Hellenism and the Jews

Presented at a workshop at the CSJO conference by Jeff Zolitor, and published by Canadian Jewish Outlook in its Sep/Oct 2001 issue.

With the victories of Alexander the Great in 334BCE, the Greeks came as conquerors to the eastern Mediterranean and settled in as the ruling classes. They showed little inclination to learn the language, customs or culture of the people who came under their authority, nor did they engage in missionary activity to promote Hellenism or Greek culture. They took their superiority for granted. Their only promotion of Greek culture took place in the gymnasium. The other institutions of Greek culture, the stadium, theater, odeum, lyceum, were more or less public works projects for the benefit of Greek citizens. They were excellent architects but also sculptors, poets, musicians, playwrights, philosophers and debaters. They were traders as well, and having control of the trade routes around the Mediterranean, the economy boomed. Greek culture and Greek prosperity appealed strongly to the societies of the Near East, and the Jews were no exception. Two Biblical books written during the Hellenistic period; Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, both reflect Hellenistic ideas. Ecclesiastes explores themes like the pursuit of lasting wisdom. The writer also comes to the conclusion that "success and justice is like chasing the wind, therefore work hard and enjoy the fruits or your labors", a message that in many ways echoes Stoic thought. Perhaps the concept we are most familiar with from this great work is, "...a time for every purpose..." In Ecclesiastes, the author is torn between his skepticism and his piety, his critical thought and his conservatism. Song of Songs, while following the literary form of other books of the bible, is unquestionably influenced by the Greek authors, most notably Theocritus (ca. 275-260 BCE) who had a penchant for sly and ribald humor, as well as double entendre. And Song of Songs, while being beautiful and heartfelt, contains such humor; her lover compares her to a palm-tree, and adds "I will climb up into the palm tree, I will take hold of the branches thereof....". Also; "Blow upon my garden, set free its fragrances, that they may drift upon the wings of the wind. Come into my garden, 0 love of mine, taste of its choicest fruits!

The literary technique as well as the philosophical and allogorical overtones are completely unknown in the bible up to this point and show a profound influence, integration and appreciation of Hellenism.

The language of state was Greek.. In a generation or two Jews grew up as Greek speakers and became integrated members of the community, but their Judaism remained intact. They translated their history and sacred literature into Greek in a volume called the Septaugint, and they retold the legends of the past using Greek language, and Greek literary forms. As we have seen in Ecclesiastes and also Song of Songs, piety is transformed from a harsh and almost unattainable, self-sacrificing goal, to a standard that is attainable in everyday life and through real human emotions.

Most Jews accepted Greek influence. They paid taxes, joined the army, held positions of state and in general, were loyal subjects, as long as they were free to practice their religion in peace. The enlightenment that Hellenism brought with it had a profound impact on Jewish society, prompting the emergence of a reform movement.. Started by the Jewish elite, its motives were primarily secular and economic; that is to make Judea a world class state. There was an intellectual aspect to this movement as well, based on a more universal view of Judaism. The Greeks had developed a universalist outlook that expected all good men to regard themselves as citizens of the world. The Jewish reformist intellectuals saw a direct connection between the concepts of a universal God and the universal society. They argued that Abraham and Moses, these strangers and sojourners, were in fact citizens of the world. It was these reformers who also embarked on the first Biblical criticism, noting that the Torah was full of fables and impossible demands and prohibitions and was therefore ready for modernization.

The reformers didn't want to abolish the Law, they wanted to liberalize it. They wanted to drop provisions that would forbid or interfere with their participation in Greek culture, like the ban on nudity. They wanted to reduce the law to its ethical core and combine the Greek polis or city-state, with the Jewish ethical and moral God. Marrying Greek culture with Jewish universal monotheism was ambitious project....and one that was doomed to fail. Greeks were polytheists and their concept of god was quite different from that of the Jews. Their gods were basically successful and virtuous ancestors who undergo apotheosis, a divine transformation. It was short step for them to deify a monarch, a concept that was anathema to Jews. However this did not keep the reformers from continuing to push towards a greater embrace of the Greek city-state culture. And they had an enthusiastic ally in Alexanders successor, Emperor Antiochus IV.

