The Jews of the Dispersion


In the first century, no less than in the nineteenth, the Jews were at once the most exclusive and the most universal people in the civilized world. [The main points under this topic are admirably presented by Uhlhorn.] God gave to them these contrasted features, since he had assigned to them the twofold office of preparing a birthplace for Christianity, and of opening a way for it in the heathen world. It was necessary that they should be unlike other nations, lest through amalgamation with them they should corrupt the legacy of monotheistic faith with which they had been intrusted; at the same time representatives of the nation must be in the midst of all other nations, to serve there as witnesses of the true God. Wide as was the Roman Empire, there was scarcely a corner of it into which the Jews had not penetrated by the age of Augustus. The geographer Strabo, writing in that age, testifies that it was difficult to find a place in the world where this race had not established itself. [Compare the words which Josephus addressed to his countrymen: "There is no people upon the habitable earth which have not some portion of you among them," (Wars of the Jews, ii. 16. 4.)] In Egypt they numbered a full million, and by themselves occupied two out of five divisions of the great city of Alexandria. They were spread over Syria and the region about Babylon. They were numerous in Asia Minor, and were found in the cities of Macedonia, Greece, North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. At Rome they formed quite a large body as early as the days of Herod the Great. According to Josephus, the delegation which came from Palestine in the year 4 B.C. was re-enforced by eight thousand residents of the metropolis. [Antiquities of the Jews, xvii. 11, 1.] Not long thereafter their nationality was probably represented in all the civilized portions of Europe: The first certain account of their being settled in Spain dates from the beginning of the third century [Emil Schürer: Lehrbuch der neutestamentliche Zeitgeschichre, §31.]

As respects their standing, they were the objects of much hatred and ridicule. But, notwithstanding all this, they acquired no little influence and privilege. From the days of the captivity, through a long course of centuries, they had been educated to adapt themselves to new and strange conditions. They submitted with customary readiness to the existing administration, and so won for themselves not only toleration, but substantial favors at different times; such as the free use of their religious rites, exemption from military service, and the privilege of sending stated contributions to the temple at Jerusalem. [Josephus, Antiq., xiv. 10.] Seneca expressed a very emphatic estimate of their influence, even speaking of them as the conquered giving laws to the conquerors. [Quoted by Augustine, De Civ. Dei, vi. 11.]

As concerns propagandism, they did not win very many proselytes in the strict sense. A much greater number, without subjecting themselves to circumcision and the whole ceremonial law, engaged to beep the general code of Jewish morality and some of the more important of the ceremonial requisitions, more especially those relating to the Sabbath and to forbidden meats. Not a few of the higher class of women belonged to this order (Acts xiii. 50; xvii. 4, 12).

In addition to this circle there was a class who made, indeed, no profession of Judaism, but still felt the force of its monotheistic teaching. These being at once free from Jewish pride and exclusiveness, and having greater religious intelligence than the mass of the heathen population, were among the foremost to accept the gospel message. Hence, even when the synagogue closed its doors against the apostles and the Christian evangelists, it helped to prepare for the acceptance of their preaching. In another way, also, Judaism was made to loan assistance to the gospel, whether willingly or unwillingly. For several decades, Christianity passed with the Roman authorities as simply a phase of Judaism, and enjoyed, therefore, the toleration which was given to the latter, instead of being put at once under the ban which a new and uncompromising religion, unsupported by specific national associations, might have been expected to invite.