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Hellenism and Its Influences on Judaism in Alexandria

by Lewis Loflin

It was, however, in Alexandria that Jewish Hellenism reached its greatest development. Here, freed from the national bonds which held it firmly to tradition in Palestine, Hellenistic Judaism became more Hellenistic than Jewish.

It is not true to say...that Hellenism had no appreciable influence upon the development of Judaism; its influence was appreciable for many centuries; but it was driven out of the Jewish camp by the national sentiment aroused in the Maccabean and Bar Kokba revolts, and in forming the bridge between Judaism and Christianity it lost whatever permanent influence it might have possessed.

Since that time, even in Egypt, the classical home of Hellenism, rabbinical Jewish communities have flourished that have borne no perceptible trace of the movement which made Alexandria great...

Note that when the above was written in 1904 in the Jewish Encyclopedia before the 150,000 Jews of Egypt had been driven from Egypt to Israel.

Notwithstanding the marked contrast between the views of life held by the Jews and the pagans, the influence of Hellenism did not fail to impress a peculiar stamp upon the intellectual development of the Alexandrian Jews.

Indeed, the commingling of the Jewish religious teachings with the spirit of Hellenism nowhere went so far as in that city; though here, as elsewhere, the Jews remained true, in all essentials, to the religion of their forefathers.

Of this statement there are many convincing confirmations. Like their brethren in Palestine, they assembled in the synagogue every Sabbath to hear the reading of the Law and the Prophets, and for the other religious services. According to Philo, there were many synagogues scattered throughout the city of Alexandria....

Although the religion of their forefathers was so faithfully followed, the Jews of Alexandria nevertheless imbibed, to a great degree, the culture of the Greeks. Not many generations after the founding of the community, the Torah was translated into Greek (perhaps under Ptolemy II.; at all events not much later).

It was read in Greek in the synagogues; indeed this was the language chiefly used in the service. Greek must, therefore, have been the vernacular of the lower classes also.

The better classes studied Greek literature in the schools, and read Homer, the tragic poets, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. This intimate acquaintance with Greek literature naturally exerted a profound influence upon the Alexandrian Jews. They became Greeks without, however, ceasing to be Jews.

The philosophers whose views were accepted by a few of the highly educated Jews were Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. Under such influences the Jews of Alexandria produced an extensive and varied literature. They wrote history and philosophy, as well as epic and dramatic poetry. Apologetics and polemics against the heathen found an important place...

They sometimes took the offensive, and disclosed the inanity of idolatry and the ethical evils of paganism, exhorting and admonishing the heathen population to conversion. Their favorite method was to attribute such admonitory utterances to pagan authorities...

Blending of Religious Ideas

The constant daily contact of the lower class of Jews with the pagans in Alexandria resulted in the absorption of many superstitions. Among the less intelligent, Jewish and pagan witchcraft joined hands, as did Jewish faith and Greek philosophy among the more enlightened.

This blending of religious ideas prevailed more or less wherever Jews and Gentiles came into direct contact, but was especially strong and marked in Alexandria. In spite of all this, Judaism retained its peculiar characteristics even here.

From Philo's intimation that because of the allegorical interpretation, many had failed to give due value to the literal meaning of the Law, it must not be concluded that large numbers of Jews habitually broke the Law. Philo himself affords proof that even those who most favored the allegorical interpretation still kept to the letter of Scripture.

A certain laxity may indeed have obtained in some quarters; but in its essential points, the law was everywhere observed by the Hellenizing Jews as long as they remained within the pale of the synagogue.

Ref. Jewish Encyclopedia 1904




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