View Full Version : Greek & Roman – World Culture Confounds the Jews

Sunday, October 10th, 2004, 02:10 PM
Greek and Jew

In the early fourth century (332 BC) Alexander’s 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’. (N. Cantor, The Sacred Chain - A History of the Jews) Initially, the Jews were ruled by the Greeks of Alexandria. Then, for a hundred and fifty years, Syrian Greeks governed the land of Palestine.

As elsewhere 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 Moses’!

The ‘world 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.

Gnosticism 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 Nero’s 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.

Unlike 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.

The Greeks 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 license extended even to a preference for homosexual relationships. In contrast, the Jews had a vast catalogue of sex crimes, all of them capital offenses. 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.

The priesthood’s 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. Israel’s 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.

Ironically, it was the meteoric career of antiquity’s 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 B.C.E. 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

Rome’s ambitions in the east brought Pompey and his legions to Judaea in 63 B.C.E. 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.

Pompey ended 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 B.C.E. 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 Herod’s death in 4 B.C.E., 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

The 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 emperor’s ‘Genius’ were not tributes to his mental acumen but rather, were invocations of a ‘holy ghost’ or procreative power of his lineage.

Importantly, 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.

As 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')

The 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 Herod’s death, Judaea had first come under direct Roman rule in 6 C.E. 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.

The Jews, 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.

Some 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 God’s 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.

The Essenes 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.

Certain groups, 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 first 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 against Rome.

Others, were 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 Messiah’s 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 Rome’s grip. Britain had come under Roman control at about the same time as Judaea and Boudicca had led her rebellion in the 60s C.E.. Unlike the Iceni, however, the Jews had been schooled in Babylon and were driven by a powerful religious ideology, one ...

‘derived 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 )
While 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 C.E., to plea 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.

Raising the 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 culminating in his godhood in August, 40 AD and ordered his effigy be placed in temples throughout the empire. Caligula’s 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 intellectualised 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 B.C.E.) and an ancient Egyptian idea that the unknowable godhead existed in the realm of ‘plenitude’ or Pleroma .

The godhead, 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 god’s 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 fourth 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 philosopher.

The 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 Yahweh’s disembodied ‘forces’, quite forgetting, for example, that Wisdom had once been the Phoenician goddess Astarte.

The 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. More than one such zealot was to take up Philo’s thesis and re-work it into a format more accessible to the less educated…

Kenneth Humphreys

Rodskarl Dubhgall
Thursday, April 19th, 2018, 08:03 AM
Very good overview. Jews were just one among other elements on the Hellenistic radar. Alexandria was for universalism, not Jewish ethnocentrism. "Chosen ones"? My arse! Therefore, it was very fitting for Ptolemy to rewrite the Bible and divorce it from Judeocentrism, disarming the Jews by sowing doubt in their pride, influencing the world to come.