Conflict In The Pre-Christian Period

Part One

The Beginning Of Conflict In The Pre-Christian Period Between Judaism And Hellenism

Perhaps there is no more fascinating nor more complicated and difficult set of problems than those which are involved in tracing first of all the emergence, and then the inevitable conflict of Greek culture, on the one hand, and the Jewish religious consciousness, embodied and organized as a religious system which we know as Judaism, on the other. There is a curious parallelism in the history of their development. Just as Greek culture passed through a purely national stage, and then expanded into a world-conquering civilization, so, also, Judaism only emerged as a deposit of the old national life after the organized Hebrew states of North and South Israel had been shattered. It was in the stress and discipline of exile that Judaism was born – that strange movement that reorganized the remnants of the nation as a Church, on a national basis, inspired with the hope and purpose of restoring the glories of Israel by establishing on the site of the old national home a church-community, which should at once be a rallying spot for the exiles, and a spiritual beacon not only for Israel, but the nations. The most remarkable thing about this programme – so largely idealistic in character – is that, in spite of much disillusionment, especially in the early years of the Restoration period, it ultimately attained a large measure of fulfilment. The persistent and unquenchable faith of the higher souls at last had its reward.

It is not always realized that Judaism, as reorganized in Palestine, was, down to the Maccabean period, a very small and circumscribed organism, painfully striving to hold its own against adverse circumstances. Its expansive power was only attained after the collision with Antiochus Epiphanes, that ardent apostle of Hellenic culture, who, finding the existence of what he regarded as a barbarous cult a nuisance, tried to eliminate the Jewish religion at a stroke by force, thereby provoking the Maccabean reaction. In the end, he only succeeded in consolidating the thing he desired to destroy. Judaism emerged from the struggle self-conscious and aggressive – in fact, an armed doctrine, equipped with a formidable power of expansion which was fraught with momentous consequences for the world at large.

Paul Wendland, in his famous essay on Die Hellenistisch-Romische Kultur (2nd and 3rd ed, 1912) remarks that it is not so very long ago that the Hellenistic Age which followed the conquests of Alexander the Great was as much neglected as the period in Jewish history between Ezra and Jesus. So far as the literature of the age was studied al all, its remains interest was for philologists searching for material which might elucidate or illuminate for purposes of interpretation the earlier “classical” literature. Now all this has been changed. The artificial barrier which hedged off what was purely “classical” from the age that immediately followed has largely been broken down. What is, in fact, a continuous process of history and literary development cannot be artificially bisected in this mechanical fashion. It is realized now, as never before, that the world-significance of Greek culture is first discernible in the Hellenistic period. Hellenism now, for the first time, becomes a factor of worldwide importance. The epoch of late Hellenism was a time of general distintegration. Institutions in political, social, and religious life, which had the prestige of centuries behind them, fell to pieces. The cultural ideal of ancient (classical) Greece had been an encyclopaedic one – 0ne man might aspire to compass all departments of knowledge. The new age, with the more exacting standards which followed from the teaching of Plato and Aristole, developed specialized departments of culture – those of the philosopher, the rhetorician, the grammarian. In political organization the city-state had given place to larger ideals – Panhellenism, and (ultimately in the Roman Empire) imperial absolution. Contact and intercourse on the part of different races had bred a spirit of cosmopolitanism; the individual had come to his rights (as is shown by the emergence of a new department of literature, that of biography). As regards philosophy, individualism asserted itself in the domain of ethics. Philosophy itself had become intensely serious and democratic in the Cynic propaganda, with its peripatetic beggar-preachers, whose diatribes against the prevailing luxury and immorality deeply impressed the masses of the people. They also proclaimed a more deeply spiritual ideal of religion. The Jewish and (later) Christian propaganda in the Graeco-Roman world owed some of its success to the earlier labours of the Cynic preachers of righteousness.

It was in this age of transition and disintegration that Hellenism and Hebraism mat for the first time in history. In Jerusalem under the High Priests Dr. Edwyn Bevan has brilliantly described the seductive and irresistible attraction of the new culture that followed in the wake of Alexander’s advance. New institutions like the gymnasium and the theatre sprang up, new political forms and organizations, a new taste in literature and art – in short, a whole range of new ideas and interests filled the life of Hellenized cities, beside which the old pre-Hellenic life seemed dull and empty. Greek became the language of the educated, and largely the language generally understood in such cites as Damascus, Tyre, Ascalon, after they had reorganized themselves on the Greek model. Dr. Bevan goes on to remark: “If we had looked round about us there would have been a great deal in the Syrian cities of those days to show us the predominance of the new power . . . . As a building, the gymnasium would have shown un the familiar forms of classical architecture. The new political organization would require new buildings – a hall for the senate and such-like; and the new social life would create the indispensable stoas, cool pillared galleries for lounging, and all these would be Greek in form. Dress, too, would be then, as now, inseparable as an outward symbol from the particular form of civilization. . . We should have seen the ephoboi of Tyre or Ascalon with their broad-brimmed Greek hat and fluttering chlamys, and the richer men and women not easy to distinguish by their appearance from their contemporaries in Ephesus or Athens.”

