Hellenistic Judaism

 

Hellenistic Judaism

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Hellenistic Judaism was a movement which existed in the Jewish diaspora before the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, that 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.

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 Hellenism

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Map of Alexander’s empire.

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 (see also Age of Pericles), along with a fusion of Near Eastern cultures.[1] The period is characterized by a new wave of Greek colonization which established Greek cities and Kingdoms in Asia and Africa[2], 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.[2]

This synthesised Hellenistic culture had a profound impact on the customs and practices of Jews, both in Judea and in the Diaspora. 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 other Jews, leading the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes to ban certain Jewish religious rites and traditions. Consequently, the orthodox Jews revolted against the Greek ruler leading to the formation of an independent Jewish kingdom, known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty, which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE. The Hasmonean Dynasty eventually disintegrated in a civil war. The people, who did not want to continue to be governed by a Hellenized dynasty, appealed to Rome for intervention, leading to a total Roman conquest and annexation of the country, see Iudaea province.

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.[3]

[edit] 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[4] 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.

[edit] Decline

The decline of Hellenistic Judaism is obscure. It may be that it was marginalized by, absorbed into or became early Christianity. The Acts of the Apostles at least report how Paul of Tarsus preferredly evangelized communities of proselytes and Godfearers, or circles sympathetic to Judaism: the Apostolic Decree allowing converts to forgo circumcision made Christianity a more attractive option for interested pagans than Rabbinic Judaism which instituted a more stringent circumcision procedure in response, see Brit milah. See also Circumcision controversy in early Christianity. The attractiveness of Christianity may, however, have suffered a setback with its being explicitly outlawed in the 80s CE by Domitian as a “Jewish superstition”, while Judaism retained its privileges as long as members payed the Fiscus Judaicus. However, from a historical perspective, Persecution of Christians seemed only to increase the number of Christian converts, leading eventually to the adoption of Christianity by the Roman emperor Constantine and the subsequent development of the Byzantine Empire.

On the other hand, mainstream Judaism began to reject Hellenistic currents, outlawing use of the Septuagint, see also Council of Jamnia. Remaining currents of Hellenistic Judaism may have merged into Gnostic movements in the early centuries AD.

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Want more of this? See these Posts:

  1. The Hellenistic Period and the Spread of the Greek Language
  2. Hellenistic Coins Discovered in Northern Syria
  3. Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Archaeology – The Hellenistic World
  4. Humanities West – Alexander/Alexandria: The Flowering of Hellenistic Culture
  5. Macedonia History – Famous Jewish Historian : Alexander was a Great Greek Leader
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