By April 8, 2008 0 Comments Read More →

Overview: Jews and Judaism in the Greco-Roman Period

Masada Roman RampJews in the Persian Period (520-332 BCE)

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, there we grieved, when we remembered Zion. –Psalm 137

Would the religion of Israel survive the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and Judea in 586 BCE? Were the leaders of Judea, taken into exile in a distant land, destined to diminish and disappear—as was the case of so many other nations destroyed and dispersed by the armies of Babylon? What of the Judeans left behind in the ruins of their homeland? Would the culture of ancient Israel survive, or would the Jews ultimately disappear?

These were life and death questions after the destruction the Temple first built by Solomon in Jerusalem. How would the Jews respond to the greatest religious and social cataclysm that a nation can suffer? The prophet Jeremiah advocated continuity and community, promoting the view that the destruction and exile were not the work of a foreign and superior god, but rather that the Babylonians were instruments of chastisement sent by the God of Israel. Jeremiah’s advice-

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29-4-7).

Thus began the history of Babylonian Jewry, a community that thrived in the land we now call Iraq for more than two thousand years.

The “Babylonian Captivity” came to an abrupt end, with the defeat of Babylon in 539 BCE by Cyrus the Great. In the interest of securing their vast empire, which stretched from the borders of India to southern Egypt, the Persians allowed subject nations to retain their communal lives and religious practices. Therefore, the Persians allowed the Jews to return to Palestine and to rebuild their city and their Temple. The Bible treats Cyrus and his royal successors as divinely ordained heroes, fulfilling a divinely ordained plan. With Cyrus’ ringing decree begins the Second Temple period heralding all later Jewish messianic hopes-

The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up (2 Chronicles 36).

We know little about the early Persian period in the Land of Israel, except that the Jews in Jerusalem and its environs were in crisis. The returnees from Babylonia were far more ideologically driven than the Jews who had stayed behind. The prophets railed that the Temple was rebuilt too slowly, and that Jewish observance was too lax. The Bible describes efforts by leaders such as Nehemiah and Ezra to reestablish Judaism at a time when the time-honored tools for determining the Divine will, the Urim and Thumim, were gone, and the prophetic voice was growing dim. Scripture and its interpretation were increasingly seen as the best way to discern God’s will. The “Torah of Moses” and the other early books of the Bible became the ideal vehicle to reconstruct the Jewish people on firm God-given foundations. This method of interpretation, later called midrash, allowed the Torah to serve as a divine oracle, and a vehicle for the reconstruction of Judaism in the Persian Empire and beyond.

Jews and Judaism from Alexander the Great to the Maccabees (332-63 BCE)

After Alexander the Macedonian, Philip’s son, who came from the land of Kittim [Greece], had defeated Darius, king of the Persians and Medes, he became king in his place, having first ruled in Greece. –I Maccabees 1

Alexander the Great changed the fortunes of the Jews forever. For centuries a quiet province at the edge of the Persian Empire, Judah quickly found itself caught between two rival Greek kingdoms in Syria and Egypt at the geographical center of a vast Mediterranean empire. The great challenge for the Jews of the Hellenistic age was maintaining their Jewish identity in the face of a culture that claimed superiority and, too many, seemed superior.

Quickly integrating into the Hellenistic world, Jews, more than other nations, developed internal boundaries to distinguish themselves from the Greeks. The centrality of the Jerusalem Temple, the Biblical commandments, the one God’s unique relationship with his Chosen People, Biblical food laws, the Sabbath, disdain for idolatry, and particularly circumcision were all fortified as cultural markers. Jews took these markers of identity with them as they emigrated near and far throughout the breadth of the Hellenistic world, translated Scripture into Greek so that they might continue to study God’s word in their adopted language, and established major centers of settlement in Alexandria in Egypt and in Asia Minor.