The High Priest Menelaus attempted to institute the reforms that his party had promoted. In 167BCE the he effectively abolished Mosaic law, replacing it with secular law. The Temple became an ecumenical place of worship and in keeping with that idea, a statue of Zeus was introduced. This initiative came directly from the Jewish reformers themselves, led by Menelaus, who believed that such a move was necessary to bring about the symbiosis of Greek universalism and the Jewish universal god. The priests were divided by the action and many in Judea sided with the hasidim, the pious ones.

One segment of Judean society that might have been attracted to the universal concept was the am ha-aretz, the ordinary people. Upon the return from the Babylonian exile those who originally remained behind, 'the poorest people of the land', were viewed by the new religious orthodox, led by Ezra, as illiterate, ignorant of the Law and scarcely Jews at all. They had been treated as second class citizens by the religiously rigorous bnei hagolah, people of the Exile, and would certainly not object to their losing power and influence. The problem was that the reformers were predominantly from the wealthy elite, who the poor people blamed for their hardship and excessive taxes. The opportunity to meld the philosophical concepts of the Jews and Greeks was forever lost.

One segment of Judean society that might have been attracted to the universal concept were the am ha-aretz, the common folk of the land. Years before, upon the return from the Babylonian exile, those who originally remained behind, 'the poorest people of the land', were viewed by many of the new religious orthodoxy, led by Ezra, as illiterate, ignorant of the Law and scarcely Jews at all. This sentiment led to their being treated as second class citizens by the religiously rigorous bnei hagolah, people of the Exile, and as a result, they would have had no objection to their losing power and influence. These 'people of the land' would have benefited from the economic boon and the cultural advancements it was sure to bring. The problem was that the reformers were predominantly from the wealthy elite who they directly blamed for their hardships and excessive taxes. They had no strong desire to follow the reformers nor the theocracy, and the opportunity to meld the philosophical concepts of the Jews and Greeks was forever lost.

In their battle with Greek education, the hasidim began to develop a national system of Jewish education. Local schools, where all Jewish boys could learn Torah, were founded. (This development became the forerunner of the synagogue and the political party known as the Pharisees, a movement rooted in popular education.) The education provided in these schools were entirely religious, and while all outward manner of Greek culture was purged, Greek rationalism found its way into the schools by way of the the Oral Law. This process of expounding on the written law in order to adapt it to changing circumstances was a very Greek concept. It meant that the Law could be adapted to changing conditions and administered in a realistic manner. By contrast the Temple priests, dominated by a group called the Sadducees, insisted that the Mosaic Law must be unchanged and unchangeable. Then again, without the supremacy of the Temple cult and strict adherence to the written Law, their authority would be compromised. Therefore, they could not admit that oral teachings could subject the Law to creative development.

What we know of Jewish life at this time and the early history of Christianity comes from two primary sources, Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus, two very influential figures.

Philo was a high born Jew from Alexandria, where Greek-speaking Jews living under tolerant Roman rule at that time enjoyed the comfort, culture and intellectualism of Hellenic culture. We don't know the exact dates for Philo's birth or death but it is generally accepted that he lived between 15-20BCE and 45-50CE, making him a contemporary of Jesus, Paul and Hillel. Paul and probably Jesus knew something of Philo's writings and Hillel, while serving as head of the Sanhedrin most likely came across his commentaries.

He was born into the most prominent and affluent family of Alexandria and quite possibly of all Egypt. The family's influence and wealth brought them close to the prominent elite of Rome. It is believed that Philo too held a political position in the city but he was probably drawn to it reluctantly and later in life. First and foremost he was a philosopher.

