Alexandrian Philosophy and the Jews

While there were many earlier settlements of Jewish immigrants in Egypt, it was reserved for King Ptolemy I to establish a large Jewish colony in Alexandria, either by compulsory deportation or by the encouragement of voluntary settlers, and thereby to lay the foundation of the historically important development of the Jewish diaspora in that part of the world.

If Palestinian Judaism, up to the time of the Maccabees, failed to maintain rigid barriers against the powerful onslaught of Hellenism, and found it could not restrain the tide of foreign influences, still less could this distant Alexandrian colony avoid reckoning with Greek culture and intelligence.

Constant intercourse with non-Jews would alone have led to the abolition of many religious observances, impracticable under the new conditions, and so have brought about a species of adaptation, voluntary as well as involuntary, leading, moreover, to the modification of all nationalist and separatist conceptions or prejudices.

Influence of Hellenism.

Although such influences would naturally first find expression in the affairs of daily life, particularly through the ensuing neglect of the national language and the adoption of the Greek tongue, higher departments, especially literature, could not long thereafter escape the effect of this contact with foreign culture. From the time of Ptolemy I., Greek writers evince a keen interest in Jewish history and Judaism. And the latter likewise, on its side, for its own edification and for purposes of propaganda, is soon found adopting the outward forms of Greek literature.

The Greek translation of the Torah, which is probably the oldest example of Jewish-Hellenic literature, arose essentially, no doubt, out of the religious requirements of the diaspora, and certainly had not that exclusively polemic purpose which later legend loves to see in it. It laid the foundation, however, of the free development of a literature no longer bound to national forms; and in addition it provided the linguistic material for such development.

Jewish writers soon began to reproduce and amplify their sacred annals in the approved style of the Greek historians. The oldest fragment of the Jewish "Sibyllines" exemplified, in the middle of the second century B.C., the imitation of Greek poetical forms. Various attempts in epic and even dramatic form soon followed. According to some critics, indeed, the "Sibyllines" themselves were modeled after the considerably older fragments of Pseudo-Hecataeus, likewise composed for the purposes of Jewish propaganda and in the form of forged poetical "extracts" (Schurer, "Gesch." iii. 461 et seq.).

Judaism and Hellenism.

It took a long time, of course, for Judaism, under the influence of cosmopolitan Hellenism, to rise to the highest altitudes of Greek intellectual life, and to recast its own world-conceptions in the molds of Greek philosophy. One can readily understand that Judaism felt itself powerfully attracted by Greek philosophy. Wellhausen ("I. J. G." pp. 217, 218) has very rightly noted how the intellectual development of Judaism, with its tendency to become a purified monotheism, moves in the same direction toward which Greek thought tends, in occupying itself with speculative consideration of the universe.

In monotheism, as well as in the abstract God-idea of Greek philosophy, the Jew could see the logical result and completion of that which his own great prophets had yearned for and declared. His delight in the purity of the Platonic conception of God, or the strict logic of the Stoic theodicy, would blind him to the fact that both in the Platonic transcendentalism and the Stoic pantheism the living personality of the Deity-a self-understood axiom of his conception-was well-nigh lost.

In many respects, Greek philosophy must have appeared to him far superior to anything which the Jewish mind had ever evolved. There, in Judaism, was a scheme of thought concentered in the relation of God to the world and to His chosen people. Here was a philosophy which was not only a theology at the same time, but which, in response to a broader interest felt now by Judaism too, sought to penetrate with its investigations into every department of the universe and of life.

There, in Judaism, was a collection of sacred books, of different ages and differing views; a disconnected mass of proverbial wisdom; an abundance of ceremonial usages which were tending more and more to resolve themselves into mere unintelligible customs; a system of casuistry regulated more by ritual than by ethical considerations.

Here, on the other hand, was a logical system, ruling moral life through sound and noble principles; there, a sacred literature written in popular and unsophisticated form, without regard to artistic rules or laws of logic; here, a language which exhibited the influence of centuries of artistic development, and whose skilfully constructed periods charmed the ear.

Ref. Jewish Encyclopedia 1903