Nowhere except in Egypt was Hellenic influence more powerful than on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean. Greek cities abounded in this region during the Hellenic period – Raphia, Gaza, Ascalon, Azotus, Jaffa, Caesarea, Dor and Ptolemais – while farther east Greek influence was powerfully consolidated by the confederation of cities known as the Decapolis, which apparently included Damascus. In fact, during the later Hellenistic period the whole district east of the Jordan, including Trachonitis, Batanea, and Auranitis, appears to have been Hellenized. Even such important centres as Samaria and Panias were subjected to the same process, having been planted with settlements of Macadonian colonists at an early date. The little Jewish community was thus immersed in Hellenic influence. It made great inroads even in Jerusalem itself, and seemed to be carrying eveything before it. A vivid picture is given of the effects of this in the opening chapters of the Book of Maccabees. With the accession of Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164B.C.) things came to a crisis. The first act of Antiochus was to deprive the legitimate high priest, Onias III., of his office.

Onias had come to Antioch to answer a charge that had been made against him by a priest of rank, Simon by name. Jason (the brother of Onias) succeeded, by the promise of a large sum, in getting himself appointed to the office. He also assumed the role of an enlightened friend of the Greeks, and proposed to found a gymnasium and an ephebeum in Jerusalem. “The malady which had long been incubating now reached its acute phase. Just in proportion as Hellenism showed itself friendly did it present elements of danger to Judaism. From the periphery it slowly advanced towards the centre, from the Diaspora to Jerusalem, from mere matters of external fashion to matters of the most profound conviction” (Wellhausen). Led by Jason, the upper classes at Jerusalem (especially the priest nobility) now displayed a perfect frenzy for the adoption of everything Greek. To such a pitch was this carried that the high priest actually dared to send offerings to the Tyrian Hercules! (A significant indication of the Hellenizing fashion, at this time prevalent, is to be seen in the Grecizing of Jewish names – e.g., Alcimus=Eliakim, Jason=Jesus (Joshua), Menelaus=Menahem.) Jason, however, was not for long to enjoy his official honours undisturbed.

Menelaus (a brother of the Simon who had accused Onias III.) took advantage of his presence at Antioch (whither he had been despatched with the annual Jewish tribute) to intrigue against Jason, and succeeded in buying the high-priesthood for a large sum from Antiochus (171 B.C.). Menelaus, however, was only able to obtain possession of his ill-gotten post with the aid of Syrian troops. To pay the tribute he had promised, he found himself compelled to rob the Temple. Disturbances ensued which ultimately brought about the intervention of Antiochus himself (who was returning from Egypt). The angry king severely punished the refractory populace, carried off the Temple treasures, and restored Menelaus (170 B.C.). But the worst was yet to come. Deeply impressed with the necessity of welding together the motley mass of nationalities which made up his Empire, Antiochus determined to attain this object by imposing upon his subjects a common form of faith. An edict was accordingly issued to that effect. A collision with the Jews was now inevitable, for the mass of the people were still loyal to the faith of their fathers. To enforce the edict Apollonius was sent with an army against Jerusalem. Falling upon the city unawares he disarmed the inhabitants, dismantled the walls, and garrisoned the Acre (the citadel of Jerusalem). He then proceeded with his plan of operations, which was “to abolish Judaism and establish the worship of Olympian Zeus. The ‘abomination of desolation’ was set up in the Temple; the sacred Scriptures were burnt; the practice of circumcision was forbidden on pain of death, and all the horrors of a religious persecution descended on the land” (168 B.C.). (Morrison, The Jews under Roman Rule.).

The violent measures of Antiochus had the opposite effect to that which he desired. I have already alluded to the existence of a Hellenizing party among the Jews at Jerusalem, which, for a time, seemed to be carrying everything before it. Opposed to this party were the scribes and the “Assideans” – i.e., chasidim (“pious ones”) – as they were called (1 Macc. ii. 42), who held fast to the Law of Moses. At first the mass of the people appeared to favour the Hellenizers. But the rash attempt of Antiochus to abolish Judaism at one stroke precipitated a violent reaction. The national instinct for self-preservation was roused, and the best elements among the people joined the Assideans in protest and revolt.

