John M.G. Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: Fom Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE - 117 CE) (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1996) 452 pages.

Reviewed by Virginia Wayland (RelSt 525, November 2003)

Barclay is a Christian New Testament scholar, and his book is oriented toward obtaining background to compare Diaspora Jewish communities with early Christian churches. His goal is combine the study of the historical experiences of the Jews with analysis of the main Diaspora literature. He reconstructs the 'historical experiences of the Jews' from papyrological and inscriptional evidence, and ancient histories. The study looks at communities in Egypt, Cyrenaica, Syria, Roman Asia, and Rome during the period from Alexander's conquest of Palestine and Egypt in 323 BCE to the Diaspora Revolt in (117 CE).

His approach is sociological/anthropological, looking at the ethnic boundaries through which the Jews of the period both maintain a distinctive ethnic identity and interact with other ethnic/culture groups around them, predominantly Hellenistic culture. His main tool is a model which is presented in Chapter 4 of the book, based on the ideas of assimilation, acculturation, and accommodation.

Barclay defines assimilation as integration of Jews with the non-Jewish context along political, social, educational, ideological, religious, and/or material dimensions. He defines three levels of assimilation, based on 'Jewish distinctives.' These distinctives are the refusal to worship other gods, dietary laws, observance of the Sabbath, and circumcision.

High levels of assimilation:

Medium levels of assimilation:

Low levels of assimilation:

Acculturation is the adoption of linguistic, educational, and ideological aspects of a given cultural matrix, the submersion of Jewish cultural uniqueness. Maximum Acculturation ranges from scholarly expertise in Greek literature, rhetoric, philosophy and theology to little or no facility with Greek language. Accommodation is an attitude or quality of acculturation which assumes a reinterpretation of Judaism preserving some uniqueness. The accommodation may be integrative, submerging Jewish cultural uniqueness, and affirming common cultural ground. Alternatively, the accommodation may be oppositional, showing antagonism to the Hellenistic culture.

Levels/Types of Acculturation/Accommodation

Scholarly Expertise/Familiarity with Greek literature, rhetoric, philosophy, and theology

Integrative Accommodation:

Oppositional Accommodation:

Aquaintance with common values

Adaptation to Language

Barclay has uneven success in finding sufficient information to fill out his model. The best documented case is for Egypt and Alexandria. Here, the axis of assimilation is applied to both the Hellenistic Greek culture of Alexandria, and also the Egyptian culture of the countryside. His study of the legal position of the Alexandrian Jews shows the changing nature of Jewish-Greek interaction over the entire period, particularly the development of Jewish-Greek tensions during the period of Roman rule and leading to the Diaspora Revolt.

Barclay's model proves flexible enough to reveal two-way adaptation across the ethnic boundary. The chapter on Rome uses references from Horace and Ovid to point to the role of Jewish Sabbath observance in helping to reinforce the (then) unofficial observance of the seven-day planetary week among Romans. The chapter dealing with Paul points to a complex effort to assimilate Jews and Gentiles into a single community, and to acculturate the Gentiles to a basically Jewish tradition.

I found the book well worth reading as an introduction to the sources and literature, and as an attempt to provide a framework for understanding the diversity of the period. Barclay's study points toward new directions for understanding rather than providing a definitive explanation, but it is an extremely useful introduction.