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.