ATHENS, city in Greece. In ancient Jewish history, Athens occupied a position of secondary importance, especially when compared to Alexandria, Antioch, Rome, even Cyrene, and other known cities in Asia Minor. Nevertheless, it must be noted that relations between Athens and Palestine can be traced as far back as the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E. Large quantities of Attic dark-visaged and red-visaged potsherds have been found in various places in the region which was exposed, during the Persian era, to the economic influence of Athens. Coins minted during the occupation of Judea by Persian governors were inscribed “Yahud,” and had the image of an owl imprinted upon them, bearing a definite likeness to the Attic drachma.
After the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great, there was, apparently, an increase in the activities of the Athenians in the conquered land, though there is only limited information on this phase. The presence of an Athenian in Palestine is evidenced by a contract entered into by an Athenian in the purchase of a female slave in Transjordania, dating to the year 259 B.C.E. Among the signatories who witnessed the document, appears the name of “Heraklitus son of Phillip the Athenian” (Tcherikover, Corpus, 1 (1957), 119–20), who was in the service of Apollonius, minister of the treasury under Ptolemy II. There was an Athenian in command of the troops sent
With the establishment of the Hasmonean state, Athens was one of the cities to enter into relations with the new state. Josephus records (Ant., 14:149 ff.) a resolution adopted by the Athenian people in honor of Hyrcanus the high priest, ethnarch of the Jews. The decree stated that Hyrcanus had always maintained friendly relations with the Athenians, and always received them cordially when they came to him, and therefore it was resolved to bestow upon him a crown of gold, and to place his statue in bronze in the temple of Demos and the Graces in the city. Josephus himself relates this document to Hyrcanus II, but most modern scholars are inclined to attribute it to Hyrcanus I, specifically to the year 106/5 B.C.E. (the year in which Agathocles served as archon in Athens). Herod also continued the traditional friendship with Athens, to the advantage of the city (Jos., Wars, 1:425). There are documents extant substantiating the existence of friendly relations between Athens and the House of Herod.
Concrete information about a Jewish community in Athens is available only from the beginning of the first century C.E. Agrippa I, in a letter to Gaius Caligula, mentions the land of Attica among other places inhabited by Jews (Philo, Legat., 281). Similarly, when Paul came to a synagogue in Athens, he found there, beside the Jews, many devout Gentiles who revered the Jewish religion (Acts, 17:17). Inscriptions testify that Samaritans lived at Athens (I.G., ed. minor, vol. 2–3, part 3/2, nos. 10219–22) as well as Jews (no. 12609) including one Jerusalemite (no. 8934).
Much attention has been lavished in Judeo-Hellenistic literature on Athens as the most celebrated city in Greek civilization. Philo refers to Athens with profound respect, in a style customary with Greek writers (see Prob. 140); he also mentions famous figures in the history of Athens, such as Solon (Spec. 3:22), as well as historic events relating to Athens, including the conflict between the Athenians and the Lacedaemonians (Spartans; Mos. 2:19). Josephus often refers to Athens and its customs especially in his Contra Apionem.
Athens also occupies a place in the talmudic-midrashic literature. The Midrash on Lamentations contains in its introduction many stories the intention of which is to emphasize the superior wit and wisdom of the Jerusalem Jews over the Athenians. Many such stories begin with the phrase: "An Athenian came to Jerusalem." The Babylonian Talmud relates the story of the tanna, Joshua b. Hananiah, who at the advice of the Roman emperor came to Athens and challenged the elders of the city to a dispute and defeated them (Bek. 8b).
C.S. Clermont-Ganneau, Recueil d'archéologie orientale (1888), 9312–9900; L. Robert, in: Hellenica, 3 (Paris, 1946), 101; L.B. Urdahl, in: Symbolic' Osloenses, 43 (1968), 39 ff.; Schuerer, Hist, index; Juster, Juifs, 1 (1914), 187; C. Bayet, DeTitulis Atticae Christianis Antiquissimis… (1878), 122 ff.; H. Kastel, in: Almanac Israelit (1923), 49–58; Rosanes, Togarmah, 4 (1935), 37, 412; J. Nehama, In Memoriam: Hommage aux victimes Juives des Nazis en Grèce, 2 (1949), 155–7 and passim; M. Molcho, in: J. Starr Memorial Volume (1953), 231–9; Friedman, ibid., 241–8. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Y. Kerem, "Nisyonot Haẓalah be-Yavan be-Milḥemet ha-Olam ha-Sheniyah, 1941–1944," in Pe'amim, 27 (1986), 77–109; B. Rivlin (ed.), Pinkas Kehillot Yavan (1999), 67–86.