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?