Negotiating Jewish identity in the Greco-Roman world was not easy. In 166 BCE a popular rebellion broke out in Judea, led by a relatively obscure rural family of priests known as the Hasmonians. The causes of the Maccabean (or, Hasmonian) revolt are complex, but what is clear is that a majority of Jews revolted against an alliance of a Hellenizing aristocracy in Jerusalem and the Seleucid Greek king Antiochus Epiphanies IV. The revolt was a response to the attempt to transform Jerusalem into a Greek city in every way, and to absorb the God of Israel into the high god Zeus (just as the Semitic god Baal had been absorbed in Syria to the north). After a prolonged battle, the Hasmonian kings established an enlarged kingdom in Judaea, free of “idolatry.” However, their kingdom was thoroughly Hellenistic, in both its governance and in the kinds of art they created. Hasmonians minted coins in the Hellenistic manner, and inscribed them with their own names in both Hebrew and Greek script—though pointedly, not with images that they thought might be taken for idolatrous.

Though Greeks considered Jews strange for their foreign customs, and their unwillingness to give them up, they generally respected the antiquity of Judaism. Over time, the Jews and Judaism became integral to the world that Alexander created just as his world had become integral to theirs.

Culture and Religion in Hellenistic Judaea (circa 332 BCE-70 CE)

The Sadducees say- We complain against you, Pharisees, for you say that the Holy Scriptures defile the hands [that is, are holy], but the writings of Homer do not defile the hands –Mishnah Yadayim 4-6

“Jon Q. Judean,” the “average” Jew in the Hellenistic and early Roman world, did not write books. We can gain some sense of the religious and cultural lives of average Jews, however, from the writings of literate elites and from archaeological discoveries throughout the Land of Israel. What was the religious life of “Jon Q. Judean” like? Whether an urbanite or a villager, a Palestinian or a resident of one of the many diaspora communities that flourished during this period, Judaism was about fealty to the ”Law of Moses,” that is, the commandments that give form to the Jewish covenant with God. On the most noticeable level this meant the Jewish dietary laws, observance of the Sabbath and festivals and ritual circumcision. It meant distancing oneself from the perceived depravity of Hellenistic and Roman “games,” Greco-Roman “idolatry,” exposure of unwanted babies to slave traders or to the elements, and sensitivity to Biblical purity laws. For many it meant pilgrimage and the sending of gifts to the Temple in Jerusalem, and by the end of the period, the study of the Torah in local associations, often called synagogues or prayer places. Judaism meant allegiance to one God alone, to His one Temple in Jerusalem, to His one holy land and to his single chosen people.

Under this broad canopy, Jewish groups imagined distinct and local ways to practice Judaism. The most pervasive and literate of these groups are known to us from preserved writings. The books of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Philo of Alexandria, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus Flavius and the earliest strata of the New Testament and rabbinic literature provide a rich corpus of sources for interpreting Judaism at this pivotal moment. These sources tell the stories of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, the Therapeutae, the early followers of Jesus, Herodians, Zealots and others set against the Jewish engagement with the cultures of Greece, Rome and one another. Some, like the Sadducees and Pharisees, had broad influence, while others, like the Essenes, the followers of Jesus, and the Dead Sea community, were apocalyptic and often separatist sects. By and by these rich literatures tell us of the cultural fabric into which each of these sectarian expressions was woven—what the groups shared, and the ways that each distinguished itself from the others.

The richness of literary sources extant from the Greco-Roman period, whether preserved by Christian and Jewish communities or retrieved from the ground during the twentieth century, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, teach us of the diversity within Second Temple period Judaism. Also apparent is the richly textured “common Judaism” within which both “Jon Q. Judean” and the literate elites who wrote about his world flourished.

