Better than the Greeks

Martin Goodman

  • The Cambridge History of Judaism. Vol. II: The Hellenistic Age edited by W.D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein
    Cambridge, 738 pp, £65.00, March 1990, ISBN 0 521 21929 9

As The Cambridge History of Judaism crawls ponderously towards the end of its huge task of charting the history of Judaism from 539 BC to circa AD 250, it continues to raise many questions. On a practical level the reader is left wondering about the wisdom of embarking on ambitious projects of this kind, in which the open-mindedness of the editors, commendable in other contexts, leaves unresolved such dramatic divergences between the different chapters that even the most intelligent neophyte will be left flummoxed. At a deeper level the Cambridge History brings to the surface interesting dilemmas about the best way to tackle the history of Judaism and the Jews.

‘The Hellenistic Age’, when isolated from what came before and after, is not a historical period which can be readily perceived in the texts written by Jews at the time or subsequently. These were the centuries between the conquest of the East by Alexander the Great (332-323 BC) and the victory at Actium in 31 BC over Cleopatra, the Greco-Macedonian Queen of Egypt, by the Roman adventurer Octavian, whom bloodthirsty ambition raised to imperial power under the name Augustus. In Jewish terms these years constituted a sizeable part of the era of the Second Temple, which had been built by the exiles who returned from Babylon in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. Neither the first nor the final date covered by this volume held any great significance for Jews – in recognition of which some of the contributions have been permitted to transgress these artificial limits.

What justification is there, then, for writing about Judaism in terms of political events in which Jews had a part only as onlookers? Is this simply a projection back onto the past of the close relationship of Jewish fortunes in the Medieval and modern diaspora to those of the non-Jewish world in which they lived and live? If so, is it not singularly inappropriate to rely on such Gentile parameters in the treatment of a period which witnessed the rule of the Hasmonaeans, who controlled the last Jewish state in Palestine (until 1948) to endure for more than a few years?

The categorisations of a Cambridge History do not come about by accident or subconscious prejudice about the marginal role of Jews in history. One contributor after another assumes, following the standard view in treatments of the period, that Alexander the Great’s conquests were more than just a political fact. It is taken for granted that Alexander brought with him a new culture which changed the face of local civilisations and in the process transformed Judaism. Such a view is traditional among scholars, who have generally seen the best explanation of the changes to Judaism over these centuries as manifestations of either an acceptance or a rejection of Hellenism. In this respect, despite the claim to ‘question some established dichotomies’, the Cambridge History is thoroughly conservative.

But rightly so? What curious postulates lurk beneath the standard assumptions? It is taken for granted that Greek culture was so ‘advanced’ by the late fourth century BC that native populations confronted by it would feel the need to react, whether positively or negatively. But it is worth asking how many of the major changes in Judaism in the Second Temple period were obviously affected in any way by Greeks, Greek culture or Greek customs. A suspicion of Gentiles was already noted by Hecataeus as characteristic of Jews, circa 300 BC, before Jews in Palestine knew much more about Greeks than their pots and their politics. The novel notion of a sacred scripture, and the emergence within Judaism of sectarian groups whose idiosyncrasies were based on their divergent methods of interpretation of that scripture, did not owe anything to Hellenism; nor did it constitute a reaction against it. The fanatics at Qumran, who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls and espoused a deviant calendar, necessarily marking them off from other Jews given the general Jewish concern for strictness about sacred time, could have espoused any or all of their curious tenets whether a Greek had come anywhere near Palestine or not. (One of the odder omissions of this volume is the lack of any discussion of Qumran.)

Ultimately, the temptation to see the reaction of Judaism to Hellenism as what really matters in this period is derived from a Christian perspective. The contrast in the Acts of the Apostles between Hebrew Jew and Hellenist Jew presents major questions for New Testament scholars. Since the Church was to claim to be the True Israel while also presenting itself as heir to the best in Greek culture, it is a matter of much interest to know whether Jews before Jesus and the Early Church had made the same efforts, and, if so, where and when.