I do not propose to linger over the details of the well-known story of the Maccabean revolt, or the varying fortunes of Judas (166-161), Jonathan (161-143), and Simon (142-135), the last of the Hasmonean brothers, with whom the Maccabean house attained a secure position as rulers of the nation. Judas had made himself master of Judea in 165, and so remained till the summer of 163. His first act marked one of the most dramatic turns of fortune in history, in the purification and rededication of the polluted Temple of Jehovah in the December of 165 – a date which has been commemorated by the Jews ever since down to the present time by the Feast of Dedication, or “the Encaenia,” as it is called in St. John’s Gospel (John x. 22). The gallant Judas fell in battle in 161. Simon, in a great assembly of the nation, was proclaimed high priest and military and civil governor of the Jews, and this office was solemnly declared to be hereditary (” for ever till a trustworthy prophet should arise,” 1 Macc xiv. 41). Under his son and successor, John Hyrcanus (135-105 B.C.), Judaism became an armed doctrine, on the literal sense of the term, for John conquered Samaria and Idumaea, demolished the hated Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim, and imposed Judaism by the sword upon the Idumaeans, in this respect anticipating the method of Mohammed.

John Hyrcanus was succeeded by his eldest son Aristobulus, who, however, only reigned one year (105-104 B.C.); he conquered the Ituraeans. his brother, Alexander Jannaeus (104-17 B.C.) was a rough soldier, who combined this character with that of high priest (a sort of pope John XXII.). He was engaged in constant warfare, partly with external foes, but partly with his own countrymen. The civil war was waged especially with the Pharisees. When the latter invited the Syrians to intervene there was a revulsion of popular feeling in favour of the King, who ultimately came out triumphant, and at the end of his reign had enlarged the boundaries of the kingdom. He was succeeded by his widow, Salome Alexandra (78-69 B.C.). his eldest son, Hycanus II., became high priest. Queen Alexandra favoured the Pharisees. Her younger son, Aristobulus II., became leader of the Sadducees. On the death of the Queen, Aristobulus overthrew his brother Hycanus and made himself King (69-63 B.C.). Then followed Roman intervention.

But the fierce reaction of Judaism in the Maccabean epoch against the armed onset of Hellenism did not mean that the conflict was over. Judaism had asserted its rights as a religion – and with the attainment of religious freedom the best religious elements in the nation were content; they had no desire to go on fighting for national independence. Nevertheless, the national consciousness had been stirred, and the proud insistence of the Jewish people on the distinctive character of their religion had been immensely deepened and consolidated. An uneasy truce followed; but the conflict with Hellenism was renewed on the question of the Emperor-worship; in another form it persisted in the struggle within the early Christian Church of the Judaizing and Hellenizing elements, which has marked even later stages of the movement of Christianity. And again it can be seen in the reaction within the most Hellenized types of Judaism against the prevalent paganism.

Before we pass on to consider the significance of the age-long conflict it will be worth while to study some aspects of it within the most Hellenized type of Judaism – that of Alexandria.

In its most intensely Jewish form Judaism was entrenched in Palestine, and more especially in Judea. But in some respects even more significant and important was the Judaism outside Palestine, and in particular that part of the Jewish Dispersion which was included within the confines of the Roman Empire, and was most in evidence along the shores of the Mediterranean. The Jewish Diaspora of the Graeco-Roman world was naturally permeated with Hellenic influences. How heavily Greek culture told upon them the Judeao-Alexandrine literature eloquently attests. They used Greek even in their religious services; they read the Bible in Greek, Herbrew being an unknown tongue to the great majority of them; they adopted Greek names, and, to some extent, Greek organization in their communal institutions.

There was, then, a real difference between the Judaism of Palestine and the Dispersion in the matter of language. The Jews of Palestine spoke a Semitic language – Aramaic – as their mother-tongue and used Hebrew in their religious services. But even in Palestine during the first century of our era Hellenic influence was pervasive and persistent, as is shown by the remarkable fact that both in Rabbinic Hebrew and in Palestinian Aramaic, Greek loan-words abound. On the other hand, in religious matters there was no great gulf, as is sometimes supposed, between the orthodoxy of Palestine and that of the Diaspora synagogues. Both were divided by party conflicts, and the liberal tendency was rather more marked in the Diaspora than in Palestine. So long, however, as the Temple stood was regarded as the spiritual centre of Judaism, being constantly visited by masses of pilgrims from different parts of the world, it exercised a moderating and unifying influence, and no sharp and essential division between Palestinian Judaism and that of “Hellenistic circles” made itself seriously felt. The Greek-speaking Jew regarded himself as a genuine Jew – not a Greek – in religion, and was conscious of a sharp and fundamental opposition between the religion he professed and that of the heathen Greek world around him. As Philo puts it the Jews (of the Dispersion) called themselves Palestinians in religion, but Hellenes in language. This exactly expresses the situation. Even where Judaism was most deeply immersed in Hellenic influence, there was one element which remained as a distinctive feature in the Jew – his religion. Here he felt he had something infinitely precious to cherish and to offer, and in no spirit of arrogance, but fired with a lofty enthusiasm to win the adherence of the heathen world to a higher faith. The Diaspora Jews carried on a great missionary propaganda, which, in spite of prejudice and hatred on the part of the pagan world, met with amazing success. This success provoked violent attacks on the part of a number of heathen writers, and must have been remarkable. “We cannot account,” says Th. Reinach, “for the enormous growth of the Jewish population in Egypt, Cyprus, and Cyrene, without assuming a large admixture of Gentile proselytes.” St. Paul, it will be remembered, met with proselytes in Pisidian Antioch, in Thyatira, in Thessalonica, and in Athens. Horace, Persius, and Juvenal vouch for the success of the propaganda in Rome.