Judaea Under Roman Rule (63 BCE-70 CE)

Of all the calamities of that time none so deeply affected the nation as the exposure to alien eyes of the Holy Place, hitherto screened from view. Pompey indeed along with his staff, penetrated to the sanctuary, entry to which was permitted to none but the high priest, and beheld what it contained. –Josephus, The Jewish War 1, 152

The Roman general Pompey, taking advantage of an internal quarrel between two rival members of the Hasmonian royal family, conquered Jerusalem in 63 BCE. Taking the city, Pompey entered the Temple itself, and passing through its courts, encountered increasingly holy precincts—eventually the Holy of Holies itself. The Jews were stunned by this religious affront. Having satisfied his curiosity, Pompey was likewise surprised because he found no cult object representing the high god of the Jews, but only an empty room and Torah scrolls. Thus began the Roman rule of Judaea, one that was to last for more than seven hundred years and was punctuated by the destruction of Jerusalem by Vespasian in 70 CE.

Roman rulers adopted a wide range of policies towards their Jewish inhabitants. Julius Caesar and Augustus maintained a generally benign approach towards the Jews and their rather strange and seemingly xenophobic customs. Others, like Pompey were uncharitable towards Jewish peculiarity. Still others were outright dominating as illustrated by an attempt by Caligula to have a statue of himself set up and worshipped in the Temple, which brought world Jewry to the brink of revolt.

The memory of the Hasmonian Revolt and the trauma of direct Roman rule unleashed apocalyptic currents within Judaism. Various groups within the thoroughly Hellenized Jewish world responded to the Roman Empire in different ways, with some embracing it while others rejected it. This polarized response to Roman rule was expressed even in the Temple itself, rebuilt beginning in 20/19 BCE by the Roman puppet king Herod the Great in honor of the glory of the God of Israel. The architecture of Herod’s Temple was drawn directly from the style of imperial temples built to honor Herod’s “divine” patron, Caesar Augustus. While some Jews were inspired by Herod’s Temple, others scorned it and considered it to be profane. Some Jewish groups vied for control of the Temple, while others awaited an apocalyptic explosion that would bring an eternal “kingdom of God.”

The literature of various Jewish groups during the period between Pompey and the First Jewish Revolt is particularly rich. The Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament, Philo of Alexandria, Roman authors and Rabbinic literature provide evidence for the struggles gripping the Jews during this period as they came to terms with their hyphenated Jewish-Roman identities. The Jewish historian Joseph son of Mattathias, Flavius Josephus, chronicled the social, political and cultural life of the Jews during this time. The literary remains of the latter Second Temple period help us to understand how Jewish communities proliferated across the Roman Empire. Particularly, these sources shed light on how Jews in Roman Judaea conceptualized their universe and lived their very local lives.

The Rise of Christianity (circa 4 BCE-300 CE)

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying- “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. –The Gospel According to Matthew, 23

Jesus of Nazareth was born in obscurity around 4 BCE, apparently during the rule of Herod the Great. He was later crucified by the Romans around 30 CE on the charge of sedition against the Roman Empire by claiming to be “King of the Jews.” The short lifetime of this Galilean peasant turned messianic figure changed the course of world history. Jesus was the leader of a small Jewish sect during the turbulent first decades of the first century CE, one that resembled the Pharisees, the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Essenes. According to the Gospels, Jesus was in close contact with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, as well as with a group known as the Herodians. His sect most resembled the Pharisees, with whom he disputed more than any other Jewish group of his age.

Our knowledge of Jesus and his earliest followers is derived almost completely from the so-called Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—and to a lesser extent the later Gospel According to John. These books are reflections by various groups of Jesus’ followers on the life, death and continuing meaning of Jesus within the earliest Christian communities. They reflect the religious perspectives of each community and were compiled between thirty to a hundred years after the crucifixion. Mark and Matthew’s followers were probably observant Jews, Luke cared deeply for the Temple and the synagogue, while John adhered to a high Christology and was likely not Jewish. Each of these extended homilies includes important evidence for the history of Jews and Judaism in first century CE, as refracted through the person of Jesus. The Gospels interweave evidence for the “common Judaism” shared across the Jewish social spectrum, Jesus and his earliest followers, and the earliest Christian communities.

