Hellenism and the Jews

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 25 December 2018


Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article. Unless otherwise indicated Scripture quotations are taken from the Messianic Jewish Family Bible: Tree of Life Version, © 2014 by Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society. Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations.

Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ). This article contains the Name of God. If you print it out, please treat it with appropriate respect.


Greek Terminology

History of Hellenism Among Jews

Diversity in Hellenistic Judaism

Hellēnés Means Hellenistic Jews

In the first century there was no normative religion to which every Jew agreed and the sons of Israel were fractured into many groups. In fact, Moseley says there were some twenty-six to thirty different sects within first-century Judaism (1). As many as twenty-four of these groups were considered, at one time or another, outside the mainstream because of their questionable teachings. The Besekh mentions some of them: Galileans (Luke 13:1), Hellenists (John 7:35), Hellenized Jews (Acts 6:1), Herodians (Mark 3:6), Pharisees (Mark 2:16), Sadducees (Matt 3:7), Samaritans (Luke 17:16) and Zealots (Mark 3:18). The Essenes, while not mentioned in the Besekh, could be the ones Yeshua referred to as "the sons of the kingdom" (Matt 8:12).

Christian scholarship assumes that the term Ioudaios is the only Greek word for a Jew. Christian scholars fail to recognize that most Jewish sects did not identify themselves by that name and ignore the existence of non-Orthodox Jews in particular. For example, Samaritans are not considered Jews, even though the woman of Samaria named Jacob as her ancestor (John 4:12). (See my comment on John 4:9.) The Essenes consistently avoided the term Ioudaios as a self-designation and it is not to be found in the Greek portions of the Qumran scrolls (Miller). The truth is that Ioudaios has a narrow application and designates a traditional Torah-observant Hebrew-speaking Jew who lived according to Pharisee traditions.

This article concerns those Jews influenced by Hellenistic (Greek) culture and rejected by those who called themselves Ioudaios.

Greek Terminology

Several terms appear in the Besekh relevant to this subject.

Hellas: Greece or Hellas, primarily with focus on the province of Achaia as opposed to Macedonia. The term occurs one time in the Besekh, Acts 20:2.

Hellēn: The noun refers to (1) a man of Greek language and culture or (2) in the broader sense, all persons who came under the influence of Greek (i.e., pagan) culture (BAG). Danker says that Hellēn is not an ethnic term restricted to Greece as a specific country or people, yet all the lexicons specifically exclude Jews from this definition. The noun occurs 26 times in the Besekh (John 7:35; 12:20; Acts 11:20; 14:1; 16:1, 3; 17:4; 18:4; 19:10, 17; 20:21; 21:28; Rom 1:14, 16; 2:9, 10; 3:9; 10:12; 1Cor 1:22, 24; 10:32; 12:13; Gal 2:3; 3:28; Col 3:11).

Hellēn is derived from Hellas which in Classical Greek was a general name for all lands inhabited by Hellenes, including Ionia, as well as the name for the language of that people (LSJ). Hellēn occurs in several passages of the LXX to translate Heb. Yavan (SH-3120), a proper name for descendants of Japheth and the people of Ionia (Dan 8:21; 10:20; 11:2; Zech 9:13) or Yevanim (SH-3125, adj.), Greeks (Joel 3:6). Hellēn is also used for Heb. p'listim (SH-6430), "Philistines" in Isaiah 9:12 and for the verb yavan, "to oppress," used of a foreign sword in Jeremiah 46:16 and 50:16.

Hellēnikos: adj., relating to the Greek language; the use of Greek letters in writing. The adjective occurs twice in the Besekh (Luke 23:38; Rev 9:11).

Hellēnis: (fem. of Hellēnios, 'Hellenic/Greek'), a Hellenistic woman. The term occurs two times in the Besekh (Mark 7:26; Acts 17:12).

Hellēnistēs: The noun refers to a Greek-speaking Jew or Israelite in contrast to one speaking a Semitic language (BAG). The noun is derived from the verb hellenizō, which LSJ defines its original meaning as "to adopt and speak the Greek language" (e.g., Josephus, Ant. I, 6:1). Hellēnistēs occurs only three times in the Besekh (Acts 6:1; 9:29; and a variant reading in 11:20). The term Hellēnistēs does not occur at all in the LXX or any other Greek literature, so very likely Luke coined the term, because he was a Greek-speaking Israelite. (See "Luke" in my web article Witnesses of the Good News). Bruce says these people were Jews whose habitual language was Greek and who attended Greek-speaking synagogues, i.e., synagogues that used the Septuagint (120).

