Greek and Jew
Nothing so far
has disproved the contention that the classical Greeks did not even
name of the Jews.
A. Momigliano (Alien
Wisdom - The Limits of Hellenization, p78.
In the late 4th century (332 BC) Alexanders
troops took control of Palestine en route to a successful conquest
of Egypt. The arrival of Greek conquerors in the eastern Mediterranean,
with their vibrant,
expansive culture, presented a major challenge to the Jews,
especially to the theocracy of Judaea. The Greeks now embraced the known
world and integrated all its many cultures into their own. The
product was a multifaceted, cosmopolitan and secular civilization. According
to one historian, Alexander treated the Jews generously (Cantor, The
Sacred Chain - A History of the Jews). Initially, the Jews were ruled
by the Greeks of Alexandria. Then, for a 150 years, Syrian Greeks governed
the land of Palestine.
in the Greek empire, city-colonies were established, with a rich
culture of art, philosophy, medicine, and science. Some cities,
like Sebaste (Sepphoris), the major city of Galilee, were entirely
Greek (and, as it happens, go unmentioned in the Bible).
Entire regions, like the Decapolis, were thoroughly Hellenized.
Only small, rustic settlements and the inaccessible city of Jerusalem
remained relatively untouched. Some Jews were completely seduced
by Greek modernity and became Hellenes. A number - in particular
landowners and those educated in the Greek language - adopted
the values and ethos of the Greek world even though they
remained nominally Jews. Others, despite their loathing
for the Greeks, could not help but be influenced by them, though
some, defensively, argued that Plato had borrowed from
Culture versus Blind Faith
culture of the Greeks brought Egyptian mythology, Indian
metaphysics and Greek philosophy into direct contact
with each other, giving birth to a syncretic method of enquiry,
an intellectual movement to gain knowledge or gnosis from
nature itself. If Gnosticism was a religion then
it was one that held to a fantastic if ultimately vain hope:
that a place could be found for all of knowledge and human experience.
Its very liberalism and inclusiveness placed Gnosticism directly
at odds with all who argued for faith and a blind
and unquestioning acceptance of dogma. Later Christianity was
to stigmatise Gnosticism as a heresy but in fact
it pre-dates the established church by centuries.
embraced many schools of thought, and within it even some Jews
could find a theological niche. Simon Magus (Simon the
Magician) was one in later centuries, stigmatised
by the Christians in the sin of 'simony' (the buying and selling
of ecclesiastical favours). Simon Magus was apparently Neros
court magician and a leading light among the Jews of Rome. Not
only did Jewish cities adopt Hellenic styles of architecture
but, after centuries without schools and academies, the Jews
embraced the value of literacy.
the Greeks however, most practicing Jews never
questioned texts critically
but elevated them as sacred objects in their own right,
to be revered and close-read for hidden meaning.
This ferreting out of subtleties or contorting old words
for new purposes was called midrash,
a particular gift of the priesthood. But the process began of
rewriting even the sacred texts into the language of the Greeks,
the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world. But whilst they
might borrow from the conqueror, the Jewish priesthood,
a ruling caste of several thousand and the personification of
social exclusion and theocratic privilege, recoiled in horror
at Greek attempts to integrate them into their world.
versus Pious Prudery
applauded the perfected human form, representing it in
a thousand different ways, in particular, in idealised images
of their gods. In contrast, the Jews, lacking artistic skill,
horrified the Greeks by mutilating their sexual organs as
a commitment to an invisible god. Greek sexual licence
extended even to a preference for homosexual relationships.
In contrast, the Jews had a vast catalogue of sex crimes,
all of them capital offences. To them, the Greeks were unclean,
an ironic charge considering it was the Greeks who introduced public
bathing. Nudity did not trouble the Greeks and in particular
it was the athleticism of the Hellenic world, which celebrated
the naked display of physical prowess, which appalled
the prudish priests of the Yahweh cult, more familiar
with oiling their priest/kings than their athletes. Mind and
body training in the gymnasia was a direct affront to the supremacy
of the Temple. Greek monarchs continuously pressed the Jews into
assimilation and, adding insult to injury, raided the temple
treasury to finance their wars.
most devout followers were the semi-nomadic goat-herders from
the hill country and scrub land of Judaea who could be roused
to indignant revolt by a combination of genuine hardship, xenophobia
and religious vitriol. To their numbers could be added the tens
of thousands of pilgrims drawn to the Temple several times a
year for the various festivals. City traders, dependent on this
flow of pious humanity (and the compulsory pilgrimage tithe to
be spent in Jerusalem), would also have been loyal followers.
