Hellenism and the Jews

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 25 December 2018; Revised 24 May 2020


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.

Grammar: Unless otherwise noted the meaning of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009), and the meaning of Hebrew words is from The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (1981), abbreviated as "BDB." See the Greek Guide for the meaning of grammar abbreviations. The numbering system of the Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible is identified with "SH" (Strong's Hebrew number) and "SG" (Strong's Greek number). Strong's Online.

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.


The Meaning of Ioudaios

Terminology of Hellenism

History of Hellenism Among Jews

Diversity in Hellenistic Judaism

Hellēn Means Hellenistic Jew

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).

The Meaning of Ioudaios

The standard Greek word for "Jew" in the Besekh is Ioudaios (derived from Ioudas, "Judah"). For a complete discussion on the history and meaning of Ioudaios in the Besekh see my article The Apostolic Community. Ioudaios essentially designates a person by belief and practice (cf. John 4:9). The term had a particular sectarian meaning to distinguish "devout" (=Torah-observant) Jews from non-observant Jews (Acts 2:5). The Ioudaioi were traditional Jews whose tenets and practices were governed by the Great Sanhedrin and the Pharisees, whose traditions they followed (Matt 23:2-3; Mark 7:3; Acts 10:28). Traditional Jews spoke Hebrew as their primary language (cf. Acts 6:1; 21:40; 22:2) and conducted synagogue services in Hebrew.

Traditional Jews revered Moses (John 9:28-29; Acts 6:11) and recognized the authority of the written Torah (John 7:23; Acts 21:20). Indeed the noun Ioudaismos, "Judaism," first appears in the Maccabean writings for a way of life devoted to observance of Torah laws (2Macc 2:21; 8:1; 14:38; 4Macc 4:26), and then used by Paul to describe his Phariseeism (Gal 1:13-14). Being Torah-observant they faithfully observed the Sabbath (John 5:10, 16; 19:31), kept God's prescribed festivals in Jerusalem (John 2:13; 5:1; 7:2), followed strict rules of cleanliness (Mark 7:3), circumcised their children (John 7:22-23; Acts 21:21), separated themselves from non-observant Jews and Gentiles (John 4:9; Acts 10:28; Gal 2:12-14), and especially regarded the Temple in Jerusalem as the only place to worship the God of Israel with sacrifices (John 2:20; 4:20; 18:20).

Christian scholarship assumes that the term Ioudaios is the only Greek word for a Jew. However, most Jewish sects did not identify themselves by that name, because they rejected the legalism of the Pharisees and the tyranny of the Sadducees that ran the Temple. For example, Samaritans are not considered Jews because they refused to recognize the authority of the Pharisee Sages and the temple in Jerusalem as the central place of worship (John 4:20). Yet, the woman of Samaria named Jacob as "our father" (John 4:12). The historical reference to the Israelite ancestor of the Samaritans obviously excludes Gentile citizens that migrated into the territory. The woman believed herself to be a genetic descendant of Jacob making the Samaritans bona fide members of the people of Israel.

In fact, a modern DNA study published in 2004 backed up the woman's claim and found a common ancestry of Samaritan and Jewish patrilineages. The reference "our father Jacob" also means that the woman identified herself and her fellow Samaritans as legitimate heirs to the covenantal promises made to Jacob. The Samaritans shared the beliefs and practices of mainstream Judaism of the day and reverenced holy traditions set forth in the Torah. Richard Coggins writes, "The Samaritans are best understood as a conservative group within the total spectrum of Judaism. This rather clumsy definition is necessary because of the ambiguity of the word "Judaism" (OCB 671). Yet, the Ioudaioi of Judea refused to accept the Samaritans as true Jews.

The Essenes of the Qumran community, like other ascetic Jewish groups, were also considered outside of mainstream Judaism. The restrictive diets and emphasis on constant fasting by ascetic groups were offensive to Pharisees, as may be seen in some of Paul's instruction (Col 2:8-18; 1Tim 4:1-5). 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).

I have set forth the meaning of Ioudaios in order to better understand the distinction between traditional, conformist Jews from non-conformist Jews. The apostles proclaimed the good news to Samaritans and ascetic groups, whose members could be found in Messianic congregations of the apostolic era. More significant were the numbers of Jews that spoke Greek and were influenced in various degrees by Hellenistic (Greek) culture. Following are the terms used in the Greek New Testament that reflect Hellenistic influence.

