The term diaspora refers to the Jewish dispersion (i.e., to the scattering of Jews outside Palestine). It is also the technical name for all the nations outside of Palestine where Jewish people had come to live. However, the applicability of the use of diaspora has been widened to any religious or racial minority living within the territory of another religious or political society.
In this article, the term diaspora will be used as a reference to the Jewish dispersion throughout the known world during the biblical period. The purpose of this article is twofold: (1) to survey how diaspora is used in the Bible and during biblical times and (2) to describe how Jewish diaspora (including Jewish Christian diaspora) is related to Christian missions.
Diaspora in the Bible and Biblical Times
The term diaspora is found in the New Testament, the LXX (or Septuagint), related Old Testament words, and extra-biblical literature during the biblical period.
“Diaspora” in the New Testament
The verbal substantive, diaspora, commonly translated as “scattered,” occurs only three times in the NT (John 7:35; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1). In John 7:35, the Jews in Palestine raised the questions, “Where does this man intend to go that we cannot find him? Will he go where our people live scattered among the Greeks and teach the Greeks?” Through these questions by the Jews, I see their use of diaspora (“scattered”) as a reference to the Jewish minority in the midst of other religions—in this case the Greek-speaking environment.
In James 1:1, James greeted “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” in his salutation. The mention of the “twelve tribes” probably refers to the literal twelve tribes of the nation of Israel, although some scholars have seen the “twelve tribes” as a figurative reference to the true people of God (thus, broadening the Jewish roots to include the Church of James’ day).
In 1 Peter 1:1, Peter described his audience as “God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia.” Like the use of James, the Petrine diaspora refers to the scattered communities outside Palestine. These scattered communities were to view their lives on earth as temporary (thus, as aliens, sojourners, pilgrims, or foreigners who belonged to heaven).
“Diaspeiro” in the New Testament
The verb form of diaspora is diaspeiro. This verb appears in only three instances in the NT (Acts 8:1b, 4; 11:19). In each instance, diaspeiro relates to the scattering of the Christians of Hellenistic Jewish origin (Greek-speaking Jewish Christians from the diaspora) in areas where there was a non-Jewish majority (Acts 11:19), but also in the area around Jerusalem and toward Samaria (Acts 8:1). The unique contribution of these verses in the use of diaspeiro is that those who were scattered served essential factors in the expansion of early Christianity or to missions (Acts 8:4-8, 40; 11:19-21).
“Diaspora” in the LXX
In the Greek translation (i.e., LXX or Septuagint, including the Apocrypha) of the Hebrew Old Testament, the technical term, diaspora, is found in twelve passages, generally referring to the “dispersion of the Jews among the Gentiles” or “the Jews as thus scattered.” This noun, diaspora, is used in the LXX of the exile of the scattered people of God among the Gentiles. Moreover, diaspora can refer to both the dispersion and the totality of the dispersed.
Related Words in the Old Testament
There is no fixed or technical Hebrew equivalent for the Greek word diaspora. In Deuteronomy 30:4, the Hebrew root is ndt, which in the niphil means, “expelled, driven out.” The nearest Hebrew term, which may correspond to diaspora is golah, or galot, or the emphatic galota (from the Aramaic root, galo).
The three Hebrew words of ndt, golah, and galota can mean the process of “leading away,” “deportation,” or “exile.” They can also mean the state of those “led away,” “deported,” or “exiled.” They have become technical terms for exile or banishment after the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of the Palestinian homeland. However, in the LXX, they are always rendered with words other than diaspora.
“Diaspora” in Extra-biblical Literature
Aside from biblical literature, sufficient extra-biblical sources picture the period of Jewish diaspora. These sources support two main reasons for the diaspora; namely: (1) forced deportation triggered by conquests of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Roman empires; and (2) voluntary migration triggered not by shame but by optimism and restoration of dignity.
During the diaspora, there were probably few major cities or regions that were without a community of resident Jews. The origins of the Jewish communities in Babylonia came from the exile, when many Jews decided to remain in Babylonia (despite the permission of Cyrus for the Jews to return to their land; 2 Chronicles 36:22-23).
Evidence seems to point to the direction that the total Jewish population of the diaspora considerably exceeded the Jewish population in Palestine1, and that diaspora Jews constituted a group of significant size. Scholars often suggest that five to six million Jews were living in the diaspora during the first century, but such figures are only speculative.
What was the economic situation of the diaspora Jews? While the general impression from the papyri “is that of a hard-working people earning its living by tenacious labor,” there were many who prospered, and no branch of economic life was closed to them.2
Specifically, Jews of the diaspora were soldiers, land-owning farmers, agricultural laborers, shepherds, artisans, manual workers, traders, merchants, bankers, government officials, and slaves.3 In some Roman writings, Jewish poverty was a byword (Juvenal Sat. 3.14-16; 6.542-547). However, there were also some very wealthy Jews. Thus, diaspora Jews were found in almost all socio-economic strata of that period.
Relationship between Diaspora and Missions
Diaspora and missions can be seen as related through the contextual check of the diaspora passages for indicative elements in missions. Such a contextual check shows God’s sovereignty in the Jewish diaspora. In fact, God’s sovereignty establishes the framework for the missionary expansion of Christianity.
