Jews in the eastern Diaspora had opportunities for advancement under the Persians, as one sees in such romantic, didactic tales of Jewish life in the Diaspora as Daniel 1–6 , Esther, Tobit, and 1 Esdras 3–4 . The Murashu tablets contain the names of Jews acting as agents for the Persian government or for Persian nobles. Ezra and Nehemiah came from the Babylonian and Persian Diaspora, respectively, and Nehemiah's position of trust at the Persian court illustrates how proximity to the centers of Achaemenid power enhanced the religious authority of these Jewish communities of upper-class ancestry at the expense of Jewish leaders in Palestine. While many in the Diaspora did not enjoy great wealth—some Jews in Nippur were slaves—economic conditions in Judah were far worse; the Bible mentions Diaspora Jews sending money to underwrite Temple expenses (Ezra 7.16; 8.25; Zech. 6.10 ).
The religious life of Babylonian Jews is illuminated by a trend in the nomenclature of the Murashu tablets. A century after the exile (ca. 480) a large number of fathers with Babylonian names began to give their sons names with Yahweh as the theophoric element. The suggestion has been made that this phenomenon reflects the gradual dominance of a “Yahweh alone” party in the Diaspora, to which Ezra and Nehemiah belonged. Daniel's categorical resistance to any form of assimilation contrary to Jewish practice (Dan. 1–6 ) reflects eastern Diaspora concern for maintaining Jewish identity in a later period.
Egyptians are among the peoples Jews are forbidden to marry according to the marriage legislation of Ezra (Ezra 9.1 ). The Elephantine papyri give a fascinating picture of life during the fifth century in a Jewish military colony on Egypt's southern frontier. When this community of mercenaries in the service of Persia first came to Egypt is unclear, perhaps as early as the seventh century. Their local temple, whose construction antedated the Temple of Zerubbabel, was dedicated to Yahweh, but they also worshiped a god Bethel and the Canaanite goddess Anat. Despite their apparently syncretistic worship, these Egyptian Jews were not isolated. They corresponded with Jerusalem and Samaria on religious matters, appealing to both cities for assistance in rebuilding their temple when it was burned in local riots and promising as a condition of aid not to sacrifice animals in it. The monotheism that characterizes rabbinic Judaism evolved slowly. Rather than being Judaism of a sadly degenerated form, the Yahwism of Elephantine may preserve ancient elements of Israelite Yahwism, frozen in time. Elephantine Judaism no less than Samarian Judaism must be viewed within the broad parameters of early Second Temple Judaism.
By the late Second Temple period the synagogue had become a common element in Jewish life, both in the Diaspora and in the Jewish homeland. On the basis of logic and the indirect testimony of Ezekiel 11.16 , it has been assumed that such an essential Jewish institution must have arisen among the exiles in Babylon. Unfortunately, neither archaeological nor epigraphic evidence supports this theory. The term synagogue, meaning “house of assembly,” is Greek, and it did not become current until the turn of the era. The earliest undisputed reference to a synagogue comes from Egypt in the third century BCE, where it is called a “prayer house.” Synagogues do not seem to have been part of Palestinian Judaism until the Roman period.
Rather than assume a single line of development, one should conceive of the gradual convergence of several Jewish institutions: a prayer hall, an assembly hall or community center (see Jer. 39.8 ), a Torah study hall and school, and perhaps also the preexilic city gate where elders gathered to render judgment. Synagogues were a product of the Hellenistic Diaspora, but they were not Temple substitutes. They were not built on sacred ground; they were a lay, not a priestly, institution; and they were not the sites of animal sacrifice. Furthermore, while the Jerusalem Temple remained central in the religious consciousness of Diaspora Jews, this did not prevent some Jewish communities from erecting their own local temples in fifth-century Elephantine (Egypt), on Mount Gerizim in the fourth century, at Leontopolis (Egypt) in the Hellenistic period, and elsewhere. Thus, synagogues, whenever they originated and in whatever form(s), belong to a wide spectrum of possible venues and contexts for communal worship in Second Temple Judaism.