RELIGIOUS HISTORY OF EUROPE TO 1500 - THE ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT OF EARLY CHRISTIANITY: RELIGIOUS CONTEXT
Hellenistic Religions - The Hellenistic Age There was an attempt in Hellenistic culture to comprehend the realities of human nature and the world. The Hellenistic age spanned the time from Alexander the Great's conquests in the late fourth century to the Roman annexation of Egypt in 30 B.C. Alexander accomplished his conquests from 336 to 323 B.C. His goal was to unite the diverse peoples of the eastern Mediterranean area and western Asia into a universal empire, unified by Greek language and culture. His efforts irreversibly altered the sociopolitical world of the Greeks by replacing the local world of the polis--the Hellenic independent, democratic city-state--with an internationalized vision of the entire world as a polis. At his death Alexander's empire fell apart into three dynasties, Seleucid (Persia), Ptolemic (Egypt) and Antigonid (Macedonia). Eventually, Rome took an interest in the Hellenistic world and absorbed it by 30 B.C.
The Hellenistic World While a new internationalism changed political and cultural structures in the eastern Mediterranean, a cosmological revolution was occurring also. What emerged was later named after Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-178 A.D.) who gave it systematic formulation. The classical cosmology of the ancient Near East and Greece postulated a primordial formlessness, a separation into Father Heaven and Mother Earth, and the subsequent sexual generation of all things. Harmony was maintained by human proximity to the center of the world, conceived either cosmically by a sacred mountain or in a cult at the navel of the world. This made humans "at home" with the gods within a nourishing cosmos, tied to them by a cultic or cosmic umbilical cord.
By the time of Alexander this had been challenged and modified. The earth was now viewed as an unsupported object suspended in the middle of the universe surrounded by seven different concentric planetary spheres that embraced stars and planets. The terrestrial sub-lunar realm was sharply distinguished from the celestial super-lunar realm by an abyss of cosmic space populated by elemental and demonic powers.
Religion in the Hellenistic World Two themes posed a challenged to the Olympic deities of Homer and the cosmology in which they lived. First, rationalists such as the Greek stoic poets distinguished mythos from logos. Mythos was an allegorical expression of the single, universal and natural reality (logos) underlying the diversity of religious experience. Second, an earlier chthonic (chthon Gk.=earth, underworld and place of its spirits) evocation of sacrality began to flourish in the place of celestial sacrality. The ancient festivals of Demeter, goddess of grain, and the orgiastic festivals of Dionysus, the embodiment of the Cthonic spirit, swept the Hellenistic world. While traditional Olympic religion was associated with the polis and the established sociopolitical order, Chthonic religion was a response to the spontaneity of the sacred. It was a voluntary association of individuals that implicitly challenged the official order. The Olympians had been transcendent, superior to humans and in control of their affairs; however, the Cthonic deities were available for direct relationships with their human supplicants. Instead then, of a Homeric quest through a world directly ruled by the gods, the Hellenistic age envisioned fortuitous wandering through a terrestrial realm from which the gods were absent. The earthly deities had gone to their celestial homes and were separated from humans by the chasm of sub-lunar space. It left the earth chaotic, subject to constant change and unpredictability.
A New System of Relationships Hellenistic internationalism meant that eastern deities such as Isis and the Syrian Atargatis were now welcomed into the culture of Alexander's world and worshipped along with traditional Greek deities by a new cosmopolitan following. Further, local deities, Greek and non-Greek, in this new situation had to undergo transformation of their role and re-situation in the cosmos. Sometimes this meant being cut off from an original role and meaning. Deities often became understood as aspects of a common Hellenistic religious system rather than expressions of historically discrete traditions. While this has often been explained as a response of traditional religion to new cultural situations created by Alexander's empire, it is better to see these transformations in the context of a common structure of Hellenistic religious thought, a coherent system rather than as the fortuitous byproduct of political internationalism.
Three Strategies of Existence Viewing Hellenistic religion as a coherent system reveals three Hellenistic ways of coping with existence: piety, mystery and gnosis. "Piety" meant reverence, honor or esteem, especially in social and legal relationships, such as how an owner related to his slave or a legion to the commander. It also signified right relationships between mortals and immortals. Piety, then, was a system of conventional practices governing home and family, and by extension practices relating to being at home in the world under the rule of the family of gods. Usually, piety was expressed in terms of a location, demonstrating that knowledge of the local order of things was self-evident and available apart from divine intervention. Thus, piety was a local strategy of existence.
Mystery Hellenistic mysteries also assumed a systematic order of things, but knowledge of it was not readily accessible. Consequently, the mysteries offered to make the order accessible to initiates.
Gnosis Gnosis referred to teachings that founded salvation upon knowledge rather than ritual. This was a revealed, self-realized spiritual knowledge, held to be deeper and more profound than what was available in intellectual or philosophical inquiry. Thus, it ties together disparate traditions such as the Upanishads, yoga, Buddha, and Tao, as well as the radical strategies of individual existence known as Gnosticism that swept the late Hellenistic world.
The Cosmic World of the Hellenistic Period This world was defined by the Ptolemaic architecture of the cosmos. It structured and supported Hellenistic mythic formulations. The governing principle of the cosmos was the Earth Mother, the lunar Queen of Heaven, who formerly had been a terrestrial goddess but was now transformed into the lunar realm of Ptolemy. Further, she was no longer a source of nurture but now a capricious goddess who subjugated everyone to her universal and powerful rule. In short, the world was governed by a feminine principle. This was related to Aristotle's qualitative theory of physical reality, in which everything was composed of some combination of the elements of earth, air, fire and water. Each in turn was constituted by a combination of two of the four primary qualities: cold, dry, hot and moist determine the combinations. So, air is a combination of hot and moist, water cold and moist, etc. Aristotle associated the quality of heat with the masculine and coldness with the female principle, an association already known to some extent in pre-Socratic thought. According to Ptolemy, the sub-lunar realm in general, including the earth and moon, was made up of the elements of earth and water, and characterized by dry and moist coldness, and thus is accorded feminine attributes. Thus, in Ptolemy there is a drama of conflict between a feminine principle of randomness in nature and the lunar goddess and the feminine principle of celestial order.
