Question: "What does the Bible mean when it refers to the Diaspora?"
Answer: The word Diaspora is a transliteration of a Greek word that means “to sow throughout” or “to distribute in foreign lands” or “scatter abroad.” Some form of the Greek word is seen in six different New Testament passages, and at its simplest meaning, the Diaspora refers to Jews who were living outside of Palestine or Israel having been dispersed or scattered to other Gentile countries. In modern parlance, the Diaspora refers to the scattering of the Jews throughout Europe who returned to their homeland in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel by a United Nations resolution.
Throughout the history of Israel, the Jewish people were conquered and sent into exile several different times. While many of them had returned to Israel when the opportunity arose, many others stayed in the Gentile countries. But the forced exile of Jews was only a small part of the reason that Jews would have been scattered throughout much of the Roman Empire during the New Testament time. Other economic and political influences led to many other Jews leaving Israel/Palestine for more comfortable and profitable lands.
There were large Jewish populations in both Egypt and Syria, with an estimated Jewish population in Alexandria, Egypt, alone, of more than one million Jews. During Roman rule many Jews were also taken to Rome as slaves, and there were large Jewish populations in several different parts of the Roman Empire. The Roman historian Mommsen wrote, “The inhabitants of Palestine were only a portion, and not the most important portion, of the Jews; the Jewish communities of Babylonia, Syria, Asia Minor and Egypt were far superior to those of Palestine.” Jews were scattered across so much of the known world that the Jewish historian Josephus wrote that “there is no city, no tribe, whether Greek or barbarian, in which Jewish law and Jewish customs have not taken root.”
Clearly, by the time of Christ’s coming, Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. So at the time Jesus began His earthly ministry, there were likely more Jews living outside of Israel than in it. This is important to realize because it helps us to understand just how perfect the timing of Jesus’ coming was. With Greek being widely spoken throughout the Roman Empire and Jews having been scattered or dispersed among the nations, the time was right for Jesus to come and the gospel to spread throughout the Roman Empire. As Galatians 4:4-5 says, “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (emphasis added).
So, in the broadest meaning of the word, the Diaspora would refer to the countless Jews living outside of Israel, and that is exactly the meaning we see in John 7:35 where the Jewish religious leaders would wonder where Jesus was going and if He was intending to go to “the Dispersion among the Greeks and teach the Greeks.” Jesus had told them that where He was going they could not come, nor could they find Him. Jesus, of course, was speaking of returning to be with God the Father, but the Jewish leaders thought He was going to be with Jews scattered abroad instead.
However, in the rest of the New Testament, the meaning of the Diaspora seems to evolve somewhat. First it refers more specifically to Jewish Christians who were spread out all over the Roman Empire rather than Jews in general. In Acts 8:1–4 we see the gospel being spread as the persecution of Jewish Christians began in Jerusalem, so the Jewish Christians were “scattered” or dispersed “throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” and “those that were scattered went everywhere preaching the word.”
Those first Jewish Christians who fled Israel because of the persecution that started after the death of Stephen would have gone throughout the Roman Empire taking the message of Jesus Christ to already established and sizable Jewish communities and synagogues all over the Roman Empire. Again, in Acts 11:19, we see the word used referring to Jewish Christians, who “scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen [and] traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only.”
God had allowed—even orchestrated—the spreading of millions of Jews throughout the Roman Empire to serve as a key part in the rapid spread of the gospel. As Jewish Christians were forced to flee Jerusalem due to persecution, they were able to travel to almost any part of the world and find a Jewish population and a Jewish synagogue from which to share the gospel of Christ. Because the Jews already knew the Old Testament, the background was set and the timing was perfect for the gospel to spread throughout the nations.
So, when James wrote in his Epistle that he was writing to “the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (James 1:1), he was clearly writing to Jewish Christians whom God had scattered throughout the Roman Empire. But then Peter’s use of the term takes on an even fuller meaning and now involves both Jewish and Gentile Christians who were scattered throughout the provinces in Asia Minor: “To the pilgrims of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). We know from the context of 1 Peter that he is writing to both Jewish and Gentile Christians, so we see the word Diaspora now referring to Christians in general, both Jew and Gentile.
In looking at the different passages where this word is found, we can see how the meaning of Diaspora has somewhat evolved in the New Testament. Originally, it referred to all Jews who lived outside of Israel. Then it took on a more limited meaning, referring specifically to Jewish Christians who were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Finally, we see an even more general meaning as it applies to both Jewish and Gentile Christians who were scattered around an often hostile world.