The Jewish Diaspora in the Hellenistic Period


                                             A Jewish Synagogue


    The word Diaspora has become as much a part of Jewish vocabulary as pogrom and the Shoah.  Yet the Jewish Diaspora of the Hellenistic period should not be confused with either the Babylonian or the later Roman Diasporas.  The Jewish Diaspora during the Hellenistic period, unlike the earlier Babylonian Diaspora, did not originate because of forced expulsion.  Most of the Jews expelled from Judea by Nebuchadnezzar had returned to the land of Zion.  The Hellenistic Diaspora was, for the most part, a voluntary movement of Jews into the Hellenistic kingdoms that created the Jewish presence outside Judea, especially in Ptolemaic Egypt (Collins, 3).  This Diaspora was wedged between two worlds, on the one side were the Hellenistic values of the Greeks and on the other was the Mosaic law.  The various ways the Jews of the Diaspora, especially the Jews in Alexandria, balanced these two extremes, through the emphasis of common values and loyalty to the monarch, dictated its existence in the Hellenistic World.

    By looking closer at the position of the Jews of Ptolemaic Egypt, their successes and struggles, we can gain a much better perspective on the status of the Jews in the Diaspora during the Hellenistic Period.

    The connection of Jews to the land of Egypt is almost as old as Israel itself, the story of the Exodus is retold every year at Passover.  Judea is strategically located as the only place from which Egypt can be invaded.  In the North the Mediterranean Sea offers perfect cover, the West is protected by the Libyan desert, and the South is secured by the Ethiopian desert.  It is therefore natural that whoever governed Egypt would maintain a direct interest in Judea throughout the Hellenistic period and beyond.

    Some of the Jews came to Egypt voluntarily as mercenaries, and they were subsequently used by the Ptolemaic rulers to defend the throne against the local population (Kasher 3). Some came because they were attracted by Hellenistic culture, a few were coerced into coming to Egypt by false promises of riches.  Jews, as Greek speaking non-Egyptians having the official rank of Hellene, could attain practically all positions under the Ptolemies.  Some Jewish communities existed in other kingdoms and cities, such as the city of Antioch, in Syria under the Seleucids, and the Jews in Babylon who chose not to return from exile. It was especially in the city of Alexandria that Judaism and the Diaspora flourished.

     Like all subjects to authoritarian monarchs, Egyptian Jews had to conform to the changes that came with the differing rulers.  There was a marked difference in the attitudes of different Ptolemaic kings to the presence of Jews in Egypt.  The varying levels of toleration towards Jews shown by the Egyptian kings illustrate the difficult situation that the Jewish Diaspora occasionally found itself in. Ptolemy I conquered Jerusalem, tricking the Jewish defenders by attacking on the Sabbath, and took  100,000 prisoners (an exaggerated figure) to Egypt, many as slaves (Kasher, 3).

    Ptolemy II Philadelphos was much more favorably inclined towards Egyptian Jews, going so far as to free many of the remaining Hebrew slaves, who had been brought to Egypt by his father.  It was also during his rule that the Books of Moses were translated into Greek (Bartlett, 11). This fact shows the influence of the Jews of the Diaspora had on the polytheistic Greek culture.  This event is significant also because it shows the interest of the Hellenistic Greeks in Jewish laws and customs.   Ptolemy IV Philopator persecuted Egyptian Jews and those in Alexandria in particular (Kasher 7).  According to 3 Maccabees, the monarch, being highly devoted to the cult of Dionysus attempted to have the Jews branded with the emblem of Dionysus (3 Macc. 2:29-30).  This was an obvious insult to Jews since the worship of any G-d other than Yahweh constituted a breach of the Mosaic law. (Collins, 67).

     Little is known about the relationship of the Jews with Ptolemy V, however, there is information about Ptolemy VI Philometor.  It was during the rule of Ptolemy VI that upheaval and rebellion against the Seleucids spread through Judea.  It was during this unrest that a new wave of Jewish immigrants came to Egypt.  The refugees were welcomed by Ptolemy VI.  Among the refugees was Onias IV who claimed to be the rightful successor to the high priesthood.  Onias attained important and trusted status in Egypt (Collins, 68-69).  This shows that there was a time in Egypt when even the most traditional Jews, one of which the High Priest undoubtedly was, could attain high status in Greek society.  It is also worth noting that Onias built a Jewish Temple at Leontopolis.  Some historians have suggested that the Temple at Leontopolis was meant to rival the one in Jerusalem, since Onias claimed to be the rightful heir to the post of the High Priest.  Its location, however, suggests that it was only meant to be a sanctuary for Jewish soldiers in the region, as Jewish soldiers played a vital part in the succession disputes that followed the death of Ptolemy Philometor (Collins 70-71).

