What is the Diaspora?

James 1:1 indicates that he is writing to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion.”  Assuming that this line is to be read literally, we need to understand what a Jewish writer would have meant when he said “twelve tribes” and Dispersion.  Simply put, a Jew living in the diaspora was a Jew living outside of the land.  But things are a bit more complicated than that.

The Judaism of the first century developed the way it did because of the exile. This is the single event which shaped the religion primarily because it stripped the Jews of all things which constituted ethnicity.  They no longer had land, their language began to shift from Hebrew to Aramaic, and there was a significant threat from intermarriage.  The Jews, as a people, were at risk of losing their ethnicity.

How did the Jews survive the exile? All other peoples of the ancient world integrated and disappeared from history (for example, how many people claim to be Moabites these days?)  The primary factor is Jewish Religious Tradition. This was a powerful force, based on scripture, which kept them from assimilating into a host culture. Centers of Jewish cultures developed in Alexandria, Elephantine, Babylon, etc. and continued to develop well into the current era. It is likely that Babylon and Alexandria were superior centers of Judaism to Jerusalem for much of the Second Temple period.

Those who chose to live outside of the land rather than return to Jerusalem always face problems in living in accordance with their traditional customs.  The main three which are typically identified: monotheism, Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary laws.  It is not a surprise to find these as the main points of controversy in the New Testament.  While Paul does not shift on monotheism, he does not require gentiles to conform to the other three boundary markers and it is at least possible he may have been open to Jews not practicing food laws or worshiping on a day other than Sabbath.

The important thing to remember when thinking about the Diaspora is that it was not as much geographical as cultural.  Paul might encounter strongly traditional Jews in Ephesus or Rome, and relatively “liberal” Jews in Jerusalem.  In fact, I suggest that the Jews who ran the Temple in the first century were far less traditional than the Jews who worshiped in the Greek-speaking synagogues in and around Jerusalem. The first violent persecution grew out of the Greek-speaking synagogue (Acts 7).

So back to James.  I think that he is certainly writing to Jews who are Christians, but they are people who may very well represent the more conservative form of Judaism before accepting Jesus as Lord.  If this is true, it may explain James’ insistence on good works, for example, as a sign of true faith.  To what extent does James’ letter actually reflect diaspora thinking?

11 thoughts on “What is the Diaspora?

  1. I think that James is writing to 12 tribes that are not necessarily in Jerusalem. He is telling them what they need to do to still live out their faith in Jesus Christ. Throughout the whole book, he is telling them that their is going to be suffering in their life, but they still need to lean on God. When the trials come from those who do not want to believe on God, that is the time that they needed to show God’s love to them. I think James is writing to them to tell them to keep standing strong even though they may not be totally surrounded by other believers or in their “home town”.

    • As everone as been saying in this post that James was writing to people of the 12 tribes that are not in the places that they are familiar with. So, James is sending a letter to kind of comfort the people that are away from home. So, not only is this letter thought to be the purest form of Jewish Christian documents, but it is a encouragement to Christians that are away from home. It was an encouragment to stand strong.

      • Ok Kyle, except that the Diaspora Jews were home. They are ethnically Jewish but may have lived in Antioch or Alexandria for generations. It is similar to the Dutch who live in West Michigan; it is not that they are “not home” and in need of comfort, but rather they are not living in their “homeland” any longer. And like the Jews of the first century, many are happy with this and have no real desire to return to the land of their fathers!

  2. “I think James is writing to them to tell them to keep standing strong even though they may not be totally surrounded by other believers or in their “home town”.” (Jessica). I would have to agree with this. They are probably Christians possibly even Jewish Christians who are used to the family like connection with other Jews in the town and with others around them even. With them having converted to Christianity it might be difficult to fit in like they did n the past. They might be gone from their home town or they might just be gone from their comfort zone with the lack of companionship from other Christians and the lose of the past Jewish lifestyle.

  3. I also agree with Jessica and Kristin in that the people that James is writing to are people who are not in their own hometown and may feel at odds with those around them. When anyone is in a situation that they are not comfortable with, they are going to automatically group together and stick close to people they feel comfortable with. I think this might be happening in James. When James is talking to the people about faith and deeds in chapter 2, I think he is reminding them that they need to be open to the people around them and to not just shut themselves off. Verses 15-16 state “suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. if one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” Perhaps James is reminding these people of their Christian duty while in a land of people they do not know.

