Lee I. Levine. “The Age of Hellenism: Alexander the Great and the Rise and Fall of the Hasmonean Kingdom.”
Alexander the Great changed the face of Judea along with the rest of the then-known world. He reigned as emperor from 356 to 323 B.C.E. In 336 B.C.E. he became king of Macedonia and of the Greek city-states conquered by his father, Philip II. Within a decade he defeated the Persians and fell heir to their empire.
Early in that decade, in 332 B.C.E., he conquered Judea, a conquest that was to have profound and far-reaching effects on Jewish history. Conquest itself was nothing new to the Jews; Judea had been subjugated on numerous occasions. This time the conqueror came from the West, rather than the East (as had Assyria, Babylonia and Persia). Two factors made Alexander’s conquest indeed historic- The first is cultural; the second, geographic. The Greeks were interested not only in military victories, political expansion and economic gain; they were also committed to disseminating their way of life—their institutions, norms and ideas—to the world of the barbarians (as they called non-Greeks). In addition to political hegemony and imposition of taxes, Greek conquest exposed the eastern Mediterranean lands and beyond to an entirely different way of life—Hellenism. 1 Perhaps the most effective means by which Hellenism was propagated in new regions was by founding a Greek city, or by reconstituting an already existing city as a polis. Either step carried with it political, religious, social and cultural ramifications. The polis operated politically under a Greek constitution, a Greek deities were introduced into the city’s pantheon, and Greek educational and entertainment institutions were established. Within a century of Alexander’s conquest of Judea, Greek cities were founded along the Mediterranean coast, as well as inland at Beth-Shean and Samaria, and to the East in Transjordan. These cities served as centers of Greek life and influence and reinforced one another through joint commercial, cultural and athletic enterprises. 2
Judea’s Key Location
The geographic consequences of Alexander’s conquest deeply affected the course of Israel’s history. In previous conquests Israel had invariably remained at the periphery of world empires, far from seats of power and authority. Its marginal geographic location assured the Jews a measure of stability and insulation. But with the death of Alexander in 323 B.C.E. and the breakup of his empire, Judea was thrown into the vortex of political and military activity. Geographically sandwiched between two foci of power—the Seleucid kingdom based in Syria and the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt, the capital of which was Alexandria—Judea served as a battlefield on which the Seleucids and the Ptolemies faced one another for the next century. No fewer than five major wars were fought between Egypt and Syria during the third century B.C.E., each lasting for at least several years. Garrison troops were posted all over Judea (including Jerusalem), and large armies were stationed throughout the country.
Either factor—exposure to Hellenistic culture or geographic centrality—would have been unsettling under any circumstances. But for the Jews of Judea these factors were wrenching, because in the centuries immediately preceding the conquest these Jews had lived in a kind of splendid isolation. When Persia ruled the world, Cyrus maintained a policy of actively supporting ethnic and religious groups, encouraging them to rebuild their institutions and develop their indigenous traditions. Naturally, Jewish leaders welcomed this policy with open arms. The Persians had demanded only political loyalty and the payment of taxes. The district of Judea, or Yehud, consisted of a small area around Jerusalem that was far removed from the main cities and international highways of the country. Its location guaranteed it relative isolation from the surrounding world— geographically, socially and religiously. 3
Thus it is not surprising that, following Alexander’s conquest, Judea’s inundation by Ptolemaic government officials, merchants, soldiers and others was traumatic for many Jews. Jerusalem was no longer able to remain insulated from the outside world. Many of Jerusalem’s inhabitants welcomed this change. The opportunities and attractiveness afforded by other cultures were not to be denied. The silver coins minted by the Jerusalem authorities between about 300 and 250 B.C.E. provide a striking expression of the positive response of the city’s Jewish political leadership to Hellenistic influence. These coins bear representations of the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy I, his wife Berenike and an eagle—the symbol of Ptolemaic hegemony. The presence of these motifs on Jewish coins is a clear attestation of a desire, at least by some, for successful integration into the new world order. 4
A further example of the ties between Jerusalem’s ruling elite and the wider Hellenistic world is documented in the correspondence between the Jewish High Priest Onias II and Areus, king of Sparta, around 270 B.C.E. According to 1 Maccabees (12-5–23) and Josephus, 5 a bond was forged between the citizens of Jerusalem and the people of Sparta, who saw themselves as descendants of Abraham and who sought to forge an alliance with Jerusalem. The text of the letter, as reported by 1 Maccabees 12-20–23, reads- Areus, King of Sparta, to Onias, the High Priest, greetings. A document has been discovered concerning the Spartans and Jews that they are brothers and that they are both of the seed of Abraham. And now, since these matters have become known to us, please write us concerning your welfare. We in turn write to you that your cattle and property are ours, and whatever belongs to us is yours. We have ordered that you be given a full report on these matters.
