from jesus to christ - the first christians

Hellenistic Culture

The influence of Greek language, philosophy and culture on Jews and early Christians.


Harold W. Attridge:

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School


Can you give just a general definition of what's meant by the term the Hellenistic world?

The Hellenistic world is that world that was created after the conquests of the near east by Alexander the Great at the end of the fourth century B.C. And his conquest, which extended from India all the way through Egypt, [was] divided into three main areas within 20 years after his death. And the two major areas that survived down to the first century B.C. would have been the Syrian kingdom, the Seleucid kingdom, and the Ptolemaic kingdom which survived in Egypt, which was finally taken over by Rome in 31 B.C.

And what was the language and culture of the Hellenistic world?

The language and culture of the Hellenistic world was Greek. That became the lingua franca of all of these subject peoples. It was to that world what English is to the modern world in many ways, what French was to the world of the 19th century.

How Hellenized was the Jewish religious culture of the time?

Jewish culture and civilization during the Hellenistic period was in intense dialogue with Hellenistic culture and civilization, beginning with the translation of Hebrew scriptures into Greek, a translation which survives and which we know as the Septuagint. That's certainly an example of the way in which Greek literary forms and Greek language impacted Jewish civilization and literary traditions. That impact extends far beyond scripture, and we see during the Hellenistic period Jews adopting literary forms of the Greek tradition, and writing plays, epic poems, lyric poems, all in the Greek language. Much of this activity would have centered in Alexandria, the capital of Egypt, but there was similar activity going on in Palestine, and some of these literary products that survive in some cases only in fragments, were probably written in Palestine, by Jews who were adopting these Hellenistic literary modes.


Who was Philo and what did he do?

Philo was an example of the intense Hellenization of Judaism. He was a philosopher and scriptural interpreter who lived in Alexandria from around 30 B.C. to around 40 of the Common Era. He tried to effect a synthesis between scripture and Platonic philosophy. For instance, in saying that the word of God that we encounter in scripture is the logos or the divine reason, by which he meant a combination of the ideas, Plato's ideas, which by that time were conceived by philosophers as being in the mind of God. And also at the same time the immanent rationality of the world, taking over a Stoic idea that reason constitutes the inner working of the world.

How would all of this have influenced Jesus?

Things like Platonic philosophy and Stoic philosophy at the level it was appropriated by a person like Philo, probably would not have had a direct impact on Jesus. Both of those strands of Hellenistic tradition as appropriated by Jewish philosophers like Philo, did, however, have an impact on Christians of a later generation who tried to make sense of Jesus and his teaching within the broader framework of Greek and Roman culture.

And how would the Hellenistic world have influenced Jesus?

Jesus apparently grew up in Galilee which was at that time under Herod Antipas undergoing a form of Hellenization. There was a continuation of the program of Herod the Great, the father of Herod Antipas. And that Hellenization was most visible in a place like Sepphoris which was being reconstructed during the youth of Jesus. It was visible in several other cities around Galilee. A place like Beth-shean, for instance, which still has a magnificent theater dating from the Hellenistic period. We have clear evidence in all of that architectural remains Hellenism was having a strong impact even on Galilee during this period.


What was at the heart of the debate between Christianity and Greek philosophy?

Early Christianity engaged Hellenistic culture generally, and more specifically Greek philosophy, from the end of the first century on. We see bits and pieces of this in passages such as the prologue of the 4th Gospel where this concept of the logos comes to play. During the second century and beyond there's a continuing engagement over a variety of issues. Some of them having to do with fundamental philosophical issues such as the nature of reality and the nature of God. Some of them having to do with issues of ethics and morality. These are two poles around which the dialogue develops during the course of the subsequent centuries.


By the middle of the century we see someone like Justin Martyr, for instance, one of the early Christian apologists, that is, one of the people who was trying to explain Christianity to the Greco-Roman world and doing so in the context of and using the categories of Greco-Roman thought. We see this fellow Justin Martyr active in Rome around the middle of the century trying to explain the nature of Christ and the nature of his relationship to God in terms of certain philosophical theories, the philosophical theory that comes ultimately from stoicism that postulates a dichotomy between speech that is external and thought that's internal....

Justin has a theology of the word of God that wrestles with the issue of what kind of status Jesus has as an intermediary between God and humankind. And increasingly in the philosophical environment of the second and third centuries belief was becoming widespread that God was a very transcendent kind of being, that is, a being who is very distant from human kind. And therefore to say that Jesus was in some way God incarnate presents a philosophical conundrum, because it's impossible to conceive of the transcendent as immanent, as embodied in human flesh, the way that Christians were coming to proclaim.

Was monotheism a big issue in Justin's debate as well with his pagan audience?

Justin and other Christian apologists certainly argued that the tradition of polytheistic belief and practice that was current in the Greco-Roman world was wrong, was immoral, and was philosophically deficient. Insofar as they were making that last point -- that polytheism was philosophically insufficient -- they were saying something similar to what Greek philosophers were saying. Because among Greek philosophers there was a growing appreciation for the unity of the divine and for the notion that there may be a single simple divine principle underlying all things. But no Greek philosopher of the second or third century would have thought that that divine principle could somehow have been enfleshed.

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


What do you mean when you say Hellenistic?

Hellenization, or Hellenism, refers to the spread of Greek culture that had begun after the conquest of Alexander the Great in the fourth century, B.C.E. One must think of the development of the eastern Mediterranean, really, in two major phases. The first, the conquest by Alexander, which brought Greek culture to the middle eastern territories. And then, subsequent to that, the Roman imperial expansion, which would take that over politically. But, Rome didn't immediately transform everything into a kind of Latin-Roman culture. Rather, they worked with the Greek idiom. And so, much of what we see in the culture of these cities, like Caesarea Maritima, is a kind of Greek city structure with a Roman political organization, playing off between the different elements of Roman and Greek city life.

How would this affect Jewish life?

For many Jews, it seemed not to be a problem at all. There was a high degree of comfort or acculturation with many aspects of Greek life and thought. Just as we see in major Jewish communities in Egypt at this same time as well, and had been there for two hundred years before. So for some it probably meant no more than what it would be like to live in a modern city with a very mixed culture. For others, however, for other people in the Jewish tradition, it probably was more of a problem that Herod, supposedly a Jewish king, would have been so willing to turn himself over, as it were, to Roman religious interests and Roman imperial ideology.

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published april 1998

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