Political Background to the NT: Hellenization

In his Jesus and The Gospels, Craig Blomberg observes that there are key socioeconomic and political developments which are foundational”  “an understanding of [these developments] is essential to a correct interpretation of the situation of the Jews in the time of Jesus” (10).  Blomberg is correct and most Bible readers have a general idea of what the religious landscape was like in first-century Judaism.  I also  happen to think most Bible readers have a skew view of Second Temple Period Judaism (at best).  More on the religious backgrounds in my next post, for now, I want to tackle Blomberg’s first observation, that political changes in the world have made a major impact on the Jewish world, especially in Galilee in the late 20s A.D.

After the fall of Jerusalem, Judah lost her national identity.  The nation became a rather insignificant part of the Babylonian and Persian empires.  After Alexander, the territory was  significant strategically to the both Seleucid and Ptolemaic hopes of regaining an empire.  Rome controlled the region after 63 B.C., but it was not a particularly rich, and therefore not important to them as long as the region kept up on their taxes.  The Jewish people lived virtually everywhere in the Roman Empire.  Many of these Diaspora Jews would not even consider Judea their home.  They were now Romans, or residents of Ephesus, or citizens of Tarsus.

From the time of Alexander, the Jewish people struggled with how much Greek culture they would accept without considering it a compromise of their religious beliefs.  This  process of Hellenization happened wherever the Greeks went, although there was far less conflict outside of Judea.  But it is important to understand that this was not either / or issue for the Jews in the second century B.C.   Everyone adapted to Greek culture in some way, the only question was how far to allow a Greek world view to overwhelm a Jewish world view.  As an example, in the mid second century B.C., the Greek language was nearly universal even among the Jews.  A solidly Jewish book like 1 Maccabees was composed in Greek.  Sirach represents the height of wisdom literature and was translated into Greek at this time.  Most important, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek.  This was not done for missionary reasons, so that pagans could read the Jewish scriptures – a new generation of Jews spoke and read Greek as their first language and Hebrew was unknown to them!  Even in the first century Jerusalem, a Greek-speaking synagogue existed for Diaspora Jews worshiping in Jerusalem!

Why would occupied territories Hellenize? The primary motivation was upward mobility.  The Greeks needed local administrators, they needed people who knew the local culture and language, but also were “acceptable” to the Greeks.  The more could communicate in the Greek language and present oneself as a Greek, the higher in the political and economic structure one might rise.  This is the “plot” of the intertestamental period – how will the Jews react to this new culture imposed form the outside by foreign occupiers.  There will be some Jews who are as completely Hellenized as possible, yet others will resist and cling to Jewish traditions.

There is an obvious application to contemporary American / western Christianity, which is probably why I find the Second Temple period so fascinating!

All this social and political data brings us around again to the question of religion.  If a person could “be a Jew” and not live in the Jewish homeland, what exactly is it that sets them apart as a Jew?  In the next post, I will begin to explore some of the beliefs and practices which defined “Judaism” in the first century.

17 thoughts on “Political Background to the NT: Hellenization

  1. Several questions rise to the surface after reading this post and Bloomberg’s referenced material. Such as, how did Judaism and its practice change as a result of hellenization? The answer to this question comes first during the time of Alexander the Greats rule. The “Jews divided among themselves as to whether or not it was acceptable to study, learn from, and incorporate into their lifestyles Hellenistic elements” (Bloomberg 12). In every facet of society, including government, communications, dress, athletics, and the arts Jew were tempted to leave behind their worship, sacrifices, and practices. Though some Diaspora Jews secluded themselves from Hellenization, as much as possible, others fell prey to “the enticement to disobey their Law” (Bloomberg 12). This tension reminds me of the struggle for Christ followers to be in the world not of it (John 15:19).

    Also, you bring up a good point in asking, “If a person could “be a Jew” and not live in the Jewish homeland, what exactly is it that sets them apart as a Jew?” I find this question both interesting and thought provoking, but I am not able to tie down a definitive answer in its response. Moses received these words from God on the mountain, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:5-6). I conclude that it is nothing that a Jew does that defines them as a Jew, but rather that they were chosen by God as His people. I am still developing more thoughts as to this question.

