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date: 04 December 2020

diaspora, Jewish, 332 bcec. 600 cefree

  • Seth Schwartz


For some ancient Jews, “diaspora” (together with its cognates) was an actor’s and not an observer’s term. But its import was primarily theological: God punished the Jews for their sins by dispersing them from their native land of Israel. Yet “diaspora” retains analytic utility for historians, if taken to refer to the geographically and temporally varied modes of Jewish life outside Palestine. It is not known to what extent diaspora Jews were emigrants from Palestine and their descendants; nor do we know how numerous they were. But we can follow the evidence where it exists. The main lesson is that the onset of Roman rule created crises around the integration of the Jews into their host societies. Intentionally or not, in the cities of the east (and the big villages of Egypt) the Romans fomented discord between different elements of the population. In Egypt, this led at once to the ultimately lethal—for the Jews, anyhow—three-way competition between Jews, Greeks, and Egyptians. Even in Asia Minor, normally understood as the best-case scenario for Jews under Roman rule, the evidence indicates that Jewish life in the Roman imperial period was more fragile, constrained, fraught, and impermanent than is often supposed.

Diaspora, Actors’ or Observers’ Category?

For at least some ancient Jews, “diaspora,” which has since the 1990s become a central term in cultural anthropology and postcolonial studies, was a native category. In the Hebrew Bible, tefutzah or nefutzah (the Greek translation is diaspora) refers to the scattering of the Israelites among the nations, most often as divine punishment for Israel’s sins.1 It thus overlaps with exile (golah; galut), though it is not quite coextensive with it. It is a term whose connotations are overwhelmingly theological. Dispersion is a stage in Israel’s theological narrative. Israel did not freely abandon its land but was removed from it by God; Israel’s own agency was limited to its free choice to commit the sins for which it was punished. God will also restore Israel—when it repents. This view, which requires Israel to maintain its separation from the nations even as it lives among them, and institutionalises the people of Israel’s connection to the Land of Israel (if only as a hope of return to be realised at the end of days) has had, to say the least, an exceedingly complex impact on Jewish subjectivities through the ages. Because we possess so little evidence, this is a story we can barely even begin to tell for premodernity. The “longing for Zion” present in such post-exilic (587 bce) biblical texts as Psalm 137 or 126 is not much in evidence in (other?) texts presumably written in the diaspora, like the biblical Esther, or Pseudo-Aristeas or the works of Philo of Alexandria, or even in the Babylonian Talmud. But we can be sure that the theologies of dispersion were disseminated and ritually performed, whatever their impact may have been on the performers: from a certain date—it is surprisingly difficult to know when (but perhaps not much earlier than the 1st century bce)—the Pentateuchal texts on dispersion (Deuteronomy 28.15–68 and the more optimistic Leviticus 26.14–45) were recited and/or studied periodically. As the synagogue gained a foothold, first in Egypt in the 3rd century bce and then in Asia, Greece, and Syria by the 1st century bce, the impermissibility of full worship (through animal sacrifice, something presumably normally absent in the synagogue) of Israel’s God outside Judaea was likewise institutionalized. The fact that the local synagogue was not the Jerusalem Temple provided a routinized performance of the latter’s centrality. By the Middle Ages, Jewish liturgy repeatedly noted that the Jews were expelled from their land and barred from sacrifice due to their own sins; Jews prayed daily for their corporate restoration and for their temple’s reconstruction. But we have no idea what synagogue prayers consisted of in Antiquity or whether they even featured fixed liturgies at all. We have very scattered additional evidence for Jews’ loyalty to the Jerusalem temple in the later Hellenistic and early Roman periods: Cicero (Pro Flacco) defended the governor of Asia, Lucius Valerius Flaccus, from charges that he had stolen silver the Asian Jews had gathered to send to the Jerusalem temple; two or three generations later there is ample evidence, both literary and epigraphical, for the popularity of pilgrimage to Jerusalem by diaspora Jews.

We also know that some Jews cultivated an alternative model to understand their situation, as an enduringly separate corporation with connections to a homeland: They tried to reimagine themselves as colonists, on the Greek model (Philo, Legatio ad Gaium). There is an apologetic aspect to this. Anti-Jewish writers mocked the Jews’ purported status as exiles and parodied the biblical Exodus story by turning the most heroic moment in Israel’s myth of origins into a story of exile and expulsion. An approximation to the Greek model had an obvious appeal, though not all Jews who tried to acculturate in the Hellenistic world bought into it: Pseudo-Aristeas, for example, assimilated the story of the Jews in Hellenistic Egypt precisely to the Pentateuchal model: Ptolemy Soter had taken Judaeans captive and kept them enslaved, and only his son, Philadelphos, liberated them. This despite the fact that it is almost certain that Judaean immigration to Ptolemaic Egypt was free, not forced, and that the status of the Judaeans once settled was privileged.

For our purposes, diaspora, though an actors’ category, must remain merely a term of convenience. It is difficult to determine whether and to what extent ancient Jews had internalised its ideological content. Historians must also resist the tendency of past scholarship and assume that there was a distinctive diaspora Judaism, culturally Hellenised and possessing relatively uniform rituals and theologies that distinguished it from non-Hellenised and more authentically “Semitic” and Pentateuchal Palestinian Judaism.2 The imposition of such inflexible categories on sparse evidence scattered across a millennium and over territory extending from Spain to Iran is a manifest absurdity. But it is also important to remember that in real, tangible ways, Palestine was for a long period the institutional and demographic center of ancient Jewish life. Though it eventually lost these roles (and then briefly regained them in several periods), a modest sort of center–periphery model has a place, to be sure in reciprocal coexistence with “peer polity interaction” models not to mention those which see ancient Jewish life as essentially a congeries of loosely or barely connected local phenomena. The “diaspora” is Jewish life outside Palestine. Many more Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds indubitably became completely integrated in their environments than there is evidence for (because with some exceptions Jews are discernible in the evidence only if they maintained some sense of separation from their environment—this is a crucial evidentiary bias too often overlooked). Normally such Jews or former Jews are only a footnote to the story, but no one who wishes to understand the diasporic experience can afford to ignore them. The following sections will address several crucial problems of historical interpretation. This article will not offer a comprehensive encyclopaedic summary of evidence for Jews and Jewish life outside Palestine.

