Hellenism Among The Jews

By Louis J. Sharp

“Hellenism is the name we give to the manifold achievements of the Greeks in social and political institutions, in the various arts, in science and philosophy, in morals and religion” (ISBE 1371). “It is difficult to define this spirit, but one may say that it was marked from the first by an inclination to permit the free development and expression of individuality subordinated to the common good. A healthy social life was the result for those who shared the privileges of citizenship, and also, in hardly less degree, for those resident aliens who received the protection of the state. Women also, though not so free as men, enjoyed, even at Athens where they were most limited, liberties unknown to the Orientals (includes the Jews, LHS) . . . their lot was mitigated in general by a steadily growing humanity” (Ibid. 1372).

Pfeiffer submits that “Alexander the Great had been a missionary as well as a conqueror. Alexander continued to think of himself as one who was bringing the blessings of Hellenism, as the Greek way of life is called, to the more benighted parts of the world” (Between the Testaments 83). “Fine buildings were erected. A gymnasium was built for that culture of the boy which the Greek always stressed. An open air theatre was built to entertain the populace. Greek dress was observed in the city, with people speaking the Greek language and subscribing to one of the schools of Greek philosophy” (Ibid. 83-84). “Palestine itself was not so far removed as to be untouched. Especially the educated classes were enamored with the Greek way of doing things. The amphitheater and the gymnasium were attractive to the young, and a strong Hellenistic party emerged. In Judea . . . an anti-Hellenistic party arose which considered the Greek manner of life a threat to Judaism. The emphasis on things material, the nude appearance of athletes in the gymnasium, the neglect of Jewish rites, were regarded as evidence of defection from the law of God” (Ibid. 90).

Do not these happening sound very familiar today? I see a strong parallel between the influence of Greece in the ancient world and America in our own era. Our emphasis seems to be the same as was theirs. Edward J. Young wrote of the development of Hellenism under Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) in his commentary on Daniel.

It was under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes that the Jews particularly suffered. When he came to the throne the Jews were being subjected to a process of Hellenization, which Antiochus continued. Under the leadership of Joshua, a brother of the high priest Onias III, many of the Jews were willing to fall in line with Antiochus’ policy of Hellenization. By means of a bribe, Joshua, who had changed his name to Jason, induced Antiochus to depose Onias and to place himself in the office of high priest. He immediately set about to permit an influx of Grecian customs, even establishing a gymnasium (an exercise-ground) under the citadel in Jerusalem (303).

Why do we fail to learn lessons from history? What happened in reference to the Hellenizing of the Jews has occurred in the “social gospel” in the church of our Lord in this century. The perceptive student of history cannot help but see that history is “repeating itself” under different labels, yet motivated by the same spirit. John cautioned, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 Jn. 2:1517).

Lord, help us to follow Thee being led by Thy Word without addition, subtraction, or alteration. May we ever speak “as the Oracles of God” (1 Pet. 4:11).

Guardian of Truth XXXVI: 6, p. 169
March 19, 1992