Greek Terminology

Hellas: commonly translated as "Greece," Hellas was used in Roman times as equivalent to the province of Achaia as opposed to Macedonia. The term occurs one time in the Besekh (Acts 20:2). Hellas occurs twice in the LXX (Isa 66:19; Ezek 27:13) to translate Heb. Yavan (SH-3120), which originally referred to a son of Japheth, plus his descendants and later to the people of Ionia (BDB 402). In Genesis 10:2, 4 the LXX has Iōuan for Heb. Yavan.

Hellēn: Derived from Hellas, 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 culture (BAG). Danker says that Hellēn is not an ethnic term restricted to a specific country or people, yet all the lexicons specifically exclude Jews from this definition. The noun occurs 25 times in the Besekh, 9 times in the singular (Acts 16:1, 3; Rom 1:16; 2:9, 10; 10:12; Gal 2:3; 3:28; Col 3:11) and 16 times in the plural (John 7:35; 12:20; Acts 14:1; 18:4; 17:4; 19:10, 17; 20:21; 21:28; Rom 3:9; 1Cor 1:22, 24; 10:32; 12:13).

In Classical Greek as early as the 4th century B.C. Hellēn originally referred to the Thessalian tribe of which Hellen was the reputed chief, and then became a general name for the people that inhabited Thessaly, as well as Athens and Ionia, and the name for the language of that people (LSJ). Hellēn occurs in several passages of the LXX to translate Heb. Yavan, and the plural Yevanim (Joel 3:6; Dan 8:21; 10:20; 11:2; Zech 9:13). 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 Hellēn, 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). By etymology Hellēnistēs is formed from Hellēn ("Greek") and istēs, a suffix that denotes one who does the action, or specializes in the thing, indicated by the prefix. Thayer says 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 in the first century 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 of Israel, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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).

Hellēn Means Hellenistic Jew

While Hellēn was used in classical Greek writings for Gentile people belonging to Thessaly and Ionia, I believe the use of Hellēn in the Besekh to be predominately of 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. Moreover, the Greek word for "Greek" (Graikos), coined by the Romans, appears nowhere in the Greek Bible. 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 Hellēn and its plural form in the Besekh as Hellenistic Jew(s).

General Principles

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 Bible translators and interpreters. There were thousands of Jews who spoke Greek and in varying degrees adopted cultural and lifestyle practices of Hellenism. If Hellēn only means Gentiles then we must assume the apostles never had any contact with Jews who did not follow Pharisee traditions. Such would have been impossible in their Diaspora ministry. So Hellēn must include Hellenistic Jews.

Second, when Yeshua and the apostles wished to refer unambiguously to bona fide non-Jew Gentiles they consistently used the term ethnos, pl. ethnē (e.g., Matt 6:32; 12:21; Acts 4:25; 10:45; 11:1, 18; 13:19, 46, 48). Paul uses the plural of ethnos in this manner many times in his letters. Other terms are also used to specifically refer to Gentiles: Grk. akrobustia, foreskin (Acts 11:3), ethnikos, Gentile, heathen (Matt 5:47) and prosēlutos (Matt 23:15; Acts 2:11).

Third, 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). The mission 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).

Fourth, Hellenistic Jews are never called Ioudaioi 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 mentioned together, usually in contexts of Jewish worship or as recipients of the good news (Acts 14:1-2; 16:1, 3; 17:4-5; 18:4, 19:9-10, 17; 20:20-21; 21:28; Rom 1:16; 2:9-10; 3:9; 10:12; 1Cor 1:22, 24; 10:32; Gal 3:28).

Fifth, in Luke's narrative of Paul's ministry in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) he does not use Hellēn to identify the local pagan Gentiles as would be expected (or any label that means "Greek"), but uses the name by which the residents referred to themselves.

Sixth, Smith's Dictionary of the Bible (1884) states that the term Hellenist refers to "a Jew by birth or religion who spoke Greek and used chiefly of foreign Jews and proselytes in contrast with the Hebrews speaking the vernacular Hebrew or Aramaic."

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

Hellēn as a Category

According to a principle of hermeneutics the first mention of a word governs its meaning thereafter, as well as the context in which the word occurs. The first several passages in which the plural form of Hellēn occurs provide particular identifying marks of Jewish identity.

John 7:35. In this passage Hellēn is associated with the Diaspora, a term that occurs only three times in the Besekh (also Jas 1:1; 1Pet 1:1), all as a technical term for lands outside Israel where Jews resided. In other words, the "Diaspora" is a term that only has relevance to Jews. The term does not refer to dispersion of Gentiles.

