Judaism and Hellenism

1 January 2017

In the Mediterranean and Middle East before the Common Era stood two cultures deep in their ways of living. The Greeks and Jews both held rich traditions and with their collision after the expansion of Alexander the Great’s Empire, change was on its way. For the Jews, this was a familiar sight, since they were conquered and ruled by the Egyptians and Babylonians before. These Greek and Macedonian rulers held lands far vaster than any other ruler before this time.

The Jewish lands along the Eastern Mediterranean were a small nation and the Hellenistic world views held a significant impact on a people secure in their beliefs. The Jews of this time kept their identity while at the same time assimilating to a changing world. Hellenistic changes in Judaism appeared in all the key cities within the Middle East. Cities such as Alexandria, Babylon, Antioch, Ephesus, and Jerusalem held a tremendous difference in Hellenistic Judaism practices at this time. Assimilation did not occur within a day or a summer though but thru generations.

Judaism and Hellenism Essay Example

For example, a Jew in the next generation Hellenized Palestine might see himself speaking Greek and thus practicing more pagan rituals. For these people assimilation did not seem so radical since it happened extremely slowly over years, but still the Jews kept their identity. The Jews kept their community and culture as one. Jews assimilated to Hellenistic ways in literature, language, historiography, philosophy, art, and religion. They did so to keep up with a changing world where Hellenism was the ascendant position in the known world.

To understand Hellenization in the Middle East, one has to go back to the Persian Empire which stood before Alexander’s Empire. The Persian Empire was in place for about two hundred years and had control over a territory that included India, Ethiopia, Turkey, and all of the Middle East. From the Persian Empire, the Israelites in Palestine adopted the language called Hebrew from the Canaanites. This language was used by the Persians for administrative purposes, so the Jews used it. The language became holy. Alexander’s Conquest over the Persian Empire was the beginning of the Hellenistic age.

When Alexander died in Babylon in three hundred and twenty three BC his generals separated what was the Persian Empire into two distinct parts. In Egypt, the Ptolemies took charge, and in the east from Syria the Seleucids ruled. The Ptolemies conquered Jerusalem, also known as Palestine during the time, in three hundred and twenty BC and ruled for about a hundred years. Under the Ptolemies, the Jews were not allowed to elect a king, but they still were able to choose a high priest of their own. Palestine itself was the boundary between the Ptolemies and Seleucids.

In two hundred and one BC, the Seleucids conquered the Ptolemies and immediately began aggressively Hellenizing the Jews. The Seleucids stayed in power until about one hundred and forty BC when the Maccabees succeeded. Within these two Kingdoms, Greek customs spread far and wide. Trade was in full effect at this time and with it a variety of languages. The Greek language was being used by traders on the Middle Eastern Coast before Alexander even reached the shore. After Alexander’s death, Hellenism took effect on the upper classes in the Middle East.

Alexander wanted his fellow Greeks to integrate and marry with the conquered people. He even allowed people of the Middle East to settle back in the home province of Greece and Macedonia. As time passed the Jews learned Greek, and preferred more Hellenistic names. For example, a boy named Joshua might now be Jason, or Mathew would now be Menelaus. Cities names also changed, examples being Akko to Ptolemais and Amorah to Ariopolis. The Jews also built gymnasiums, and participated in Olympic Games. Greek became the administrative language after Alexander.

They were exceptionally talented administratively and reached every part of Jewish society. They made sure everybody paid taxes. Some Jews favored Greek education since a lot of the superior quality jobs were held by Greeks. Examples of Greek influence in Jewish writings are in the Qumran and One Enoch. When the Maccabees ruled, Greek was only spoken by the upper class. Jewish scriptures had to be rewritten in Greek for those Jews who could not understand Aramaic. Some Jews chose to admit to Hellenization because of their annoyance with the Persian Empire.

The thought that some Jews rationalized this way angered the Maccabees. The Maccabees were more orthodox Jews and were displeased by the Hellenized Jews. In one hundred and seventy three BC, a Jew by name of Jesus or his Greek name Jason became high priest of Jerusalem. His name change was a case of those Jews whom were assimilating to Hellenism. Jason founded a Gymnasium where Jews could go for athletics, for intelligent discussions, and for readings of Greek texts. Two Maccabees openly opposed Jason and his gymnasium. It was the first writings in resistance to Hellenism.

Two Maccabees wrote that Hellenism was a new threat to Jewish culture. Previously, alien cultures were perceived as threatening because of the temptation posed by their gods. For Two Maccabees, Hellenism involves a system of values different from orthodox worship, the values associated with the gymnasium. Two Maccabees condemns Jews who adopted these values, even as they remain loyal to Yahweh. Two Maccabees itself shows the effects of Hellenism. Two Maccabees also artfully de-emphasizes the associations of this language with the gymnasium and material culture.

