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Jewish migration, antiquity

Migration A–Z

J

  1. Erich S. Gruen

Published Online: 4 FEB 2013

DOI: 10.1002/9781444351071.wbeghm327

The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration

The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration

How to Cite

Gruen, E. S. 2013. Jewish migration, antiquity. The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 4 FEB 2013

A Roman army destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ce. For the Jews of antiquity the loss of the Temple not only constituted a devastating blow but signaled an enduring trauma. It has often been thought that this event triggered the major migration of Jews throughout the Mediterranean and shaped the consciousness of the Jewish diaspora for centuries to follow. To focus on the consequences of the Temple's destruction, however, overlooks a fact of immense significance: Jewish migration had a long history prior to Rome's crushing of Jerusalem. The record of Jewish experience included the notorious “Babylonian captivity” in the 6th century bce, a serious dislocation from the homeland. Whatever the historicity of the alleged “Return” from that displacement, the migration was a fact, not to be reversed. Jews dwelled in Egypt in the 6th century, as papyri from a Jewish military colony at Elephantine reveal. And an archive of documents from Babylon attests to Jews in a variety of trades and professions there even after their supposed restoration to Judah.

1 Greek Conquests in the Late 4th Century bce: Dispersion and Mobility

  1. Top of page
  2. Greek Conquests in the Late 4th Century bce: Dispersion and Mobility
  3. Mobility in the Late 2nd Century bce
  4. Interpretations of Dispersal and the Role of Synagogues
  5. Diaspora and Jewish Societal Integration in the Hellenistic World
  6. Preserving Jewish Religious Traditions
  7. References and Further Reading

The pace quickened, however, and the scattering multiplied from the late 4th century. The conquests of Alexander the Great sent Greeks into the Near East in substantial numbers. The collapse of the Persian empire prompted a wave of migration and relocation. New communities sprang up, old ones were repopulated or expanded. Mobility increased, and a host of settlements beckoned to the restless and the adventurous. As Greeks found the prospects abroad enticing, so also did the Jews. A burgeoning Jewish diaspora, it appears, followed in the wake of the Greek diaspora.

2 Mobility in the Late 2nd Century bce

  1. Top of page
  2. Greek Conquests in the Late 4th Century bce: Dispersion and Mobility
  3. Mobility in the Late 2nd Century bce
  4. Interpretations of Dispersal and the Role of Synagogues
  5. Diaspora and Jewish Societal Integration in the Hellenistic World
  6. Preserving Jewish Religious Traditions
  7. References and Further Reading

Precise numbers elude us. But they were plainly substantial. By the late 2nd century bce, the author of I Maccabees could claim that Jews had found their way not only to Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and the Iranian plateau, but to the cities and principalities of Asia Minor, to the islands of the Aegean, to Greece itself, to Crete, Cyprus, and Cyrene. We know also of Jewish communities in Italy, including large settlements in Rome and Ostia. The Greek geographer Strabo, writing at the end of the 1st century bce (and he had no axe to grind on the subject) remarked that there was hardly a place in the world that did not possess members of this tribe and feel their weight. And all of this occurred well before the demolition of the Temple. Even without explicit figures we may be confident that Jews abroad far outnumbered those dwelling in Palestine – and had done so for many generations. The fact needs to be underscored. Diaspora life was no aberration, not a marginal, exceptional, temporary, or fleeting part of Jewish experience. In important ways it constituted the most characteristic ingredient of that experience.

What motivated the mass migrations? Some, to be sure, were involuntary and unwelcome. Many of those who found themselves abroad had come as captives, prisoners of war, and slaves. Conflicts between the Egyptian and Syrian kingdoms in the 3rd century bce caused periodic dislocation. Internal upheavals in Palestine in the following century generated additional political refugees and enforced settlements. Roman intervention in the Near East accelerated the process. Pompey's victories in Judaea in 63 bce, followed by battles on Palestinian soil over the next three decades, brought an unspecified number of Jews to Italy as human booty, the victims of conquest.

Compulsory displacement, however, cannot have accounted for more than a fraction of the migration. Overpopulation in Palestine may have been a factor for some, indebtedness for others. But more than hardship was involved here. The new and expanded communities that sprang up in consequence of Alexander's acquisitions served as magnets for migration. Large numbers of Jews found employment as mercenaries, military colonists, or enlisted men in the regular forces of Hellenic cities or kingdoms. Others seized opportunities in business, commerce, or agriculture. All lands were open to them.

