Levels of Hellenization in the Second Temple Period

In my last post I commented that the issue in Second Temple Judaism was not whether a Jew would Hellenize or not, but the degree to which any given Jewish person might Hellenize.   John Barclay created something of a scale for evaluating  the literature of the Diaspora with respect to how “Greek” the writer thought  of himself.

In Barclay’s Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), he develops the following three criteria.  For each, there is a spectrum from the more “conservative” Jews who resisted Hellenization to the more “liberal” Jews who became a part of their culture:

Assimilation. How successfully has a Jew become integrated into the dominant culture?  At the low end, someone who stays within a Jewish neighborhood and has no contact with gentiles, in the middle, someone who has daily business contact with gentiles but maintains the “boundary markers”, at the high end Jews who have abandon those markers.  There are relatively few Jews at the high end, although some reversed circumcision or became a part of a pagan cult.

Acculturation. To what degree does a Jew internalize the dominant culture? At the low end, a Jew might have no knowledge of Greek, while in the middle of the scale there is a use of Greek and basic familiarity with Greco-Roman ethics and culture.  At the high end, a Jew who understands and uses the literature and rhetoric of the Greco-Roman world and has a mastery of the Greek language.

Accommodation. This measures the extent to which a Jew puts to use their acculturation.  At the low end, a Jew might reject Gentile culture entirely, while in the middle of the scale, a Jew might use the culture to express their own tradition, still maintaining the core values of Judaism.  At the high end, the Greco-Roman culture asserts itself over the Jewish way of life.

With these broad categories in mind, we might evaluate some of the groups which we encounter in the world of the Gospels.  The Essenes, for example, might be considered at the “low end” of assimilation and accommodation, especially if there is a connection with Qumran.  At least some Essenes seem to have separate from other Jews (the Temple establishment).  On the other end of the scale we can confidently place Herod and his family, and the the “Herodian” party.  Clearly a Jew like Agrippa I had no trouble being “Roman” and yet seems to have considered himself fully Jewish.

It is the middle range of the spectrum which is more difficult.  Typically the Sadducee is thought to be “more liberal” and the Pharisee “more conservative,”  but it is possible on this scale that the Sadducee was rather conservative with respect to assimilation since they are based in Jerusalem and maintained the traditions of Temple and purity.  On the other hand, Pharisees are found throughout the land, and some (like Paul) traveled to Hellenistic Synagogues in Damascus and Antioch.  While they are obviously concerned with purity, they likely engaged in commerce with Gentiles.

Barclay’s scale is also helpful for looking ahead to some problems which appear very early in the church, especially as Gentiles begin to come to faith.  A Gentile by default has some level of Hellenization, especially if he was a converted pagan!  How the early Christians assimilated, acculturated, or accommodated was a real problem in Paul’s churches, especially in Galatia and Corinth.

Finally — can these categories be applied to the present Church?  Can we learn from the past with respect to absorbing and using culture?  Is it always a good thing to be separate from the world?  Or, like the Jews we meet in the Gospels, is it the case that we cannot avoid some level of assimilation?

18 thoughts on “Levels of Hellenization in the Second Temple Period

  1. I believe that these categories can be applied to the present church and that we can learn from the past with respect to absorbing and using culture as well. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:31-33, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” Paul is not saying here that we should go out and start doing whatever we please and completely absorb ourselves in our culture. He is saying that we should obey the Lord’s commands and stay away from temptation, but if we, so to speak, were to go to our neighbor’s house and they were to offer you a drink, it is ok to partake in a glass so as to better witness to them. I’m not sure if this is making any sense, but I do believe that some level of assimilation is bound to occur. We should continue to obey, honor, and glorify God in all we do, but we should remain aware of the culture around us, so as to better witness to those within our culture.

    • I completely agree with Crystal’s interpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:31-33. Assimilation can be put into two different categories, either in a negative way or a positive. Both involve change in someway. The church can easily do this with almost every decision they make, because it depends on their intentions and actions. We need to stand out as Christ followers so that people can see the change in our life and want to follow our belief and way of life.
      Temptation is what I would say is the negative way of assimilation. It forces you to copy other people and their beliefs/actions but in a harmful way to you and to God.
      I like how Crystal finishes out her post by saying “We should continue to obey, honor, and glorify God in all we do, but we should remain aware of the culture around us, so as to better witness to those within our culture.” I think that sums up exactly what we need to do, especially in different countries.

