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.
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.