The letters of Paul of Tarsus were written between the thirties and fifties CE. Paul’s letters, together with Luke’s somewhat later Acts of the Apostles, provide important evidence for the transition of the followers of Jesus from a Jewish apocalyptic sect to a gentile religion. Both sources, as well as traditions within the Gospels, portray the gradual inclusion of gentiles in the apocalyptic mission of the Church, and the slow distancing of the Christian community from the norms of Jewish practice and belief. The New Testament presents the fascinating portrait of a Jewish sect and its eventual departure from Judaism, and of the transition of one man from Jesus of Nazareth to Jesus the Christ.

From the First Jewish Revolt to Bar Kokhba (66-135 CE)

On the way he called at Jerusalem. There he contrasted the grievous desolation that met his eyes with the splendor of the city that was, and calling to mind the mighty structures in ruins now but once so beautiful… –Josephus, The Jewish War 8, 113

The First Jewish Revolt against Rome of 66-74 CE was a turning point in the history of the Jews and Judaism. The great debates about the place of Judaism in the Roman Empire were momentarily silenced by the war. The question facing the Jews was no longer how to live under Roman domination, but how to get out from under it. Those Jews who prided themselves on having “One Temple to the One God” found life under the Roman Empire unbearable. The incompetence of Roman governors and their unwillingness to accommodate the unique ways of Judaism, the influence of extreme anti-Romanism, and possible messianic and apocalyptic elements, led the Jews and Romans into the abyss of war in 66 CE. It is significant that the “symbol” for this break was the discontinuation of sacrifices on behalf of the Emperor in the Temple. While other nations had been required to sacrifice to the deified Emperor himself as the unifying god of the Empire, wise Roman administrators required that Jews only sacrifice to the God of Israel on behalf of the Emperor. With the outbreak of war, even this compromise broke down, and the protection of Israel’s God was withdrawn from the “evil empire.”

The great historian of the Jewish War was Joseph, son of Mattathias, a priest and Jewish general of the Galilee during the revolt. Josephus realized early in the war the futility of resistance, arguing that Judaea was doomed, owing to the excesses of Jewish fanaticism. He survived the war as court historian and propagandist for both the eventual Emperor, Vespasian, and his general, son and successor, Titus, championing a moderate Jewish voice. Thanks to the writings of Josephus, principally The Jewish War, scholars have considerable evidence of this conflagration at their disposal. For Vespasian and his sons, the Jewish War provided legitimacy to their rather shaky imperial dynasty. In defeating the Jews they restored the elusive Pax Romana, the “Roman Peace,” within the Empire. This war became the cause célèbre of the Flavians; memorialized in coinage (Judea Capta), monumental arches (of which only the Arch of Titus survives), a “Temple of Peace” that housed trophies of the war (most prominently the golden Menorah of the Temple), and the greatest stadium ever built, the Coliseum, built with funds taken from the Temple of the Jews.

The destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and desolation of Judaea wrought by the war had frightful effects upon Judaism, effects that reverberate to this day. The loss of the Temple left Judaism without its sacred center. Though anguish over the loss of the Temple overcame many, the desire to rebuild it came to permeate Jewish thought and ritual for the following two millennia. The variety of Jewish practices and beliefs that characterized the Second Temple period dissolved, as only two Jewish groups survived the destruction, the Jesus sect and the Pharisees. As a result, the destruction of Jerusalem had major implications for both the history of Judaism and Christianity. While the Jesus sect found its place in the non-Jewish world, the spiritual descendents of the Pharisees, now called Rabbis, began the reconstruction of Judaism. Building upon the popular prestige of the Pharisees, the Rabbis took on leadership roles and began to imagine ways to maintain Judaism in a world without the Temple. With this pivotal moment came the end of the Second Temple period, and on its ashes, the beginning of the age of the Rabbis.

