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The Jewish diaspora during the Persian and Hellenistic eras

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of The Bible and History.

The word ‘diaspora’ comes from the Greek ‘diaspeirô’, which means ‘disperse’ or ‘disseminate’.

All traces of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Israel who were deported by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE have been lost as they were blended in with other peoples in the Assyrian Empire.

However, the Book of Tobit mentions the Israelite populations who had been deported to Nineveh. The tale takes place in a vast zone stretching from the North of Mesopotamia to Media. Yet this is a work of fiction, which focuses on the miraculous healing of Tobit, a pious but blinded Jew, thanks to a fish brought by his son, under the guidance of the Angel Raphael.

Unlike the Northern Israelites, it is possible to identify some of the communities originally from the Kingdom of Judah which had been living in Babylonia during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE after the exile imposed by King Nebuchadnezzar, thanks to the documents from Al-Yahudu, “the city of Juda” in Babylonia.

Moreover, the oldest section of the Book of Daniel, written in Aramaic, imagines the life of young Jews at the court of the Babylonian King, and tells how they resisted the temptation of idolatry.

The Book of Esther also mentions the Judeans in diaspora, at the time of the Persian Empire. The main story takes place at the court of King Xerxes I at Suse, where Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, was a royal councillor. As Esther became the wife of Xerxes, she was able to save the Jews in the Empire, even though hostile courtiers were urging the king to massacre them.

The stories of Daniel, Esther and Tobit read more like an edifying novel than a historical story. In addition, they were written much later than the periods they describe. Nevertheless, these books evoke the reality of diaspora as it was experienced by many Jews since the beginning of  the Persian Empire—an experience that became even more widespread in the Hellenistic period.

During the Hellenistic period, the largest Jewish diaspora was to be found in Egypt. The city of Alexandria, which had a Jewish quarter, saw the development of brilliant Jewish literature written in Greek.

Again in Egypt, the Oniads, a dynasty of Judean priests, founded the temple of Leontopolis in the mid-2nd century BCE.

Thanks to papyrus scrolls and the work of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, we hear of many Jews who led brilliant careers in the Lagid administration and army, under Egypt’s Greek ruling dynasty during the Hellenistic era.

However, the Hebrew Bible does not contain any books covering life in the Jewish diaspora in Egypt. This may be due to the fact that the works produced by these communities were written much later and, above all, that they were written in Greek.