3 Interpretations of Dispersal and the Role of Synagogues

  1. Top of page
  2. Greek Conquests in the Late 4th Century bce: Dispersion and Mobility
  3. Mobility in the Late 2nd Century bce
  4. Interpretations of Dispersal and the Role of Synagogues
  5. Diaspora and Jewish Societal Integration in the Hellenistic World
  6. Preserving Jewish Religious Traditions
  7. References and Further Reading

How did Jews conceptualize this dispersal? What sort of self-perception shaped the thinking of those who dwelled in Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, Cyrene, Ephesus, or anywhere outside Judaea? Dire forecasts in the Bible about the grim scattering of Israel bear little resemblance to diaspora life in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. There is no evidence that a sense of displacement dominated Jewish consciousness in communities strewn around the Mediterranean. A noteworthy fact bears emphasis: Jews seem to have felt no need to fashion a theory of diaspora. That alone is telling. It would be an error to imagine that Jews everywhere faced a choice of either maintaining tenacious adherence to a segregated existence or assimilating fully to an alien culture. For those who inhabited a world of Greek culture and Roman power the fact of dispersal had long been an integral part of their existence and a central element of their identity.

Those who migrated found means of maintaining that identity. Substantial evidence attests to the near-ubiquity of synagogues. Not that they were duplicates of one another. A diversity of functions, physical characteristics, and institutional features preclude any notion of uniformity. But the synagogue (in whatever form) could serve to promote communal activity among Jews and advance a sense of collective identity. The evidence comes from literary texts, inscriptions, papyri, and archeological finds that disclose outlines of the structures themselves. Ample attestation shows the broad geographical range of the synagogue, stretching from the Black Sea to North Africa, and from Syria to Italy.

The synagogue supplied a vehicle for a wide range of activities that promoted the shared interests of Jews. These included study and instruction, discussion of the Scriptures, traditions, law, and moral teachings, prayers, rituals, and worship, communal dining, celebration of festivals, and commemoration of key events in Jewish history, adjudication of disputes, passage of decrees, meetings of members, maintenance of sacred monies, votive offerings, dedicatory inscriptions, and archives of the community. To be sure, not all synagogues performed all these functions. Local circumstances doubtless dictated numerous divergences. But the spectrum of services is wide. And they did not occur in hidden enclaves. Synagogues stood in public view; congregations had their own officialdom, leaders, and representatives; Gentiles frequently remarked about Sabbath services; inscriptions announced decisions of the membership; and the letters and decrees of Roman spokesmen gave public sanction to Jewish practices, most of which took place in the synagogue. This impressive testimony demonstrates the existence of thriving and vigorous Jewish communities, self-assured in the exhibition of their traditions and their special character.

4 Diaspora and Jewish Societal Integration in the Hellenistic World

  1. Top of page
  2. Greek Conquests in the Late 4th Century bce: Dispersion and Mobility
  3. Mobility in the Late 2nd Century bce
  4. Interpretations of Dispersal and the Role of Synagogues
  5. Diaspora and Jewish Societal Integration in the Hellenistic World
  6. Preserving Jewish Religious Traditions
  7. References and Further Reading

Explicit testimony on how Jews led their lives in the scattered cities of the diaspora is hard to come by. But most of the fragmentary indications, clues, and indirect signs suggest circumstances in which they could both partake of the social and cultural environment and maintain a separate identity. These were not mutually exclusive alternatives.

Take, for example, the gymnasium, that most Hellenic of institutions. The gymnasium was a conspicuous feature of Greek education, at least for the elite, in communities throughout the Mediterranean. It catered to the corps of ephebes, the select youth of upper-echelon families, the training ground for generations of Hellenic leadership in the urban centers of Greek migration. That institution would appear to be the very last place available to Jews. Yet unmistakable traces of their participation in gymnasia do exist. Ephebic lists include Jews in places as different as Alexandria in Egypt, Cyrene in north Africa, Sardis in western Asia Minor, Iasos in southwestern Asia Minor, and Korone in southern Greece. So, even the preeminent bastion of Hellenism, the gymnasium, was, at least in several sites, open to Jews.

Evidence from Egypt shows that Jews served in the Ptolemaic armies and police forces, reached officer rank, and received land grants. Inscriptions in Aramaic and Greek from Alexandrian cemeteries disclose Jews, evidently mercenary soldiers, buried alongside Greeks from all parts of the Hellenic world. Jews had access to various levels of the administration as tax-farmers and tax-collectors, as bankers and granary officials. They took part in commerce, shipping, finance, farming, and every form of occupation. And they could even reach posts of prestige and importance. Juridically, the Jews, like other Greek-speaking immigrants to Egypt, were reckoned among the “Hellenes” – not singled out for prejudicial discrimination.

One can go further. Jews had access even to cultural life in the upper echelons of Hellenistic society. Jewish authors were well versed in most, perhaps all, forms of Hellenic writing. Those conversant with the conventions included epic poets, tragic dramatists, writers of history, philosophers, composers of novellas and historical fiction, and those who engaged in cosmology and mythography. The capacity to produce such works demonstrates that the writers could partake of higher education and engage deeply with Hellenic cultural traditions. They were themselves an integral part of the intelligentsia.