But a new religious element also appeared itinerant priests,
not part of the temple priesthood (hence the name Pharisee separate in
Hebrew), hostile to Jewish as well as Roman monarchy. The Pharisees
propagated the doctrine of a divine last judgement at
which unbelievers and the unclean would get their comeuppance.
Israels devotees would be suitably rewarded in a new heaven-sent
kingdom. By the 1st century AD the leading names in Judaic thought
were Pharisees, including the famous teacher Hillel.
it was the meteoric career of antiquitys greatest hero Alexander
the Great which gave renewed intensity to the conviction
of the Jews that one day their own hero-king (messiah)
would appear and conquer a Jewish empire. In 165 BC it seemed
as if that day had dawned, when Judas Maccabeaus began
a successful two-year guerilla war to throw the Greeks out of
Judaea. His successor, John Hyrcanus, continued the Jewish imperial
project by the conquest and forced conversion of Galilee and
Idumea. For barely a century, a Jewish kingdom maintained
a shaky independence, riven by civil war and appealing to
Rome for help in resisting her more powerful neighbours.
Roman and Jew
ambitions in the east brought Pompey and his legions
to Judaea in 63 BC. Though the conqueror of Greece, Rome had been seduced
by the rich Hellenic culture and had made it her own. In contrast, though
the Romans had no racist or economic envy of the Jews, like the Greeks,
they had unbridled contempt for Judaism, which they interpreted
as a primitive religion. But theology was not an issue for the
imperium securing the eastern front was. The Jews presented a
particularly troubling problem. Jewish communities existed in many parts
of the Persian Empire and, in fact, most exiled Jews were
pleased to live under Persian rule. The loyalty of Jews within
the Roman Empire was therefore always in question.
a century of Jewish independence by imposing a mosaic of client
kingdoms and self-governing cities in the region (Philistia,
Phoenicia, Israel, Judah, etc.) But a Parthian (Persian) invasion
twenty years later triggered a civil war among the Jews and
revived hopes for a Messiah. One claimant to the
Jewish throne Herod appealed to Rome. The
other Antigonus appealed to Parthia, promising
the Parthian king 500 wives of his enemies!
In 37 BC Herod and his Roman allies drove out the Persians and
defeated his domestic enemies. In return for his staunch loyalty
Herod gained for himself the kingship of the whole of Palestine,
and for his people, exemption from military service and official
recognition of the sabbath and Jewish law.
Barely a Jew
himself (his family had been Idumean Arab, forcibly converted
by the Maccabees) and thoroughly Hellenized, Herod brought thirty
years of peace and prosperity to his land. Maliciously maligned
by later Christians, Herod was in fact an astute politician.
Not only did he retain the favour of a succession of Roman monarchs
but he also successfully assuaged the hostility of the priests
by rebuilding the Temple, a massive construction project not
equalled in the city for more than a thousand years. Ten years
after Herods death in 4 BC, Judaea itself was annexed by
Rome. The other Jewish kingdoms (tectrachies) retained
a degree of autonomy until the mid-first century when lack of
a suitable candidate led Rome to fully integrate the whole of
Palestine into the Empire.
Rome and Religion
first emperor, Augustus, was not slow to recognise the important
role to be played by religion in reinforcing cohesion in the
newly enlarged empire. It was Augustus himself who instituted emperor
worship by the elevation of his adopted father - Julius Caesar
- to divine status. In so doing he became divi filius (son
of god)! This was innovative in Rome, though Augustus was
actually adopting a practice of great antiquity in Egypt and the
east, where no great distinction was drawn between gods and earthly
rulers. But deification of members of the imperial family was something
akin to ancestor worship, a vague belief in the ability of the dead
(the shades) to act as guardian spirits. Oaths to the
emperors Genius were not tributes to his mental
acumen but rather, were invocations of a holy ghost or
procreative power of his lineage.