Thus it will be seen that Judaism, even in its most pronouncedly Hellenized form, was most aggressive in its attempts to propagate its religion. It will be interesting, and perhaps instructive, to sketch some of the violent reactions produced by the impact of Judaism and Hellenism in that typical centre of Hellenistic Judaism, Alexandria. The occurence of anti-Semitic outbreaks in the city is, of course, attested by Philo; and withn the last few years the matter has been further illuminated by discoveries of papyri, some of which have been edited in a fascinating volume entitled Jews and Christians in Egypt, by Mr. H. I. Bell of the British Museum, published in 1924 by the Trustees.

Alexandria was, perhaps, the most typical product of the Hellenistic period. founded by Alexander himself, and unburdened by the traditions of an older age, the city easily became the natural home and centre of everything Hellenistic and modern. The Jews formed an important element in the city’s population, and according to Josephus had been established there from the first. One whole quarter of the city, known as “the Delta,” was early assigend to them, but in Philo’s time two quaters appear to have been predominantly Jewish, and Jewish residents were scattered over other parts of the city. The Jews, however, for reasons which will be discussed later, were not popular with their neighbours, on the whole. Whether there were any outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence during the Ptolemaic period is uncertain. The story given in 3 Maccabees of a persecution of Jews in Alexandria by Ptolemy IV. Philoptor (222-204 B.C.) is too legendary in form to be trusted implicitly. Perhaps the suspicion and dislike with which they were regarded and which is attested by the letter of Aristeas (100 B.C.), did not issue in any serious outbreak till a later time. At any rate, there is no doubt that the long slumbering, hostile feeling came to overt expression in Roman times. Mr. Bell suggests that “The Jews had deserted the national dynasty on the arrival of the Romans, and they recieved their reward in tthe confirmation of hteir privileges and the special favour of the Emperors. But the Alexandriansm, who saw their city regraded from a royal capital to a subordinate position under Imperial Rome, were constantly hostile to the Emperors, and consequently hated their Jewish proteges the more bitterly.”

The story told by Philo in his two treatises, In Flaccum and Legatio ad Gaium, may be reconstructed as follows. It was in the summer of A.D. 38 that King Agrippa I., on his way to take up the government of his new Kingdom of Palestine, arrived at Alexandria. his Jewish fellow-countrymen could not allow such an occasion to pass without appropriate demonstrations. A Jewish king, high in the Emperor’s favour, could not be allowed to come and go without some public recognition. Agrippa seems to have travelled with incredible pomp. This was too much for the fun-loving populace of Alexandria, who remembered that not so long since Agrippa had haunted the great banking houses of the city, begging for subsidies. So they perpetrated a malicious satire. seizing a well-known crazy character, Karabas by name, they dragged him to the theatre, clothed him withroyal insignia, and hailed him as the Jewish-king.

Agrippa was not personally molested; but the insult to a personal friend of the Emperor was patent, and, on reflection, appeared to be dangerous. In order to put themselves right with the Emperor, and, at the same time, embarrass the unfortunate Jews, the leaders of the mob suggested to the Governor (Flaccus) that statues of the Emperor should be set up in the Jewish synagogues to recieve divine honours. Flaccus agreed. The Jews, relying on their privileges which guaranteed them freedom of worship, naturally rsisted. This led to violent measures. The Jews were driven from other parts of the city into the “Delta,” a large number of private dwellings were seized and sacked; many individuals were murdered, and the survivors were treated with every kind of ignominy and outrage. The Governor (Flaccus), who appears to have been consistently hostile to the Jews on this occasion, was arrested in the autumn of 38 and banished. The Jews, howver, were not prepared to let matters rest here. Having obtained permission to lay their case before the Emperor, they sent an embassy to Rome, probably in the late autumn or winter of the same year. This is the embassy which forms the theme of Philo’s treatise, the Legatio ad Gaium. Apparently another embassy representing their opponents was also received, and the result appears to have been unfavourable to the Jews. but the veiled hostility went on, and it is probable (from a studt of the evidence of the papyri), that Claudius found it necessary to intervene to protect the Jews of Alexandria at a later date. It is clear that on this occasion he confirmed the Jews in all ther privileges and restored “that libery of worship” which had been disturbed under Caligula.

