Hellenistic Judaism

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Hellenistic Judaism was a form of Judaism in the ancient world that combined Jewish religious tradition with elements of Greek culture. Until the fall of the Roman Empire and the Muslim conquests of the Eastern Mediterranean, the main centers of Hellenistic Judaism were Alexandria (Egypt) and Antioch (Northern Syria—now Turkey), the two main Greek urban settlements of the Middle East and North Africa area, both founded at the end of the 4th century BCE in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Hellenistic Judaism also existed in Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period, where there was conflict between Hellenizers and traditionalists (sometimes called Judaizers).

The major literary product of the contact of Second Temple Judaism and Hellenistic culture is the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible from Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic to Koiné Greek, specifically, Jewish Koiné Greek.

The decline of Hellenistic Judaism started in the 2nd century CE, and its causes are still not fully understood. It may be that it was eventually marginalized by, partially absorbed into or became progressively the Koiné-speaking core of Early Christianity centered on Antioch and its traditions.


Map of Alexander's empire, extending east and south of Macedonia.

The conquests of Alexander the Great in the late 4th century BCE spread Greek culture and colonization—a process of cultural change called Hellenization—over non-Greek lands, including the Levant. This gave rise to the Hellenistic age, which sought to create a common or universal culture in the Alexandrian empire based on that of 5th- and 4th-century BCE Athens (see also Age of Pericles), along with a fusion of Near Eastern cultures.[1] The period is characterized by a new wave of Greek colonization which established Greek cities and Kingdoms in Asia and Africa,[2] the most famous being Alexandria in Egypt. New cities were established composed of colonists who came from different parts of the Greek world, and not from a specific metropolis ("mother city") as before.[2]

These Jews living in countries west of the Levant formed the Hellenistic diaspora. The Egyptian diaspora is the most well-known of these.[3] It witnessed close ties, indeed the firm economic integration, of Judea with the Ptolemaic kingdom ruled from Alexandria, and the friendly relations which existed between the royal court and the leaders of the Jewish community. This was a diaspora of choice not of imposition. Information is less robust regarding diasporas in other territories. It suggests that the situation was by and large the same as it was in Egypt.[4]

Jewish life in both Judea and the diaspora was influenced by the culture and language of Hellenism, and in Judea relations deteriorated between Hellenized Jews and traditionalists.

For reasons not fully understood, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes banned key Jewish religious rites and traditions in Judea, causing traditionalists to revolt against the Greek ruler. Out of this revolt was formed an independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty, which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE. The Hasmonean Dynasty eventually disintegrated in a civil war, which coincided with civil wars in Rome:

Hasmonean civil war

The Hasmonean civil war began when a younger brother, Aristobulus II, who supported the Sadducee Jews, rebelled in 67 BCE against his elder brother, Hyrcanus II, who supported the Pharisee Jews (their mother, Salome Alexandra, supported the Pharisees, but their father who died before Salome, Alexander Jannaeus, supported the Sadducees). Seizing this opportunity, a third faction of Jews, primarily Idumeans centered in Maresha, and later led by Antipater and his son Herod, sought to re-install the elder brother Hyrcanus II; according to Josephus, Antipater aimed at controlling Judea by putting the weak Hyrcanus back onto the throne. Antigonus, the nephew of Hyrcanus II, and son of Aristobulus II, met with Julius Caesar to say that his uncle Hyrcanus was a puppet in the hands of Pompey and Antipater, and asked The Cæsar's permission to overthrow Antipater in 47 BCE, whilst the civil war and later conspiracy against Julius Cæsar was after Pompey's civil war had ended, but the assassination plot against Julius having only just begun. After Julius ignored this warning by Antigonus—only to be famously assassinated by Pompey's allies, the optimates, three years later—Antigonus enlisted the aid of Parthians (who were already at war with Rome, and wanted to keep this competing empire, Rome, from gaining more land near the Parthians' own power-base) in 42 BCE, and with the Parthians, Antigonus was able to defeat Herod (the same year, back in Rome, Pompey's side began temporarily losing, again, to Cæsar's proteges), but Antigonus ruled Judea for only 3 years until Roman Legions aided Herod, as the Roman Civil Wars came to an end and Rome solidified the new eastern extents of their empire.