The Age of the Rabbis- The Formative Years (circa 70-638 CE)

When the Sages assembled in the vineyard in Yavneh, they said-

In the future a person might seek teachings of the Torah, and cannot find them; or seek out the words of the Sages, and not find them…Or, the teachings of Torah may be confused, and not consistent.

They said- Let us begin from Hillel and Shammai… –Tosefta Eduyot 1-1

The destruction of Jerusalem, Judaea and most significantly the Temple created a spiritual vacuum of massive proportions. While in the Babylonian exile of the sixth century BCE, the Psalmist could ask, “How do we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” after the loss of the Temple the Jews of Palestine lived in their own land as foreigners, often as sharecroppers and tenants. With the Temple in ruins, the Jews had reason to ask if God had finally abandoned them?

A community of Sages that came to the outlying towns and villages of Judaea thought not. Rabbinic literature remembers the historic struggle of these rabbis to maintain and preserve Judaism in the wake of catastrophe. These Sages, who saw themselves as the spiritual and sometimes biological descendants of the Second Temple period Pharisees, believed that God had transmitted His teachings and authority directly to them. The Rabbis taught that they inherited teachings that reached back to the theophany at Sinai itself—passing on the mantle of Torah from Moses to Joshua, from Joshua to the Elders, to the Biblical Judges and Prophets, and finally to a group of prophets and sages of the Persian period, the “Men of the Great Assembly.” At that point, this process continued through the great Sages of the Second Temple period, most prominently Gamaliel (famous from the trial of Jesus in the New Testament), Hillel, Shammai, and Yohanan son of Zakkai.

These ancient rabbis (late first-sixth centuries C.E.) developed the notion that the revelation at Mt. Sinai consisted of two complementary parts—the written Torah (the Pentateuch) and the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah was believed to provide the interpretations and explanations that make God’s written revelation applicable to life in every age. In turn, this Oral Torah is traditionally divided between law (halakhah) and lore (aggadah). H.N. Bialik (1873-1934) writes that “like ice and water, Halakhah and Aggadah are really two things in one, two facets of the same entity.” Now known by the title “Rabbis,” these leaders first assembled tentatively in small groups and in places like Yavneh, Lod and Bnei Braq in the Judaean lowlands to recite and organize traditional knowledge, to expand it and to assert their leadership in an age without the Temple. The Rabbis developed the contours of what we now sometimes call “Rabbinic Judaism,” designed to preserve Judaism during an undefined period called zeman ha-zeh, the imperfect age between the destruction of Jerusalem and the messianic redemption. By the latter half of the second century, the Rabbis were widely acknowledged by Jews and Romans alike as the religious elite of Jewish Palestine, and perhaps beyond. Their stellar composition, the Mishnah, redacted by Rabbi Judah the Prince around 200 CE, organized early rabbinic traditions in conceptual units, easy to memorize and to transmit, yet flexible enough to apply to a new and expanding age.

By the third century CE, Palestinian and Babylonian Rabbis were commenting on the Mishnah itself. These commentaries developed into the Talmud of the Land of Israel during the fourth century, and the Babylonian Talmud by the sixth century. The rabbinic literature in the Land of Israel during this period included expansive translations of Scripture into Aramaic (targumim), massive and diverse midrashic texts, and exquisite liturgical writings (piyyutim). An intellectual religious elite that thrived within the Babylonian, Persian, and the Greco-Roman worlds, the Rabbis of this formative age set the contours of Judaism for the generations.

Daily Life in the Age of the Rabbis (c. 200-7th Century CE)

This is the Study House of Rabbi Eliezer ha-Qappar.

–A Hebrew Inscription from Dabbura in the Golan Heights.

