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Hellenism During the Intertestamental Period

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As the Old Testaments ends, the book of Malachi presents a hopeful message of a Messiah. There are more than four hundred years between the close of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. Some refer to these four hundred years as the “time of darkness” or the “centuries of silence.” The New Testament opens in a scene that has had a dramatic change from a biblical Israel to post-exilic Judaism. The pervasive and lasting impact of the Greek culture on Syro-Palestine was due primarily to brilliance and character of Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). This influence came to be known as Hellenization. Jerusalem Jews adopted the term “Hellenistic” as a hostile description during the second century as “going Greek.” Although many Jewish communities resisted the effects of Hellenization, it still had a significant impact on the culture, language and ideas of the people.
Alexander was the king of the Macedonians, which was a tribe from northern Greece. He became king at the young age of twenty, after his father’s death. Enemies surrounded the nation on every side, and Alexander’s advisors suggested that he surrender Greece altogether without going to war. However, Alexander chose to go the opposite route. He launched into battle and defeated one empire after another. He was a tireless general who drove his army from Europe to Asia. He then proceeded to conquer Egypt, which surrendered without a fight. In 331, Alexander defeated Darius III of Persia at the Battle of Gaugamela and took possession of Opis and Babylon. In 324, European soldiers revolted again at Opis. Alexander took an oath of unity in front of his 9000 Persian and Greek soldiers. He married the daughter of Darius and held a mass marriage of his officers to Persian women. Shortly before his death, Alexander ordered the Greek states to receive their exiles back. He did this partly for his own glory. Also, he did it to keep supporters in every city to prevent a revolution. Alexander died abruptly in 323 in Babylon before he was able to finish his plans for traveling across Arabia, Ethiopia and Libya. Some scholars say that Hellenism begins with Alexander’s death. However, in his life, he founded over 70 cities, sprinkled Greek institutions all over Asia and blended families together by intermarriage. This was the beginning of Hellenism.
Josephus recorded that as Alexander passed through Palestine to occupy Damascus, his attention turned to the Jews. He sent a letter to the High Priest, Jaddua, demanding tribute, supplies and any gifts that he was accustomed to giving King Darius, who had been exiled. Jaddua replied that he had given a pledge to Darius, and he would never take up arms against him as long as Darius was alive. This report infuriated Alexander who then swore to make an example of Jaddua, and teach the Jews a lesson.
The priest called the Jewish people to pray for God’s guidance. In a dream, God spoke to Jaddua in an oracular fashion and reassured him that all would be well. The vision was that the Jews decorated the city with wreaths; the people of the city wore white robes and the priests themselves dressed in all their priestly garments and met Alexander at the city gates. Obedient to the vision, Jaddua led the people to the gates and pledged their allegiance. Jaddua took Alexander to the temple, and under supervision, Alexander made a sacrifice to God. Jaddua then showed Alexander a prophecy in scripture that foretold of the Greeks rule over the Persian Empire. Pleased, Alexander took this to be divine approval from the Jewish God.
Alexander offered the Jews any rewards they wished and Jaddua made three requests. First, the Jews needed to live according to their ancestral laws. In addition, that they were not taxed in the sabbatical year, and lastly that their brethren who lived in Babylon and Media also were able to abide by the ancestral laws. Alexander granted all three wishes and offered the opportunity to serve in his army for all who wished to join. Many of the Jews did join the army with zealous enthusiasm. This was another opportunity for the Greek culture to influence the Jewish people.
Some scholars agree that this story is suspect. However, the Talmud records a similar meeting between a high priest and Alexander. It also contains the name of the high priest mentioned in Nehemiah 12:11, 22, who functioned a century after Alexander’s campaign. Consequently, some meeting between the High Priest and Alexander did take place.
After Alexander’s death in 323, the conquered lands experienced a period of uncertainty. Ptolemy took over Palestine. He attacked Jerusalem on a Sabbath by pretending he wanted to offer sacrifices. When the Jews refused to fight back on the Sabbath, Ptolemy quickly gained a victory. For a time under the reign of Ptolemy, the Jews enjoyed an era of peace. During the reign of Ptolemy II, there are reports of charitable treatment of the Jews. He promoted Hellenism, mostly through the patronage of the arts and sciences. It was during this reign the translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek was authorized so that it could be included in the great library at Alexandria. Ptolemy III began a prolific campaign of temple building, which significantly enhanced the city of Jerusalem. The last two Ptolemy kings had a reputation of being weak and indulgent kings. The book of Maccabees III tells of the growing instability specifically related to how the last two kings curtailed Jewish rights.
Under the last Ptolemy and the succeeding kings, the Antiochus’, Jews suffered terribly from persecution. The temples were desecrated; the city looted, and Jews themselves slaughtered or enslaved. Antiochus IV was an activist for Hellenism and saw it as a catalyst to unite people under his authority. He prohibited all Jewish rites, forced them to eat forbidden foods, and forbade them to have a copy of the Law. He outlawed circumcision, and if a mother had her son circumcised, the baby was killed and hung around the mother’s neck. In 167, the Hellenists offered a pagan sacrifice to the Greek god Zeus on the altar of the temple in Jerusalem (1Macc1: 54, Dan 11:31, 12:11). Although there had been opponents to Hellenization before, this “abomination of desolation” proved to be a mistake of epic proportion for Antiochus. It led Jews to openly oppose the Seleucids and Hellenization, and is known in history as the Maccabean Revolt.