“Diaspeiro” Passages for Missions
The earlier context of Acts 8:1b and 8:4 dealt with persecution and martyrdom. In Acts 7:54-60, the stoning of Stephen happened. Right after Stephen’s martyrdom, Luke immediately narrated the breaking out of a “great persecution” in Acts 8:1a. Saul carried out this persecution by trying to destroy the Jerusalem church. He went from house to house, heartlessly and systematically dragging off men and women and putting them into prison (Acts 8:3).
Aside from persecution, the later context revealed the emphasis on missions. The Hellenized Jewish Christians, who were scattered in the diaspora, “preached the word wherever they went.” Particularly, Philip preached about Christ in Samaria (Acts 8:5). As a result of his preaching and miraculous signs, people listened. Many were healed and were rejoicing (Acts 8:6-7). Many people also believed Philip’s message and were baptized (Acts 8:12).
Thus, we can see that persecution (along with martyrdom) became the trigger of the diaspora of Hellenized Jewish Christians. These Christians used their diaspora outside of Jerusalem to be the setting for their missionary efforts.
In other words, it was their context of persecution that enabled them to fulfill Jesus’ commission that they be witnesses “in all Judea and Samaria” (Acts 1:8). In its wider context, the persecution of Acts 8:1 and the subsequent mission efforts in Acts 8:4 resulted in the formation of “the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria,” which was strengthened, encouraged, and which grew in numbers and lived in the fear of the Lord (Acts 9:31). Thus, the inception of such separate communities can be traced to the persecution during the Jewish Christian diaspora.
Let’s now check out the diaspeiro context of Acts 11:19 for missionary elements. The preceding context talked about the apostles’ hearing the news that the Gentiles were receiving the word of God (Acts 11:1). Peter explained before the Hebraic Jewish Christians how God opened the door to the Gentiles (Acts 11:2-18). Peter’s explanation was received well, to the point that the people praised and said, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18).
This opening of the missionary doors for the Gentiles was exemplified in Acts 11:19-21. Those who were scattered by the persecution related to Stephen’s martyrdom went to the northern portions of “Phoenecia, Cyprus, and Antioch” (Acts 11:19a). Although the missionary efforts already expanded to the point of leaving Palestine, the recipients of their outreach efforts were Jews only (Acts 11:19b).
But the mission extension went further when some “men from Cyprus and Cyrene” (Acts 11:20a) went to Antioch and “began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus” (Acts 11:20b). The Greeks responded in great numbers and “believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:20c), as the Lord’s hand was on the missionaries.
Thus, in this strategic passage on the diaspora, we see the further fulfillment of Christ’s commission (Acts 1:8) that his people be witnesses to the “ends of the earth.” From the missionary effort to Jews in Jerusalem to Jews in Samaria, the outreach opened widely to the Gentiles, who belonged to the ends of the earth.
“Diaspora” Passages for Missions
Admittedly, there is no immediate context of missions in John 7:35 (on the contrary, the context is that of hatred, hostility, misunderstanding, and unbelief by the religious leaders toward Jesus; cf. 7:32, 41b-44); however, the scope of the diaspora is far and wide (i.e., among the Greeks and Gentiles).
Similarly, the scope of missions is far and wide—reaching the nations throughout the world. In the Great Commission, the extent of going and making disciples is to “all nations.” As we have seen in the previous section, the Jewish diaspora reached many nations. There were only a few major cities or regions that were without a community of resident Jews. Thus, both the diaspora and missions are far-reaching and global in scope.
In addition, the context of hostility and hatred in John 7:35 is similar to the context of suffering and persecution in Acts 8:1. From this similarity, we glean that mission work is usually triggered by hostility, hatred, suffering, and persecution. God’s global work greatly expands within the context of pain and persecution.
In James 1:1, the New International Version (NIV) translates the word diaspora as “scattered among the nations”—focusing on the dispersion of the “twelve tribes” “among the nations.” In 1 Peter 1:1, the enumeration of the locations in the diaspora (i.e., Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia) shows the far-reaching spread of the Jewish dispersion. This also formed part of the far-reaching spread of missions.
Thus, we have seen in our inspection of the diaspeiro and diaspora passages in the New Testament how God used suffering, persecution, and dispersion as the context for expanding his kingdom and enabling his people to fulfill their commission to become witnesses to all the nations and to the remotest parts of the earth. He used the diaspora to expand the missionary work to the Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles.
After seeing the use of the word or concept of diaspora in the NT, in the LXX, in related OT words, and in extra-biblical literature during the biblical period, we have described how Jewish diaspora (including Jewish Christian diaspora) is related to Christian missions. The relation is evident in God’s providential hand in the spread of missions through his chosen tools of suffering, persecution, and diaspora.
(For a full list of references used for this article, email: [email protected])
1. Tcherikover, Victor. 1970. Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews. New York: Atheneum, 292-295.
2. Tcherikover, Victor and Fuks, Alexander, eds. 1957-1964. Corpus Papyrorum Judaicarum. Vol. 1. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard University Press, 19.
3. Trebilco, Paul. 2000. “Diaspora Judaism.” In Dictionary of New Testament Background. Eds. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press, 286.