Hellenistic Judaism

Hellenistic Judaism was a form of Judaism in classical antiquity that combined Jewish religious tradition with elements of Greek culture. Until the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the early Muslim conquests of the eastern Mediterranean, the main centers of Hellenistic Judaism were Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria, the two main Greek urban settlements of the Middle East and North Africa region, both founded at the end of the fourth century BCE in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Hellenistic Judaism also existed in Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period, where there was conflict between Hellenizers and traditionalists.
The major literary product of the contact of Second Temple Judaism and Hellenistic culture is the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible from Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic to Koine Greek, specifically, Jewish Koiné Greek. Mentionable are also the philosophic and ethical treatises of Philo and the historiographical works of the other Hellenistic Jewish authors.
The decline of Hellenistic Judaism started in the second century and its causes are still not fully understood. It may be that it was eventually marginalized by, partially absorbed into or became progressively the Koine-speaking core of Early Christianity centered on Antioch and its traditions, such as the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch.


The conquests of Alexander in the late fourth century BCE spread Greek culture and colonization—a process of cultural change called Hellenization—over non-Greek lands, including the Levant. This gave rise to the Hellenistic period, which sought to create a common or universal culture in the Alexandrian empire based on that of fifth-century Athens, along with a fusion of Near Eastern cultures. The period is characterized by a new wave of Greek colonization which established Greek cities and kingdoms in Asia and Africa, the most famous being Alexandria in Egypt. New cities were established composed of colonists who came from different parts of the Greek world, and not from a specific metropolis as before.
These Jews living in countries west of the Levant formed the Hellenistic diaspora. The Egyptian diaspora is the most well-known of these. It witnessed close ties, indeed the firm economic integration, of Judea with the Ptolemaic Kingdom ruled from Alexandria, and the friendly relations which existed between the royal court and the leaders of the Jewish community. This was a diaspora of choice, not of imposition. Information is less robust regarding diasporas in other territories. It suggests that the situation was by and large the same as it was in Egypt.
Jewish life in both Judea and the diaspora was influenced by the culture and language of Hellenism. The Greeks viewed Jewish culture favorably, while vice versa, Hellenism gained adherents among the Jews. While Hellenism has sometimes been presented, as a threat of assimilation diametrically opposed to Jewish tradition,
The main religious issue dividing Hellenized Jews from traditional Jews was the application of biblical laws in a Hellenistic empire.

Hellenistic rulers of Judea

Under the suzerainty of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and later the Seleucid Empire, Judea witnessed a period of peace and protection of its institutions. For their aid against his Ptolemaic enemies, Antiochus III the Great promised his Jewish subjects a reduction in taxes and funds to repair the city of Jerusalem and the Second Temple.
Relations deteriorated under Antiochus's successor Seleucus IV Philopator, and then, for reasons not fully understood, his successor Antiochus IV Epiphanes drastically overturned the previous policy of respect and protection, banning key Jewish religious rites and traditions in Judea and sparking a traditionalist revolt against Greek rule. Out of this revolt was formed an independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonean dynasty, which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE. The Hasmonean Dynasty eventually disintegrated due to civil war, which coincided with civil wars in Rome.

Hasmonean civil war

The Hasmonean civil war began when the High Priest Hyrcanus II was overthrown by his younger brother, Aristobulus II. A third faction, consisting primarily of Idumeans from Maresha, led by Antipater and his son Herod, re-installed Hyrcanus, who, according to Josephus, was merely Antipater's puppet. In 47 BCE, Antigonus, a nephew of Hyrcanus II and son of Aristobulus II, asked Julius Caesar for permission to overthrow Antipater. Caesar ignored him, and in 42 BCE Antigonus, with the aid of the Parthians, defeated Herod. Antigonus ruled for only three years, until Herod, with the aid of Rome, overthrew him and had him executed. Antigonus was the last Hasmonean ruler.


The major literary product of the contact of Judaism and Hellenistic culture is the Septuagint, as well as the Book of Wisdom, Sirach, apocrypha and pseudepigraphic apocalyptic literature dating to the period. Important sources are Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus. Some scholars consider Paul of Tarsus to be a Hellenist as well, even though he himself claimed to be a Pharisee.
Philo of Alexandria was an important apologist of Judaism, presenting it as a tradition of venerable antiquity that, far from being a barbarian cult of an oriental nomadic tribe, with its doctrine of monotheism had anticipated tenets of Hellenistic philosophy. Philo could draw on Jewish tradition to use customs which Greeks thought as primitive or exotic as the basis for metaphors: such as "circumcision of the heart" in the pursuit of virtue. Consequently, Hellenistic Judaism emphasized monotheistic doctrine, and represented reason and wisdom as emanations from God.
Beyond Tarsus, Alexandretta, Antioch and Northwestern Syria, the second half of the Second Temple period witnessed an acceleration of Hellenization in Israel itself, with Jewish high priests and aristocrats alike adopting Greek names:

'There is neither Jew nor Greek'

