Hellenism & Judaism

Palestine goes Greek.

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The Hellenistic period begins formally with the arrival of Alex­ander the Great in the Near East in 334BCE, but this date is not the beginning of Greek influence in the region. The Near East as a whole, and Palestine and its Jewish residents more particularly, first came under Aegean influence in the fourteenth century BCE. As trade connections increased, this influence became much more extensive. The following article is reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

The cultural phenomenon that we call Hellenism had a lasting impact on Judaism and the Jewish people. Hellenism was a synthesis of Greek (Hellenic) culture with the native cultures of the Near East. It was a dynamic phenomenon, with the ever-­evolving Hellenistic ("Greek‑like") culture continually becoming the raw material for new syntheses with other native cultures not yet under its sway. 

Greeks were Not the First--or Main--Spreaders of "Greek" Culture

Indeed, it was not the Greeks them­selves, but the Macedonians, whose civilization was derivative from that of the true Hellenes, who were mainly responsible for spreading Greek culture to the Near East. As Hellenism pene­trated each new region, an amalgamation of the Hellenistic with the native took place, and this phenomenon resulted in the many different manifestations of Hellenistic culture observable in the Near East over many centuries.

ancient greek architectureIt was Alexander's conquests that made possible theunion between East and West, but in fact there were deeper cultural reasons for the ease with which these two civilizations entered into a symbiotic relationship. Greek culture had by this time developed to its pinnacle. It had been liberated from the limitations of geography, and one could now be a Hellene by education and culture, not just by birth. Humanism had resulted from the primacy attributed to reason in Greek thought. Man now was at the center of the cosmos rather than merely of the polis (the Greek city) as he had been earlier.

The Decline of Native Civilizations

Concurrently, native Near Eastern civilizations had run their course and were on the decline. Egypt and Mesopotamia apparently produced little of literary or intellectual import in this period, and the widespread interest in new religions observable in the sources indicates a hunger for new means of spiritual fulfillment. The time was ripe for a new cultural movement. Thus the peoples of the defeated Persian Empire could offer no more resistance to the Hellenic cultural onslaught than they had to the Macedonian army.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.