Hellenization After Alexander – What was it, and Why Did it Matter?

When conquerors want to subdue a foe, they crush their armies. If they want to rule a conquered land, however, they must displace the culture of that land. Alexander the Great knew this, and as he wanted an empire that would outlive him, he needed to displace conquered cultures with his own. This was especially urgent to him due to the diversity of his empire, including Assyrians, Jews, Egyptians, Persians, Parthians, Armenians, and a host of others. Hellenism is Greek culture, and is the primary weapon, even more than his armies, that Alexander used to influence Middle Eastern and European history for millennia.

Some cultures assimilate foreign ideas easily, such as the Indian culture with its pervasive Hindu influence. Other cultures do not, such as that of Ancient Israel. Cities tend to adopt new cultures more quickly and easily than rural areas. This is partly because fewer people live in rural areas, technology and new ideas diffuse out there more slowly, and it is more cost effective to exercise influence in large populations than small. That is why politicians in a direct democracy spend more time in urban centers. If the US President was elected directly by popular vote rather than the electoral college, few contenders would ever show up in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Hellenism was urban, polytheistic, inclusive, and focused on the individual. Ancient Hebrew culture was rural, monotheistic, exclusive, and focused on the community. Hellenism was dualistic in its understanding of man and the universe. Ancient Hebrew Culture was unitary, believing in a united nature of man and God, even to the extent that Samuel speaks of Saul being afflicted by an “evil spirit from the Lord” (1 Samuel 16:14-15). No matter the conqueror, whether Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander, or Caesar, Palestine was known as a restive province due to the culture of its people.

Several individuals and groups followed closely after Alexander in their enthusiasm for Hellenization. Among the most fervent were Antiochus Epiphanes (216-164 BC), who desecrated the Jewish temple, Aristobulus II (reigned 66-63 BC), one of the last Hasmonean rulers, and the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council, primarily comprised of Sadducees, who instigated the murder of Jesus. Many of these encouraged the spread of Hellenism for their own financial and political gain, although the inherent pluralism of Greek culture was conducive to Emperor worship and religious tolerance and therefore beneficial to those who wanted to maintain the status quo.

The Jews believed that they were punished by God for their failure to obey and follow the Law of Moses when Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, and they were not about to make the same mistake twice. So when challenged with Hellenism, many Jews, among whom were the Hasidim (“pious ones”, later giving rise to the New Testament Pharisees), rejected it, sometimes violently. The armed rebellion of the Maccabees was rooted in opposition to Hellenistic paganism. Others accepted secular but not religious parts of Hellenism, while still others abandoned the Hebrew faith and became Greek in their religion and worldview.

In many ways, Western culture, with its Christian religious roots and its Greek systems of thought, is a direct outgrowth of the synthesis of Hebrew and Greek culture. Even today a German “gymnasium” is not just a place for sports and exercise but a secondary school with all kinds of learning and activities, similar to what it was in Ancient Greece. It is no exaggeration to say that the amalgam of Greek and Hebrew thought that arose in the Eastern Mediterranean in the centuries surrounding the birth of Christ made Western Civilization what it is. Europeans and Americans cannot understand their way of life and point of view without comprehending this union of Hebrew and Greek thought.

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