Bible: composed as a reaction against Greek domination?

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by Neil Godfrey

English: Museum Carnuntinum ( Lower Austria )....
Syncretic Bronze Statue — Venus and Isis?: Wikipedia image

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:

  1. Active acceptance or collaboration with the new powers; the peoples embrace the culture and lifestyles of the new masters.
  2. Passive acceptance by the masses; people allow themselves to be dominated.
  3. Passive opposition, such as fleeing, passive resistance, anxiety, expressed through utopian or messianic hopes and dreams.
  4. 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.

Wajdenbaum believes

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.

Herodotus’ Histories and the Primary History of Israel

Who the ‘El was God? (Margaret Barker’s views, including another critique of the Documentary Hypothesis)

The Bible’s 4000 years from Creation to the New Israel

Genesis Myths Inspired by Plato?

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.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Bible: composed as a reaction against Greek domination?”

  1. Genesis 6:4

    The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

    This seems like an odd statement if it were written before the Hellenistic era. But it make sense if the heroes of old were the ancient Greek heroes. Wikipedia has a note about the etymology of the word Nephilim, which is later rejected: “In Aramaic culture, the later term niyphelah refers to the Constellation of Orion, and thus nephilim to the offspring of Orion in [Greek] mythology”

  2. Another curiosity is the Tower of Babel. I think it was in one of Thompson’s publications that it appears to the author of that tale knows of Babylon as a mostly evacuated relic of what was once a great city. That’s how Babylon was known from around 275 b.c.e. — a mostly deserted city. Did the Tower of Babel account originate from someone who was writing quite independently of any interest in or awareness of the Babylonian empire in pre-Persian times?

  3. This is somewhat off-topic, but the list of the four “possible reactions” brings to mind an article titled “The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome,” written by medical historian Frederick M. Hodges:


    This may sound weird, but Hodges argues that the “Greeks valued the longer prepuce.” He suggests that Greek cultural values may explain the legal efforts to abolish ritual circumcision throughout the Seleucid and Roman empires. I wonder if it may have been the other way round:

    “And Mattathias and his friends went around and tore down the altars; they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel” (1 Macc. 2:45-46).

    One could read this as an example of “active opposition” to Greek cultural values. “With evident hostility, Josephus and the authors of 1 Maccabees also report that circumcised Hebrew males during this era voluntarily sought foreskin restoration therapies, interpreting this as an illicit attempt at assimilation into Greek culture” (Hodges, p. 389). Jewish religious leaders may have adopted circumcision in the first place as a means of separating themselves from Greek culture.

    Historically, there is no proof that Jewish ritual circumcision predates the Hellenistic period. Jewish circumcision, as practiced today, was invented by the Rabbis in the second Christian century. Until then, a circumcision had only required amputation of the tip of the prepuce. Now there was to be a second procedure: removing all “shreds” of foreskin tissue (peri’ah), and sucking blood from the wound (metsitsah). It is not far-fetched to see the additional procedure as a way of ensuring that restoration therapies would be useless.

  4. Re: acculturation, you’re using it as a catch-all (following B. I suppose), when I find it useful to think of two axes of the response to cultural contact: acculturation and assimilation. A fully acculturated and assimilated individual under Hellenistic culture but coming from a Jewish household would be one who has been educated at the gymnasium, uses Koine as his everyday language, knows the classics, and participates fully in pagan polytheistic religious practice, not keeping kosher or following the Law in any respect that would cut off access to Greek society and culture. Such a person would fall into category 1.

    An individual high on the acculturation axis, but low on assimilation, would have received the education in Greek language and literature, and would be able to move in the orbit (at least) of Hellenistic elite culture, but would still practice Jewish religion and use a semitic language in everyday settings. Such persons would be most likely to fit category 3. A fully assimilated person low on the acculturation axis would be someone who falls into category 2. of B.’s four-point scale, dominated by the hegemony of Greek language and socio-economic conditions, but without access to the cultural markers of a literary education. Under strain, of course, such a person would also be an obvious candidate for participation in active opposition (rebellion; social banditry) of type 4.

    Under this analysis, I have to say that I would put “using some aspect of the ruling culture as a weapon against the new masters,” if (parts of) the Bible fit this description, more under 3. Passive resistance, than 4. Active resistance. I just don’t see, for instance, how writing Daniel (to make an example of an unproblematic Hellenistic-era composition) in any way “actively” resisted the Seleucids.

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