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Outlines Of Jewish History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.



              1. Its Origin and Principal Settlements.


              2. Social Condition and Political Influence.


              3. Religious and Patriotic Relations with Palestine.






              1. Its Origin and Rapid Spread through

              Northern Afica.


                            Syria and Asia Minor.


                            Greece and Italy.




              2. Principal Centre: Alexandria:

              Situation and description.


                            Commerce and civilization.


                            Position of Jews.




              3. Social Intercourse with Heathens:

              Mutual aversion.


                            Mutual influence.




              4. Religious Condition:

              Faithfulness to Jehovah and His law.


                            Close union with Palestine (Books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus).






              1. Establishment of Synagogues Everywhere.


              2. Change of Language.


              3. Spread of Monotheistic Belief and Messianic Hopes.


To complete our rapid survey of Jewish history, there remains to speak of the countless Jews who, even before Our Lord’s time, were scattered through pagan lands, and who, for this reason, were called the Jews of “The Dispersion” (cfr. 2 Mach. 1:27; Jas. 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1). They considered themselves as a portion of God’s chosen people, looked upon Jerusalem as their metropolis, and carrying about with them the monotheistic belief, and the sacred Scriptures of their nation, they effectively concurred in preparing the world for the coming of the Messias and for the spread of His doctrine. They fall naturally under two great heads: (1) the Jews speaking Aramaic, like those of the mother country, and scattered through the East, formed the Eastern or Aramaic section of the Dispersion; (2) the Jews speaking Greek and settled in the West were the Western or Greek section, or “the Dispersion of the Greeks,” as they are called in St. John 7:35 (in the Greek).

§ 1. Eastern or Aramaic Section of the Dispersion

1. Origin and Principal Settlements. The Aramaic Dispersion owes its origin to the two great captivities which befell Israel and Juda in B. C. 721 and 588 respectively, and from which only small detachments of the Jews ever returned to the Holy Land. Its principal seats were the countries beyond the Euphrates, namely, Babylonia, Media, Assyria and Mesopotamia, in which the Jews, as Josephus says, “were an immense multitude” (Antiq. of the Jews, book xi, chap. v, § 2). Important settlements existed also about the middle of the fourth century B. C. in Hyrcania on the Caspian Sea. On this side of the Euphrates there was a considerable “Jewish population in many places, notably in Palmyra, and in the province of Yemen in Arabia Felix” (SEIDEL, In the Time of Jesus, p. 164, cfr. also SCHURER, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, division ii. vol. ii. p. 220, sq., English Translation).

2. Social Condition and Political Influence. Only scanty details concerning the history of the Eastern or Aramaic section of the Dispersion have come down to us, so that it is very difficult in the present day to draw anything like a faithful picture of the social condition and political influence of the Jews settled in the great countries of southwestern Asia. It may be said, however, that the insight allowed us by the books of Tobias, Esther, Daniel and Nehemias, and by the writings of Josephus, into the condition of the Aramaic-speaking Jews leads us to believe that they were both prosperous and influential. In the large Eastern cities they were very successful in the pursuit of trade and industry, whilst in the low countries of the Euphrates they carried on with no less success agriculture and cattle farming (cfr. JOSEPHUS, Antiq. of the Jews, book xviii, chap. ix). “In some of these countries they kept quite aloof from connection by marriage with the other inhabitants, but in other cases they were not so strict, and this gave rise to various epithets, intended to mark the degree of purity of the Jewish blood” (BLAIKIE, Manual of Bible History, p. 405). Under their political and social influence, many heathens became proselytes to the Jewish faith (Tobias 1:7), and there is hardly any doubt that their financial and social prosperity go a great length towards accounting for the fearful persecution which they underwent about the time of Our Lord, and in which upwards of 50,000 Jews were put to death in Mesopotamia, and for similar persecutions of which they often were the object in other districts of Asia.

3. Religious and Patriotic Relations with Palestine. Between the Jews dispersed in the East and those of Palestine a close and heartfelt union was ever maintained. This was due to a large extent to their community of language and probably also to the influence of the faithful priests who had remained in foreign lands. They had only synagogues as religious meeting-places, so that they naturally looked up to Jerusalem and its Temple as the centre of their national worship. It was to the Great Sanhedrim of Jerusalem, as to their supreme national and religious tribunal, that they looked for legal decisions, and every year sacred processions of Babylonian Jews, bearing their tribute and first-fruits to the Temple, regularly travelled by thousands to offer sacrifices in the Holy City and worship Jehovah in His Holy Place (cfr. Tobias 1:6).

