Commentary Magazine

Judaism and the Hellenistic Experience:
A Classical Model for Living in Two Cultures

If, in looking back on the long Jewish past, the Hellenistic era appears to be more directly relevant to contemporary Jewish problems than any other period, it is because it was during that period that Jews first had to come to terms with the challenge of Europeanism. The responses they formulated at that time are classic: that is, they can serve as a gauge by which to assess later responses to the same challenge, and perhaps to correct deviations which have proven too extreme. This function of the classic—as a standard by which to understand and measure the present, and as a means of self-criticism—is universally acknowledged in the realms of philosophy and morality, literature and politics; the classical paradigm for the Jewish response to the world of Western humanism may be equally serviceable.

Hellenism became a problem to the Jews, and to all other non-Greek peoples, when Alexander the Great appeared on the scene and conquered the empire built by the Persians in the Near East. The cultural revolution set off thereby was as momentous for the life and thought of the ancient world as the discovery of America or the new Ptolemaic cosmology was for modern times. Prior to Alexander the world had been made up of disparate and isolated polities, each absorbing the total energies and loyalties of its members. Alexander’s conquests made it impossible for the individual to rest in the belief that his polis was the center of the universe. With his cozy shelter stripped away, he was compelled to re-examine his loyalties and find his place in an enormously expanded world. It is for this reason that Hellenistic art, literature, and philosophy accord a new importance to the individual. And the essence of Alexander’s policy as well as of Stoic doctrine—an ecumenical ideal, in which distinctions of race and geography would vanish and all men become members one of another—reflected the revolutionary changes.

It has been customary among scholars to consider these changes mainly in their Greek manifestations, which are indeed easy to read. But the “barbarian” peoples on the periphery of the Greek world underwent a revolution at least as drastic. The new civilization they encountered through the agency of Alexander’s armies was not only more attractive in many ways than their own, but (a more exigent argument) it had proved more successful in terms of political power. Consequently, they were faced with a need to adjust to the Greek spirit and with a temptation to assimilate to it, both of which impulses were encouraged by the program of Hellenization that Alexander and some of his successors promoted.

The main feature of this program was the establishment of cities on the Greek pattern, either in new foundations (as at Alexandria) or superimposed on old cities (Jerusalem itself was for a time officially called “Antioch”). Now, since the central institution of the Greek city was the gymnasium (which embraced literature as well as athletics), and “graduation” from the gymnasium was an indirect prerequisite for citizenship, many “barbarians” in Alexander’s empire—including Jews—as citizens of the Hellenistic cities, must have been subjected to at least a minimum of Greek learning. (Needless to say, there were no Egyptian or Syrian gymnasia in Greece.)

The traditional picture of free cultural give and take between the Greeks and the conquered peoples is therefore wrong. In this respect the position of the “barbarian” world was analogous to that of the Far East in our own day. China and India, proud and tenacious of their own traditions as they may be, have had to adopt not only Western technology but with it a degree of superficial Westernization in dress and habits of thought, at the peril of complete mummification. But how deeply have Confucius or the Bhagavad-Gita penetrated Western thought? Even later Hellenistic borrowings of religious elements which we tend to regard as most typically Near Eastern are likely to be originally Greek ideas naturalized in the East and then returned to the West with different or heightened emphasis.



Yet communication between Greeks and Hebrews was much easier than the traditional notion has it. It has frequently been argued that the difference in spirit between the two peoples was so radical as to make the one utterly unintelligible to the other. The common contrast of “Hellenism” and “Hebraism,” made famous by Matthew Arnold, assumes that all Greeks were rationalist worldlings and the Hebrews all unworldly pietists. Both pictures are certainly wrong. Though the most valuable part of the Greek legacy may indeed be the rationalism of a few of their thinkers, the truth is that the mass of Greeks—as books like E. R. Dodd’s The Greeks and the Irrational and Walter Otto’s The Homeric Gods make clear—were as continuously mindful of the supernatural as any people, and ritual observance entered into every aspect of their life. Nor, on their side, were the Hebrews wholly and exclusively preoccupied with their religion: if they had been, why should the prophets have found it constantly necessary to chide backsliders, or how could the Maccabees have won a war? There were of course fundamental differences between Greek and Hebrew religious beliefs, but they were not so profound as to make communication impossible. The real difference was not between the godly and the ungodly, but between two mixtures of godly and ungodly.

