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

The Graeco-Roman Cultural Context

From Hellenistic times onwards, Judaism in both the Land of Israel and the Diaspora developed in an environment which was heavily influenced by Graeco-Roman culture and adapted to it in various ways. From the time of Alexander the Great's conquest of Palestine and other parts of the Near East onwards (332–1 BCE), Jews were exposed to Hellenistic material culture, literature, cultic practices, education, administration, morality, and ideas. There was no unanimous rejection or acceptance of the ‘foreign’ culture by the Jewish community at large. One rather has to reckon with a very variegated selection and adaptation of particular elements by individual Jews, families, and the residents of a particular place. In the past, scholars have sometimes tried to minimize the impact of Graeco-Roman culture on Judaism (see Feldman 1993). Others have shown that Jews and Judaism in both the land of Israel and the Diaspora were thoroughly Hellenized, and that the difference was only a gradual one (see Bickerman 1988; Hengel 1991; Goodman 1998; Gruen 2002).

Martin Hengel has presented the Jewish encounter with Hellenism as the basis and background for the development of early Christianity. Certain ideas and elements associated with early Christianity were already part and parcel of Hellenistic Judaism before Christianity emerged. Whereas Hengel's notion of Hellenistic Judaism's influence on early Christianity is valid and constructive, his stark contrast between the universalism and liberalism present in Hellenistic Judaism and its successor, early Christianity, on the one hand, and the allegedly exclusivist and narrow-minded Pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism of Roman Palestine, on the other, is not. Hengel argues, for example, that the ‘profound transformation’ of Palestinian Judaism in the Hellenistic era did not affect the ‘hardened’ stance of Hasidic, Pharisaic, and rabbinic Judaism which focused on Torah observance only. Christianity is presented as the ‘new force which burst the framework of a nationalistic legalism which had grown too narrow with its prophetic and eschatological appeal’ (1991:309). Hengel's depiction of rabbinic Judaism must be seen as a caricature, which is not based on a close reading and understanding of the rabbinic sources themselves.

Rabbinic literature shows that the rabbis of the first five centuries were constantly exposed to and challenged by the dominant Graeco-Roman culture (see Alexander 1990 and the studies collected in Schäfer 1998 and 2002 and Schäfer and Hezser 2000). They did not live in a separate enclave which left them entirely unaffected by what was happening in society at large; rather, they participated in and constantly interacted with their more or less Hellenized Jewish and non-Jewish contemporaries. This interaction has left many traces in rabbinic sources. Rabbis used Graeco-Roman loan-words and literary forms (see Lieberman 1962 and 1965). Their legal thinking resembled that of Roman jurists in many regards (see Hezser 1998 and 2003). They discussed the religious permissibility of visits to Roman theatres and bathhouses and were aware of the widespread usage of pagan art (see Jacobs 1998 a , b, and 2000; Neusner 1991). Some rabbis were in favour of giving their children a Greek education (see Hezser 2001: 90–4). The very phenomenon of the sage resembled the role and function of the pagan holy man and Graeco-Roman philosopher in many regards (see Fischel 1973: p. xii; Hezser 2000: 162–6). In the following, these analogies will be elucidated in more detail.

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