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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Conclusion

We began this chapter by articulating the view that the Hellenistic world is a difficult but rewarding period to write about. Many of its primary characters, both historical and fictive, passionately embraced the positions they held and invested their actions with universal, if not cosmic, significance. The very future of the Jewish people, of the Jewish state, of the Jewish god seemed to be at stake. When viewing such events centuries later, it is perhaps wisest to be as dispassionate as possible, recognizing that subjectivity neither can nor should be entirely eliminated. Is it not best to remain neutral?

And yet we feel impelled to state our position. A creative and mutually beneficial synthesis between Judaism and Hellenism was not only desirable, but possible; not only possible, but attainable; not only attainable, but attained. Much of the Jewish-Greek literature we have examined, both that originally composed in Greek and that translated from a Semitic language into Greek, achieved a high level of cultural, artistic, and aesthetic synthesis. The same is true in the realm of architecture. This was not the old-time religion of previous eras, but neither was it a diluted form of the tradition.

With these thoughts in mind, we may look at one other biblical book from the Hellenistic period, Qoheleth, or Ecclesiastes. Its very name is an enigma, but it apparently refers to an individual who calls others together in solemn assembly. In the first chapter the author is identified as David's son, whom we understand to be Solomon. The entire linguistic and literary structure of the work makes it clear that it originated not in the tenth century BCE, in the days of the United Monarchy, but in the Hellenistic age. The author of Ecclesiastes did not intend to confuse anyone with this designation; rather, he was emphasizing the role of tradition in this most untraditional book. Through its chapters almost every mainstay of tradition seems to be rejected: the very value of life, not to mention ritual and social norms, is questioned, weighed, and found wanting. Everything is transitory, and death is seen as part of the problem and not the solution. This author shows an openness to all sorts of concepts, images, and experiences. At the same time, he evinces little desire to reconcile the contradictions that are part of his thinking and most likely of his life.

In many ways, “Ecclesiastes” speaks for the Hellenistic Jew, who seeks to synthesize the variety of stimuli to which he has been exposed. At the same time, his readers are alerted that all Jews must go on their own quest. He recognizes that the end results of these quests will not be equally satisfying when strictly viewed from the norms of tradition. But he and his audience lived in an age when life's largest questions had no single answer and tradition was only one of several authorities that could be appealed to. Go your own way, experience life fully, remember your roots, make God your master. This is the contradictory, but surprisingly appealing, advice Qoheleth imparts to his readers and to his fellow Jews with whom he shared the Hellenistic age.

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