  2. People could be a Jew even if they were not inside of Israel because of a few things that the Jews did to “separate” themselves from their culture. First of all, when the Jews came back from the exile in Babylonia they set up synagogues for worship. They did this out of necessity since they were not allowed to construct a temple in Jerusalem. As a result, the synagogues prevented the Jews from sinning like they did in the Old Testament thus preventing any more wrath from God due to their sin. Since a synagogue did not offer any sacrifices the synagogue did not have to be in Jerusalem. So where a synagogue was, there also Jews could congregate.

    Secondly, the development of the oral Law provided ways for the Jews to retain their identity away from Israel and Jerusalem. Because they were not allowed to sacrifice in Jerusalem the Jews sought out texts that said that obedience was greater than sacrifice (Blomberg, 10).

    They used 1 Samuel 15:22: “But Samuel replied: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

    They also tried to apply the Torah to every area of their lives and thus the oral Law emerged (Blomberg, 11). Since the Jews followed this oral Law they set standards and rules that were nothing like the culture around them.

    However, the most important piece that allowed the Jews to be a Jew even outside of Israel was the religio licita of Judaism (Blomberg, 20). This meant that Judaism was a “legal religion” and it did not have to follow all the customs and rules that the other citizens had to. This allowed the Jews to attend the synagogue and observe their Torah and their oral Law without as many problems.

  3. I find that the Jews who lived in the time of Greek rule under Alexander have a lot in common with the Christians living America today. Blomberg tells us “Greek culture and influence could be found everywhere. For Jews, this provided significant enticements to disobey their Law.” (Blomberg 12) The temptation to compromise was all around them as Greek rule spread throughout all of Israel. I wonder what the Jews did in order to not compromise. I mean, what hope did they have? The Savior hadn’t come yet and they are now under Greek rule with no end in sight. All they had was a hope that this Law they had been obeying was somehow going to save them. They didn’t have a model (like Jesus for us) to look at and say, “If He can do then I know I can too.” Blomberg gives us some examples of what the Jews were tempted with, “Greek forms of dress, with idolatrous associations attached to them;…an interest in sports, with worship and sacrifice neglected!”(Blomberg 13) These examples of compromise are almost identical to the compromises Christians today are facing. I can only hope and pray that we will not forget the verses from Matthew 7, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV)

  4. I was wondering why all these Jewish territories were changing their ways of life to become more Greek as well. I completely agree with Professor Long that the biggest motivation was the fact that they could climb up the economic and political ladder. Blomberg says, “Almost everyone who had to do business with the Greek soldiers and merchants who came to be located in every urban center had to learn to speak a little Greek” (13). If a Jew was allowed to participate in politics at all, they would most likely have to have been Hellenistic in culture. By learning the Greek language Jews could communicate so much easier with the rest of society. Blomberg also says, “Other pressures on Jews to compromise their ways that began early under Hellenistic influence included attendance at or participation in the religiously explicit Greek theater and the availability and attractiveness of eating nonkosher food” (13). After reading about the Greek influence on the Jewish culture, I decided to try and find some evidence of Greek influence in the Bible itself. In Matthew 2:1, it says, “…Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea during the time of King Herod…” (NIV). The NIV Study Bible explains that King Herod, who was a non Jew, invested a lot of money in amphitheaters and pagan altars. This shows that during the time of Jesus, King Herod spent a lot of money creating a Hellenistic culture which was thriving. It definitely seems like it was more important to be wrapped up with the things of the world, than honoring God. Now I am wondering, are Americans compromising their beliefs for the same reasons as the Jews did?