Fortune Hellenistic existence is also marked by fortuitous existence. There was a universal recognition of the role of Fortune in this existence. In fact Fortune was widely worshipped by the third century B.C. Fortune was universally sovereign over mortals and immortals alike. Fortune (tyche Gk.; fortuna Latin) meant chance or luck. Embodied in a single entity, this goddess was ambiguous and capricious; she had a double nature, positive and negative. Tyche/Fortuna was a feminine personification in the process of transformation, in which the sympathetic traits of the ruling feminine principle overcame the anti-sympathetic or ambiguous traits of the feminine principle. This gave structure to religious formations during the entire Hellenistic period and directed its dynamism.
Wandering The transformation in the Hellenistic world of existence from the social conventions of the polis from a newly articulated individualism was problematic. While in the classical world, epic heroes went on divinely ordained quests, in the Hellenistic world the prevailing metaphor was aimless wandering. It referred to individualism without instruction, an aimless-ness motivated by a profound sense of alienation. Salvation--Often those who wandered could not discover any ordering principle in the world apart from a savior, such as Isis. Savior meant deliverer, preserver, protector or healer, applied to both male and female gods. In Greek it meant an extraordinary personality, divine or human, who was active in world affairs and who transformed situations for the better, whether militarily, politically, intellectually or religiously. Salvation, then, meant transformation. Isis, as a female deity, was able to offer an alternative to Tyche/Fortuna, the feminine as capricious. Only a terrestrial feminine principle could be the soteriological victor over "cruel Fortune." Only a savior could transform existence by offering a religious alternative to a dangerous and chaotic world.
Home In many of the great epics of Greece a hero must find his way home again after completing his heroic tasks. Home was protection against malevolent forces. It provided warmth and nourishment and was the center of family piety. Each hearth in the classical world was presided over by a god. Hestia was the guardian of home, family, town and later city-states. Home, then, was a metaphor for existence in harmony with the cosmic order, a secure and meaningful existence in which it was "better to be." In contrast Hellenization involved urban life.
Magic Hellenistic magic was derived from ancient chthonic cults of the earth goddess. It contained both good and evil practices. There was also popular and philosophical magic. Popular magic was power over the order of nature. All magical practice and investigation assumed, however, a finite cosmos in which all things were related to one another through a cosmic sympathy. So, in the cosmos alike things shared a concord and different things opposed one another. Cosmic harmony was made up of a system of sympathetic and anti-pathetical natural forces. Magic was a set of practices that assumed a cosmic system of thought and knowledge. Magic could affect sympathetic rapport between the forces of nature. This was an alternative way of looking at the world than that of Tyche/Fortuna. Magic established relations, sympathetic and anti-pathetical, between its practitioners and others (mortals, gods, and the physical world) by expressing or objectifying the cosmos as an orderly and harmonious whole.
Hellenistic Piety Traditional Greek piety did not changed appreciably with the coming of the Hellenistic world. Instead, it continued alongside the emerging Hellenistic patterns of religion as an underlying stratum. "Hellenistic piety" then was basically an adaptation of existing formulations designed to deal with Tyche/Fortuna. Piety was day-to-day practices that maintained domestic and social order. The Mother Goddess who personified agrarian piety was worshipped out of a profound respect for land and nature. Most people who lived in the Hellenistic world were rural peasants, so they had to acknowledge the importance of family and field. It was important to them that order, not chaos, reign in these two crucial areas of life, and religion was a way to gain access to and to maintain order.
Philosophy and Piety Hellenistic philosophy shared with traditional piety a number of assumptions about the world. Philosophy after the death of Aristotle in 322 B.C. moved from cosmological and metaphysical concerns to ethical matters. How does one conduct oneself as an individual in the transitory conditions of the Hellenistic world, buffeted by fate and fortune? In answering the question philosophy assumed a finite ordered world that existed in the face of arbitrariness. It also posited an ordered reality that was available to rational inquiry and philosophical discourse. The Epicureans, for example, tried to withdraw from the world of fortune by cultivating a reflective and prudent mental life. They overcame chance by reflecting upon the incontestable reality of one's immediate corporeal experience that was free from divine or fortuitous control and therefore capable of orderliness through rational inquiry.
The Stoics Similarly, the Stoics assumed the cosmos to be orderly. Individuals and political institutions could be conformed to this cosmos by assuming that one great law of nature governed it. It was, then, the great rational order of all things under whose harmony all men should live. If one lived in accordance with this great law of nature, then one would be free from the capriciousness of chance and finally be at home in the world. Thus, the various schools of philosophy had in common with traditional piety a belief in a sympathetic order of things accessible by rational thought. While chance or fate apparently ruled, it could be escaped or overcome by reason.
