Hellenism as Cultural Phenomenon

The cultural phenomenon that we call Hellenism had a lasting impact on Judaism and the Jewish people. Hellenism was a synthesis of Greek (Hellenic) culture with the native cultures of the Near East. It was a dynamic phenomenon, with the ever-evolving Hellenistic (“Greek-like”) culture continually becoming the raw material for new syntheses with other native cultures not yet under its sway. Indeed, it was not the Greeks themselves, but the Macedonians, whose civilization was derivative from that of the true Hellenes, who were mainly responsible for spreading Greek culture to the Near East. As Hellenism penetrated each new region, an amalgamation of the Hellenistic with the native took place, and this phenomenon resulted in the many different manifestations of Hellenistic culture observable in the Near East over many centuries.

It was Alexander’s conquests that made possible the fateful union between East and West, but in fact there were deeper cultural reasons for the ease with which these two civilizations entered into a symbiotic relationship. Greek culture had by this time developed to its pinnacle. It had been liberated from the limitations of geography, and one could now be a Hellene by education and culture, not just by birth. Humanism had resulted from the primacy attributed to reason in Greek thought. Man now was at the center of the cosmos rather than merely of the polis (the Greek city) as he had been earlier. Concurrently, the native Near Eastern civilizations had run their course and were on the decline. Egypt and Mesopotamia apparently produced little of literary or intellectual import in this period, and the widespread interest in new religions observable in the sources indicates a hunger for new means of spiritual fulfillment. The time was ripe for a new cultural movement. Thus the peoples of the defeated Persian Empire could offer no more resistance to the Hellenic cultural onslaught than they had to the Macedonian army.

The Greek city, known as the polis, was the vehicle for the assimilation and Hellenization of the indigenous peoples of the Near East. Newly founded Greek cities, populated mostly by local people, were the cultural melting-pots of the East. The institutions of the Greek way of life were opened to all who wished to participate. The Greek language was rapidly adopted as a sign of Hellenization. People from the surrounding areas, streaming into the cities, quickly gained the legal and economic advantages afforded by citizenship in the po1is—exemption from certain customs and duties and participation in the municipal government. In the Greek cities the upper classes of the Near East were acculturated through the schools and other institutions of the Hellenistic world.

Most interestingly, the native Near Easterners gravitated as well to the Hellenic arts and sciences and soon took the lead in such disciplines as literature and philosophy. The Greek emphasis on physical culture and on beauty also spread throughout the Near East. The religion of the Greeks was fused with that of the natives in many different forms and local cults. All of this was abetted by the polis and its official city cult, in which the Greek and the Near Eastern were in constant symbiosis.

Yet the indigenous peoples did not simply absorb the Hellenic and the Hellenistic; they redefined and reinterpreted their own traditional cultures in light of the “modern” civilization in which they now found themselves. The process of reinterpretation led to the several varieties of Hellenistic Judaism. Before taking these up, in particular as they relate to Palestinian Judaism, a brief survey of political developments during this period is in order, for they set the stage for the struggle over the extent of accommodation to Hellenism that would soon engulf the Jewish homeland.

Hellenistic Trends in Palestinian Judaism

It was not long before the inexorable progress of Greek cultural influence led to demands for a Hellenistic reformation of Judaism (ca. 175 B.C.E.) and subsequently to the Maccabean Revolt (168–164 B.C.E.). The two preceding centuries, as we have seen, were years in which Hellenistic influence in Palestine rapidly increased. A confrontation of cultures was fostered by the founding of so many Greek cities, by the presence of numerous foreigners in the country, and by the extensive commercial and cultural connections with the Hellenistic world. The old way of Jewish life was severely challenged by the new amalgamation of the Hellenic and the native. However, the effects of the confrontation were not uniform in all parts of Palestine and in all circles and classes. In fact, only a proper understanding of the various trends and responses to the challenge will allow perspective on the subsequent events.

The Jewish group least affected by the process of Hellenization was the peasantry. The rural inhabitants of Judea at this time lived in small villages and tilled the soil, visiting the cities to sell their produce and occasionally making religious pilgrimages to Jerusalem. In the cities they came into contact with more Hellenized Jews and with non-Jews. They also came into contact with Greek-style pottery, tools, and equipment. These new objects brought with them their designations in Greek, which were quickly adopted into the native Hebrew dialects. Yet the language and culture of the rural peasantry remained Hebraic, and Hellenism tended to influence them only in the area of material culture. Thus they certainly had no intention of abandoning their ancestral way of life for the new cultural symbiosis.

The situation of the urban masses was very different. These people, mostly artisans and traders, lived in predominantly Jewish cities like Jerusalem, where they had greater and more frequent contacts with the Greek world and with their more Hellenized coreligionists than did the rural peasants. Such literary works as the Book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) show the moderate influence of Hellenistic culture on a traditional and pious Jew, probably a Jerusalemite, who lived in the early second century B.C.E. The urban population found it necessary to use Greek words and language to be understood; and increasingly, throughout the third and second centuries B.C.E., the effect of Hellenism on architecture and cultural life increased even among traditionally pious Jews. Certain aristocratic families, closely connected to the priesthood, were tending, perhaps as a result of greater contacts with the wider Hellenistic world, or for political and economic reasons, toward greater Hellenization. The Tobiad family, which had earlier controlled taxation on behalf of the Ptolemies, and other powerful families as well, sought to edge the nation toward participation in the new world which lay open to them within easy grasp.

Those Jews who were interested in a higher degree of Hellenization, however, gravitated to the Greek cities, mostly on the seacoast and in the area to the east known in Roman times as the Decapolis. In these areas Greek was the everyday language, and the dominant culture was Hellenistic. Such Jews had to compromise with the pagan cults, and they did this primarily by interpreting the city liturgies as extensions of their monotheistic Judaism; indeed, through a radical reinterpretation they held the Jewish Scriptures to be consistent with the mythology of the pagan cults. They attended the theater and sent their children to the Greek educational institutions, the gymnasium and the ephebion, where they in turn were inducted into greater extents of Hellenization and, ultimately, assimilation. The Hellenizers, as they were called, were willing to pay a price for the economic and cultural advantages of the polis. Abandoning their Jewish particularity for participation in the wider cosmos, they saw Judaism as becoming a part of the new world that Hellenistic culture was opening before them and sought to ease the transition from the antiquated life-style of the Near East to the new, cosmopolitan life of Hellenistic society.

These trends within Judean society coexisted for a time but eventually came into confrontation. Beginning in the late second century B.C.E., extreme Hellenizers of the type previously known only in the Greek cities gained control of the Jerusalem priesthood and attempted to transform Jerusalem into another Hellenistic polis. This event set the stage for the Maccabean revolt.

Excerpted from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition- A History of Second Temple & Rabbinic Judaism, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.