The evidence of the papyri thus suggests that the events narrated by Philo were very far from being a unique occurrence peculiar to the reign of a Caligula. “The bitter hatred of Greeks and Jews in Alexandria,” says Professor Dobschutz, “appears as a chronic evil, which, ever breaking forth afresh, produced entirely similar scenes, not alone under Caligula’s successor Claudius (41-54), but even under Trajan (98-117) and Commodus (180-92).” (American Journal of Theology, VIII., 732 f).


When we ask ourselves the causes of the strange results produced by the impact of Judaism and Hellenism, we can only say that Judaism, as ever, at once attracted and repelled. It might have seemed probable that the Hellenized Judaism of Alexandria would have succeeded in completely absorbing the Jewish element into itself. The Jews adopted the Greek language, and to a large extent Greek customs – and yet they remained a race apart. Judaism, as we have seen, exercised a strange attractive power over the greeks, and won many proselytes from the pagan world. What was the secret of this attraction?

“It must be admitted,” says Th. Reinach, “that Judaism lacked certain of those attractive features which drew the multitude to the cult of Mithras and of the Egyptian deities. Its physical exactions repulsed those wanting in stout courage; its cult, devoid of imagery and sensuous rites, presented only an austere poesy separating its adepts from the world, and cutting them off to some extent from the communion of the cultured. But the practical and legal character of its doctrine, furnishing a rule of life for every occasion, could not but appeal to a disintegrated society. The purity and simplicity of its theology captivated the high-minded, while the mystery and quaintness of its customs, the welcome Sabbath-rest, the privileges enjoyed at the hand of public authorities, recommended the Jewish faith to those more materialistically inclined.”

At the same time the Jews were not popular, more particularly with the middle classes in the Greek cities. Their religious and racial peculiarities, their undisguised contempt for the institutions of paganism, especially the gymnasium and theatre, in a word their attitude of aloofness towards the characteristic features of greek city life – all this contributed to make them unpopular.

During the Hellenistic Age the civilized world, which meant the Hellenized world, and embraced East and West, was everywhere profoundly influenced by the Greek ideal of culture, though this was not always presented in a pure and unadulterated form. The old institutions of Hellas had become diffused and, to a large extent, democratized. The Hellenized world invested city life with all sorts of new interests and institutions, both political and social. Especially prominent and important were institutions connected with education, both schools and universities. Literature was eagerly studied, and through the theatre the drama was popularized. Rhetoricians, philosophers, poets, teachers, flourished. One 0f the best sides of Hellenism is its devolution to the ideal of education. Wherever greek influence prevailed, there education institutions flourished. In this respect the modern Greeks are true to type. Or take such an institution as the gymnasium. In the papyri a prominent official, who appears in the embassy before the Emperor, is referred to several times as “gymnasiarch.” The gymnasiarchs, in fact, regularly appear in these documents as leaders of the anti-Semitic faction. Commenting on this fact, Dr. Dobschutz remarks: (American Journal of Theology, VIII., 750 f.) “We shall easily comprehend its significance if we endeavour to recall the place in national politics of the ancient gymnastic clubs. The gymnasium, rather than the school of philosophy, was the centre of Greek public life. The influence of athletic training of the body reached a far wider circle and had a greater importance than the scientific training of the mind. In many Greek cities there were athletic societies for older men as well as for the youth, and participation in them was for citizens a matter not only of honour, but of political duty. Now the gymnasium was the side of Greek life for which the Jews had least inclination. In the books of Maccabees, the climax of the Hellenizing movement is represented as having been reached in the establishment within the Temple of a gymnasium and gymnastic exercises.” In the gymnasium the Greek character exhibited the side in which it was most opposed to Judaism. It is only natural that, just as the Jews hated and abhorred it, the Greek youths of the gymnasium, on the other hand, and at their head the gymnasiarch, regarded hatred of the Jews as bound up with their sport.

The baser side of Hellenism was to be seen in the Province of Syria. Here the salutary checks against licence, which were provided by the severe discipline of the rules of training, were forgotten, and the constant round of games and shows tended to a life of mere gratification of the senses. A historian, writing about a hundred years before Christ, describes this life as follows: (Jerusalem under the High Priests, p. 42. f.)