Jewish writers wrote in Greek and adapted Greek literary modes. But they employed those conventions to their own ends. Jewish intellectuals may have embraced Hellenic canons of literature, but they had no interest in recounting Hellenic history or myth. Their heroes were Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. They appropriated Hellenism to the goals of rewriting biblical narratives, recasting the traditions of their forefathers, reinvigorating their ancient legends, and shaping the distinctive identity of Jews within the larger world of Hellenic culture. They strove to present Judaic traditions and express their own self-definition through the media of the Greeks – and even to make those media their own.

A major development occurred in the course of the 3rd century bce: the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The need for a Greek Bible itself holds critical significance. It indicates that many Jews dwelling in the scattered communities of the Mediterranean had lost the mastery of Hebrew but nonetheless clung to the centerpiece of their tradition. If they were to read the Bible it would have to be in Greek. The initial rendering or renderings eventually congealed into what became known as the Septuagint. For the vast majority of Jews living in the Greco-Roman period, it was the Bible. Its emergence signified that the Jews had a legitimate claim on a place in the prevailing culture of the Mediterranean. Their Scriptures contained the record and principles of a people whose roots went back to distant antiquity but who maintained their identity in a contemporary society – and in a contemporary language.

5 Preserving Jewish Religious Traditions

  1. Top of page
  2. Greek Conquests in the Late 4th Century bce: Dispersion and Mobility
  3. Mobility in the Late 2nd Century bce
  4. Interpretations of Dispersal and the Role of Synagogues
  5. Diaspora and Jewish Societal Integration in the Hellenistic World
  6. Preserving Jewish Religious Traditions
  7. References and Further Reading

Jewish comfort and familiarity with the Hellenistic cultural world in no way entailed abandonment or compromise of their Jewishness. Terms like “assimilation” or “accommodation” are best avoided, for they suggest that Jews needed to transform themselves in order to fit into an alien environment. On the contrary, they unabashedly called attention to their own characteristic features. One needs to think only of those practices remarked upon most often by Greek and Roman authors: observance of the Sabbath, dietary laws, and circumcision. Pagan writers found those usages strange and amusing – but they certainly noticed them. As is clear, diaspora Jews had no qualms (and no fears) about practicing their conventional customs, thereby denoting their differences from Gentiles.

The uncommon character of their conventions both provided bonds among migratory Jews everywhere and announced their distinctiveness from other peoples. The Jews of Egypt kept the Passover at least as early as the 5th century bce, as the Aramaic papyri from Elephantine attest. Scattered testimony reveals observance of Shavuot, Sukkot, and Yom Kippur in Jewish communities outside Palestine, conspicuous links to ancient tradition. Later feasts themselves have strong diaspora connections. The Purim festival, for example, began in the Persian period, according to the Book of Esther, and was celebrated annually by the Jews of Persia.

The tenacious adherence to signature principles occurred perhaps most obviously in the Jewish insistence upon rejecting idolatry. The incorporeal character of God represented an unshakable principle. Jewish aniconism was conspicuous and widely acknowledged by non-Jews. Some found it peculiar and puzzling, even akin to atheism. Others admired it. Indeed the most learned of Romans, the great scholar Varro, in the late 1st century bce, praised the image-less conception of the deity, reckoning it as genuine piety which the Romans had once had and had lost. But whether questioning or admiring, pagan references to Jewish aniconism make clear that perseverance in this principle which set Jews apart from their neighbors received widespread notice. They erected no false facade of assimilation.

Did Jews' insistence upon distinctiveness in the diaspora render them vulnerable? Certainly their experience was not always untroubled, serene, and harmonious. Outbursts of violence occasionally shattered their existence. Most notoriously, tensions among Greeks, Egyptians, and Jews in Alexandria, exacerbated by insensitive Roman overlordship, resulted in a bloody assault on Jews in 38 ce. A quarter-century later, the outbreak of Jewish rebellion against Roman rule in Palestine also had reverberations in the diaspora. The Jews of Alexandria were victimized by a riot in 66 ce and, when they retaliated, encountered fierce Roman repression. The temple at Leontopolis in Egypt which had stood for more than two centuries also suffered destruction in that upheaval. A still wider diaspora rebellion occurred in 116 ce, involving Jews in Cyrene, Egypt, Cyprus, and possibly Mesopotamia. What caused these uprisings remains unknown. But the Roman crackdown, ordered by the emperor Trajan, was harsh, terminating the existence of many Jewish communities in these regions.

Episodes of this sort cause little surprise in the circumstances of rivalries and tensions in multi-ethnic societies. What is noteworthy, however, is their remarkable rarity. Given the fact that our sources prefer to dwell on violence and upheaval, the relative absence of such turmoil in the diaspora is quite significant. Concord and stability predominate.