Scale of the Phenomenon

It is easy to provide lists of places where Jews are known to have lived in Antiquity.3 In both ancient and modern accounts the point of such lists is often to emphasise the extent and by extension the size of the diffused Jewish population. But lists often ignore the fact that few places had stable Jewish communities over the course of centuries. They also are uninformative about size. Harnack tried to guess at the size of the Jewish diaspora in the early Roman period but used techniques (accepting numbers in ancient sources—Philo’s figure of one million Jews in Alexandria and Egypt for example; making pure guesses about population figures for Asia Minor and Syria) that we, in the wake of the infiltration of advances in historical demography into ancient history, no longer regard as valid. This means that his figure of four million, though reassuringly lower than the figure of seven or eight million still occasionally encountered in exceedingly conservative, popular or simply ill-informed historiography, cannot be taken seriously.4

Some pioneeringly sophisticated efforts have recently yielded interesting and minimalistic results for individual communities. Leonard Rutgers has argued for a Jewish population of 3rd- to 4th-century Rome of six thousand at most, a far cry from the fifty thousand that was the customary estimation for most of the 20th century.5 There may be similar work to be done for a few spots in rural Egypt, where documents list plots of land expropriated from Jews in the wake of the rebellion of 116–117. Beyond this, the best we can do is experiment with parametric models, seeing what sort of explanatory force different models might have. It would be optimistic even to say that this work is in its infancy, but if the field starts paying attention to work like that of Rutgers, the seeds for interesting developments may be sown.

One reason scholars have wondered about the size of the diaspora is that it potentially raises questions about its origins. Until the Maccabean Revolt (167–152 bce), almost all Jews in Palestine lived in the tiny district of Judaea, surrounding Jerusalem. The small size of this district and the fact that its eastern half is nearly a desert, suggested that most diaspora Jewish communities were not simply the result of emigration from Palestine but must have had other (or perhaps more complex) origins. There may be some truth to this. For example, it is worth contemplating the case of Elephantine, a fortress near the southern frontier of Egypt, the evolution of whose Judahite colony—a small core of male soldiers who had migrated from Palestine in the Saite period, intermarrying with their neighbors for over two centuries but still retaining the sense of being Judahite—into a Jewish settlement, notwithstanding a very attenuated genetic connection to Judaea, we can trace in documents of the later 5th century bce). Nevertheless, until the most basic demographic work is done, the point seems moot. There is simply have no way of knowing how Judaean diaspora Jews were. Different answers may apply in different places (e.g., Egypt was a traditional place of refuge for hungry migrants from Syria and Palestine). There is the plausible possibility that in some places small migrant cores attracted networks around themselves whose members, in this formative period of Jewish identity, at some stage came to be defined as Jewish. Two extreme options are to be excluded simply because they are implausible: (1) All diaspora communities consisted entirely of immigrants from Judaea and their in-married descendants, and (2) all or almost all diaspora communities are the result of a great conversionist project. That the Jews conducted “missions” to the pagans was once a popular idea and is still occasionally revived but has no evidentiary foundation, plausibility, or explanatory force.

Jewish Life in the Diaspora: Hellenistic Period, 323–331 bce

Though historians have reached aporia about the questions of the size and origins of the Jewish diaspora, there are other big questions that can be addressed with a bit—and only a bit—more assurance. There is a long-standing scholarly tradition of attempting to characterise and evaluate diaspora Jewish life. Despite the fact that there is little information for the Hellenistic period outside Egypt—beyond some scattered literary mentions of Jewish corporations in Asia Minor and a few other locations, especially at the end of the Hellenistic period—historians used to produce verbose accounts, more often retrojecting Roman-period evidence (or simply speculating impressionistically) than extrapolating from well-attested though presumably atypical Egypt. Such accounts might celebrate the Jews’ successful adaptation to life in culturally Greek environments, achieved by translating sacred texts into Greek and adjusting “Semitic” patterns of thought and cognition to Greek ones without abandoning the commitment to such core Jewish religious values as monotheism, rejection of idolatry (not the same thing), and basic Jewish practice—Sabbath observance, some food restrictions, circumcision of male babies. The distinguished Jewish historian Salo Baron drew on the outward focus of Hellenistic Jewish literature—so different from the hermeticism of rabbinic literature produced later in Antiquity—to argue that Jews in the Hellenistic diaspora were engaged in full-throttle competition with Greeks for the hearts and minds of the general population. They were in expansionist mode, drawing huge numbers of adherents and converts. Only in this way was it possible to explain the “fact” that by c. 40 ce seven million Jews lived in the Mediterranean basin. But the Jews could not in the end win the competition, and their heroic age suddenly ended under Roman rule. Judaism suffered one catastrophe after another, abandoned its outward focus, and withdrew into its rabbinic shell, setting the stage for the small populations, and the constrained muddling-through—punctuated by persecutions and expulsions characteristic of Jewish life in the Middle Ages.6