The practical ramifications of this letter are unknown, but some 125 years later Jonathan the Hasmonean renewed these ties. It is also noteworthy that between these two instances of correspondence, Jason, the former high priest, sought refuge in Sparta (2 Maccabees 5-9), clearly indicating some sort of tie between these cities. While scholars differ as to the authenticity of the third-century B.C.E. epistle, there nevertheless seems to have been some sort of connection between the two cities that would attest to the political-diplomatic integration of Jerusalem into the wider Hellenistic world.
In the various excavations conducted in Jerusalem over the years, more than 1,000 jar handles bearing the official stamp of Rhodes have been discovered. Based on the names of Rhodian priests inscribed on them, these handles are dated from the late fourth to the first century B.C.E., with most dating from the mid-third to the mid-second century B.C.E. These jars were used for wine imported throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Clearly, the inhabitants of Jerusalem imported Rhodian wine for their use; the assumption sometimes made that the wine was intended for the small pagan garrison in the city is most unlikely. On the other hand, it is likewise improbable that these finds attest to a wholesale rejection of the laws of idolatrous wine intended to distance Jews from anything associated with pagan cults. It is much more likelythat such prohibitions did not as yet exist, and that many Jerusalemites availed themselves of this luxury commodity. Once again, archaeological remains point to the integration of Jerusalem in the wider Hellenistic world, this time with regard to international trade.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that other wine-jar handles discovered in the city point to a more conservative dimension of Jerusalem society. There were several types of locally made jar handles—one with the inscription Yehud in ancient Hebrew script and another with a five-pointed star inscribed with the word “Jerusalem.” These stamps emphasize the Jewish component of the city and were probably used for taxed goods and administrative purposes. Or they may indicate the place where the jar or its contents originated.
Assessing the Jewish Reaction to Hellenism
It is difficult to assess how Jewish society as a whole responded to this new reality. Did the isolated geographical circumstances of Jews (who lived primarily in the more remote hill country of Judea), combined with ethnic and religious differences, create a buffer between them and the outside world? Or were Jews affected by these changes in the same ways as were their pagan counterparts in the coastal cities, albeit at a somewhat slower pace? Unfortunately, our sources cannot answer these questions adequately. The bits and pieces that have been preserved offer but an inkling of the many and varied Jewish responses to the challenges of the new age. Generally speaking, the divisions in Jewish society deepened as a result of Hellenistic domination, the polarization of political allegiances into factions favoring the north (Seleucids) and south (Ptolemies), the exacerbation of economic and social divergences, and challenges to traditional religious beliefs and practices. 6
However, the degree of Hellenization among Jews during the Hellenistic period (from Alexander’s conquest to the establishment of the Hasmonean monarchy in 141 B.C.E.) remains unclear. Leading scholars have staked out maximalist and minimalist positions; some view the impact of Hellenism as having been profound (Bickerman, Hengel), 7 others see it as having been more negligible and superficial (Tcherikover, Sandmel, Millar). 8
Both positions contain some truth, and the reality was undoubtedly much more complex than either extreme would suggest. Much depends on whom we are referring to (an urban aristocrat or village farmer), the specific time period involved (the fourth or second century B.C.E.) and the particular areas of society under scrutiny (material culture, religious beliefs or social institutions). Much of the Jewish literature written or edited during the early Hellenistic period grapples with ideas from the outside world. The biblical Book of Ecclesiastes (Qohelet) remains the most explicit and detailed statement that we possess of the disturbing impact of this new environment on a Jew’s religious and intellectual commitment. 9
Faith and certainty had been lost, and in their stead came doubt, hesitancy and skepticism. At the turn of the second century, Ben Sira composed a response to this type of thinking, called in Latin Ecclesiasticus (the little Ecclesiastes), b which emphasizes loyalty to traditional values, ideas and institutions. The Book of Jubilees at times seems to deliver a polemic in support of such basic commandments as circumcision (Jubilees 15-23–34) and the Sabbath (Jubilees 2-17–33), perhaps in response to a certain laxity in their observance resulting from exposure to the outside
