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Hellenistic Judaism was a form of Judaism in classical antiquity that combined Jewish religious tradition with elements of Greek culture. Until the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the early Muslim conquests of the eastern Mediterranean, the main centers of Hellenistic Judaism were Alexandria, Egypt and Antioch (now in southern Turkey), the two main Greek urban settlements of the Middle East and North Africa area, both founded at the end of the fourth century BCE in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Hellenistic Judaism also existed in Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period, where there was conflict between Hellenizers and traditionalists (sometimes called Judaizers).
The major literary product of the contact of Second Temple Judaism and Hellenistic culture is the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible from Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic to Koine Greek, specifically, Jewish Koiné Greek. Mentionable are also the philosophic and ethical treatises of Philo and the historiographical works of the other Hellenistic Jewish authors.
The decline of Hellenistic Judaism started in the second century and its causes are still not fully understood. It may be that it was eventually marginalized by, partially absorbed into or became progressively the Koine-speaking core of Early Christianity centered on Antioch and its traditions, such as the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch.
The conquests of Alexander in the late fourth century BCE spread Greek culture and colonization—a process of cultural change called Hellenization—over non-Greek lands, including the Levant. This gave rise to the Hellenistic period, which sought to create a common or universal culture in the Alexandrian empire based on that of fifth-century Athens, along with a fusion of Near Eastern cultures. The period is characterized by a new wave of Greek colonization which established Greek cities and kingdoms in Asia and Africa, the most famous being Alexandria in Egypt. New cities were established composed of colonists who came from different parts of the Greek world, and not from a specific metropolis ("mother city") as before.
These Jews living in countries west of the Levant formed the Hellenistic diaspora. The Egyptian diaspora is the most well-known of these. It witnessed close ties, indeed the firm economic integration, of Judea with the Ptolemaic Kingdom ruled from Alexandria, and the friendly relations which existed between the royal court and the leaders of the Jewish community. This was a diaspora of choice, not of imposition. Information is less robust regarding diasporas in other territories. It suggests that the situation was by and large the same as it was in Egypt.
Jewish life in both Judea and the diaspora was influenced by the culture and language of Hellenism. The Greeks viewed Jewish culture favorably, while vice versa, Hellenism gained adherents among the Jews. While Hellenism has sometimes been presented (under the influence of 2 Maccabees, itself notably a work in Koine Greek), as a threat of assimilation diametrically opposed to Jewish tradition,
Adaptation to Hellenic culture did not require compromise of Jewish precepts or conscience. When a Greek gymnasium was introduced into Jerusalem, it was installed by a Jewish High Priest. And other priests soon engaged in wrestling matches in the palaestra. They plainly did not reckon such activities as undermining their priestly duties.
The main religious issue dividing Hellenized Jews from traditional Jews was the application of biblical laws in a Hellenistic (or Roman or other non-Jewish) empire.
Under the suzerainty of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and later the Seleucid Empire, Judea witnessed a period of peace and protection of its institutions. For their aid against his Ptolemaic enemies, Antiochus III the Great promised his Jewish subjects a reduction in taxes and funds to repair the city of Jerusalem and the Second Temple.
Relations deteriorated under Antiochus's successor Seleucus IV Philopator, and then, for reasons not fully understood, his successor Antiochus IV Epiphanes drastically overturned the previous policy of respect and protection, banning key Jewish religious rites and traditions in Judea (though not among the diaspora) and sparking a traditionalist revolt against Greek rule. Out of this revolt was formed an independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonean dynasty, which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE. The Hasmonean Dynasty eventually disintegrated due to civil war, which coincided with civil wars in Rome.
The Hasmonean civil war began when the High Priest Hyrcanus II (a supporter of the Pharisees) was overthrown by his younger brother, Aristobulus II (a supporter of the Sadducees). A third faction, consisting primarily of Idumeans from Maresha, led by Antipater and his son Herod, re-installed Hyrcanus, who, according to Josephus, was merely Antipater's puppet. In 47 BCE, Antigonus, a nephew of Hyrcanus II and son of Aristobulus II, asked Julius Caesar for permission to overthrow Antipater. Caesar ignored him, and in 42 BCE Antigonus, with the aid of the Parthians defeated Herod. Antigonus ruled for only three years, until Herod, with the aid of Rome, overthrew him and had him executed. Antigonus was the last Hasmonean ruler.
The major literary product of the contact of Judaism and Hellenistic culture is the Septuagint, as well as the Book of Wisdom, Sirach, apocrypha and pseudepigraphic apocalyptic literature (such as the Assumption of Moses, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Baruch, the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch, etc.) dating to the period. Important sources are Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus. Some scholars consider Paul of Tarsus to be a Hellenist as well, even though he himself claimed to be a Pharisee (Acts 23:6).
