Background to the Gospels: Part 2 – Hellenism

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A second important element for the background of the Gospels is the pervasiveness influence of Hellenism after Alexander the Great. Hellenism refers to Greek language and culture, and as Mark Strauss comments in Four Portraits, “Alexander’s enduring legacy for New Testament background is his promotion of the process of Hellenization” (96). After Alexander everyone in the Near East were in some respects “hellenized.” They spoke Greek, Greek fashions were dominant, certain features were expected in “Greek cities” (gymnasiums, theaters, etc.)  If a city or region rejected these sorts of things, they were considered backwards.  To be “Greek” was be a citizen of the world.

The struggle against Hellenism is the “plot” of the intertestamental period – how will the Jews react to this new culture imposed by foreign occupiers?  How can one keep “Jewish Traditions” in a world which is increasingly Greek (or later, Roman)? There will be some Jews who are as completely hellenized as possible, yet others will resist and cling to Jewish traditions.  These were factors which led to the Maccabean Revolt in 165 B.C. as well as the Jewish Revolt against Rome in A.D.66.

There are several indications that many Jews accepted Greek culture. Jews with Greek names are common. The most obvious example is that of Onias II and his brother Joshua. This priestly family battled for control of the high priesthood in the years leading up to the Maccabean revolt. Joshua took the Greek name Jason and attempted to re-found Jerusalem as a Greek city, complete with a gymnasium near the temple.

In reaction to growing Hellenism, the Hasidim, or “pious people,” did not want to have anything to do with Greek culture.  They believed that Jewish culture was from God and that anyone that adopted Greek ways was committing idolatry and apostasy. This conservative movement will develop into the “parties” of the New Testament period including the Pharisees, Sadducees and the Essenes.

These problems did not end when Rome absorbed Palestine into the empire. Some Jews had no problem with the Romans. Herod the Great, for example, was more Roman than Jewish. The Sadducees could work with the Romans to maintain power in Jerusalem. The question was not “should we Hellenize,” but “how far can we Hellenize and remain loyal to God?” For example, everyone spoke Greek, if you wanted to communicate to the culture around you (sell your goods, travel, etc), Greek was unavoidable. But is it permissible to study the Hebrew Bible in a Greek translation? There were many Jews who did not speak or read Hebrew, the only way to hear God’s word was through the Greek translation (the Septuagint).

In the background of the whole New Testament is a struggle between conforming to a foreign culture (Greek, Roman) and clinging tenaciously to the boundary markers of Judaism (Sabbath, circumcision, food traditions, monotheism). What I find interesting is that Jesus never rejects these boundary markers and they rarely come up in his teaching. He has some rather pointed criticisms of the Pharisees and their Sabbath and cleanliness traditions, but he does not reject Judaism in favor of Hellenism.

There is the same sort of struggle Christians have in a contemporary setting. We cannot avoid the world; even the Amish interact with non-Amish world! But how far that cultural engagement can go without destroying the core values is always one of the main topics of discussion for the Church. Does the background plot of the New Testament help with this struggle?