During the centuries immediately before the New Testament era, Jews had become widely scattered across western Asia, eastern Europe and northern Africa. Some of these were descendants of people who had been taken captive to foreign lands by Assyria, Babylon and other invaders of Palestine. Some had fled as refugees in times of persecution; others had moved to different places in search of trade. All these people were known as ‘Jews of the Dispersion’ or ‘the scattered Jews’ (John 7:35; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:1). By New Testament times many of these Jews had lived in foreign countries so long that they had little or no knowledge of Palestinian languages such as Hebrew and Aramaic. Instead they spoke Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire, and so became known as Hellenists (from the word hellas, meaning ‘Greece’). At the same time they maintained their Jewish identity through keeping the Jewish law. Wherever they lived they built synagogues (Acts 13:5,14; 17:1,10; 18:1-4) and kept the traditions of their ancestors. Usually they went to Jerusalem for the more important ceremonies and festivals (Acts 2:1,5; 21:27-29).

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