The Diaspora

by Al Maxey

(Hebraists) (Hellenists)

Although Palestine was the traditional homeland of the people of Israel, by far the largest number of Jews lived outside of the borders of the "Holy Land." These people were known as the Jews of the Dispersion, or The Diaspora. They could be found in virtually every city and settlement of the empire where commerce or colonization had taken place.

The dispersion, or scattering, of the Jewish people really began in earnest with the fall of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC. At this time King Sargon of Assyria deported many of the inhabitants of Israel and resettled them in colonies throughout Assyria. When the Southern Kingdom fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC, the Jews were again deported and resettled in a foreign land. Although thousands of Jews chose to return to their homeland after King Cyrus freed them, most of the Jews preferred to remain where they were. They had become established in these foreign nations, and had begun to prosper there. These foreign lands had become their new home.

With the coming of Alexander the Great, many new opportunities arose for migration and resettlement in various distant parts of the Greek Empire. Many Jews chose to leave their homelands in the hope of perhaps improving their station in life. Thus, they set off to strange lands to "make their fortune." In the city of Alexandria, Egypt at this time it was estimated there were as many as 2 million Jews --- the largest single concentration of Jews in any one foreign location.

When the Roman General Pompey entered Palestine in 63 BC, he took captive many of the Jews and resettled them in Rome. Later, when these Jews were given their freedom, many of them chose to remain in Rome. By the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, there were approximately 8000 Jews living in the city of Rome.

Among the Jews of the Dispersion, two main groups emerged:

  1. The Hellenists --- Those who succumbed to the Greek (and also Roman) culture, and in many ways compromised their own beliefs and traditions.

  2. The Hebraists --- Those who clung tenaciously to their culture and religion, and refused to give in to the Greek and Roman ways of life.


The Hebraists, or the "Hebrews" (as they were also called), were those Jews who not only retained the religious beliefs and practices of Judaism, but who also continued to speak the Hebrew language and refused to relinquish their Jewish customs, traditions, and culture. They were determined never to submit in any way to the non-Jewish influences which surrounded them.

Perhaps the most famous Hebraist of the New Testament was the apostle Paul, who described himself in the following manner: "Circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee" (Philippians 3:5). In Acts 22:2-3 Paul addressed the crowd "in the Hebrew dialect," saying, "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the Law of our fathers, being zealous for God."

Although Paul was born in a Greek city, and although he was therefore a Roman citizen (Acts 21:39; 22:25-29), and although he was well educated in the Greek language and customs, nevertheless he remained faithful to God and His Law and his Jewish traditions. "I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions" (Galatians 1:14).

Although there were undoubtedly many Hebraists living in foreign lands, all of whom were loyal to their God and Judaism, most of these people chose to return to Palestine where they could center their lives and worship around the Temple in Jerusalem. Paul even made a point of the fact that although he was born in the Dispersion, he was brought up and educated in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). Acts 21:27ff describes an incident in which Paul had a run-in with some Hebraists in Jerusalem.


The vast majority of the Jews living in the Dispersion, however, were not Hebraists, but Hellenists. These were Jews who had conformed themselves to the Greek/Roman culture, and who had basically ceased being "Jewish" except in certain matters of faith. The Sadducees, for example, tended to be Hellenists, whereas the Pharisees were generally Hebraists.

The Hellenists did not see any need to retain the Hebrew language, but rather spoke Greek, or whatever happened to be the language of the country in which they dwelt. They also adopted the customs of their pagan neighbors, and in many cases conformed to their surroundings so completely that they were hardly recognizable as Jews. Some were even seeking to have their circumcision surgically undone so that they would appear physically more like the Gentiles (see -- I Corinthians 7:18, where Paul alludes to this practice). At times, even their worship was influenced by their pagan surroundings. Archaeologists have discovered an ancient synagogue at a place called Dura-Europos on the Euphrates River which had incidents from heathen mythology depicted in the mosaics and paintings on the synagogue walls.

One of the first real problems to arise within the church in Jerusalem was as a result of a misunderstanding between these two groups. As a result of this disturbance, seven men were appointed to serve in a special capacity to try and alleviate the situation. Some consider these seven to be the first Deacons in the church. "Now at this time while the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint arose on the part of the Hellenistic Jews against the native Hebrews, because their widows were being overlooked in the daily serving of food" (Acts 6:1). Stephen, who was very likely a convert to Christianity from among the Hellenists, was one of the seven selected. Some scholars even feel his Hellenistic tendencies may have contributed to his martyrdom (Acts 7).

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