Earliest Christianity: Diaspora – Social Context and Sacred Text

Question: What part did Diaspora play in the success of early Christian mission not only be location but by interaction?

‘The growth and transformation of Christianity in the years between the death of Jesus and the accession of Constantine, from roughly 30 to 312 CE cannot fail to evoke a reaction of one kind and another’.  John Gager.                                      


This essay will show that the Greek-speaking Diaspora was one of a number of major factors to which the early Christian mission owed its success not only by location but also by interaction.  

Christianity began in Palestine and rapidly spread throughout the then thoroughly Hellenised Mediterranean world.  ‘The Hellenistic period is usually regarded as the three hundred year span between the death of Alexander in 323 BCE and the beginning of the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus in 31 BCE’ (Dunstan, 2000: 418).  Following the Babylonian exile of the Jews (587 BCE) the Persian Cyrus finally came to power (538 BCE).  Cyrus presented the exiled Jews with the opportunity to return and resettle Palestine.  Those who responded were, in the main, the rich and influential of the exiled Jews.  Others opted to stay in Babylon.  Eventually, Babylon was re-founded by Alexander, which together with Seleucia on the Tigris (founded 312 BCE) had the greatest population of Jews as well as being the most populous cities of the whole east.  

The Jews language in Babylon was Aramaic.  However, particularly in the matter of business and legal dealings, and with the spread of Hellenism throughout the east, these Jews began to integrate with the new world in order to survive.  Through their mutual language, these Babylonian Jews were inextricably linked with those who returned to Palestine.  ‘The original social location of the Jesus movement was as diverse sectarian groups within Palestinian Jewish society’ (Freedman:1997).  This tie with the Jews in the east helped carry over Hellenistic influences and in particular the Greek language to those in Palestine.  Finally, they all became bilingual, as did the rest of the Mediterranean world. 

Aside from the link with the Aramaic speaking Jews there were other influences of Hellenism in orthodox Palestine.  Through ‘strong religious ties’ these influences ‘were maintained by means of the annual pilgrimages to the temple, the paying of the half-shekel offering for the daily sacrifices and the acceptances of daily regulation on liturgical matters (eg dealing with the calendar) from the Jerusalem Sanhedrin’ (Hanson, 1998: 70).  Aside from attending temple, house churches were established by the early Jewish Christians, ‘And every day, in the temple and at home, they ceased not to teach and to preach Jesus as the Christ.’ (Acts 5:42) Nevertheless, ‘the history of the Jews in Palestine is but a small segment of the history of the Jewish people in the Hellenistic period’ (Koester, 1982: 219 in RELS 306: 22).  

The importance of the Diaspora Jewish synagogue in early Christian mission cannot be overstated.  The Jews were zealous in active missionary zeal.  They built synagogues wherever they resettled, attracting ‘god-fearers’ and proselytes.  Outside Jerusalem the Diaspora Jewish synagogue served as the community hall.  Those propagating Christianity put this ‘sacred space’ to good use.  ‘One has only to consider Paul’s missionary strategy as described in the Acts of the Apostles – using Jewish synagogues as his first base of operation – to recognise how vital it was for the new movement to have certain structures established throughout the Roman world’ (Hanson, 1998: 69-70).  ‘Thus in a special sense, one might argue that the availability of the synagogue as a model for the religious community helped to preserve primitive Christianity from extinction’ (Gager, 1975: 129).   

Greater movement of Jews in Hellenistic times ‘began an independent religious and cultural development’ (Koester, 1982: 220 in RELS 306: 23).  Large foreign settlements were to be found in most trading and commercial centres.  Archaeological evidences of synagogues, cemeteries and other identifiably Jewish buildings were strewn across the length and breadth of the Roman Empire, and even beyond.  The Diaspora Synagogue service acted as a model for the early Christian mission to imitate.  There the people took turns reciting prayers with the reading Scripture being the most important event.  All were welcome to participate.  Both the observances of the Jewish Sabbath and annual religious festivals continued.  Strabo, a Hellenistic geographer (+25 CE approx.) says of the Jew’s dispersion throughout the Mediterranean world, ‘it was not easy to find a place in the inhabited world which this tribe (Jews) has not penetrated and which has not been occupied by it’ (Hanson, 1998: 69).  

