Barclay and Diaspora Jews

Today’s post highlights one of one of my “top ten must reads” for students of New Testament in Christian Origins. 


John Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora

Barclay’s “Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora” offers a ‘comprehensive survey’ of the Judaism out of which Early Christianity emerged. Recognizing this important seedbed for Early Christianity (but also the haunting similarities between Jewish minority experience in the ancient world and modern), Barclay carefully combines history and literary analysis of diaspora Jews in the Second Temple period. Throughout he shows us that we must think of Judaism in the era as Judaisms expressing itself variously in in particular times and places. He surveys the material we have on Egypt first (since we have the most evidence from Mitzsrayim), and then he surveys Cyrenia, Syria, Asia, and final Rome. Barclay concludes with a nuanced portrait of what drew these Judaism together, mainly their ethnic bond (ancestry and customs) and secondarily social, symbolic, and practical distinctions from their surrounding environment. This book remains a must-read for anyone interested in the Judaism out of which Jesus and the early church emerged. Here is a particularly fine example of his final synthesis:

Philo occasionally acknowledges that others have a correct conception of God (Virt 65; Spec Leg 2.165), yet he refuses to accept the validity of their cult. In the later passage he credits to all, Greek and barbarian, recognition of the supreme, invisible ‘father of Gods and men’, yet he immediately convicts all non-Jews of honouring ‘created Gods’ (Spec Leg 2.165-166). If only Jews can correct this error, only the Jewish temple can be regarded as sacred to the One God. Both Philo (Spec Leg 1.67) and Josephus (C Ap 2.193) affirm that there is only ‘one temple for the One God’; were that defiled, Philo argues, there would be left no trace of the reverence paid to the one true God (Legatio 347). For all his capacity for abstraction, Philo cannot regard what goes on elsewhere as proper worship.

Such rejection of ‘alien cult’ did not have to be voiced in aggressive terms to be perceived by non-Jews as intolerance. Egyptian resentment of the fact that Jews disdained their cult is reflected in legends of Moses’ iconoclasm (e.g. Lysimachus apud Josephus, C Ap 1.309), and it is clear that the LXX translation of Exod 22.27 (‘you shall not disdain [others’] Gods’) was framed to minimize conflict on this score. Josephus admits that Jews have a reputation for ‘slighting the Divinity which others claim to honour’ (Ant 3.179), and that may be confirmed by the critical comments of Claudius (Ant 19.290) and Pliny (13.46, contumelia numinum insignis). Charges of religious exclusivity thus arise quite naturally: Josephus imagines the complaints of the Midianites, and reports those of Apion and the Ionians, that the Jews refuse to worship the same Gods as the rest of humanity (Ant 4.137-38; 12.126; C Ap 2.65-67; cf. 2.79, 117). It was a charge that Jews could not deny and struggled to empty of its ‘anti-social’ implications. 1996. Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora, 430-31.


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