The only thing wrong with this narrative, which was composed to explain the huge Jewish population c. 40 ce, is that it is false. Yet the narrative is not completely without some anchorage in the information we do possess. Jewish literature written in Greek is very different from biblical literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and rabbinic literature, all written in Hebrew and Aramaic (leaving aside for the moment the equally meaningful fact that the Semitic-language literature is also highly varied, and rabbinic literature constitutes a sharp break with all that preceded it regardless of the language of composition). Some of it does indeed reflect an attitude of cultural competition. It is obvious enough that Theodotus’s recasting of the Pentateuchal story of the rape of Dinah (Gen. 34) in Homeric dialect and dactylic hexameter, or Ezekiel’s retelling of the story of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt as a full-blown Greek tragedy (indeed, the only postclassical tragedy to survive almost in full), or indeed, Josephus’s liberal borrowing from Thucydides to tell the story of the Judaean rebellion against Rome (a somewhat late example of the competitive mode), were meant to advance claims about the worthiness in a Greek setting of the Jews’ own history and culture. Scholars would nowadays suppose that the audiences for these works consisted mainly of Jews—it was they more than the Greeks who needed to be reminded of the beauty, the approximate Greekness, of their own traditions. This implies a setting or settings in which Jews were under some integrative pressures, however generated—indeed, probably those operative in the world of Ezekiel (speculatively, mid-Hellenistic Egypt), and that of Josephus (writing mainly for Jews living in eastern Greek cities toward the end of the 1st century ce) were drastically different.

While little is known about Jewish settlements in Asia, Syria, Greece, and Mesopotamia, people more or less easily identifiable as Jews appear in documentary papyri from Hellenistic Egypt with some frequency.7 One exceptionally important small collection concerns the workings of a Jewish politeuma-court in the village of Herakleopolis in the mid-2nd century bce. Judaean and Samarian immigrants in Ptolemaic Egypt (the two groups may not always have been distinguished from one another) were privileged.8 Modrzejewski has argued that they, like all immigrants, were regarded as “Hellenes,” meaning primarily that they had favorable fiscal status and the right to use their politikoi nomoi (laws of their native polis/political entity).9 Indeed, the papyri contain at least one reference to the politikoi nomoi ton Ioudaion (“the native laws of the Judaeans”), and the Herakleopolite dossier is to be understood as illustrating those laws in action. But other documentary papyri amply testify to the fact that like other immigrants, Jews in rural Egypt mainly used the Greco-Egyptian common law that quickly developed under the Ptolemies. Their Hellenic identity was manifestly not just a constitutional nicety. It is certain that many Jews in rural Egypt aspired to some form of Hellenic cultural identity as well. They seem to have used—probably spoken—Greek to the exclusion of both Aramaic and Demotic Egyptian and to have given their children Greek (almost never Egyptian) names, including theophoric names, a fact which raises questions about whether even self-identified Jews in Egypt were necessarily always committed to monotheism. Many rural Jews were military settlers and were in some cases quite prosperous. They certainly received some education, and this was overwhelmingly likely to have been Greek, not Jewish (whatever that might have consisted of in this period). Though not all Jewish literature written in Greek was likely to have been written in Egypt, definitely Egyptian texts such as Ezekiel’s tragedy and Pseudo-Aristeas certainly demonstrate high levels of familiarity with classical literature, and this is true a fortiori for the works of the greatest of all Jewish writers who lived in Egypt: Philo of Alexandria.

At the same time, in Ptolemaic Egypt, it is certain that many Jews retained the sense of separation from their neighbors required by Judaism. Some Jews accordingly gave their children distinctively Hebrew or biblical names and preferred Jewish courts to Greek ones (even if analysis of the Herakleopolite papyri demonstrates that the Jewish politikoi nomoi only partly depended on biblical law, derived, significantly, from the Septuagint, not the Hebrew original—otherwise they were hardly different from Greco-Egyptian common law). Though some Jews may not have scrupled to pay their respects to the gods of their neighbors, there is no evidence that (except in the unusual case of the temple of Leontopolis) Jews built temples to honor their ancestral god, as was common among other immigrant groups in Egypt. Instead, in at least several villages, as early as the 3rd century bce, they built structures they called proseukhai, prayer(-houses). Aside from the fact that Jews presumably gathered in them to recite prayers, that they were routinely dedicated by the rural Jewish corporations (hoi en Athribei/Xenephyridi ktl Ioudaioi) to the Most High God and to the king and queen, we know nothing about what went on in these proto-synagogues (as they most likely were). What they show, however, is that in many places the Jews had internalised the insistent message of the Pentateuchal book of Deuteronomy that the God of Israel has only one temple (in Jerusalem) where he may be worshiped by sacrifice, implying that different (and unspecified) modes of worship were appropriate elsewhere. Two centuries earlier, the Judahite military colonists in Achaemenid Elephantine had worshiped a local manifestation of the Israelite god (Yaho zi be-Yeb birta=Yaho who resides in the citadel of Yeb/Elephantine) in a small temple where sacrifices were offered by priests and psalms sung by their assistants: these Jews had not yet received/accepted the Pentateuch and were not bound by its rules, unlike the Jews in Hellenistic Egypt, whose adherence to the laws of Moses may have been indubitably selective (many aspects of this are still a mystery), but at least a selection was made.10

