03.04.14 Third Century B.C. Greek Influences Challenge Jewish Values And Traditions

03.04.14 Third Century B.C. Greek Influences Challenge Jewish Values and Traditions

Bill Heinrich  -  Jan 15, 2016  -  Comments Off on 03.04.14 Third Century B.C. Greek Influences Challenge Jewish Values and Traditions

03.04.14 Third Century B.C. Greek Influences Challenge Jewish Values and Traditions

The real genius of Alexander was how he united conquered lands.  He understood the power of culture to mold people and believed that if all shared the same values they would live in harmony.[1] The problem was, as both the Greeks and Romans discovered, that the Jews were not easily molded to conform to Greek values. As the time of the Messiah’s coming was drawing nearer, the influence of dominating pagan cultures intensified. While the pinnacle of this influence was in the era of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (early 2nd century B.C.), it was, nonetheless, increasingly attractive to Jewish youth.[2]

Whereas in most conquests, the dominant power merely desired peace and taxes from the subjugated people, the Greeks desired much more – they desired to change the conquered culture into the Greek culture. Since they were now the world’s manufacturing and seafaring nation, as well as renowned merchants, they settled in various countries to establish businesses. Many moved into Syria and to the cities east of the Jordan River that would later be known as the Decapolis cities. As such, there were a number of influences that radically changed the social, political, and religious landscape of the Promised Land. A summary is listed below, but was previously described in greater detail.[3]

  1. The gods of the Canaanites and neighboring tribes were given Greek names. But since the Jewish people did not have an idol, the Greeks were bewildered at their religion. The Jews, in turn, looked upon their overlords as idol worshippers. There was always a high level of cultural tension between the two groups, unlike the Jews and Greeks in Egypt who got along very well with each other because each group recognized the value of the other.
  1. The Greek religion honored strength and wealth while Judaism honored kindness and charity.
  1. The Greeks introduced poets, philosophers, artists, medical doctors and scientists while Judaism honored rabbis.
  1. New types of public buildings – theaters, baths, and inns were introduced.
  1. The Greeks introduced sports, and a gymnasium was built near the temple.[4] The gymnasium was the Greek center of communal life, education, business, as well as a place of exercise and bathing. There is little question that the Hellenized Jews promoted the gymnasium, much to the dissatisfaction of orthodox Jews.[5] The authors of 1 and 2 Maccabees commented on the importance of the gymnasium just prior to the Maccabean Revolt.[6]
  1. By the early first century (A.D.), Jewish healers and exorcists used formulas and practices that were nearly identical to those used by their Greek and Roman neighbors.
  1. Jewish literature had an increased emphasis on the following points:[7]
  1. An increased emphasis on Jewish traditions, especially in light of the encroaching Hellenism. With these, there were various related theological issues debated and emphasized.
  1. An increase of Apocalyptic literature which emphasized the coming of a political messiah and an end of the age – eschatology.

Young men who competed in sports event did so completely nude.[8] The word gymnasium is from the Greek word gymnos, meaning naked (1131),[9]  because the Hellenists loved the human body. Therefore, some young men from priestly families chose to have the sign of circumcision surgically removed, with a procedure known as epispasm.[10] This was so they could hide their Hellenistic Jewishness and participate in the games without being identified as being Jewish. It should be noted, however, that some scholars believe that the sporting events and gymnasium were not established in Jerusalem until later during the reign of Herod the Great in the year 27 B.C.[11]   What is clearly known is that young Jewish men had the sign of circumcision removed during the reign of Herod the Great and continued to do so until the temple was destroyed after which all Jews were reduced to dire poverty.

It should be noted that while the Greeks established the gymnasium for the creation of a strong mind and physical body,[12] the Romans seldom accepted it and the orthodox Jews hated it.  The Romans believed gymnastics had little military value and it encouraged idleness and immorality. Instead, in the early days of the Roman Republic, young men were trained in the Campus Martius, that is, military training of combat, forced marches, camp life, etc. The writer of 1 Maccabees 1:11-64 (see below) indicates that a gymnasium was built in Jersalem, but its location is unknown. Whether it even functioned as such by the time of Christ is also unknown.

Clearly, the Hellenistic culture of the Greeks was making inroads upon the Jewish people. This offended the pious Jews (called the Hasidim, meaning pious ones), but wealthier Jews enjoyed the new cultural offerings and soon “Hellenized” Jews became the despised persons of their Hasidim brothers. For the Hellenized Jews, their old orthodox religion was seen as interfering with attaining their pleasures of life.[13]  In later years, the Romans replaced the Greeks but the culture war did not change. The Romans did not have their own culture per se, but accepted and promoted Greek Hellenism.

[1]. Du Toit, Guide to the New Testament II, 437.


[2]. See also 02.04.01-11; 03.05.12; 1 Cor. 1.

[3]. See also 02.04.01-11; 03.05.12; Cate, A History of the New Testament and its Times. 68-70.


[4]. The issue of who built the gymnasium and where it was, is a problem for historians and archaeologists. Josephus said Herod the Great built one but other sources indicate that Jason, in the early second century B.C., also built one. Questions persist, such as, Was Herod’s gymnasium a remodeling of the earlier one or was it a completely new structure? The mystery remains. Scott, Jr. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. 82.


[5]. Sanders, “Jesus in Historical Context.” 436-37.


[6]. 1 Macc. 1:14; 2 Macc. 4:12; 4 Macc. 4:9.


[7]. Fischer, The Gospels in Their Jewish Context. (Lecture on CD/MP3). Week 6, Session 1.


[8]. Niswonger, New Testament History. 24.


[9]. Scott, Jr. Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament. 127; Vine, “Naked, Nakedness.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:425.

[10]. See also 02.01.10.


[11].  The sporting events of 27 B.C. included gladiator fights and wild animals fighting and devouring condemned criminals, much to the delight of Gentile spectators. But since there is only one account of a gladiator and wild animal fight in Jerusalem, the conclusion by scholars is that there must have been an incredible Jewish protest against this form of barbaric entertainment. See Goodman. “Under the Influence.” 62, 65.


[12]. The gymnasium was not only for physical training and sporting activities, but also an educational environment with a school of learning.


[13]. Golub, In the Days. 68-72.


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