Flying High since 1998.

Hellenism Meets Judaism

by Lewis Loflin

Israel had been under Persian rule from 520 B.C.E. until Alexander the Great defeated them in 332 B.C.E. The close, friendly relationship with Persia had lasted for 188 years. Alexander died soon after the conquest of Persia; his empire fell apart and was divided between his bickering generals. One part would become Ptolemy Egypt, the other Seleucid Syria. Israel was caught not only in a power struggle between the two Greek powers, but a culture war within itself.

The Galilee had been seized from the Syrians and itself forcibly converted to Judaism only around 103BC, the Maccabees viewing this as a rightful restoration of part of the ancient kingdom of Israel, wiped out by the Assyrians six centuries earlier. This forced conversion also occurred in the south with Idumeans and Arabs.

1 and 2 Maccabees were removed by Protestants but retained by Catholics and the Orthodox. As stated in the New American Bible, this war of independence wasn't just about foreign rule, but about those Jews embracing Hellenism. In reality Maccabees is more about a civil war between Orthodox and Hellenistic Judaism. There never was a single Judaism in the 1st century as Christians try to pretend.

In particular educated Jews were attracted to Greek language, philosophy, science, and astrology. They wanted to join the rest of the world and go beyond the cloistered and isolated world of Orthodox/Pharisee Rabbis. They wanted to join the Greek world; the Maccabees victory in 129 put a check on the advance of Hellenism.

But outside Israel in the Diaspora the opposite happened. Jews weren't under the control of the Temple. They didn't isolate themselves from the world and they sought converts. This is why once Christianity obtained political power in the Roman Empire conversion to Judaism became a death penalty.

Many pagans were attracted to Judaism for its moral values on family, social welfare, and monotheism of a caring God. Jews assimilated Greek science, reason, philosophy, and language into a more universal vision of One God.

They were so successful that by Jesus' time the Roman Empire had between 8-10 percent of the population was Jewish. In Alexandria a city of one million, there were 300,000 Jews. Only two million Jews lived in Israel, five million outside including over a million in Babylon alone. They were causing real fears for both the Romans and later Christians.

It's theorized by Leeds scholar Hyam Maccoby that Rome triggered the Jewish revolts in 68 and 135 (Bar Kochma Revolt) as an excuse to crush Judaism, I question this myself. Judaism was a protected and recognized faith in the Roman Empire. Christians later outlawed conversion to Judaism and stripped Judaism of its legal status after they gained control. There were a lot of Jews in Arabia and Persia before being exterminated by Islam.

For more on this fascinating subject, read the book The Sacred Chain, the History of the Jews by Norman F. Cantor.

Rome had defeated the Maccabees in 63BC and returned much of Samaria to Syria now itself under Roman control. The Galilee was left under Hyrcanus II, whom the Romans demoted from king to 'ethnarch.'

Herod was another problem. His first act as governor was to crush a band of Jewish nationalists fighting to reclaim some of their lost territory east of Galilee. Their leader Hezekiah was executed, Herod efficiently hunted his followers down. He also faced down the Jewish court in Jerusalem when they accused him of executing Jews without a trial.

Herod maintained this ruthless grip on power with the help of a secret police force. Those who caused trouble quietly disappeared. Herod (or his family) was a convert to Judaism and hated for it.

But after Herod's death this same Hezekiah's son rose up for a long-delayed revenge and captured (briefly) the Galilean capital of Sepphoris from Herod's son Antipas. Roman troops from the north razed Sepphoris.

Israel, Judah 129BC to 25AD

Sepphoris is very important to Jesus. Only about three miles from Nazareth, the city was rebuilt between 10-30 C.E. Here would be steady work for a carpenter (some say stone mason) and his son. There Jesus would have been exposed to Greek culture and language.

He would have learned Greek and been exposed to other religions because Greco-Roman cities had large degrees of religious freedom something that the Maccabees (like all fundamentalists) attempted to stamp out. Jesus' mother Mary was supposed to be from Sepphoris.

Further note that while Jesus left no writing Himself doesn't mean He couldn't read. Writing materials were very expensive but that didn't keep Him from reading the Torah or learning to read Greek or some other language.

Greek was the language of commerce; Aramaic was the everyday language while Hebrew (or Aramaic) would have been the language of the Torah.

Nazareth was on the fringes of Hellenistic and Orthodox Judaism. Jesus would have been exposed to other cultures and not isolated as many like to pretend. He wouldn't have any need to go to India or anywhere else to be exposed to Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, or Greek philosophy. Many of his sayings are somewhat like those of the Jewish Sage Hillel (died circa 10 C.E.?) who came from Babylon and himself a brilliant man and popular with his fellow Jews.


Rabbi Hillel was born to a wealthy family in Babylonia, but came to Jerusalem without the financial support of his family and supported himself as a woodcutter.

It is said that he lived in such great poverty that he was sometimes unable to pay the admission fee to study Torah, and because of him that fee was abolished. He was known for his kindness, his gentleness, and his concern for humanity.

The Talmud tells that a gentile came to Rabbi Shammai saying that he would convert to Judaism if he could teach him the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot.

Shammai drove him away with a builder's measuring stick! Hillel, on the other hand, converted the gentile by telling him, "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it."

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