The Jews reacted in three different ways to above mentioned events and policies. Some, who saw a great value in Hellenism, reluctantly submitted. Others chose to be martyred rather than give in to the king’s rulings. Finally, some took up arms and revolted.
The revolt began with an older priest, Mattathias Maccabee. Soldiers admonished to make a pagan sacrifice of a pig to the Greek god Zeus. He refused, and another citizen stepped in to make the sacrifice for him. Mattathias killed the citizen, the soldier, and destroyed the pagan altar. He and his five sons fled to the wilderness.
The Hasidim, a group of non-Zadokite followers of the Torah supported the Maccabees. Syrian soldiers came upon this group of Jews illegally worshipping on the Sabbath and executed the whole party. The refusal of the Jews to fight on the Sabbath led to their demise and made them easy targets. This incident forced the Maccabees, and their followers to come to the controversial decision to fight on the Sabbath. Outnumbered, they decided, “..they would violate the Torah to protect the Torah.”
The Hellenizers, Jews who supported the policy of termination of the Jewish religion, were the first targets of the Maccabees. “Forced circumcision, destruction of the Greek altars, and the murder of those who cooperated with the Syrians characterized this agenda.” When Mattathias died in battle, his son Judas took over the lead. Judas led the army of supporters that had grown to 3000 in guerrilla warfare through remote stretches of the desert. He took command of Jerusalem and rededicated the temple in 164. According to Josephus, the dedication took place exactly three years after Antiochus desecrated it. After more battles, Judas was also killed. Jonathan, the next brother, was at the head for several years before his demise, and then the last remaining brother, Simon took over the cause. He accomplished what none of the other Maccabees did. He achieved political independence. He appointed himself high priest until an actual priest could be named, but he avoided the political title of king. Scholars refer to this period as the Hasmonian Period.
In order to free themselves from the yokes of the Greeks, the Jews asked for the help of the Romans. However, the yoke of Rome proved far heavier than anything endured by the Greeks. Rome the supposed protector eventually became the arch enemy of the Jews. The Romans and the Jews entered into an agreement proposed by Judas Maccabee. Some wonder if this was a formal treaty, or one for appearance, because Rome showed no action when Tryphon kidnapped and then murdered Jonathan Maccabee or when Simon was murdered. They showed empty promises as well with John Hyrcanus, son of Simon Maccabees, who Antiochus VII attacked.
The first significant involvement of Rome came a century after Judas Maccabee. The context was a civil war between the Hasmonean brothers, Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II. Both brothers begged for assistance from Roman General, Pompey. They sent gifts trying to win Pompey's favor. When Pompey was reluctant to make a decision, Aristobulus withdrew his request and Pompey marched against him. Hyrcanus opened the gates of Jerusalem to the army, but the supporters of Aristobulus “entrenched themselves on the temple mount and a siege ensued.” It was a blood bath that lasted for three months and left 12,000 Jews dead including priests at the altar. Pompey then entered the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest was to go. He left the temple treasure untouched but treated the resistance severely. Thousands of Jews were deported to Rome as slaves and Hyrcanus was left High Priest, but without royal title. Pompey returned to Rome, and for the next forty years Rome experienced one of its greatest periods of internal upheaval. With this great turmoil in Rome, their focus was off of Syria and Palestine. The Parthians took advantage of this and seized Syria and Judea. This region would not be regained until 37 BCE when the Roman Senate appointed Herod as King of the Jews.
Herod’s leadership was the most impressive that Jerusalem had seen since Solomon. Like Solomon, Herod undertook a temple building project. Josephus wrote that Herod spent more than he earned, and that heavy taxation supported his projects. On one hand, he was able to establish a kingdom of considerable import as he controlled trade routes and invested in copper mines. On the other hand, he maintained his reign by fear, intimidation and oppression over the Jews. He did try to win the favor of the Jews by reducing taxes twice, once during a famine. He also named Hanael as high priest instead of himself. The most philanthropic attempt to win the favor of the Jews was, of course, the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.
In order not to violate the Jewish Law, the stones were quarried outside of the walls. Three thousand priests were trained to do the work. It was rebuilt, on a platform, to make it the tallest building in the city. This project was so ambitious that it was not completed until 64 CE, long after Herod had passed. It was built in a Hellenistic style with shining, bright, white marble. However benevolent this seems, Herod was an evil and insecure person. He killed his wife, her mother and two of his own sons for treason. According to the New Testament, he had all the baby boys less than two years old massacred when he heard that there had been an infant king born.
After Herod’s death, the kingdom divided among his three remaining sons: Antipas in Galilee and Perea; Philip in the Golan Heights; and Archelaus in Judea, Samaria and Idumea. Of the three sons, Archelaus was the most scandalous. He married his brother’s widow and eventually was deposed and banished to Gaul. Never a critical word was spoken about Philip. Most of the citizens of his territory were Gentiles. When Jesus and his disciples needed to escape the pressures of Judea and Galilee, they would retreat to Philip’s domain. Antipas followed in his father’s footsteps. He was a ruthless leader, a prolific builder and a stable ruler. It was Antipas who had John the Baptist beheaded. Jesus was brought to Herod Antipas, and he refused to make any decision. He then sent Jesus back to Pilate.

