Diaspora is a Greek word meaning “dispersion.” The first dispersion of Israel followed the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom in 722 BCE; the deportees did not, however, form a living diaspora community. It was the deportation of a part of the population of Judah by the Babylonians in 597 and 587/586 BCE that resulted in the creation of a permanent community, which later produced the Babylonian Talmud. The prophet Jeremiah advised the new exiles to pray for Babylon, “for in its welfare will be your welfare” (Jer. 29.7). The prophet Ezekiel preached to Israel from the newly formed Babylonian Diaspora.

After the Babylonian empire fell, the Persian king Cyrus allowed the Judeans to return home. A commonwealth of exiles was created. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah treat only the returned exiles as legitimate Israelites. Those who had remained in the land or who lived elsewhere were disenfranchised. It was at this time that Judaism in effect began. Despite the return, a Jewish community continued in Babylon. Diaspora had become a way of life, one that would continue into the Greco‐Roman period, when Jews were scattered over much of the ancient world. The first book of Maccabees records a letter of the Roman Senate that reflects Jewish habitation in Egypt, Syria, Pergamum, Parthia, Cappadocia, and many individual Greek cities and islands (1 Macc. 15.16–24). Jews had begun to take pride in diaspora, although Judith 5.19 still reflects the pain, speaking of a repentance followed by a return from all the places of the dispersion to retake Jerusalem and other places left deserted. Here the dispersion is portrayed as something to be overcome.

In the New Testament, James 1.1 identifies its recipients as “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.” This may mean Jewish Christians of the Diaspora, but may also be symbolic; 1 Peter, a letter clearly written to gentiles, is similarly addressed (1 Pet. 1.1).

See also Exile


Philip Stern