Judaism and Hellenism

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History and Religion of Ancient Israel: The Second Temple Period Research Paper
April 23, 2012

In the Mediterranean and Middle East before the Common Era stood two cultures deep in their ways of living. The Greeks and Jews both held rich traditions and with their collision after the expansion of Alexander the Great’s Empire, change was on its way. For the Jews, this was a familiar sight, since they were conquered and ruled by the Egyptians and Babylonians before. These Greek and Macedonian rulers held lands far vaster than any other ruler before this time. The Jewish lands along the Eastern Mediterranean were a small nation and the Hellenistic world views held a significant impact on a people secure in their beliefs. The Jews of this time kept their identity while at the same time assimilating to a changing world. Hellenistic changes in Judaism appeared in all the key cities within the Middle East. Cities such as Alexandria, Babylon, Antioch, Ephesus, and Jerusalem held a tremendous difference in Hellenistic Judaism practices at this time. Assimilation did not occur within a day or a summer though but thru generations. For example, a Jew in the next generation Hellenized Palestine might see himself speaking Greek and thus practicing more pagan rituals. For these people assimilation did not seem so radical since it happened extremely slowly over years, but still the Jews kept their identity. The Jews kept their community and culture as one. Jews assimilated to Hellenistic ways in literature, language, historiography, philosophy, art, and religion. They did so to keep up with a changing world where Hellenism was the ascendant position in the known world. To understand Hellenization in the Middle East, one has to go back to the Persian Empire which stood before Alexander’s Empire. The Persian Empire was in place for about two hundred years and had control over a territory that included India, Ethiopia, Turkey, and all of the Middle East. From the Persian Empire, the Israelites in Palestine adopted the language called Hebrew from the Canaanites. This language was used by the Persians for administrative purposes, so the Jews used it. The language became holy. Alexander’s Conquest over the Persian Empire was the beginning of the Hellenistic age. When Alexander died in Babylon in three hundred and twenty three BC his generals separated what was the Persian Empire into two distinct parts. In Egypt, the Ptolemies took charge, and in the east from Syria the Seleucids ruled. The Ptolemies conquered Jerusalem, also known as Palestine during the time, in three hundred and twenty BC and ruled for about a hundred years. Under the Ptolemies, the Jews were not allowed to elect a king, but they still were able to choose a high priest of their own. Palestine itself was the boundary between the Ptolemies and Seleucids. In two hundred and one BC, the Seleucids conquered the Ptolemies and immediately began aggressively Hellenizing the Jews. The Seleucids stayed in power until about one hundred and forty BC when the Maccabees succeeded. Within these two Kingdoms, Greek customs spread far and wide. Trade was in full effect at this time and with it a variety of languages. The Greek language was being used by traders on the Middle Eastern Coast before Alexander even reached the shore. After Alexander’s death, Hellenism took effect on the upper classes in the Middle East. Alexander wanted his fellow Greeks to integrate and marry with the conquered people. He even allowed people of the Middle East to settle back in the home province of Greece and Macedonia. As time passed the Jews learned Greek, and preferred more Hellenistic names. For example, a boy named Joshua might now be Jason, or Mathew would now be Menelaus. Cities names also changed, examples being Akko to Ptolemais and Amorah to Ariopolis. The Jews also built gymnasiums, and participated in Olympic Games. Greek became the administrative language after Alexander. They were...
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