“The people of these cities are relieved by the fertility of their soul from a laborious struggle for existence. Life is a continuous series of social festivities. Their gymnasiums they use as baths, where they anoint themselves with costly oils and myrrhs. In the gymmateia (such is the name they give the public eating-halls) they practically live, filling themselves there for the better part of the day with rich foods and wine: much that they cannot eat they carry away home. They feast to the prevailing music of strings. The cities are filled from end to end with the noise of harp-playing.”

The individualism of the age showed itself especially in the religious and moral sphere. While over large tracts of the Graeco-Roman world religious moral chaos prevailed, pathetic attempts to promote movements of moral reformation were promoted. It was the age of syncretism. The typical expression of the new spirit and the new outlook was the cult-brotherhood, the Oiaoros, The attempt to replace the old state-religion by the worship of the ruler, which was made by the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, and was later imported into the Roman Empire, was largely successful as a political symbol. But it never succeeded in permanently meeting the religious needs of the mass of the people. The pressure of these needs banded men together in larger or smaller groups dedicated to the worship and service of a deity or group of deities. The inscriptions reveal that these brotherhoods were largely made up of foreigners, and are found more particularly in busy seaports like the Piraeus. “On the coasts of Asia Minor,” says Dr. H. A. A. Kennedy, “in the isles of the Agean can be traced in considerable numbers before the Christia era.” Similarly in the Imperial Age associations of initiates can be traced in the same regions, such places as Smyrna and Ephesus being important centres. In these associations the cult of Dionysus was closely associated with that of the Phrygian deities, the Great Mother and Sabazius. Serapis associations were numerous also in the islands of the Egean well before the Christian era.

An interesting example of syncretism is the Isis-Serapis cult, a compound of Greek and Egyptian religions, the Osiris-worship and elements derived from the Eleusinian mysteries. This mystery-cult spread all over the Greek-speaking world in the second and first centuries B. C. It reached Rome by 80 B. C., and followed the Roman arms all over the West. The tendency of these cults was in the direction of what has been called a “monotheistic pantheism,” and emphasized the idea of salvation.

“If we turn to consider those elements which belonged to the classical tradition of Greek civilization, to the tradition cultivated in literary circles, and on the schools,” writes Dr. Edwyn Bevan, “the tradition which the old-fashioned scholar was apt to take as completely representative of the first-century world, Stoicism would be the element of prime importance for the Christian Church. For in Stoicism the mind of antiquity had not only reached in some respects its highest expression, but that expression had become popular in a way unparalled in the history of any later school. The Stoic missionary, preaching the self-sufficiency of virtue in a threadbare cloak at the street corners, had been not of the typical figures of a Greek town for many generations before St. Paul.”(Hellenism and Christianity).

It is one of the most striking features of the Hellenistic period, and highly significant, that the schools of philosophy felt themselves compelled to come down to the market-place. The doctrines of the schools were expounded in popular form. St. Paul’s speech at Athens conforms to the opportunities and circumstances of the time. In its earlier forms, however, Stoicism was rather the creed of an intellectual aristocracy.

It has often been pointed out that the most illustrious exponents of the Stoic philosophy were drawn from countries outside Greece proper. The founder was a Phoenician; other leaders came from Babylon, Tyre, Sidon, Carthethage, Cilicia, Phrygia, and Rhodes. “Not a single Stoic of any name was a native of Greece proper.” Commenting on this fact, Bishop Lightfoot observed: “To Eastern affinities Stoicism was, without doubt, largely indebted for the features which distinguished it from other schools of Greek philosophy. To this fact may be ascribed the intense moral earnestness which was its most honourable characteristic. If the later philosophers generally, as distinguished from the earlier, busied themselves with ethics rather than metaphysics, with the Stoics this was the one absorbing passion. The contrast between the light reckless gaiety of the Hellenic spirit and the stern, unbending, almost fanatical moralism of the followers of Zeno is as complete as could well be imagined. The ever-active conscience, which is the glory, and the proud self-consciousness, which is the reproach, of the Stoic school, are alike alien to the temper of ancient Greece. Stoicism breathes rather the religious atmosphere of the East which fostered, on the one hand, the inspired devotion of a David or an Isaiah, and, on the other, the self-mortification and self-righteousness of an Egyptian therapeute or an Indian fakir.”

Zeno had something about him of the Hebrew prophet. He spoke with the voice of authority, and men listened not because they were convinced by mere logic, but because they were swayed by an irresistible moral power which rose up in their hearts and affirmed that this teaching was true. Stoicism came to the rescue of a society where all the old sanctions had broken down under the pitiless and disintegrating criticism of Greek rationalistic philosophy. It supplied something in the nature of real religion to an almost bankrupt world.

