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Hellenistic Jewish Literature

To a general historian the term "Hellenistic" describes the literature of the period from the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.E.) until Rome's predominance in the Mediterranean (c. 30 B.C.E.). Sometimes the same general term is used to refer to Jewish material as well; thus, the Book of Ecclesiastes, early rabbinic literature, and the *Dead Sea Scrolls are sometimes referred to as "Hellenistic." More precisely, however, the term Hellenistic Jewish literature does not describe a historical period – nor even characterize a movement – but rather applies to a specific body of literature that was written in the Greek language; was transmitted only in the Greek language; or was preserved in one or more secondary versions derived from the Greek (though a number of these works have now been found in the original). Its two main centers were Palestine and Alexandria (Egypt), although other localities of the Diaspora may have contributed (see *Jason of Cyrene). Its temporal limits extend into the second century C.E., for the educated classes of the major cities of the Roman period continued to use Greek rather than Latin as the language of culture. Since the term Hellenistic Jewish literature refers to a subclass of the literature of a period, it is difficult to discuss it historically or in terms of genres in isolation from the rest of the literature of the same period. Traditionally, the material of this literature has been divided into Apocrypha, *Pseudepigrapha, and individual authors. Schuerer presents the material as either Palestinian or as Diaspora literature. Only recently, in the works of Joshua Gutmann, has there been an attempt at a systematic historical presentation.

The fundamental book of this literature is the Greek translation of the Bible, the *Septuagint. Although the story of its origin as told in the Letter of *Aristeas is probably propaganda, in fact an early date for this translation, at least of the Pentateuch, is very probable (the reign of *Ptolemy Philadelphus, 285–246 B.C.E.), testifying to the rapid loss of knowledge of the Hebrew language by the Alexandria Jewish community. The rest of the literature is greatly dependent on this text. In historical writing, for example, retelling of biblical history is found in the fragments of *Demetrius, *Eupolemus, *Artapanus, Aristeas, *Cleodemus, and *Thallus, in Pseudo-Philo's Biblical Antiquities, and in the first half of the Antiquities of *Josephus, all couched in the language of the Greek translation with little or no reference to the Hebrew original. In more contemporaneous histories, such as I and II *Maccabees, *Philo's Embassy to Gaius, and Josephus' Jewish War, there is an obvious debt to the models of Thucydides and Polybius. With the exception of I Maccabees (probably), Pseudo-Philo, and the original of Josephus' Jewish War, all these histories were composed in Greek. The folkloristic elaborations on the biblical text found in this literature are more often translations from a Semitic original. Some are insertions into the biblical text, perhaps stemming from the original copy, such as the story of the three youths in I *Esdras 3:1–5:6 or the insertions in the Greek *Esther; others are additions, such as *Susanna or Bel and the Dragon, to the biblical Book of Daniel; still others, separate books in themselves, such as *Jubilees, *Tobit, *Judith, and the Ascension of *Isaiah, are further examples of stories told in a biblical manner. Artapanus and II and III Maccabees come closer to the dramatic manner of a Greek romance.

Books such as the Wisdom of *Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) continue the tradition of biblical wisdom literature. Little or no direct influence of Greek philosophy can be discerned in them; but in books like the Wisdom of *Solomon, especially in the latter half, and in IV Maccabees, Platonic and Stoic terminology and ideas are present. *Aristobulus and Philo explain Mosaic law as an anticipation of Greek philosophy, and they employ the Greek technique of allegory to reconcile these two traditions. Apocalyptic literature, as found in *Enoch, the Assumption of *Moses, IV Esdras, the Syrian and Greek *Baruch, and the Testaments of the *Twelve Patriarchs, owes much to the prophetic tradition, as well as to Greek popular lore, Stoicism, and Platonism. The Testament of Abraham, for example, is reminiscent of Plato's vision of Er at the end of the Republic. In poetry, at least in form, the Greek and the Semitic elements can be clearly distinguished. Semitic poetry uses parallelism; Greek poetry uses syllabic metrics. The Psalms of *Solomon and parts of the Wisdom of Ben Sira represent a continuation of the tradition of Psalms; the writings of *Philo the Elder and those of *Theodotus are in Homeric hexameters; *Ezekiel the poet writes in iambics. The Prayer of *Manasseh, however, shows how the Greek and Hebrew elements are not always clearly delineated, for this book, although probably written in Greek, is more akin to biblical poetry.

Finally, there is the question of the extent to which this literature was addressed to a pagan audience. Most of these books are too deeply steeped in Jewish tradition to have been meaningful except to either traditional or partially Hellenized Jews. Some books, such as Josephus' Contra Apionem, seem to be addressed specifically to non-Jewish audiences. The Pseudepigrapha which are ascribed to pagan authors, such as the *Sibylline Oracles, Pseudo-Hecataeus, or Pseudo-Phocylides, also belong to this category.


Charles, Apocrypha; Schuerer, Gesch, 3 (19094), 420ff.; N. Bentwich, Hellenism (1919), 197–249; J. Gutmann, Ha-Sifrut ha-Yehudit ha-Hellenistit, 2 vols. (1958–63).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.