Whether Hellenism was forced on the Jews or whether their culture was slowly permeated by it, Hellenism changed the world. The language changed from Hebrew to Koine, the common Greek language. The scripture was translated from the Hebrew Torah to the Greek Septuagint. Names of towns were changed as well as names of people were becoming Hellenized. For instance Joshua became Jason or Jesus. Gymnasiums were built for men to socialize, exercise and study. The Hellenistic influence pervaded everything. Even in the strongholds of Judaism, Hellenism changed the organization of the state, laws, and public affairs. Art, science, and industry were changed along with the everyday things of life and the ordinary associations of people. Gone was the Biblical Israel of old. Hellenism was here to stay.

Anderson, Jeff S. The Internal Diversification of Second Temple Judaism: An Introduction to the Second Temple Period. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002. Austin, M. M. The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Collins, John J. Jewish Cult and Hellenistic Culture: Essays on the Jewish Encounter with Hellenism and Roman Rule. Leiden: Brill, 2005. Cummins, Stephen Anthony. Paul and the Crucified Christ in Antioch : Maccabean Martyrdom and Galatians 1 and 2. Cambridge University Press, 2001. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost).

Errington, R. M. A History of the Hellenistic World. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Gruen, Erich S. Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2002.

[ 1 ]. Jeff S. Anderson, The Internal Diversification of Second Temple Judaism: An Introduction to the Second Temple Period (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002), 1.
[ 2 ]. R. M. Errington, A History of the Hellenistic World (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Pub., 2008), 8.
[ 3 ]. M. M. Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 33.
[ 4 ]. Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest: A Selection of Ancient Sources in Translation, 53.
[ 5 ]. Ibid., 55.
[ 6 ]. Ibid., 57.
[ 7 ]. Erich S. Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2002), 191.
[ 8 ]. Anderson, 28.
[ 9 ]. Ibid., 28.
[ 10 ]. Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition, 191.
[ 11 ]. Anderson, 28.
[ 12 ]. Ibid., 31.
[ 13 ]. Gruen, 207.
[ 14 ]. Anderson, 37.
[ 15 ]. Anderson, 36.
[ 16 ]. Stephen Anthony Cummins, Paul and the Crucified Christ in Antioch: Maccabean Martyrdom and Galatians 1 and 2 (Cambridge University Press, 2001), 24, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost).
[ 17 ]. Cummins, Paul and the Crucified Christ in Antioch: Maccabean Martyrdom and Galatians 1 and 2, 24.
[ 18 ]. Anderson, 38.
[ 19 ]. Ibid., 38.
[ 20 ]. Cummins, 24.
[ 21 ]. Anderson, 38.
[ 22 ]. Anderson, 41.
[ 23 ]. John J. Collins, Jewish Cult and Hellenistic Culture: Essays on the Jewish Encounter with Hellenism and Roman Rule (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 202.
[ 24 ]. Collins, Jewish Cult and Hellenistic Culture: Essays on the Jewish Encounter with Hellenism and Roman Rule, 204.
[ 25 ]. Collins, 204.
[ 26 ]. Anderson, 47.
[ 27 ]. Ibid., 48.
[ 28 ]. Collins, 206.
[ 29 ]. Anderson, 51.
[ 30 ]. Ibid., 52.
[ 31 ]. Ibid., 53.

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