The impression created by the papyri is that in rural Egypt the Jews were one privileged “Hellenic” group among many. In Achaemenid Egypt Judahite settlers experienced occasional tension with native Egyptians because they, like other Semitic agents of the Persians, practiced such offensive customs as sacrificing sheep and singing psalms in foreign languages. They, along with their neighbors, were apparently wiped out in a native uprising in 400 bce. Were there similar tensions in the Hellenistic period? Did Egyptians regard Jews as just another group of Hellenic settlers? There is fragmentary evidence that some Egyptians were conscious that Egypt played a special and problematic role in the Jews’ corporate consciousness—as a land simultaneously of refuge and of abominations and slavery—and reciprocated by producing an anti-Jewish counter-mythology (the Jews were originally Egyptians but were cast out as impure lepers). We have no idea whether such tales reflect long-held Egyptian popular ideas, or were learned inventions of such highly placed Greco-Egyptian metropolitan priestly apparatchiks as Manetho with little currency in the countryside.11 We should not retroject the well-attested three-way tensions of early Roman Alexandria, between Greeks, Jews, and Egyptians (which led to disaster for the Jews both in Alexandria and in the rest of Egypt), into the very different circumstances of the Hellenistic khora.

The Roman Diaspora

Under Roman rule basic structures of diasporic Jewish life changed, as far as what historians know from the relatively few places where evidence for Jewish presence continues from the Hellenistic period. Indeed, in some such places the impact of Roman rule was cataclysmic, as it was also for Jews in Palestine, though the reasons for the cataclysms varied from place to place. The empire’s gradual but inexorable move away from the Hellenistic model of rule through accommodating local elites, who crucially needed to maintain their local clout and cultural capital in order to function, towards a standardised provincial system managed from the center but relying ultimately on a homogeneous class of landowning urban elites, wrought changes and exerted pressures everywhere. But in the quasi-hierocratic temple-polity of Judaea the pressures proved intolerable. The 130 years after Pompey’s conquest of Syria-Palestine in 63 bce may be viewed as a period of aggressive tinkering and experimentation which nevertheless left the now crumbling old polity fundamentally intact. But when the smoke cleared after the two generations of rebellion that followed this period, the demography, economy, politics, and culture of the area were utterly transformed, all traces of the statelike temple polity of the Jews had vanished, and Palestine was transformed into an utterly standard, though unusually poor, Roman province.

Rome’s impact on Jewish life elsewhere in the East varied in conjunction with the state of the local Jews’ relations with their Greek neighbors. The reason for this seems to be that Roman rule in the East relied on the Greek city: Where Jewish communities had successful arrangements and no grounds for competition, the Roman state could ignore them, and life could proceed without undue complication. Where Jews were in more open competition with their neighbors—in the biggest, most ancient, and wealthiest communities, those which were in principle best able to exert some influence at Rome—Roman rule was an unmitigated disaster. All of the wealth and clout of the family of Philo of Alexandria, their status as economically and politically crucial clients of the Julio-Claudians, did nothing to protect the Jews of their city from the disasters of 38 and 66–72; the ultimate catastrophe, that of 116–117, probably postdated the disappearance or de-Judaization of Philo’s family. The two provinces with the most to tell us about the experiences of diaspora Jews under Roman rule, Egypt and Asia, appear to tell such different stories that they have generated diametrically opposed scholarly syntheses of the diasporic Jewish experience under Roman rule. Closer attention might help break the impasse.

Egypt: Apollinopolis Magna

One of the most important 21st-century publications concerning the Jews in the High Roman Empire has been Clarysse, Remijsen, and DePauw’s very brief analysis of the dates of the “Jewish” ostraca from late-1st- and early-2nd-century Apollinopolis Magna (Edfu), in Upper Egypt.12 Edfu is unusual in having yielded few papyri but many ostraca and inscriptions, and Jews, or at any rate Aramaic-writing Yahwists, turn up in these documents possibly as early as the Achaemenid period but certainly under the Ptolemies. Indeed, Aramaic, which was an important language under the Persians, nearly disappeared in Egypt under the Ptolemies, and the unusual instances of its survival are ambiguous in their implications: Either they point to continuity of self-consciously distinct—at least with respect to scribal practice—Syro-Palestinian settlement in Hellenistic Egypt, or to renewed immigration from the north. At least in the Hellenistic period, the atmosphere in a far-southern village such as Edfu—in close proximity to long-standing concentrations of Achaemenid military settlers and the setting of a major native revolt around the year 400 bce—was likely to have been somewhat different from that further north. The centrality of the place (in Manning’s formulation) was indicated by the massive (re)construction of a temple of Horus, in iconographic and linguistic terms a bastion of Egyptian priestly traditionalism as well as a celebration of Ptolemaic wealth and power. This may point towards gentler-than-usual Hellenizing pressures in the village and helps explain the persistence of Aramaic (alongside the presence of a great quantity of Demotic texts) there into the 3rd century bce, whether it was a local survival or a new import.

Be this as it may, there is no way to determine whether Jewish settlement in Edfu was continuous into the Roman period. It seems certain, however, to have come to an end in 116–117 ce, the date of the latest of the ostraca and of the last evidence for Jewish presence in Upper Egypt in Antiquity. The year 117 marked the end of the Jewish uprising in Cyrenaica, Egypt, Cyprus, and possibly Roman Mesopotamia and parts of Palestine known as the Diaspora Revolt. There is little reliable information about causes or progress of this disturbance.13 It would be fair to speculate that it was somehow the culmination of the turn against the Jews in Roman policy: in those places where the Jews had possessed (rural Egypt) or striven for (Alexandria, perhaps Cyrene, where Jewish names appear on epigraphical lists, from the 1st century, of ephebes and magistrates) some sort of political equality with Greeks, Rome’s reversal of Ptolemaic policy and crushing of the aspirations of the Jewish integrationists generated a process of radicalization and also heightened intercommunal tensions. The introduction and exploitation of these tensions, and the loss of control over them, were the specialités de maison of Roman rule in the Levant.

