Egypt’s Diaspora

Egypt’s Diaspora November 21, 2014

Although the third century BC is a shadowy time in Jewish history, both faith and people were being transformed in multiple ways. I recently lamented how little we know of the Jewish world in Palestine at this time, but of course revolutionary developments were occurring elsewhere, in the emerging Diaspora.

Two developments in this era demand our attention. One was the growth of the city of Alexandria, which was founded in 331BC. It soon attracted a Jewish population, and by the second century was emerging as a key Jewish center, exceeded in importance only by Jerusalem itself. By the first century AD, the city had five quarters, two of which were mainly Jewish, but synagogues could be found across the city.

The city’s importance for Jewish thought and culture can hardly be exaggerated. This was for instance the home of Philo (20BC-50AD). Although we can rarely know the specific location in which particular works were written, modern scholars have cited Alexandria as the likely home of such texts as the Wisdom of Solomon.

If not Alexandria, Egypt was also the home of the Jewish historical novel Joseph and Aseneth, probably written in the late first century AD. That work, incidentally, has now become the basis of yet another silly “Jesus married Mary Magdalene” fairy story, which really does not merit any more analysis or demolition here. There are plenty of good debunkings out there already.

Inevitably, given this intense cultural activity, Alexandria also became one of the critical bases for early Christianity. As I have written before, so much of that story is incomprehensible except in an Egyptian context.

We also know that the institution of the synagogue began in the Jewish Diaspora rather than in in Palestine itself, and the earliest example of such a prayer-house is in Egypt.

Rarely indeed do we have much evidence for the circumstances in which Biblical books were written, but one exception is the text known as Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach. According to the text, it was written by the scribe of that name in Jerusalem, in Hebrew, around the 170s. His grandson then translated it into Greek, “when I came to Egypt in the thirty-eighth year of the reign of [Ptolemy] Euergetes and stayed for some time.” That dates the grandson’s move precisely to 132 BC. It is also a specific reference to a Jew traveling to Egypt, and making a text available to his Greek-speaking contemporaries.

Alexandria, above all, was where the Jewish world had its great encounter with Greek language and thought. It may well have been in the time of Ptolemy II Philadelphus that the Septuagint version of the Bible was prepared.

Although the main source for that dating is the fictional account in the Letter of Aristeas, probably written around 130, the chronology is plausible. Greek was the language in which the scriptures were read in the synagogues.

Alexandria, above all, was where Jews learned to think in Greek.




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