The last Hasmonean ruler, Antigonus II Mattathias, was captured by Herod and executed in 37 BCE.

The main issue which separated the Hellenized Jews from rebellious and traditional Jews was the application of biblical laws in a Hellenistic (or Roman or other non-Jewish) empire.[5]


The major literary product of the contact of Judaism and Hellenistic culture is the Septuagint, as well as the so-called apocrypha and pseudepigraphic apocalyptic literature (such as the Assumption of Moses, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Baruch, the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch, etc.) dating to the period. Important sources are Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus. Some scholars[6] consider Paul of Tarsus to be a Hellenist as well, even though he himself claimed to be a Pharisee (Acts 23:6).

Philo of Alexandria was an important apologist of Judaism, presenting it as a tradition of venerable antiquity that, far from being a barbarian cult of an oriental nomadic tribe, with its doctrine of monotheism had anticipated tenets of Hellenistic philosophy. Philo could draw on Jewish tradition to use customs which Greeks thought as primitive or exotic as the basis for metaphors: such as "circumcision of the heart" in the pursuit of virtue.[7] Consequently, Hellenistic Judaism emphasized monotheistic doctrine (heis theos), and represented reason (logos) and wisdom (sophia) as emanations from God.

Beyond Tarsus, Alexandretta, Antioch and Northwestern Syria (the main "Cilician and Asiatic" centers of Hellenistic Judaism in the Levant), the second half of the Second Temple period witnessed an acceleration of Hellenization in Israel itself, with Jewish high priests and aristocrats alike adopting Greek names:

'Ḥoni' became 'Menelaus'; 'Joshua' became 'Jason' or 'Jesus.' The Hellenic influence pervaded everything, and even in the very strongholds of Judaism it modified the organization of the state, the laws, and public affairs, art, science, and industry, affecting even the ordinary things of life and the common associations of the people […] The inscription forbidding strangers to advance beyond a certain point in the Temple was in Greek; and was probably made necessary by the presence of numerous Jews from Greek-speaking countries at the time of the festivals (comp. the "murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews," Acts vi. 1). The coffers in the Temple which contained the shekel contributions were marked with Greek letters (Sheḳ. iii. 2). It is therefore no wonder that there were synagogues of the Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, Cilicians, and Asiatics in the Holy City itself (Acts vi. 9).[8]

'There is neither Jew nor Greek'

Ethnic, cultural and social tensions within the Hellenistic Jewish world were partly overcome by the emergence of a new, typically Antiochian, Middle-Eastern Greek doctrine (doxa), either by

  1. established, autochthonous Hellenized Cilician-Western Syrian Jews (themselves descendants of Babylonian Jewish migrants who had long adopted various elements of Greek culture and civilization while retaining a generally conservative, strict attachment to Halakha),
  2. heathen, 'Classical' Greeks, Macedonian Greeks and Greco-Syrian gentiles, or
  3. the local, autochthonous descendants of Greek or Greco-Syrian converts to mainstream Judaism – known as proselytes (Greek: προσήλυτος/proselytes) and Greek-speaking Jews born of mixed marriages.

Their efforts were probably facilitated by the arrival of a fourth wave of Greek-speaking newcomers to Cilicia/Southern Turkey and Northwestern Syria: Cypriot Jews and 'Cyrenian' (Libyan) Jewish migrants of non-Egyptian North African Jewish origin, as well as gentile Roman settlers from Italy—many of whom already spoke fluent Koine Greek and/or sent their children to Greek schools. Some scholars believe that, at the time, these Cypriot and Cyrenian North African Jewish migrants were generally less affluent than the autochthonous Cilician-Syrian Jews and practiced a more 'liberal' form of Judaism, more propitious for the formation of a new canon:

[North African] Cyrenian Jews were of sufficient importance in those days to have their name associated with a synagogue at Jerusalem (Acts 6:9). And when the persecution arose about Stephen [a Hellenized Syrian-Cilician Jew], some of these Jews of Cyrene who had been converted at Jerusalem, were scattered abroad and came with others to Antioch and [initially] preached the word "unto the Jews only" (Acts 11:19, 20 the King James Version), and one of them, Lucius, became a prophet in the early church there [the nascent Greek 'Orthodox' community of Antioch].[9]
Later, Paul was threatened by Helllenist as seen in the bibles Acts 9 verse 29," 29 And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him."

