Hellenization and the Jewish Diaspora

From 336-323 Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world.  The empire extended from Greece to Egypt, and as Far East as Babylon and parts of India. Alexander believed that Greek culture was superior to all other cultures, so forced all captured peoples to become Greek. Tomasino refers to Alexander as a “Greek missionary” (109). Hellenism refers to the adoption of Greek culture by non-Greeks (either by choice or by force). But For the most part, cultures captured by Alexander adopted Hellenistic culture and often saw the advantages of speaking the Greek language.


Judith did not Assimilate

For Jews living in the Diaspora, there was a struggle to maintain some distinctive markers of their Jewish faith and practice, but also engage the culture of their new communities. Some Jewish practices were considered strange at best by the Gentile majority, and perhaps even dangerous to the health and prosperity of the city. If, for example, the Jews do not honor the patron gods of the particular town, and that town experiences some natural disaster, it is easy enough to blame the Jews for not worshiping the gods or participating in public festivals honoring divine civic patrons.

John Barclay suggested the level of Hellenization in Diaspora Jewish communities appears on three levels.

Assimilation.  How successfully has a Jew become integrated into the dominant culture?  On 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” and 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 (such as Philo and Josephus, perhaps we can add Paul and perhaps Luke here).

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 Jewish practice (the aristocratic priests in Jerusalem, perhaps). On the other end of the scale would be the Essenes or the Zealots in the middle of the first century A.D.

This struggle to maintain cultural boundaries against the overwhelming force of Hellenism is the “plot” of most of the Second Temple Period.

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. How the early Christians assimilated, acculturated, or accommodated was a real problem in Paul’s churches, especially in Galatia and Corinth.

Can these categories be applied to the present Church? The struggle to maintain distinctive beliefs and practices in an overwhelmingly pagan culture sounds quite a bit like today’s news. 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?



Bibliography: John Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora from Alexander to Trajan Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996.


20 thoughts on “Hellenization and the Jewish Diaspora

  1. There is most definitely a line that should be drawn when it comes to the present church “assimilating” into culture and society…what the Jewish people were experiencing with the introduction to living in a dominantly Greco-Roman society is quite comparable to what the church faces today. Just as there were Hellenizers who desired or followed through with adapting to the norms of a Greco-Roman lifestyle, there are Christians today (in this example, Hellenism can be compare to dominate western culture in general) who might find it “beneficial” if you will, to submerge themselves within the culture, believing A). that they can bring people to know Jesus by breaking down a barrier or demeanor that they believe to be “self-righteous” or “unauthentic”…or B). they no longer believe in traditional or conservative norms that the church practices today. On the low scale this might look like swapping the church organ with a keyboard. On the medium/high scale this might look like an “organic” church that meets in a bar on Tuesday nights. There also is a minority of modern day philo-Hellenists…I would consider these individuals in today’s society to be individuals who believe in blending church and culture completely (these individuals are also referred to as postmodernists)…on a high scale this could look like altering fundamentals in the Christian faith (devaluing the deity of Christ, the oneness of the trinity, etc). The biggest difference today being that obviously today we are not under the Mosaic Law but saved by grace, meaning that the level in which one breaks tradition (or a religious act) is judged differently. Related to that is this: because of our personal salvation we are judged individually, rather than God judging his chosen people as a unit or a whole based on the faithful acts or evil that they do.

  2. Bingo again for taking on a critical subject too often largely ignored. Again I must refer to some of the scholars who are not in the orthodox or Evangelical mainstream. That is where one can find things not at all likely to be found in evangelical scholarship or those tied mainly to biblical scholarship and/or theology, without due attention to broader history and to comparative religion, anthro, etc.

    And again, Burton Mack, coupled with Jonathan Z. Smith, is a very important “breakthrough” scholar who developed “social interest theory” out of his depth biblical scholarship combined with the interdisciplinary work led particularly by Smith. “Who Wrote the New Testament” by Mack, even if one does not agree with his premises or conclusions, holds a wealth of insights into the kinds of issues you are raising. I’m reading it again for at least the third time. It is that packed that it’s impossible to retain most of it in even a couple readings.

    Whatever is unique in social interest theory is not the main point here… it’s the background knowledge and insights leading to more real reconstruction of Christian origins and development of Paul’s theology, and it relative to that of the Jesus movement(s), particularly that of the Apostles in Jerusalem and James, who was NOT an upper case “Apostle”.

    • I think Barclay’s rubric is helpful for the Second Temple period in general, but the characters in Acts in particular. James would be on the far right end of the scale (as little accommodation as possible), Paul would be towards the left since he targeted Gentiles to come to faith in Jesus without respect to the Law. But there were others who were further to the left than Paul, since someone was “sinning so that grace could abound.”

