Judaism's insistence on Jewish national-religious particularity
as misanthropy. Antisemitism found some of it's earliest written documents
in the Hellenistic world. As early as the Third Century BCE, the Egyptian
historian, Manetho charged that the Jews were a leprous rabble without any
sense of shared humanity.  Lysimachus, the head librarian of the great
library at Alexandria, who lived in the First Century BCE, continued in the
tradition of Manetho. The basis of Jewish law, according to Lysimachus, is
disrespect and hatred for all Non-Jews. Among other Hellenistic anti-Jewish
polemics, it was stated that Non-Jews were not allowed to enter the Temple
in Jerusalem because human sacrifice was performed there. With the Roman
occupation of Egypt, the Ptolemaic Dynasty was made powerless.  The loss of
status among the Egyptian aristocracy, and their competition with the Jews
only added to tensions.

Around the Mediterranean, and even in Rome, Jewish communities took root
and flourished. As early as the Maccabean Revolt, Jewish envoys arrived in
Rome seeking political support against the Seleucids.  Waves of Jewish
merchants, slaves, prisoners of war, and emissaries strengthened the Jewish
community of Rome from the time of Pompey's conquest of Eretz Yisrael (63
BCE).  The Jewish population of Rome may have numbered in the tens of
thousands by the reign of Augustus. Twelve synagogue sites, and six burial
sites have been identified in Rome dating from the first centuries BCE and

In Babylon, from 120 BCE, under the Parthian Empire, the ancient Jewish
community continued to flourish. Little evidence, however,  remains from
this period.  According to Josephus, the Babylonian  Jewish  community,
although numerous and powerful, played no role in the Great Revolt.

In 114 CE, still reeling from the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome, and
rocked by Jewish messianic expectations, the Jews of Alexandria, Cyrene,
and Cyprus rose in revolt against Rome. The Diaspora revolt (114-117 CE)
spread across North Africa. It was not only a political struggle, but was
exacerbated by ongoing tensions between the Diaspora Jewish communities and
their Greek-speaking pagan neighbors. Their crushing defeat in 117 CE left
the once magnificent Alexandrian community, and the communities of Cyrene
and Cyprus in smoldering ruin.