Sincere patriots they ever were towards the mother country, and their position on “the eastern borders of the Roman Empire, till Trajah—as subjects of the Parthians and subsequently of those eastern provinces which could never be kept under subjection by the Romans—made their attitude always of political importance to the Empire. P. Petronius, legate of Syria, esteemed it dangerous in the year 40 B. C. to excite in them a hostile disposition towards Rome, and a little later, during the Vespasian war, the insurgents sought to incite their co-religionists beyond the Euphrates to hostilities against Rome” (SCHURER, loc. cit., p. 224).

§ 2. Western or Greek Section of the Dispersion

1. Origin and Rapid Spread. It is not improbable that long before the time of Alexander the Great there was a fair sprinkling of Hebrew settlers among the mixed population of Lower Egypt. It is only, however, to this great conqueror of Persia and Egypt that the Western or Greek Dispersion may be said to owe its origin. He it was, as we saw in a preceding chapter, who attracted to the new Egyptian capital he had built to perpetuate his name a large number of Jews by granting to them equal civic rights with his Macedonian colonists. Thus did he set an example which his successors on the throne of the Pharaos, notably Ptolemy I, son of Lagus, and Ptolemy II, Philadelphus, were not slow to imitate. The Greek Dispersion thus powerfully started, spread rapidly westward along the coast of Africa to Cyrene and the towns of the Pentapolis, and inland southward to the territory of Ethiopia (cfr. 2 Mach. 2:24; 1:1; Acts 2:10; 8:27; Matt. 27:32, etc.).

Nor were the successors of Alexander in Western Asia less desirous than the Ptolemies of Egypt to establish Jewish colonies in their dominions. Seleucus I, who was fully aware of the aptitude of the Jews as colonists, invited them to come and dwell in the city of Antioch he had but recently founded, and his invitation was gladly responded to by many who on their settling there were governed by an ethnarch of their own and admitted to the same advantages as the Greeks. We also learn from Josephus that Antiochus the Great settled 2,000 Jewish families from Mesopotamia and Babylonia in Lydia and Phrygia, two important provinces of Asia Minor, granting to them at the same time the use of their own laws, extensive territorial possessions and exemption from all tribute for ten years (Antiquities of the Jews, book xii, chap. iii, § 4). As Antiochus had foreseen, this part of his dominions became very prosperous, and the Jews soon multiplied in all the commercial centres of Asia Minor, such as Ephesus, Pergamus, Miletus, Sardis, etc. From Asia Minor they also found their way into Greece and other parts of Europe, the Archipelago, where they settled in no small numbers, supplying them with a natural bridge between the Asiatic and European continents. The decree of the Roman consul Lucius, recorded in 1 Mach. 15, gives us a vivid impression of the extent to which they spread themselves in every direction not long after the death of Antiochus the Great, and the book of the Acts speaks of their important and old settlements in Philippi, Berea, Thessalonica, Athens and Corinth. The same book of the Acts makes also mention of a Jewish community in the capital of the Roman Empire. If the Jews appeared in Rome for the first time in the train of the captives of Pompey, their captivity was not of long duration, and under the protection of Julius Cæsar, who granted to them the same privileges as the Ptolemies and the Seleucidæ in Egypt and Syria, they rapidly multiplied in the capital and thence spread into several towns of Italy.

2. Principal Centre of the Greek Dispersion. Of the Greek Dispersion, Alexandria was unquestionably the metropolis because of the number, wealth and influence of its Jewish population. Founded by Alexander the Great, whence it derived its name, the city was situated on a narrow neck of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Lake Mareotis. It was built in the form of the outspread cloak of a Macedonian warrior, and measured about four miles from east to west, and about one mile from north to south. Far different from the modern Egyptian Alexandria, it was laid out in straight, parallel streets cutting each other at right angles, and had four principal gates at the cardinal points. Its two principal streets, about 200 feet wide, were lined with magnificent houses, temples and public buildings, and at their intersection there was a spacious square from the centre of which vessels sailing either on the Mediterranean to the north, or on the lake to the south, could be seen coming in under full sail. The fleets of Asia and Europe could easily meet in the commodious and safe harbor of Alexandria, and a magnificent light-house had been built for the guidance of sailors at the eastern point of the Island of Pharos about one mile off at sea. The climate of the city was healthy, and it was well supplied with fresh water by a subterranean aqueduct.

Alexandria had excellent commercial connections with Arabia and India, the tribes living in the deserts west and south, and the nations or cities along the coasts of the Mediterranean, and in consequence, it had become in the time of Strabo “the greatest emporium in the world.” Apart from its architectural splendor and commercial prosperity, the Egyptian capital was celebrated for its stirring intellectual life. The famous Museum founded by Ptolemy I contained a magnificent royal library together with dwellings for scholars, poets and artists who came hither from all parts of the world to live in this great centre of Greek and Eastern literature and art, and to listen to the greatest masters of the time.