Other Forms of Piety Hellenistic piety also included artificial divination, such as astrology and alchemy, and natural divination which meant among other things oracles and dreaming. All were attempts to comprehend and to identify the sympathetic parallels in the cosmos (the forces that worked harmoniously together, that had rapport with one another?). Divination in particular meant a conquest of ignorance about the cosmic or spatial order of things, not telling the future. Astrology was the chief form of artificial divination and the most Hellenistic variety of investigating the sympathetic forces in the cosmos. The basic task was to apply the unchangeable regular patterns of the heavenly bodies to the seemingly fortuitous unpredictable changes in the sub-lunar or earthly realm. It was assumed that there was a sympathetic harmony between the supra and sub-lunar regions which made this exercise worthwhile and under girded the basic harmony of nature. Astrology, then, offered one a "full" view of human and divine things and enabled the individual to outwit the effects of capricious Tyche/Fortuna and to secure an "at-homeness" in the world.
The Mysteries of the Feminine All of the above mentioned techniques of traditional piety were responses to the apparent aimlessness of existence. In Apulieus' novel (c. 123 B.C.) The Golden Ass, however, the central character, Lucius, finally comes to the place where he abandons these techniques, gives up his self-assertiveness and places himself in the providential hands of Isis. In so doing he in fiction and many others in real life went beyond traditional piety and gained his full humanity through the Mysteries of the Great Goddess. This was the process of placing one's existence under the rule of a goddess of True Fortune. These were in Hellenistic times the mystery deities. Most were ancient and traditional gods who had been given an international identity and appeal in Hellenistic times. They had been elevated from some earthly locale to the celestial realm. In the complex Ptolemaic image of the world these mystery deities bridged the gap between humans and the gods. Their specialty was to rescue men from their wanderings and sufferings in a world of seeming fate and affect a soteriological homecoming under their (her, most were goddesses) providential care. The process by which this took place was a Mystery into which one had to be initiated to gain the desired effect.
Initiation Those initiated into the Mysteries were forbidden to tell its secrets. It is known that they usually underwent some sort of procession or rite which dramatically illustrated the wanderings of mortals under the buffeting of Tyche/Fortuna and the paradigmatic wanderings of the cult deity, usually a female, who finally overcomes fate and can therefore provide the same soteriological victory for the initiate. The ritual repeats this a movement from the profane to the sacred, from being homeless in the world under chance and fate to being under providential guidance, at-homeness, no longer subject to fate, now within a realm of order.
The Eleusianian Mysteries A good example of a Greek-based Mystery in the Hellenistic period is the revival and expansion of the famous Eleusinian Mysteries of Demeter. Eleusis was 14 mi. west of Athens where a Mystery cult flourished and practiced its secret rites. Demeter traditionally was an earth goddess of fertility. Her Mysteries were connected with the village of Eleusis. Demeter is separated from and then reunited with her daughter, Persephone. In gratitude for this reunion Demeter restores the fertility of the earth and is invited by Zeus to join the gods on Olympus. Persephone's homecoming is thus a picture of divine at-homeness. Likewise, the homecoming reunites sky (Zeus), earth (Demeter) and the underworld (Persephone's new husband, Hades). Clearly, the message is the harmonious at-homeness of the divine family overcomes a cosmic rift. The public performance of the Eleusian mysteries is a prelude to mystery initiation in which one participates in this at-homeness of Demeter and escapes the homelessness, aimlessness and chaotic discord of the world under Tyche/Fortuna.
The Mysteries of Isis Another important Mystery was that of Isis. She was a fertility goddess from Egypt who was known to the Greek world from the fifth century B.C. through Herodotus. He identified her with Demeter. The Hellenistic mystery cult of Isis became, however, a universal cult without racial or geographical distinctions. It survived officially until the imperial prohibition against paganism in the fourth century A.D. and unofficially in sentiment and iconography in Roman Catholic Mariology. Isis was widely worshipped because of the patronage of Ptolemy I Soter, who as one of Alexander's generals ruled over Egypt in 304 B.C. He sanctioned the worship of Sarapis as the consort of Isis and established a cultic center in Alexandria. Sarapis became a new Hellenistic champion over fate, and his consort, Isis, became a very popular image of this triumph.
Isis and Osiris Generally, Isis derived her importance from her relationship with Osiris. Through his wanderings, death and then return to Isis to unite with and to impregnate her, Isis was seen as a source and giver of life. She mounted the Hellenistic lunar throne as the "Mother of All Things" and the "Queen of Heaven." Her appeal, then, was as guarantor of cosmic order and the ancient goddess of life, through whom initiates into her Mysteries might obtain release from Fate and become "at-home" in the world. Initiates could find in her a blessed and providential guidance and protection from the power of Tyche/Fortuna. Her own wanderings to be reunited with her consort Osiris was recalled in the ritualized procession of initiation, in which initiates ritually wandered over the "sea of life" before finally coming "home" under the protection and guidance of Isis, the savior goddess.
There were other international goddess who originated in Greece, Egypt, Syria and Phrygia but became popular throughout the Hellenistic world. One way or another they were associated with a common struggle to overcome Tyche/Fortuna and the seeming arbitrariness of life and to provide at-homeness and order for their initiates. It is this same existential/soteriological problem which was probably in mind when Paul of Tarsus wrote some Christians in Galatia about enslavement to the "elemental spirits of the universe" (Gal. 4:3-10), a phrase roughly equivalent to the astrological term "heirmarmene" or fate. It is interesting that Paul characterizes contemporary Judaism in quite Hellenistic terms. It suggests perhaps that Jewish self-understanding had been influenced by its Hellenitic cultural context.
