The relationship between the Greeks and Jews at the time of Jesus is a fascinating study because it impacted many aspects of Jewish life, even inside the borders of the Jewish nation. When Alexander the Great conquered a large portion of the known world, he set out to spread Greek culture and ideas. One of the primary methods to advance Hellenism was the building or restoration of cities throughout the conquered lands. These cities, strategically placed for military or trade purposes, also served as cultural centers for the region by introducing the gymnasium, athletics, literature, and religion. Although Alexander died before seeing his vision complete, the Hellenistic culture permeated throughout the region he conquered and remained an influence for many centuries. The most important contribution of the Greeks was the introduction of a common language, Koine Greek, to the world. “Perhaps they could not construct complex Greek sentences with perfect syntax and inflection, but they could make themselves understood. Needless to say, this gift of common speech was of considerable importance in encouraging commerce and various sorts of interchange through the Alexandrian world.” [1] The Greeks also introduced revolutionary concepts in science, logic, and philosophy. Most of Hellenism was implemented through the Ptolemaic and Selucid dynasties. In this way, Greek culture and ideas spread virtually throughout the known world, including Palestine. “One region, however, remained unaffected by this process: the central hilly area of Judea, around Jerusalem. Here there were no Hellenistic cities. This was only natural; the only way to Hellenize Judea would have been to convert Jerusalem itself into a Hellenistic city.” [2]

As history recounts, attempts to Hellenize the Jews varied from the gentle to the forceful to the imposition of Greek culture. “Because the Greeks were so certain of their innate superiority, they probably expected the Jews to admire and emulate them. They were doing a favor to the Eastern peoples in bequeathing on them the accoutrements of true culture.” [3] The reaction on the part of the Jews to Greek culture varied from the Maccabees, who violently resisted the influences of Hellenism, to those who whole-heartedly accepted Greek ideas to the point of abandoning their Jewish heritage. Some offered passive resistance while others sought to mediate the Hellenistic and Hebrew cultures. The challenge to repudiate or deny Greek culture was a daunting task for it “represented, quite simply, ‘civilization’ and Hellenistic rule had brought prosperity and better living conditions to thousands of citizens throughout the known world. To be cut off from this common civilization would be a serious matter indeed.” [4] Of the major Jewish sects, the Sadducees were the most receptive to Hellenism, due to their openness to different cultures and ideas. Also, because the Sadducees restricted their doctrine to Mosaic Law and rejected the Oral Law, also known as the Tradition of the Elders, they were more receptive to Greek ideas and influences. The other major sect, the Pharisees, was more resistant to Hellenism as their reliance upon the Oral Law as well as Mosaic Law of Moses would suggest. Even their name, Pharisee, which means “separate”, infers their rejection of Greek culture and philosophy.

The two cultures differed in many respects. The Greek saw the world abstractly through the mind's eye while the Jews saw the world in literal or functional terms. The abstract perspective is to use concepts or ideas that cannot be seen, touched, heard, or tasted, in other words, devoid of the senses, to communicate and express ideas. In contrast, the Jews used the senses of sight, sound, touch, and taste to experience and explain the world. The Hebrew language also used “sense-based” illustrations from the world around them to describe abstract ideas. An example of this particular trait of Hebrew is the word for strong leader, which is derived from the words for oak tree and stag deer. The wood of the oak was thought to be the strongest wood in the region of the Middle East, unlike the soft wood of the pine, and the stag deer was thought to be one of the strongest and most noble creatures in the animal kingdom. Combining the strengths from these two, the Hebrew language devised the word meaning strong leader. Note the practice of appropriating physical (sensory) aspects to generate the language. This technique is also evident in the writings of the Psalms when it speaks of a man being like a tree planted by streams of water, producing fruit and whose leaves do not wither.

