Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

In the Diaspora.

Having brought our story to the close of an epoch, we will pause and glance at the status of the Jew in other lands. The dispersion of Israel in a voluntary way had already begun, though Judea was still the centre of gravity. So the sway of the High Priest reached not only to the Palestinian provinces—Phoenicia, Samaria, Galilee, Gilead, Edom and Philistia—but extended through parts of Asia Minor and to lands on both banks of the Mediterranean Sea. These lands of Jewish settlement outside of Palestine are called the Diaspora.


The land that next to Judea contained the largest number of Jews was Egypt. Our narrative has been moving to and fro between these two lands. In no country outside of Greece itself was the Greek spirit so completely diffused as in Egypt. Alexandria, its new capital, displacing Athens as the intellectual centre of the world, was second in importance only to Rome. While the Greek civilization at its worst was tinctured with an enervated orientalism and had much in it debasing, yet the Greek spirit at its best also found its way to Alexandria, and its influence was intellectually broadening and elevating on the Jews resident there. Look back to Chapter ii.

Under this Greek regime the Jews were given equality at least officially, in Egypt, and also in Cyrene (on the coast of the adjoining country, Lybia). The Greek Egyptian royal house was called the Ptolemaic, from Ptolemy, the family name of its kings. Ptolemy Philometer was a contemporary of Antiochus Epiphanes, and many Jews fled from Palestine to take refuge under his benevolent sway. What a contrast for Israel between Egypt under the Ptolemies and Egypt under the Pharaohs a thousand years earlier!

When settling in lands where they would find themselves a small minority, Jews have usually concentrated in large cities. This has been a source both of strength and of weakness. Of strength—for when scattered in twos and threes in country places, the maintenance of their religion and their historic consciousness would become imperilled; while numbers closely grouped offer power of achievement. Cities too, are the intellectual centres of a land. Of weakness—for city dwellers lose the simplicity that goes with country life in close contact with nature, which deepens faith; and work on the soil in the open, aids in the building of character. So here, in a land outside of Israel, we find Jews settling in one of the great cities of the world.

The Delta, an Alexandrian district on the sea-coast, was wholly a Jewish colony. The Jews participated in both the commercial and intellectual activities of this famous capital of antiquity. They exported grain, formed artisan guilds, and established schools which were also their synagogues.

The Septuagint.

Interest in Israel was further manifested in its hearty endorsement of the translation of the Jewish Scriptures into Greek given by Ptolemy Philadelphus. But this translation was made first and chiefly for the Jews themselves. Hebrew was growing more and more of a strange tongue to the new generation in Alexandria and its surroundings. Even in Palestine proper they no longer spoke Hebrew, but Aramaic, a sister tongue. A translation of the Bible had already been made in this language; it is called Targum. Indeed, the books of Daniel and Ezra are written in Aramaic; so are some of the prayers in our ritual.

This Greek translation was made, secondly, for the Greeks. It gave the desired opportunity to the Jews to explain their faith and literature to the people with whom they were now brought in friendly contact, and would silence the slanders of ill-wishers such as the Egyptian priest Manetho.

At first only the Pentateuch was translated, each book being assigned to a different scholar. A pretty story that we must not take too seriously says it was entrusted to seventy-two persons, six from each tribe. The tradition survives partly in name—Septuagint—(seventy), written lxx. The anniversary of this really great event was commemorated by the Jews as a holiday. We may say that this translation of our Scripture into this widely spoken tongue was the beginning of the mission of the Jew to carry God's Law to the Gentiles. The Greeks were among the great educators of the world. Now that the Bible was revealed in their tongue, it became the property of the world and its lessons reached the hearts of many, scattered far and wide.

Onias and His Temple.

Onias, son of the Jewish High Priest of the same name, was the most renowned of the Judean settlers in Alexandria. He was entrusted with an army in one of Philometer's campaigns. He was likewise chosen by the Judeans of Egypt as their Ethnarch (governor), to direct the affairs of the Jewish community. Around him the people coalesced into a strong body.

He conceived the idea of building a Temple for the benefit of the Alexandrian Jews whom distance practically debarred from the benefits of the Temple in Jerusalem. If justified at all, the right to establish it was most naturally his as heir of the High Priest at Jerusalem. Yet it was a bold step, a daring precedent, since only one sanctuary, that at Jerusalem, had been recognized since the days of Josiah. Such was the law. (See Deut. xii, verses 13-15.) The new Temple was, not unnaturally, condemned by the Jews of Jerusalem.

We might say, if it was a daring innovation, it was abundantly justified by the changed conditions. The Deuteronomy law was of great value at the time instituted, in preventing the spread of idolatrous notions through the ministrations of ignorant village priests; but "new occasions bring new duties;" that was no longer to be feared. Again, the two-and-a-half tribes in the days of Joshua (see Josh. xxii) offered a precedent in building a second altar, when nothing but the Jordan separated them from the rest of Israel. Lastly, it was almost a realization of the exquisite Messianic picture in Isaiah xix, 19-25, where an altar would be built in Egypt, and Israel, Assyria and Egypt would be united under God's blessing.

So built it was, at Leontopolis, in old Goshen, land of early Israel's sojourn, and near the famous Memphis. It received royal sanction and aid; but it never acquired for Egyptian Jews the validity and sanction of the Temple at Jerusalem.

Philometer's confidence was further shown in appointing Onias Arab-arch, i.e., commander of the Arabian province Heliopolis, and also custodian of the Nile ports.

In the following pages we shall see Egypt gradually losing power and independence through the growth of Rome; but we will notice also that through all these changes the status of the Jews remains almost undisturbed—that unfriendly attacks are confined almost wholly to literary slanders. But then, grave persecutions often began with the pen throughout all Israel's history.


The Septuagint:—So many Hebrew terms and constructions were used in this Greek translation that it became a modification of the language, a sort of Jewish-Greek.

Schurer, Jewish Life in the Times of Christ, 2d Division iii, (Scribner). This is a very valuable work on this era, but should be accepted with reservation.

Temple of Onias:—A "mound of the Jews" recently unearthed near Leontopolis, doubtless marks the ruins of the Temple of Onias.

Read articles "Alexandria" and "Diaspora," Jewish Encyclopedia, Vols. i and iv respectively.

Christianity.:—The fairest presentation of the Judaism of these times by a non-Jewish author is Toy's Judaism and Christianity.

Theme for discussion:—"Are there traces of Greek philosophy in the Septuagint?" Freudenthal, Jewish Quarterly Review. Vol. ii.