When Christianity first entered the Greek world Stoicism had passed through a long history. It had, as we have seen, carried its message through the Cynic preachers of righteousness into the hearts of the mass of the people, and it had profoundly stirred aan awakened the popular conscience. It also created a body of ethical terms which were afterwards taken over by Christianity. It thus rendered great services to religion and prepared  the way for Christianity. If I may repeat some words I have used elsewhere, “it was governed by a great ideal, was marked by high ethical power, and it produced a few great men of noble character. It impressed the conscience of the Greek and Roman world. But its ethics were not Christian – it was a creed of despair and acquiescence, and it despised all the virtues that depend upon the affirmation ‘God is Love.’ It had no belief in Progress, and its outlook on the world was dark and forbidding – removed poles asunder from that of the Christian. It totally lacked the dynamic which carried Christianity forward and made it a religion of moving power for mankind. If Christianity largely absorbed its ethical terminology it invested the terms with an entirely new content and new values.”

It had been assumed above that Christianity and Judaism are to be placed in the same category as representatives of “Hebraism.” And this is justified by fundamental facts. Just as Judaism found itself in conflict with Hellenism and had to fight for its life, emerging from the conflict not without many scars and marks of the grim struggle which it had been compelled to wage, so early Christianity was compelled to fight for its life against Gnostcism, which embodied some Greek elements mixed with many other factors besides, and at various times since had been obliged to struggle against a tendency to over-Hellenize its theology. The element common to Judaism and Christianity alike, which, in the last resort, has held its own against all assaults, is the Hebrew conception of God which was worked out in its full implications by the great Prophets of the old Testament and produced ethical monotheism. It is worth while to enquire in what respects this conception diverges from Hellenic ideas, and whether, in the last resort, any reconciliation is possible between them.


The Greek took an intellectual view of the world. His attitude towards reality is ideally that of detachment. He is prepared coolly and critically to survey the phenomena of the universe. “The note of Hellenism,” it has been said, “is balance, symmetry, an impartial distribution of sympathy, not only on the moral side of life, but in every sphere of human activity, the moral hardly even predominating. To him more truly than to most could the words of Terence be applied: humani nihil a me alienum puto. In his history, his poetry, and his philosophy he preserves an even balance of sympathy. . . . This is, perhaps, only another way of saying that he contemplates the world from a predominantly aesthetic, rather than from an ethical or religious standpoint.” This is in a general sense true, and represents correctly the characteristic tendencies of the Greek mind and attitude to life. It is true that there are exceptions for which allowance may be made – for instance, the great Greek tragedies are certainly, in a sense, religious or semi-religious in tone, and faithfully portray the clash of wills and passions – but even here one cannot escape the impression that the treatment of these high themes is predominantly aesthetic and artistic. The Greek, unlike the Hebrew, does not see everything in the light of God.

Herein is revealed a fundamental difference between the Greek and the Hebrew temperaments. The Greek is an artist to his finger-tips; the Hebrew, though he often succeeds in producing effects in literature of the highest artistic power, does so unconsciously; he is indifferent really to form. “Aristotle in the Poetics lays down the law that, in a tragedy, nothing is more important than the arrangement of the incident; it is . . . more important even than the correct delineation of character. Reverse this, and you have approximately the Hebrew conception of the relation of character to incident.” (McFadyen. Hellenism and Hebraism, A.J.T., VIII.,) The Hebrew writers often produce effects of the highest artistic power, but that is because they have a vivid sense of personality, a dramatic sense which enables them, at their best, to picture a scene from the life which is unforgettable. But they are primarily interested in character on its ethical side, and in personality as reflecting character.

Further, the Hebrew is defective on the analytical side, where the Greek is so strong. The Hebrew genius does not find itself at home in discussion, examination, comparison, criticism. This difference is reflected in the structure and characteristic forms of the respective language. The Greek loves to suggest the finer shades of meaning by the use of different tenses and moods; he emphasises the logical connection between sentences and sections by the use in rich variety of logical particles, and, above all, he strives, by the skilful and subtle use of subordination, to make his sentences artistic and symmetrical in form. The elaborate variety of linguistic equipment is totally absent from the Hebrew language. It has only two tenses, and practically no particles of connexion except “and.” When the expression “therefore” is employed, it marks not the conclusion of an argument, but the affirmation of a mortal judgement. could anything more unlike a Greek oration in form be imagined than the Sermon on the Mount?

It has been said that these defects on the analytic side disqualified the Hebrew from becoming a philosopher. This, I suppose, is true, though I have always believed that a preliminary study of Hebrew would be an ideal discipline for one who was destined to become a professed philosopher.

