Hellenistic Judaism was a form of Judaism in classical antiquity that combined Jewish religious tradition with elements of Hellenistic culture. Until the early Muslim conquests of the eastern Mediterranean, the main centers of Hellenistic Judaism were Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Turkey, the two main Greek urban settlements of the Middle East and North Africa, both founded in the end of the fourth 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 a conflict between Hellenizers and traditionalists.

The major literary product of the contact between Second Temple Judaism and Hellenistic culture is the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible from Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic to Koine Greek, specifically, Jewish Koine Greek. Mentionable are also the philosophic and ethical treatises of Philo and the historiographical works of the other Hellenistic Jewish authors.[1][2]

The decline of Hellenistic Judaism started in the second century and its causes are still not fully understood. It may be that it was eventually marginalized by, partially absorbed into, or progressively became the Koine-speaking core of Early Christianity centered on Antioch and its traditions, such as the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch.


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

Main article: Hellenization

The conquests of Alexander in the late fourth 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 period, which sought to create a common or universal culture in the Alexandrian empire based on that of fifth-century Athens, along with a fusion of Near Eastern cultures.[3] The period is characterized by a new wave of Greek colonization which established Greek cities and kingdoms in Asia and Africa,[4] the most famous being Alexandria in Egypt. New cities established composed of colonists from different parts of the Greek world, and not from a specific metropolis ("mother city") as before.[4]

Mosaic floor of a Jewish Synagogue Aegina (300 CE).

These Jews living in countries west of the Levant formed the Hellenistic diaspora. The Egyptian diaspora is the most well-known of these.[5] It witnessed close ties. Indeed, there was firm economic integration of Judea with the Ptolemaic Kingdom that ruled from Alexandria, while there were friendly relations 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.[6]

Jewish life in both Judea and the diaspora was influenced by the culture and language of Hellenism. The Greeks viewed Jewish culture favorably, while Hellenism gained adherents among the Jews. While Hellenism has sometimes been presented (under the influence of 2 Maccabees, itself notably a work in Koine Greek) as a threat of assimilation diametrically opposed to Jewish tradition,

Adaptation to Hellenic culture did not require compromise of Jewish precepts or conscience. When a Greek gymnasium was introduced into Jerusalem, it was installed by a Jewish High Priest. And other priests soon engaged in wrestling matches in the palaestra. They plainly did not reckon such activities as undermining their priestly duties.

— Erich S. Gruen[7]: 73–74 

Later historians would sometimes depict Hellenism and Judaism uniquely incompatible, likely due to the influence of the persecution of Antiochus IV. However, it does not appear that most Jews in the Hellenistic era considered Greek rulers any worse or different from Persian or Babylonian ones. Writings of Hellenized Jews such as Philo of Alexandria show no particular belief that Jewish and Greek culture are incompatible; as another example, the Letter of Aristeas holds up Jews and Judaism in a favorable light by the standards of Greek culture. The one major difference that even the most Hellenized Jews did not appear to compromise on was the prohibition on polytheism; this still separated Hellenistic Jews from wider Greek culture in refusing to honor shrines, temples, gods etc. that did not pertain to the God of Israel.[8]

Hellenistic rulers of Judea

Under the suzerainty of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and later the Seleucid Empire, Judea witnessed a period of peace and protection of its institutions.[9] For their aid against his Ptolemaic enemies, Antiochus III the Great promised his Jewish subjects a reduction in taxes and funds to repair the city of Jerusalem and the Second Temple.[9]

Relations deteriorated under Antiochus's successor Seleucus IV Philopator, and then, for reasons not fully understood, his successor Antiochus IV Epiphanes drastically overturned the previous policy of respect and protection, banning key Jewish religious rites and traditions in Judea (although not among the diaspora) and sparking a traditionalist revolt against Greek rule.[9] Out of this revolt was formed an independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonean kingdom, which lasted from 141 BCE to 63 BCE. The Hasmonean Dynasty eventually disintegrated due to a civil war.

Hellenization of Jewish society

Overall, Jewish society was divided between conservative factions and pro-Hellenist factions.[10] Pro-Hellenist Jews were generally upper-class or minorities living in Gentile-majority communities. They lived in towns that were far from Jerusalem and heavily connected with Greek trading networks.[11]

The most significant literary achievement of Hellenistic Judaism was the development of the Septuagint. Other notable works include the Book of Wisdom, Sirach and pseudepigraphic apocalyptic literature such as the Assumption of Moses, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Baruch and the Greek Apocalypse of Baruch. Some scholars consider Paul the Apostle to be a Hellenist Jew, even though he claimed to be a Pharisee (Acts 23:6).[12]

Philo of Alexandria defended Judaism as a monotheistic philosophy that anticipated the tenets of Hellenistic philosophy. He also popularized metaphors such as "circumcision of the heart" to Greek audiences.[13]

Hellenization was evident in the religious Jewish establishment:

