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Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora

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Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora

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Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora
From Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE - 117 CE)
By John M. G. Barclay
( University of California Press, 1999
ISBN: 0-520-21843-4

Reviewed By Rochelle Caviness

Academic study of Jewish history during the Graeco-Roman period is usually focused on Jewish life in Judea. Often overlooked are the far flung and substantial Jewish communities that were scattered around the Mediterranean. Until recently, students embarking upon the study of Jewish life in the Diaspora between 323 BCE - 117 CE, quickly found that a basic text on this subject did not exist. This deficiency has been superbly corrected with the publication of Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora.

John M. G. Barclay, a lecturer in Biblical Studies at the University of Glasgow, did a great service for everyone interested in classical history when he undertook the monumental task of compiling a comprehensive survey of the Jewish diaspora communities from 323 BCE to 117 CE. With the publication of Barclay's book, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: From Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE - 117 CE), readers at last have accesses to an intelligent and detailed account of this facet in Jewish history. Not only does Barclay illuminate how these communities developed and functioned, but he also establishes their relationships with the communities in Judea, and with the Temple in Jerusalem. He also shows the vast differences that often existed between Jews in urban and rural areas.

In Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora, Barclay concentrates on the Jewish communities in Egypt, Syria, Cyrenaica, the city of Rome, and the province of Asia. Throughout he makes persuasive use of historical and literary texts in order to bring the Jewish communities to life. He examines how each community developed and the role each community played in their respective regions. He also examines the levels of assimilation, acculturation, and antagonism which existed in each area, and how these levels changed - both from internal and eternal stimuli. For example, he illustrates how the Jewish food laws served as a substantial barrier to assimilation. In addition, he shows how the political fluctuations of each region affected the status of the Jews and their own identity as Jews.

The book is divided into sections concentrating on each given region. Within each section, Barclay offers a chronological survey of the events that transpired and their social and political implications. These historical overviews enable the reader to more easily understand the transformations that the various communities underwent, and how these transformations affected the various communities. In addition, those new to the study of Jewish life in this period will find that the methodology employed by Barclay makes it extremely easy for them to reconcile the events occurring in the Jewish communities with historical events with which they may have more familiarity. This is accomplished via the addition of sufficient general historical data to allow the reader to compare the Jewish experiences with events occurring elsewhere in the Graeco-Roman world during the same period.

In addition to the historical surveys, Barclay also provided a discourse on the analytical tools used, and needed, when studying this period. Equally important, he offers detailed analysis on how the majority populations reacted and treated the Jewish minorities, and how the Jews reacted to their non-Jewish neighbors. He also illustrated the tactics used by the Jews to not only survive, but flourish, within larger communities that were often decidedly unfriendly to their Jewish neighbors. Barclay also devotes a large portion of the text to a discussion on the surviving literature upon which much of the information contained in this text was garnered.

This is an eminently readable book that cuts across many disciplines including history, anthropology, archaeology and religious studies. For the student, it offers a comprehensive and understandable examination of the Mediterranean Diaspora. For the scholar, Barclay's work provides comprehensive and detailed footnotes, an extensive bibliography, and most important, he has penned a work that meticulously surveys the many aspects of Jewish life and religion in the Mediterranean Diaspora.


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