    • I think that the danger here that we Americans face in regards to Bloomberg’s writings and observations is very very similar to the dangers that the Jews faced with Hellenization. We, however, are doing a terrible job at it (“we” as in Americans in general). Sarah Palin’s most recent speech exemplifies this idea. In summary, she basically declares that God will bless America because we are a moral people and do what is right. I’m sorry but being American has nothing to do with being Christian just as being Hellenistic has nothing to do with being Jewish. The two can coexist but are not one in the same. The question for me is not “How Hellenistic can one get?” but rather, “How strong is your faith?” The other thing that goes along with that is to use discernment. You cannot just accept EVERYTHING and still be Christian. Obvious things like pagan worship or Atheistic views cannot be accepted with the Christian worldview because they contradict scripture. However, scripture says nothing about how loud of music i can listen to or what kinds of political stances i can take if at all. We need to be able to discern what is good and bad in the eyes of God, know when it is appropriate to display them in order to keep our brothers and sisters to stumble and know when our focus becomes less on God and more on cultural relevance for cultural relevance’s sake.

      As for Greg’s thought, I would say yes… Americans do compromise their beliefs for the very same reasons… 2000 years and we still have an outward self focus rather than a God focus. Take for example Joel Ostien or any other preacher who is in it for health and wealth theology or just to be in the limelight. Even politicians use God to improve their standings with people so that they can look like “moral leaders who only have the best intentions in mind.”

      • “God will bless America because we are a moral people and do what is right” – this is one of the most egregious misuses of Scripture since it draws on the blessings associated with keeping the Law for Israel and applies it to right-wing politics in America. Not at all what God had in mind in Deuteronomy! IMHO, this is another form of a “health and wealth” gospel (which is no gospel at all!)

  5. When reading this blog, what stood out to me most was the question “What other options did the jews really have?” I mean I try to put myself in their situation, if everyone and everything around me is becoming or conforming to the Greek life it would be nearly impossible for me not to conform as well. I like the point Joe made when he said “what hope did they have? The Savior hadn’t come yet and they are now under Greek rule with no end in sight.” This makes me truly feel for them. I try to picture myself as a christian surrounded by mormon religion and ways of life. To be a huge minoirty among that would be so hard not to conform, to just give into what is easier. I see how christianity is spreading throughout america, not meaning it a bad thing, however there are some churches who preach things against the bible and because people aren’t knowledgable about the bible they assume what the preacher says is right.

  6. As P Long was saying, the Jews were were loosing their national identity and had been scattered throughout the land. Blomberg puts it like this, “…one may think of first-century Judaism as a diverse collection of responses to the theological ‘contradiction’ involved in living under foreign occupation in a land God had promised to give Israel forever” (51). The Jews were struggling to keep their distinct identity as people of the one true God, set apart from the other peoples, and at the same time to adjust to the culture and life they were surrounded with being under the rule of other nations and not rulers of the land they knew was supposed to be theirs. The problem was how far is too far when adjusting and living a comfortable life? What can we do to be comfortable but still distinct? What can we do to live normally but still be us, and not loose ourselves to the Hellenization that was taking place all over. What is wrong and what is fine? How will they know we are set apart? These, as P Long pointed out, are all questions we deal with in the present, concerning being Christians in the world but not of it. We are looking for the lines of staying distinct and adjusting and being part of the community and people around us. We are supposed to be reflections of Christ, salt and light to the world, but what does that look like for the average person? “What are the boundaries of acceptable behavior? …to what extent does Jesus either affirm or critique the dominant patterns of social interaction in his world? And in moving to our day, how we he respond to our world? Where do we need to be counter cultural to be faithful disciples?” (69).

    • Good point, Britalia, citing Blomberg: “Where do we need to be counter cultural to be faithful disciples?” One of the themes we will return to constantly when studying Jesus is that he tended to be counter-cultural, but not for the sake of being opposite of everything (those were the Cynics, the DeadHeads of the ancient world. ) Care must be taken to bu counter-to-culture when culture is wrong.

