Background to the Gospels: Part 2 – Hellenism

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?

14 thoughts on “Background to the Gospels: Part 2 – Hellenism

  1. The Jews seemed to lose much of their identity with the spread and acceptance of Hellenism. But, as the conquered people, what were they to do? Some embraced it as a good thing while the more conservative factions feared for their distinctiveness as God’s chosen people and witnessed the compromise by the upper classes. The upper class did not want to be viewed as “barbarians” but they did want to be seen as “citizens of the world”. The Hasidim or “pious people” decided that they wanted nothing to do with a Hellenistic culture and hence the time was ripe for what would become the “Maccabean Revolt”. The final straw came when Antiochus Epiphanes or “manifest one” vented his anger by “looting the temple, destroying the city walls, and killing thousands of citizens” (Strauss pg. 101). With the desolation of the temple came the revolt led by Judas “the hammer”. Israel faced many dark days staying committed to their God and seeing that their ancient faith would prevail no matter the conquerors. This should encourage us as Christians not to “give up our faith” for the culture that surrounds us. Stay faithful and true to the living God knowing that we are in the world but not of it.

  2. The inevitably effective process of spreading Hellenistic Culture which took place during the reign of Alexander (334-323BC) and continued following his death led many people groups to a decision of adopting the new Greek culture or holding fast to their own. Due to the universal nature of the spread of the Hellenistic culture, many people could not get by without adopting it in some form. The question that arises from this predicament is, “To what extent is it permissible for the Jews to adopt or conform to the culture?” In his book Four Portraits One Jesus, Strauss addresses the inescapable conflict that ensued among the Jewish people saying, “While all of Judaism became Hellenized to one degree or another, this clash of cultures inevitably produced conflict” (Strauss 97). Some had stronger convictions than others, leading to varying levels of remaining loyal to the Jewish culture. This predicament seems very prevalent in our world today as Christians living in a sinful and depraved world. To what extent will we be a part of the world, and to what extent will we remain loyal to Christianity? Jesus commands us to “Be in the world, not of the world” (Rom 12:2). During his time on earth, he was continually reprimanded by the Pharisees for associating with sinners. From the adulterous woman (John 8) and the deceitful tax collector (Luke 19) to the prostitute who washed his feet (Luke 7), Jesus was very clearly in the company of the world. The important distinction to be made is that He was among sin, yet without sin. His moral values were upheld. He stooped down to serve and to save a lost and depraved people, yet he upheld his standards and the things most important to him. Often it is difficult to find the balance of being in the world and not of the world. Another verse that comes to mind is, “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor. 15:33b). My conclusion is that being intentional about surrounding ourselves with a solid group of believers who will hold us accountable and will encourage us in the faith will allow us to also be in the world and minister to unbelievers without faltering in our moral standards. Thus, could the Jews adopt the Hellenistic Culture and still be in God’s favor? If their moral standards are upheld, then I believe so.

  3. Could they uphold their moral standards and be in the world, the Hellenistic world they were subdued by? When the laws of Judaism are so opposite from the carelessness of Hellenistic Culture that was now the embraced norm how could one remain truly faithful to their culture? They can’t, in a full sense. Their culture they wanted to cling to was bound to sacrifice something by the Greek, future Roman, influence ripping them away. Just as Christians deal with today, it is nearly impossible to not let culture have a negative impact or take away from your devotion to God. Because on top of the cultural promiscuity, we are also fallen depraved humans who sin regardless. That said, a Jew not being able to keep every one of his cultural rituals doesn’t mean that he could not be in God’s favor. The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18 comes to mind in that a sinful Tax Collector who humbles himself will go home justified before the Pharisee who fasts twice a week and tithes of all he gets. Of course, the solution would not then be to adopt Hellenism freely and embrace it as well, for clearly that was not what God wanted for his people. But, to live in the culture and be as Jesus was, in it not of it, is the solution. The problem then would be for those that didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah because they didn’t consider that example divine. They had to choose which parts of their culture to give up and which parts to keep that were vital to their identity in the God of Israel. This was inevitable. As far as the Septuagint goes, regardless of exactly what was taken away from the holiness of the original text, it allowed far more peoples to hear and read the word of God and was able to be used as a “powerful apologetic tool for the early church” (Strauss 99). To read and study the Septuagint instead of the Hebrew as a Jew, I think, was permissible. Though there is value, in my eyes, of learning and studying the Hebrew.

