More on Alexander, the Jews, and Hellenism

Extracts from Judaism and Hellenism: The Encounter by Clare Goldfarb

Also see Alexander the Great, the Jews, and Hellenism

When Alexander defeated the Persians at Gaugamela, the Macedonian became undisputed Emperor of the Persian Empire. By destroying the Persian Kingdom, Alexander had abolished the frontier between East and West. He opened the countries of the Orient to the Greeks from the Mediterranean Sea--merging the East and the West into one cultural body.

The resulting mixture of culture was to be known as Hellenism. Tush, the Hellenistic Era was born. In the remote hills of Judaea Hellenism came face to face with deeply rooted Jewish traditions. Inevitably, the two cultures clashed...

Before Alexander, there was little contact between the cultures. There is no mention of the Jews in Greek literature; perhaps a stray remark by Herodotus, regarding the practice of circumcision among the Syrians refers to Jewish practice, but the reference could also refer to the Egyptians. Certainly the Jews, being traders, did have contact with the Greeks, but the uniformity of the language, Aramaic, concealed national differences.

We must bear in mind that barbarian means 'non-Greek speaking' and that Greeks considered anyone not speaking their language as uncivilized...(Alexandria) needed workers and immigrants streamed in from all parts of the empire. The King had already transferred Jews from Samaria to Egypt and the Palestine campaigns of Ptolemy I brought more Jews as captives and slaves.

In the first century B.C.E., Philo estimated the Jewish population of Alexandria as more than one million, outnumbering Judea. The figures are probably exaggerated. Modern historians estimate the total population to be about 300,000 and it grew to one million in Roman times...

The Hellenization of the Jews began inconspicuously. First it infected their language, manners and customs and eventually encroached on their morals, ethics and religion...In Palestine and Babylonia Hebrew remained a literary language. Oral tradition in Aramaic was sufficient to keep the uneducated informed. But in Egypt knowledge of Hebrew became exceptional while there were all the attractions of Greek literature.

The Torah had to be made accessible in Greek, both for the religious services and for private reading. The story of the Septuagint (LXX) as the Greek translation of the Holy Scriptures is called, is told to us in the Letters of Aristeas as preserved in The Antiquities of the Jews. An Egyptian Jew, Aristeas, tells us that Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 B.C.E.) invited a group of seventy-two scholars to translate the Law of the Jews for inclusion in the Alexandria Library...

Jewish philosophers tried to reconcile Jewish morality and ethics with Hellenistic logic and rationality. Philo Judaeus (aka. Philo of Alexandria) was a Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher from one of the wealthiest families in Egypt. He received a thorough education in the Holy Scriptures and in Greek literature and philosophy. His output included metaphysics, ethics and Biblical commentary. Philo believed the divinity of Jewish Law was the basis of all true philosophy.

He believed Judaism to be a universal religion and that it did not achieve this universality by any abandonment of its beliefs or practices. "The Law of Moses was enshrined in his soul." Many of his works are concerned with the allegorical interpretation of Genesis and with the exposition of the Law of Moses for Gentiles...

The First and Second Book of the Maccabees, which are now part of the Apocrypha (Greek for hidden), are our main sources for the period both before and during the Hasmonean rebellion. Both I and II Maccabees are accounts of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid state. I Maccabees opens with a brief summary of the history of the Greek empire from Alexander the Great to Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The remainder of the book covers the period of the Maccabean Revolt to the death of Simon (135 B.C.E.).

II Maccabees is made up of glorious accounts of the victories of Judah Maccabee-The Hammer. It includes supernatural ailments, angels, miracles and resurrection of the dead. But it also relates events prior to the revolt. It is the only source furnishing the "historian with ...orderly material on the period of the Hellenizer's rule in Jerusalem."

Another account that is significant for the explanation of the events in Judaea is The Wisdom of Ben Sira, or as it is known in the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus. Ecclesiasticus is the only book that we have knowledge of the author. His grandson translated the Book into Greek in about 132 B.C.E. some fifty years after Ben Sira wrote it, and that is the version that had been preserved. Ben Sira was a scholar who dedicated his life to education the young and preaching morality.

His book contains hints and allusions to the great tribulations that were occurring in Judea in 180 B.C.E. He hints of the growing dissatisfaction of the poor and of the great schism between rich and poor. He understood the danger threatening Judaism from Hellenization and fought against it. He writes, "Seek not (to understand) what is too wonderful for thee, and search not out that which is hid from thee." Ben Sira declares the "fear of God is the foundation of all wisdom."

Modern historians looking at these writings wonder, how Hellenized were the Jews? Unfortunately the works of the great historians of the Hellenistic Age are lost and those that do survive are fragmentary. Most of the sources that modern historians rely on are written by Jews who were either interested in retelling biblical history or recounting events in terms of whether "he did evil--or good--in the eyes of God." If it was not part of Jewish canonical literature, the Rabbis were not interested in keeping it.

For the period between the fourth century and the early Christian Era, the scholars rely on the Apocrypha, which had been preserved in Greek and Latin translations by the early Christian fathers and is now part of the Old Testament in the Catholic and Greek Bibles.

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