Philo of Alexandria was an important apologist of Judaism, presenting it as a tradition of venerable antiquity that, far from being a barbarian cult of an oriental nomadic tribe, with its doctrine of monotheism had anticipated tenets of Hellenistic philosophy. Philo could draw on Jewish tradition to use customs which Greeks thought as primitive or exotic as the basis for metaphors: such as "circumcision of the heart" in the pursuit of virtue. Consequently, Hellenistic Judaism emphasized monotheistic doctrine (heis theos), and represented reason (logos) and wisdom (sophia) as emanations from God.
Beyond Tarsus, Alexandretta, Antioch and Northwestern Syria (the main "Cilician and Asiatic" centers of Hellenistic Judaism in the Levant), the second half of the Second Temple period witnessed an acceleration of Hellenization in Israel itself, with Jewish high priests and aristocrats alike adopting Greek names:
'Ḥoni' became 'Menelaus'; 'Joshua' became 'Jason' or 'Jesus' [Ἰησοῦς]. The Hellenic influence pervaded everything, and even in the very strongholds of Judaism it modified the organization of the state, the laws, and public affairs, art, science, and industry, affecting even the ordinary things of life and the common associations of the people […] The inscription forbidding strangers to advance beyond a certain point in the Temple was in Greek; and was probably made necessary by the presence of numerous Jews from Greek-speaking countries at the time of the festivals (comp. the "murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews," Acts vi. 1). The coffers in the Temple which contained the shekel contributions were marked with Greek letters (Sheḳ. iii. 2). It is therefore no wonder that there were synagogues of the Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, Cilicians, and Asiatics in the Holy City itself (Acts vi. 9).
Their efforts were probably facilitated by the arrival of a fourth wave of Greek-speaking newcomers to Cilicia/Southern Turkey and Northwestern Syria: Cypriot Jews and 'Cyrenian' (Libyan) Jewish migrants of non-Egyptian North African Jewish origin, as well as gentile Roman settlers from Italy—many of whom already spoke fluent Koine Greek and/or sent their children to Greek schools. Some scholars believe that, at the time, these Cypriot and Cyrenian North African Jewish migrants, such as Simon of Cyrene, were generally less affluent than the autochthonous Cilician-Syrian Jews and practiced a more 'liberal' form of Judaism, more propitious for the formation of a new canon:
[North African] Cyrenian Jews were of sufficient importance in those days to have their name associated with a synagogue at Jerusalem (Acts 6:9). And when the persecution arose about Stephen [a Hellenized Syrian-Cilician Jew], some of these Jews of Cyrene who had been converted at Jerusalem, were scattered abroad and came with others to Antioch and [initially] preached the word "unto the Jews only" (Acts 11:19, 20 the King James Version), and one of them, Lucius, became a prophet in the early church there [the nascent Greek 'Orthodox' community of Antioch].
But Paul, himself a relatively 'liberal' Hellenist convert to Christianity, was later threatened by more religiously conservative Jewish Hellenists as seen in the New Testament Acts 9 verse 29: "And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him."
These subtle, progressive socio-cultural shifts and tensions are somehow summarized succinctly in Chapter 3 of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.
The reasons for the decline of Hellenistic Judaism are obscure. It may be that it was marginalized by, absorbed into, or became Early Christianity (see the Gospel according to the Hebrews). The Epistles of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles report that, after his initial focus on the conversion of Hellenized Jews across Anatolia, Macedonia, Thrace and Northern Syria without criticizing their laws and traditions, Paul the Apostle eventually preferred to evangelize communities of Greek and Macedonian proselytes and Godfearers, or Greek circles sympathetic to Judaism: the Apostolic Decree allowing converts to forego circumcision made Christianity a more attractive option for interested pagans than Rabbinic Judaism, which required ritual circumcision for converts (see Brit milah). See also Circumcision controversy in early Christianity and the Abrogation of Old Covenant laws.
The attractiveness of Christianity may, however, have suffered a setback with its being explicitly outlawed in the 80s CE by Domitian as a "Jewish superstition", while Judaism retained its privileges as long as members paid the fiscus Judaicus.
The opening verse of Acts 6 points to the problematic cultural divisions between Hellenized Jews and Aramaic-speaking Israelites in Jerusalem, a disunion that reverberated within the emerging Christian community itself:
it speaks of "Hellenists" and "Hebrews." The existence of these two distinct groups characterizes the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem. The Hebrews were Jewish Christians who spoke almost exclusively Aramaic, and the Hellenists were also Jewish Christians whose mother tongue was Greek. They were Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora, who returned to settle in Jerusalem. To identify them, Luke uses the term Hellenistai. When he had in mind Greeks, gentiles, non-Jews who spoke Greek and lived according to the Greek fashion, then he used the word Hellenes (Acts 21.28). As the very context of Acts 6 makes clear, the Hellenistai are not Hellenes.