As part of this development the Jews sacred literature was another factor that aided Christianity in its success.  This huge body of Jewish literature had undergone changes during the Babylonian exile.  There, their sacred text, originally written in the Palestinian language, underwent change to Aramaic.  This linguistic change then became the most influential amongst the Jews of the east in its varied forms.  However, the most influential change for our study here was when the Hebrew Scriptures and other Jewish literary heritage were translated into Greek koine.  

Once Jewish literary heritage became available in the Greek language it came under the influences of Hellenism.  Consequently, Judaist literature, thought, and institutions of the Hellenistic world of the Diaspora influenced their Christian counterparts.  Not only that, Gager claims that in a real sense Hellenistic Christianity alone preserved the legacy of Hellenistic Judaism and so much so, that the Christian churches simply followed in the footsteps of the Jewish Diaspora.  ‘Diaspora Judaism provided a blue print, precise to the finest detail, for the adaptation of Christianity to the Greco- Roman world’ (Gager, 1975: 126).  ‘Christian congregations simply adopted them, unaltered, for their own use – liturgical, apologetic, and otherwise (Gager, 1975: 127).  ‘As Greek koine became the language of the Bible, of liturgy, preaching, and literature, so did Hellenistic concepts and ideas invade Jewish thinking and bring fundamental changes in the tradition and reception of Israel’s literary inheritance’ (Koester, 1982: 224 in RELS 306: 25).  

This language change made the Hebrew Bible available to the whole of the Mediterranean Greek-speaking world as early as 111 BCE.  Its influence in this world and for the overall success of Christianity cannot be emphasised enough.  ‘In its missionary activities in the Greek-speaking world, Christianity was able to take its starting point from this Hellenization of the Old Testament inheritance’ (Koester, 1982: 225 in RELS 306: 25).  Influenced by Hellenism and as the Jews dispersion increased, Hellenistic Diaspora Judaism continued to change.  Therefore, Diaspora communities, like other ethnic or religious groups, became ‘associations’ recognised by the Greek or Roman jurisdictions.  Hence their ‘theological’ statements became ‘philosophy’, their ‘theocrasy’ became ‘democracy’, and their ‘ecclesia’ granted members equal rights to vote or elect a council (Koester, 1982: 225 in RELS 306: 25).

Jews enjoyed reasonable relations in Egypt and Palestine under Ptolemaic rule (305 BCE) and later Roman (30 BCE) authorities.  At the time of the Babylonian exile some Jews went to Egypt.  Later in Egypt we find Diaspora Jews playing a vital role in the life of the new city, Alexandria, which became one of the great cultural centres of the Mediterranean world.  It was here that the museum and library ‘the greatest of all ancient institutions intended primarily for scholarship and research … containing everything of note ever written in Greek’ was housed (Dunstan, 2000: 402).  Alexandria had  ‘roughly one million inhabitants during its period of greater glory’ (Dunstan, 2000: 400).  

Mercenaries from all over the Greek world dramatically swelled Alexandria’s numbers.  ‘A substantial number of Greek speakers had come to Egypt in the fourth century BCE as mercenaries and traders’.  Free land was available to the military.  Jews co-existed here with Egyptians and Persians, with a cadre of Macedonians and Greeks forming the citizen body.  The Jews ‘maintained their traditional societies and customs’ enjoying religious freedom (Dunstan, 2000: 396).  Onas 1V, an expatriate high priest (c. 170 BCE – 73 CE) set up a temple in Alexandria.   

Jewish residents in other cities of Egypt also enjoyed the freedom of religion and association where, in all, the common language spoken was Greek.  Of the city of Cyrene in North Africa, Strabo writes ‘there were four classes in the city – citizens, farmers, resident aliens, and Jews’.  These Jewish communities enjoyed free association for religious purposes and legal status.  This explains why we find fully organised quasi-autonomous Jewish communities with their own synagogues, officials and judicious system within the Greek cities, and also in Rome.  Therefore, not only Judaism, but the different Hellenistic communities legal structures recognised by the various city charters eventually served as models ‘for Christian groups to organise along similar lines’ (Hanson, 1998: 72-3).  

