Judean and Israelite diasporas: Inscriptional evidence (second century BCE-third century CE)

Menorah on the capital of a column in the synagogue at Ostia, near Rome.

Comments: People from Israel or Judea are among the most thoroughly studied migrant populations in the ancient Mediterranean (although that’s not quite how scholars usually put it). This is in part because two modern groups (Jews and Christians) have great interest in them. In terms of quantity of inscriptional evidence, too, Judeans are among the best represented alongside Italian and Roman immigrants (on which go to this link). Furthermore, we find material evidence for them from Egypt and Libya in the south to the Bosporan kingdom in the north (modern Ukraine). The long-term presence of Israelites or Judahites to the east in Babylonia since 586 BCE is thoroughly evident in literature but not so much in inscriptions from the Greco-Roman period. And, of course, to the west there were as many as thirteen Judean synagogues in the city of Rome by the third century CE (click on the entry under Rome below).

With such a wide geographical sweep and with great diversity in Judean culture in this period, it is hard to say any one thing that would clearly apply to all of these people. So case studies of specific regions or, even better, instances are often most insightful. Furthermore, while Judeans (suggesting connection with southern Israel with its temple in Jerusalem) are well-represented and well studied, others such as the northern “Israelites” or Samaritans who worshipped on mount Gerizim are less well understood (see the inscriptions below under Delos, however). Nonetheless, careful study of the inscriptions and (for Egypt) papyri shows just how complicated the relationship between Judeans and their neighbours (whether Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Egyptians, Celts, or others) could be, with clear instances of violence (as in Alexandria in the 30s CE) alongside many signs of integration within at least some facets of local societies. To provide just one example of integration, there were benches reserved for Judeans and those who feared the Judean god in the Greek cultural institution of the theatre at Miletos in Asia Minor (western Turkey).

Particularly enlightening would be a comparison of Judean diasporas with Syrian or Phoenician diasporas (on which go to this link), particularly since many Greeks (as evidenced in ethnographic writing in category 2) could think of Judeans under the umbrella of the category “Syrians.” It would also be very important to consider the complicated yet important question of how (or in what ways) the stereotypes we find in Greek or Roman ethnographic discussions of Judeans (under category 2) came to impact the lives of these real Judeans living in various places.

You can read more about Judean diasporas, including many of the inscriptions outlined below, in the following scholarly articles or books on this site by Harland:

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Asia Minor (modern Turkey)

Greek islands of the Aegean

Macedonia

Bosporan region north of the Black Sea (modern Ukraine)

Egypt

Libya

Rome

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