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?

Political Background to the NT: Hellenization

In his Jesus and The Gospels, Craig Blomberg observes that there are key socioeconomic and political developments which are foundational”  “an understanding of [these developments] is essential to a correct interpretation of the situation of the Jews in the time of Jesus” (10).  Blomberg is correct and most Bible readers have a general idea of what the religious landscape was like in first-century Judaism.  I also  happen to think most Bible readers have a skew view of Second Temple Period Judaism (at best).  More on the religious backgrounds in my next post, for now, I want to tackle Blomberg’s first observation, that political changes in the world have made a major impact on the Jewish world, especially in Galilee in the late 20s A.D.

After the fall of Jerusalem, Judah lost her national identity.  The nation became a rather insignificant part of the Babylonian and Persian empires.  After Alexander, the territory was  significant strategically to the both Seleucid and Ptolemaic hopes of regaining an empire.  Rome controlled the region after 63 B.C., but it was not a particularly rich, and therefore not important to them as long as the region kept up on their taxes.  The Jewish people lived virtually everywhere in the Roman Empire.  Many of these Diaspora Jews would not even consider Judea their home.  They were now Romans, or residents of Ephesus, or citizens of Tarsus.

From the time of Alexander, the Jewish people struggled with how much Greek culture they would accept without considering it a compromise of their religious beliefs.  This  process of Hellenization happened wherever the Greeks went, although there was far less conflict outside of Judea.  But it is important to understand that this was not either / or issue for the Jews in the second century B.C.   Everyone adapted to Greek culture in some way, the only question was how far to allow a Greek world view to overwhelm a Jewish world view.  As an example, in the mid second century B.C., the Greek language was nearly universal even among the Jews.  A solidly Jewish book like 1 Maccabees was composed in Greek.  Sirach represents the height of wisdom literature and was translated into Greek at this time.  Most important, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek.  This was not done for missionary reasons, so that pagans could read the Jewish scriptures – a new generation of Jews spoke and read Greek as their first language and Hebrew was unknown to them!  Even in the first century Jerusalem, a Greek-speaking synagogue existed for Diaspora Jews worshiping in Jerusalem!

Why would occupied territories Hellenize? The primary motivation was upward mobility.  The Greeks needed local administrators, they needed people who knew the local culture and language, but also were “acceptable” to the Greeks.  The more could communicate in the Greek language and present oneself as a Greek, the higher in the political and economic structure one might rise.  This is the “plot” of the intertestamental period – how will the Jews react to this new culture imposed form the outside by foreign occupiers.  There will be some Jews who are as completely Hellenized as possible, yet others will resist and cling to Jewish traditions.

There is an obvious application to contemporary American / western Christianity, which is probably why I find the Second Temple period so fascinating!

All this social and political data brings us around again to the question of religion.  If a person could “be a Jew” and not live in the Jewish homeland, what exactly is it that sets them apart as a Jew?  In the next post, I will begin to explore some of the beliefs and practices which defined “Judaism” in the first century.