Jews in Babylon

The original diaspora community.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

Long after the ancient city of Babylon and the kingdom of Babylonia had ceased to exist, the Jews continued to use the name "Babel" to designate Mesopotamia, the "land of the two rivers." Indeed, the Babylonian diaspora did not resemble any other. Its antiquity and the fact that it remained the only large Jewish community outside the Roman Empire made it a world apart. Since Mesopotamian Jewry was never embraced by the seductive and highly assimilative influence of the Greco-Roman civilization, it could develop its own original forms of social life and autonomous institutions.

 

Abraham Slept Here

The roots of the Babylonian community were very ancient, dating as far back as the end of the biblical period and the deportations from the Land of Israel, which both preceded and followed the destruction of the First Temple (586 B.C.E.). As it grew and prospered, the community tended to emphasize its antiquity.

babylonian mosaicBy the time it had produced its own version of the Talmud, it manifested a kind of "local patriotism." Was not Abraham the Father of the Nation born "beyond the river" (Euphrates)? Were not the Euphrates and the Tigris the two rivers which flowed out of Eden according to Genesis (2:14)? The Jews of Babylonia, therefore, considered themselves the aristocracy of the Jewish people. Even the land of Mesopotamia acquired an aura of sanctity in their eyes, second to the land of Israel, of course, but holier than all other countries.

Seleucid and Parthian Rule

The history of this community during the first millennium of its existence remains obscure. Following the Hellenistic conquest of the East, the Jews of Babylonia, like their brethren in Palestine, came under Seleucid rule. From the second century B.C.E. until the third century C.E., they were subjects of the Arsacid Parthians. The Parthian kingdom, a loose federation of feudal principalities, was a convenient structure for them as long as they gave their support in times of war, the rulers kept out of the internal affairs of the ethnic groups under their domination.

The little that is known of the Jews there at the time come from the quill of Josephus Flavius: they were very numerous and their brethren in Judea sought their help while preparing their revolt against Rome. This Roman historian also mentions two episodes which he most probably learned from literary fragments: the adventure of two brothers from Nechardea who had founded a kind of thieves-state near the city of Seleucia, and the famous conversion of the king of Adiabene to Judaism.

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Isaiah Gafni is a Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He specializes in the history of the Jewish people during the Second Temple period.