      • Indeed, others were “left” of Paul. And then some who are hard to understand and categorize, showing both Jewish/Palestinian connections and Greek ones. Main biblical example is Apollos and some of his followers, and probably a wider group – Followers of John the Baptist. Acts 19 (and another place or two, I think) makes some puzzling statements about their understanding and experience of baptism, no knowledge of a “holy spirit”, etc. Apollos from Alexandria, Egypt… so
        John’s influence had spread there, probably among the large Jewish population there… but it almost seems that of Jesus had NOT… most interesting!

  3. There is an overwhelming amount of circumstances that the Jewish people had to go through that can be applied to the struggles of the present church today. In Jewish culture, there were significant hardships relating to the succumbing of surrounding beliefs and communities. It seems as if some Jews integrated into the Greek culture on different levels. In regards to assimilation, some Jews completely isolated themselves from Gentiles; however, the diverse culture had to affect the Jews partially even if it was not purposeful. Acculturation consisted of when Jews would internalize surrounding cultures, but not necessarily act out on them. I think there are a lot of similarities with the present day church with this example. Often at times, the church will internalize worldly ideas and thoughts simply because they are so present in our society. The Jews were able to stay close to their faith in God despite the even changing culture; however, is the church holding on to true and absolute faith in today’s day and age? I think many Christians struggle with the assimilation of modern day ideas and practices. We often tend to feel more comfortable “blending in” with the sinful culture, rather than be seen as distinctively different as a Christian. However, it is essential to find a balance between living in a sinful culture without letting it effect our core beliefs. We can learn so much by looking at how Jewish culture dealt with similar situations.

  4. I think that these principles can be applied to the present church today; the pull and pressure that the Jews must have faced when it came to being surrounded by those around them being Hellenistic can be applied to Christians today. How often to we as Christians, feel the pull to sin or go against what we believe just because those around us are doing it? John 15:19 says, “If you belong to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” Some other Bible verses to look at are: 1 John 4:5, Romans 12:1-2, and 1 John 2:15-16. It can be hard sticking to your beliefs but we need to remember that we are to be examples and to set ourselves apart from the world. Just like the Jews, some Christians who are more ‘conservative’ have nothing really to do with what goes on in the world (i.e. fashion trends, T.V. shows, music, etc.), while others are more lenient towards those things.

  5. While the Jews began to get overwhelmed by Gentiles in regards to their religion, many Jews had to make a decision in regards to what to do with their faith. However, a very important question was asked in this forum that I would like to discuss which was, “Is it always a good thing to be separate from the world?” To answer this question, I do think that it is ok to be separate from the world as long as your living under the standards God has deemed you to live (Joshua 1:9). God’s standards and morals in my opinion are the sole way to live life and not by the means of worldly and cultural ideals and values. In regards to the situation that the Jews were in, while they may have been surrounded by Gentiles who were very discriminatory in many of their Jewish practices (or even Jews in general) I do think that if one were convicted enough they could maintain there faith. However: though, it’s hard to overlook the fact that assimilation, accommodation and acculturation would have been hard to overcome as Jews were now the minority. As well as the fact that even if one were convicted wholeheartedly enough to their Jewish faith, that anything that went against the great and mighty Alexander the Great and (most people throughout the East considered Alexander the Great a “God”) could may as well cost them their life (Tomasino 113).

  6. The main struggle for the Jews was how to maintain cultural boundaries against the overwhelming force of Hellenism during the second temple period. Like what was stated in a previous post: “The Jewish people experienced dramatic changes in their social, religious and political life” (Tomasino, 49). Everything they have ever known had been changed. I believe that Barclay’s level of Hellenization in Diaspora Jewish communities can be applied to the modern day church, as they have very similar struggles. Present day, many Christians have a hard time maintaining the balance between being integrated into culture yet remaining steadfast to their beliefs and practices. Using the Jews as an example, we can learn what NOT to do. But in regards to the question of: “Or, like the Jews we meet in the Gospels, is it the case that we cannot avoid some level of assimilation?” I strongly believe that it is inevitable that an individual will land somewhere on the level of assimilation.

  7. This question in what to do with the foreign culture was one that both was taxing and yet all to familiar to God’s people. We see the Jewish people return from exile into a new world run by greek values, greek men, and greek gods. On one side when the the Jews were in exile God told them in Jeremiah 29 eat what they produce all but to forgot who you are in the land. Now the balancing act of how to be a Jew in the homeland when you are surrounded and controlled by the ones who are unclean was a tough thing to do, but it could be done. Much like when the radio was invented and churches lined up to call it of the devil when all it was really as people missing out on reaching people with a new way of things. It is the fear of missing out and the fear of new things that have made us irrelevant to the cultures around us to long, and the same would be said of the Jews who would run away from all forms of greek life.

