Jews in the Greco-Roman Diaspora (332 BCE-7th century CE)


Sardis Synagogue

Sardis Synagogue

Jews in the Hellenistic World

Much more is known about the Jewish communities of the western Diaspora in this period. We have already met the small colony of Jewish troops that was based in Elephantine in Upper Egypt after the Persian conquest in 525 B.C.E. Jews probably first immigrated to Egypt from Judea in the difficult years following the Babylonian conquest in the early sixth century B.C.E., and some Babylonian Jews must have come there in connection with the Persian conquest. Large-scale Jewish emigration from Palestine to Egypt, however, is first attested in the reign of Ptolemy I (323–283 B.C.E.), although accounts differ as to whether the Jews who came to Egypt at this time did so voluntarily or as captives. The Egyptian priest Manetho, in the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283–246 B.C.E.), may be credited with being the author of the first known anti-Semitic tract. His writings show familiarity with the exodus and indicate that there were enough Jews in Egypt to make attacking them worthwhile. At the same time, Ptolemy II is credited with having arranged the liberation of many Jews still held captive from his father’s day.

Onias’s role in Egyptian political and military affairs shows the extent to which Jews were already penetrating the life of the country as a whole. As a result of Onias’s support for Cleopatra II, the widow of Ptolemy VI, Ptolemy VII Physcon (145–116 B.C.E., also called Euergetes II) unleashed a pogrom against the Jews, the first such event documented in history. Peace was eventually restored when Ptolemy VII married Cleopatra. Good relations with the Jews must have been quickly restored, since a synagogue was eventually dedicated in his honor.

Onias’s descendants continued to serve in the Ptolemaic military under Cleopatra III (ruled jointly with Ptolemy VIII and IX, 116–102 B.C.E.). His sons Helkias and Hananiah were among her commanders. They are credited with having persuaded the queen to abandon her plan to conquer and annex the territory of the Hasmonean king, Alexander Janneus. Here we see the loyalty of Egyptian Jewry to their coreligionists in Palestine and their support for the Hasmonean dynasty.

Accounts of the remainder of Jewish history in Hellenistic Egypt are scanty, but they reveal the continued role of Jews in Egyptian affairs up to the Roman period. The center of the Egyptian Jewish community was Alexandria, where Jews had settled as early as the beginning of the third century B.C.E. Before long, two of the city’s five quarters were predominantly Jewish and synagogues were scattered everywhere. Jews were also to be found throughout both Upper and Lower Egypt and constituted a substantial and recognizable group within the population. Many of their communities had originally been military colonies.

The earliest reliable evidence for the spread of the Jewish Diaspora to Asia Minor dates from the reign of Antiochus III, who, around 210–205 B.C.E., transferred Jews from Babylonia to the area that is now Turkey to serve as military colonists. By the time of Simon the Hasmonean (142–134 B.C.E.), a circular letter published by the Roman consul regarding the rights of Jews was sent to nine different regions and cities on the mainland of Asia Minor and four Greek islands. Numerous other locales in Asia Minor are mentioned as having Jewish communities in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. By the first century C.E. Jews were to be found in every part of Asia Minor.

Especially significant in light of its role in the history of the spread of Christianity was the Syrian Diaspora. It size is partly to be accounted for by its proximity to Palestine. The Jewish community of Antioch, Syria’s largest city, was established around 200 B.C.E. Jews dwelled also in Apameia, and in the year 70 C.E. there was a pogrom against the Jews of Damascus. Tyre and Sidon (in present-day Lebanon) were centers of Jewish population from Hasmonean times. By the turn of the era Jews were spread throughout the towns and cities of Syria.

The Jewish community of Cyrene, in North Africa, was founded by immigrants from Egypt in the time of Ptolemy I. The letter from the Roman consul also confirmed the rights of the Cyrenaican Jews. In the mid-second century B.C.E. their number included Jason, the author of a five-volume history which was excerpted in 2 Maccabees. By the first half of the first century B.C.E. the Jews were a distinct population group in Cyrene. The community would continue to grow in Roman times, only to suffer destruction during the revolt of the Diaspora Jews against Trajan in 115–117 C.E.

Jews also settled in Greece, Macedonia, Crete, and Cyprus. The first influx of Jews to Greece may have consisted of captives brought there as slaves during the Maccabean revolt. Presumably many of them remained in Greece after having obtained their freedom. By the second century B.C.E. Greek authors were claiming that Jews were to be found throughout the world. The population figures which they put forward for the Jewish population of Greco-Roman times were vastly exaggerated, but by how much cannot be said precisely.