  4. The clash between the fast spreading Greek culture and the deeply rooted Jewish culture in the first century raises a lot of questions about conformity and how Christians are to respond to the culture around them. I think it is helpful to look at the New Testament background plot to see how that clash was represented and how it was handled by different groups of people. There were also different perspectives concerning the age they were living in. “Thus, whereas the Romans had what we might call a retrospective eschatology, … the Jews cherished and celebrated a prospective eschatology, looking forward from within a decidedly ungolden age.. (Simply Jesus p. 32 )” I find it interesting that the same kind of perspectives are found today, where Christians are still looking forward for Christ’s return and many others are claiming that we as humans have already progressed and continue to progress. I think it is dangerous for believers to be conform to that kind of culture or perspective because just like the Greek culture, it may undercut some of the core beliefs of Christianity. In a culture centered around the self, Jesus’ teachings about loving others more than yourself would not make sense. Ultimately, we should remember that we have been redeemed by God and are citizens of Heaven, not earth. (Phil 3:20). I don’t think that means we exclude ourselves from the world around us, but it centers our minds on Christ. I think Paul is a good example in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, where Paul says he makes himself all things to all people in order to bring others to Christ. Obviously he draws the line on what to be involved with, but he also is in the world to spread God’s kingdom.

  5. As Christians I believe we are called to have interaction with the world we live in, as stated above it is impossible not to. Although this world is full of evil and corruption connection with it is necessary, many Christians build barriers around themselves with friends, family, and routines. These people do not have the opportunities to share their faith, and give the excuse of not having opportunities. On the other side of the spectrum there are people that immerse themselves in the secular world and fall into sin, swept away with the temptation that they preached against. I believe that interaction should be practiced to the point of opportunities to build relationships with unbelievers, but not so far that it corrupts the believer’s life. People have different strengths and weakness if you are a recovering alcoholic, walking into a bar to share your faith is probably not a good idea. People are built differently and with different strengths. The example of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the Bible remind me of many people who are so deeply rooted in the rules and regulations that they do not look past that tattoos on people skin. They Judge immediately and dismiss interaction with that person at all. How is the body of Christ supposed to make disciples of all nations and bring the Gospel to every corner of the earth, when they aren’t even willing to associate themselves with their next door neighbors? The Background plot of the New Testament helps with this struggle of balance; many Jews embraced the Hellenistic reform as good change while many shunned it. Loss of tradition can be a bad thing, but it should not get in the way of the people. It comes down to the attitude, if you have ever had the opportunity to meet sik, they would treat you with utmost respect and hospitality they would not condone your religion. They would only ask you to accept theirs as well. Radical Islam on the other hand demands that all unbelievers, “infidel”, must be punished. The attitude of a Christian needs to be that of balance, involvement with and unbeliever that is healthy, on both sides of the relationship.

    • I agree with Scott when he talks about the need for interaction in the world but not fully being in the world. It is important that as Christians we influence the world as much as it influences us. Instead of building barriers, we should have open arms and show love. Being in the world but not of it is a key thought to remember. Hellenism was not accepted by Jesus but he did not turn from caring about those who were in that view either. There is a helpful guideline in the New Testament. Be accepting and be influential.

  6. It is important to note that society is constantly changing. We cannot expect for the world to conform to our Christian faith. We are all given the choice whether or not to believe. It was the same for the Jews. During Alexander’s rule there was a spread in Greek language and culture called Hellenization. The Jews had a choice whether or not to keep their beliefs and practices. They had a choice whether to be different from others or to conform to Hellenization. It is the same for today’s culture. Christians have a choice whether to treasure earthy possession, fall into sin, and temptation. It is important for Christians to have a presence in the world because who else is going to love to others? Christians should be apart of the world but not conform to the world. Meaning that Christians should not hide their faith but live it out and show others about the powerful story in the Bible.

  7. I think it is important to use this to be able to apply it to our lives today. Just as you mentioned, P. Long, this is a question that has been ongoing, and will continue to be asked. We all want to know how far we are able to step out and “conform” without crossing the line and “straying away from God.” It is hard to be completely separate from culture, and I do not feel that we are supposed to be. How else can we be an example to the world if we are not in it at least a little bit? And because this is something that Jesus never discussed directly, I do not feel that it is something that we should dwell on. As long as we keep Christ in the center of our lives and in everything we do and every decision we make, I believe that we will stay on the right track and have the wisdom in situations to know whether or not we are influencing or being influenced.

