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HELLENISM and JEWS (1 of 6)

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Hellenism and Jews

Assimilation versus Conservatism | The Septuagint, Greek Translation of the Torah | The Maccabaean Revolt | Pharisees and Sadducees | Loss of independence to Rome | Essenes, Herods, John the Baptist

Assimilation versus Conservatism

Some Jews were developing an interest in things Greek, to the annoyance of those who believed that the old ways were best. From Marseille to India, Greek had become the language of intellectuals and trade. The Greek gymnasium, a place for bathing and physical exercise, had become popular. Contact between the Jews and peoples around them had increased, beginning with people in the military colonies Alexander had established at Samaria and Gaza.

The armies of Alexander's successors frequently passed back and forth across Judah, or Judea as those speaking Greek called it. And there Jews were taken as slaves. Some of Judea's young men joined the invading armies as mercenaries, and some became soldier-colonists – mainly for Ptolemy. After Judea came under the rule of Ptolemy, many Jews emigrated to Egypt, especially to Alexandria. Some others migrated along the Mediterranean and Black Seas and settled in Asia Minor.

Ptolemy interfered in Judea's affairs more than had the Persians. His tax collectors were more prevalent, but he allowed the Jews the same freedom of worship and autonomy they had enjoyed under the Persians. Judea's Jews continued to be governed by their High Priest and Council of Elders, and most Jews continued to worship Yahweh.

In Jerusalem a Greek-style amphitheater and gymnasium were built. Many were attracted by the excitement of athletic games and tournaments. There were Jews who admired Greek education, Greek schools and libraries. Some found wisdom in Greek philosophy, significance in Greek logic, and beauty in Greek art. Many Jews adopted Greek dress. Many who traveled had a Hebrew name for use within their community and a Greek name for contacts with others.

Influenced by Hellenism, Jews began giving titles and honors to women. They tolerated the mixed marriages that Ezra had forbidden, and some Jews abandoned circumcision, restrictions on foods and other laws that their Hellenized neighbors thought barbaric.

A few Jews decided that people everywhere worshiped the same god under different names and that religions could therefore be united. Some others decided that Yahweh (Jehovah) was not just the god of the Jews but the god of the whole world. Some of these Jews wanted to convert non-Jews to their god. And in places outside Judea, where Jews and gentiles spoke Greek, some curious gentiles came to Jewish synagogues, listened, and were converted to Judaism – a part of the cultural diffusion in the world that had been and would continue to be common.

Some Jewish writers in Egypt wished to instill in their fellow Jews a pride in their Jewish heritage, to counter a sense of cultural inferiority. Near the end of the 200s a Jewish scribe named Demetrius wrote a work describing Judean kings, and he tried to prove that all of Jacob's many children could have been born within seven years. Other Jewish writers attempted to describe Jewish culture as the oldest in the world and the Jews as teachers of other peoples rather than having been influenced by others.

Aramaic remained the language of most Jews, in Judea and Mesopotamia. More diffusions were occurring. Greek translations of Persian made Zoroastrian ideas more accessible to Jews. Jews made an effort to preserve Hebrew as their main language for literature and religious gatherings. Jewish scribes writing in Hebrew were adopting Greek literary forms, and they were borrowing concepts that were not commonly known to Jews before Hellenization.

Around 150 BCE a writer named Eupolemus wrote that Abraham was one of those who had survived the flood, that it was Abraham who had built Babylon, that Moses was the world's first philosopher, and that Moses had invented letters and had taught the Greeks.

Around 100 BCE, a Jew named Artapanus wrote a book titled On the Jews in which he asserted that Moses had originated Egyptian civilization and had taught the Egyptians worship of the bull-god Apis and the bird-god Ibis. Another scribe, named Cleodemus (or Malchus), asserted that two sons of Abraham had joined the mythical Greek hero Heracles (Hercules) on his expedition into Africa and that Heracles had married the daughter of one of the sons.

A few Jews argued that if there were gods, the gods didn't care. The devout countered with the claim that Yahweh cared but that he worked in ways that were mysterious to people because mortals were limited in their understanding of Yahweh's labors, and they argued that eventually the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked punished.

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