Mithraism Another example of a Hellenistic mystery cult and one quite peculiar to the Hellenistic age is Mithraism. It was an initiatory cult concerned with overcoming the vicissitudes of an apparently chaotic world. Mithras allegedly lived among the ancient Indo-Aryan peoples. He traveled to India, where Vedic literature associates him with the deity Varuna. In Persia the Avestas associates him with the high god Ahura-Mazda. In both instances Mithras was seen as an ally of the forces of order in the cosmos, one who dispelled darkness and brought light and upheld righteousness. A Syrian fresco depicts Antiochus I shaking Mithras' hand to connect the king with someone known to protect Kings and to uphold political order. Roman Mithraism claimed to have originated in Persia, although evidence for Mithraism comes only from the first century B.C., so this is hard to determine. The Western cult of Mithras may have had only the name in common with its Persian counterpart.
Evidence of Mithraism Unfortunately, no myths about Mithras have survived, nor is there much iconographic evidence. What we have shows Mithras experiencing a miraculous birth, or in the famous bull-slaying scene which has been found on the rear of all known Mithraic sanctuaries. With Mithras are usually astrological images that seemingly connect him with the stars, although there is much debate and little agreement on the exact content of the astrological/astronomical images and what they say about Mithras. It is evident, however, that Mithraism is set firmly in a Hellenistic context. There were, in addition, Mysteries connected with Mithra. Initiates could achieve seven grades of initiation with the god, perhaps in preparation for some level of full participation in his existence. Celsus, a second century opponent of Christianity, claimed these were seven rungs or seven spheres, a kind of vertical imagery the initiates experienced linking heaven and earth. Once achieved the initiate has complete his path to cosmic reintegration, is now at one with the orderly cosmos and free of fate.
Summary In summary the Mysteries like other forms of Hellenistic religion involved cosmic re-evaluation. They were techniques involving knowledge of an assumed sympathetic cosmic order that struggled against an antipathetic cosmos imposing implacable destiny upon human existence. Or they were participation in the successful triumph over fate and destiny of some female goddess. Participation came by initiation into the Mysteries of this goddess and enabled one to overcame the forces of Tyche/Fortuna, the agents of cosmic determination. It was a way of renouncing any claim by this world, whether social, political or cosmic, upon individual human existence. Thus, Hellenistic religion attempted to offer individual salvation, something the traditional state cults could not do. They offered participants a means of recovering their true self, the self untouched by Fate or determinism. Reunion with the transcendent in the form of a savior goddess was the way provided in the Mysteries.
Connection to Christianity and Judaism--Several of these themes surface in Christianity: a redeemer who enters the world and then who re-ascends to a transcendent place of origin. The Saviour figure, Jesus the Christ, overcomes and transcends the powers of this world by His death and resurrection. By identification with His death and resurrection the believer mystically gains his true self, reunited with God in purity and righteousness, escapes the evil of this world, and positionally lives for and is a part of the transcendent realm. Of course, in Christianity this is all conceived of in a very historical context, rather than an idealized or mythical context. Over and over it is emphasized that Christ was a genuine human; yet, the results of His mission fulfill many of the aspirations for personal freedom (from the deterministic power of sin) and recovery of one's true self that the Hellenistic religions promised but apparently for many could not deliver.
Judaism - The Exilic Period (586-39 B.C.) The history of Judaism relevant to the rise of Christianity begins in 586 B.C., which is the beginning of the Exilic period that lasts until 539 B.C. In 586 B.C. following the warnings of Jeremiah the prophet, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and King Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 B.C). Nebuchadnezzar ruled the Babylonians for forty-three years. He was a proficient conqueror who conducted a lengthy siege of Tyre, took Jerusalem, successfully attacked Syria, Moab and Ammon in 582 B.C., and in 568 B.C. invaded Egypt to punish it for incursions into Syria-Palestine. He also built an elaborate set of fortifications including the defenses of the city of Babylon itself as well as temples, palaces, canals and streets. After the capture of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar took the leading citizens into exile in Babylon, and the Jewish Temple, which had been the center of religious activity, was destroyed. Taking captives of this sort was an idea borrowed from Assyria. It reduced the chances of revolution. Judah became a province of Babylon with an appointed governor named Gedaliah, son of Ahikam. Unfortunately, he was assassinated after only two months in office. A number of Judeans fled to Tahpanhes in the eastern delta of Egypt out of fear of Babylonian reprisals.
Nebuchadnezzar's Successors Nebuchadnezzar's son, Amel-marduk, succeeded him but ruled for only two years (562-560 B.C.). His brother, Neriglissar, murdered him and was enthroned in August 560 B.C. He was defeated in a battle in the Taurus Mountains and withdrew to Babylon in 556 B.C. just before his death. His son, Labashi-marduk, took his place, but he was assassinated a few months later by courtiers including Nabonidus who seized the throne. Nabonidus (556-539 B.C.) was from Haran and probably was the most capable ruler after Nebuchadnezzar. By favoring the temple of Sin in Haran over Marduk Nabonidus stirred up opposition. While away on a military expedition his son, Belshazzar, suspended the annual New Year celebrations that caused uproar. With revolt in the air Babylon fell prey to a new power, Persia, under the leadership of Cyrus the Great (559-530 B.C.).
The Persian Period (539-334 B.C.) The conquest of Babylon marked the inauguration of the Persian Period in Jewish history which lasted until 334 B.C. when Alexander the Great conquered Persia. The taking of Babylon also climaxed a period of rapid rise in Persian power brought about principally by the leadership of Cyrus the Great (559-530 B.C.). He defeated Croesus of Lydia (ca. 560-46), an ally of Nabonidus, by crossing the Halys River in the dead of winter (547-46 B.C.) on camels whose smell made enemy cavalry horses unmanageable. After this western sweep Cyrus advanced east to India, and then in 539 B.C. he marched on Babylon, which was suffering from deep unrest led by disgruntled priests of Marduk. Through tact and generous treatment Cyrus was able to take over the city without destroying it or looting it and thus maintain its religious and civil institutions. Cyrus ruled Babylon for nine years until he was fatally wounded in battle in 530 B.C. Several famous leaders followed Cyrus. Darius (522-486 B.C.) put down an insurrection and seized power. He became a very capable ruler. He was followed by Xerxes I (486-465 B.C.) who quelled several revolts also. He incorporated Babylon into Assyria and planned a campaign against the Greeks to avenge his father's defeat at Marathon in 490 B.C. He did capture Athens, but his navy was destroyed at Salamis and his army was cut to pieces at Plataea in 479 B.C. What is significant for the Jews is that during Persian rule in the Near East three different cohorts of Jews were able to return to Jerusalem, first in 538 B.C. at the Persian conquest of Babylon, then in 458 B.C. led by Ezra, and third in 444 B.C. led by Nehemiah.