The Jewish Diaspora saw two thousand Jewish families from Mesopotamia resettled in the regions of Phrygia and Lydia in Asia Minor (c. 210 BCE) and as we have noted, preparing the way for the further spread of Christianity.  These were promised religious freedom and various tax incentives in return for them taking care of Seleuceid interests in a troubled area (Hanson, 1998: 71).  Seleucia, a vast and complex kingdom was the largest area among the Hellenistic kingdoms with the great commercial capital noted for its luxuries and sensual pleasures, enjoying tremendous prosperity as the terminus of the caravan routes from India and eastern Iran.  Antioch-on-Orontes was its capital and the kingdom’s last territory, Syria, annexed as a Roman province in 64 BCE, ended the second of the great Hellenistic kingdoms (Dunstan, 2000: 406).  

The Hellenised native states of Galatia, Capadocia, Pontus, and Bithinia, soon followed suit in northern and central Asia Minor (Dunstan, 2000: 403-4).  Pergamum was an architectural masterpiece and cultural centre fashioned after Athens the Greek city-state, exploiting the disarray in the third century BCE.  Pergamum’s riches were eventually bequeathed to Rome in 133 BCE.  The consequences of granting the petition of Hellenising Jewish leaders to stamp Jerusalem with the forms of a Greek city, finally installing Zeus in the Jerusalem temple, provoked the outbreak of an uprising in 167 BCE, the Maccabean revolt- which soon turned into a vicious civil war with anti Greeks fighting pro Greeks.  ‘During the reign of Antiochus 1V from 175 BCE the rulers began an unaccustomed program of “Hellenising”, forcing Greek ways on the Jews in a manner that often clashed with and compromised their religious beliefs’ (RELS 306: 16).  In 142 BCE the Seleucid garrison was expelled from Jerusalem.  

As important as it was not everyone saw Diaspora as the major factor in the success of Christianity.  For example, Origin saw the spread of Christianity was contingent on Augustus’ creation of an ordered, unified, and reasonably peaceful empire after decades of internal strife’.  Contrary to Origin’s theory, there is no record that shows Augustus’ peaceful rule nurtured the flourishing of other religious cults (Gager, 1975: 122).  

The extension of Roman rule throughout the Mediterranean basin, accompanied by its basic attitude of tolerance, created a political structure through which the international character of Hellenistic culture reached its fullest expression.  This relatively peaceful political climate provided by Augustus also allowed ease of travel for both Jewish and Christian missionaries.  Roman law, cultural unity, and the recognition of local customs everywhere – included broad privileges extended to Jewish communities.  However, neither can Christianity’s early mission success rely entirely on Rome’s initial religious tolerance

Nevertheless, all of this did foster an international character of the Empire that was reflected in almost every major city.  These privileges allowed the Jews to recognise the Sabbath as well as conduct their own autonomously governed legal courts.  The Jews found sanctuary in Rome under various rulers, such as Caesar, Mark Antony, Augustus and Claudias who made general appeals that the rights of the Jews ‘to live according to their ancestral laws’ be recognised.  By the first century CE there was a large Jewish community in Rome.  The earliest synagogue found in Rome dates from 3rd century BCE;  the earliest church in Rome was established by 41 CE (Perkins, 1988: 41-42 in RELS 306: 57).  

The spread of the Greek language was another important factor in Christianity’s success.  Slavery was central to the Greek civilisation, mentality, and way of life.  Slaves therefore were found carrying out every conceivable task amongst the families and wider circle of contacts in Greece.  Bi-lingual slaves specially were active spreading the Greek language amongst Rome’s upper class households by way of educating their children.  Other slaves acted as secretaries and overseers, tutors and governors, traders and craftsmen.  Roman culture could not escape the influences Hellenism brought and by the time of the later republic all educated Romans were also bi-lingual as were its traders (RELS 306: 21).

