For many centuries, the term “Sephardi” has been applied to Jews whose ancestors fled Spain or Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries, or to Jews from North Africa and the Middle East more generally. Tamar Marvin explains the origins of both the term and the community it denotes. The story begins with the biblical book of Obadiah, which refers to exiles from Jerusalem who settled in Sepharad—probably Sardis in what is now western Turkey. But Targum Jonathan, an Aramaic translation from the 1st- or 2nd-century long considered authoritative by Jews, renders the word as Espamia, i.e., Spain:
[Modern] Spain may have received colonists from Sardis, making the link an actual one, as some scholars have suggested. By the early Middle Ages, “Sepharad” was the common appellation among Jews for what we today call Spain. The verse from Obadiah served as a prooftext attesting to the nobility and antiquity of the Sephardi Jewish community, a central component of its self-understanding.
Centuries later, on the cusp of modernity when questions of lineage became supercharged in Spanish society, Sephardi Jews claimed to unearth, in the old Jewish cemetery of Morvedre (Murviedro, now Sagunto), the tombstone of Adoniram, the treasurer of King Solomon. Despite this dubious claim, Sephardi Jewry’s collective sense of its own antiquity is borne out by the probably small, but not insignificant, presence of Jews Iberia in late antiquity, possibly even earlier. Archaeological remains, chiefly grave markers in Latin and Hebrew, attest to Jewish presence in Roman Hispania.
While the Jewish population of medieval Spain had diverse origins, not all from this ancient community, the reality of the long-established history of Jews in Sepharad had a profound effect on the community and was one of many factors that made the eventual expulsion of Jews from all the Iberian kingdoms in 1492–97 so traumatic.