The size of the Jewish community was no doubt swelled by many proselytes (converts) who were attracted to the ancient Mosaic faith as belief in the traditional deities of the Greek pantheon declined. We cannot be sure what processes of conversion were obligatory in order to join fully the Jewish communities of the Hellenistic world, although there is no question but that circumcision was required. At the same time there was a large class of semi-proselytes who did not formally become part of the Jewish people but kept many Jewish customs, such as attending the synagogues and abstaining from pork. This group of “God-fearers,” as they were called, must have appeared to the pagans to have converted to Judaism, but they did not consider themselves to have become full-fledged members of the Jewish people, nor were they considered by the Jewish people to have become Jews.

Anti-Semitism in the Hellenistic World

The Hellenistic period saw the rise of many of the elements of classical anti-Semitism. From a later perspective, anti Semitism has two basic features; one is economic and social, and the other is the motif of the Jew as Christ-killer. While the second, quite obviously, had to await the rise of Christianity to begin its ignominious career, the economic and social aspects began to surface in the Hellenistic Diaspora. Judaism was regarded as a barbarous superstition, and various canards were circulated describing its allegedly disgraceful beginnings. Among the main targets were Moses and the commandments, especially circumcision. Jews were said to be misanthropes who hated all other people, and it was claimed that there was an idol of an ass in the Holy of Holies. Even more damaging was the first blood libel, an accusation that Jews sacrificed a foreigner every seven years for ritual purposes.

It is always possible to advance explanations for anti-Semitism. We may speak of the role of the Jews, an aspect to some extent retrojected from medieval Jewish history. We may also note that many non-Jews saw their Jewish neighbors as strangers and resented the special privileges they enjoyed without becoming full members of the polis. Perhaps even more unacceptable was the Jewish refusal to worship the pagan gods, and, therefore, to join in the local city cults.

Yet anti-Semitism seems to transcend history; and no explanation suffices to explain it. New circumstances change some of its details from time to time, but the dominant motifs and accusations persist no matter how often they are shown to be false and no matter how much Jews may assimilate. In Hellenistic times, Jews lived in close relations with their neighbors, but they were soon to confront the most serious blood libel accusation of all, that of deicide. Ultimately, these tensions would lead to the Diaspora revolt of 115–117 C.E.

Excerpred from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.


  1. Wall painting of a Torah shrine flanked by menorahs in the Jewish catacomb of the Villa Torlonia, Rome, 4th century.
  2. Wall painting of a large bird in the Jewish catacomb of the Villa Torlonia, Rome, 4th century.
  3. Wall painting of human figures in the Jewish catacomb of the Villa Torlonia, Rome, 4th century.
  4. Wall painting of a menorah in the Jewish catacomb of the Villa Torlonia, Rome, 4th century.
  5. Sarcophagi in the Jewish catacombs of the Villa Torlonia, Rome, 4th century.
  6. Greek inscription with Jewish symbols in the Jewish catacomb of the Villa Torlonia, Rome, 4th century.
  7. Basalt Lintel portraying a menorah, shofar and incense shovel, Naveh, Syria, 5th-6th centuries CE.
  8. Basalt door lintel with menorahs from the “Synagogue of the Hebrews” at Corinth, Greece.
  9. “Jewish Prayer Place” on the Island of Delos, Greece, 3rd century BCE.
  10. The synagogue of Ostia Antiqua, the ancient port of Rome, 4th-6th centuries CE.
  11. Diagram of the Synagogue of Ostia Antiqua, the ancient port of Rome, 4th-6th.
  12. The synagogue at Sardis, in modern Turkey, 4th-6th centuries CE.
  13. Interior of the synagogue at Sardis, in modern Turkey, 4th-6th centuries CE.
  14. Torah shrine in the synagogue at Sardis in modern Turkey, 4th-6th centuries CE.
  15. Wall painting in the synagogue at Sardis in modern Turkey, 4th-6th centuries CE.
  16. The mosaic floor at the Hamman Lif Synagogue in modern Tunisia, 2nd-5th centuries CE.
  17. Image of a date tree on the mosaic floor at the Hamman Lif synagogue in modern Tunisia, 2nd-5th centuries.
  18. Image of a lion on the mosaic floor at the Hamman Lif synagogue in modern Tunisia, 2nd-5th centuries.
  19. Image of a duck on the mosaic floor at the Hamman Lif synagogue in modern Tunisia, 2nd-5th centuries.


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