Why, when different religions meet, does syncretism sometimes follow? What need does it fulfil? This was the question in the minds of Claude Orrieux and Édouard Will in Ioudaïsmos — Hellenismos; essai sur le judaïsme judéen a l’époque hellénistique, 1986, when they sought to understand the religious reactions of Judeans living in Judea when faced with acculturation pressure from Greek colonization in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. I am drawing this discussion from Philippe Wajdenbaum’s Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible, 2011. (These posts are archived here.)
That those peoples conquered by the Greeks and who embraced Greek religion the need met may seem obvious.
For the peoples who submitted to the Greeks, adopting Greek religion was a means of joining the ranks of their masters. (p. 40)
Before continuing, it is important to address another name appearing in this discussion — that of political anthropologist Georges Balandier. Balandier, as I understand from this outline, posits 4 possible reactions of peoples faced with acculturation:
- Active acceptance or collaboration with the new powers; the peoples embrace the culture and lifestyles of the new masters.
- Passive acceptance by the masses; people allow themselves to be dominated.
- Passive opposition, such as fleeing, passive resistance, anxiety, expressed through utopian or messianic hopes and dreams.
- Active opposition, which is not simply a rejection of the dominant culture, but often consists of using some aspect of the ruling culture as a weapon against the new masters.
that the writings of the Bible matches this fourth concept; Greek culture was used in order to make both a national history and a religion, as well as to resist Hellenisation and gain independence. (p. 41)
II Maccabees speaks of the early second century b.c.e. when Jewish High Priests Jason and Menalaus (Hellenistic forms of Joshua and Menahem?) attempted to impose Hellenism upon the priests and Temple functions of Jerusalem. (While we can’t assume II Maccabees gives us an accurate historical portrayal we may be safe in at least taking it as giving us a glimpse of the sorts of events underway.) Given the economic, administrative and political centrality of the Temple system and priestly caste and their ties with Greek rulers, their Hellenisation became a necessity. The Greek language and education could scarcely be avoided. Close ties with Alexandria in Egypt would have inevitably have followed. Knowledge of the Greek classics, if only as the core texts for teaching Greek language, could scarcely be avoided. Innovations among the priestly functions ought to follow.
But here is the problem for Orrieux and Will. A people’s “cultural focal zone” — in this case the priests — as a rule is the segment of a society that is most open to adopting innovations from the dominant group. But in the case of the people in Judea a sharp rebellion against the attempt at Hellenisation quickly put a stop to all further cultural inroads by the Greeks and left Jewish religion untouched. This is not how things are supposed to happen.
Either the focal zone of a society is not always open to innovations or Judean society was an exception, but these poor conclusions left Orrieux and Will disappointed and frustrated. Was the anthropological theory wrong, or was Judea an exception? It is from their very lack of conclusions that we can understand that their analysis was fine, albeit based on too much trust in the biblical and para-biblical sources of Maccabees and Josephus. (p. 43)
So what went wrong?
Wajbenbaum argues that what went wrong was that Orrieux and Will began with the assumption that the Bible was already centuries old and as “Jewish” as a matzah ball. But what if the Bible did not exist before the Hellenistic era? There is no concrete evidence linking it to any earlier period. That is not to say there was not in prior existence an array of religious laws. There was certainly a Temple and sacrificial system, probably food laws and assigned days rest and holy festivals. (Though it is not addressed by Wajdenbaum in this particular context we also know that popular religious practices were little different externally from those of their neighbours, with many statuettes of gods and goddesses associated with household hearths being unearthed by archaeologists. The god Yah or Yahweh, known across the Levant, also appears to have been linked with a consort.)
But what if the books of the Bible were the creative product of that fourth reaction to acculturation above? What if the priests took the concepts they learned in Plato, Homer, the tragedians, the historians, refashioned them and threw them back against their ruling culture in the form of a new religious-“national” identity expressed in the narrative we find in the biblical books?
Earlier posts have expressed some of Wajdenbaum’s more specific ideas in this direction. I have also posted similar thoughts by others that I link below. We also know how later Jews such as Philo (and Josephus) sought to adapt Greek (and Roman) ideals in order to forge a new proud identity and sets of beliefs.
Who the ‘El was God? (Margaret Barker’s views, including another critique of the Documentary Hypothesis)
The Old Testament – A Hellenistic Book? (Notes from a chapter by Lemche in Did Moses Speak Attic?)
And the other posts in this series linked above.
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!