The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. constitutes, in most analyses, a watershed event for the Jews of antiquity. The elimination of the center, source of spiritual nourishment and preeminent symbol of the nation’s identity, compelled Jews to reinvent themselves, to find other means of religious sustenance, and to adjust their lives to an indefinite period of displacement. That trauma has pervasive and enduring resonance.
But it tends to obscure a striking fact.
Jews faced a still more puzzling and problematic situation prior to the loss of the Temple. Diaspora did not await the fall of Jerusalem. (Gruen: 66)
More Jews were scattered throughout the Levant and Mediterranean kingdoms and city-states than were living in Judea throughout the four centuries before the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 C.E.
- What did these diaspora Jews (or as some scholars prefer in the interests of consistency, diaspora Judeans) think of Jerusalem, the Temple, the “holy land”, and their relationship to them?
A popular idea that may have prevailed among many of us brought up in the Christian West is that those scattered Judeans felt somehow dislocated, homeless, and that they really belonged in Judea. After all, doesn’t the OT pronounce “exile” as the ultimate punishment from a wrathful deity on the Jewish people for their sins? If Judeans repented then ought not they want to “return” to Judea and live beside Jerusalem and the Temple?
Erich Gruen proposes another look at this viewpoint, a look that I think is more deeply grounded in the realities of human experience:
Yet that convention ignores a grave implausibility. It is not easy to imagine that millions of Jews in the Diaspora were obsessed with a longing for Jerusalem that had little chance of fulfillment. It seems only logical that they sought means whereby to legitimize the existence that most of them inherited from their parents and would bequeath to their descendants.¹⁴⁵ Large and thriving Jewish communities existed in numerous areas of the Mediterranean, with opportunities for economic advancement, social status, and even political responsibilities.¹⁴⁶ Did their members, as some have claimed, take recourse in the thesis that the nation is defined by its texts rather than by its location?¹⁴⁷
The dualism is deceptive. The Jews of antiquity, in fact, never developed a systematic theory or philosophy of Diaspora. The whole idea of valuing homeland over Diaspora or Diaspora, over homeland may be off the mark. Second Temple Jews need not have faced so stark a choice.
145: I. M. Gafni, Land, Center, and Diaspora (Sheffield, Engl., 1979), 19–40
146: J. Juster, Les juifs dans l’empire romain, 2 vols. (Paris, 1914).
E. Schürer, History of the Jewish People, vol. 3.1, 1–176;
J. Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora, 19–81, 231–319; and
I. Levinskaya, The Book of Acts in Its Diaspora Setting (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1996), 127–93.
147: See, esp., G. Steiner, “Our Homeland, The Text,” Salmagundi 66 (1985): 4–25.
On the ambivalence of exile and homecoming in recent Jewish conceptions, see the comments of S. D. Ezrahi, “Our Homeland, the Text … Our Text, the Homeland: Exile and Homecoming in the Modern Jewish Imagination,” Michigan Quarterly Review 31 (1992): 463–97.
We too easily conflate our biblical knowledge with Judeans per se, wherever and whenever they are. The whole idea of being scattered throughout “the nations” was a biblical one directed at sinners in Palestine or the Kingdom of Judah and ordained to be executed by the Assyrians, first, then the Babylonians. Judeans living in various city-states in later times could scarcely relate to anyone exiled by an Assyrian or Babylonian. Look more closely at some Second Temple texts:
Ben Sira 48:15 speaks of the sins of biblical Israel that brought about exile and the message may well have served as a warning to anyone who read the text, but it did not condemn the current readers of Ben Sira or any of his generation or anyone in the Diaspora.
Tobit speaks of the sins of Israelites in the time of the Assyrians but he also writes of a wonderful happy ending when all Judeans will be restored to an ideal land. There is no suggestion that Diaspora Jews were continually donning sackcloth and wailing desperately for a return to Jerusalem. Or, in Gruen’s words,
This, hardly suggests that the Hellenistic Diaspora is a vale of tears.
3 Maccabees (1st C bce) however, does speak of great danger for Diaspora Jews in Egypt. Luckily, or Providentially, the mad schemes of Ptolemy IV are thwarted and a peaceful future is won for the Judeans in Egypt. A special feast is instituted and celebrated annually in Egypt to honor the rescue. This does not speak of a longing to “return” to Jerusalem.
