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What is the diaspora?

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The diaspora is a transliterated Greek word that means to distribute or scatter abroad. Various forms of this word are found in six different New Testament passages and referred to Jews who had been dispersed or lived abroad beyond the area of Israel. In more modern times the term diaspora has also been used by Jews to refer to Jewish people returning from Europe to Israel following the reestablishment of modern Israel in 1948. It is now sometimes used to refer to any Jewish people who live outside of modern Israel.

The diaspora of Israel, or Jews living outside of Israel, has taken place on many occasions throughout history. The earliest major exile of many Israeli Jews took place in connection with the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. 70 years of exile followed, with many Jews then returning from Babylon and elsewhere to reestablish temple worship and rebuild the wall of Jerusalem.

The next major empire to conquer Israel was the Greeks under Alexander the Great. Some Jews stayed while others fled for better opportunities elsewhere. Later, the Roman Empire would take over the land of Israel. This was the empire in place during the time of Jesus in Israel and of the early church. By the mid-first century AD, many Jews had been dispersed throughout the world to such an extent that historian Josephus wrote, "There is no city, no tribe, whether Greek or barbarian, in which Jewish law and Jewish customs have not taken root."

The first use of the word diaspora is found in John 7:35 in reference to the dispersed Jews living among the Greeks. In Acts 8:1-4 it is the Jewish Christians who were scattered or dispersed as a result of the stoning of the first martyr Stephen. By Acts 11:19, we again find use of this term in connection with scattered Jewish Christians, with some beginning to share the gospel message with Gentiles.

James is addressed "To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion" (James 1:1). However, in this context the audience consists of Jewish Christians who lived in a variety of locations. First Peter 1:1 also addresses scattered peoples: "To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia." In Peter's case, he wrote to both Jewish and Gentile Christians living in these areas, revealing that in some cases this word was being used in a new sense to include the scattered people of God from a Christian perspective.

While the diaspora is primarily a Jewish term used in reference to the scattering of Jews outside of the area of Israel, it has been applied to other "scatterings," including some of the early persecutions of Christians. In modern times, the diaspora has returned primarily to its usage in reference to Jewish people outside of Israel, both in Europe and beyond, who share in a common Jewish heritage.

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