  2. I agree with Crystal. Personally, I think that Paul’s form of acculturation (a foot in many different cultures) is a proper and effective way to view contemporary acculturation in regards to the church. This is why, as Crystal mentioned above about 1 Corinthians, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” This particular excerpt is a view into taking a relational approach to witnessing, and to cultural assimilation and adoption. To be diverse and versed in the multiple facets of ones culture is a solid way to establish credibility and rapport with the people being witnessed too. Paul was an outstanding example of this diversity, and he exercised it in his many endeavors in the name of Christ.

    • Crystal and Mat – you quote Paul as favorable to cultural assimilation. Do you think that he was more radical in his level of Hellenization than other groups like the Essenes, or even the other Pharisees?

  3. Obviously there is always going to be some assimilation! If you do not think so then look at the different cultures we have today. There is going to be no way for us, as Christians, to be completely separate from our world and culture. Furthermore, God never intended us to leave our world and become completely separate from society. In John 17:15 Jesus says: “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” If Jesus did not want God to take his followers out of the world then we should not strive to be completely separate of the world. Paul never wanted us to withdraw from the world, but he wanted us to be lights in this world.

    Also, if there was a way to be completely separate from the world, then we would see some communities that lived in different nations come to behave and believe and worship in the same way. They would be extreme, but they would fall into the same manner of worship. This simply does not happen. That is why when missionaries go to other cultures they have to get into the lives of that culture and find bridges that will speak to them.

    So the question is, how much do we assimilate and adapt to the culture around us? Crystal and Mat have made good points on the mentality that Paul had when dealing with the world around us. Paul equips us with a good arsenal of weapons to know how to behave in this world. In Galatians 5 Paul describes the acts of lawlessness and the fruit of the Spirit. In Ephesians 6 Paul gives us the Armor of God to put on in defense against the enemy. God wants us to be salt and light to this world (Matt. 5:13-16). We must uphold the standard that God has given us, but the way that it is seen in this world may vary from culture to culture and person to person. As long as we obey God, the way that we assimilate to our culture will vary.

  4. I touched on these topics in my response to the previous post and I am glad to continue this dialogue. I would like to focus on these two questions, “Is it always a good thing to be separate from the world? Or, like the Jews we meet in the Gospels, is it the case that we cannot avoid some level of assimilation?”

    I appreciate Brent’s final words, “We must uphold the standard that God has given us, but the way that it is seen in this world may vary from culture to culture and person to person.” We see example of this in Jesus’ interactions with roman culture. In Matthew 22, we see Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees disciples and the Herodians over the matter of taxes. Jesus said to them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). In this encounter, Jesus validates and affirms our responsibility to the state (a secular establishment). We see other examples of Jesus’ interacting with other cultures present throughout the gospels (Roman centurion, Samaritan woman, Pilate, etc). Jesus was a faithful Jew, as well as, one who interacted with different cultures, races, and practices found in our world. In order to live out the first and second commandment (Mark 12:29-31) we must learn what looks like to share life on this earth.

    • I agree with you Anna, but I want to draw a focus to the relational aspect of assimilation. Think of it this way. Paul was able to succeed in some situations primarily because of his ties, culturally, to different aspects of the world around him. For example, Paul was able to turn the outcome of a Riot and arrest of himself by Roman Guards because of his ability to relate to the Jewish crowd and because of his Roman citizenship. In a country like The U.S.A. the ability to relate to our fellows through nationality is big. It is that close tie, that shared commonality that, once again, gives us credibility and Rapport with our peers.

      I am inclined to say that being diverse and adaptable to ones surroundings is a key for successful witnessing and survival in an ever changing world. Traditionalism is almost obsolete because the lines between cultures are becoming more and more skewed as the worlds cultures age and bleed into one another.

      I firmly believe that because we are of the Kingdom of God that there are no divisions between our spiritual culture, and thus there should be none in our material world, whether that be culture or religion.