The three sections into which Alexandria was divided corresponded to the three great classes of its inhabitants: Greeks, Egyptians and Jews. From the very beginning of the city the Jewish element was considerable for its number and political privileges, and under the Ptolemies it grew so steadily that in the time of Philo it occupied more than two out of the five districts of Alexandria. The Jews formed a large independent municipal community within or co-ordinate with the rest of the city, and governed themselves under the presidency of an ethnarch. Their wealth was very considerable, and some among them occupied important positions in the Egyptian army. They had a magnificent synagogue, and their Sanhedrim was second only to that of Jerusalem.

3. Social Intercourse with Heathen Nations. Whilst the Jews of Palestine and especially those of Jerusalem could, under the powerful influence of the Pharisees, succeed pretty well in avoiding contact and exchange of ideas and customs with the pagans, those of the Greek Dispersion, whether in Alexandria, in Antioch or in the other cities and towns of the Greco-Roman world, could not help being brought in daily contact with Greek culture and civilization. This unavoidable intercourse between Jews and Gentiles soon presented a twofold aspect: the one of mutual aversion, and the other of mutual influence, which can easily be traced to the striking peculiarities of either party.

Nothing, for instance, appeared more ridiculous to the Gentiles than the practice of circumcision, the abstinence from swine’s flesh and a strict Sabbatarianism. A religion, like that of the Jews, without images and pictures, was naturally regarded as barbarous or even treated as atheistic, whilst many of its rites were called absurd or contemptible. Again, in the name of their religion, the Jews claimed so many privileges in addition to those they already possessed as citizens of a particular city or as citizens of the empire, they sent so much money to their Temple in Palestine, and showed themselve so exclusive of the pagans on many public occasions, that they naturally excited a deep aversion on the part of the heathen statesmen and multitudes. Add to this the great self-esteem of the Jews which, in the eyes of Greeks and Romans, rested on nothing but glories which belonged to bygone centuries, an unconcealed antipathy of foreign races and religions, a commercial success not perhaps always due to the exclusive use of lawful means, and finally slanderous reports circulating freely about the Jewish race, and it will be easy to understand the terms of contempt and aversion constantly met with about the Jews in heathen writers, and the occasional outbreaks of violence on the part of pagan multitudes against the dispersed children of Israel (cfr. 2 Mach. 1:27; SCHURER, The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, division ii. vol. ii, p. 291, sq).

Thus then, the Gentiles found in the peculiarities of the Jewish race much which was calculated to foster their contempt and aversion towards the Jews of the Western Dispersion, and naturally enough this very contempt and aversion were keenly resented by the Jews, who considered themselves as the chosen people of God and the inheritors of the Divine blessings promised to their forefathers. The Gentiles appeared also contemptible and hateful to the Greek-speaking Jews because of their idols, of their superstitious and immoral practices, especially, as it oftentimes happened, when the pagan populations or authorities did everything in their power to compel them to apostatize from the pure and ennobling worship of the living God.

These and other such peculiarities of either Jew or Gentile explain their mutual aversion, which of course varied in intensity according to circumstances of time and place. But there were other features of Jewish as well as of Greek life which were calculated to counteract, to some extent, this mutual antipathy.

It is beyond doubt, for instance, that under the efforts of the Jews in apologetic works, in daily intercourse, etc., the superiority of monotheistic belief and of public and private morality as inculated in the sacred books of the Jewish nation appeared manifest to many men and women of the Gentile world, and effectively led many of them to embrace Judaism. Women, in particular, felt especially attracted by the mystery of the synagogue, by the superior condition assigned to their sex in the Jewish religion; hence they became proselytes of Judaism in large numbers, and naturally drew the attention of the domestic circle to the belief they had adopted. Further, the Jews of the Greek Dispersion were careful not to enforce too strictly upon those whom they saw inclined towards the pure worship of Jehovah the ritualistic features of their religion which were most objected to by pagans at large, and this, together with the brotherly love exhibited by the members of the Jewish communities towards one another, contributed powerfully to dispel the prejudices and even to win the admiration of the heathens.

Whilst the Jews exerted such deep and widespread influence upon the Greco-Roman world, they themselves underwent, to a considerable extent, the influence of Greek thought and culture. In the Dispersion, the cultured Jew was not simply a Jew, he was also a Greek in respect of language, of education and social manners and customs, by the sheer force of his surroundings, and in many points, particularly of a ritualistic nature, he gradually became more or less relaxed. Again, the close study of pagan authors and notably of Greek classics, even when pursued with a view to defend or propagate the Jewish creed, was not without some influence upon the manner in which this same Jewish creed was conceived of by the Jews, or presented by them to the acceptance of the pagans. Indeed, this Hellenistic influence, imperceptible at first, led ultimately to that form of Alexandrine religious thought which has been called syncretism (that is, the blending into one system of Jewish belief with Greek speculation), which we find fully developed in the writings of Philo, and which from Alexandria spread far and wide (cfr. FOUARD, St Peter, chap. iii).

