Home > History, Judaism, Study of Judaism > Jewish Cult and Hellenistic Culture: Essays on the Jewish Encounter with Hellenism and Roman Rule

Jewish Cult and Hellenistic Culture: Essays on the Jewish Encounter with Hellenism and Roman Rule

  • Series: Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism
  • Author: John J. Collins
  • Publisher: Publisher (2005)
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 244
  • ISBN-10: 9004144382
  • ISBN-13: 9789004144385
  • Format: PDF

This is a collection of 12 essays, written since 1997, on themes related to Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Judaism. They include a review essay on recent scholarship on Hellenistic Judaism, a discussion of the question of anti-Semitism in antiquity, a study of the Hellenistic reform in Jerusalem, several studies of individual texts and an essay on the circumstances that led to the first Jewish revolt against Rome.

Few episodes in ancient history have had more profound and lasting implications than the encounter of Judaism and Hellenism. The spread of Greek culture to the east was the first great encounter of east and west, the first instance of a clash of civilizations that has been repeated in various forms down to the present. Few people in antiquity could have anticipated that the Jews would be the most enduring representatives of ancient Near Eastern culture. Alexander can scarcely have given Judea a second thought. The eventual importance of Judaism on the world stage would be due in part to the extraordinarily distinctive self-consciousness of the Jewish people, and in part to their historic link to the Christian religion, which would dominate so much of western history. But for the Christian connection, the remarkable corpus of literature produced by Greek-speaking Jews might well have been lost, like the literature of other Near Eastern peoples. Be that as it may, the Jews are the only eastern people of the Hellenistic world who have left behind a substantial literature. Only in the case of Judaism do we have the material to assess the response of an eastern people to Hellenism, and to see how an eastern tradition was adapted in light of the different and dominant culture of the Greeks.

The encounter between Judaism and Hellenism took place in two arenas. In the land of Israel, the majority of the population continued to speak a Semitic language, Aramaic or Hebrew. The initial attempt to turn Jerusalem into a Hellenistic polis met with violent rejection, for reasons that were religious rather than cultural in the broader sense. But Hellenistic culture, and even pagan religion, continued to have a profound impact in Israel in the following centuries, reaching a high point in the reign of Herod the Great. The dynamic in the land of Israel, however, was different from that in the Diaspora, where Greek was the language of Jew and Gentile alike. My concern here will be with the encounter in the Diaspora, specifically in Egypt, which is the source of most of the Greco-Jewish literature that survives. This literature documents a remarkable attempt to embrace Greek culture while maintaining a distinctive Jewish identity at the same time. It is the peculiar nature of this fusion of horizons that concerns us here.

Apologetic Literature?

Beginning in the nineteenth century, modern scholarship classified the literature of Egyptian Jewry as “apologetic” and propagandistic, on the assumption that it was intended to defend Judaism from attack and win converts from the gentile world. That view of the literature was overturned by Victor Tcherikover in a famous article in 1956, in which he argued that the literature was addressed to the Jewish community itself. Subsequent scholarship has discredited the view that there was any sustained or systematic Jewish proselytism in the Hellenistic period, or the first century of Roman rule. Tcherikover did not deny the existence of any Jewish apologetic literature.

The Contra Apionem of Josephus is the prime example, and Philo is also known to have composed an apologetic work. Tcherikover’s point was simply that the great bulk of Greco-Jewish literature was most likely intended for Jewish readers, and received little attention from Gentiles. This point has generally been accepted, althoug Louis Feldman still continues to detect “missionary motives” in such books as the Sibylline Oracles, the Wisdom of Solomon and the Letter of Aristeas.

While Tcherikover successfully debunked the view that this literature was missionary in purpose, the question of apologetics is somewhat more subtle. To be sure, a writing like the Letter of Aristeas is not apologetic in the explicit sense of Josephus’ Contra Apionem. But there are also less direct ways of engaging in apologetics, by seeking to rebut criticism of one’s religion and affirm its positive features.

In fact, Tcherikover’s view of Diaspora Judaism was rather defensive. Hellenistic culture presented a temptation “to be like all the peoples.” While there were isolated exceptions, he argued that “the Diaspora Jews were closely attached to their nationality and that the overwhelming majority of them did not incline to assimilation.”

They maintained their communities based on the foundation of “Jewish tradition.” This kind of antithetical view of the relationship between “Jewish tradition” and Hellenism has its roots in 2 Maccabees, where the excesses of the so-called Hellenistic reform, in the period before the Maccabean revolt, are described as akmè tis hellènismou, an extreme of Hellenism (2 Macc 4:13). The contrast is polemical and overdrawn. Its problematic character is shown already by the fact that 2 Maccabees, the locus classicus for the antithesis, is itself a thoroughly Hellenistic book in many ways.

Tcherikover’s view of Hellenistic Judaism has been enormously influential over the last half century, but few scholars to-day would state the antithesis between Judaism and Hellenism in such stark terms. Jews in the Diaspora did not perceive Hellenism as a threat to be resisted. Most scholars, however, would agree that there was some tension between Hellenistic culture and Jewish tradition, even when both were perceived positively. In the words of Greg Sterling:

there are two foci which constitute the horizons of Alexandrian Jewish self-identity: the necessity of maintaining allegiance to the ancestral tradition, and the right to participation in Hellenism de bon coeur. While the tensions created by these apparently bi-polar foci were resolved in numerous ways within the Alexandrian Jewish community, Jewish selfidentity was preserved as long as both horizons were kept in view.

Consequently much of the Diaspora literature has an apologetic quality, insofar as it tries to correct Gentile impressions and to show that Judaism was really in accordance with the best in Greek culture. Sterling has written of apologetic historiography, exemplified in authors such as Artapanus. Martin Goodman, in his revision of the relevant section of Schürer’s History, has characterized this literature as “largely apologetic in the most comprehensive sense of the word” insofar as its chief preoccupations “lay in the praise and aggrandisement of Jewish religion and the history of the Jewish people.”

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