Not surprisingly, the two cultures viewed objects differently. Should you ask a Greek and Jew about a house, the Greek would focus on the appearance using adjectives to describe the dimensions, colors, construction materials, and other such aspects of the structure, while the Jew would use verbs to explain the functional purpose of the house as a place to congregate, eat, and sleep rather than the physical attributes of the structure. Hebrew also thought would tend toward relationships and the concept of “both/and” while the Greek would tend toward “either/or” that logic encourages. Schalem Ben-Chorin, a Jewish writer, wrote that Greek approach was to establish rules in which they arrange details into larger entities and place them into structures. Aristotle through Hegel and beyond utilized this approach to hermeneutic study. In contrast, Hebrew thought began with details that would develop into rules, from observation to concept and thought. From this perspective, one could group Hebrew Scripture into two categories: narrative and instructions for living.

Another significant difference between the two cultures was their religious beliefs and the relationship between the Jew and his God and the Greek and his gods. The Jewish belief was that their duty and obligation as the chosen people to accept and obey revelations and instructions God gave. The relationship between the Jews and God was one of trust, dependence, and obedience. Their “thinking was channeled by the Law and was largely confined to a development of the Torah's implications.” [5] The typical Jew would view him/herself as theocentric, in that his task is to serve God. In contrast, the Greek religion was polytheistic in that they would believe in many gods. However, the gods of Hellenism were somewhat capricious and not always benevolent. The Greek view saw man at the center and the standard by which to measure. Toward that end, the Greeks “maintained a spirit of free inquiry stimulated by an insatiable intellectual curiosity which impelled him to prove all aspects of the world and to offer new hypotheses concerning nature and laws.” [6]

Over time, the Greeks came up with an advanced system of logic to encourage exploration, speculation, and inquisitiveness toward anything and everything, including God. The Jews were not so free in their view of the world and while the Jews accepted many Hellenistic customs, flatly deemed others directly contradictory to the Old Testament such as infanticide and homosexuality. The Jews stubbornly retained the custom of circumcision, eating kosher, and keeping the Sabbath despite the influence of Hellenism. The differences between the two cultures were also apparent with regard to laws. The Jews held that the Law was from God and was His guide as to conduct and behavior. The Greeks viewed the law as designed to suit the situation and setting. Because man designed the law, it could be changed when necessary. From the Greeks came several still known philosophical systems including Skepticism, Cynicism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism, the last two which had a fairly significant influence on Jewish beliefs and attitudes.

It must be noted that Jews in first-century Palestine, particularly from the region of Galilee and the city of Jerusalem, were well educated in religious belief and custom. This was unusual for agrarian societies, such as the Jewish nation, since statistics indicates less than five percent of this population type were able to read and write. A significant advantage the Jews possessed was the synagogue and Jewish law mandating education of children. This education from the synagogue and the schooling from the synagogue was the entirety of education many received. Naturally enough, the teaching during the Sabbath was devoted to Scripture. In a typical service at the synagogue, after the reciting of the Shema, the prayers, and the blessings, they set aside time to read and study the Pentateuch. Those in the first century had to memorize and thus assimilate knowledge, especially Scripture. Because they internalized information, including rote memorization of large amounts of Scripture, they were better able to correlate and apply Biblical concepts and doctrines to the world in which they lived. Those who live today are prone to be knowledgeable of methods necessary to access information, rather than to assimilate it or apply the information. Because of this tendency to merely possess the ability to access data, the modern student, particularly one in the ministry, would be hard-pressed to equal the knowledge and understanding of life situations and the applicable Scripture of those who lived at the time of Jesus. Those who lived then were as intelligent and nimble of mind as the scholar today, and those who received a religious education were as knowledgeable, if not more so, of Scripture, theology, and doctrines as the learned theologian or seminary professor of today.

Evidence of this astounding understanding of Scripture on the part of the first century rabbi, we can see in the conversations of the Pharisee, and scribe with Jesus, particularly when they were seeking to trap Him to speak against Herod, Roman authorities, or contradict the Old Testament. Time and time again, their understanding of the Torah was evident in their sparring with Jesus. You can see examples of exchanges between the scribes and Pharisees, as well as the Sadducees; in many passages, particularly those of conflict during the last portion of His ministry. 


Copyright 2016 © Craig B. Manning. All Rights Reserved.