4. Religious Condition of the Greek-speaking Jews. Of course, the influence just described of Greek thought, forms of expression and philosophical speculation upon the Greek-speaking Jews never extended much beyond a comparatively narrow circle of Jewish thinkers and apologists. The great bulk of the dispersed Jews in Egypt, as well as in the other countries of the Greco-Roman world, ever remained under the full power of the early training received at home and completed in the synagogues erected almost everywhere by the dispersed Jews, and this was distinctively Jewish in tendency, belief and practice. We must picture them to us as perfectly regular in their attendance at the Divine worship in the synagogues such as it was conducted there, that is limited to prayer in common, public reading and exposition of the Sacred Books. They were also faithful in carrying out as much of the Mosaic observances as was compatible with their condition far from Jerusalem and its Temple. Like their brethren dispersed in the Eastern countries, they sent rich offerings to the Holy City, appealed to the Great Sanhedrim of Jerusalem for final legal decisions, and received with joy mingled with reverence the exhortations and instructions of those scribes who from time to time came to them from Jerusalem, the acknowledged metropolis of all the Jews. Finally, to go up to offer sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem annually on the great Paschal festival, or, if he lived too far off for that purpose, to make a pilgrimage there once or more in his lifetime, was held by every Jew to be an essential part of his religion.

This close union between the Jews of the Western Dispersion and Palestine as the centre of their religion is particularly remarkable in connection with the Jews of Egypt, who having a temple of their own at Leontopolis, a few miles northeast of Cairo, conducted there the worship of Jehovah on the same lines as in Jerusalem, since the middle of the second century before our era.

Two facts more deserve special notice in connection with the religious life of the Jews of Alexandria, (1) the composition of the inspired book of Wisdom in their language and in their midst, about the middle of the second century before Christ, (2) the translation into Greek, made in Egypt about 130 B. C., of the inspired book of Ecclesiasticus, which the Egyptian Jews had probably received from those of Jerusalem some time after its composition, and very large fragments of which in the original Hebrew have been recently discovered (cfr. Revue Biblique, October 1, 1897, p. 573, footnote 2).

§ 3. Results of the Dispersion

1. Establishment of Synagogues Everywhere. When after this rapid survey of the Eastern and Western Dispersion we try to sum up its principal results, we find that the first is the establishment of Jewish synagogues through the various districts of the Roman Empire. These places of religious worship in which Moses and the Prophets were read, tended, of course, to diffuse the expectation of the Kingdom of Heaven, but more particularly they were places into which the Apostles and early preachers of Christianity were free to penetrate, and in which they were naturally invited as strangers to address an exhortation to the assembled brethren. This was a splendid opportunity for them to preach the Gospel, and they naturally availed themselves of it. Starting from the passages of Holy Writ which had just been read, they announced boldly the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets in the Person and Mission of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

2. Change of Language. A second important result of the Dispersion is the change which took place among the Jews scattered in the Greco-Roman world. It can readily be seen that their adoption of the Greek language as their vernacular, and more particularly as the language of their literature and of their liturgy placed many religious truths within the reach of the heathen. It introduced also into the Greek language numerous words and modes of expression required by Hebrew thought, and gradually moulded it into that Hellenistic Greek, as it has been called, which the early preachers of the Gospel and inspired New Testament writers were to use as a language almost entirely fitted already to convey the great truths they had to announce.

3. Spread of Monotheistic Belief and Messianic Hopes. The third and most important result of the Dispersion, was such a spread of the monotheistic belief and Messianic hopes of Israel as to prepare effectively the Gentiles for Christianity. Had all the Jews of the Captivities returned to the Holy Land and re-established there Judaism in its strictest form, the heads of the Jewish commonwealth would never have realized the necessity of divesting their religion of what were, after all, only its transient features. They would never have felt compelled, for instance, to dispense the pagans who wished to become worshippers of the true God, from the hateful rite of circumcision and other such practices of the law however utterly incompatible with surroundings different from those of Palestine. As a necessary consequence, the belief and worship of the sole true God as we see it spread by the Dispersion, namely, unfettered by the complicated and burdensome system of legal enactments, would never have existed as a transition from Judaism to Christianity, as a preparation of the Gentile world for the universal religion in which “the Father must be adored in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21–24).

In like manner, without the Dispersion, the expectation of the Messias would have been practically confined to the limits of the Holy Land; whereas the dispersed Jews carrying everywhere their prophetical books, spread far and wide the hope of a great Deliverer, and thus directed the eyes of all peoples towards the One who was soon to appear as the Teacher and Redeemer of all nations.

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