'Ḥoni' became 'Menelaus'; 'Joshua' became 'Jason' or 'Jesus' [Ἰησοῦς]. 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).[14]

The turbulence created by Alexander the Great's death also popularized Jewish messianism.[11]

Hellenistic Jewish diasporas

Main article: History of the Jews in Greece

For 2000 years, Jews lived in Greece and created the Romaniote Jewish community.[15] They spoke Yevanic, a Greek dialect with Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic influence.[16] According to oral tradition, they were descendants of Jewish refugees who fled Jerusalem in 70 CE, after the destruction of the Second Temple.[17] However, their presence dates back to 300-250 BCE, according to existing inscriptions.[18] Greek philosophers such as Clearchus of Soli were impressed by Jews and believed they were descendants of Indian philosophers.[19]

Elsewhere, Jews in Alexandria created a "unique fusion of Greek and Jewish culture".[10]

Absorption into early Christianity

Joshua. Fresco from Dura-Europos synagogue.

See also: Jewish Christian and History of the Jews in the Byzantine Empire

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 of the Hebrews). The Pauline epistles 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,[20][21] Paul the Apostle 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[22][23] 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.[24]

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 Christian Judaism 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.[25]


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 Christian messianic beliefs, and the use of Koiné Greek and Latin as liturgical languages replacing Biblical Hebrew, etc.[26]

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 Greek temples or Antiochian Greek Orthodox churches.

Mishnaic and Talmudic concepts

Many of the Jewish sages who compiled the Mishnah and earliest versions of the Talmud were Hellenized Jews, including Johanan ben Zakai, the first Jewish sage attributed the title of rabbi and Rabbi Meir, the son of proselyte Anatolian Greek converts to Early Rabbinical Judaism.

Even Israeli rabbis of Babylonian Jewish descent such as Hillel the Elder whose parents were Aramaic-speaking Jewish migrants from Babylonia (hence the nickname "Ha-Bavli"), had to learn Greek language and Greek philosophy in order to be conversant with sophisticated rabbinical language – many of the theological innovations introduced by Hillel had Greek names, most famously the Talmudic notion of Prozbul, from Koine Greek προσβολή, "to deliver":

Unlike literary Hebrew, popular Aramaic or Hebrew constantly adopted new Greek loanwords, as is shown by the language of the Mishnaic and Talmudic literature. While it reflects the situation at a later period, its origins go back well before the Christian era. The collection of the loanwords in the Mishna to be found in Schürer shows the areas in which Hellenistic influence first became visible- military matters, state administration and legislature, trade and commerce, clothing and household utensils, and not least in building. The so-called copper scroll with its utopian list of treasures also contains a series of Greek loanwords. When towards the end of the first century BCE, Hillel in practice repealed the regulation of the remission of debts in the sabbath year (Deut. 15.1-11) by the possibility of a special reservation on the part of the creditor, this reservation was given a Greek name introduced into Palestinian legal language- perōzebbōl = προσβολή, a sign that even at that time legal language was shot through with Greek.

— Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (1974)

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".[27]

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.

But many of the surviving liturgical traditions of these communities rooted in Hellenistic Judaism and, more generally, Second Temple Greco-Jewish Septuagint culture, were expunged progressively in the late medieval and modern eras by both Phanariot European-Greek (Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople) and Vatican (Roman Catholic) gentile theologians who sought to 'bring back' Levantine Greek Orthodox and Greek-Catholic communities into the European Christian fold: some ancient Judeo-Greek traditions were thus deliberately abolished or reduced in the process.

Members of these communities still call themselves "Rûm" (literally "Roman"; usually referred to as "Byzantine" in English) and referring to Greeks in Turkish, Persian and Levantine Arabic. In that context, the term Rûm is preferred over Yāvāni or Ionani (literally "Ionian"), also referring to Greeks in Ancient Hebrew, Sanskrit and Classical Arabic.

Individual Hellenized Jews

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Hellenistic and Hasmonean Period

