An Introduction to the History of the Second Temple Period

Hellenism & Judaism

And behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly;
and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and destroyed, and stamped the
residue with it's feet: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were
before it; and it had ten horns.  (Daniel 7:7)

The Book of Daniel although set during the Babylonian and Persian periods
was written during the Hellenistic period, in the 3rd and 4th centuries
BCE.  Daniel's fourth beast, dreadful and fierce, could well be seen as a
poetic description of the phalanx, the basic military formation used by
Alexander the Great in creating his empire. The phalanx is made up of a
solid wall of sixteen soldiers carrying pikes measuring up to 6 yards long.
Each soldier carried a shield in tight formation. The phalanx moved with
security, speed, and skill.  For the peoples conquered by Alexander, the
phalanx seemed an invincible, insatiable beast. The phalanx was the tank of
the  ancient world.  By 323 BCE, with the power of his armored divisions,
Alexander's empire stretched from Egypt to India.

As Alexander crossed into Asia Minor (334 BCE), he passed through the Land
of Israel, and continued through the Persian Empire. Throughout his
conquests, he carried with him a bold vision; a dream of uniting the world
under one political-cultural framework. However, the ecumenical design of
Alexander (literally universal, from the Greek oikoumene'   : the
inhabited, civilized world) was far from pluralistic. Hellenistic culture,
the export of Greek civilization throughout Alexander's empire,
confidently, even arrogantly assumed that it's political-military might
reflected a basic Hellenistic cultural superiority over less politically
powerful peoples. The

Hellenists, the champions of the expansion of the Greek style cultural
influence, looked on non-Greek cultural groups as savages, as primitives.
Greek speakers called non-Greek speakers - "barbaroi", barbarians.
Languages, other than Greek, were denigrated as a babbling cacophony of
nonsense. In the estimation of the Hellenists, only Greek could serve as
the linguistic vehicle for the formation of a universal civilization.

The Hellenistic presumption of cultural superiority, and the ability of
smaller native cultures to withstand Hellenistic imperialism became a
central question of the day. What does it mean to be modern? How important
is it to "fit in"? During the Hellenistic period, modern meant the adoption
of Greek language, dress, and political forms. Today, modern, in Tokyo, and
Paris, and Tel Aviv, is  defined by Coca Cola, jeans, consumer capitalism,
and democracy. In order to be seen by the world as modern, some of the most
repressive governments in the world call themselves democracies. Along a
similar vein, the T-shirt is the direct descendant of the toga.

In the eyes of the Hellenistic world, the Jewish people were especially
strange. Jewish dietary laws (kashrut) forbade Jew and non-Jew to share the
same food. From the time of Ezra, intermarriage between Jews and Non-Jews
was defined as a bottom line for Jewish survival. The Temple in Jerusalem;
with it's strict prohibitions against graven images, stood in sharp
contrast the magnificent sculpture of the Greek tradition of naked
athletes, muscular gods, and voluptuous goddesses.

With the sudden death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, his empire divided
into three power blocs. In Greece and Macedon, the Antigonid kingdom
emerged. In Syria and Mesopotamia, the Seleucid ruled. From Alexandria, the
Ptolemies controlled Egypt. Between the death of Alexander until
approximately 200 BCE, the Land of Israel traded hands between the
Ptolemies and the Seleucids.

Both Ptolemy and Seleucid reign was popular among the growing non-Jewish
population of the country. Throughout the period, over thirty Hellenistic
colonies were established throughout the Land of Israel. These cities
served not only as hubs for trade and commerce, but became the sattlelites
broadcasting the message of the superiority of Hellenistc culture and rule
thoughout the area. The city of Maresha, located in the Judaean lowlands,
is an oustanding example. A city perched along a strategic position between
the rim of the Northern Negev and the mountain passes leading up to Hebron
and Jerusalem, Maresha was home for local Idumeans, Sidonian traders, and
Greek colonists. The language of the city was Greek. Like any major
Hellenistc settlement, the city itself lay spread around a central hill -
the acropolis - that served as city hall, fortress, and home for religious
shrines. Below the acropolis, two story villas, and an enormous underground
industrial zone made up a city of up to 10,000 inhabitants. The production
of olive oil and the growing of pigeons were the main industries that
turned Maresha into a thriving trading town. Even the tomb caves on the
outskirts of town reflect the powerful Hellenistic influence. Inscriptions
in Greek, wall paintings of toga clad musicians, and the canine guardian of
the Underworld from Greek mythology, Cerebrus, all point to the extent of
the Hellenization of the non-Jewish populations of the Land of Israel.

Within the Greek cities of the East, life revolved around religion.
Political events, sports activities, military life all included the worship
of the dieties of the Greek pantheon. Like the Romans later, Hellenistic
religion tended to by syncretic. Zeus Olympia, the lightning hurler, the
head of the family of Greek gods could easily be identified, and melded
with  the chief gods of the polytheistic, local cults of the Hellenized

The Jewish population was more ambivalent. Large sections of the urban,
Jewish aristocracy, centered around the Temple in Jerusalem, sought to
modernize, to adopt Hellenistic customs and life-styles. Greek names became
very fashionable among even the Jerusalem priesthood as a badge of
Hellenistic vogue. Jason replaced Joshua. Menahem became Menalaus. By the
1st century BCE, the homes of the Jerusalem aristocracy were designed in
the finest Hellenistic styles. The Herodian Mansions, excavated by Prof.
Nahman Avigad throughout the 1970's and 1980's, in the heart of Jerusalem's
Old City Jewish Quarter reveal noble palaces complete with frescoes, mosaic
floors, classic columned porches, and the finest in Hellenistic ceramics
and pottery. However even in the opulent Herodian Mansions, Jewish ritual
baths  are abundant. Although using Hellenistic forms and styles, the
owners of the homes also drew certain red lines for themselves. Among the
mosaics and frescoes, there are no images representing any human or animal
face or body. Even in Jerusalem's most stylish neighborhoods, a decision
was made to honor the traditional prohibition against the representation of
anything that may be construed as a graven image. In fact, Jewish art from
the time of the Macabees (167 BCE) until the Bar Kochba Revolt (132 CE) is
careful not to portray the human or animal form. It seems that for the
majority of the Jewish aristocracy, the choice was not either Hellenism or
Judaism, but rather, the question was how to combine the best of both
worlds, how to take from the outside world, while maintaining the basic
tenets of Judaism.

In the Jewish countryside, the impact of Hellenism was weaker. When
Seleucus IV (187 BCE) attempted to rob the Temple treasury in Jerusalem, it
was among the Jewish rural villages that a religious-national opposition to
Seleucid rule and Hellenistic culture was born.

JUICE - Jewish University in CyberspacE