The spread of Hellenism among the Jews of the pre-modern Diaspora has always been acknowledged, but, again, the very recognition of this had led to another misconception—that the Diaspora Jews, by virtue of their contact with Hellenism, were a “Reform” minority, while those in Palestine, by virtue of their “purity,” were the Orthodox. But the truth is that even before the Roman conquest, Diaspora Jewry was more numerous than Palestinian, and, furthermore, it never regarded itself as in any sense deviationist or under lesser obligation to religious tradition. It is not even certain that the Diaspora Jews participated more fully in non-Jewish life than their co-religionists in Palestine. But in any case, they never denied the validity of the religious law authoritative in their day, and they certainly never entertained the notion that their participation in “Hellenism” made them inferior as Jews.



Conversely, the traditional image of the Palestinian Jew as an unworldly devotee utterly untouched by anything outside the confines of Judaism is no less distorted. Jewish life in Palestine appears to have been far more deeply penetrated by Hellenism than has been suspected. Professor Erwin Goodenough’s Jewish Symbols in the Graeco-Roman Period presents a mass of archaeological evidence to show that this was so—even in connection with synagogue buildings and burials, where pagan intrusions would have been thought impossible. And, as Dupont-Sommer has shown, the recently discovered “Manual of Discipline” among the Cave Scrolls, which was the code of the Essene-like brotherhood at Qumran, reveals details of organization and practice markedly like those of Pythagoreanism.

Indeed, all the non-rabbinic Jewish literature of the intertestamentary period reveals similar influence. Because rabbinic literature, which disparages or more often disregards the Greek influence, is looked upon as the main stream of Jewish teaching, scholars have dismissed that influence as insignificant. But we know that strong Hellenistic influences were felt in Palestine, and the very slighting of these in rabbinic literature may well represent a purposeful closing of the ranks after the fall of Jerusalem (70 c.e.), to combat a latitudinarian tendency in religion that was growing more and more dangerous. Philo, who made the first attempt in Jewish history to reconcile the Bible with Greek philosophy, cannot have been unique; he must have had peers and a considerable audience, even in Palestine itself. Rabbinic literature betrays no hint that such interests existed. It is hard to believe that this silence is accidental.

The most explicit testimony to the spread of Hellenism among the Jews is in just those books which narrate (in Greek!) what has been regarded as Judaism’s war to the death against Greek domination. From I and II Maccabees it is clear that Hellenism had made great inroads, at least among the urban aristocracy, before the Maccabean insurrection against Antiochus (the revolt commemorated in the festival of Chanukah). That insurrection seems to have been as much motivated by nationalist (if the distinction is not too anachronistic) as by religious considerations. Religion, however, was used by Judah Maccabee as the battle-cry to rally the conservative rural and artisan classes to his standard and to consolidate the resistance against Antiochus. Antiochus’s anti-religious decrees were promulgated after the insurrection broke out.

When the Maccabees had won and Judea was liberated from alien domination, the tie that had held such disparate groups together relaxed, and each went its own way. And when religious tolerance was secured, the pietist group, apparently a minority, withdrew from the struggle and the nationalist group alone proceeded to the next step of attaining political sovereignty. The chief concern of the Maccabean rulers from that point on was to win for Judea a respectable position as a Hellenistic kingdom among other Hellenistic kingdoms; religion seems to have been taken into account only as it identified the separateness of the Jewish nationality. That is why the Maccabean kings and priests are so cavalierly dealt with by the rabbis; Judah himself is nowhere mentioned in their literature. Vis-à-vis the Greeks, the Jews—both under the Maccabees and in the Diaspora—were a “barbarian” people like any other, and they reacted to the impact of Hellenism in the same way as the other “barbarian” peoples of the Near East did: with the desire to participate as fully as possible in Hellenism, while at the same time salvaging the largest possible amount of native tradition. The motivation for the first impulse is obvious: to deny Hellenism was to shut oneself off from the main stream of civilization. But non-Hellenes would still be despised (and might despise themselves) as barbarians, and therefore to bolster their own self-esteem and perhaps convince authentic Hellenes of their antiquity and high civilization, all the ancient peoples that had lost their sovereignty—Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Jews—wrote books to glorify their past.

These books regularly set forth the ancient military prowess and wise laws of the people in question, frequently claiming (and this shows which way the wind blew) that the Greeks themselves, through Orpheus or Plato, had learned from them. Except for a few of the Jewish works of this nature (preserved not by Jews but by the Church), these apologetic writings are known to us only from fragments, but it is clear that the tenor of all of them was cultural survival within Hellenism. Though none of the peoples concerned translated Greek literature or presented Greek culture in their own language, all gave their native traditions a Greek dress and sought to make them acceptable to Greek audiences. (The significant exception was burgeoning Rome, which, though it too was a cultural province of Hellenism, translated Greek into Latin.)