Building the Temple Although many Jews lived in Babylon in relatively pleasant conditions, some wished to return to Palestine evidently to rebuild the Temple, to resume the Mosaic ceremonial sacrifices and to be a witness of God's faithfulness and their devotion to Jehovah. While a foundation was quickly laid, workers became distracted with working on their own land so that it was not until 520 B.C. that construction was resumed. The temple was finally completed in 515 B.C. Its completion was one of the most important achievements in Jewish history in the Persian period.
The Hellenistic Period (334-63 B.C.) Alexander the Great succeeded his father, Philip II of Macedonia, in 336 B.C. Philip had transformed a backward kingdom on the fringe of the Greek world into a powerful military state with a dependable army, well-chosen frontiers and a dominant position in the League of Corinth. At his death Philip was already planning to invade Persia. It was a new source of wealth and a place to put exiles and dispossessed people who had at various times threatened Greece and Macedonia. Alexander spend his first two years, 336-334 B.C. securing his northern frontiers in Thrace and Illyria and suppressing a revolt in Greece. In the spring of 334 B.C. he crossed over into Asia with about 37,000 men, 5,000 of who were cavalry. In the autumn of 333 B.C. he defeated Darius at Issus and thus opened the way into Syria. By the winter of 332 B.C. all of Syria and Palestine was in his grasp, and he was on his way to Egypt where he founded a new city, Alexandria. In the summer of 331 Alexander fought Darius' army again, this time at Gaugamela beyond the Tigris near Nineveh. Alexander was victorious and moved quickly to occupy Babylon and to seize its 50,000 talents of gold. In June of 323 B.C. after moving his army all the way to India and back to Babylon and carving out a "spear-won" empire that had little to do with Macedonia, Alexander died in Babylon after a lengthy banquet and drinking bout at age thirty-three.
Post-Alexander Period After Alexander's death his subordinates divided his empire into Ptolemaic Egypt, Seleucid Syria and Antigonid Macedonia. All three dynasties lasted until Rome moved into the eastern Mediterranean in 168 B.C. Judea was incorporated into Egypt about 301 B.C. The Macedonian kings of Syria conquered Judea in 200 B.C. Throughout the Persian and Hellenistic periods the Jews remained fairly quiet about their rulers. However, this changed dramatically in the 160s B.C.. In 168 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes, a Seleucid king of Syria, profaned the Temple by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing a pig on it. He systematically compelled Jews to violate the Mosaic law. Various Jewish groups rebelled, the most prominent being the clan of Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah the Maccabee. In 164 B.C. the Maccabees reclaimed and purified the Temple. Seleucid rule ended twenty years later. Thus, the Hellenistic period ends spectacularly, but its chief importance is that during the fourth and third centuries B.C. Jews were gradually scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. This was called the "Diaspora." Further, during this period Jewish apocalyptical concerns, reflecting the themes of the book of Daniel, became quite prominent.
Maccabean Era Maccabean rule lasted from about 164 to 63 B.C. when the Romans took control of Jerusalem in 63 B.C. The Maccabees began as insignificant country priests and became high priests and kings, the rulers of an independent state which the Seleucids had little choice but to accept. They fell from power because of both internal and external enemies. During the reign of John Hyrcanus (135-104 B.C.) and Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.), many Jews opposed Maccabean rule because they got tired of the Maccabees' autocratic ways. Externally, the Romans viewed the Maccabees as a strong nationalistic element that was incompatible with their ambitions to form an unequal alliance with the Jews. The Romans wanted to be the superior partner, so they pushed the Maccabees out and created a new dynasty founded by Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.). Herod the Great tried to rule all his subjects, Jews or otherwise. He built pagan cities and temples as well as Jewish cities and a temple in Jerusalem. Heavy taxes were required to pay for all of this, and Herod was very insecure especially about the aristocracy that he thought was plotting to do him in. Numerous Jewish aristocrats whose family credentials and credibility rivaled his own were murdered, including many of Herod's wives and children whom he suspected (some rightly) of trying to kill him.
Roman-Jewish Rule The Roman-Jewish alliance came to a climax in the rule of Herod the Great and his grandson Herod Agrippa I (41-44 A.D.). The Romans, however, wanted to move away from vassal kings to Roman administrators known as procurators. They proved to be an incompetent and corrupt lot. Some such as Pontius Pilate were simply brutal and cruel. As a result of their mistakes, strife between pagans and Jews, and general social unrest, a war broke out against the Romans in 66 A.D. This was the first "great revolt." In the summer of 67 A.D. Vespasian moved from Syria into Galilee and slowly and deliberately re-conquered the entire area. By 68 A.D. the entire countryside except for Jerusalem and a few strongholds had been subdued. In the wake of Nero's death Vespasian acted patiently. He had himself proclaimed emperor in July 69 A.D. With nothing to prove he turned the war over to his son Titus who retook Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and destroyed the Temple. This was the end of the "second temple period" (from the rise of the Maccabees, 160 B.C., to the destruction in 70 A.D.).
