By Mary Anne Cronican
Hellenism is the term used to describe the assimilation of Greek culture into other nations and peoples. The Greek influence in other nations and cultures is referred to as Hellenistic, especially after the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C. Alexander, son of Philip II of Macedon, from 333-323 B.C., marched his troops across Asia Minor, Palestine, Egypt, the Near East, Mesopotamia and all the way to the boarders of India, conquering the greatest empires the world has ever known. He conquered the Persian Empire around 331 B.C. It has been said that, when he got to India, he wept because there were no more kingdoms to conquer, not knowing of the existence of China. His purpose was not only political control of these territories, but, also, to introduce the Greek culture to unite his empire. These conquests resulted in the synthesis called Hellenism. As a result of the conquests of Alexander, the history, culture, languages and civilizations of the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean and Asia were forever altered.
Alexander established Greek colonies or city-states and military garrisons throughout Asia Minor, Syria-Palestine, Egypt and Mesopotamia. These city-states were populated with soldiers and civilians from the Greek world. Wherever he and his troops went in the world, such as Antioch in Syria, Philippi and Alexandria in Egypt, cultural changes were introduced that would promote Hellenism. The word “Hellenism” means “becoming like Greeks” and is derived from the Greek Hellas Isles (Helles meaning Greek in the Greek language.) This period was first designated “Hellenistic” by J. G. Droysen who believed that this era was particularly characterized by both Greek and Oriental cultures and paved the way for the spread of Christianity. The Hellenistic age lasted from the death of Alexander (323 B.C.) until Rome’s defeat of Egypt (31 B.C.) The influence of Hellenism continued to the age of the emperor Constantine (d. A.D. 337.)
As previously stated, all aspects of life were affected by Hellenism and this applied to the Diaspora Jews in Egypt and Palestine. Within 100 years, Hellenism was dominant throughout the Eastern Mediterranean territory including Palestine/Syria, although it should be noted that Judea and the rest of Palestine experienced Greek influence before the time of Alexander. Pottery from Athens reached Judea as early as the 7the century B.C. Greek money was in common use after the 5th century B. C. and, in the post exilic period, Greek furniture was popular.
After the death of Alexander, two Empires emerged in the Middle-East—the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria. Initially, the Jews were under the control of the Ptolemies. However, after the battle of Panias in 198 B.C., Israel came under the rule of the Seleucids and their king Antiochus IV.
In the conquered nations, the influence of Hellenism was manifested in language, government, literature, art and architecture, economics, athletics, theater. Greek names were given to children in the Diaspora and in Palestine (e.g. Andrew, Philip, Alexander) and often Jewish names were altered to Greek names (e.g. Joshua to Jason). Food, clothing (some men adopted Greek dress) and furniture were Greek in style and in name. Greek philosophy was taught in schools—philosophies of Aristotle, Plato, Epicureanism and Stoicism. The Greek language became the Koine because of the assimilation into Greek from the areas into which it was diffused and borrowing a number of foreign words. Hellenism also assimilated features of Oriental religion and cult.
After the conquests of Alexander and under the government of Ptolemy (who ruled from Alexandria in Egypt), certain government practices were introduced, turning the Jewish way of life toward a more Hellenistic culture. Many Jews felt their ways to be old-fashioned and were embarrassed by their religious practices in contrast to the sophisticated culture of the Greeks. Consequently, they enthusiastically embraced the Greek ways. For others, their Jewish identity and way of life were thought to be threatened by the Hellenistic culture and cultural assimilation was a great concern in 1 and 2 Maccabees.
Hellenism penetrated most deeply into the larger cities. The Jewish communities of the Diaspora retained only the law and the worship of the synagogue. The surrounding rural areas were largely spared much of the influence of Hellenism. Greek architecture had a major impact on the synagogues and in the governance of the communities. Titles and the organization of Greek government were adopted. Hellenism had a strong impact on Palestinian Judaism and reached its peak in the first half of the second century B.C. when Hellenism was adopted and fostered by the Priestly aristocracy. However, the greatest impact and adoption of Hellenism for Judaism was in Egypt where the community became more Greek than Jewish.
As Hellenism spread throughout the Jewish Diaspora, a problem arose for Greek-speaking Jews. They could not speak Hebrew and therefore, could not read the Scriptures. Clearly, a Greek translation was needed. In 285 B.C., a group of 70 to 72 rabbis were commissioned by Ptolemy Philadelphus, to undertake the task of translating the Hebrew Scriptures (the Torah) into Greek. The work was begun in Alexandria, Egypt where Gentile Greeks were being brought into the Jewish faith. This translation is known as the Septuagint (the Latin word for “seventy”.)
Hellenism became a tool for unifying a vast and disparate empire by introducing the Greek language and institutions throughout the land by means of founding hundreds of the city-states. Greeks considered their language and way of life superior to others whom they considered “barbarians.” Reaction to this was twofold: the wealthy and educated accepted the ways of Greek culture enthusiastically (the “impious” Jews in 2 Maccabees) and others (those in rural areas) who considered it a threat to their traditional way of life and values.
