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Overview: Culture and Religion in Hellenistic Israel (circa 332 BCE-70 CE)

Jewish_war,_josephus_flavius_1559The Sadducees say- We complain against you, Pharisees, for you say that the Holy Scriptures defile the hands [that is, are holy], but the writings of Homer do not defile the hands –Mishnah Yadayim 4-6

“Jon Q. Judean,” the “average” Jew in the Hellenistic and early Roman world, did not write books. We can gain some sense of the religious and cultural lives of average Jews, however, from the writings of literate elites and from archaeological discoveries throughout the Land of Israel. What was the religious life of “Jon Q. Judean” like? Whether an urbanite or a villager, a Palestinian or a resident of one of the many diaspora communities that flourished during this period, Judaism was about fealty to the ”Law of Moses,” that is, the commandments that give form to the Jewish covenant with God. On the most noticeable level this meant the Jewish dietary laws, observance of the Sabbath and festivals and ritual circumcision. It meant distancing oneself from the perceived depravity of Hellenistic and Roman “games,” Greco-Roman “idolatry,” exposure of unwanted babies to slave traders or to the elements, and sensitivity to Biblical purity laws. For many it meant pilgrimage and the sending of gifts to the Temple in Jerusalem, and by the end of the period, the study of the Torah in local associations, often called synagogues or prayer places. Judaism meant allegiance to one God alone, to His one Temple in Jerusalem, to His one holy land and to his single chosen people.

Under this broad canopy, Jewish groups imagined distinct and local ways to practice Judaism. The most pervasive and literate of these groups are known to us from preserved writings. The books of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, Philo of Alexandria, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus Flavius and the earliest strata of the New Testament and rabbinic literature provide a rich corpus of sources for interpreting Judaism at this pivotal moment. These sources tell the stories of the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, the Therapeutae, the early followers of Jesus, Herodians, Zealots and others set against the Jewish engagement with the cultures of Greece, Rome and one another. Some, like the Sadducees and Pharisees, had broad influence, while others, like the Essenes, the followers of Jesus, and the Dead Sea community, were apocalyptic and often separatist sects. By and by these rich literatures tell us of the cultural fabric into which each of these sectarian expressions was woven—what the groups shared, and the ways that each distinguished itself from the others.

The richness of literary sources extant from the Greco-Roman period, whether preserved by Christian and Jewish communities or retrieved from the ground during the twentieth century, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, teach us of the diversity within Second Temple period Judaism. Also apparent is the richly textured “common Judaism” within which both “Jon Q. Judean” and the literate elites who wrote about his world flourished.

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