  8. Hellenism always intrigues me. This is the 3rd class I have taken where Hellenism is mentioned, and it is so interesting how much the Greek (and later the Romans) were dominating the Jew’s. I see many similarities in today’s society, how many Christians try to be as worldly as possible, yet still claiming the name of Jesus. Romans 12:2 as mentioned by Maggie already are one of the scriptures that we sometimes take out of context to apply to what I want to call “modern day Hellenism”. I think Scott had a really great post explaining everything, but I question the part where he mentions attitudes. I see where he is coming from and how he takes his approach of judgment. And he made a good point about having a balance, but I think as a Christian, even though situations arise where balance needs to be found, I think conforming to the world or Jews conforming to hellenism is going against the Gospel and how we and they should share the Gospel. I think Paul and his journey, how he conformed to Christianity and then continued to live according to how Jesus taught is one of the best examples for us now. Hence the “Grace Church-Paul” view and how GBC and Berean churches always seem to follow Paul almost as much if not more than Jesus and his teachings.

  9. Alexander the Great’s legendary thirteen year reign resulted in an “empire stretching from Greece to Egypt in the south and India in the east” (Strauss 96). He effectively influenced the nations he conquered with the Greek culture. It’s interesting to note that the Jews appeased this ruler by giving no resistance. This resulted in a degree of independence, allowing temple worship (Strauss 96). It is evident they made a sacrifice so that they could hold on to what is most valuable to them. The Greek culture was obviously very appealing to many Jews. The entertainment aspect included theatrical plays and gladiator’s fighting against wild animals like a lion in a Colosseum that seated fifty-thousand people. Not only was Greek entertainment attractive, but the language became the ‘trade and diplomatic language’. Throughout the Roman empire this is the language people spoke, so it made it difficult for Jews to ignore that. But like many things the world has to offer, Christians need to find a happy medium, a balance. In Western culture it is the norm to watch movies and television with friends and family. It is vital to note that this form of entertainment should only be used in ways that are pleasing to God. And in today’s culture that is becoming progressively more difficult to do. Just as Romans 12:1-2 states we need not to conform to the ways of the world, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds. We need to live our lives in a way that is holy and pleasing to God. We need to seek God’s will in every decision we make, whether it is small or big. I believe it was alright for Jews to conform to some of their culture, as long as it was pleasing to God. I think this same idea is applicable to the Western culture and a Christian today.

  10. As I was reading Strauss when the book went over Alexander and his pushing Hellenism so much, I couldn\’t help but think of technology. Technology is such a hit or miss discovery, it can be used for great causes (online Bible, sermons, etc) or for the complete opposite (Christianity bashing, destruction of image and worst of all, corruption.) It\’s hard to draw a line as to how far one can go with anything without completely disregarding one\’s own culture and morality. And since the New Testament was during that Hellenism period, it offers great insight and background to how the Jews back in the day were able to resist abandoning their beliefs and adopting the Greek way of living, since it was like the technological age that we live in today.

  11. I believe that with Hellenism or Judaism or Christianity or Buddhism or Sikhism or Celtic paganism you honestly have to abide by a theoretical law, one that is usually right whenever discussing both ends of the spectrum, the “Law of Balance”. Meaning that with anything you might want to accomplish/believe at the sake of others, do it with a equal attempt at every aspect of it; unless there is an aspect that is foul or contaminated going against what you want to accomplish/believe. With my Christian belief where it stands today, I know what I would being accepting( doing for the sake of) of in another religion, and I know exactly what I wouldn’t believe. Jewish culture even at the time of Hellenism to me shouldn’t have been so totally rejecting of the Greek culture. Was it all honestly so bad in the individual aspects of it? Would it have helped the Jewish people, in their eventful history that they’ve had, if they would have done so? To me the Jewish people in a way seem very stubborn and unwilling to change(a lot of people are), as though they have it all figured out. On the other side of things I really commend them for making the mark of standing inside there Jewish Culture. I know that some Jew’s are more extremists than others, the others are more culturally accepting. So I we are still left with the question: does the background plot of NT help us with this struggle today? I believe yes it does.

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