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Diaspora was the name given to the countries (outside of Palestine) through which the Jews were dispersed, and secondarily to the Jews living in those countries. The Greek term, diaspora, corresponds to the Hebrew meaning "exile" (cf. Jeremiah 24:5). It occurs in the Greek version of the Old Testament, e.g. Deuteronomy 28:25 and 30:4, where the dispersion of the Jews among the nations is foretold as the punishment of their apostasy. In John 7:35, the word is used implying disdain: "The Jews therefore said among themselves: Whither will he go, that we shall not find him? Will he go unto the dispersed among the Gentiles?" Two of the Catholic Epistles, viz. that of James and I Peter, are addressed to the neophytes of the Diaspora. In Acts 2 are enumerated the principal countries from which the Jews came who heard the Apostles preach at Pentecost, everyone "in his own tongue". The Diaspora was the result of the various deportations of Jews which invariably followed the invasion or conquest of Palestine. The first deportation took place after the capture of Samaria by Shalmaneser (Salmanasar) and Sargon, when a portion of the Ten Tribes were carried into the regions of the Euphrates and into Media, 721 B.C. (2 Kings 17). In 587 B.C. the Kingdom of Juda was transported into Mesopotamia. When, about fifty years later, Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to their country, only the poorer and more fervent availed themselves of the permission The richer families remained in Babylonia forming the beginning of a numerous and influential community. The conquests of Alexander the Great caused the spreading of Jews throughout Asia and Syria. Seleucus Nicator made the Jews citizens in the cities he built in his dominions, and gave them equal rights with the Greeks and Macedonians. (Josephus, Antiquities, XII, iii, l.) Shortly after the transportation of Juda into Babylonia a number of Jews who had been left in Palestine voluntarily emigrated into Egypt. (Jeremiah 42-44) They formed the nucleus of the famous Alexandrine colony. But the great transportation into Egypt was effected by Ptolemy Soter. "And Ptolemy took many captives both from the mountainous parts of Judea and from the places about Jerusalem and Samaria and led them into Egypt and settled them there" (Antiquities, XII, I, 1). In Rome there was already a community of Jews at the time of Caesar. It is mentioned in a decree of Caesar cited by Josephus (Ant., XLV, x, 8). After the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus thousands of Jewish slaves were placed upon the market. They formed the nucleus of settlements in Africa, Italy, Spain, and Gaul. At the time of the Apostles the number of Jews in the Diaspora was exceedingly great. The Jewish author of the Sibylline Oracles (2nd century B.C.) could already say of his countrymen: "Every land and every sea is full of them" (Or. Sib., III, 271). Josephus mentioning the riches of the temple says: "Let no one wonder that there was so much wealth in our temple since all the Jews throughout the habitable earth sent their contributions" (Ant., XIV, vii, 2). The Jews of the Diaspora paid a temple tax, a kind of Peter's-pence; a didrachma being required from every male adult. The sums transmitted to Jerusalem were at times so large as to cause an inconvenient drainage of gold, which more than once induced the Roman government either to stop the transmittance or even to confiscate it.

Though the Diaspora Jews were, on the whole, faithful to their religion, there was a noticeable difference of theological opinion between the Babylonian and Alexandrine Jew. In Mesopotamia the Jews read and studied the Bible in Hebrew. This was comparatively easy to them since Chaldee, their vernacular, was kindred to the Hebrew. The Jews in Egypt and throughout Europe, commonly called Hellenistic Jews, soon forgot Hebrew. A Greek version of the Bible, the Septuagint, was made for them. The consequence was that they were less ardent in the punctilious observance of their Law. Like the Samaritans they showed a schismatic tendency by erecting a rival temple to that in Jerusalem. It was built by the son of Onias the high-priest in Leontopolis in Lower Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy Philometor, 160 B.C., and was destroyed 70 B.C. (Ant., XIII, iii, sects. 2, 3). It is a curious fact that whereas Hellenistic Judaism became the soil in which Christianity took root and waxed strong, the colony in Babylonia remained a stronghold of orthodox Judaism and produced its famous Talmud. The deeply-rooted antagonism between the Jews and Greeks made the amalgamation of the two races impossible. Though some of the Seleucids and Ptolemies, such as Seleucus Nicator and Antiochus the Great, were favourable towards the Jews, there was constant friction between the two elements in Syria and Egypt. Occasional pillage and massacre were the inevitable result. Thus on one occasion the Greeks in Seleucia and Syria massacred some 50,000 Jews (Ant., XVIII, ix, 9). On another occasion the Jews, getting the upper hand in Cyprus, killed the Greek inhabitants of Salamis and were in consequence banished from the island (Dio Cassius, LXVIII, 23). In Alexandria it was found necessary to confine the Jews to a separate quarter, or ghetto. The Roman Empire was on the whole well-disposed towards the Jews of the Diaspora. They had everywhere the right of residence and could not be expelled. The two exceptions were the expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Tiberius (Ant., XVIII, iii, 5) and under Claudius (Acts 18:2). But both these instances were of short duration. Their cult was declared a religio licita. All communities had their synagogue, proseuchai or sabbateia, which served also as libraries and places of assembly. The most famous was that in Antioch (De bell. Jud., VII, iii 3). They had their cemeteries; in Rome, like the Christians, they buried their dead in catacombs. They were allowed freely to observe their sabbaths, festivals, and dietary laws. They were exempt from the emperor-worship and from military service. Many Jews enjoyed Roman citizenship, e.g. St. Paul (Acts 16:37-39). In many places the Jewish community formed a recognized organization with administrative, judicial, and financial powers. It was ruled by a council called gerousia, composed of elders, presbyteroi, at the head of which was the archon. Another token of the freedom which the Jews enjoyed throughout the empire was their active propagandism (cf. Matthew 23:15). The neophytes were called phoboumenoi or sebomenoi, i.e. God-fearing (Acts 13:16, 26, 43; Antiquities, XIV, 7:2). Their number appears to have been very great. St. Paul met them in almost all the cities he visited. Josephus, praising the excellence of the Law, says: "the multitude of mankind itself has had a great inclination to follow our religious observances. There is not a city of the Grecians or Sabarians, where our customs and the prohibition as to our food are not observed" etc. (Contra Apion., II, xl). Many of the converts were distinguished persons, e.g. Aguila, the chamberlain of the Queen Candace (Acts 8:26 sq.); Azizus, King of Emesa, and Polemo, King of Cilicia (Ant., xx, vii); the patrician lady Fulvia (Ant., XVIII, iii, 5).


Jewish Encyc. s.v. Dispersion; SCHURER, Geschichte des judischen Volkes (Leipzig, 1890); GRATZ, Geschichte der Juden; RENAN, Les Apétres; MOMMSEN, The Provinces of the Roman Empire (tr. London, 1886). A list of the countries of the Diaspora is given by PHILO, Leg. ad Caium, 36.

About this page

APA citation. Van den Biesen, C. (1908). Diaspora. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Van den Biesen, Christian. "Diaspora." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Joseph E. O'Connor.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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