There seems little doubt that the consequences of the uprising were severe. Evidence for Jewish settlement in Egypt and Cyrenaica fails for at least two centuries. Cassius Dio claimed that even in his day, a century after the revolt, Cypriots remained so hostile to Jews that if one washed up on the shore of the island in a shipwreck, he would be immediately killed (Historia Romana 58.32.3). In the same period, the Greeks of Oxyrhynchus still held an annual festival commemorating the defeat of the Jews. From several Lower Egyptian nomes, papyrus documents record the reassignment of lands whose Jewish owners had been killed or expelled (Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum 2). Appian of Alexandria, with chilling casualness, dated an unrelated event in his home city to the time “when Trajan was exterminating the Jews” (Bella Civilia 2, 90). So, in the most venerable and largest diaspora Jewish settlements, Roman rule was as unmitigated a disaster as it was for the Jews of Palestine and for many of the same reasons: the most important one being that the Jews had corporate interests, some but perhaps not all of them traceable to their religion, which caused them to resist—or at any rate caused the Romans to imagine that they were resisting—efforts at provincial integration and standardization.

But the evidence from Edfu actually informs us what Jewish life—notwithstanding its violent denouement there—under Rome might be like in more peaceful and stable circumstances, where Jews were not so numerous and where their competition with the Greeks was not so strenuous and toxic. The ostraca analyzed by Clarysse et al. contain receipts for payment of a variety of taxes, including the annual didrachmon (or telesma Ioudaikon) Vespasian extracted from the Jews of the empire to replace the half-sheqel Jews had donated to the Jerusalem temple until its destruction in 70 ce. Though the issue would benefit from further analysis, it seems likely that the payers named in these receipts were all members of several Jewish families resident at Apollinopolis, as the Franco-Polish excavators had thought. Clarysse’s analysis demonstrates that these Jews had a Sabbath and that on that day they never paid the Jewish tax. But they paid all other taxes seven days a week, without any regard for the Sabbath. Jewish laws, as understood in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds in general, both in Palestine and in the diaspora, prohibited not just “labor” and lighting of fires (the two activities expressly prohibited in the Pentateuch) but the conduct of all public business associated with government, marketplace, long distance travel, and so on. That they refrained from paying the Jewish tax on the Sabbath indicates that the Apollinopolite Jews acknowledged this norm, and probably also demonstrates that the state entrusted collection of the tax to Jews. Since “Jew” Ioudaios/Iudaeus was not a meaningful legal or political category in the Roman Empire (especially after 70), the most efficient way for the state to know from whom to collect the Jewish tax would be to entrust the job to the wealthiest Jews in each location. So we would have guessed in any case even in the absence of the mild confirmation offered by Clarysse’s analysis. But we also learn that in dealing with local authorities and the Roman state in its other guises, the Jews simply ignored their own norms.

Elsewhere, in earlier periods, Jews—so Josephus informs us (AJ 14.185-257; 16.160-178)—had occasionally secured from local and provincial authorities the right to “use their own laws,” including the law against engaging in public business on the Sabbath. We learn from the Jews of Edfu that this “right” was not automatic: The Jews who secured it had maneuvered, strategised, and deployed the intervention of influential protectors. If they lacked the clout to do so, then their corporate religious preferences would simply be ignored. How the Jews in such places experienced the need to make such drastic compromises we are in no position to reconstruct. But this single datum can help us re-politicise and rehistoricise the Jewish experience in the Roman diaspora. We can rescue it from the hands of its surprisingly (given the well-attested catastrophic elements) numerous idealisers.

Asia Minor

Though one of the most distinguished idealisers paradoxically focused on Egypt and Alexandria, the real evidentiary foundation for this view resides in Asia Minor. The discovery of the “God-fearers inscription” at Aphrodisias and the synagogue of Sardis and several other items have been thought to prove the Jews’ untrammeled integration into the life of the high and late Roman city. Furthermore, Asia is the richest source of Jewish epigraphical texts after Palestine and Italy, composed mainly between the 2nd/3rd and 6th centuries ce. The inscriptions are collected in one of the finest Jewish epigraphical publications available, and its editor, Walter Ameling, was careful to list comprehensively and discuss non-epigraphical evidence, too.14 Thanks to Cicero’s defense of Asia’s corrupt governor Lucius Valerius Flaccus (62 bce, tried in 59 bce), and to Josephus’s preservation of documents produced by or addressed to the city councils of Asia Minor, we have some information about the location and condition of Asian Jewish communities in the late Roman Republic. Acts of the Apostles adds a bit of occasionally plausible detail for the later 1st century ce.15

