Between Alexandria and Antioch
Jews and Judaism in the Hellenistic Period
Leonard J. Greenspoon
Alexander the Great's arrival in the east in 333 BCE—along with hordes of Macedonians and Greeks whose cause he was championing—had a major impact on subsequent developments for the Jews, as for countless other peoples. But it is important not to overemphasize the extent of Alexander's impact. Greeks and other Westerners had been traveling through the east, primarily as traders and mercenaries, for centuries before the great Macedonian warrior launched his army. The interests of such individuals undoubtedly ran more in the direction of popular rather than high culture, but their cumulative influence was considerable. At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the complex of cultural, economic, philosophical, religious, and social factors called “Hellenism” reached some groups, such as city-dwellers and some artisans, before others, and it penetrated such geographical areas as the Mediterranean coast and major cities more rapidly than it did other, more rural or remote places. For these reasons we have to nuance statements about the spread of Hellenism.
Modern interpretations of this era are frequently colored by their authors' views of Hellenism, especially in comparison with the monotheistic faith of Israel. Those who evaluate Hellenism positively tend to see its encounters with Judaism, at least initially, as a coming together of forces that could have produced a reinvigorated and strengthened faith, better able to face the realities of the new world. Those for whom Hellenistic incursions into Jewish religious life and culture represent a clash of incompatible systems, however, tend to limit the degree of Greek influence among those Jews who represented the best of their inherited tradition. In large part, these judgments by modern historians mirror opinions expressed by ancient writers: in the last few centuries before the Common Era it was difficult to be neutral on the issue of Hellenistic influence within the Jewish community, both in Israel and in the Diaspora.
As bearers of the only pre-Christian monotheistic tradition, Jews had often faced extinction by more powerful polytheistic peoples. The Bible is filled with accounts of such clashes; some the Israelites overcame, others temporarily overwhelmed them. In that sense the attractions, as well as the perceived dangers, of Hellenism were no different from Israel's earlier experiences with Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians.
But in a larger sense Hellenism posed a unique challenge. It incorporated a world-view and way of life that appeared to avoid the excesses and unacceptable features of earlier outsiders' religions and cultures; at the same time it offered elevated concepts that would join Jews to the rest of the culturally and economically advantaged of the known world. As a result, this period saw unprecedented ruptures that pitted group against group, even among the priestly families. This is easy to chronicle, but more difficult to evaluate. In any case, the world of Judaism in 63 BCE was a very different place than it had been three centuries earlier, when Alexander appeared on the scene.