Ethnic, cultural, philosophical, and social tensions within the Hellenistic Jewish world were partly overcome by the emergence of a new, typically Antiochian, Middle-Eastern Greek doctrine, either by
  1. established, autochthonous Hellenized Cilician-Western Syrian Jews,
  2. heathen, 'Classical' Greeks, Macedonian Greeks and Greco-Syrian gentiles, or
  3. the local, autochthonous descendants of Greek or Greco-Syrian converts to mainstream Judaism – known as proselytes and Greek-speaking Jews born of mixed marriages.
Their efforts were probably facilitated by the arrival of a fourth wave of Greek-speaking newcomers to Cilicia/Southern Turkey and Northwestern Syria: Cypriot Jews and 'Cyrenian' Jewish migrants of non-Egyptian North African Jewish origin, as well as gentile Roman settlers from Italy—many of whom already spoke fluent Koine Greek and/or sent their children to Greek schools. Some scholars believe that, at the time, these Cypriot and Cyrenian North African Jewish migrants, such as Simon of Cyrene, were generally less affluent than the autochthonous Cilician-Syrian Jews and practiced a more 'liberal' form of Judaism, more propitious for the formation of a new canon:
But Paul, himself a strict conservative Hellenist convert to Christianity, was later threatened by religiously conservative Jewish Hellenists as seen in the New Testament Acts 9 verse 29: "And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him."
These subtle, progressive socio-cultural shifts and tensions are somehow summarized succinctly in Chapter 3 of the Epistle of Paul to the Galatians:

Decline of the ''Hellenistai'' and partial conversion to Christianity

The reasons for the decline of Hellenistic Judaism are obscure. It may be that it was marginalized by, absorbed into, or became Early Christianity. The Epistles of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles report that, after his initial focus on the conversion of Hellenized Jews across Anatolia, Macedonia, Thrace and Northern Syria without criticizing their laws and traditions, Paul the Apostle eventually preferred to evangelize communities of Greek and Macedonian proselytes and Godfearers, or Greek circles sympathetic to Judaism: the Apostolic Decree allowing converts to forego circumcision made Christianity a more attractive option for interested pagans than Rabbinic Judaism, which required ritual circumcision for converts. See also Circumcision controversy in early Christianity and the Abrogation of Old Covenant laws.
The attractiveness of Christianity may, however, have suffered a setback with its being explicitly outlawed in the 80s CE by Domitian as a "Jewish superstition", while Judaism retained its privileges as long as members paid the fiscus Judaicus.
The opening verse of Acts 6 points to the problematic cultural divisions between Hellenized Jews and Aramaic-speaking Israelites in Jerusalem, a disunion that reverberated within the emerging Christian community itself:
Some historians believe that a sizeable proportion of the Hellenized Jewish communities of Southern Turkey and Syria/Lebanon converted progressively to the Greco-Roman branch of Christianity that eventually constituted the "Melkite" Hellenistic churches of the MENA area:

Cultural legacy

Widespread influence beyond Second Temple Judaism

Both Early Christianity and Early Rabbinical Judaism were far less 'orthodox' and less theologically homogeneous than they are today; and both were significantly influenced by Hellenistic religion and borrowed allegories and concepts from Classical Hellenistic philosophy and the works of Greek-speaking Jewish authors of the end of the Second Temple period before the two schools of thought eventually affirmed their respective 'norms' and doctrines, notably by diverging increasingly on key issues such as the status of 'purity laws', the validity of Judeo-Christian messianic beliefs, and, more importantly, the use of Koiné Greek and Latin as liturgical languages replacing Biblical Hebrew, etc.

First synagogues in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East

The word synagogue itself comes from Jewish Koiné Greek, a language spoken by Hellenized Jews across Southeastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East after the 3rd century BCE. Many synagogues were built by the Hellenistai or adherents of Hellenistic Judaism in the Greek Isles, Cilicia, Northwestern and Eastern Syria and Northern Israel as early as the first century BCE- notably in Delos, Antioch, Alexandretta, Galilee and Dura-Europos: because of the mosaics and frescos representing heroic figures and Biblical characters, many of these early synagogues were at first mistaken for heathen Greek temples or Antiochian Greek Orthodox churches.

Mishnaic and Talmudic concepts

Many of the Jewish sages who compiled the Mishnah and earliest versions of the Talmud were Hellenized Jews, including Johanan ben Zakai, the first Jewish sage attributed the title of rabbi and Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes, the son of Proselyte Anatolian Greek converts to Early Rabbinical Judaism.
Even Israeli rabbis of Babylonian Jewish descent such as Hillel the Elder whose parents were Aramaic-speaking Jewish migrants from Babylonia, had to learn Greek language and Greek philosophy in order to be conversant with sophisticated rabbinical language – many of the theological innovations introduced by Hillel had Greek names, most famously the Talmudic notion of Prozbul, from Koine Greek προσβολή, "to deliver":

Influence on Levantine Byzantine traditions

The unique combination of ethnocultural traits inhered from the fusion of a Greek-Macedonian cultural base, Hellenistic Judaism and Roman civilization gave birth to the distinctly Antiochian “Middle Eastern-Roman” Christian traditions of Cilicia and Syria/Lebanon:
Some typically Grecian "Ancient Synagogal" priestly rites and hymns have survived partially to the present, notably in the distinct church services of the followers of the Melkite Greek Catholic church and its sister-church the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in the Hatay Province of Southern Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Northern Israel, and in the Greek-Levantine Christian diasporas of Brazil, Mexico, the United States and Canada.
But many of the surviving liturgical traditions of these communities rooted in Hellenistic Judaism and, more generally, Second Temple Greco-Jewish Septuagint culture, were expunged progressively in the late medieval and modern eras by both Phanariot European-Greek and Vatican gentile theologians who sought to 'bring back' Levantine Greek Orthodox and Greek-Catholic communities into the European Christian fold: some ancient Judeo-Greek traditions were thus deliberately abolished or reduced in the process.
Members of these communities still call themselves "Rûm" and referring to Greeks in Turkish, Persian and Levantine Arabic.
In that context, the term Rûm is preferred over Yāvāni or Ionani, also referring to Greeks in Ancient Hebrew, Sanskrit and Classical Arabic.

Individual Hellenized Jews

Hellenistic and Hasmonean Period