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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.



Israel from the Rise of Hellenisim TO 70 ce

Lester L. Grabbe

The Hellenistic and Roman periods belong to what is often referred to as the ‘Second Temple period’. This is a self-contained historical era marked off by the Exile at one end and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE at the other. The Jews of the Second Temple period neither inhabited the world of the Israelite and Judean monarchies nor practised the religion of the rabbis. The Second Temple period began with the Persian empire (c.539–331 BCE), which ended with the conquest of Alexander. It is often assumed that a major break came about in Judaism with the coming of the Greeks, but recent study shows that the situation is more complex than that. First, many of the innovations that characterized Second Temple Judaism had their origins in the Persian period (though often continuing to develop in the Greek and Roman periods). Secondly, the Greeks added a new element to the culture, but the native cultures continued to flourish. This will be discussed in more detail below.

Some object to using the term ‘Israel/Israelites’ to refer to the Jews in the Second Temple period, as well as ‘Jews’ (or ‘Judaeans’ or the like). The term ‘Israel’ had originally belonged to the Northern Kingdom that came to an end about 722 BCE. Yet the literature of the Hebrew Bible, as well as early Jewish literature, often refers to the Jews by the designation ‘Israel’. It is thus clear that at least some Jews—if perhaps not all—thought of themselves as Israelites. One should note, however, that this was purely an internal designation. No outsiders refer to Judah or the Jews as Israel until at least as late as Pompeius Trogus at the turn of the Common Era (apud Justin, Historiae Philippicae 36, Epitome 2. 3–4; he represents the origin of the Jews as from Damascus, one of whose kings is said to be Israhel). Yet even Trogus uses the common term ‘Jews’ for the people of his time, not Israel. The term ‘Israelite’ was apparently used in pre-Christian Graeco-Roman sources only to refer to members of a community on Delos associated with the cult on Mt Gerizim, i.e. the Samaritans.

After two centuries of Persian rule, Alexander's army invaded Asia in 334. Older works often assumed that the Macedonian conquest changed the ancient Near East irrevocably, with Hellenization subjugating the old Oriental cultures, but recent study has refuted this (Kuhrt and Sherwin-White 1987; Sherwin-White and Kuhrt 1993). Things did change under Greek rule—naturally—but changes had already occurred under earlier conquerors such as the Assyrians and Persians, and the developments under Greek rule were often long-term ones. Particularly important, though often overlooked, was the extent to which the conquered Near Eastern peoples and traditions transformed the habits and way of life of their Greek conquerors. Much that is characteristic of the Hellenistic kingdoms which arose in the wake of Alexander's death represents not the city-states of the classical Greek but a continuation from the old Near Eastern empires: the government was located primarily in a monarchy, which governed a large empire rather than a small city-state; private citizens were concerned mainly with private or local affairs, rather than with the politics of the state; members of the army and administration were usually professionals; and even the arts and sciences became the concern mainly of professionals (though often under royal patronage). Thus, the Orientals may have become Hellenized, but it is equally true that the Hellenes were Orientalized.

The Jews were as much affected—and unaffected—as other Near Eastern peoples. The idea that there was a natural antipathy between Hellenistic culture and Judaism has long since been dismissed (e.g. Tcherikover 1959; Hengel 1974), though one still reads such statements. Jews generally took the view that participation in Hellenistic religions was incompatible with Judaism, and our sources are firm in showing that few crossed this line. But educated Jews in an urban environment, with some wealth, evidently found Hellenistic culture attractive. Jews in the Greek diaspora generally spoke Greek as their first language and knew little or no Hebrew. The book of 1 Maccabees was quickly translated into Greek (with the Hebrew original lost), and 2 Maccabees was written in Greek. Ben Sira's grandson translated his work into Greek. But the earliest major ‘Hellenization’ project was the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek in the middle of the third century BCE (Fernández Marcos 2000; Dines 2004).

As with other Near Eastern peoples, the Jewish influence from and adoption of Greek customs and culture varied greatly within the community. Those living on farms and in villages probably saw their way of life little changed and continued to speak the local language. Indeed, within the Hellenistic empires the local languages (Babylonian cuneiform, Egyptian demotic, Aramaic) continued to have an important place in administration and the legal sphere. But even at lower levels, a knowledge of the Greek language would have been useful, and at higher levels it would have been essential. Already in the first part of the third century we find Jews in the administration making use of Greek, even if it was possibly via a secretary. To repeat: the Jews were as much, and as little, Hellenized as the other native peoples in the Hellenistic empires.

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