The Diaspora authors responsible for 2 Maccabees, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Testament of Job, the Sibylline Oracles and works of Philo did indeed speak of Palestine as “the holy land” but none of them links such a concept with a “longing to Return”.
How compelling was the notion of a “homeland” to Jews dwelling in Mediterranean communities . . . . Philo more than once endorses the idea that adherence to one’s patris has singular power. . . . . . It does not follow, however, that Diaspora Jews set their hearts upon a return to the fatherland. (Gruen: 69)
Look at Josephus and Philo. Josephus informs us that Jews can quite rightly call themselves Alexandrians, Antiohenes, Ephesians, etc.; Philo speaks of his home as “our Alexandria” and in one document labels himself as an “Alexandrian”.
A comparable sentiment might be inferred from an inscription of the Phrygian city of Acmonia, alluding to fulfillment of a vow made to the “whole patris.” A Jew or a group of Jews must have commissioned it, because a menorah appears beneath the text. Here again the “native city” is honored, presumably through a gift for civic purposes. The donor pronounces his local loyalty in a conspicuous public manner. Philo confirms the sentiment in striking fashion: Jews consider the holy city as their “metropolis,” but the states in which they were born and raised and which they acquired from their fathers, grandfathers, and distant forefathers they adjudge their patrides. That fervent expression eradicates any idea of the “doctrine of return.” Diaspora Jews, in Philo’s formulation at least, held a fierce attachment to the adopted lands of their ancestors. (Gruen: 70)
What of those temple offerings?
Josephus proudly observes that the donations came from Jews all over Asia and Europe, indeed from everywhere in the world, for countless years. And when local authorities interfered with that activity, the Jews would send up a howl to Rome. . . . The issue of paying homage to Jerusalem was paramount: Indeed the Romans, even after they destroyed the Temple, did not destroy that institution — an ironic acknowledgment of its power. They simply altered its recipient. The tithe would no longer go to the demolished shrine; it would metamorphose into a Roman tax. The money would now subsidize the cult of Jupiter Capitolinus. . . .
The yearly contribution proclaimed that the Diaspora could endure indefinitely, and quite satisfactorily. The communities abroad were entrenched and successful, even mainstays of the center. Diaspora Jews did not and would not turn their backs on Jerusalem, which remained the principal emblem of their faith. Their fierce commitment to the tithe delivered that message unequivocally. But the gesture did not signify a desire for the “Return.” It rendered the Return unnecessary. (Gruen: 71-72)
And those annual feasts?
In the New Testament we read of Jews/Judeans flocking from all over the world to attend a major holy festival in Jerusalem, the most famous one probably being the first Pentecost after the crucifixion of Jesus. But a pilgrimage for a feast is not evidence of a desire for migration. How many Arab-speaking citizens in the West are longing to “return” to live in Arabia near their most sacred sites of pilgrimage?
Look again at those literary works addressed in the previous post:
The Letter of Aristeas: Ptolemy’s stated intention is to have the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek for the benefit of Jews “throughout the world” and even those of future generations. That does not hint of a need to “return”.
3 Maccabees: when Ptolemy IV is prevented from entering the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem he turns his wrath upon the Jews in Egypt:
The king is determined to bring public shame, upon the ethnos of the Jews generally. Egyptian Jews are “fellow-tribesmen” of those who dwelled in Judaea. (Gruen: 73)
When Philo wrote of the persecutions of Jews in Alexandria, Egypt, he pointed out that news of the sufferings of that race spread rapidly throughout the Jewish or Judean communities throughout the Mediterranean, from Europe to Asia.
Jerusalem certainly was a point of imaginative focus and mark of identity. At the same time the Diaspora was not thought of a “shame” to be overcome, hidden or somehow denied and overturned.
Judeans were “appropriationists rather than assimilationists” — and that has been the point of this and the preceding post. Yes, Judeans avoided being lost in the “melting pot”, whether that “melting pot” represented the world of Hellenism or the “literalist and rabbinic-like Judaism” that became the mark of “Judaism” in a later era.
And to add my own little nagging thought that keeps thumping away in the back of my head: what room is there here for any sort of “messianic movement” or “messianic hope” or “messianic longing”. I see none. Do you differ?
Gruen, Erich S. 2018. The Construct of Identity in Hellenistic Judaism, Essays on Early Jewish Literature and History. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110375558.
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