Again, not everyone saw the rapid spread of Christianity in the same light.  John Gager points out that it is purely a matter of perspective, and depending upon our given perspective, it will shape our vision.  ‘Some see the success of Christianity  – and I use the term in a strictly quantitative sense – as the work of divine providence, such as Paul of Tarsus (Gal 4:5-5), Clement of Alexandria (Stromatia 1.28.3) and Origin (Against Celsus 2.30) (Gager, 1975: 117).  Alternatively, others saw it as an unfortunate accident that contributed mightily to the demise of ancient Rome, and still others as the salutary blending of the best elements of Greco Roman and Semitic civilisations.  Pliny in 112 CE wrote ‘but I discovered nothing else than a perverse and extravagant superstition … for may of all ages and every rank, and also both sexes are bought into present and future danger’ (Gager, 1975: 115).  Yet others, like Edward Gibbon The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire sees it as a social cancer and blames it on the decay of philosophy and the rise of superstition (Gibbon in Gager, 1975: 117).  

With the changes and activities and opportunity of travel taking place in the Mediterranean world country people left their agrarian lifestyles and poured into the cities, in some cases creating homelessness and poverty.  They brought with them their unique religions – the mystery cults.  These cults offered protection and new life here and after with a personal and private nature in a relationship available with the infinite.  The existence of many gods indistinguishable from one another facilitated the initial founding of Christian communities.  Thus in the last phase the cult of the old gods was not much different from the forms of worship that developed in Diaspora Judaism and in Christianity’ (RELS 306: 39).  

The rich and poor alike yearned for peace and identity, a happy and secure life, a sense of belonging, carrying a special appeal to the dispossessed of society.  ‘As a reforming sect, the (Jewish Christian) movement would have offered… participation to individuals and groups, including dissidents, women, and marginal groups, that would have felt left out of the traditional power structure’ (Freedman: 1997).  It was both ‘a religious and a social phenomenon’ (Gager, 1975: 131).  In a world fraught with anxiety it offered a sense of community that, according to Gager retained the loyalty of converts (1975:131).  

As well as offering a sense of community the Jew’s belief in monotheism served Christianity’s success with Greek philosophy and religion also playing their part.  Greek philosophy introduced ‘the search for some kind of universal principle’ and ‘the relation between a man’s [sic] inner and outer self (body and spirit)’ (Freyne, 1980: 30 in RELS 306: 44).  These all served to replace and incorporate different religious ideas.  At the centre of Greek philosophy was the ‘Eternal Principle or Logos (Reason) whose spark exists in all reality, man [sic] included, thereby constituting the unity of all creation’ (Freyne, 1980: 30).  Although early Christianity ridiculed the religion and gods of the Greco-Roman culture, it nevertheless appropriated much of it for the purposes of furthering the gospel (Garrison, 1997: 14).  

Alternatively, the Hebrew God called people into a covenantal relationship with divinity doing away with fate’s power over their lives, hence Christianity’s appeal to all classes in the Greco Roman world (RELS 306: 40-41).  As well, the Stoics developed sense of ‘being true to one’s inner self, and, following the call of God’ created a climate in which monotheism or belief in one God was more readily acceptable (Freyne, 1980: 28 in RELS 306: 44-5).  The Greek Philosopher, Epicurus’ answer was geared toward achieving inner harmony and happiness in this life, to ‘eat drink and be merry’ seen as there is nothing after death (Freyne, 1980: 29 in RELS 306: 43).  Overall a considerable degree of religious pluralism and assimilation took place involving, in the main, Greek, Roman, and Jewish religion, with an increasing acceptance of oriental rites.  

In sum, the Jewish Diaspora was one of the major factors in the success of early Christian mission.  Initially, Hellenistic enculturation of the Jews and their literature together with the use of the local Jewish synagogues provided the means for Jewish Christianity to become firmly engrafted into Judaism.  Once it took hold, it grew up and bore seed.  These seeds became embedded in the cultural carriers of transformation and were inevitably dispersed to the four corners of Greece’s expansive borders and territories.  Travelling in the wake of a multicultural mobile population of merchants, military, personnel, and slaves, as it did, and aided by the winds of change, mutation took place in every conceivable way.  

9Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, in Judaea and Cappadocia, in Pontus and Asia, 10in Phrygia and Pamphylia, in Egypt and the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and sojourners from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabians’.  Book of Acts Chapter 2.