Brought up on the Septuagint, he spoke, wrote and thought in Greek. He was a historian, diplomat, public defender, and perfectly at home in all Greek literature. He was a follower of the Plato, he was also a pious Jew, writing volumes of commentary on the Pentateuch and Jewish law. Through allegory Philo argued that God created the world but did not influence it directly, but did so indirectly through Logos, The Word. He claimed that the soul comes from the "Divine Source" and is capable of conceiving the nature of God. The ability to conceive God can be done in two ways, through the spirit of prophecy and meditation, or Logos, the Word, Torah. Judaism, he insisted, was the perfect way for man to achieve moral perfection and Logos (Torah) was the path to God. Max Dimont writes, in his work Jews, God and History, '...he probably played a more crucial role in shaping both Judaism and Christianity than either Rabbi Akiba or Paul, having shaped Judaism around a Grecian metaphysical framework so thoroughly that it influenced both Jews and Christians in the creation of their new theologies.'

Josephus was born into a priestly family and one with royal ties as well. He was related maternally to Asamoneus, one of the few rulers in Judea to hold the office of both High Priest and King. While many view Josephus as a scoundrel or worse, a traitor, I have come to view him with a much more sympathetic eye.

A well educated, bright and influential man, Josephus was caught up in the middle of a devastating civil war, and the desire of the region's superpower to keep order at any cost. When recuited to lead the defense of the Galilee, his homeland, against the first wave of Roman legions, he did so reluctantly. His background and upbringing caused him to look at the uprising of his countrymen as pure folly, aside from the fact that it would serve him no useful purpose. His defense of the region seems to have been well planned and implemented, but his lack of agression against the Romans and his unwillingness to enflame them further led to his distrust by other Judean commanders and leaders. Josephus writes of the many plots by the Judean commanders to have him assassinated.

In his work, "The Antiquities of the Jews", Josephus leads us through the history of his people as understood in his time, but it's not until roughly the time of Alexander, that Josephus would most likely have had reliable archives. Prior to that time histories were usually written from a very biased account, but with the influx of Hellenistic culture, the process of accurately documenting the political situation in Judea seems to take hold. Hence we can rely on the writings of Josephus to be as accurate as he knew them to be.

In "The Wars of the Jews", Josephus tells of the events leading up to explain his role in the events in a way that seems to rationalize his actions, which does not necessarily imply that they are not true. But I'm certain that, were others to tell us their stories, the accounts of Josephus would come into question. With Vespasian commanding the huge war machine that was pitted against him,

Josephus' defenses are finally breached and his city taken. He takes refuge in a cistern in an attempt to hide and stay clear of the Romans, as well as to try to stay alive. Others from the city had the same idea because he writes that there were forty present in the den. He also writes that his hiding place was betrayed and Vespasian sent tribunes to attempt to take him into custody. He has thoughts of surrendering himself but those that are with him advise him that he should rather die as a commander of the Jews, by his own sword, than die as a traitor to his people. In a bizzare and brutally honest account of the next events, Josephus tells us that his compatriots agreed to a suicide pact wherein they would draw lots and each kill the other, and the last kill himself. As luck would have it Josephus drew the very last lot and soon it was just him and one other. He pursuaded the person to choose life rather than suicide, and so Josephus lives to tell his story. Taken prisoner by Vespasian, he manages to pursuade the commander that he is of more value alive than dead, as he might be able to convince his countrymen that to continue the war would prove disasterous to the nation.

Josephus' alternate title for this work was "The History of the Destruction of Jerusalem", and it must be noted that he is the only historian who actually witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem, whose work has so far found it's way to us.

The Romans were merely upurpers of Hellenistic culture and built their empire on it's foundations. I believe Dimont to be correct in his assessment that it was perhaps the fortuitous interaction with Hellenism that allowed Judaism to reach us to this day, rather than suffer the fate of most other Eastern religions, and the Romans as well.