  7. I also agree with Professor Long that the biggest motivation was the fact that they could climb up the economic and political ladder. One of the struggles with being a follower of Jesus is trying to live this reality that our citizenship is in heaven and not on earth. Right from the get go, we are already trying to live this tension out, not to mention all the other things that Jesus asks of people who follow Him. I think it’s important the we don’t forget how difficult this is to live out. One of the tensions that we all face is how much do we engage culture, if we engage it at all. Obviously there are few extremes [those who don’t engage culture at all, and those who are completely immersed in culture] but the issue of how much interaction of culture is appropriate. Is there a way to be honoring God by still engaging the culture? That is also a tough one to answer… and I bring Craig Gross to the issue. He is the pastor and founder of XXXChurch, and frequently visits and actively engages porn conventions in hopes to be light to the dark. Is he honoring God by what he is doing? Even among our classroom, there will be a split between how many believe that he is and others that think he’s completely crazy.

    • Moses, that is a great current example of a dilemma like Hellenization. At Celebration on the Grand this weekend, I felt like I witnessed the other end of the spectrum with the people carrying the fire and brimstone signs. I feel like this also raises another related issue – why the issue of Christians conforming to culture is so often brought up in the light judging others. Nevertheless, this particular discernment is an inevitable struggle for anyone who’s desire it is to have an evangelical impact on the world that surrounds them.

      To be honest, I feel like I can’t quite relate to these Jews in their dilemma with Hellenization (and not just for obvious reasons!) I can definitely understand a hesitance to deviate from what you know as tradition, especially if the new culture just kind of took over. But from what I gather in the reading, a main reason the Jews had a problem conforming to the Greek way was because it often directly conflicted with their Law. Although I could easily just “transfer” this to mean the entire Bible in my life, as a Christian from 2010, the only true Law to me is what has been fulfilled through Jesus Christ. Many times when I am contemplating on the bridges and gaps of todays culture and being Christian, I am thinking directly of the person of Jesus. So it is difficult for me to imagine encountering this problem as a Second Temple Jew, and thinking of the Torah, rather than the Son of God. So if I were to be honest, and part of my wishes this wasn’t true, I would say that as a Jew living before the birth of Christ, I would conclude that adopting Hellenistic elements into my lifestyle would only benefit me in multiple ways, from political to evangelical, and do to otherwise would be selfish.

  8. I see the question that you ask us of what exactly sets apart a Jew, being the exact same question that the Jewish people of this period were trying to answer themselves. As each person has pointed out already, the appearance of hellenization at the hands of Alexander the Great, placed the Jewish people into a new role. Blomberg says, “the Jews were given the same relative freedoms of worship and government as under the Persians, so long as they remained loyal subjects of Greece. Alexander apparently hoped to unite the eastern and western parts of his empire and create a new hybrid of cultures, religions, and peoples, with all, however, permeated by Hellenistic culture and influence.” (12) In a sense, they were allowed to “be themselves”, as long as they adapted certain aspects of the culture, that the Greeks deemed important.
    Just like with any religion, this would cause some serious thought into the “religion’s” identity. What aspects actually defined them? What laws were specifically mandated from God, and which are “gray areas”? Interpretation of the scriptures would quickly become the arguing point. I see this as being exactly like what we face today with personal religious choices/denominations/theologies. We’re given the opportunity to live under whatever freedoms we choose, and we are constantly asking ourselves the question; “What exactly is it that sets me apart as a Christian?” I go to Genesis 15:6 to answer the questions. It says, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” The Jewish people, and we Christians today are set apart by our righteousness. This righteousness doesn’t come through law, works, being socially acceptable, or by which form of government rules our country. It only comes through faith in Christ. This is the same truth in 331 BC as it is today.

  9. “Everyone adapted to Greek culture in some way, the only question was how far to allow a Greek world view to overwhelm a Jewish world view.”

    A similar question is found in many worldviews that are present in the world. (How for gone is too far gone?) The definition of american Christian for example is a prime target for this discussion. A huge percentage of Americans claim to be Christians but, we all know that the amount that claim to be Christians and the amount that lives it out are vastly different percentages. Do we still call them a Christian? Under the other sub category of this thought (Glenn Beck a Christian or a Mormon?) I’m still not sure what is going on with that guy? If he is a Mormon than his is not a “Christ follower” therefore he is not a Christian.

