Judaism in the Diaspora (in 1 & 2 Thessalonians)

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Paul was a diaspora Jew. According to the story in Acts, Paul gave a speech in Jerusalem detailing his origins:

I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God. (Acts 22:3)

This opening I-statement deftly depicts some of the realities facing Jews living in the diaspora. Jews who were more or less permanently settled outside Palestine confronted the perennial question of when to adapt to the surrounding dominant culture and when to maintain the boundaries prescribed by the law.

Meeks estimates that in the first century A.D., some five to six million Jews were living in the diaspora. This movement of the Jewish people to various lands in the Mediterranean region came as a result of both political factors, such as the deportations during the Babylonian exile of the sixth century B.C., and economic forces, especially the search for commercial opportunities. Meeks asserts:

Consequently there was a substantial Jewish population in virtually every town of any size in the lands bordering the Mediterranean. Estimates run from 10 to 15 percent of the total population of a city—in the case of Alexandria, even higher. (Meeks: 34)

These Jews, like some other immigrant populations, typically resided in neighborhoods among their own kind of people. Unlike some groups, however, the Jews exhibited a cohesiveness and solidarity which sometimes created problems for both local officials and the Roman imperial authorities.

Typically, synagogues served as rallying places for Jewish communities, not only for the study of Scripture and for prayer, but also for a variety of social gatherings. No extrabiblical or archaeological evidence for the existence of a synagogue in Thessalonica has been found. However, Luke testifies that first-century Thessalonica had a synagogue and that Paul began his Thessalonian ministry there (Acts 17:1).

In synagogues of the diaspora, the scriptural readings generally came from the Greek version known as the Septuagint (LXX). According to a pious story in the Letter of Aristeas, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek in Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (284–247 B.C.) by seventy-two scholars who completed their work in seventy-two days. The emergence of a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures in Egypt testifies to the fact that Jews in the diaspora were gradually becoming assimilated into the Hellenistic culture. They were losing touch with Hebrew and needing the Scriptures in Greek for worship and study.

Among diaspora Jews, the developments which preceded the catastrophe of A.D. 70 created significant internal pressures, especially on questions related to associations with Gentiles. As apostle to the Gentiles, Paul was particularly suspect on this score, since he had ongoing contact with Gentile communities. Formerly also a zealous persecutor of the church (Gal. 1:13–14), Paul himself faced persecution at the hands of messianic Jews who yielded to Zealot pressure to hold the line on Torah-observance (Jewett, 1970–71:204–206).

Jacob W. Elias