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Ancient Jewish History: The Greeks & the Jews

(332 - 63 BCE)

In the Table of Nations in Genesis 10.1-32, which lists the descendants of Noah and the nations they founded, the Greeks appear under the name "Yavan," who is a son of Yaphet. Yavan is parallel with the Greek word, "Ionia," the Greek region of Asia Minor; "Yaphet" is parallel with the Greek word, "Iapetus," who is the mythological father of Prometheus in Greek legend. Two other Greek nations appear in the table: Rhodes (Rodanim) and Cyprus (Kittim and Elishah). The sons of Shem, brother to Yaphet, are the Semitic (named after Shem) nations, including the Hebrews. Imagine, if you will, the Hebrew vision of history. At some point, in the dim recesses of time, after the world had been destroyed by flood, the nations of the earth were all contained in the three sons of Noah. Their sons and grandsons all knew one another, spoke the same language, ate the same mails, worshipped the same god. How odd and unmeasurably strange it must have been, then, when after an infinite multitude of generations and millennia of separation, the descendants of Yavan moved among the descendants of Shem!

They came unexpectedly. After two centuries of serving as a vassal state to Persia, Judah suddenly found itself the vassal state of Macedonia, a Greek state. Alexander the Great had conquered Persia and had, in doing so, conquered most of the world. For most of the world belonged to Persia; in a blink of an eye, it now fell to the Greeks.

This great Greek empire would last no longer than Alexander's brief life; after his death, altercations between his generals led to the division of his empire among three generals. One general, Antigonus and then later Ptolemy, inherited Egypt; another, Seleucus, inherited the Middle East and Mesopotamia. After two centuries of peace under the Persians, the Hebrew state found itself once more caught in the middle of power struggles between two great empires: the Seleucid state with its capital in Syria to the north and the Ptolemaic state, with its capital in Egypt to the south. Once more, Judah would be conquered first by one, and then by the other, as it shifted from being a Seleucid vassal state to a Ptolemaic vassal state. Between 319 and 302 BCE, Jerusalem changed hands seven times.

Like all others in the region, the Jews bitterly resented the Greeks. They were more foreign than any group they had ever seen. In a state founded on maintaining the purity of the Hebrew religion, the gods of the Greeks seemed wildly offensive. In a society rigidly opposed to the exposure of the body, the Greek practice of wrestling in the nude and deliberately dressing light must have been appalling! In a religion that specifically singles out homosexuality as a crime against Yahweh, the Greek attitude and even preference for homosexuality must have been incomprehensible.

In general, though, the Greeks left the Jews alone; adopting Cyrus's policy, they allowed the Jews to run their own country, declared that the law of Judah was the Torah, and attempted to preserve Jewish religion. When the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, desecrated the Temple in 168 BCE, he touched off a Jewish revolt under the Maccabees; for a brief time, Judah became an independent state again.

During this period, Jewish history takes place in several areas: in Judah, in Mesopotamia and other parts of the Middle East, and Egypt. For the dispersion of the Jews had begun during the Exile, and large, powerful groups of Jews lived all throughout the Persian empire and later the Hellenistic kingdoms ("Hellenistic"="Greek"). The Greeks brought with them a brand new concept: the "polis," or "city-state." Among the revolutionary ideas of the polis was the idea of naturalization . In the ancient world, it was not possible to become a citizen of a state if you weren't born in that state. If you were born in Israel, and you moved to Tyre, or Babylon, or Egypt, you were always an Israelite. Your legal status in the country you're living in would be "foreigner" or "sojourner." The Greeks, however, would allow foreigners to become citizens in the polis ; it became possible all throughout the Middle East for Hebrews and others to become citizens of states other than Judah. This is vital for understanding the Jewish dispersion; for the rights of citizenship (or near-citizenship, called polituemata ), allowed Jews to remain outside of Judaea and still thrive. In many foreign cities throughout the Hellenistic world, the Jews formed unified and solid communities; Jewish women enjoyed more rights and autonomy in these communities rather than at home.

The most important event of the Hellenistic period, though, is the translation of the Torah into Greek in Ptolemaic Egypt. The Greeks, in fact, were somewhat interested (not much) in the Jewish religion, but it seems that they wanted a copy of the Jewish scriptures for the library at Alexandria. During the Exile, the Exiles began to purify their religion and practices and turned to the Mosaic books as their model. After the Exile, the Torah became the authoritative code of the Jews, recognized first by Persia and later by the Greeks as the Hebrew "law." In 458 BCE, Artaxerxes I of Persia made the Torah the "law of the Judaean king."

So the Greeks wanted a copy and set about translating it. Called the Septuagint after the number of translators it required ("septuaginta" is Greek for "seventy"), the text is far from perfect. The Hebrew Torah had not settled down into a definitive version, and a number of mistranslations creep in for reasons ranging from political expediency to confusion. For instance, the Hebrew Torah is ruthlessly anti-Egyptian; after all, the founding event of the Hebrew people was the oppression of the Hebrews by the Egyptians and the delivery from Egypt. The Septuagint translators—who are, after all, working for the Greek rulers of Egypt—go about effacing much of the anti-Egyptian aspects. On the other hand, there are words they can't translate into Greek, such as "berit," which they translate "diatheke," or "promise" (in Latin and English, the word is incorrectly translated "covenant").

Despite these imperfections, the Septuagint is a watershed in Jewish history. More than any other event in Jewish history, this translation would make the Hebrew religion into a world religion. It would otherwise have faded from memory like the infinity of Semitic religions that have been lost to us. This Greek version made the Hebrew scriptures available to the Mediterranean world and to early Christians who were otherwise fain to regard Christianity as a religion unrelated to Judaism. Even with a Greek translation, the Hebrew scriptures came within a hair's breadth of being tossed out of the Christian canon. From this Greek translation, the Hebrew view of God, of history, of law, and of the human condition, in all its magnificence would spread around the world. The dispersion, or Diaspora, of the Jews would involve ideas as well as people.

Sources: The Hebrews: A Learning Module from Washington State University, ¬©Richard Hooker, reprinted by permission. Maps courtesy of Prof. Eliezer Segal's  site.