    This country that we live will soon be far from the principles that it was founded on but, we will still be called Americans. In the same way many Jews drifted away culturally and many times physically as well as spiritually. These people will still be called Jews like a person from the real Holland is still Dutch?

  10. I think about studying the Jews in the Hellenistic time of the intertestamental period gives me a better understanding of how to read the Scriptures. It makes it more relatable and I can make sense of things in a richer value. In the post it was mentioned a lot about the Greek culture and the impact it had on the Jews. As I read ‘Jesus and the Gospels,’ seven major factors were listed as how this culture had a positive impact to the spread of Christianity listed on page 23.

    (1) Greek was the unified language
    (2) Pax Romana gave the empire freedom of warfare.
    (3) Advanced transportation and communication systems.
    (4) Rural areas became more urbanized
    (5) Cultural and political unification eliminated cross-cultural barriers.
    (6) Christianity received protection as a Jewish sect at the time until 62 (before Nero’s persecution)
    (7) Rome implemented advanced judicial process.

    I think these were some of the important notes the author makes whereas in the post it sounded like the hellenistic culture had a lot of pressures for the Jews to confrom to ideas that werent there own, and it had more of a negative impact on them. However, I just wanted to list some of the positive aspects.

    • After I read my first post I realized I didnt reflect much on the question that was asked, what sets a Jew apart or make them distinctively Jewish. I just got done reading the book of Galatians and some of the key ideas were that righteousness did not come about through the law. Rather the law was a curse and the law was to bring about transgressions. (Gal 3-5) In Galatians a repeated theme is salvation comes not by works but through faith in God. At this time of the Hellenistic period Jews did not refer to Jesus, however they had faith in God, the Great I AM. Scripture that comes to mind is Deut 6:4, ‘God is one.’ Salvation did not come through the Law, however it came through the Grace of God in Christ.

      So to relate this to my first post through the Hellenestic culture, (emphasis on Greek lifestyle) though the Jews struggled to maintain their identity, the culture was set up in such a way for Christianity to flourish.

  11. I very much agree with Joe on this issue that there are many parallels between intertestamental Judaism and modern (as in 21st century) Christianity. While the culture around the Jews was quickly becoming Hellenistic, their religion and culture was being encroached on and, consequently, their attitudes changed over time. Some crippled under pressure and became as Greek-like as they could while still remaining privately “Jewish”, which raises the question “Were they even still Jewish?”. Others stuck to their religion and practice of Judaism as devoutly as they could, which eventually led to the Maccabean Revolt. In today’s society, it is easy to become comfortable in the secular world, while still remaining “privately Christian”. It is even possible to be a self-proclaimed public Christian, but still openly “worldly”. While this modern “Hellenization” is not as objective as Language, theaters and gymnasiums, the secular world is just as interested in being selfish, pro-violence and blasphemous.

    How do we handle this? Referring back to Daniel, after the Edict of Darius (Daniel 6), we see the oppression of Prayer and Worship, but Daniel did not hide his beliefs from the observant world, he continued his routine. Anything less than this devotion would be compromise. The same applies to 21st century Christians: anything less than complete devotion is compromise.

  12. There are two things that come to mind when I read this. the first thing that comes to mind while reading this blog is that the Jews in this time are kind of like the Christians in America. they fell like they must become hellenistic to better their way of life. Christians in America fit into what the world is doing and try to “get ahead” by fitting in with the world and being like them. This can be taken a couple ways. It can be seen as Christians trying to get close and bring them to Christ or they are “closet” Christians that are trying to fit in because they to not want to be singled out as a Christian. The second thing that comes to mind while reading this is that the Jews did not have much of a choice. They could have stood strong and stayed the way they were, but they were searching for ways to better their way of life and this came up so they took it and went for it.

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