    The situation in Judea itself also had an effect on the Diaspora.  In 198 BCE Judea was conquered by the Seleucids, yet when the relations between the Hebrews and Seleucid king, Antiochus III, deteriorated and Jews launched the Maccabeean revolt, a wave of Hebrew refugees streamed to Egypt (Collins, 68).  The Maccabees, after their victory, began a policy of persecution of Hellenized Jews in Judea and this policy also contributed to the numbers of Jews in Egypt.

     For the most part, despite occasional persecution, Jews in Ptolemaic Egypt were left alone to practice their religion.  The vast majority of the Jewish Diaspora under the Ptolemies was loyal to the monarchy, and attempted to participate in the society as much as Jewish law and traditions would permit (Collins, 151).  While large Jewish communities were usually organized as separate bodies in Egypt, they did retain a very close connection with Jerusalem, as evident by the fact that several High Priests of Judea came for visits to Alexandria (Kasher, 346).  The cooperation also benefited Judea, as Alexandrian artists were commissioned to repair the Jerusalem Temples damaged accessories (Kasher, 347).  The Jews of Egypt also made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, bringing with them sacrificial gifts and gifts for the priests of the Temple (Kasher, 346).

    Large Jewish communities in Egypt were classified by the Egyptian authorities as Politai, and as such enjoyed the protection of civil laws.  The Jews were a distinct group, they were below the Greeks, however, they were above the native Egyptian population.  This classification does not include Jewish slaves, however, most of them were freed by Ptolemy II.  Jews of Alexandria were not citizens of the Greek polis, nor did they strive to attain citizenship alongside Greeks.  The Alexandrian Jews struggled to maintain their current status, since becoming full citizens would have meant giving up their Jewish identity.  As previously stated, however, the situation and the social position of the Jews would change from monarch to monarch.

     Jewish identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora was maintained largely through ethics and piety.  While most gentiles thought of Judaism as a strange phenomenon, some Greeks admired many of the codes in the Mosaic law.  Several aspects of the law, in particular, found a receptive audience among the gentiles.  Throughout the Hellenistic period there had been a growing movement in some Greek philosophical circles towards monotheism.  In addition, the Stoic and the Cynic movements both criticized idolatry. Therefore Jewish writers in the Diaspora could draw a connection between Judaism and the Greek world.  The ancient Hellenistic historian Hecataeus of Abdera in his account of Judaism, written in the beginning of the Hellenistic Period, characterized the Jewish religion rather favorably.  He noted the humanitarian aspects of the Mosaic law and the vital role of the priesthood (Collins, 156).   The strictness of the Mosaic law on the issue of adultery and homosexuality agreed with many Greek philosophers and movements of the contemporary and yesteryear.  By emphasizing common values, and downplaying practices exclusive to Judaism, such as circumcision, Hellenistic Jewish writers attempted to present their religion as a universal one (Collins, 160).

    There was, however, also negative reaction to the presence of Jews in Greek kingdoms, and to the Jewish religion as a whole.  Many Greeks, during the Hellenistic period, saw certain Jewish customs, such as the attention to diet and cleanliness and, as a result of these, the refusal to interact with and marry non-Jews, as going squarely against Greek ideals.  Much of the evidence of the anti-Jewish feeling at the time can be found in the surviving literature.  An Egyptian priest, Manetho, in a book about the history of Egypt, rewrote the story of the Exodus, as the expulsion of a leper colony (the Jews).  It is also at this time that fables (later known as blood libel, a reference to Jews allegedly using the blood of gentiles for human sacrifices) began to appear, among them that Jews worshipped an ass, and that Jews offered human sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple (Johnson, 135).  The result of these claims was a sort of Hellenistic anti-Semitism.  In every culture there is distrust of foreigners, especially ones who pride themselves on being different.  The presence of anti-Jewish themes in literature, however, suggests an attempt by some Greeks to ferment anti-Jewish sentiment in the ruling class of Egypt.  Because the Mosaic law discouraged contact with gentiles many Hellenistic Greeks thought that Jews were a selfish people.  As a result many attempts of the Greeks to outlaw the Mosaic law were based on the idea that the Jews had to be made a more social people, like the Greeks.    

    Throughout the Hellenistic period the Jewish Diaspora was caught between two extremes.  One being the strict Mosaic law and Jewish traditions, and the other, Hellenistic values.  While the Jews of the Diaspora attempted to maintain close links with Jerusalem their primary concern was the relation with the current Ptolemaic monarch.  Combined with the constant disputes within Judea itself and the nature of the Jewish religion, the task of the Jews of the Diaspora to blend in while maintaining their Jewish identity was extremely hard, and ultimately the choice became complete assimilation or exile into ghettos.




To read more on Judaism, check out: Hellenism and the Jewish After Life