world. Finally, the erotic love song that came to be called the Song of Songs was probably edited about this time and reflects themes well attested in Hellenistic poetry. 10 The apocalyptic literature that originated in this period (for example, the early portions of Enoch) exhibits further indications of outside influences. This literary genre is characterized among other things by descriptions of heavenly journeys, angelic revelations of cosmic secrets to man, visions of the end of days, and the final judgment to be meted out by God on the world. The second half of Daniel (7–12 ), written in 165 B.C.E., is the best-known example of this type of literature. Nonetheless, scholars are
divided as to the source of this apocalyptic literature and worldview. Are these compositions the direct result of earlier prophetic literature from biblical times that underwent a series of transformations between the fifth and third centuries? Or are they the result of new developments in Jewish society relating to exposure to Hellenistic apocalyptic literature and thought? While certitude in this matter is elusive, the parallels with the non-Jewish world are significant enough to warrant some sort of connection with contemporary phenomena.
In this regard, mention should be made of the Letter of Aristeas, which tells of the translation of the Torah into Greek under the auspices of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285– 246 B.C.E.). The translation was reportedly carried out by 72 sages, each knowledgeable in the Torah and well versed in Greek, who were brought from Jerusalem to Alexandria for this express purpose. (This tradition accounts for the common name of the translation- the Septuagint, from the Latin for “seventy.”) If there is any truth in this tradition, it would testify to the penetration of Greek thinking into scholarly Jerusalem circles by the third or, at the very latest, second century B.C.E., when this translation was purportedly made.
How much these intellectual and religious currents affected Jewish society at large is hard to gauge; the limited evidence offers conflicting signals. On the one hand, after the Seleucid ruler Antiochus III conquered Jerusalem (about 200 B.C.E.), he granted privileges to the Jews of the city that appear to confirm the traditional status and leadership of the city. The elders, high priest, priests and other Temple personnel were recognized as the leaders of the community and were accorded due privileges. The concerns expressed in Antiochus’s edict focus on the Temple, the cult, religious precepts and the welfare of the city, and such issues undoubtedly stood at the forefront of Jerusalem affairs for decades, if not centuries. 11
On the other hand, this almost idyllic picture becomes clouded when viewed from other perspectives. The Jewish historian Josephus, for example, records a chronicle of the Tobiad family, who represented Jewish interests to the Ptolemaic court in Alexandria and who played a major role in internal Judean affairs as well. The Tobiads underwent a significant degree of acculturation during this period, adopting Greek names, mannerisms and lifestyles. 12
A second example of a more complex situation is preserved in 2 Maccabees 4. The Seleucid kings were often in desperate need of money to pay their annual tribute to Rome. In 175 B.C.E., Jason, a Jerusalemite of priestly lineage, offered the newly enthroned Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) a sum of money to appoint him as high priest in the Jerusalem Temple. Jason then added an additional amount for the right to convert Jerusalem into a Greek polis. This probably meant that Jerusalem’s inhabitants would be registered as citizens of a polis, that the city would be restructured politically, that social institutions would be reorganized in the spirit of a Greek city, and
that a gymnasium and ephebium c would be established. 13
There is no question that this was an extremely bold step. Yet it is not clear to what degree Hellenization had penetrated Jewish society at that time. Phrased differently, did Jason have the backing, either active or passive, of a large segment of the population, or was this program of Hellenization only a superficial mimicry of Greek mannerisms by a small elite of Jerusalem society? Was this a sudden and dramatic step with little forethought or planning, or was it the culmination of a long process? These fundamental questions cannot be answered with any certainty.
Nevertheless it is abundantly clear that by 175 B.C.E. many leading Jerusalemites, especially priests, were committed to a high degree of acculturation. Although we do not know the immediate reaction to Jason’s initiative, during the years that followed Jewish society was rocked by a series of events that shook it to its very foundations.