2020-03-19

How Second Temple Jews Related to their Greco-Roman World

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by Neil Godfrey

From E. Gruen's chapter 2, Hellenistic Judaism, available online at DOI: 10.1515/9783110375558

Greek towns dotted Palestine along the Mediterranean coast, in the Lower Galilee, and on both sides of the Jordan. Even Jews in Judea could not isolate themselves completely from Hellenism. Many Jews, especially those in the Diaspora, even lost touch with Hebrew.

Judaism is a very elastic term. It is a mistake to imagine two types of Judaism, a Palestinian Judaism that is “pure” and “Torah” based on the one hand, and a Hellenistic Judaism on the other hand. Rich diversity was found in both.

Diaspora Jews did not confront daily angst over whether or how much to assimilate with their surroundings. They were Greek-speaking and integrated into their local communities and institutions.

Jews used Hellenistic media to express their own traditions and self-definitions.

Jewish works in Greek genres

— they wrote tragic drama modelled on the plays of Greek playwrights — Ezekiel the Tragedian (2nd C bce) wrote a play about Moses that introduced incidents that are more familiar to Hellenistic drama than the biblical story.

— they wrote epic poetry modelled on Homer — Theodotus (2nd C bce) composed a poem about the rape of Dinah and destruction of Shechem, whitewashing the biblical story but demonstrating how everything worked out according to the divine will.

Joseph and Aseneth: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_and_Asenath_(San_Marco).jpg

— they wrote novels in the vein of Greek romances — the most well known to us being Joseph and Aseneth. This novel promotes the virtue and power of Joseph and the respect Egyptians have for him, and how those who scorned him at first came to stand in awe of him and even convert to worshipping his god. Even Pharaoh prays to Joseph’s god. Relations between Jews and Egyptians is harmonious but only because Egyptians recognize the superiority of Joseph’s character and faith.

— they wrote histories modelled on Greek histories — Demetrius (late 3rd C bce) rewrote much of the biblical history but with an attempt to explain and reconcile contradictions and loose ends in the biblical narrative. Eupolemus (2nd C bce) wrote a glorification of the reign of David having him conquer everything from the Euphrates to the Taurus mountains in the north and the Gulf of Aqaba in the south. Solomon, in his account, repays foreigners who helped him build his temple by given them assistance with building their own temples to their pagan deities.

— Another text, the Letter of Aristeas (2nd C bce), presents the Egyptian king marshalling extensive resources just to have the Jewish Scriptures translated into Greek and added to the great Alexandrian royal library. The king, Ptolemy, reveres the Jewish customs and is overwhelmed by the wisdom of Jewish scribes. The Jewish scribes in fact express the noblest of Greek philosophy by speaking of moderation, avoiding extremes, etc. Greek philosophers are inferred to be inferior.

The notion of a barrier that had to be overcome between Jewish and Hellenistic cultures casts precisely the wrong image. The Jewish intellectuals who sought to rewrite their past and redefine their traditions grew up in Diaspora or even Palestinian communities suffused with Hellenism. For them it was their culture. Their ideas and concepts expressed themselves quite naturally in Greek forms. But this in no way compromised, diminished, or undermined their sense of Jewish identity. On the contrary, Jewish thinkers and writers showed little interest in the Trojan War, the house of Atreus, the labors of Heracles, the customs of the Scythians, or the love of Cupid and Psyche. They mobilized the Hellenic crafts of epic, tragedy, philosophy, romance, and historiography to reproduce the record of their own people, to convey their conventions, and to enhance their achievements. (p. 40)

Jewish Construction of Greek Culture and Ethnicity

2 Maccabees, authored by a Hellenized Jew of late 2nd C bce, is a work of Greek historiography about the victory of heroic and pious Jews over evil and ignorant Greek oppressors. The Jewish martyrs are valorized.

Similar themes are found in the apocalyptic literature such as the visions of Daniel. The Third Sibylline Oracle also predicts the demise of Hellenic cities throughout the Mediterranean by the power of God.

1 Maccabees (late 2nd C bce) rails against Alexander the Great as cruel and arrogant.

4 Maccabees (1st C bce) — a philosophical work presenting the Jewish martyrs as exemplars of Stoic philosophy, subjecting their lives to reason over passions. Greek philosophy was appropriated by the Jews to position them as superior to the Greeks.

Compare the Letter of Aristeas and Joseph and Aseneth above: Jewish beliefs and character is superior to the ignorant and misguided Greeks.

Josephus (late 1st C ce) regularly sets the Jews above the Hellenic practices and institutions, even stressing the “inhumanity” of Greeks who had harmed Jews in various places. Moses, Josephus stresses, is far superior to the Greek lawgivers. The Jews, he says, are loyal to their own laws and ways, a character that he says is beyond comprehension to Greeks. Josephus mocks the Greek beliefs in many gods and attributes all that is finest among the Greeks to Jewish origins. Moses was the inspiration of Greek philosophy, he claims. Josephus even asserts that Jewish ways and customs are emulated by gentiles all around the known world.

Aristobulus (2nd C bce) likewise had argued that Jewish philosophy expressed in the Torah was the source of Greek philosophy. Plato owed a debt to Moses, as did Socrates and Pythagoras. He and others also found Jewish influences in Greek poetry and drama — especially whenever they wrote about a great deity. Hints of the number seven were seen as proofs that the Greek poets Homer and Hesiod knew about the divine institution of the Jewish Sabbath.

Jewish intellectuals ransacked the texts of Greek drama, chasing after verses that might suggest Hellenic borrowings from Hebraic ideas. And when they did not find appropriate lines, they simply manufactured them. Concepts with Jewish resonance were ascribed to the great fifth-century-B.C.E. tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and to the comic poets Menander, Philemon, and Diphilus. . . . Hellenistic Jews were evidently tireless in rummaging through the Greek classics to find opinions and sentiments that evoked scriptural teachings. . . . More striking still, they imply that the Hellenic achievement, far from alien to the Hebraic, simply restated its principles. (pp. 46 f)

Compare Paul’s speech to the Athenians in the Book of Acts (17:16-33). Paul declares that the unknown god that the Greeks ignorantly worship is in fact the Hebrew God.

Philo of Alexandria likewise boasted that Jewish ways and customs were Greeks and barbarians through many cities. Even while acknowledging that Jews are among the “barbarians” they are superior to the Greeks.

These fictive inventions hardly dissolved the distinctions between Hebrews and Hellenes. Instead, they elevated the best in Hellenism by providing it with Hebrew precedents. The rest, by definition, fell short.

The Jews’ reconception of the Hellenic achievement turned it to their own benefit. They simultaneously differentiated their nation from that of the Greeks and justified their own immersion in a world of Hellenic civilization. (p. 49)

How much of this literature was for a narrow elite audience and how much for the hoi polloi? That is the next question Erich Gruen addresses. He identifies several layers of meaning in several of the narratives. But I can leave that for another day or you can read it in the original (pp. 50 ff) in Gruen’s book — it is open access, online.


Gruen, Erich S. 2018. The Construct of Identity in Hellenistic Judaism, Essays on Early Jewish Literature and History. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110375558.


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Neil Godfrey

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