For example, the martyrs with their courage are called noble, a term often used in Greek texts. While the category of gentlemanliness, a distinctive Greek value, is applied to aged men who could not possibly participate in the sphere of the Greek gymnasium. Two Maccabees does not simply borrow, but rather transforms Greek customs as it intervenes them with Judaism. With the Maccabees came a revolt against Hellenistic society. They felt as though they were being suppressed religiously. There was a clear line between traditional Jews and the Hellenized ones. Also at this time, the Romans freed Egypt from Hellenized rulers.

Anti- Hellenized Jews helped with propaganda such as predictions that this was going to happen. The Maccabees and gospels also showed themselves divided as Hebrews and Greeks. High priest Jason was succeeded by Menelaus in one hundred and one BC. The King of this time was Antiochus IV who persecuted Jewish customs. Antiochus IV after being embarrassed in Egypt came back to Jerusalem to find the city in chaos caused by the different Jewish sects of the city. To regain complete control Antiochus IV went to violent measures against the Jews that were not seen since the Babylonian Exile.

While Jerusalem heard a rumor that Antiochus IV was killed in combat, one of the high priests collected an army and attacked the city. The priest’s name was Jason and once in power got he got rid of Menelaus whom was put in place by Antiochus. When Antiochus IV returned he was enraged and ordered a massacre of many Jews and put Menelaus back as the high priest. Antiochus IV slaughtered many Jews at this time, and also placed laws to help maintain control of them. With the help of Hellenized Jews, it became illegal to do certain Jewish rituals. With Hellenizers and Antiochus IV now in complete ower, he started to shift Jerusalem into a Greek Polis once again.

The war between the people started again by a Jewish traditionalist named Mathias Hasmon. The Hasmonaeus were also known as the Maccabees. The man had five male children, headed by Judas Hasmon, whom was also named Judas the Maccabee. The Hasmonaeus then fled town and gained support from villages and created a group of terrorists. They went around killing rich Jews, stealing property, and raiding other villages. In one hundred sixty one BC, the Hasmons signed an alliance with Rome and ten years later the Seleucids abandoned Judah.

They were remarkably successful because of the support of the Romans. In one hundred and sixty four BC, the Jews defeated the Greek general Apollonius. At this time, Antiochus IV dies while protecting his territory against the Parthians. After his death, the Hasmoneans were given amnesty, allowed back into the city and their traditions restore. In one hundred and forty two BC, Judah became independent, and Judah Maccabee became the ruler. The holiday of Hanakkah was then established to commemorate the Jew’s achievement in gaining self-rule. The Hasmoneans took advantage of this and attacked Hellenizers all over the city.

However, conditions soon changed when the Hasmonean leaders became corrupt and secular. The kings claimed the high priesthood for themselves, were cruel to their fellow Jews, and expanded the territory for administrative purposes. The Hasmoneans also fell to Hellenization by taking such Greek names as Antiochus, Aristobulus, and Hyrcanus. The Hasmoneans benefited from the fall of the Seleucid Empire. They made their country free and increased their territory. Lysias whom was governor of Syria saw this and rounded up his army and took control over the situation.

After, a series of civil wars occurred which were propelled by the Romans. Lysias in fear made another deal with the Hasmoneans and got rid of the high priest. This appears to be an extremely hypocritical situation because the Hasmoneans were doing unto others what they had revolted against. Although Jerusalem was ruled under a tyranny, the city grew considerably in size and population, becoming a center of commerce and religion. Hasmonean Jerusalem lasted only until sixty three BC, when Pompey from the Roman Empire took control of Jerusalem.

The decline of the Hasmoneans was the end of Jewish rule, but Jewish pride and desire for freedom continued with struggles against Roman rule. Beginning with a series of Jewish wars with the Roman in the first and second centuries, including the Kitos War, the Great Revolt, and Bar Kokhba’s rebellion. Through the rebellions, temporary self-rule was placed, but they eventually fell to the power of Rome. A Roman army under Vespasian and Titus attacked and destroyed Jerusalem, and burned Herod’s Temple. They then enslaved or killed a large part of the Jewish population.

The Roman’s defeats of the Jewish revolts contributed to the Jewish Diaspora, as many Jews were sold into slavery throughout the empire. Today, we see many signs of Hellenization in the world. For example, the Bible was translated into Greek. We see archaeological evidence today in the Tomb of Absolom (a Jewish burial with inscriptions written in Greek), and in the Sepphoris Mosaic (found in the dining room of a Jewish House). These proofs show that Greek traditions, religion, literature, and many other aspects were incorporated into Jerusalem and Jewish culture. The Jewish culture refashioned its identity over and over again.

A prime example would be the Greek intrusion during the Hellenistic period. During these times of change, the Jews kept close to their traditions and identity in an ever changing world.

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