Decimation and Sectarianism In 115-17 A.D. Jews in Egypt, Cyprus and Cyrenaica (Lybia) rebelled against the Romans, although Jews in Palestine apparently did not take part. There was also a struggle against Rome in 132-35 A.D. led by Bar Kokhba, which is sometimes called the "second revolt." The war in 115 A.D. decimated Egyptian Jewry, which had been the largest and most important Jewish community of the Roman Diaspora. The bar Kokhba war brought about the paganization of Jerusalem and the changing of Judea's name from Judea to Palestine. Despite these tragic and unfortunate events the period from the rise of the Maccabes (160 B.C.) to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. was a rich and significant chapter in Jewish history. It was the age of sects-Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, the Qumran community, Christians, Zealots, etc.), sectarian literature, apocalyptical speculation and the rise of the synagogue. It was the golden age of the Jewish Diaspora which tried to package Jewish ideas in a Hellenistic wrapping, and the time of a fierce interaction between Judaism and various host cultures which produced at the same time an intense hatred of Judaism and an attraction to it (converts and "God-fearers").
Cultural Interaction Between Greeks and Jews The scattering of Jews throughout the Greco-Roman world and the spread of Greek culture by Alexander the Great raised significant questions for Jews who had always seen themselves as a distinct group. There were Jews and gentiles (the "world"). Similarly, the Greeks distinguished between "Hellenes" who bore enlightened culture and "barbarians," members of foreign nations who did not live in a Greek city-state. "Hellenism" currently is used two ways. In one sense it means the culture, society and way of life brought to the east by Alexander the Great and his successors. The intermixture of Greek culture and that of various societies brought under Alexander's rule created "Hellenistic" culture because it used Greek language, had Greek ideas, Greek gods and the social elite was Greek. Since it included worship of Greek gods, "Hellenism" was an antonym of "Judaism." These distinctions in turn gave rise to the idea of "Hellenistic Judaism" and "Palestinian Judaism" to refer to the religion of Jews in the Diaspora, who spoke Greek, wrote in Greek and adulterated their religion with Greek ideas and practices. In contrast "Palestinian Judaism" meant Jews who lived in the mother country, spoke Hebrew and Aramaic and struggled to keep their religion free from foreign influence.
Scholarly Debate Some scholars have questioned the usefulness of this distinction in Judaism, because of the complexities of the situation. For example, Hellenistic culture was not just a watered-down version of classic Athens. Its foundation was Greek, but it absorbed all sorts of ideas and practices from the cultures Alexander absorbed into his empire, so that if the natives were "Hellenized" the Greeks conversely were "orientalized." The ancient cultures of the East were simply too powerful to lose their attractiveness to the inhabitants. Clearly, the culture of the world of Alexander the Great to the first century A.D. was a fusion of various cultures, and in this situation Judaism was part of Hellenistic culture and Hellenistic culture was part of Judaism. This suggests that to some extent all Jews in the Hellenistic period (after the death of Alexander the Great), both in and out of Palestine, were Hellenized to some extent and were integral parts of the culture of the ancient world. Of course some varieties of Judaism were more Hellenized than others. The central point is that one cannot assume Judaism outside Palestine is adulterated, while that in Palestine was uncontaminated. So, the term "Hellenistic Judaism" means principally Judaism during the period from Alexander to the Roman conquests, and secondarily and cautiously indicates that in some places among some Jews their religion and practices were influenced by Greek ideas and behavior more than in other places, perhaps, though not exclusively Palestine.
Public Institutions of Judaism Israel, known as Judea in Persian times, was part of various other provinces in Hellenistic and Roman periods of government. However, the Jews of the land were recognized as a "nation" and allowed to have their own institutions and jurisdiction. So, Jews were members of two parallel political systems, the civil state ultimately ruled by a post-Alexandrian Greek king or a Roman administrator, and the religious state administered by Jewish polity. By the fourth century B.C. the head of the Jewish state was the high priest. In Hellenistic times, he was appointed by a Greek king. The Maccabean wars concerned this office. When the Maccabeans triumphed, they started a new dynasty of high priests who retained religious authority when the Romans began a new civil dynasty in 63 B.C.
The Temple The focal point of Judaism was the Temple, not only for Jews in Palestine but also in the Diaspora. The Temple in Jerusalem (there were others, on in upper Egypt, another one in Samaria, etc.) unified Jewish society, and it was the power of the ruling class. The priests were the exclusive ministers of God and consequently enjoyed enormous power and prestige. While all priests were entitled to receive tithes and officiate in the Temple, only the high priests held a full measure of religious power. Vassal kings such as Herod the Great kept a close watch on the Temple and the priests to ensure it would not become the focal point of a rebellion. The revolt of 66-70 A.D. began in the temple, and the Temple in Jerusalem remained a center of revolutionary activity. Many Jewish sects dreamed of purifying the Temple and controlling it (cf. Mark 11:15-19).
The Sanhedrin Another important, although somewhat elusive institution of Hellenistic Judaism, was the Sanhedrin. It means "a sitting together" or a "session." It was seemingly a type of supreme council chaired by the High Priest and attended by representatives of various Jewish factions such as the Sadducees. It tried all cases involving serious violation of the religious law, and according to rabbinic tradition it could legislate as well as serve as a court. Josephus describes it as an ad hoc committee assembled by the High Priest whenever he needed advice on difficult cases. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. the Sanhedrin disappeared, leaving the Jewish community without a central organization. The rabbis gradually filled this lacuna.