Sometime in the fourth or perhaps fifth century, a Hebrew inscription was carved into a large basalt door lintel in a very small village that we now call Dabbura, in the Golan Heights. The inscription was set between images of two birds of prey, each grasping in its mouth a snake. The tails of these snakes came together in a typically Roman “Herculean knot” at the center of the lintel framing the words- “This is the Study House of Rabbi Eliezer ha-Qappar.” Clearly, the people of Dabbura were proud of the fact that Rabbi Eliezer ha-Qappar had taught his students in their midst. Modern scholars were excited when the lintel was discovered in 1968. Talmudists knew of a third century rabbi (Tanna) known as Rabbi Elezar ha-Qappar—a student of Rabbi Judah the Prince, editor of the Mishnah. Is this the place where he lived and taught? Or, perhaps, the people of Dabbura had associated their community with this long-dead holy man by claiming to possess his academy?

Rabbis were few in number even in Talmudic times. At their height, we know of only one hundred and thirty five Amoraim in the Land of Israel, and only ninety eight in Babylonia. The Rabbis in both communities were an intellectual elite. The rabbinic elite was often revered, and by their own admission, just as often scorned and regularly ignored. The Rabbis were nonetheless an essential element of the “common” Judaism that Jews across the Roman and Babylonian diasporas shared. As an intellectual and cultural elite, the Rabbis gave voice to religious and social concerns that were experienced ubiquitously across the Jewish community, and asserted their own unique perspective on these often burning issues. Rabbinic perspectives are preserved in rabbinic literature, including the Mishnah, the Jerusalem Talmud, legal and homiletical Midrashim, Aramaic paraphrases of Scripture (Targumim), prayer, magical texts and the Babylonian Talmud. Archaeological sources often reveal how closely attuned the Rabbis were to the general Jewish culture of late antique Palestine and of Sassanian Babylonia. By memorializing “the study of house of Rabbi Eliezer ha-Qappar,” the Jews of Dabbura brought something of world of the Sages into their quiet, distant, and mundane village of farmers and shepherds.

The Land of Israel in the Byzantine Period (324-638 CE)

The lamps of Edom [Christianity] burn bright, the lamps of Zion [Judaism] are extinguished.–Yannai, sixth century synagogue poet.

The transformation of Christianity from a despised and outlawed cult into the official religion of the Roman Empire had profound significance for Jews and gentiles alike. In the centuries after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 324 CE, the ancestral religions of Rome were persecuted, destroyed and declared illicit. The great temples of the empire were pillaged, burned, dismantled and on occasion rededicated as churches for the (sometimes) compliant masses. The Christianization of the Roman Empire is one of the most gruesome example of government-sponsored cultural annihilation in western history.

Jews fared far better in this new Christian empire than polytheists did. At first, the maintenance of Judaism was based upon their positive legal status under Roman law. Being an ancient and licit religion, Judaism was protected from Christian persecution. However, as the fifth and sixth centuries wore on, these protections began to slip, as synagogues were destroyed and rededicated as churches under Christian sponsorship, while the government did little or nothing to protect them.

Christians had reason to preserve Jews. St. Augustine formulated that, as the living examples of the “Old Covenant” that God had made with the ancient Israelites, Jews should be treated as remnants of a failed covenant that had been supplanted by the New Covenant of Christ. In a way, Jews were thus anthropologically interesting. This colonial approach towards Jews had theological underpinnings. For instance, according to St. Jerome, the continued existence of the Jews, maintained in an intentionally wretched state, was continuing proof of their rejection by God.

Despite being persecuted, Jewish culture seems to have thrived under Christian Rome, at least in the Land of Israel. Synagogue buildings continued to be constructed throughout Jewish areas of Palestine, often with beautifully decorated mosaics and polished stone seven-branched menorahs. The construction of these buildings had much in common with nearby churches, which came to dominate the Jewish homeland as Christians established their Christian Holy Land and strengthened the economy of Palestine. Jewish literary composition also thrived, though the age of the great and well known Rabbinic scholars passed, and rabbis did their work mainly in anonymity. The exception is a group of sixth century virtuoso synagogue poets, Yose son of Yose, Yannai, Qalir and others, who wove the Hebrew language artfully into new and energized liturgical poetry (piyyutim). Homiletical interpretation of Scripture also continued apace, leading to the composition of new collections of homilies (midrashim) and Aramaic translations of Scripture (Targumim).

