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The Jewish Diaspora in the Ancient World

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  • 0:08 Culture on the Move
  • 1:03 Institutions
  • 2:27 Diaspora
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Though a defining moment in Jewish history, the Diaspora in the Ancient World was something that Judaism had spent hundreds of years preparing for in order to ensure its survival.

Culture on the Move

From the earliest days of Judaism, it was designed to be a culture on the move. The religion received much of its greatest revelation during the 40 years of wandering in the desert after leaving Egypt, and worked to make sure that the people's new religion would be protected, even if their land wasn't. Unfortunately for the Jews, this was soon put to the test by the Babylonians, who conquered the Jewish homeland and carted all of its inhabitants off to Babylon to be slaves.

But, strangely, the Jews remained Jewish. They didn't disappear into trying to be Babylonian, but instead remained very much in tune with their own cultural identity. In no small part this was a result of the emphasis placed on those portable aspects of culture, like religion, rather than more static aspects of culture, like the ruins of the Temple that the Babylonians had destroyed.

Institutions

Upon the return to Jerusalem following the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great, Judaism never forgot what it was like to be in exile. More importantly, they never forgot that this time, they had been lucky. What would happen if the Babylonians had sold them as slaves across a vast region, or even around the whole world? How would the ideals of Judaism, the very ideals that made the Jews a distinct people, hope to survive such a displacement?

The Jews soon started to work on writing down the Mishnah, or the 'Oral Torah,' so that the great intellectuals could be taken anywhere. In the past, these teachings had been transmitted by word of mouth, but now with the real danger that the community could be separated, these teachings had to be preserved in at least some way for future generations. However, that was only half the issue. After all, what good was having an Oral Torah, which allowed questions to be asked, if there was no one there to ask them to?

That second question prompted the writing of the Talmud, a series of commentaries on the Mishnah. The Talmud came in two versions, one written in Jerusalem and one written in Babylon. Of the two, the Babylonian Talmud is the most authoritative, although both are still used even today. With the writing of the Talmud, the tools existed to protect Jewish teaching in the worst-case scenario.

Diaspora

Unfortunately for the Jews, it was exactly the worst-case scenario that awaited them. After Cyrus freed the Jews and rebuilt their temple in Jerusalem, another empire soon threatened the region. However, whereas the Persians under Cyrus had been sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, the Roman Empire would have no such sympathy.

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