David Flusser (1917-2000), Orthodox Jewish professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, offered a valuable insight about these Jews. Flusser preferred the term "Hellenized" to describe the Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem (75). The Hellenized Jews saw value in learning Greek, but they were still zealous for the Temple and being Torah-observant. They were conservative in theology and lifestyle, yet not necessarily bound to all the traditions of the Pharisees.

Hellēnisti: adv., in the Greek language. The adverb occurs two times in the Besekh (John 19:20; Acts 21:37).

History of Hellenism Among Jews

It's probably fair to say that the majority of Jews in the world at this time were Hellenistic, since most Jews lived in the Diaspora and they could not be totally immune to the influence of the culture. The origin of Hellenistic Jewry may be traced to the 3rd century BC. After Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) conquered the world he and his successors sought to assimilate and educate people in the Greek way of life. Under the Seleucid rule of Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-204 BC) the people of Judea became accustomed to the Greek language and other external phenomena of Greek civilization (Tarn & Griffith 213). However, in 200 BC Judea changed masters with the Syrian king Antiochus III. The new king was friendly toward the Jews, but his son Antiochus IV (called "Epiphanes") was the opposite when he came to power in 175 BC. He ruthlessly imposed Hellenism on Judea, banning traditional Jewish practices of Sabbath observance and circumcision (1Macc 1:41-50; 2Macc 6:8-9).

In this culture war many Jews embraced Greek language and customs, even participating naked in games at a gymnasium Antiochus built (1Macc 1:14–15; 2Macc 4:9-14). Loyal and Torah-observant Jews viewed the Hellenization as completely hostile to their way of life equivalent to "lawless" (1Macc 1:11) and "pagan" (2Macc 4:36; 11:2). The fact that many Jews were willing to abandon Torah observance and adopt Greek culture created a great divide among Jewish people (DNTT 2:124f). The end of the reign of Antiochus did not stop the spread of Hellenism among Jews.

The Maccabees, so passionate in their rebellion against Antiochus, themselves eventually embraced some aspects of Hellenism. The Hasmonean dynasty (140−37 BC) that followed was willing to accept Hellenistic culture to curry favor with the Seleucid overlords and later Roman governors. The Hasmonean bureaucracy was filled with men with Greek names. The dynasty became very Hellenized, to the annoyance of traditional-minded Jewish subjects, and led to the bloody repression of the Pharisees.

By the first century there were many Hellenistic cities in the land, including Caesarea, Tyre, Sidon, Joppa and Sebaste (Samaria), and not just in the Decapolis (Fig. 1.1, Skarsaune 32). Perhaps the center of Hellenistic Judaism in the first century was Alexandria, Egypt (Flusser 73). Philo Judaeus (c. 20 BC–AD 50) taught there with considerable influence and attempted to restate Jewish belief in terms of Greek philosophy (DNTT 2:125). Philo included in his philosophy both Greek wisdom and Hebrew religion, which he sought to fuse and harmonize by means of the art of allegory that he had learned from the Stoics. His work was not accepted by traditional Judaism. (See the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Philo.)

The ranks of pious Jews, loyal to the Torah, were penetrated by Greek philosophy, including the idea of tradition, the immortality of the soul, and beliefs of the beyond, although Jewish teachers sought to align those beliefs with biblical revelation. Even the Rabbis understood Greek and were acquainted with Homer. The very numerous Greek loan-words in the Talmud and Midrash are evidence of the cultural interaction with Judaism. However, the development of the Pharisees pushed back against the pagan influences of Hellenism.

However, the Pharisees failed to consider that Hellenistic influence was not all bad. Many Jewish works were produced in Greek, beginning with Scripture. The Letter of Aristeas (ca. 200 BC) recounts that King Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 BC) requested the Jewish High Priest Eliezer to provide representatives of all twelve tribes in order to translate the Hebrew sacred scriptures into Greek, which became known as the Septuagint (LXX). Other important Jewish works produced in Greek were the Maccabean writings, the Apocrypha, the works of Philo, and the works of Josephus, as well as various works classified as Pseudepigrapha. These writings made the history and teaching of the Jewish people available to the nations that did not understand Hebrew.