I do not wish to imply any conscious effort by the editors of the Cambridge History to view Jewish history in Christian terms. On the contrary, they have made valiant efforts to avoid doing so, and their ultimate failure in this regard is testimony only to the force of the entrenched consensus in scholarship. In any other branch of history the natural procedure would be to concentrate on the evidence surviving from the period under discussion rather than later interpretations from antiquity. Is there anything in that quite abundant material to suggest that Jews consciously adapted their religious outlook either to conform with or to oppose Greek culture? The extent to which the Jews in Palestine adopted Greek cultural forms, like literature, art and architecture, and indeed, the Greek language, is much debated – more so than is suggested by the reliance in the Cambridge History on Martin Hengel’s justly influential views. But to understand changes in religious outlook (which is what a history of Judaism ought, surely, to be about), the actual behaviour of Jews matters less than their perception of their own behaviour. What reason is there to suppose that Jews at the time felt that, if they were correctly to understand their place in the world and relationship to the divinity, they had to choose between floating along on the stream of Hellenism or erecting a barrier against it?

Explicit and unequivocal concern about the effects of Greek culture on Jews is rather difficult to document outside a few passages in the Books of Maccabees. Jewish writers who composed scathing remarks about Greeks in general may have had in mind the political sins of Hellenistic rulers, the Seleucids chief among them. When Jews attacked idolatry they demonstrated no special concern over Greek forms of paganism. As Josephus remarked uneirenically in his apologia addressed to the Greek anti-semite Apion, Jews had no reason to loathe Greeks any more than Egyptians or other (one might add, all) Gentiles. So when, for example, the Cambridge History characterises the wicked transgressors lambasted by Ben Sira as the ‘Hellenists of the Jewish upper classes’, this reads more into the ancient text than is warranted; Ben Sira may have had such people in mind, but Hellenising was hardly the only way to break the Torah. In rabbinic texts from the Roman imperial period the Gentile habits proscribed by the sages, often described in some detail, in many cases do not correspond to any known behaviour of any non-Jews with whom rabbis may have had contact. In other words, the Gentile practices condemned seem to have been an artificial construct invented by the rabbis themselves.

The explicit strictures on Hellenisation found in ancient accounts of the Maccabaean revolt of the 160s BC are thus not only not standard but highly unusual in the literature of the period. According to the First Book of Maccabees, wicked Jews in Jerusalem joined themselves to the Gentiles and built a gymnasium according to the customs of the nations. The author of the Second Book of Maccabees, equally preoccupied with athletics, rather incongruously described the wearing of the broad-brimmed hat commonly worn by Greeks when taking exercise as the ‘acme of Hellenism’. Josephus’s confused paraphrase of the narrative in Maccabees I, written some two hundred years later, added nudity to the sins of these Jewish sportsmen, perhaps because he was at a loss to understand why running and jumping should be seen as so wicked in themselves. If, as those scholars who have relied on the contemporary evidence in Daniel have argued over the past fifteen years or so, the revolt was provoked not by Hellenising Jews but by the gratuitous attack on the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanes, then the mud-slinging against Hellenisers in the Books of Maccabees may not be a reflection of cultural tensions at the time of the rebellion but a product of later propaganda when the surviving accounts were composed.

For the Seleucids and for the Hasmonaeans (as the Maccabees and their descendants came to call themselves) there were good reasons to cover their tracks by encouraging such propaganda. As Gabba points out in his learned chapter on the growth of anti-Judaism, Antiochus Epiphanes was said to have found in the Temple in Jerusalem an imprisoned Greek who was being fattened up for ritual slaughter by the Jews, who, it was alleged, had taken an oath to hate all Greeks. In 1927 Bickerman argued that this story should be attributed to the Seleucid king’s attempt to justify his attack on the cult – only by claiming that Judaism was wicked and illegitimate could he avoid a charge of sacrilege from his fellow Greeks.