A clear illustration of this tendency is Aristeas to Philocrates, a Jewish work written probably in Alexandria about the middle of the 2nd century b.c.e. Its ostensible, and probably principal, object was to describe the genesis of the Septuagint translation of the Pentateuch, but surely a collateral purpose was to set forth a desirable mode of relationship to the Gentile world. When King Ptolemy writes the Jewish High Priest asking for a panel of translators, he addresses him as a full equal, and the translators are received at his court with the highest courtesy. At the dinner parties given in their honor their dietary usages are respected—the King’s steward has learned to respect the preferences of various guests—and their competence in philosophy arouses the admiration of the pagan philosophers present.

The object of all this is clearly to demonstrate to Jews, and to any pagans who might read Aristeas, that the most highly regarded of all Hellenistic kings valued the Jews and treated them as equals; but it also served, surely, to show the Jews that it was possible to share in the intellectual and even social life of their Hellenistic environment without compromising their religion.

A similar object will explain a puzzling pair of letters preserved in the twelfth chapter of I Maccabees. In about 144 b.c.e. (that is, just about the time of the composition of Aristeas) the Maccabee ruler Jonathan wrote, on behalf of the Jews, to “their brethren the Spartans . . . to renew the friendship and brotherhood” which had subsisted between the two peoples a century before. In witness of their old relations, Jonathan subjoined a copy of the letter which a Spartan king of the early 3rd century b.c.e. had supposedly addressed to a High Priest. The letter began as follows: “Arius king of the Spartans to Onias the chief priest, greetings: It hath been found in writing concerning the Spartans and Jews that they are brethren and that they are of the stock of Abraham; and now since this has come to our knowledge ye shall do well to write to us of your prosperity.”

There is no reason to doubt the genuineness of Jonathan’s own letter, but it does seem unlikely that a Spartan king would claim descent from Abraham. Yet Jonathan’s chancellery need not have forged Arius’s letter; it is altogether probable that the letter, spurious as it is, was already in existence, possibly as a part of a larger pseudepigraphon. The motive for the pseudepigraphon, as for Jonathan’s own letter, is easy to explain; new and weak polities in the eastern Mediterranean regularly claimed kinship with older or stronger peoples, as the people of the Troad, for example, claimed Roman protection somewhat later on the ground that Aeneas came from Troy. The intended audience of the pseudepigraphon would be mainly Jewish, and, as in the case of Aristeas, its aim may well have been not only to persuade Greeks that Jews were respectable, but to persuade Jews that Greeks were too: for if Spartans were likewise descended from Abraham, the Jews might legitimately adopt some of their usages. Professor Elias Bickerman has shown that the Maccabees did in fact adopt certain Greek administrative procedures, and the claim of kinship may have helped make them acceptable.

(This same wish to present one’s own traditions in the most favorable light and to assimilate them to the dominant culture appears in the writings of other non-Hellenic peoples. In the Ethiopian Romance of Heliodorus [circa 2nd century c.e.] we read of an Ethiopian maiden Whose surpassing beauty and virtue made her a suitable bride for no less a Hellene than one who traced his descent through a line including Achilles and a Gymnosophist priest who was so wise and saintly that he was received with high respect at Delphi itself. So skillfully written is the novel that the casual reader never suspects a propagandistic motive, but there can be no doubt that at least a subsidiary objective of the book was to win credit for a despised people and an obscure cult, and perhaps show the minority group that the Greeks were not always unappreciative.)

Administrative innovations were not the only Greek things that Jews found acceptable. In the Jewish spiritual life of the last pre-Christian century, two distinct movements took shape: the legalism which developed into what is called normative Judaism; and the apocalyptic speculations of Messianic triumph out of which Christianity arose. Both have been regularly deduced from Scriptural sources; legalism ultimately from the Mosaic legislation, and apocalyptic from isolated passages in the later prophets, with touches derived from the Babylonian captivity. But the differences between the developed legalist and apocalyptic tendencies and their presumed sources can be quite easily explained by the influence of Plato, who was the one Greek thinker familiar to all the Middle East.

The great monument of legalism is of course the Talmud, but whereas the prophets had regularly communicated truth by exhortation and pleading, with the cachet “Thus saith the Lord,” the rabbis arrived at truth by what can only be described as a process of dialectic. If we seek for an external cause to explain the change from one mode to the other, none is so plausible as the dialectic of Plato. In apocalyptic visions of “the end of days,” Platonic influence would seem even more tangible. There are adumbrations of the genre, to be sure, in the prophets, but the Platonic “myths,” and especially the vision of Er at the end of the Republic (which may itself have been influenced by Eastern sources), are actually complete apocalypses, very like the Jewish examples in conception and imaginative elaboration.

