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Judean immigration to Egypt in the 2nd century BC

Christelle Fischer-Bovet

University of Southern California

In the 160s, a politically unstable decade marked by the revolt of the Maccabees in Judea, the leading member of the Oniad family of high priests and his followers fled to Egypt. The status and the settlement of this new wave of migrants, largely soldiers and their families, from Judea to Egypt, has often been interpreted as the reflection of a Ptolemaic policy that favored (Greek-speaking) non-Egyptian populations, employing them as loyal officials, soldiers and police officers in order to control the native population. Accordingly, the Ptolemaic dynastic conflicts of the second century tend to be interpreted through an ethnic lens that emphasizes in particular the support of the Jews towards Cleopatra II against her brother Ptolemy VIII, mainly on the basis of the literary sources (J. Ap. 2.49­–55, Ath. Deipn. IV, 184). Such an understanding is at odds with the outcome of the military reforms of the previous decades (as visible in the papyrological documentation) that led to an increasing reliance on Egyptian soldiers on the part of Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II and the general absence of a military organization according to ethnic groups. By combining second century papyrological and epigraphical documentation that informs us about Judeans’ social interactions and military functions (mainly collected in CPJ, P.Polit. Jud., Stefanou’s updated list of cleruchs and JIGRE), the paper offers a more nuanced approach to the role and status of the Judeans in Egypt, who can neither be considered as one homogenous group nor as living insulated from the rest of the population. In conclusion, the study challenges the interpretations of the dynastic conflicts that have given too much weight to ethnicity and proposes instead fast shifting alliances between the competing rulers and elite members at the court, independently of their ethnic background. The favorable attitude of the Ptolemaic rulers towards the Judean communities linked to the army, especially the military elite, continued throughout the period and the hope to reconquer at least part of the lost province of Syria-Phoenicia never completely vanished.

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Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

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