Just completed the reading of a small book with a large thesis. It's the joint project of two local scholars, Arye Edrei (Law, Tel Aviv University) and Doron Mendels (History, Hebrew University). Because of the vagaries of academe, they both live in Hebrew, their research is based on sources in Hebrew Aramaic Greek and Latin, they published their findings in two articles in English, but the book which contains the fullest presentation of their findings exists only in German, Zweierlei Diaspora, Zur Spaltung der antiken juedischen Volk. The two earlier articles appeared in the Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, 2007 and 2008.
The reason I'm getting into all the bibliographic stuff is because of my frustration that such a ground-breaking and fascinating study is hidden in such remote nooks and crannies as to ensure that no-one ever finds them, except for some dusty old eggheads.
The thesis: About 2,200 years ago the Jews split into two language groups. The Western half forgot Hebrew, and in spite of its size was eventually lost to Jewish history.
The Jewish world from the 3rd century BCE onwards was split between the western communities which spoke Greek, and the eastern ones which spoke Aramaic. The Aramaic-speaking ones knew Hebrew, read the Bible in it, created the Mishna in it, and then developed the Talmud and its auxiliary creations in Aramaic interspersed with Hebrew. In the west, meanwhile, the Bible was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), so the Greek-speakers no longer needed Hebrew and forgot it.
In the Land of Israel itself there were Jews of both camps. Moreover, until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70CE the division was not necessarily troubling because everyone accepted the utter centrality of Jerusalem, and Jewish practice focused on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem removed the center of Judaism. The pharisees, who had already begun developing an oral law, managed to forge a new form of Judaism, rabbinic Judaism; the Jews of the west, not having any of the languages, were simply not part of it. They did not contribute to it, and there are only rare indications that they even knew it existed. Nor, as time went on, is it clear that the Jews of the east remembered that the Jews of the west were still there.
There was also the matter of Christianity: the Septuagint enabled anyone to read the Bible, and now ever growing numbers of non-Jews were claiming themselves to be Israel; this caused the rabbis to insist that their Talmudic tradition never be written: an oral tradition of immense complexity in languages most Christians didn't know would be impossible to translate and expropriate. In practice this meant dropping the Jews who couldn't participate.
Prior to the late 18th century rabbinic Judaism was the only sort there was (though within its limits it was of course extraordinarily rich and variegated). The Jews of Asia Minor, North Africa and Europe simply didn't know about it.
So how did they live? As what? Initially, they lived according to the Biblical precepts, meaning the basic laws of Kashrut and the Sabbath and holidays. Yet Edrei and Mendels speculate that many of them may have joined the early Christians, who were not obviously all that different from them initially. By and by they stopped sending money to the center, because it wasn't there anymore, and thus they lost another form of connection. And then?
In the 9th or 10th century rabbinic Judaism appears in Europe; by the 11th it is stronger there than in the east. How did this happen? The book offers no clear answer, and when I pressed Arye Edrei he said he doesn't know, because the sources are too weak. He seems to incline to the explanation that rabbinic Jews traveled to the west and settled there. Did they find remnants of the local Jews and teach them the rabbinic tradition? Was there anyone left to teach?
Which leads to the obvious question: in the long run (centuries), can Jews exist as Jews without Hebrew?