Diversity in Hellenistic Judaism

Most of our sources concerning Hellenistic Jewry come from Alexandria (Flusser 73). Philo Judaeus (c. 25 BC - AD 50), a Hellenistic leader there, taught with considerable influence. His many writings may be found here. The son of a rich family Philo's acquaintance with Judaism was actually meager, but he presented himself as a Jewish philosopher. Philo would later be of great interest to the Church Fathers of Christianity. According to Flusser the Hellenistic Jews did not belong to the higher strata of society and were not generally well-educated (74). They showed no interest in the classics of Greek literature, and what they knew of Greek philosophy they learned from popular works and from the discourses of philosophical teachers.

Secular Hellenistic Jews: Many Hellenistic Jews adopted Greek customs, formed trade associations, passed decrees and prepared documents in Greek form, and gave titles and honors to women. Some tolerated mixed marriage, dropped circumcision, and even in some places adopted Greek cults (Tarn & Griffith 223-227; Skarsaune 34). The secular Hellenistic Jews thought that to become part of the new world civilization required abrogating those parts of the Torah, as well as Pharisaic traditions, which set the Jews apart from the nations. Some extreme Diaspora Jews wanted to transform Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city, believing that Hellenism brought prosperity and better living conditions, i.e., "civilization" (Skarsaune 33f). Orthodox Jews considered the secular Jews to be wicked because of their antinomian attitude (cf. 1Macc 1:11; 7:5).

The differences between Ioudaioi or Judean Jews and the Hellenistic Jews of the Diaspora went deeper than language, and extended to the whole direction of thought. The ideas of Greek philosophers were abominations and syncretism in any form was tantamount to treason with the enemy. Hellenism was viewed as a serious threat to the traditions of the Judeans. The Pharisees disparaged the learning of Greek wisdom, including the Greek language (Menachot 64b; 99b). Moreover, all the Hellenistic heretics and traitors were destined for Hell (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:4). Yet, many Hellenistic Jews, placed as they were in the midst of hostile elements, wanted to be treated with equality with their orthodox brethren in Babylon and Israel.

The Pharisees, in their pride of legal purity and of the possession of the traditions of the Sages, believed they were the very definition of Judaism (cf. 2Macc 2:21; 8:1; 14:38; 4Macc 4:26; Gal 1:13-14) and made no secret of their contempt for the Hellenists, and openly declared the Hellenist far inferior to them (Edersheim 5). The Pharisees viewed all Jews influenced by Hellenism through the same lens and failed to recognize that Hellenistic Judaism was not singular in belief and practice as the Pharisees. Among Hellenistic Jews there were extremists, liberals and conservatives. Even today Jews are divided into Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox. The diversity among Hellenistic Jews does not mean that they were all no better than pagans.

Ascetic Hellenists: Philo identified a Hellenistic Jewish sect in Egypt, the Therapeutae with a reputation for philosophy, that lived chastely and in utter simplicity, refrained from eating meat and pursued spiritual virtues (On the Contemplative Life, 4:34-39).

God-worshipping Hellenists: John records that in Yeshua's final week a number of Hellenistic Jews (Grk. Hellēnés) came to Jerusalem to worship at the feast of Passover. They were not tourists or philosophical students from Athens who came to sneer at Judaism, but Jewish pilgrims obeying Torah (Deut 26:16-17). To participate in Passover meant that these pilgrims had to be circumcised. Moreover these Hellenists wanted to meet Yeshua and sought out Philip to make an introduction. (See my commentary on John 12:20.).

Several verses in Acts (13:50; 16:14; 17:4, 17; 18:7) mentions certain God-worshippers (Grk. sebomenōn): devout women in Pisidian Antioch (13:50), Lydia from Thyatira (16:14), Hellenists in Thessalonica (17:4, 17), and Titius Justus in Corinth (18:7). It's noteworthy that Luke does not identify these persons as "God-fearers" (Grk. phobeomai), a term identifying those who did not descend from Abraham or Jacob, but had chosen to abandon idolatry for the God of Israel and association with Jews (Acts 10:2, 22, 35; 13:16, 26, 43).