One could aggregate all this information to produce a portrait of a stable and successful Jewish community, one that was well integrated in its environment but not so well integrated that it disappeared into the fabric of Asian urban life. But this portrayal is a mirage, generated by the decision to lump together all evidence for Jewish life from the entire province over many centuries. In point of fact, though, we cannot demonstrate meaningful continuity of Jewish settlement, let alone institutional stability, in any but a handful of cities—indeed, only at Sardis are the chronological spread and density of the evidence sufficient to demonstrate long-term continuity of Jewish settlement, from the Hellenistic period (or earlier) to the Late Empire.16 A number of sites provide evidence for synagogues or other Jewish institutions, which indicates at least a measure of significant presence, but in most cases we have no idea how long the synagogues might have lasted, how large they were, or anything else about them. Their presence thus proves something but not much. There are undoubtedly some exceptions. At Aphrodisias, in addition to the “God-fearers” inscription, which attests to the existence of some sort of Jewish communal institution (though not a synagogue) and also to the success of the local Jews at winning distinguished pagan friends and supporters, there is scattered graffiti of biblical and other Jewish names, bits of Jewish iconography, and the sort of inscription surprisingly common in late imperial Asian cities, marking a section or row of seats in the theater as the topos Hebraion (elsewhere, Ioudaion).17 Little of this material is datable with precision, but it would not be controversial to say that there was a Jewish presence at Aphrodisias during some or all of its High and Late Imperial florescence, and for at least some of that time, the Jews were numerous and organised. There is slender but suggestive evidence for some Jewish institutional continuity in the Phrygian city of Akmoneia: sometime in the 2nd century local Jews who had Roman citizenship restored a synagogue that had been built in the early 1st century thanks to the gift of a distinguished pagan woman of the city; a substantial number of funerary texts dated to the mid-3rd century explicitly mention the book of Deuteronomy in their curse formulas (this suggests the Jewishness of the deceased but does not prove it, since the texts contain no other Jewish—or indeed Christian—elements).18 Here at least we can plausibly speculate about a Jewish community that persisted for two or three centuries.19 Several cities had synagogues (whether in the sense of a structure or in the sense of communal organization) attested by a single inscription, or by a small number from a single period.20

In a few places, there are several pieces of evidence for Jewish presence but little or none for any institutional or corporate organization, at least not of a religious nature. In two places craft guilds either receive Jewish benefaction (Hierapolis, Phrygia), or serve as markers of identity (Korykos, Cilicia).21 And in two places Jewish corporate existence is attested to only in connection to theater seating (Miletus) or gymnasial affiliation (Hypaepa).22 Hierapolis and Corycus deserve special notice because the evidence from these places is so unusual. The abundant funerary texts of the 2nd, 3rd and early 4th centuries from Hierapolis attest to the prosperity of the local Jews and to their integration into municipal life and the Roman system.23 Many had Roman citizenship before 212. Jewish communal organizations play almost no role in the inscriptions, and it seems worth suggesting that the one or two which do mention such institutions are the very latest Jewish inscriptions from the town. The most famous of the texts, the epitaph of Publius Aelius Glycon Zeuxianus Aelianus, records his bequests to local textile guilds. So while his name might be thought to imply archaic landed aristocracy, his patronage attests to a fortune, although probably not—given the modest size of his bequests—a large one despite the pompous verbosity, made in the rag trade and ordains the distribution of the funds’ interest as gifts to the members on Passover, Shavuot, and the Kalends of January(!); in return, the guilds assume the responsibility of crowning Glycon’s grave on those days. Several other epitaphs of the Hierapolitan city elites record similar arrangements with local trade guilds or other organizations, but none mention Jewish holidays. Here, then, a high measure of integration did not preclude preservation of some Jewish festivals—at least as opportunities for bestowal of gifts on tradesmen who were demonstrably not all Jewish.24 But integration entailed commemoration of a festival that the rabbis, at any rate, regarded as paradigmatically pagan. The 6th-century sarcophagi of Corycus also tell a story of preservation of separate identity modified by a high level of socioeconomic integration in which, as in Hierapolis much earlier, there is no evidence for any sort of Jewish communal structure and good evidence that what Jews thought was important about themselves was their membership in local trade guilds.25

No fewer than twenty-two sites in Asia have yielded one or two inscriptions, invariably funerary, providing the only (or nearly the only) evidence for Jewish presence.26 It is obvious that the evidence does not tell the entire story in every case. For example, epigraphical evidence for Jews at Tarsus is limited to a dubiously Jewish 6th-century epitaph and the epitaphs of two Jews of Tarsian origin found in late Antique burials in Palestine.27 The authentic Pauline epistles provide no information about their author’s native city. If in this one case we accept the testimony of Acts, then we learn of the presence there of one moderately prosperous and acculturated Jewish family in the early 1st century. While one cannot assume the existence of a Jewish community at Tarsus at any period, let alone one in continuous existence for five centuries, this was at least an effective warning that there may have been more to Jewish life than meets the eye.

But how much more? The acculturated Jews of Hierapolis moved gradually towards normative communal organization but evidence for them disappears in the 4th century. The only things we know about the Jews of Hypaepa is that c. 200 they were enrolled as ephebes, but a few centuries later one of them was a donor to the synagogue of Sardis.28 Was young Debbora of Antioch married into a pagan family in Apollonia, Phrygia, the core of a Jewish community, or an isolate?29 And what about the mysterious ioudaia, daughter of an apparently pagan family of 3rd-century Termessos?

Scholars of sunny disposition have preferred Asia Minor as a topic of study because in some cities and in some periods the Jews did manifestly succeed in finding ways to adapt while maintaining some form of continuous presence; the persistence of Sardian Jewry or even Akmoneian Jewry for several centuries is an impressive feat by world-historical standards. In a few places in Asia the Jews persisted by cultivating decidedly non-standard types of corporate organization, something other than the synagogue-based synagoge/qahal that emerged as the late Antique and medieval norm, though it had existed earlier. In Aphrodisias and elsewhere—presumably especially in places where a segment of the Jewish population was well off and well integrated economically into the life of the city—such organizations might incorporate friendly pagans. Unlike in Egypt and Syria, in some cities of high and later imperial Asia Minor the Jews were not regarded with automatic disdain—there was no extended history of competition, hostility, and rebellion, as far as historians are aware. Yet even here there is significantly little evidence that Jewish settlement had much stability or durability. The tendency of the evidence in most Asian settlements to “clump” chronologically strongly suggests that in most places Jewish communities/corporations/settlements did not last, even if we suppose that their duration exceeded the chronological limits of the evidentiary clumps. In some cases, corporate dissolution in progress is plain to see: Before “the former Jews” of Hadrianic Smyrna were former Jews they were “plain” Jews. How long could their new organization have lasted? The Jewish and “God-fearing” donors to the Aphrodisian “patella,” whatever precisely it may have been, probably lived at a time when their city was beginning to become Christian. What could have happened to their organisation when that process was completed and “God-fearing” was no longer a plausible—or a legal—option?

