Ancient Jewish Thought

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The Israelites, like their neighbors, had a keen interest in their origins and history.  Aspects of the biblical stories associated with creation, including the creation of man and flood narratives can be found in the myths of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan. 

Similarly, there was also a great concern for recording the present.  Legends of ancient heroes, royal annals, and temple records were preserved in Israel as they were throughout the Near East.

Israelite law additionally shared characteristics with neighboring legal cultures   Parallels are often noted between the civil and family laws preserved in the Hebrew Bible and law codes (such as the Code of Hammurabi), contracts, and court proceedings recovered from Mesopotamia and Syria.

Wisdom literature represents another shared tradition.  Scholars note such close affinity between the biblical Book of Proverbs (22:17-24:22) and the Egyptian text Instruction of Amenemopet that many assume that the latter served as a primary source for the former.

The Israelite concept of monotheism, however, was unique. Though the Israelites acknowledged the presence of other deities, they mocked them and deemed these gods impotent next to YHWH.  Neighboring cultures envisioned their deities in pantheons, with individual gods often connected with specific cities and having limited dominion over specific “sciences” (such as love, weapons, and weather).  In contrast, the Israelite god was the Creator and Sustainer of the world--YHWH was not bound by any borders.

Another unique aspect of the Israelite perspective was its concern for social justice.  While neighboring cultures did not ignore the plight of the poor and disenfranchised (throughout the Near East, for example, kings prided themselves on the attention they give to widows and orphans), the extent and degree to which the demand for social justice resonates throughout the biblical text, especially in the prophetic books, is without parallel in the ancient world. 

The arrival of the Greco-Roman empires marked the first concerted effort by a ruling party to impose their own culture upon the Jews. This culture, known as Hellenism, advocated physical beauty, arts, and sciences and organized itself around the polis (city).

There were various reactions to Hellenism among the Jewish population.

Some Jews, including the Egyptian writer Philo of Alexandria (c. 15 BCE-40 CE), attempted to reconcile Judaism with Hellenism, while others reacted against it adopting ideologies, including dualism and radical messianism. Such ideologies figure prominently in the apocalyptic and re-worked biblical material that became abundant beginning in the Second Temple period. The history of this period is recorded in the work of first century historian Josephus, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and the New Testament.

These differences also gave rise to sectarianism. Major Second Temple sects included Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Jewish-Christians. The sects were distinguished by their views on authority, tradition, and essential beliefs, and disagreed about questions like: Is the Oral Law was authoritative?  Should priests, sages, or Jesus serve as leaders? Do angels exist and is there an afterlife?

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