These subtle, progressive socio-cultural shifts are somehow summarized succinctly in Chapter 3 of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female ... (Galatians 3:28).[10]

Decline of the Hellenistai and partial conversion to Christianity

The reasons for the decline of Hellenistic Judaism are obscure. It may be that it was marginalized by, absorbed into, or became Early Christianity (see the Gospel according to the Hebrews). The Epistles of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles report that, after his initial focus on the conversion of Hellenized Jews across Anatolia, Macedonia, Thrace and Northern Syria without criticizing their laws and traditions,[11][12] Paul of Tarsus eventually preferred to evangelize communities of Greek and Macedonian proselytes and Godfearers, or Greek circles sympathetic to Judaism: the Apostolic Decree allowing converts to forego circumcision made Christianity a more attractive option for interested pagans than Rabbinic Judaism, which required ritual circumcision for converts (see Brit milah). See also Circumcision controversy in early Christianity[13][14] and the Abrogation of Old Covenant laws.

The attractiveness of Christianity may, however, have suffered a setback with its being explicitly outlawed in the 80s CE by Domitian as a "Jewish superstition", while Judaism retained its privileges as long as members paid the fiscus Judaicus.

The opening verse of Acts 6 points to the problematic cultural divisions between Hellenized Jews and Aramaic-speaking Israelites in Jerusalem, a disunion that reverberated within the emerging Christian community itself:

it speaks of "Hellenists" and "Hebrews." The existence of these two distinct groups characterizes the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem. The Hebrews were Jewish Christians who spoke almost exclusively Aramaic, and the Hellenists were also Jewish Christians whose mother tongue was Greek. They were Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora, who returned to settle in Jerusalem. To identify them, Luke uses the term Hellenistai. When he had in mind Greeks, gentiles, non-Jews who spoke Greek and lived according to the Greek fashion, then he used the word Hellenes (Acts 21.28). As the very context of Acts 6 makes clear, the Hellenistai are not Hellenes.[15]

Some historians believe that a sizeable proportion of the Hellenized Jewish communities of Southern Turkey (Antioch, Alexandretta and neighboring cities) and Syria/Lebanon converted progressively to the Greco-Roman branch of Christianity that eventually constituted the "Melkite" (or "Imperial") Hellenistic churches of the MENA area:

As Jewish Christianity originated at Jerusalem, so Gentile Christianity started at Antioch, then the leading center of the Hellenistic East, with Peter and Paul as its apostles. From Antioch it spread to the various cities and provinces of Syria, among the Hellenistic Syrians as well as among the Hellenistic Jews who, as a result of the great rebellions against the Romans in A.D. 70 and 130, were driven out from Jerusalem and Palestine into Syria.[16]

Cultural legacy

Widespread influence beyond Second Temple Judaism

Both Early Christianity and Early Rabbinical Judaism were far less 'orthodox' and less theologically homogeneous than they are today; and both were significantly influenced by Hellenistic religion and borrowed allegories and concepts from Classical Hellenistic philosophy and the works of Greek-speaking Jewish authors of the end of the Second Temple period before the two schools of thought eventually affirmed their respective 'norms' and doctrines, notably by diverging increasingly on key issues such as the status of 'purity laws', the validity of Judeo-Christian messianic beliefs, and, more importantly, the use of Koiné Greek and Latin as liturgical languages replacing Biblical Hebrew[17]...etc.