  4. Back to the original question by Phil Long, “To what extent does James’ letter actually reflect diaspora thinking?” While you can’t discern whether the Jews James was writing to stayed within the boundary markers of dietary laws, circumcision, or even keeping the Sabbath; James can be said to be monotheistic in the same way as the rest of New Testament. James refers to Jesus as “the Lord Jesus Christ” in James 1:1 and James 2:1. Jesus is equal to the Father and one with the Father. James’ emphasis is that true faith is validated by good works. James did not focus on the dietary, circumcision, or other ritualistic things every good Jew does but rather on matters that reflect the attitude of the heart like Jesus did. For example, James says, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble,” James 1:27. One can also see this emphasis on the heart in his discussion on favoritism (James 2:1-9), his discussion of works and faith, his discussion of the tongue (James 3:1-12), and his discussion of the rich (James 5:1-6). James’ readers may have had a problem with the second part of James 1:27, “and to keep oneself unspotted from the world” as well. However it is assumed that they knew exactly what that meant. That is why James does not refer to dietary laws or circumcision or the Sabbath. These things differentiated themselves from the rest of society which left them open to persecution.

  5. The diaspora Jews are an interesting topic. In so many ways are they different from the Jews within Palestine, thus the distinction. It was once thought by many that the Jews within Palestine thought of the diaspora Jews as filthy and not as faithful as those who stayed in Palestine. This, however, is not true and in some areas, the diaspora Jews may be thought of as being more conservative faithfully since they were an easier target for Hellenizing culture. I believe, however, that what Sanders calls covenantal nomism spreads across both Palestinian and diaspora judaism. I do not believe James would have written much differently if he were writing to people in Palestine. The insistence on works (1.22-25), may be more appropriate for diaspora Jews because there are much more different theologies that advance towards the Jews especially after the Jesus movement began. James is telling his audience that our faith in Jesus does not negate the need for the works of the law.

  6. After addressing the issue at hand, I wish to pursue the diaspora Jews a little farther. The Jewish life outside of Palestine was much different than within. One part of this distinctiveness was the cultic practice. As we know, Judaism had but one temple which resided in Jerusalem. Judaism at a host of festivals throughout the year not to mention all the sacrifices that the priests offered and the sacrifices that were brought daily by the Jews. Unfortunately, for the diaspora Jews, coming to the Temple was much to difficult, costing them money and time away from their jobs. Some only had the chance to go once a year, others once a lifetime depending on their location. When they did have the chance to go, they would bring sacrifices with them that they normally did not have the chance to do or they bought them by the temple. I believe on some occasions sacrifices were offered to a local priest. At any rate, it was difficult for the diaspora to attend the festivals and normally they would only get to go to one, which was usually passover or booths.

    • I think a good way to illustrate this is to use modern day universities. Today if I went to visit a baptist church in the mountains of Tennessee, I would probably find a very conservative calvinist church. If I visit Fuller University in California and discuss theology with one of the professor’s there, I would most likely find a much more progressive theological world-view. The Jews of diaspora would probably use a much older theological worldview than those of Jerusalem (possibly the same theology they subscribed to pre-exile). A much more schooled individual could much more easily explore the boundaries of their theology, than a less schooled trader worker.

      • “I think that he is certainly writing to Jews who are Christians, but they are people who may very well represent the more conservative form of Judaism before accepting Jesus as Lord. If this is true, it may explain James’ insistence on good works, for example, as a sign of true faith. To what extent does James’ letter actually reflect diaspora thinking?” (P. Long)

        I really like Jon’s analogy here to demonstrate this. It definitely puts it into perspective. But It makes me think of having to preach to different groups of people and knowing how to talk to them properly. James obviously needed to put this into a context that they could understand and be comfortable with, while at the same time challenging them to stay strong and not be “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. (James 1:6).”

        To go back to Jon’s analogy, sometimes I feel like those Baptist churches in the “mountains of Tennessee” can get very content and comfortable at their routine of church. Not all are like this, but I feel like it could be very easy… I mean it is not just there, it can and probably does happen at almost every church in America or maybe even the world at least at one point. I think James is encouraging these twelve tribes not to get comfortable with doing their routine and sticking together, but rather to step out in faith and to SEE that God is FAITHFUL even when times are rough for them. If that conservative, baptist church in Tennessee were to experience some of the theological worldview of a student from Fuller it would probably make them VERY uncomfortable. But what they both need to remember is that we all serve the same God. Whether we are conservative or not does not matter, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:17).” If we believe in Jesus, we need to work it out and let people see out faith by what we do. “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do (James 2:18b).”

      • You would think so, Jon, but in point of fact there was a range of attitudes toward the distinctive marks of Judaism in the Diaspora (even as there is today). Just because a Jew lived in Ephesus or Corinth did not imply he was a “liberal”, nor did living in Jerusalem make you a conservative. (Treblico made this point in the article you were to read, maybe you missed it.)

        While living in Southern Cal might just make you a liberal by contact, if you drove across town to Talbot and BIOLA, you might find a bit more conservative prof to talk to, but potential both are a bit more “socially liberal” than a prof from GRTS. Socially liberal does not equal theologically liberal!

Leave a Reply