The Public Institutions of the Diaspora The large Jewish communities of the Diaspora in Hellenistic and Roman times were under municipal and provincial rule. They also were part of an ethnic community that enjoyed a large measure of autonomy. In a Greek city such a community was known as a "Politeuma." A good example of this is the Politeuma of Alexandria. The numerous synagogues of that city belonged to this Jewish community and were extensions of this central organization. Non-Jewish citizens of Alexandria resented the Jewish Politeuma because it was a body that was "in" but not "of" the city. It was legally separate from the city and therefore seemed to diminish the autonomy and self-esteem of the larger city. While the Alexandrians wanted the Jewish Politeuma to be dissolved, the Jews wanted the city to recognize all the members of their community as citizens of Alexandria. Not all Jews in the Diaspora, however, lived in or were a part of such communities. Jews in the western part of the Roman Empire and in the villages and towns of the East did not form communities recognized by the state. Rome guaranteed to Jews the right to assemble for worship but not necessarily to form a corporate body in a given place. In such localities where there was no Politeuma, the synagogue was an essential unit of community organization.
The Synagogue The synagogue was a house of prayer, a study hall and a meetinghouse. The variety of terms used in and out of Palestine for house of prayer and meetinghouse suggests that at some point these were three separate places that gradually came together. The earliest reference to a synagogue is from Upper Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (246-221 B.C.). It is an inscription dedicating a "Proseuchai" or house of prayer for the Jews. It suggests the Jews had created some sort of communal organization. It is not surprising that such an early citation would come from the Diaspora where Jews were cut off from easy access to the Jerusalem temple and its cult. Diaspora Jews needed an alternative means for regular communion with God, and creating a community for prayer fulfilled that demand. The Gospel accounts are filled with references to synagogues in Galilee. Jerusalem had synagogues, and Josephus mentions them in several Palestinian cities. In general it seems the function of the synagogue in and out of Palestine was teaching or the study and explication of Scripture. In addition there are scattered references to prayer in the synagogues.
Sectarian Developments The existence of these public institutions might suggest that Judaism in the Hellenistic and Roman periods was uniform and undivided. That, however, was not the case. There were groups or sects who regarded themselves, for various reasons, as the only or true claimants to God's favor within the context of the tradition and history outlined in the OT. Formally, a sect means a small, organized body within a larger religious group but one that from its internal perspective is consciously and deliberately separate from the mainstream. The sect asserts that it alone embodies the ideals of the larger group because it alone understands the will of God. Its distinctive characteristics then are separation and exclusivity.
Focal Points In pre-Rabbinic Judaism there were three focal points of sectarianism, law, the Temple and Scripture. For example, the sectarian community at Qumran was founded on the "cutting edge" of debate over the Law. In the Rule of the Community and the Damascus Covenant, two important documents from the Qumran community, there is much discussion over how the community fulfills the strict intent of the law while the profane world has ignored or compromised God's sacred will. Within this category, discussion centered upon marriage, the Sabbath and festivals, and temple purity. The sectarians at Qumran, for example, advocated a particularly severe observance of the Sabbath, carried out under a peculiar calendar that was not followed by other Jews. Further, at Qumran the complex laws of purity, as outlined in Numbers in the OT, were thoroughly analyzed to deter-mine how best to observe them and avoid ritual contamination in God's worship. With regard to the Temple there were always sectarian questions about the priests and successors of the Maccabeans. How could one know if the current priests were truly ordained by God to mediate between the community and God? Most sects, such as the community at Qumran, denied the claims of priestly exclusivity and claimed them for the community. Instead of the polluted temple and compromised priests the Qumran community offered a replacement for the temple until God intervened in history and erect a new temple, as suggested in the prophecies of Ezekiel for example.
Climax of Sectarianism The heyday of sectarianism was from 150 B.C. to the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Josephus, for example, cites three "schools of thought" within Judaism, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. These distinctions are also mentioned in the NT, the Qumran scrolls, Josephus and in various rabbinic texts. The name "Pharisee," for example, comes from the Hebrew and Aramaic word "parush" which means "one who is separated." Whether the separation is from the Gentiles or from irreligious Jews is difficult to determine. Sadducee comes from the Hebrew "zeduqi" and means "a descendant of Zadok, the priest." The phrase "priests the sons of Zadok" is a phrase which appeared frequently in the last chapters of Ezekiel. The name suggests that those who have this label are the true priests who should officiate in the Temple. The name Essene remains a mystery like the group itself. It does not appear in a Hebrew source, so the original language or pronunciation is uncertain. Philo and Josephus transcribe the name as "Essene" or as "Essaean," which modern scholars have guessed means "pious ones" or "healers."
Characteristics The various sources tell us different things about these sects. Josephus discussed these groups as "schools of thought" who engaged in politics. The Pharisees appear as a political party in the time of John Hyrcanus (137-104 B.C.). Alexander Jannaeus counseled his wife on his deathbed to befriend the Pharisees "because these men have so much influence with their fellow Jews." His wife, Salome Alexandra, had a son, Aristobulus, who opposed the Pharisees and resented their influence. When Herod the Great came to power, Pollio the Pharisee counseled the people to accept his rule. In 66 A.D. the Pharisees urged the revolutionaries not to begin the war with the Romans that they could not win. Their advice was ignored. Throughout Josephus indicates the Pharisees had the complete confidence of the masses, while the Sadducees only had the sup-port of the "people of highest standing." According to Josephus the Essenes numbered about 4,000 and lived in villages and towns throughout Israel. Most scholars now believe that the Essenes were the same as the people who lived at Qumran. Josephus observed that the Essenes were celibate and had very utopian ideals. This is one of the reasons why the Qumran community known from the Qumran scrolls is considered an Essene community.