Augustus recognised that shifting the focus of religious devotions away
from a nebulous state and towards an identifiable
individual made the religion more accessible to the uneducated if
less appealing to the intelligentsia. At the same time, convinced
that all forms of religion had a place, Augustus revived and
revitalised archaic forms of religion (the old deities of the
Italian tribes, such as Janus, Jupiter and Mars) and closely
identified them with the new imperium.
far as the Jews and their primitive religion were
concerned, Augustus extended pagan tolerance to their
ancient oracles and exclusive practices, albeit on the understanding
that no disloyalty was shown. This worked well on the level
of the Herodian elite even securing for the Jews a privileged status but
there were many Jews unwilling to bend the knee to Rome.
The Natives are Restless (and
hoping for a Jewish 'Alexander')
most significant event to occur in the province of Judaea in
the first century of direct Roman rule did not involve any
miraculous birth, death and resurrection of a godman,
but rather, was the vicious war waged by Roman legions
against rebellious Jewish nationalists. What drove the Jews into
suicidal confrontation with the legions of Rome? With Herods
death, Judaea had first come under direct Roman rule in 6 AD and
from then on the pace of Romanisation quickened. The Jews themselves
were fragmented by this process. Many Jews, particularly in the rich
cities of the diaspora, enjoyed a higher prosperity than
ever and were decidedly pro-Roman. Others doggedly resisted assimilation.
The more extreme of these traditionalists castigated
not only their conquerors but also the temple priesthood.
in fact, had long been a divided people. In Samaria, a
rival temple and Yahweh cult existed at Mount Gerizim, established
in the days of the Maccabees by Jews who rejected any Law later
than the five books of Moses. For them, Moses was the sole legitimate
prophet of Israel, and imminently, he would return as the Messiah.
These Jews were actually descendants of Assyrian settlers, who
were outside the racial purity sought by the Jews
of Judaea. Hence, Samaritans were regarded by them as
both religiously and racially inferior, as counterfeit Jews.
Jews, reading signs of an imminent end to the world, retreated
into militant religious communities. Interpreting recent political
reversals for the Jewish nation as evidence of Gods displeasure,
they anticipated and longed for a messiah who would lead the
nation back to God and righteousness. Most notably, the Hassidim or Essenes,
with a major centre at Qumran, had been preparing themselves for
the coming final battle of good and evil since
the time of the Maccabees. Led by a so-called Teacher of Righteousness,
the Essenes (also referred to as Zadokites in the Dead Sea Scrolls)
regarded the Herodian princes as puppets of Rome and the Sadduccean
priesthood as hopelessly corrupt, evil-doers who had led God to abandon
of his chosen people.
claimed themselves to be the true Zadokite priesthood (and used
their own Egyptian-style solar calendar). Rejecting temple sacrifice,
Essenes offered instead baptism in water as the way to ritual
purity and closeness to god. For them, the divine could be experienced
first-hand, without temple ritual or priestly intermediaries.
Though fundamental purists in one sense, they were themselves
influenced by Greek and Egyptian mystery cults. They were steeped
in esoterics astrology, numerology, herbalism, etc. and
introduced reincarnation into their particular variant of Judaism.
But it was their apocalyptic vision of the Last of Days which
galvanized them into a fighting force. Far from being confined
to celibates in desert monasteries, some essenoi
were wanderers, spreading the word of impending doom, while others
organised centres of urban resistance.
Terrorists for God
under various names, were more immediately involved in terrorist
operations, harassing Roman garrisons, raiding supply caravans
and wreaking as much havoc as possible. Judas of Gamala led
an insurrection in Galilee early in the 1st century, founding
a group known as the Zealots (zealous for the law).
Assassins, known as Sicarii for their use of a small curved
dagger, began to pick off collaborators. In the year 35/36 AD
Samaria produced its own messiah who led a short-lived rebellion
less combative. The Nazerites swore an oath and thereafter
never cut their hair as a sign of their commitment to the Lord. They
took themselves into the desert to await the Messiahs arrival.
The legendary Samson had been such a Nazerite. The name Nazerite will
prove to have an interesting future as we shall see. All were
convinced that the Nation of Israel had been specially chosen
by their god to lead all the world - as the instrument of a divine plan and
the Maccabean revolt had set a precedent of successful rebellion. If
the Greeks could be defeated, then, with the assistance of their god
Yahweh, so could the Romans.