John 12:20. This passage depicts Hellenists arriving in Jerusalem to worship in Passover. Celebrating Passover meant presenting an animal free-will offering presented at the temple, and consumed during the first two days of the festival (Pesachim 6:3; Hagigah 1:2). Specific rules for festival offerings are found in the Tractate Hagigah. No Gentile could lay hands on a sacrificial animal for slaughtering, as required for the animal offerings (Menachot 10:8; 93a). To the Judean Jews controlling the Temple these visiting Jews were not necessarily identifiable as Hellenistic. As long as they were circumcised they would not be barred from participating in the festivities.

Acts 14:1. The first use of Hellēn in Acts occurs in this verse. This passage describes Paul and Barnabas proclaiming the good news of Yeshua in a synagogue in Iconium and the recipients of the message were both Ioudaiōn (traditional Jews) and Hellēnōn (Hellenistic Jews). This interpretation is confirmed by the use of ethnōn (Gentiles) mentioned in the next verse that opposed the apostles along with Jewish leaders of the synagogue.

Individuals Identified as Hellēn

According to a principle of hermeneutics the first mention of a word governs its meaning thereafter, as well as the context in which the word occurs. The first several passages in which the plural form of Hellēn occurs provide particular identifying marks of Jewish identity.

Mark 7:26, The Syrophoenician Woman. Mark uses the feminine form of Hellēn to describe a woman from the district of Tyre and Sidon whose daughter was oppressed by a demon. In Matthew's account the woman appeals to Yeshua with ""Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David" (Matt 15:22). The title "Son of David" occurs in Scripture only on the lips of Israelites and Jews. She may have had a mixed lineage, but she clearly identified herself as a descendant of Jacob. Yeshua's retort, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matt 15:24) was not a rebuttal of her Jewish lineage, but a veiled swipe at the traditional Jews that refused to recognize their need of salvation (cf. John 5:39-40; 9:40-41). Yeshua's further comment, "It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs" (Matt 15:26; Mark 7:27) most likely alluded to a proverbial saying of the Pharisees. The woman acknowledged the source by saying, "Yes, Lord; but even the dogs under the table feed on the children's crumbs" (Mark 7:28).

Acts 16:1-3, father of Timothy. In the city of Lystra Paul gained as a disciple a young man named Timothy, as well as his mother. Timothy's father is identified as a Hellēn, which Bible versions and commentators assume to be a heathen Greek or Gentile. Of interest is that the CJB translates the plural form of the same noun in John 7:35 and in John 12:20 as "Greek-speaking Jews." Two elements of the narrative identify Timothy's father as a Hellenistic Jew. First, in 16:3 Luke says he "existed" (Grk. huparchō) as a Hellenist, which indicates a state different than his birth. Second, he was notorious to local Jews for having left his son uncircumcised. If the father was a true Gentile, then by Jewish law of that time Timothy would have been treated as a Gentile and circumcision would have been unnecessary. But, Paul felt Timothy's circumcision important since his father had failed in his covenantal duty.

Galatians 2:3, Titus. Paul's comment in Galatians 2:3 supposedly reflects his refusal to submit to the Judaizer demand that Titus be circumcised. Consider what Paul said in regard to Titus: "But not even Titus, who was with me, being a Hellēn, was compelled to be circumcised" (Gal 2:3 BR). The negative adverb "not even" (Grk. oude) points to an exception to a rule. Titus had not been circumcised as an infant, but Paul was not going to insist on the covenantal sign be required in his case. If Paul had used the word ethnos to mean "Gentile" the statement would make no sense. Paul would never have compelled a Gentile to be circumcised, since adult circumcision of Gentiles was thoroughly repugnant to him (cf. Acts 15:1-2; 1Cor 7:18; Gal 5:2, 12; Php 3:2-3). Therefore, Titus was a Hellenistic Jew. See also my commentary on Titus 1:4.


The recognition of the apostolic usage of Hellēn to mean Hellenistic Jewry would require a complete reevaluation of all the passages where the term occurs. The frequent contrasts of Ioudaios and Hellēn (Acts 14:1; 18:4; 19:10, 17; 20:21; Rom 1:16; 2:9-10; 3:9; 10:12; 1Cor 1:22, 24; 10:32; 12:13; Gal 3:28; Col 3:11) and the much fewer contrasts between Ioudaios and ethnos (Acts 14:2, 5; 21:21; Gal 2:14) indicate that the context of apostolic ministry was equally if not primarily among Jews and the constituency of congregations in the apostolic era was primarily Jewish.

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.

Mounce: William D. Mounce, Mounce Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament. 2011. Online.

OCB: The Oxford Companion to the Bible. ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. Oxford University Press, 1993.

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

Smith: William Smith (1813-1893), Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854). Online.

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.

Thayer: Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Harper Brothers, 1889.

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