Overview Hellenistic Judaism

compiled by Lewis Loflin

  
  

Hellenistic Judaism was a movement which existed in the Jewish diaspora before the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, had sought to establish a Hebraic-Jewish religious tradition within the culture and language of Hellenism. The major literary product of the contact of Judaism and Hellenistic culture is the Septuagint.

The conquests of Alexander the Great in the late 4th century BC spread Greek culture and colonization over non-Greek lands, including the Levant, and gave rise to the Hellenistic age, which sought to create a common or universal culture in the Alexandrian empire based on that of 5th and 4th century BC Athens (Age of Pericles), along with a fusion of other Near Eastern cultures and Egyptian culture.

The period is characterized by a new wave of Greek colonization which established Greek cities and Kingdoms in Asia and Africa, the most famous being Alexandria. New cities were established composed of colonists who came from different parts of the Greek world, and not from a specific "mother city" (literally metropolis, see also metropolis) as before. The 3rd century BC saw significant increase of the Jewish diaspora in Ptolemaic Egypt, notably in Alexandria.

This synthesised Hellenistic culture had a profound impact on the customs and practices of Jews, both in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora. There was a cultural standoff between the Jewish and Greek cultures. The inroads into Judaism gave rise to Hellenistic Judaism in the Jewish diaspora which sought to establish a Hebraic-Jewish religious tradition within the culture and language of Hellenism.

There was a general deterioration in relations between Hellenized Jews and religious Jews, leading the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes to ban certain Jewish religious rites and traditions. Consequently, the orthodox Jews revolted against their Greek rulers leading to the formation of an independent Jewish kingdom, known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty, which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE before falling to Rome.

The Hasmonean Dynasty eventually disintegrated in a civil war. The people, who did not want to continue to be governed by a corrupt and Hellenized dynasty, appealed to Rome for intervention, leading to a total Roman conquest and annexation of the country. Nevertheless, the cultural issues remained unresolved. The main issue separating the Hellenistic and orthodox Jews was the application of biblical laws in a Hellenistic (melting pot) culture.

Impact of Hellenistic Judaism

The major literary product of the contact of Judaism and Hellenistic culture is the Septuagint, as well as the so-called apocrypha and pseudepigraphic apocalyptic literature (such as the Assumption of Moses, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Baruch, the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch etc.) dating to the period. Important sources are Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus. Some scholars consider Paul of Tarsus a Hellenist as well.

Philo of Alexandria was an important apologete of Judaism, presenting it as a tradition of venerable antiquity that, far from being a barbarian cult of an oriental nomadic tribe, with its doctrine of monotheism had anticipated tenets of Hellenistic philosophy. Customs of Judaism that struck urban Hellenistic society as atavistic or exotic, such as circumcision, Philo could translate into metaphor, speaking of a "circumcision of the heart" in the pursuit of virtue. Consequently, Hellenistic Judaism emphasized monotheistic doctrine (heis theos), and represented reason (logos) and wisdom (sophia) as emanations from God.

Decline

The decline of Hellenistic Judaism is obscure. It may be that it was marginalized by early Christianity. The Acts of the Apostles at least report how Paul of Tarsus preferredly evangelized communities of proselytes, or circles sympathetic to Judaism: the Apostolic Decree allowing converts to forgo circumcision made Christianity a more attractive option for interested pagans than "Judaism proper".

The attractiveness of Christianity would, however, have suffered a setback with its being explicitly outlawed in the 80s AD by Domitian as a "Jewish superstition", while Judaism retained its privileges. On the other hand, mainstream Judaism began to reject Hellenistic currents, outlawing use of the Septuagint. Remaining currents of Hellenistic Judaism may have merged into Gnostic movements in the early centuries AD. (Wiki)

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