Hellenism & Judaism

Palestine goes Greek.

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City as Crucible

The Greek city, known as the polis, was the vehicle for the assimilation and Hellenization of the indigenous peoples of the Near East. Newly founded Greek cities, populated mostly by local people, were the cultural melting‑pots of the East. The institutions of the Greek way of life were opened to all who wished to participate. The Greek language was rapidly adopted as a sign of Hellenization.

People from the surrounding areas, streaming into the cities, quickly gained the legal and economic advantages afforded by citizenship in the polis-‑exemption from certain customs and duties and participation in the municipal government. In the Greek cities, the upper classes of theNear East were acculturated through the schools and other institu­tions of the Hellenistic world.

Arts and Culture

Most interestingly, the native Near Easterners gravitated as well to the Hellenic arts and sciences and soon took the lead in such disciplines as literature and philosophy. The Greek empha­sis on physical culture and on beauty also spread throughout the Near East. The religion of the Greeks was fused with that of the natives in many different forms and local cults. All of this was abetted by the polis and its official city cult, in which the Greek and the Near Eastern were in constant symbiosis.

Yet the indigenous peoples did not simply absorb the Hellenic and the Hellenistic; they redefined and reinterpreted their own traditional cultures in light of the "modern" civilization in which they now found themselves. The process of reinterpretation led to the several varieties of Hellenistic Judaism.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

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