The Platonic touch may be perceptible in the constitution of the Maccabean monarchy itself. The Maccabees were not in the High Priestly line, and certainly not in the Davidic succession, and their sovereignty had to be legitimized. There were other new dynasties which required justification, and representatives of the various philosophical schools busily wrote treatises Peri Basileias (“On Kingship”) to provide them with a rationale. A favorite solution was to make the king nomos empsychos, “law incarnate,” which is an echo of the Platonic authoritarianism set forth in the Republic and the Laws. On this point archaeology provides an interesting commentary. Our earliest pictorial representations of the Ark in which the Scrolls of the Torah are kept show a gabled structure upon a platform mounted on wheels; Hellenistic kings carried their statutes, which were the symbols of their authority, in just such structures when they traveled to hold court. Innovations like these cannot have been imposed by an external authority but must have been adopted voluntarily to meet new situations; and works like Aristeas, or the pseudepigraphon of which the correspondence in I Maccabees was probably a part, would offer a justification for them.



The rapprochement with Hellenism which Aristeas advocated for Egyptian Jews, and which was certainly practiced in Antioch and doubtless reflected in Palestine itself, was halted by the Romans and by special measures taken by the Jews. Whether, and to what extent, the second factor was connected with the first is debatable. Egypt became a Roman province after the battle of Actium (31 b.c.e.), and at once the Jews of Egypt, who had enjoyed de facto if not de jure equality, were placed under certain disabilities. From this period we have another Greek-Jewish book written in Alexandria, the so-called Third Book of the Maccabees, Which seems to be an intentional refutation of Aristeas. The story told here is that a Ptolemy had ordered all the Jews in his realm to embrace paganism on pain of death, and that his attempts to destroy them, when they proved intransigent, were miraculously baffled. The position now, in other words, is that no compromise whatever can be made with pagans or paganism.

But in neither Aristeas nor in III Maccabees is the Egyptian Jewish community envisaged as other than a permanent “orthodox” group. Widely as the two works may differ as to the range of permissible assimilation, the guiding objective of each still remains constant: participate in the life of the general community as fully as possible and retain the fullest possible loyalty to native tradition.

During the last century b.c.e., Judean kings were as ruthless and unprincipled in implementing their secular ambitions as kings anywhere have been. Independence ended in 63 b.c.e., when Pompey entered the Holy of Holies and reorganized the internal administration. Opposition to domestic tyranny and alien domination centered in pietist groups, and the Pharisees, who had been subversives (their title signifies “separatists”) under Jannaeus and Herod, moved, in effect, from the left to the center of the political spectrum. When Titus (with Philo’s nephew as his chief of staff) destroyed Jerusalem in 70 c.e. and even the illusion of sovereignty was extinguished, the Pharisees created a new thing in the world, a para-governmental polity based on religion—in effect a church. It exercised authority over a large area of the lives of its communicants, sent official representatives to carry its mandates and collect its tribute in a far-flung Diaspora, and could use excommunication to enforce conformity.

So long as there had been a secular Jewish government, however feeble, loyalty to Judaism need not have been exclusively religious; a man who lived by humanist ideals was none the less loyal. But when the religious became the sole authority, humanism became treasonable. This explains why synagogues and sepulchers could no longer bear pagan decorative motifs or Greek inscriptions, why Greek “wisdom” became anathema and Philo descended into oblivion, why the day the Septuagint was made was called accursed. The elements out of which normative Judaism was built had long been in existence, and had been shaped into similar structures under King Josiah in 621 b.c.e., and under Ezra in the 5th century; but it was the structure of normative Judaism erected in the 1st century that endured without essential change to modern times. Perhaps with less heroic measures Judaism would not have survived, but the heavy cost was the sacrifice of humanism.



Whether because like challenges evoke like responses, or simply by imitation, the Catholic Church developed an ecclesiastical polity that was equally hostile to humanism. In the Senate house at Rome there stood a statue of Victory which was in fact little more than a symbol of Rome. The statue was removed by Constantine in 357, restored by Julian called the Apostate, and again removed by Gratian in 382. The humanist sympathizers, with Symmachus as their spokesman, pleaded that the statue need offend no man’s religion, for it was a nomen (name, symbol) rather than a numen (divinity), and as such all men could acknowledge its worth; it symbolized the cultural values which mankind had accumulated over the centuries and of which Rome was the guardian. The powerful St. Ambrose intervened, the humanists’ plea went unheeded, and Europe entered the Dark Ages.

An objective spectator finds the emergence of a powerful and authoritarian church out of the simple and gentle teachings of the Gospels paradoxical. Perhaps the transformation in Judaism which took place at the same time is no less so.


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