The Hasmonaeans for their part needed to blacken the character of their predecessors as high priests, not least because their own claim to this high religious office was generally regarded as tenuous. The sectarians at Qumran viewed their tenure as illegitimate, and a scion of one distinguished high-priestly family, Onias IV, erected a rival Jewish temple in Leontopolis in Egypt – a religious development of some moment granted only the briefest treatment in the Cambridge History. The Hasmonaeans were so acutely aware of their unworthiness for the most prestigious post in Judaism that they left the high priesthood unfilled for seven years after the death of Alcimus in the 150s BC, and in 140 BC the Hasmonaean Simon invented a new ritual of national acclamation to confirm him in his post. By the first century AD a story had got about – and reached Josephus – that Judas Maccabee himself had been a high priest, although even the most adulatory passages of Maccabees I and II made no such claim. A regime based on such shaky foundations needed myth and ritual for its support. Each year the festival of Hannukah, celebrated over eight days in the houses of all Jews in Palestine, commemorated Judas’s purification of the polluted Temple; with snide insinuation the Books of Maccabees pinned the blame for the pollution on the Hasmonaeans’ rivals for power.

If all this rhetoric was merely propaganda it was remarkably effective, not just with the authors of the Cambridge History but also in antiquity. By the first century AD, and quite probably into the late Hellenistic period as well, Jews and Gentiles in the Palestine region seem to have come to accept the implied contrast and potential for conflict between Jewishness and Hellenism. Gentiles of varied ethnic origins proudly proclaimed themselves as Greek. In an inscription of the second century AD unearthed in the spectacular excavations at Beth Shean, the Gentile polis of Scythopolis was described as ‘one of the Greek cities of Coele Syria’. From the Jewish side, Josephus, who was as Hellenised a Jew as one can reasonably expect to have found in Palestine, slipped revealingly in his description of the Gentile inhabitants of Caesarea Maritima in the middle years of the first century AD. Sometimes he called them ‘Syrian’, no doubt with reference to their local ethnic origin, but every now and again he referred to the same people as ‘the Greeks’, a description intended merely to distinguish such Gentiles from Jews.

But then, by the time that Josephus was writing in the first century AD not even the most culturally insecure Jew would wish to see him or herself as Greek. In the era of the Maccabaean revolt some Jews had indeed portrayed themselves as an integral part of the (Greek world, claiming a distant family relationship to the Spartans (which, interestingly, the Spartans acknowledged). Other Jews in the Hellenistic age argued more aggressively that Greek culture, implicitly accepted as desirable, was actually derived from the Jews, whose cultural achievements came first. Two centuries or so later Josephus incorporated something of both notions in the Contra Apionem, his response to attacks on the Jews by a Greek intellectual of the mid-first century AD, which is the only extended discussion of the relationship of Judaism to Greek culture to survive from antiquity. But Josephus’s main argument, far more hostile than the accommodating views of Greek Jewish writers of the Hellenistic period, was that Jewish culture was not only separate from Greek culture but also greatly superior.

According to Josephus, Jews simply do not desire to emulate the customs of others. No Greeks can match the special qualities of Judaism stressed in Josephus’s peroration: conservatism, sobriety, communal loyalty, abhorrence of homosexuality, seriousness, practicality. An observant reader at the time might have noted some more than passing resemblance in such qualities not to the Greeks but to the Romans (as they perceived themselves). Josephus, after all, was a Roman citizen writing in Rome for a Roman audience, convinced that he had been right to transfer to the Roman side in the Jewish revolt of AD 66-70 because God had made the same transition. Like his Roman neighbours, he could afford to sneer at the frivolity and mendacity of even the greatest Greeks. Can we expect one of the next two volumes of the Cambridge History to explore this subject, for which the evidence does show that attention is warranted – namely, Judaism and Roman culture? Or will the lack of interest in the topic for students of the Early Church preclude its inclusion?

Finally, this volume, like the first in the series, contains all too many contributions which must have appeared definitive when written in the mid-Seventies but which now look more questionable. Historians working in the field may perhaps be cheered by the reflection that they are achieving something worthwhile if work essentially completed a decade and a half ago now looks so out of date.