Hellenism’s Enduring Influence on the Jewish People
By Jeff Zolitor
Hanukkah is right around the corner (the first night this year is Tuesday, December 20), which means many Jews around the world will be whipping out their menorahs, frying latkes, and celebrating the Maccabees’ victory over their Greek oppressors. The Hanukkah story is usually told as an “us vs. them” narrative, with Judah Maccabee and his clan as the heroes and Antiochus and the Greeks as the Bad Guys. But if you assumed that the Jews had nothing positive to gain from their interaction with Greek culture, think again:
In Antiquity, Greek culture and Greek prosperity appealed strongly to the societies of the Near East, and the Jews were no exception.
With the victories of Alexander the Great in 334BCE, the Greeks came as conquerors to the eastern Mediterranean and settled in as the ruling class. Institutions of Greek culture—the stadium, theater, odeum, and lyceum—were more or less public works projects for the benefit of Greek citizens. The Greeks were excellent architects, sculptors, poets, musicians, playwrights, philosophers and debaters. They were traders as well, and by controlling the trade routes around the Mediterranean, their economy boomed. Hellenism brought enlightenment, and so as long as Jews were free to maintain their Jewish identity in peace, most accepted Greek influence. They paid taxes, joined the army, held positions of state and in general, and were loyal subjects.
Within a generation or two, Jews began speaking the state language: Greek. They became integrated members of the community, even as their Judaism remained intact. In the Septuagint, for example, they translated their history and sacred literature into Greek. Jews retold the legends of the past using Greek language, and Greek literary forms.
The Greek influence on Jewry in Antiquity is evident in two Biblical books written during the Hellenistic period: Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Both reflect Hellenistic ideas. The first, Ecclesiastes, explores themes like the pursuit of lasting wisdom, though the concept we may be most familiar with from this great work is, "...a time for every purpose..."
The Song of Songs, while following the literary form of other books of the Bible, is unquestionably influenced by Greek authors. Most notable among them is Theocritus (ca. 275-260 BCE), who had a penchant for ribald humor and double entendre. Song of Songs is beautiful and heartfelt but also contains such humor. The text’s heroine, the Shulamite, beseeches her lover: "Blow upon my garden, set free its fragrances, that they may drift upon the wings of the wind. Come into my garden, O love of mine, taste of its choicest fruits!” The literary technique and allegorical overtones were completely unknown in the Bible up to this point, and show a profound influence, integration, and appreciation of Hellenism.
But Greek society and culture also had a profound impact on the way Jews viewed their religion. Started by the Jewish elite, a new reform movement generated a more secular, 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 Greco-Jewish 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.
Two very influential figures in Jewish history who were shaped by Greco-Roman culture, were Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus.
Philo, like many Greek-speaking Jews, lived under tolerant Roman rule. Born into the most prominent family of Alexandria and quite possibly of all Egypt, Philo probably lived between 15-20BCE and 45-50CE. The influence and wealth of his family brought him into close contact with Rome’s elite. And while he may have also held a political position in the city, he was, first and foremost, a philosopher.
Brought up on the Septuagint, he spoke, wrote, and thought in Greek. He was an historian, diplomat, public defender, and perfectly at home in all Greek literature. He was a follower of Plato, but also wrote volumes of commentary on the Pentateuch and Jewish law. In Jews, God, and History Max Dimont writes, “...[Philo] 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. A well educated, bright, and influential man, Josephus is regarded by many as a scoundrel or worse (Josephus writes of the many plots by the Judean commanders to have him assassinated), but I have come to view him with a more sympathetic eye.
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.
I believe Dimont to be correct in his assessment that it was perhaps the fortuitous interaction with Hellenism that allowed Judaism to survive to this day.
Jeff Zolitor is the former chair of the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations (CSJO) and currently resides in Geneva, IL. He works with the local Jewish group Fox Valley Jewish Neighbors on community events and establishing independent Jewish education programming for young people. He is a regular contributor to the Canadian Jewish Outlook.
This article is adapted from “Hellenism and the Jews,” which was presented to the CSJO Conference in 2001, and appeared in Canadian Jewish Outlook in its September/October 2001 issue. A complete version of the article may be found by visiting the CSJO. (http://www.csjo.org/pages/essays/essayhellenism.htm)
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/ The romanticized woodcut engraving of Flavius Josephus appearing in William Whiston's translation of his works.
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