Some historians believe that a sizeable proportion of the Hellenized Jewish communities of Southern Turkey (Antioch, Alexandretta and neighboring cities) and Syria/Lebanon converted progressively to the Greco-Roman branch of Christianity that eventually constituted the "Melkite" (or "Imperial") Hellenistic churches of the MENA area:
As Jewish Christianity originated at Jerusalem, so Gentile Christianity started at Antioch, then the leading center of the Hellenistic East, with Peter and Paul as its apostles. From Antioch it spread to the various cities and provinces of Syria, among the Hellenistic Syrians as well as among the Hellenistic Jews who, as a result of the great rebellions against the Romans in A.D. 70 and 130, were driven out from Jerusalem and Palestine into Syria.
Both Early Christianity and Early Rabbinical Judaism were far less 'orthodox' and less theologically homogeneous than they are today; and both were significantly influenced by Hellenistic religion and borrowed allegories and concepts from Classical Hellenistic philosophy and the works of Greek-speaking Jewish authors of the end of the Second Temple period before the two schools of thought eventually affirmed their respective 'norms' and doctrines, notably by diverging increasingly on key issues such as the status of 'purity laws', the validity of Judeo-Christian messianic beliefs, and, more importantly, the use of Koiné Greek and Latin as liturgical languages replacing Biblical Hebrew...etc.
The word synagogue itself comes from Jewish Koiné Greek, a language spoken by Hellenized Jews across Southeastern Europe (Macedonia, Thrace, Northern Greece), North Africa and the Middle East after the 3rd century BCE. Many synagogues were built by the Hellenistai or adherents of Hellenistic Judaism in the Greek Isles, Cilicia, Northwestern and Eastern Syria and Northern Israel as early as the first century BCE- notably in Delos, Antioch, Alexandretta, Galilee and Dura-Europos: because of the mosaics and frescos representing heroic figures and Biblical characters (viewed as potentially conductive of "image worship" by later generations of Jewish scholars and rabbis), many of these early synagogues were at first mistaken for heathen Greek temples or Antiochian Greek Orthodox churches.
Many of the Jewish sages who compiled the Mishnah and earliest versions of the Talmud were Hellenized Jews, including Johanan ben Zakai, the first Jewish sage attributed the title of rabbi and Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes, the son of Proselyte Anatolian Greek converts to Early Rabbinical Judaism.
Even Israeli rabbis of Babylonian Jewish descent such as Hillel the Elder whose parents were Aramaic-speaking Jewish migrants from Babylonia (hence the nickname "Ha-Bavli"), had to learn Greek language and Greek philosophy in order to be conversant with sophisticated rabbinical language – many of the theological innovations introduced by Hillel had Greek names, most famously the Talmudic notion of Prozbul, from Koine Greek προσβολή, "to deliver":
Unlike literary Hebrew, popular Aramaic or Hebrew constantly adopted new Greek loanwords, as is shown by the language of the Mishnaic and Talmudic literature. While it reflects the situation at a later period, its origins go back well before the Christian era. The collection of the loanwords in the Mishna to be found in Schürer shows the areas in which Hellenistic influence first became visible- military matters, state administration and legislature, trade and commerce, clothing and household utensils, and not least in building. The so-called copper scroll with its utopian list of treasures also contains a series of Greek loanwords. When towards the end of the first century BCE, Hillel in practice repealed the regulation of the remission of debts in the sabbath year (Deut. 15.1-11) by the possibility of a special reservation on the part of the creditor, this reservation was given a Greek name introduced into Palestinian legal language- perōzebbōl = προσβολή, a sign that even at that time legal language was shot through with Greek.— Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (1974)
The unique combination of ethnocultural traits inhered from the fusion of a Greek-Macedonian cultural base, Hellenistic Judaism and Roman civilization gave birth to the distinctly Antiochian “Middle Eastern-Roman” Christian traditions of Cilicia (Southeastern Turkey) and Syria/Lebanon:
"The mixture of Roman, Greek, and Jewish elements admirably adapted Antioch for the great part it played in the early history of Christianity. The city was the cradle of the church".
Some typically Grecian "Ancient Synagogal" priestly rites and hymns have survived partially to the present, notably in the distinct church services of the followers of the Melkite Greek Catholic church and its sister-church the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in the Hatay Province of Southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Northern Israel, and in the Greek-Levantine Christian diasporas of Brazil, Mexico, the United States and Canada.
But many of the surviving liturgical traditions of these communities rooted in Hellenistic Judaism and, more generally, Second Temple Greco-Jewish Septuagint culture, were expunged progressively in the late medieval and modern eras by both Phanariot European-Greek (Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople) and Vatican (Roman Catholic) gentile theologians who sought to 'bring back' Levantine Greek Orthodox and Greek-Catholic communities into the European Christian fold: some ancient Judeo-Greek traditions were thus deliberately abolished or reduced in the process.
Members of these communities still call themselves "Rûm" (literally "Roman"; usually referred to as "Byzantine" in English) and referring to Greeks in Turkish, Persian and Levantine Arabic. In that context, the term Rûm is preferred over Yāvāni or Ionani (literally "Ionian"), also referring to Greeks in Ancient Hebrew, Sanskrit and Classical Arabic.
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