    • I agree Anna, Jesus’ example of how he interacts with other cultures and treats people who are not believers in him is a great example to us. And I think that in order to love our neighbor and fulfill that commandment it involves deliberate interaction and involvement in the lives of those surrounding us whether they are Christians or not. Sometimes the way we interact with non-belivers or the time we spend with them is looked down upon in the Christian circles we are in, but seperating ourselves from them is not the intended response at all. Truly loving often means being truley involved, and being truley involved can sometimes look like being of the world to other Christians. We must guard ourselves that we do not become caught up in the things of the world and value them above our relationship with Christ and obedience to Him, but we must seek to love those around us even at the coast of our reputation.

      • P-long for sure points out some very mind provoking questions at the end of his blog. In my opinion, as believers in Christ, we are not to completely shun ourselves of the world. It is without a doubt like Crystal said, these categories can most definitely be applied to our church today, especially assimilation. As Christians we are not to stay in our own little bubble and evade the numerous different cultures we have out there today. God has set a standard for us. He has called us to evangelize and be a witness to him. In Matthew 22 Jesus is interacts with the pharisees. In Matthew 22:37, Jesus says “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Paul is another great example of how we are to act as believers in Christ. I love what Matt said about how Paul took a relational approach to evangelism. Sure it is easy to get caught up into sin and temptation but God promises us one thing. 1 Corinthians 10:13 “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” It is so easy for Christians to get caught up in our own lives, in our own culture, that we forget what God desires for us. He wants us to step out of our comfort zone and interact the world. he does not want us to par take in the wicked things that are of this world but to be like Jesus and interact with the people of different cultures

  5. Being in the world but, not of the world is a hard concept to put into practice. My first thought is of the Amish and Mennonite communities of the U.S. they do not participate in many new technologies and social norms that are normal to the other Americans around them. They seem to be separate but, they are not totally separate. I can go to walmart and talk to a Mennonite or an Amish family. They are not completely cut off from civilization like the “low end” of the Jewish assimilation scale. If a person or group really wants to be separate the would have to move to another planet cut off from all communication. Without communication and outside relationships it is impossible to be able to do the things God call us to do in the Bible. Colossians 3 has been constantly ringing in my head for three years now. I think it provides one of the best way to separate from the world in the way God desires us to be. “Since, then you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, not on earthly things…. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, which is idolatry.” I am hoping this is the best way in my present situation that I can be in the world but, not of the world.

  6. I am surprised no one else made the “Mennonite or an Amish family” connection before this. There are some differences, of course, since Jews in the Diaspora could live in self-supporting communities where they could provide for their own food services. But in a modern, Christian context, these groups tend to be on the far in of the assimilation scale.

    If a Jew lived near Jerusalem, however, it was easy to keep the traditions because you were in a place where that was more or less accepted. Yet among the Temple administration we find people on the left of the scale, the power associated with the High Priesthood brought the leadership into contact with the Romans. I doubt they shared meals, but there was certainly a working relationship.

  7. P. Long, I don’t think that Paul is “pro-assimilation” as much as he is adept at utilizing his situation in life, conducive to his diversity in regards to personal culture. I believe that Paul is more “Pro – tradition” as he eludes to this calling himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews”. I would say that he is about on par with the Pharisees and Essenes. He embraces his diversity but I would be hesitant to say that he promotes the assimilation of oneself into other cultures. He (Paul) is more inclined to teach Traditionalism and the upholding of The Law, as opposed to embracing the Roman and Hellenistic culture around his target audience. This is hard to balance in opinion as his many journeys were to the gentiles and ministering to them. Any thoughts, opinions, or input?

  8. I was eating with a Mennonite yesterday, and he shared something interesting with me. He knew an Amish girl living with a Mennonite family for just one reason – only the German bible was allowed in her former household, which she could not understand very well. Whatever the rationale was behind this family’s reluctance to acculturate, I can’t imagine had much to do with an intimate relationship with God, at least from my worldview.

    Hearing this story raised a question to me – What is the intent behind our degree of assimilation/acculturation, and if this intent is anything other than following God – or the Law for Second Temple Jews – is it worthy to even lend consideration? From the Blomberg reading, I felt the intent behind the Jews reluctance to Hellenize was clear. If I was Second Temple Jew under Greek rule, Hellenistic customs contrary to my daily lifestyle could and often meant disobeying my God – Greek attire, Greek entertainment, Greek athletics and where and how they took place. Many of these Hellenistic elements could not be followed without direct conflict with my culture’s teachings on the right way to live.