    • I don’t know how literally you meant the “… return from exile into a new world…” but historically, it would be more than another two centuries before Alexander expanded the Greek civilization into their region. Not that similar issues were not in play, but certainly not the wide-spread and more philosophically and linguistically diverse culture of Greece and its “Hellenization”. Within several decades of Alexander, the powerful reaction of Jews led to the Maccabean revolt… seems they were not willing to be overly “assimilated” nor ruled. Similar thing with the Romans in 66-70 AD. Then again, for the final time, in 132-135, after which they were completely barred from Jerusalem.

  8. The three aspects listed provide an interesting way to think about how one culture mixes with another. Myself I would lean towards middle assimilation, interacting with but not becoming worldly; high acculturation, knowing all that one can know about the culture that surrounds you; and middle accommodation, using acculturation in interactions but not in your personal life. As my basis for this I would cite Romans 12:2 telling us not to conform to the world, and 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 which is Paul saying how he became like those he was with to witness to them. This concept may have been rather foreign to the Jews because they didn’t seem to realize their role as a light to others. Given that the best Jewish thing to do would be to be the least assimilated, accultured, and accommodating as is possible while surviving in a Hellenized world.

  9. When Alexander first came into power, he was convinced, like all Greeks, that the Greek way of life was the superior and he wanted to bring his customs into the East in order to enlighten people in the East. Although that was his original goal, he quickly fell in love with the East’s customs for instance, Anthony Tomasino said in his book, Judaism Before Jesus, “…once he tasted its fruits, the mysterious East cast its spell over Alexander” (109). Alexander wanted to merge his homeland with that of the East. He went as far as making eighty noble Macedonian men marry Persian women.

  10. The dilemma presented by the pagan culture that surrounded Jewish traditions in the second temple period was overwhelming. Hellenism wasn’t just the spread of Greek culture, it was an intentional effort to permeate all culture with Greek standards and practices. There was immense pressure to conform and participate in these practices, along with benefits for becoming a part of this culture. Barclay’s scale provides an excellent tool for examining the Jews’ involvement in Greek culture. In particular, the Corinthian Church displayed the types of problems that surfaced in light of this combination. Throughout the book of 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses a series of problems occurring in the Church in Corinth, including sexual immorality, Idolatry, Lawsuits and other issues. While the individual believers were responsible for their own wickedness, the problems showing up in the Church were clearly related to pagan culture bleeding into the Christians’ lives. Interestingly enough, the solution to the problem that Paul presents is not a complete removal from pagan culture, but rather a reminder of the standard that believers are held to in Christ.

  11. The background of intense Hellenization I think puts an interesting light on the struggle of works (such as circumcision) in the early church. For a long time, the really “good” Jews have been trying hard to not conform too much to the Greco-Roman culture and remain faithful to the law. But when Christ rose from the dead and the gospel starts to spread, all of a sudden Paul starts teaching that you do not have to be circumcised. Now the church has to figure out how to reconcile the old ways, of resisting Hellenism and clinging to the Law, with this new “liberal” Christianity.

  12. As is often the case, the plight of the Jewish community bears applicability to our modern lives as Christians in the post-Christian western culture. Trying to decide when, how, where, and to what extent we engage culture is a slippery slope. In my mind, it largely depends on the person, but anytime we resort to relativism is dangerous, especially in matters of faith. One important passage that relates is Romans 14:13. In this passage, Paul states “Therefore, let us not pass judgment one one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother”. Rather than constantly debating what is right for us to do on a personal level in regards to cultural engagement, we should look at the people around us and see how it affects them.

  13. If there is any representation of the actions that had to be taken against enforcement OR the struggle of constant strife against opposing religions, Judith’s actions definitely take the cake. As the caption of the photo said, she did not assimilate. Because of the enforcement and dramatic actions taken, I cannot metaphorically gesture with my arms through typing as to how significant this was to the Maccabean revolt. How else would we fight against those who seek to oppress them? Behead them, of course.

    The problem with Hellenism is how it was enforced, not necessarily the concept of greek culture itself. (Though admittedly I get all “angsty teen” mode when the topic of Hellenism comes up because of Alexander’s egoism towards Greek culture and how, of course everyone should adapt to Hellenism because nothing is better than Greek culture itself. Grr, grr.) With that being said, however, in proposition to the end question, accommodation should be used as fitting into our surroundings with our own beliefs like puzzle pieces. Assimilation is a choice, sure, but I believe accommodation enables us to live in peace with people different than us. Which, guess what, one way or another, is everyone. The problem with Acculturation is that it is often internalized, other than that I can argue against it no further.

    These are methods of adjustment the church often ignores, which unfortunately leads to a general disregard for those outside of it.

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