Herodian and Roman Period

Late Antiquity and Early Medieval Era

See also


  1. ^ Walter, N. Jüdisch-hellenistische Literatur vor Philon von Alexandrien (unter Ausschluss der Historiker), ANRW II: 20.1.67-120
  2. ^ Barr, James (1989). "Chapter 3 - Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek in the Hellenistic age". In Davies, W.D.; Finkelstein, Louis (eds.). The Cambridge history of Judaism. Volume 2: The Hellenistic Age (1. publ. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 79–114. ISBN 9781139055123.
  3. ^ Roy M. MacLeod, The Library Of Alexandria: Centre Of Learning In The Ancient World
  4. ^ a b Ulrich Wilcken, Griechische Geschichte im Rahmen der Alterumsgeschichte.
  5. ^ "Syracuse University. "The Jewish Diaspora in the Hellenistic Period"". Archived from the original on 2012-01-30. Retrieved 2013-09-11.
  6. ^ Hegermann, Harald (1990). "Chapter 4: The Diaspora in the Hellenistic age". In Davies, W.D.; Finkelstein, Louis (eds.). The Cambridge history of Judaism (1. publ. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 115–166. doi:10.1017/CHOL9780521219297.005. ISBN 9781139055123.
  7. ^ Gruen, Erich S. (1997). "Fact and Fiction: Jewish Legends in a Hellenistic Context". Hellenistic Constructs: Essays in Culture, History, and Historiography. University of California Press. pp. 72 ff.
  8. ^ Grabbe, Lester L. (2008). A History of the Jews and Judaism in the Second Temple Period: The Coming of the Greeks: The Early Hellenistic Period (335–175 BCE). Library of Second Temple Studies. Vol. 68. T&T Clark. pp. 155–165. ISBN 978-0-567-03396-3.
  9. ^ a b c Gruen, Erich S. (1993). "Hellenism and Persecution: Antiochus IV and the Jews". In Green, Peter (ed.). Hellenistic History and Culture. University of California Press. pp. 238 ff.
  10. ^ a b Armstrong, Karen (2006). The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions (First ed.). New York: Knopf. pp. 350–352. ISBN 978-0-676-97465-2.
  11. ^ a b Grabbe 2010, p. 10–16
  12. ^ "Saul of Tarsus: Not a Hebrew Scholar; a Hellenist" Archived 2009-03-29 at the Wayback Machine, Jewish Encyclopedia
  13. ^ E. g., Leviticus 26:41, Ezekiel 44:7
  14. ^ "Hellenism" Archived 2009-03-29 at the Wayback Machine, Jewish Encyclopedia, Quote: from 'Range of Hellenic Influence' and 'Reaction Against Hellenic Influence' sections
  15. ^ The Holocaust in Greece: Ioannina. URL accessed April 15, 2006. Archived October 20, 2004, at the Wayback Machine
  16. ^ "Language". Jewish Community of Rhodes - Official Website. Retrieved 2024-01-20.
  17. ^ Bonfil, Robert (2011). Jews in Byzantium: Dialectics of Minority and Majority Cultures. Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture. Brill. p. 105. ISBN 9789004203556.
  18. ^ David M. Lewis (2002). Rhodes, P.J. (ed.). Selected Papers in Greek and Near Eastern History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 381. ISBN 0-521-46564-8.
  19. ^ Josephus, Flavius. Contra Apionem, I.176-183. Retrieved 6/16/2012 from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=J.+Ap.+1.176&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0215.
  20. ^ Acts 16:1–3
  21. ^ McGarvey on Acts 16 Archived 2012-10-16 at the Wayback Machine: "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. '"
  22. ^ 1 Corinthians 7:18
  23. ^ "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] Archived 2020-05-08 at the Wayback Machine; Catholic Encyclopedia: Circumcision Archived 2013-01-16 at the Wayback Machine: "To this epispastic operation performed on the athletes to conceal the marks of circumcision St. Paul alludes, me epispastho (1 Corinthians 7:18)."
  24. ^ " Conflict and Diversity in the Earliest Christian Community" Archived 2013-05-10 at the Wayback Machine, Fr. V. Kesich, O.C.A.
  25. ^ "History of Christianity in Syria" Archived 2013-01-17 at the Wayback Machine, Catholic Encyclopedia
  26. ^ Daniel Boyarin. "Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism", Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 15.
  27. ^ "Antioch," Encyclopaedia Biblica, Vol. I, p. 186 (p. 125 of 612 in online .pdf file.
  28. ^ Alexander II of Judea Archived 2011-10-16 at the Wayback Machine at the Jewish Encyclopedia
  29. ^ "Artapanus | Encyclopedia.com". www.encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 2024-02-19.
  30. ^ "Cleodemus | Jewish historian | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 2024-02-19.
  31. ^ Bartlett, John R., ed. (1985), "EUPOLEMUS", Jews in the Hellenistic World: Josephus, Aristeas, The Sibylline Oracles, Eupolemus, Cambridge Commentaries on Writings of the Jewish and Christian World, vol. 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 56–71, doi:10.1017/CBO9780511621307.005, ISBN 978-0-521-28551-3, retrieved 2024-02-19
  32. ^ Lanfranchi, Pierluigi (2018), "The Exagōgē of Ezekiel the Tragedian", The Exagōgē of Ezekiel the Tragedian, pp. 125–146, doi:10.1017/9781139833936.006, ISBN 978-1-107-03855-4, retrieved 2024-02-19
  33. ^ Nehemiah xii. 11
  34. ^ Jewish Antiquities xi. 8, § 7
  35. ^ I Macc. xii. 7, 8, 20
  36. ^ Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin, 71a
  37. ^ Philippe Bobichon (ed.), Justin Martyr, Dialogue avec Tryphon, édition critique, introduction, texte grec, traduction, commentaires, appendices, indices, (Coll. Paradosis nos. 47, vol. I-II.) Editions Universitaires de Fribourg Suisse, (1125 pp.), 2003

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