Commentary Magazine

Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, by Victor Tcherikover

Judaism in the Hellenistic World1


Until a century ago the interval between the classical ages of Greece and Rome, which then received the designation Hellenistic, was a barren stretch despised and neglected by classical, and ignored by Jewish, scholars. But the Hellenistic age has a special claim upon the attention of both, and of historians of culture generally. The centuries after Alexander are a focal juncture in cultural history because it was then that elements from East and West interacted upon one another to determine the contours and directions European civilization would take.

The most effective vehicle for transmitting the product of the interaction was religion, and in the first instance Judaism; and the period which impressed Judaism’s historical characteristics upon it was the Hellenistic. Later in the period, to be sure, certain Greek strands were recognized as dangerous to survival and systematically deprecated, but the Judaism which purists then sought to protect had already been deeply touched by the Hellenistic experience. And finally, aside from the antiquarianism of objective scholarship, the experience of the Jewish people in the Hellenistic age is of immediate relevance, as no intervening experience has been, for dealing with problems which confront the Jewish people in our own time. For it was in the Hellenistic age that Jews first encountered and came to terms with Europe; the responses then devised to the challenge of surviving as a permanent minority in a dominant environment may still offer useful precept and example.

But, by corollary, contemporary parallels make objectivity difficult. It is tempting, when sources are ambiguous and events susceptible to diverse interpretations, to warp them to a particular prejudice, and it is doubly tempting when the sources are already prejudiced, as the major ones for the Greco-Roman period are. To counter distortions and fill out glaring lacunae requires mastery of the general history of the period and meticulous scrutiny of an enormous mass of subsidiary material—incidental notices in a wide variety of literature, archaeological evidence, inscriptions, and especially papyri; a bill of sale or a tax receipt may well prove a corrective to the smooth story of the historian or at least fill its interstices with the stuff of life. To control this material and its interpretation requires a lifetime, and the late Victor Tcherikover worked at the task during his entire adult career with competence and unremitting diligence. We must be grateful that he lived to complete his book. With its professed limitations (it excludes systematic treatment of literary and religious history), it is easily our best book on the subject.

Because it is an original work on an intricate subject, where inaccuracies and the bias of previous writers, ancient and modern, must be cleared away, it cannot be an easy book to read. The only way to correct facile generalizations is to resort to facts, and this requires pages of adducing and meticulous weighing of evidence to establish correct chronologies and relationships. To sit at the elbow of a master craftsman and with him discern the sources of error, so often rooted in theological premises or simple anti-Semitism, has its own fascination; it is no less fascinating to see a man with definite religious and political convictions of his own resolutely making the discovery of truth his paramount objective.

Tcherikover’s independence is apparent throughout his book. He is without peer in exploiting the evidence of the papyri (of which he himself produced a learned corpus) to illuminate social and economic history, and especially that of the 3rd century B.C.E., upon which our usual sources are silent. If nothing else, these sections make it clear that the Jews were not exclusively concerned with religion, as the older histories make them appear to be.

On the central event of the Maccabean insurrection he is able to set forth the motivation and aims of the participants, both of the Hellenizing and pietist factions and of Antiochus IV, without passion or partisanship. He clarifies class and regional factors and shows how the religious factor was involved. The anti-religious edicts of Antiochus were not the cause of rebellion but its consequence. But within half a century the tie between Hasmoneans and commoners under the banner of religion was broken; ultimately the rank and file with their freer interpretation of Scripture prevailed over the dynasty, which was indistinguishable from other princely houses of the Near East seeking to maintain independent sovereignty.



How did Judaism survive in the Diaspora? Through communal organization, on the analogy of the survival of Hellenism through the organization of poleis, though Techerikover suggests no causal nexus between the two. He includes Palestine in the Hellenistic world, but maintains that Palestine controlled the religious temper of the Diaspora by broadcasting such devotional works as Judith and Esther. Aside from the fact that Judith could not have been written without Greek models and that the Palestinian provenience of Esther is far from certain, it is quite possible that pietist groups in Palestine could address their pietist fellows abroad without affecting the entire community. Aristeas and Philo also speak for only a segment of their respective communities, but their evidence of Diaspora independence of Palestinian religious attitudes and controls cannot be brushed aside. Ben Sira can indeed be cited for its criticism of aristocratic godlessness and for its generally conservative view; but its very conservatism and its date (early 2nd century B.C.E.) give it particular value as disinterested evidence of the penetration of essentially Greek outlooks. No book in the Apocrypha is more Attic in tone.

On the much vexed question whether Jews possessed citizen rights in the Greek poleis, Tcherikover states unequivocally that they did not, as communities. Individuals, especially in Alexandria, may have secured such rights by one means or another, chiefly by obtaining admission to gymnasia; communities as such could not be granted citizenship because, there being nothing like modern separation between church and state, citizenship entailed religious observances impossible for Judaism to countenance. It was the Jewish claim to certain privileges, without the corresponding obligations, which, Tcherikover suggests, was the principal cause of friction that produced anti-Semitism. Here, perhaps, the Israeli scholar who is so acute in perceiving prejudice as the source of generalizations may be unaware of his own prejudices. “The inner quality of anti-Semitism,” he writes, “arises from the very existence of the Jewish people as an alien body among the nations. The alien character of the Jews is the central cause of the origin of anti-Semitism.” Elsewhere Tcherikover is more circumspect.

Cultural reciprocity falls outside the scope of this book but is inevitably touched upon. Tcherikover properly deflates exaggerated estimates of the populousness of the Diaspora, which has been considered a factor in its influence upon the general environment. But his depreciation of the Hellenistic Greeks, based upon an essentially romantic conviction of the immeasurable superiority of the 5th century, results in undervaluing the Greek influence. The analogy to “Levantine Europeans” is unfortunate on several counts. Actually, not all 5th-century Athenians were Sophocles, and it is significant that Sophocles was studied in the gymnasia which Greeks established everywhere in the Hellenistic world. Egyptian Greeks may have been benighted by 5th-century Athenian standards, but papyrus discoveries show that a little town like Oxyrhynchus possessed a well-used library that would do credit to a small college.

All that these or other minor quibbles can show, however, is that no scholar (and no reviewer) can get out of his skin. Tcherikover’s book comes closer to the mathematician’s impartiality than any work in its field, and will long remain fundamental for further study and investigation. It is a worthy monument to the gentle and unassuming scholar whose colleagues the world over are grateful and proud that he was of their guild.




1 A review of Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, by Victor Tcherikover (translated by S. Applebaum), Jewish Publication Society of America, 566 pp., $6.00.

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