In the space created between Christian persecution of polytheists and the grudging toleration of the people of the “Old Testament,” Judaism thrived under difficult circumstances that presaged the Christian Middle Ages. As one synagogue poet Yannai put it, “The lamps of Edom [Christianity] burn bright, the lamps of Zion [Judaism] are extinguished.” Yannai’s lament, however, was only for the moment. His community expected messianic redemption, and with it the defeat of Christian Rome. In the end, redemption seemed to come from the East, with the Persian invasion of Palestine in 616 CE and finally the Islamic conquest in 632 CE.

The Babylonian and Greco-Roman Diasporas (586 BCE-7th Century CE)

Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.–Jeremiah 29

The Babylonian Diaspora did not end with Cyrus’ decree ending the Babylonian Exile in 540 BCE. Most Jews did not return to Jerusalem. The Jewish community of Babylonia continued to thrive until 1952 when government-sponsored riots led to the evacuation of a large number of Iraqi Jews to the State of Israel. Jews in Babylonia did indeed follow Jeremiah’s instruction to “build houses and plant trees.” With time, the Babylonian Diaspora became the largest and most vibrant of all Jewish communities, even outshining the Palestinian community.

Little is known about the history of Babylonian Jewry during the Second Temple period, except that Babylonians, including the great scholar Hillel “the Babylonian,” eventually did settle in Jerusalem. Great torches set atop the mountains of Palestine and Syria are said to have relayed news of the new Jewish month, and hence the dates of Jewish holidays, from the Temple to Babylonian Jewry. Jews were so well integrated in Babylonia that Romans feared that the Persian rulers of Babylonia would intercede in the First Jewish Revolt on behalf of Palestinian Jewry. Rabbinic culture became well rooted in Babylonia. Babylonian Rabbis developed sophisticated methods of study within their academies, their formulas having been inscribed in the now-dominant Babylonian Talmud by the sixth century CE. The mid seventh century leader of this community, Bustani the Exliarch or “ruler of the exile,” as a descendent of the King David even claimed the status of a potential messiah. Some Babylonian Jews even asserted that the great synagogues of Babylonia were built of stones brought from Solomon’s Temple and so carried its authority.

Scattered across the Mediterranean world, the Jewish diasporas of the west were smaller in number than Babylonian Jewry. Jewish communities existed throughout the eastern Mediterranean by the third century BCE, with concentrations in Antioch and Alexandria. The Jews of first century Alexandria are particularly well known, owing in no small part to the writings of the philosopher, historian and community leader Philo of Alexandria. The Torah was even translated into Greek in Alexandria, to serve the needs of the local community, and the Septuagint (as it was called) was placed in the great library of Alexandria.

Most Diaspora communities are known to us thanks to modern archaeological discoveries—including papyri from Egypt, dedicatory inscriptions, and from the third century CE on, discoveries of ancient synagogues, catacombs; these are also referenced in Roman law codes and in the writings of the Church fathers. No Jewish literature from this later period is extant, and so we know quite little about the western Jewry. From extant sources, however, it is clear that the Jewish communities of the Babylonian and Mediterranean Diasporas shared a “common Judaism” with their brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel, a religion that focused upon Scripture, synagogue life and the performance of the commandments of the Torah. While the Second Temple stood, Diaspora Jews made pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and many continued to send the biblically ordained sheqel tax in support of the Temple. While each Jewry and each community in Babylonia, Palestine and the Greco-Roman world developed its own unique identity, a unifying “common Judaism” is apparent throughout the evidence that has come down to us.

Posted in: Greco-Roman Period

Post a Comment