The impact of Greek culture on the civilizations of the ancient world located in the Mediterranean basin. Aspects of Hellenism include professional contacts, mixed populations, adoption of Greek culture, religion, and language, and the assimilation of Orientalized Greeks and Hellenized Orientals.
The history of contact of Greek-speaking peoples with the Eastern Mediterranean is long. Mycenaean pottery dating from before 1400 B.C. has been found on both sides of the Jordan. David employed mercenaries from Crete (2 Samuel 8:18). Contacts increased dramatically after Alexander the Great conquered Palestine in 332 or 331 B.C.
Koine Beginning about 300 B.C., Jews wrote in Greek both in the diaspora and in Palestine. The writer might be a Hellenized aristocrat, diplomat, mercenary, merchant, or any Jew living in a Greek-speaking area of the diaspora. Beginning about 200 B.C., Jewish worship was conducted in Greek in Egypt. The use of the Greek term synagogue (assembly) for a Jewish congregation or place of worship is a continuing witness to Hellenization. The ready acceptance of Greek by Egyptian Jews is evidenced by the surviving synagogue inscriptions from Ptolemaic Egypt, all of which are in Greek. The Zenon correspondence (259 B.C.) demonstrates that Greek was the language of state business in Palestine under the Ptolomies.
Greek Names By 300 B.C. Egyptian Jews were using adopted names derived from names of Greek gods: Apollonius; Artimidorus; Diosdotus (gift of Zeus); Dionysius; Heracleia; and Hermaios. Before 200 B.C. the author of the “Epistle” of Aristeas assumed that the majority of the elders who came to Alexandria from Jerusalem to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek, producing eventually the Septuagint, would have had Greek names and access to Greek education. Greek names are found even among “conservative” Palestinian Jews before 100 B.C.
The envoys Judas Maccabee sent to Rome had Greek names: Eupolemus and Jason (1 Maccabees 8:17;
2 Maccabees 4:11). Both the envoys Jonathan Maccabee sent to Rome and Sparta and their fathers had Greek names: Numensius, son of Antiochus, and Antipater, son of Jason (1 Maccabees 12:16;
1 Maccabees 14:22).
Bilingual Palestine Part of the success of Jewish diplomatic missions to Rome and Sparta before 100 B.C. stemmed from the ability to speak and write proper koine Greek (2 Maccabees 4:5-6;
2 Maccabees 14:4-5;
1 Maccabees 8:1;
1 Maccabees 12:1;
1 Maccabees 14:16). The high social standing of Egyptian Jews in relation to native Egyptians hinged in large part on the Jewish adoption of the Greek language. (Compare
Acts 21:37-38 where the commander of the Jerusalem cohort mistook Paul for an Egyptian agitator until he learned he spoke Greek.) Jesus, like most Galileans of His day, would have understood Greek. Jesus visited the Hellenistic cities of the Decapolis (Mark 5:20;
Mark 7:31). One of these cities, Gadara, was home to the famous Cynic philosopher Menippus and the “Syrian” epigrammatist Meleager (about 60 B.C.). Damascus was home to the well-known historian and peripatetic philosopher Nicholas.
Literature In contrast to the sparse Hebrew literature which has survived from the time before A.D. 100, a remarkably large body of Jewish literature has survived in Greek. The most important representative of this literature is the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which served as the Bible of the early church. Extensive works of both Philo and Josephus survive as well as numerous pseudepigrapha. Even the Qumran texts written in Hebrew witness the influence of Greek ideas.
Politics The polis (city-state with a Greek-type constitution) was one of the principle factors in the spread of Hellenism. The polis was composed of free citizens with some degree of political and economic autonomy. The polis made use of Greek forms of government: the boule (senate), the demos (citizens' assembly), and the archontes (elected rulers).
The Seleucid king Antiochus refounded Jerusalem as “Antioch” in Judea with the status of polis in 175 B.C. The Sanhedrin served as the city's boule; the Mosaic law, as its constitution. The Hellenized high priest Jason displaced his more conservative brother Onias III and functioned as archon. Jason constructed a gymnasium and introduced Greek secondary education, training the elite youths as ephebes or citizens in training. Jason was succeeded as high priest by the even more radical Hellenists: Menelaus, Lysimachus, and Simon. Resistance to Hellenism resulted in Antiocus' reducing Jerusalem's status to katoikia (garrison town), with Syrian troops stationed in the city in 169 or 168 B.C.
The Maccabean revolt was in part a class struggle of the pious poor who clung to the traditional ways and the aristocracy who embraced Hellenism as a means to get ahead. Though the Maccabees succeeded in gaining political autonomy for Palestine, they were unable to stem the tide of Hellenism. The new rulers (called Hasmoneans) grew increasingly Hellenized. Jonathan was recognized by the Seleucids as king and high priest (150 B.C.) becoming in effect a Seleucid official. The Maccabees opposed the religious syncretism of Hellenism but succumbed to the broader culture of Hellenism.
The following were founded or refounded as Hellenistic cities in Palestine by 200 B.C.: Philoteria on Gennesaret (Bet Yerah); Scythopolis (Beth Shean); Berenice (Pella); Arsinoe (Damascus); Philadelphia (Rabbat-Ammon); Heliopolis (Baalbek). Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) established Caesarea Maritima, Hebron, and Herodium. He began rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple in Hellenistic style. Herod Antipas (4 B.C.-A.D. 39) founded Tiberias on the sea of Galilee. John's Gospel refers to the sea as “the Sea of Tiberias” (John 6:1;
John 21:1). Herod Philip raised Beth-saida to city-state status, renaming it Julias after the wife of Emperor Tiberias.
Religion/Philosophy Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the Hellenistic religion was its syncretism. The gods of the Middle East were identified with the ancient Greek and Roman gods. Hellenistic religion was characterized by a new emphasis on the individual. Religious fraternities dedicated to the worship of eastern gods offered individuals immortality. Hellenistic religion was also characterized by the public worship of the older gods of the city states and the new ruler cults. In the case of the ruler cult, the practice spread from east to west as rulers saw the unifying possibilities of a state religion.
Synagogue worship in contrast to Temple worship was purely verbal, consisting in prayer, singing, the reading of the law, and its interpretation. Such worship gave the appearance of being a philosophy to pagan Greeks. This identification of Judaism with philosophy was likewise encouraged by the strong ethical emphasis of Judaism. See Intertestamental History and Literature.