There were many "God-worshipping" Hellenistic Jews in the Diaspora who accepted the authority of the Tanakh, lived according to Torah values without being bound by Pharisee legalism and were zealous for the temple as seen in John 12:20. In the Diaspora they lived in their own communities and attended Greek-speaking synagogues that used the Septuagint. They abhorred the heathenism and cultural decay that surrounded them and withdrew within themselves to preserve their identity as best they could. Conservative Hellenistic Jews even had their own synagogues in Jerusalem (Acts 6:9).

Hellēnés Means Hellenistic Jews

The translation of the plural Hellēnés as "Greeks" in most Bible versions is strange since there was no longer a Greek empire nor Greeks in power. Yeshua did not say, "Go and proclaim the good news to all the Greeks you can find." There were many nations and people groups as Luke mentions in Acts 2:9-11. There are several reasons to interpret the plural Hellēnés in the Besekh as Hellenistic Jews.

First: As already noted in the lexicon data Hellēn is simply not an ethnic term restricted to ethnic Greeks or Hellenistic Gentiles in general, and certainly included Hellenistic Jews, which is completely ignored by Christian scholarship. The Hellenés certainly included Hellenistic Jews, that is, Jews who spoke Greek and in varying degrees adopted cultural and lifestyle practices of Hellenism. Given the lexicon meaning, Bible versions could have translated the term with the neutral "Hellenists." Why translate the term with "Greeks?"

Second: According to a principle of hermeneutics the first mention of a word governs its meaning thereafter. The first use in the Besekh of Hellēnes is in John 7:35 where it is associated with the Diaspora, a term that only has relevance only to Jews. See my commentary on John 7:35.

Third: When Yeshua and the apostles wished to refer unambiguously to bona fide non-Jew Gentiles they consistently used the term ethnē (e.g., Matt 6:32; 12:21; Acts 4:25; 10:45; 11:1, 18; 13:19, 46, 48). Indeed in Acts 14:2 the ethnōn are contrasted with the Hellēnés in 14:1. Paul uses the plural of ethnos in this manner many times in his letters.

Fourth: Jews were given the priority in hearing the Good News, both in principle (Matt 10:6; 15:24; 19:28; Luke 1:30-33, 68-75; 22:30; Acts 1:6-8; Rom 1:16) and practice (Acts 2:1-14, 39; 3:17-26; 5:30-32; 6:7; 8:4, 26-27; 9:20; 11:19-20; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1, 10; 18:4, 19; 19:8). Their commission of Messianic evangelists was to convince all the descendants of Jacob to accept Yeshua as their Messiah, not just the faithful religious Jews (cf. Acts 9:15; 26:17-18).

Fifth: Hellenistic Jews are never called Ioudaios in Scripture and if the word Hellēn does not include them then there is no reference to such Jews in the Bible. The Ioudaioi and Hellēnés are frequently contrasted (Acts 14:1-2; 16:1, 3; 17:4-5; 18:4, 19:10, 17; 20:21; Rom 1:16; 2:9-10; 3:9; 10:12; 1Cor 1:22, 24; 10:32; Gal 3:28).

Sixth: the church father Justin Martyr (110-165) in his Dialogue with Trypho (Chap. LXXX) lists seven Jewish groups, among whom he identifies Hellenists.

Works Cited

Ant.: Flavius Josephus (c. 37-100 A.D.), Antiquities of the Jews. Online.

BAG: Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. trans. W.F. Arndt & F.W. Gingrich. The University of Chicago Press, 1957.

Bruce: F.F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts. William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1954. (NICNT)

Danker: Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

DNTT: Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols. ed. Colin Brown. Zondervan Pub. House, 1975.

Edersheim: Alfred Edersheim (1825-1889), The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. New Updated Edition. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1993. Also online. (See Book I, Chapters 1-4.)

Flusser: David Flusser, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, Adama Books, 1987.

LSJ: Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon. Rev. Sir Henry Stuart Jones. Clarendon Press, 1940. Online.

Miller: David M. Miller, The Meaning of Ioudaios and its Relationship to Other Group Labels in Ancient 'Judaism.' Currents in Biblical Research 9:98-126, September 2010. Online.

Moseley: Ron Moseley, Yeshua: A Guide to the Real Jesus and the Original Church. Lederer Books, 1996.

Skarsaune: Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.

Tarn & Griffith: Sir William Tarn and G.T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilization. 3rd Edition. Edward Arnold Publishers, Ltd., 1952.

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