    With an open-minded posture, the connections I feel toward contemporary application of the hellenization dilemma are minimal. As a West Michigan resident, if I wanted to adopt the culture of Barcelona, Spain, I predict there would not be many areas of spiritual/theological conviction or conflict to my humble CRC beginnings here in GR. My forest hills upbringing and subsequent lifestyle did not closely reflect , for better or for worse, my religious worldview like the Second Temple Jews. I feel like it is difficult to compare my personal assimilation/acculturation to the religious predicament described during the Second Temple Period.

  9. Assimilation can occur several different ways (conscious and sub-conscious). As previously stated by Jonathan and Mr. Long the Amish community is a great example on how some chose to not fully assimilate into the main culture. It is much harder not to assimilate when someone is constantly surrounded (main group). If I was a Jew and my community was full of Greeks who teased me and said I was different, I am sure I would start to change. The power of persuasion and peer influence is strong. Assimilation can only occur when there are influences. If one is never exposed how can they assimilate? As Christ followers we are still “of this world” (John 8:23). It is important to hold onto our faith and beliefs, but we are a part of a society. We should choose on a biblical basis and personal basis what to assimilate to, and be conscious of that.

  10. I do not think that it is good to be separate from the world, but in the world.
    John 1:9-11 says, “The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” Just as Christ was in the world, we are called to be in the world as well. After all, if we as Christians are not in the world, then how are we supposed to tell others about Christ? As Christians we need to do the opposite of what the Jew did in assimilation, just staying in their own neighborhood, bubble, and comfort zone. Christ was the opposite of what the Jew did. He did not just associate with the Jews. Luke 19:10 says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” That is exactly what we as Christians are called to do.

  11. Can we learn from the past with respect to absorbing and using culture? Is it always a good thing to be separate from the world? Or, like the Jews we meet in the Gospels, is it the case that we cannot avoid some level of assimilation?

    I do believe we can learn from the past with respect to absorbing and using culture. i think its important in todays time we are aware and open to other cultures because its how we can learn and see another point of view outside of our own or respective religion. i don’t think its always a good thing to be separate from the world. this is where we live, we don’t have another option of where to go yet. To better understand and live cohesively i think being seperate from the world will cause anger by other groups. it comes down to the individuals involved, i believe doing what you feel is right and God will guide you.

  12. While I do agree with some assimilation of culture, there was a time when hellenization was too much. We should be inspired to learn others culture but we shouldn’t have to if we don’t want to. I understand that this may not be a popular viewpoint but we shouldn’t force our culture onto others. With saying this, we also shouldn’t just bask and be absorbed into our own culture. So, in some ways hellenization was a good thing. As many have stated before me, Crystal made a very good point. We shouldn’t just start doing whatever we please because we will be absorbed into ourselves. To some degree, we should have a limitation, but forcing culture upon others is not the way to go.

  13. It is always so striking to me the similarities that existed for the Jews and early Christians to us now in the modern world. Very little of our cultures are the same from then to now, but the problems that they encountered are often a debate in our own churches and communities. Romans 12 tells us to not be conformed to this world. Just like the Jews struggled to live amongst the Gentiles and the early Christians struggled with adopting former pagan practices, we find ourselves constantly battling what the world is doing and what we are called to do by God. In 1 John 2:17 says, “The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (NIV). We concern ourselves greatly with fitting in and not drawing attention to ourselves by the way that we dress, our hair, and how we act, but as Christians were not called to act like the world. We are called to first do the will of God.
    I think that in some ways, assimilation into the dominant culture is inevitable and part of me believes that is alright to a degree. In the Great Commission we are called to go into all the world and make disciples. If we go into a new country and dress a certain way and are immediately offensive to someone else, how might the Gospel be received? Am I losing my culture if I dress differently in order to be well received? For me this is not a big deal, but for others it may be a deal breaker in whether they want to hear the Gospel. I believe it is important as Christians to not view American culture the same as Christian culture. They are not the same even though they are often treated that way.

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