An important question remains. How did migratory Jews relate to the homeland? The generally satisfactory circumstances of the diaspora defused any widespread passion for the “Return.” This did not, however, diminish the sanctity and centrality of Jerusalem in the Jewish consciousness. The city's aura retained a powerful hold on Jews, wherever they happened to reside. Numerous texts underscore the reverence with which Jews around the Mediterranean continued to regard Jerusalem and the land of their fathers. Commitment to one's local or regional community was entirely compatible with devotion to Jerusalem. The two concepts in no way represented mutually exclusive alternatives.

Jews everywhere reaffirmed their dedication to Jerusalem each year: an annual tithe paid to the Temple. The ritualistic offering carried deep significance as a bonding device. The Jewish historian Josephus proudly observes that the donations came from Jews all over Asia and Europe, indeed from all over the world, for countless years. That annual act of obeisance constituted a repeated display of affection and allegiance, visible evidence of the unbroken attachment of migratory Jews to the center. The remittance, however, did not imply that Jews viewed the diaspora as no more than a temporary exile to be terminated by an ingathering in Jerusalem. Indeed it implied the reverse. The yearly contribution proclaimed that the diaspora could endure indefinitely – and quite satisfactorily. The communities abroad had successfully entrenched themselves; they were now mainstays of the center. Their fierce commitment to the tithe implied that the “Return” was unnecessary.

A comparable institution reinforces that inference: the pilgrimage of diaspora Jews to Jerusalem for festivals. According to the philosopher Philo, myriads came from countless cities for every feast, over land and sea, from all points of the compass, to enjoy the Temple as a serene refuge from the hurly-burly of everyday life abroad. The holy city was a compelling magnet. But pilgrimage by its very nature signified a temporary payment of respect. Jerusalem possessed an irresistible claim on the emotions of diaspora Jews, forming a critical part of their identity. But home was elsewhere.

The self-perception of ancient Jews projected a tight solidarity between center and diaspora. The respect and awe one paid to the Holy Land stood in full harmony with a commitment to the local community and allegiance to Gentile governance. Diaspora Jews did not bewail their fate and pine away for the homeland. Nor, by contrast, did they shrug off the homeland and reckon the Book as surrogate for the Temple. Palestine mattered, and it mattered in a territorial sense – but not as a required residence. Gifts to the Temple and pilgrimages to Jerusalem announced simultaneously one's devotion to the symbolic heart of Judaism and a singular pride in the accomplishments of the diaspora.

References and Further Reading

  1. Top of page
  2. Greek Conquests in the Late 4th Century bce: Dispersion and Mobility
  3. Mobility in the Late 2nd Century bce
  4. Interpretations of Dispersal and the Role of Synagogues
  5. Diaspora and Jewish Societal Integration in the Hellenistic World
  6. Preserving Jewish Religious Traditions
  7. References and Further Reading
  • Barclay, J. M. G. (1996) Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.
  • Barclay, J. M. G. (ed.) (2004) Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish Strategies in the Roman Empire. London: T&T Clark.
  • Bartlett, J. R. (ed.) (2002) Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities. London: Routledge.
  • Cappelletti, S. (2006) The Jewish Community of Rome from the Second Century B.C.E. to the Third Century C.E. Leiden: Brill.
  • Cohen, S. J. D. & Frerichs, E. S. (eds.) (1993) Diasporas in Antiquity. Atlanta: Scholars Press.
  • Collins, J. J. (2000) Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora, 2nd edn. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Feldman, L. H. (1993) Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Gafni, I. M. (1997) Land, Center, and Diaspora. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
  • Goodman, M. (ed.) (1998) Jews in a Graeco-Roman World. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Gruen, E. S. (1994) Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Gruen, E. S. (2002) Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Kasher, A. (1985) The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt: The Struggle for Equal Rights. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck.
  • Levine, L. I. (2000) The Ancient Synagogue. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Modrzejewski, J. M. (1995) The Jews of Egypt from Ramses II to the Emperor Hadrian. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society.
  • Overman, A., Kraebel, T., & MacLennan, R. S. (eds.) (1992) Diaspora Jews and Judaism. Atlanta: Scholars Press.
  • Pucci ben Zeev, M. (1998) Jewish Rights in the Roman World: The Greek and Roman Documents Quoted by Josephus Flavius. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck.
  • Rajak, T. (2001) The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome: Studies in Social and Cultural Interaction. Leiden: Brill.
  • Rutgers, L. (1995) The Jews in Late Ancient Rome. Leiden: Brill.
  • Smallwood, E. M. (1976) The Jews under Roman Rule. Leiden: Brill.
  • Trebilco, P. R. (1991) Jewish Communities in Asia Minor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Williams, M. H. (1998) The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans: A Diaspora Sourcebook. London: Duckworth.