But the fundamental cleavage between Greek and Hebrew is to be found in the conception of God. One must, of course, fully acknowledge that the crude levity of the Greek myths about the gods was later refined away by the allegorical method for a more worthy and serious conception. Under the influence of philosophy a sort of monotheism was evolved, and the multitude of deities was resolved into the essence of all Being ro ov. But what does this amount to? As Paul Wendland remarks with profound truth in the easy to which I have already referred: “It is not every form of monotheism which, apart from its contents, can necessarily claim to be preferable to polytheism. The monotheistic movement of Hellenism, in fact, was the result of a process of disintegration and emptying of religions. Its historical significance lies in the fact that it created the forms into which Christianity found entrance and was able to pour a new religious content.” The ethical monotheism which is common both to Judaism and Christianity is of a very different kind. It is the doctrine of one God, Lord of Heaven and Earth, as revealed to Moses and the Prophets; it was the ethical monotheism of the Hebrew Prophets, with its intense realization of the personal character of Israel’s God, with its burning sense of Jehovah’s righteousness, holiness, and ethical requirement, and its passionate hatred of idolatry in all its forms and associations – it was this kind of monotheism, and not the speculative and nebulous monotheistic theories of Greek philosphers, that carried Judaism and Christianity forward and invested them with sch attractive power. This distinctively Jewish conception of God comes out clearly in the Jewish-Alexandrine apologetic literature. nothing could well be more Greek in form. If we take, for instance, the Jewish parts of the Sibylline oracles, behind the elaborately constructed Greek verses, what  do we find? The poems are full of exhortations to the heathen world to accept belief in the one God, whose chosen people is the Jews, and to lead moral lives in accordance with the ethical code of the Divine Law. In spite of its Greek form, nothing could be more intensely Jewish. The fervent spirit of the Jewish missionary is on fire with the conviction that in preaching ethical monotheism he has something to offer the Gentile world which is infinitely precious and which it cannot find elsewhere.

Further, if we turn from Greek philosophic ideas of God to more popular conceptions, we are struck by the fact that no clear line of demarcation exists in Greek ideas of divinity between gods and men. Mortals could be subjected to apotheosis. With this notion Judaism – and Christianity – could make no terms at all. To the Jew and Christian alike God was one unique and holy Being, whose majesty could not be shared. The State-worship of the Emperor was the blasphemy of blasphemies.

These divergent conceptions of God produce results which show themselves in various ways – not least of all in the delination of character and personality. When, for instance, the Greek philosopher forgets himself, and, instead of keeping rigidly to his discussion of principle, draws the picture of his ideal man, we cannot help feeling how much better adapted the Hebrew world was than the Greek to teach humanity the harder lessons and the nobler ideals of religion. The high-minded or great-souled man of Aristotle, who may fairly be taken as the Greek ideal, is one “who claims much and deserves much”; he hates gossip, despises flattery, is measured in speech, and takes a calm and unruffled view of life. But does not this rather supercilious figure “look down upon everything”? He has no use for humility, either Hebrew or Christian. He is not overshadowed by the presence of God.

Christianity, it is true, has been largely Hellenized, and it is possible to argue ingeniously that, in spite of its Jewish heritage, it shares many elements with Hellenism. But there has been a fundamental transvaluation of values produced by the Jewish and Christian conception of God, and, unless this is fully grasped, detailed comparisons will prove largely misleading.

The question remains: Is any reconciliation between Greek and Hebrew thought possible? I can only attempt a rough and summary answer. History is strewn with the debris of the conflicts between Hebraism and Hellenism. These are, I think, in every case doe to the excessive cultivation or claims of the one element at the expense of the other. Hebraism may degenerate into a blind and narrow fanticism. Hebrew fire has sometimes burned with too intense a glow. On the other hand, Hellenism may evaporate into a thin and paralyzing intellectualism, a barren rationalism which withers away all the finer impulses of living. Both are essentail if the whole man is to be kept healthy. Surely it should not ne impossible to reconcile “sweet reasonableness” with deep conviction of the binding obligation of the moral law. One essential way is to see that the study of Hebrew literature should have its proper place in our educational system. On thispoint I will venture to quote some wise words of the late Dr. Richard G. Moulton, who has done so much to promote the study of the Bible – the English Bible – as noble literature. He says: “From the educational, as distinguished from thr religious point of view, the Old Testament is the most important part of the Bible. Our whole civilization and culture rests upon the coalescence, in the old Roman world, of Greek and Hebrew thought. We should look for a reflection of this in out higher education. Unfortunately, out educational systems crystallized into their present form when hte Hellenc factor was being unduly emphasized. They do full justice to Greek Classics. But the corresponding Hebrew Classics they leave to religious study – that is, to specialization; as a result, these Biblical Classics have fallen out of general culture, to the scandal of our higher education. Yet there is not a single point that can be urged as to the educational importance of the Greek Classics which does not tell equally in favour of the Biblical Classics.

“. . . It may well happen that a reader, who has been saturating himself with the imaginative flights of Isaiah, of Habakkuk or Joel, may turn to his Pindar and be conscious of a drop, rather than a rise, in poetry.”