Many signs seemed
favourable. Of course other conquered peoples attempted to free
themselves from Romes grip. Britain had come under Roman
control at about the same time as Judaea and Boudicca had
led her rebellion in the 60s AD. Unlike the Iceni, however,
the Jews had been schooled in Babylon and were driven by a powerful
religious ideology, one...
from their ancient oracles, that a conquering Messiah would
soon arise to break their fetters, and to invest the favourites
of heaven with the empire of the earth.
Gibbon, Decline & Fall
The Peace Party
many factions of the Jews careened on a collision course with
Rome, others perhaps horrified by what they saw as the inevitable
consequences of this confrontation applied their talents
to working out a new accommodation with the imperium. An embassy
from the Jews of Alexandria, led by the writer Philo,
arrived in Rome in 39 AD, to plead with Caligula for Jewish
exemption from emperor worship. The twenty five year old Caligula
had come to the throne two years earlier. Initially celebrated
as a liberalising benefactor by the Romans, after the austere
and remote Tiberias, five months into his reign an illness left
him seriously deranged. The death in June, 38 AD of his sister
Drusilla, with whom he had had an incestuous relationship since
adolescence, left him distraught and even more manic.
dead Drusilla to a goddess named Panthea (encompassing
and surpassing all of the other gods) he initiated
his own, still living, deification. He bled Gaul dry to pay for
three months of games which culminated in his godhood in
August, 40 AD and ordered his effigy be placed in temples
throughout the empire. Caligulas response to the Jews was
to dispatch troops carrying his statue to Jerusalem with the
threat to destroy the Jewish Temple. But within months, in January
41 AD, he had been murdered, certain evidence to some Jews that
Yahweh was supporting their resistance.
Philo of Alexandria
these thoughts. He was a Hellenized Jew, much influenced both
by Greek philosophy and Egyptian religious ideas (famously,
his nephew apostatised, took the name Tiberias Julius Alexander,
and became Roman governor of Egypt.) His own philosophy
was a re-worked mix of the speculations of Heraclitus (535-475
BC) and an ancient Egyptian idea that the unknowable
godhead existed in the realm of plenitude or Pleroma
said Philo, gave existence to various emanations or
subordinate gods that could be known. These emanations (aeons or archons)
created and governed the world. Philo identified several: the Logos (The
Word or logic ); Sophia (Wisdom) already present
in Judaism, probably as a residual element of the time when Yahweh
had a female consort; Nous (Mind); Phronesis (Judgement);
and Dynamis (Power). Thus the supreme gods will,
justice, power, etc., made its presence felt through these emanations,
which might take various forms.
The Logos was
present in the Egyptian pantheon, identified with the god Horus/Serapis,
and similarly, in Stoic philosophy which held that the
Logos made itself manifest through various gods Zeus,
Hermes, etc. The Stoics, who originated in 4th century BC Athens
and took their name from the stoa, or meeting hall were
the first thoroughgoing pantheists, holding that God
is the universe, the universe is God. For Stoics,
a wise and virtuous person learns his place in the scheme of
things. Stoicism, ironically, was to influence both the Roman
intelligentsia and the emerging Christians it held in contempt.
The stoic philosopher Seneca became tutor to the young Nero and
a century later, the emperor Marcus Aurelius was himself a Stoic
simplistic notion that pagan religions were polytheistic and
that Judaism was monotheistic does justice to neither. Late
paganism had evolved a notion of a supreme god, which
Stoics identified with the material universe itself and Cynics
with a spiritual realm outside of matter. The Jews, for all their
hostility to images, lived happily with Yahwehs
disembodied forces, quite forgetting, for example,
that Wisdom had once been the Phoenician goddess Astarte.
philosophic schools, however, were essentially elitist. Popular
tastes were coarser and it required individuals with a taste
for evangelising to
take their message to the masses.
than one such zealot was to take up Philos thesis and re-work
it into a format more accessible to the less educated.
Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (Phoenix Grant,
Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Crucified Jew (Harper Collins,1992)
Henry Hart Milman, The History of the Jews (Everyman, 1939)
Josephus, The Jewish War (Penguin, 1959)
Leslie Houlden (Ed.), Judaism & Christianity (Routledge, 1988)
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (Harper Collins, 1999)
Michael Grant, Herod the Great (American Heritage, 1971)
Norman Cantor, The Sacred Chain - A History of the Jews (Harper
Nicholas De Lange (Ed.) The Illustrated History of the Jewish People (Aurum, 1997)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
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Copyright © 2004
by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author
and no material herein is sold for profit.