First synagogues in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East

The word synagogue itself comes from Jewish Koiné Greek, a language spoken by Hellenized Jews across Southeastern Europe (Macedonia, Thrace, Northern Greece), North Africa and the Middle East after the 3rd century BCE. Many synagogues were built by the Hellenistai or adherents of Hellenistic Judaism in the Greek Isles, Cilicia, Northwestern and Eastern Syria and Northern Israel as early as the first century BCE- notably in Delos, Antioch, Alexandretta, Galilee and Dura-Europos: because of the mosaics and frescos representing heroic figures and Biblical characters (viewed as potentially conductive of "image worship" by later generations of Jewish scholars and rabbis), many of these early synagogues were at first mistaken for heathen Greek temples or Antiochian Greek Orthodox Churches.

Influence on Levantine Byzantine traditions

The unique combination of ethnocultural traits inhered from the fusion of a Greek-Macedonian cultural base, Hellenistic Judaism and Roman civilization gave birth to the distinctly Antiochian “Middle Eastern-Roman” Christian traditions of Cilicia (Southeastern Turkey) and Syria/Lebanon:

"The mixture of Roman, Greek, and Jewish elements admirably adapted Antioch for the great part it played in the early history of Christianity. The city was the cradle of the church".[18]

Some typically Grecian "Ancient Synagogal" priestly rites and hymns have survived partially to the present, notably in the distinct church services of the followers of the Melkite Greek Catholic church and its sister-church the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in the Hatay Province of Southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Northern Israel, and in the Greek-Levantine Christian diasporas of Brazil, Mexico, the United States and Canada.

Members of these communities still call themselves "Rûm", literally "Roman" and referring to Asian-Greeks in Turkish, Persian and Levantine Arabic. In that context, the term Rûm is preferred over Yāvāni or Ionani, literally "Ionian" and referring to European-Greeks in Ancient Hebrew, Sanskrit and Classical Arabic.

Notable Hellenized Jews

Hellenistic and Hasmonean Period

Herodian and Roman Period

  • Philo of Alexandria (Greek: Φίλων, Philōn; c. 20 BCE – c. 50 CE), also called Philo Judaeus, of Alexandria, in the Roman province of Egypt, first Jewish philosopher
  • Saul of Tarsus or Sha'ul Tarsi known as Paul the Apostle
  • Andrew the Apostle (Greek: Ἀνδρέας, Andreas; from the early 1st century – mid to late 1st century AD), Galileean-Hauranian Jew, called in the Greek Orthodox tradition Prōtoklētos (Πρωτόκλητος), or the First-called, believed to have preached in Southeastern Europe (Thrace, Macedonia, Northern Greece) as well as possibly in Southern Russia (Scythia). Patron saint of Ukraine and Scotland
  • Julianos (Hellenized form of a Roman name) and Pappos (from Koine Greek pappa or papas "patriarch" or "elder") born circa 80 AD in the city of Lod (Hebrew: לוֹד; Greco-Latin: Lydda, Diospolis, Ancient Greek: Λύδδα / Διόσπολις – city of Zeus), one of the main centers of Hellenistic culture in central Israel. Julianos and Pappos led the Jewish resistance movement against the Roman army in Israel during the Kitos War, 115-117 AD (their Hebrew names were Shamayah and Ahiyah respectively)
  • Rabbi Tarfon (Hebrew: רבי טרפון‎, from the Greek Τρύφων Tryphon), a Kohen,[20] was a member of the third generation of the Mishnah sages, who lived in the period between the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE) and the fall of Betar (135 CE). Thought to be originally from the region of Lod (Hebrew: לוֹד; Greco-Latin: Lydda, Diospolis, Ancient Greek: Λύδδα / Διόσπολις – city of Zeus), one of the main centers of Hellenistic culture in central Israel, R. Tarfon was one of the most vociferous Jewish critics of Early Christianity
  • Simon of Cyrene (שמעון "Hearkening; listening", Standard Hebrew Šimʿon, Tiberian Hebrew Šimʿôn), Libyan Jew born at the end of the 1st C. BC; lived in Jerusalem around 30 AD. Believed to have been "forced [by Roman soldiers] to bear the cross of Jesus after the crucifixtion". His home town, Cyrene, in Northeastern Libya, was a Greek colony, with a large Jewish community where 100,000 Judean Jews had been deported and forced to settle during the reign of Ptolemy Soter (323–285 BC), the Greco-Macedonian ruler of Egypt, following his invasion of Israel.
  • Saint Timothy (Greek: Τιμόθεος; Timótheos, meaning "honouring God" or "honored by God") born in Lycaonia (Southeastern Turkey) of Greek father and Hellenized Jewish mother, seconded Paul in his missions to Asia Minor and Southeastern Europe (Thrace, Macedonia, Greece)

