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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The Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes

The Pharisees, whose origin is probably in the “pious ones” or Hasidim, were a prominent religious group of at least 6,000 members in first century Palestine. After the catastrophe of the Babylonian exile and the growing threat of Hellenism during and after Alexander the Great, the Jews tried to recover what was right about their religion and culture and prevent anything similar from ever happening again.  They were dedicated to the Law, including the Torah, the Writings and the Prophets, and they believed that they should focus on three things.

  1. To know the Law expertly and judge wisely from it
  2. To make disciples
  3. To build a fence around the Law.

“Building a fence” around the Law deserves special mention.  The Jews had been punished for breaking the Law of Moses, and so building a fence meant generating laws (the Oral tradition) to prevent their countryman from violating the written Law of God.  For example, the Torah instructs God’s people to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  Pharisaical laws prohibited walking more than 1200 yards, starting a fire, or lifting too much weight.  Their hope was that if they did not violate the oral tradition, they could not violate God’s law.  Over time, the Pharisees came to value the oral tradition as much as the original written law.  They were active in ceremony in the synagogues and to a lesser extent the Temple, and their piety and religious focus made them popular among the people.  They were not as political as the Sadducees.  Two major schools of thought include the slightly more permissive Hillel and the slightly more conservative Shammai.  The Pharisees were neither strongly for nor strongly against the Romans, with some members encouraging rebellion and others’ submission.  They believed in eschatology, including angels, the resurrection, and the dual nature of man (body and soul) (Acts 23:8).

Jesus’ primary contention with the Pharisees was twofold.  First, their scrupulous adherence to the Oral Tradition often made them proud of their conduct and their spiritual state.  Pharisees too commonly looked down on others.  Second, in striving to keep every law, they completely missed the purpose of the Law.  God wanted justice, mercy, and humility from His people (Micah 6:8), manifest by obedience and love, not some slavish adherence to a list of misunderstood laws and rote performance of a ceremony (1 Samuel 15:22).

Pharisees are negatively portrayed in the New Testament on the whole, but some Pharisees supported Jesus and seemed generally righteous men.   After Jerusalem was destroyed and the rebellion crushed in AD 70, the Sadducees vanished and the Pharisaic tradition evolved into Judaism today.

The Sadducees were Hellenists and Roman supporters.  They controlled the Temple and were and affluent and politically connected.  These men held only the Torah as authoritative and so did not believe in angels or an afterlife.  Sadducees controlled the High Priesthood during the time of Christ, and Annas and Caiaphas both served in that role.  They were fierce opponents of the Pharisees, but were not popular with the common people as the Pharisees were, so the ruling council of Judea, the San Hedrin, contained both groups.

The Essenes are not mentioned in the Bible, but were extremely strict followers of the Law.  They were ascetic, monastic, and celibate.  The settlement at Qumran belonged to an Essene group.   Archaeological evidence suggests that there were no women living at Qumran, although some skeletons of women and children have been found.

The Pharisees’ theology, accepting the entire Old Testament including eschatology, is much more in line with the whole Bible than the Sadducees’ or the Essenes’ theology.   The danger into which the Pharisees’ fell (and the Galatians) is to abandon grace.   The Law is good but it is not the main thing in Christianity.  The main thing for each one of us is our relationship with Jesus Christ.