Greco-Roman Period
Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism- a Parallel History of their Origins and Early Development. Ed. Hershal Shanks. Washington D.C.- Biblical Archaeology Society, 1993.

The Jews of the Diaspora

The Jewish communities of Alexandria in Egypt and in Cyprus and Cyrene were
devastated in the revolt of 115–117 C.E. Other Jewish communities of the Roman
Diaspora, however, remained vigorous throughout the second century. These
included especially the community in Rome and numerous Jewish communities
in Asia Minor (western Turkey). That Rome had a large and varied Jewish
population is demonstrated by the Jewish catacombs, 36 the underground burial
chambers used by the community. The inscriptions in the catacombs reveal a
community with at least 11 synagogues (or congregations), each with its own
officers and leaders, a vigorous population and a robust Jewish identity. Other
cities on the Italian peninsula (notably Ostia and Venosa) also had a Jewish
presence, as archaeological remains and inscriptions attest. But obviously these
Jewish communities could not compete in importance with the one in Rome.

In Asia Minor Jewish communities also flourished. In the late second century,
the Jewish community of Sardis, as archaeological excavations have shown,
gained control of a large building that had been owned by the municipality and
that fronted on the agora (the main city square). The Jews promptly converted
this magnificent building into a synagogue. This synagogue was longer than a
football field and opulent even by modern standards. It obviously reflects a
Jewish community that was both wealthy and influential. 37 At nearby
Aphrodisias a recently discovered inscription records the support that a Jewish
charitable organization received from “the righteous Gentiles” (God-fearers) of
the city. These Gentiles included nine members of the city council, a fact that
shows that this Jewish community also was well-connected, secure and
thriving. 38 The exact date of the inscription is uncertain (it may date to the third
century rather than the second), but we may assume that other communities too,
whether in Asia Minor or elsewhere and whether in the second century or the
third, enjoyed a peaceful and happy existence in their Diaspora setting.

The linguistic barrier between Diaspora Jews and the rabbis of Israel
Although our evidence is meager, nothing in it suggests that the Jews of the
Roman Diaspora looked to the rabbis of Palestine for guidance and support. Nor
is there any indication that they practiced a rabbinic form of Judaism.

Inscriptional remains of Diaspora Jewry contain virtually no references to rabbis;
nor do other archaeological remains indicate the presence of Rabbinic Judaism. 39
The Jews of the Roman Diaspora spoke Greek; their knowledge of Hebrew
ranged from meager to nonexistent. In the first century C.E., Philo, the most
literate and learned Jew produced by the Roman Diaspora, studied the Torah in
Greek, thought about it in Greek and wrote about in Greek. As far as is known,
the Diaspora Jews were no more fluent in Hebrew in the second and third
centuries than they had been in the first. The rabbis, however, made no effort to
translate their teachings into Greek and had no interest in Greco-Jewish
literature. Josephus, Philo and all the other extant works of Greco-Jewish
literature were preserved by the Church, not by Rabbinic Judaism. The languages
of Rabbinic Judaism were Hebrew and Aramaic. Diaspora Jews knew little if
anything of either of these two languages, so they could not have been part of the
world of the rabbis. Perhaps a few rabbis of the second and third centuries knew
enough Greek to speak to the local governor or other high-ranking officials, but
there is no indication that such knowledge was widespread or was deemed
useful for communication with the Jews of the Diaspora.

Furthermore, there is no evidence that the rabbis of the Land of Israel in either
the second or the third century even made an effort to reach out to the Jews of the
Diaspora. Rabbinic literature is filled with stories about the travels of the rabbis
of the second century, especially of the pre-Bar Kosba period. These stories have
not yet been systematically collected and evaluated, but whatever historicity they
may have, they do not demonstrate that the rabbis of whatever period—whether
the actors or the storytellers—were interested in spreading their message and
hegemony to the Jews of the Diaspora. There is a persistent tradition in rabbinic
literature that a convert to Judaism named Aquila revised the Greek translation
of the Torah (the Septuagint, abbreviated LXX) under the supervision of Rabbi
Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, but the historicity of this claim is hard to establish. 40 In
any case, there is no clear evidence before the sixth century that the Greek
translation of Aquila was actually used by Diaspora Jewry. 41

Thus, there was a serious linguistic barrier between the Jews of the Roman
Diaspora and the rabbis in the Land of Israel, and there was little interest or
ability on the part of these rabbis (at least in the second and third centuries) to
become involved in the religious life of Diaspora Jewry. Diaspora Jews attended
their synagogues; prayed and read the Torah; observed the Sabbath, holidays,
food laws; believed in the one God who created heaven and earth and chose
Israel to be his people; obeyed (or did not obey) their traditional authority
figures—all, however, without the help of the lettered elite that was emerging in

The Jewish Diaspora in Babylonia was Aramaic-speaking, and therefore could
communicate far more easily with the rabbis of the Land of Israel than could the
Greek-speaking Jews of the Roman Diaspora. Various rabbis of the second
century were reported to be of Babylonian extraction, and various Palestinian
rabbis were said to have traveled to Babylonia, but Babylonia was not yet in the
rabbinic orbit in the second century C.E. Although the Babylonian Talmud
reveals a great deal about the religious and social life of Babylonian Jewry in the
third to fifth centuries C.E, it tells us almost nothing about life in the second
century. We may assume that the Jews of Babylonia, like their co-religionists in
the Roman Diaspora, continued to observe their traditional practices without the
help of the rabbis from the Land of Israel. 42