Even before Christianisation we cannot know how Jews subjectively experienced the compromises required by the acculturative process. To be sure, no one forced P. Aelius Glycon to fund the celebration of the Kalends, alongside Passover and the Feast of Weeks. But for High and Later Imperial Asia there is a lack of the sort of evidence Josephus provides for the Late Republic and Early Empire that shows that Asian Jews had to struggle for recognition and for exemption from municipal expectations that they would not fully observe their laws. Had the compromising Jews of the High and Later Empire won the battle and learned to relax? Or had they merely resigned themselves to their defeat and come, in the best cases, to embrace and enjoy their compromises? The proudest expressions of public acculturation derive of course from the wealthiest and socially best-positioned Jews. What about the rest?

Christianisation tended to standardise Jewish communal organization while setting new obstacles on the path of Jewish social integration.30 Some Asian communities adapted to these changes with great success—Sardis is again the prime example. Harland demonstrated that the Jews of Hierapolis, too, evolved into a synagogue-based community, but the evidence for them fails after the one document that shows the transition.31 Aphrodisian Jewry, too, may not have survived long into the Late Empire. Except at Corycus, evidence for Jews in Late Antique Asia is both much more modest and much more normative: in most places Christianisation would have had its usual impact. One of its more unattractive effects was to normalise the open expression of hostility: a house or a church in late Antique Icaria was decorated with a plaque bearing the edifying proverb: “You will never hear an honest word from a Jew”; amusingly, the stonemason had initially written “Icarian” and deleted it.32


  • Ameling, Walter, ed. Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, Band II: Kleinasien (TSAJ 99). Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2004.
  • Barclay, John M. G. The Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE–117 CE). Edinburgh, UK: Clark, 1996.
  • Chaniotis, Angelos. “Jews of Aphrodisias: New Evidence and Old Problems.” Scripta Classica Israelica 21 (2002): 209–242.
  • Cohen, Shaye, and Ernest Frerichs, eds. Diasporas in Antiquity. Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1993.
  • Collins, John. Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.
  • Cowey, James, and Klaus Maresch. Urkunden des Politeuma der Juden von Herakleopolis (144/3–133/2 v. Chr.)(P. Polit. Iud.), Papyrologica Coloniensia 29. Wiesbaden, Germany: Westdeutscher Verlag, 2001.
  • Gruen, Erich. Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Harland, Philip. “Acculturation and Identity in the Diaspora: A Jewish Family and ‘Pagan’ Guilds at Hierapolis.” Journal of Jewish Studies 57 (2006): 222–244.
  • Horbury, William, and David Noy, eds. Jewish Inscriptions of Greco-Roman Egypt. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Lüderitz, Gerd. Corpus jüdischer Zeugnisse aus der Cyrenaika. Wiesbaden, Germany: Reichert, 1983.
  • Modrzejewski, Joseph. The Jews of Egypt, from Ramses II to Emperor Hadrian. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
  • Pucci Ben Zeev, Miriam. Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insight. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2005.
  • Rajak, Tessa. Translation and Survival: The Greek Bible of the Ancient Jewish Diaspora. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Rutgers, Leonard. The Jews of Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1995.
  • Schäfer, Peter. Judeophobia: Attitudes Toward the Jews in the Ancient World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.
  • Schürer, Emil. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ. Translated by Geza Vermes et al. Vol. 3. Part 1. Edinburgh, UK: Clark, 1985.
  • Schwartz, Seth. Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE to 640 CE. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.


  • 1. See Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, s. v. pws[ade]; Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, s. v. glh.

  • 2. For example, Erwin Ramsdell, Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 13 vols. (New York, NY: Pantheon, 1953–1968).

  • 3. As for example, Adolf von Harnack, Mission und Ausbreitung des Christentums in der ersten drei Jahrhunderten (Leipzig, Germany: Hinrichs, 1906, 1.1–17; Emil Schürer, revised and translated by G. Vermes et al., The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (=Schürer-Vermes), vol. 3, part 1 (Edinburgh, UK: Clark, 1985); many other modern scholars inspired by such passages as Philo, Leg. 36.281–2; Acts 2.9–11.

  • 4. Derived from a figure provided in the Arabic version of the Chronicle of the 13th-century Syrian bishop Gregory Bar-Hebraeus, 6.9 million for the Roman Empire under Claudius, often with a million tacked on to account for the Jews living in the Parthian Empire. But there was never a census of Jews. Bar-Hebraeus’s source probably referred to a census of Roman citizens. The number tells us nothing about the number of Jews. For sensible discussion, Brian McGing, “Population and Proselytism: How Many Jews were there in the Ancient World,” in Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities, ed. John Bartlett (New York, NY: Routledge, 2002), 88–106.

  • 5. “Reflections on the Demography of the Jewish Community of Ancient Rome,” in Les Cités de l’Italie Tardo-Antique (IVe-VIe Siècles), ed. Massimiliano Ghilardi, Chrostophe Goddard, and Pierfrancesco Porena (Rome, Italy: École Française de Rome, 2006), 345–358.

  • 6. Social and Religious History of the Jews, vol. 1 (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1952), 165–211; vol. 2: 172–214.

