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GYMNASIUM, ancient Greek institution devoted to physical education and development of the body (γυμνός, "naked"). Although originally established for functions of a purely athletic and competitive nature, the gymnasium eventually became dedicated to the furthering of intellectual, as well as physical, aspects of Greek culture. During the Hellenistic period attendance at the gymnasium was recognized as the standard educational prerequisite for Greek youths wishing to attain citizenship in the polis. Thus, with the establishment of a Hellenistic administration in Jerusalem during the reign of *Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the high priest *Jason was given permission "to set up a gymnasium and ephebeum" (II Macc. 4:9). This act was abhorred by the vast majority of Palestinian Jews, who rightly considered the gymnasium a symbol of the Greek heathen culture chosen to supplant ancient Jewish law in Jerusalem (cf. I Macc. 1:13–15). The author of II Maccabees stresses that the gymnasium was erected adjacent to the Temple, and describes the priests abandoning their service at the altar "to participate in the unlawful exercises of the palaestra as soon as the summons came for the discus throwing" (I Macc. 4:14). Opposition to participation in the gymnasium was not as vehement among the Jews of Ptolemaic Egypt, and it may be assumed that the upper classes of Alexandrian Jewry were interested in obtaining this training for their youth. This interest was enhanced with the Roman conquest of Egypt, for Roman policy identified the graduates of the gymnasium as legitimate Greek "citizens," and only these might serve as the basis for local administration. It is therefore understandable that the Greek population of Alexandria was violently opposed to the enrollment of "non-Greeks" (i.e., Egyptians and Jews) among the epheboi (cf. the "Boule Papyrus," Tcherikover, Corpus 2 (1960), 25–29 no. 150). The Greek demands were eventually supported by the emperor Claudius (41 C.E.), who decreed, according to another papyrus (ibid., no. 153), that the Jews "are not to intrude themselves into the games presided over by the gymnasiarchs."


E. Bickerman, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees (1962), 104ff.; A.H.M. Jones, The Greek City (1940), 220ff.; Tcherikover, Corpus, 1 (1957), 38ff., 73, 76; idem, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (1959).

[Isaiah Gafni]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.