One area where this prevailed and was brought out so well in James Michener’s “The Source,” was the gymnasium. Jews were encouraged to take part in sports and activities in the gymnasium. In order to do so, they had to undergo a reversal of their circumcism. They risked health and sacrificed sexual pleasure to “become one flesh” with the Greek culture. Also, when taking part in the gymnasium sports and activities, they were required to exercise and perform nude—a great violation to Jewish law and practice. Others fought against their brother Jews and the Hellenization of their people (1 Maccabees).
Jews in Palestine were forced by Syrian Greek King Antiochus IV Epiphanes to publically violate Jewish law in 168 BC. Many were adopting Greek way of life the Jewish community as well as the priests. Jason, through bribery, convinced Antiochus IV Epiphanes to appoint him high priest in Jerusalem (a pseudo-high-priest.) He received permission to build a gymnasium and an educational institution in Jerusalem—a youth club-- and to enroll “the people of Jerusalem as citizens of Antioch” (2 Macc. 4:9). The youth club was an educational institution in which young men were trained in both Greek intellectual culture and in physical fitness (2 Macc 4:9 footnote.) It was because of this that the author of 2 Maccabees blamed Jason for the excessive Hellenization of Jerusalem (2 Macc 4:11-17).
When Antiochus was away on an extended military campaign, conflict arose in the Jewish community and Jason lost the priesthood to Menelaus. Jason tried to drive Menelaus out of power. Antiochus, upon his return, rescued Menelaus. Antiochus, however, viewed the situation as rebellion and determined to impose strict Greek practices on the Jews, in particular, Greek worship (Dionysian? Zeus? Baal Shamin?) He severely persecuted the Jews, ordering an end to the practice of their religion and decreed that they accept the pagan worship including eating unclean food. The final blow was the sacking of the temple and the erection of a pagan altar over the altar of holocausts (the “horrible abomination” (1 Macc 1:54) where pagan sacrifice was offered. It was at that time that the Jews rose up under the leadership of Mattathias and later his son Judas Maccabeus, against their Greek oppressors and eventually set up a Hasmonean State (the name derives from their ancestor Hasmoneus) which lasted until 63 BC. Through many bloody wars, the Jews finally prevailed. However, the influence of Hellenism was felt not only in the 4th century in both Egypt and Palestine, but also to the time of Jesus (in literature, theater, architecture and in pagan worship). Both the priestly Sadducees and the Pharisees emerged during the time of the Maccabees. At the time of Jesus, Hellenization had been in place for three hundred years. Most in Palestine knew several languages including Hebrew, Aramaic (the language of Jesus), Greek and Latin. Paul was a highly educated Hellenized Jew.
In Apostolic times, Greek was spoken by both Jew and Gentile. Antioch in Syria was a large, cosmopolitan commercial city. It was a major trading center and was made up of a diverse population of many different peoples and religions. The population is believed to have been between 500,000 and 600,000. Jews of the Diaspora had lived in Antioch since its founding in 300 B.C. After the stoning of Stephen, many Jewish Christians fled to Antioch. Even more entered Antioch after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70. Despite the mixed communities and Greek culture, the Antiochian community showed charity towards the Jewish-Christians from Jerusalem. It was in Antioch that Paul and Barnabus began their ministry of preaching the Word to the Gentiles. It became the cradle of Christianity.
Matthew wrote his gospel in Antioch. The large cosmopolitan and diverse population of Greek-speaking Gentiles and Jews presented a particular challenge to Matthew. The Church of Matthew, originally strongly Jewish Christian, had become one in which Gentile Christians were predominant. The people were sophisticated. They were products of the Hellenistic culture. They enjoyed an easy lifestyle and put a high priority on leisure—the “Greek way.” They were surrounded by different philosophical and religious beliefs. Gnostism (simply put, salvation by knowledge), undoubtedly influenced by the syncretism promoted by Hellenism, was just one of the problems Matthew had to deal with in his ministry but a major one. Because of Hellenism, there were a variety of religious alternatives, and many different religions were being practiced in Antioch. According to Eerdmanns Dictionary of the Bible, some of the religions that existed at the time were the mystery religions and cults, Mithraism (the official cult of the Roman Empire), the Egyptian cult of Isis and Osiris, the worship of Dionysus (the Greek god of wine) and, as previously mentioned, Gnosticism. All of these mystery religions, philosophies and worldviews influenced Christianity which followed in their wake.
Although Hellenization posed problems in preaching the Gospel, it opened the door to an acceptance of the Gospel by Gentiles. As the Church began to emerge, it was made up of primarily Hellenized Gentiles. For the Jews, little of its effects remain.
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Copyright 2011, Mary Anne Cronican