  • 7. Most evidence collected in Victor Tcherikover, Alexander Fuks, Menahem Stern, Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum (=CPJ), 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957–1964).

  • 8. James Cowey and Klaus Maresch, Urkunden des Politeuma der Juden von Herakleopolis (144/3133/2 v. Chr.)(P. Polit. Iud.), Papyrologica Coloniensia, vol. 29 (Wiesbaden, Germany: Westdeutscher Verlag, 2001).

  • 9. Joseph Modrzejewski, The Jews of Egypt, From Ramses II to Emperor Hadrian (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997).

  • 10. Bezalel Porten, The Elephantine Papyri in English: Three Millennia of Cross-Cultural Continuity and Change (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1996).

  • 11. See Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia: Attitudes Toward the Jews in the Ancient World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997).

  • 12. Willy Clarysse, Sophia Remijsen and Mark DePauw, “Observing the Sabbath in the Roman Empire: A Case Study”, Scripta Classica Israelica 29 (2010): 51–57.

  • 13. All evidence is collected and discussed by Miriam Pucci Ben Zeev, Diaspora Judaism in Turmoil, 116/117 CE: Ancient Sources and Modern Insight (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2005).

  • 14. Walter Ameling, ed., Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, Band II: Kleinasien (TSAJ 99) (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2004).

  • 15. For this earlier period see John M. G. Barclay, The Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE117 CE) (Edinburgh, UK: Clark, 1996, 259–281); in general, the somewhat selective treatment of Paul Trebilco, Jewish Communities in Asia Minor (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

  • 16. Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 53–145.

  • 17. Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 12–19.

  • 18. Trebilco, Jewish Communities in Asia Minor, 60–69 assumes the Jewishness of these inscriptions.

  • 19. Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 168–178.

  • 20. Hyllarima (one dedicatory inscription, 3rd century or later), Myndos (a tiny column dedicated by archisynagogue, 5th/6th centuries), Nysa (dedicatory inscription probably from a 1st century bce synagogue: Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 25, 26) Also see Tralles (3rd century donation to synagogue by pagan woman; fragment possibly mentioning an archisynagogue: Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 28–29), Cyme/Phocaea (the Jewish community honors a donor, date uncertain: Ameling Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 36), Priene (small archaeological synagogue, anepigraphic, 5th–6th centuries), Smyrna (late Antique synagogue, plus some tombstones: Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 41–45), Teos (an archisynagogue with Roman citizenship, 3rd century: Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 46), Philadelphia (in Lydia, 4th-century donation to the “synagogue of the Hebrews” by a theosebes), Nicomedia (several tombstones perhaps of mid-3rd century ordering fines for grave robbery or disturbance to paid to the “synagoge”: Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 154–159), Synnada (undatable fragment perhaps mentioning archisynagogue: Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 214), Side (two 5th–6th century dedications to a synagogue: Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 219–220); See, in addition to Ameling, L. Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 249. Levine prefers a somewhat earlier date for the transformation of the building into a synagogue. Smyrna’s Jewish history is more complex: Some Jewish presence is attested in 1 Macc., and a notorious list of donors to the Hadrianic basilica records the gift of ten thousand denarii made by “the former Jews”—hoi pote Ioudaioi. Despite objections to this translation there is no better way to understand it. They may be compared to the Ioudaioi neoteroi on a gymnasial or ephebic list from high imperial Hypaepa—a group that has clearly let important Jewish practices and scruples lapse but retains some residual corporate identity. See Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 47.

  • 21. Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 196; Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 232–242.

  • 22. Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 37–39; Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 47.

  • 23. Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 187–209.

  • 24. On this and other points discussed here see the fundamental Philip Harland, “Acculturation and Identity in the Diaspora: A Jewish Family and ‘Pagan’ Guilds at Hierapolis,” JJS 57 (2006): 222–244. Harland considers it remotely possible that Glycon was a “God-fearer”: His is the only “Jewish” epitaph that does not identify the deceased as ioudaios (though the mention of Jewish festivals may have made such an identification unnecessary); Harland, “Acculturation and Identity in the Diaspora,” 224–227 discussed the slender and eccentric evidence for communal organisation at Hierapolis: The earliest texts lack all mention; texts of the mid-3rd century (see Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, 205–206) speak of the “laos,” a slightly unusual formulation, and of the katoikia ton ioudaion, a formulation which, notwithstanding its old-fashioned ring, remained in use in Hierapolis into the High Empire for other ethnic corporations, too. Only in a 4th-century text does the term synagoge appear. So, we may posit a development from no organisation, to non-standard organisation, to standardised organisation.

  • 25. On Korykos see M. H. Williams, “The Jews of Corycus—A Neglected Diasporan Community From Roman Times,” JSJ 25 (1994): 274–286.

  • 26. Chios (Ameling, #4), Samos (#5), Magnesia ad Sipylum (#48), Cyzicus (#147), Amastris (#149), Kalchedon (#150-1), Klaudioupolis (#152), Nikaia (#153), Aizanoi (#167), Apollonia (#180), Diokleia (#182), Dokimeion (#183), Laodikeia ad Lycum (#213), Termessos (#216), Limyra (#221), Tlos (#223), Gdanmaa, Lykaonia (#224-5), Ikonion (#226), Diokaisareia, Cilicia (#231), Selinous (#247), Tarsos (#248-50), Tyana (#258).

  • 27. Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, #250.

  • 28. Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, #47, #95.

  • 29. Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, #180; 1st–2nd century ce.

  • 30. Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE to 640 CE (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 179–202.

  • 31. Harland, “Acculturation and Identity in the Diaspora,” 240–242.

  • 32. Ameling, Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, #5a.