Late Antiquity and Early Medieval Era

  • Rav Pappa (Hebrew: רב פפא, from Koine Greek pappa or papas "patriarch" or "elder" – originally "father") (ca. 300 – died 375) was a Jewish Talmudist who lived in Babylonia, at a time when Judeo-Aramaic culture was regaining the upper hand against classical Hellenistic Judaism, notably amongst Jewish communities in Babylonia which reverted back progressively to the pre-Hellenistic Aramaic culture
  • Kalonymos family (Kαλώνυμος in Greek), first known rabbinical dynasty of Northern Italy and Central Europe: notable members include Ithiel I, author of Jewish prayer books (born circa 780 CE) and Kalonymus Ben Meshullam born in France circa 1000, spiritual leader of the Jewish community of Mainz in Western Germany

See also


  1. Roy M. MacLeod, The Library Of Alexandria: Centre Of Learning In The Ancient World
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ulrich Wilcken, Griechische Geschichte im Rahmen der Alterumsgeschichte.
  3. Syracuse University. "The Jewish Diaspora in the Hellenistic Period"
  4. Harald Hegermann (2008) The Diaspora in the Hellenistic Age. In: The Cambridge History of Judaism, Vol. 2. Eds.: Davies and Finkelstein.PP. 115 - 166
  5. "Hellenism", Jewish Encyclopedia, Quote: "Post-exilic Judaism was largely recruited from those returned exiles who regarded it as their chief task to preserve their religion uncontaminated, a task that required the strict separation of the congregation both from all foreign peoples (Ezra x. 11; Neh. ix. 2) and from the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine who did not strictly observe the Law (Ezra vi. 22; Neh. x. 29). "
  6. "Saul of Tarsus: Not a Hebrew Scholar; a Hellenist", Jewish Encyclopedia
  7. E. g., Leviticus 26:41, Ezekiel 44:7
  8. "Hellenism", Jewish Encyclopedia, Quote: from 'Range of Hellenic Influence' and 'Reaction Against Hellenic Influence' sections
  9. " Epistle to the Cyrene", International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
  10. " Epistle to the Galatians", New Testament
  11. Acts 16:1–3
  12. McGarvey on Acts 16: "Yet we see him in the case before us, circumcising Timothy with his own hand, and this 'on account of certain Jews who were in those quarters. '"
  13. 1 Corinthians 7:18
  14. "making themselves foreskins"; I Macc. i. 15; Josephus, "Ant." xii. 5, § 1; Assumptio Mosis, viii.; I Cor. vii. 18;, Tosef.; Talmud tractes Shabbat xv. 9; Yevamot 72a, b; Yerushalmi Peah i. 16b; Yevamot viii. 9a; [1]; Catholic Encyclopedia: Circumcision: "To this epispastic operation performed on the athletes to conceal the marks of circumcision St. Paul alludes, me epispastho (1 Corinthians 7:18)."
  15. " Conflict and Diversity in the Earliest Christian Community", Fr. V. Kesich, O.C.A.
  16. "History of Christianity in Syria", Catholic Encyclopedia
  17. Daniel Boyarin. "Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism" [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 15.
  18. "Antioch," Encyclopaedia Biblica, Vol. I, p. 186 (p. 125 of 612 in online .pdf file.
  19. Alexander II of Judea at the Jewish Encyclopedia
  20. Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin, 71a

Further reading

  • hrsg. von W.G. Kümmel und H. Lichtenberger (1973), Jüdische Schriften aus hellenistisch römischer Zeit (in German), GüterslohCS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Delling, Gerhard (1987), Die Begegnung zwischen Hellenismus und Judentum Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (in German), Bd. II 20.1CS1 maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>