The NT View of the Sects According to the NT the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, while the Pharisees affirmed it (Matt. 22:23, Acts 23). In addition Acts 23 indicates the Sadducees did not believe that angelic beings or spirits communicated directly with people. Similarly, the NT implies that the Pharisees enjoyed mass support, while the Sadducees were elitists who were associates of the High Priest and his advisors (Acts 4:1; 5:17). Jesus severely denounced the Pharisees as religious hypocrites that had great religious power in Jewish society. Both Pharisees and Sadducees sat on the Sanhedrin, but neither appears to be a political party. The Pharisees seemingly derived their power from their alleged piety and knowledge of the Scriptures, both of which Jesus condemned as false and self-serving. When Paul described his former Jewish piety in Gal. 1:14 he boasted of his Pharisaic associations and punctilious observation of the Law. Within the space of several chapters Paul states several times he was or still is a Pharisee in terms of accomplishment and zeal for the Law. In the Gospel accounts the Pharisees question Jesus about His messianic claims, His claims to divinity and especially His seemingly lax observation of the Law. On the other hand the NT ignores the Essenes, apparently because they did not wield the power of the priests, scribes and elders. This may account for the sharp attacks on the Pharisees and Sadducees who controlled the religious state and formed its ideas, while falling far short of the ideals and interpretation of the Torah presented by Jesus. There was then an intense rivalry between the followers of Jesus and the official interpreters of the Mosaic law because they offered counterpoised and rival interpretations of sacred text.
Qumran One of the richest and most interesting sources for Jewish sectarianism was the scrolls discovered in the Judean desert in caves adjacent to a settlement at Khirbet Qumran. Hence the name Dead Sea or Qumran scrolls. Pottery in the caves link the scrolls to the settlement, so that most scholars agree that the scrolls were the library of the Essene-like group that lived near the caves and that some of the scrolls were actually written at Qumran. The library contains three types of materials that tell us much about this community. First were works widely read and available in Jewish society such as the OT, Tobit, Jubilees, Testament of Levi, and Ben Sira; second, works that originated in esoteric, pietistic and sectarian circles outside Qumran; and third, works written by the sect itself, such as Rule of the Community, Damascus Covenant, War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, and commentaries on Nahum and Habakkuk. All of these original works show a strong sense of contrast between the members of the community and outsiders. There are also other works such as Temple Scroll and the Hymns that fit Qumranic theology so well that they probably are of Qumranic origin.
Qumran and the Essenes The Qumran group as described in the above literature closely resembles the Essenes described by Josephus and Philo: commonality of property, a three-year probationary period for initiates, an emphasis on purity, wearing white garments, strict organization and discipline, celibacy and a strong belief in predestination. There are some differences among the literature. The Rule of the Community envisioned a society of celibate men living in isolation from fellow Jews, while the Damascus Covenant described a community of both sexes and children living among Jews and gentiles. In the utopian society of the Temple Scroll women live in throughout the countryside but not inside the temple city, which they can visit but not inhabit. No sexual relations are permitted in the temple city. Together the literature envisions the Jerusalem temple as polluted with the Qumranic Jews living in a period when sin was triumphant and the priesthood corrupt. In the end days in the strong eschatological and apocalyptical theology of the Qumran community sinners will be destroyed, a new temple built and the sect rises in glory. In the interim, the group is led by true priests, the sons of Zadok.
Essene Themes Obviously, Josephus and Philo left out many important features of Essene belief and life. But many of the themes they connect with the Essenes appear repeatedly in the Qumran literature. The Qumran community like other Essenes attacked the legal practices of fellow Jews, especially observance of marriage laws, Sabbath, festivals, calendar and purity. The Qumran community denied the validity of the Jerusalem Temple, interpreted the Bible in their own way, wrote their history in code, so there was a "Wicked Priest," "the Lion of Wrath," and "the Teacher of Righteousness." Scholars have labored mightily to identify these figures with contemporary characters but so far without satisfactory results. What is puzzling is the sense of alienation in the community that seems to be masked behind a lot of rhetoric and labels. Exactly why the community separated from the rest of the Jews is never specifically stated. Although the people at Qumran never refer to themselves as Essenes, they do call themselves the chosen of God, the elect of God, the community, the many, the community of God, the repenters of Israel, members of the new covenant, etc. They were a sect, which is not clear in Jospheus and Philo, but is quite clear in the Qumran literature.
Christianity The most difficult task in studying Judaism in the Hellenistic and Roman periods is to explain its relationship to Christianity. Basically, Christianity arose as another Jewish sect, an identity not escaped or changed until the career of Paul of Tarsus who outlined in detail the relationship between the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth and the principal concerns, history and themes of Judaism. As we will discuss later, Paul posited a radical break with Judaism in the sense that obedience to the law did not establish a satisfactory relationship with God. That was accomplished instead by faith in Jesus as the resurrected Christ whose death satisfied God's righteous demands against human sin. Yet, in his pure life Jesus had fulfilled all the demands of the law. By mystical identification with Him, particularly through faith and then public baptism, a believer became a member of the true Israel, fully satisfied the requirements of the law and embraced the law of Christ, exhibited in love of one's neighbor. Further, the death and resurrection of Christ was the inauguration of the "final days" which will climax in divine judgment and the end of history, so that the post-resurrection period is known as the "last days" regardless of duration. This is intimately connected to the ubiquitous and intensely apocalyptical and eschatological expectations found in Qumran literature and in the OT prophets. It suggests that Christianity is best understood by examining the religious context of Late Republican Rome and the Hellenistic world, particularly Judaism in and out of Palestine.