The Hell in Hellenism

Greek culture slowly infiltrated Jewish culture, threatening to destroy the Jewish people in ways tyrants could not do through brute force.

After the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek empire in the Mediterranean basin divided into two main sections. The northern empire — which included Syria, Turkey (which was then Asia Minor) and Greece itself — was under the domination of a general called Seleucus, and therefore called the Seleucid Empire. The southern empire, which was basically Egypt and Africa, was under the domination of a general called Ptolemy. These kingdoms would rule the Mediterranean world until Rome.

Sandwiched between them was the Land of Israel. When the two empires were at peace with each other there was a lot of trade to be had. However, when there was war it was a very dangerous place to be.

For various reasons, the Jews favored the southern empire, the Ptolemaic. They had a fascination with Egypt since their original sojourn there, and the large Jewish community in Alexandria also provided a kinship with them.

The Grandeur of Jewish Alexandria

At its height, Alexandria was the wealthiest, most powerful, most influential and most sophisticated Jewish community. The Talmud (Menachos 109b) describes a synagogue of immense proportions that the community built. Jewish artisans of Alexandria each had their own section in the synagogue: the goldsmiths sat in one section, the silversmiths in another, and the carpenters in a third.

Josephus writes that the synagogue was like an amphitheater. It had 8-10,000 seats. It was so large that people in one part could not hear the service taking place in the same room in another part, so in order to answer “Amen” they raised flags and waved.

Even more magnificent was a replica of the destroyed Temple in the heart of Alexandria, complete with priests and the whole ritual of sacrifices, all in accordance with Jewish law. What is strange is that, is that Torah law forbade building the Temple anywhere but Jerusalem!

Nevertheless, the Jews of Alexandria were very proud of their accomplishments and felt that Alexandria was more entitled to the Temple than Jerusalem. In their view, Jerusalem was a very provincial, small, backward city. It was not a city of the world. The situation was similar to the way the Jews of New York sometimes feel vis-a-vis anywhere else in the world.

The Jewish community of Alexandria thought of themselves in very grandiose terms. The irony is that in about 300 years they would disappear as though they never existed. In Jewish history, there are a number of such aberrations, of great Jewish communities that looked like they would last forever, and then it was as if somebody just pulled the plug on them. They disappeared. Alexandria was one of those communities.

The Septuagint

The Jews in Alexandria were so influential that the Greek rulers of the Ptolemaic empire became very interested in Jewish customs, ideas and behavior. Consequently, the emperor of the southern kingdom, Ptolemy,[1] commissioned the first translation of the Torah into a foreign language: Greek.

Until then, the Torah had only appeared in its original Hebrew, and it remained a sealed book. However, from the second century BCE on the Torah became the open book for the world, which it is today. Only the Oral Law — the transmission and interpretation of the Torah, which later became written down and called the Talmud – would remain a “sealed book.”

The Talmud (Megillah 9b) tells how Ptolemy placed 72 Jewish scholars in different rooms and told them to translate the Torah. In miraculous fashion the 72 translations all matched each other. In Greek, the translation became known as the Septuagint, which means “the 70” in reference to the amount of scholars who translated it. This is the basic translation of the Bible that much of the non-Jewish world has today.

Mistranslation of the “Virgin Birth”

It is important to realize that the most widely used version of the Christian Bible, the King James version, is not a translation of the Hebrew Bible. It is a translation from the Greek Bible. That is one of the reasons why there are so many errors, mistranslations and lost nuances.

Just to give an example, the Septuagint was translated by the Catholic Church into a Latin Bible, the Vulgate. The famous King James version is basically a translation of the Latin version. Therefore, it is an English translation of a Latin translation of a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. That is a lot like playing “telephone.” What someone says at the beginning is not going to come out exactly the same way at the end. Maimonides identifies a number of places where the basic ideas of Christianity are based simply on bad knowledge of Hebrew or on the lack of a translation.

The classic example is the story of the virgin birth. The Christian Bible attributes it to a verse in the prophet Isaiah (7:14). The Hebrew word there is not “virgin” but alma, which means a “young girl.” Now, a “young girl” can be a virgin, but if the prophet wanted to emphasize the miraculous nature of the event and leave no room for misinterpretation there is a better, unique Hebrew word for virgin.

The Greek word, however, for “young girl” and “virgin” is the same. Therefore, in the Septuagint when the translation of the prophet Isaiah was written they used the Greek word that means either “young girl” or “virgin.” In the Latin translation, only the word “virgin” already appears. Latin readers in the Roman Catholic Church saw this as an unmistakable reference to the doctrine of Immaculate Conception.

One of the reasons the Protestants departed from the Catholic Church many centuries later was because Luther and others complained about that mistranslation. They refused to accept the doctrine of Immaculate Conception simply because they were Biblical scholars enough to know that that is not what it said in the original.

That is just one example. The late Rabbi Reuven Margolies (1889-1971), a great Torah scholar, well also a self-taught Greek and Latin scholar. One of his many books is devoted to pointing out all the places where the Septuagint is different than the original Hebrew text. He found about 700 such variations — and he had an explanation in every one of the places why they did it.

How the Septuagint Changed the World

Despite advantages to teaching the non-Jewish world the Written Torah, the Sages of Israel did not welcome the opportunity. “The day when the Torah was written in Greek was as unfortunate for Israel as the day of the Golden Calf” (Soferim 1:7). They even combined it with two tragedies – the death of Ezra and the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem – and made it a public fast day (the tenth of Teves). Perhaps the reason was because they saw that the translation would open the door for usurpers and new religions claiming to supplant or succeed the Torah.

At the same time, the translation gave a dangerous stamp of approval to Greek language and culture. This allowed Greek culture and values to enter the Jewish world. From the time of the Septuagint onward, it was very hard to draw a line and say, “We are going to take this amount of Greek culture, but we are not going to take the rest.” What is going to happen is that they are going to take the rest. They are going to become more Greek than the Greeks, which is a Jewish trait. The Jews were super-Germans, super-Socialists, and are super-Americans, because the burden is upon them to prove themselves.

Here, too, the burden will be upon them to prove themselves Greek. And they will, indeed, out-Greek the Greeks. That was fallout from the translation of the Septuagint.

The Hellenists

About the year 200 BCE, there arose among the Jewish population a group called the Misyavnim, meaning Hellenists, who adopted Greek culture as a way of life to such a degree that, almost invariably, they gave up their Jewish culture and identity.

For instance, the Greeks were great believers in nudity. Their sports were done in the nude. Their bathhouses were attended in the nude. In the ancient world, the Jews and some Arabs were the only people who were circumcised. Thus, if you wanted to be a good Greek, you were embarrassed to go to the bathhouse or participate in sports. Consequently, Hellenized Jews underwent painful operations — at a time with minimum anesthetics — to restore their foreskin and appear Greek.

Imported along with the Greek language, customs and sports were Greek idols and modes of worship. Temples to the Greek gods and statues of Zeus littered the countryside. Each Greek home had its own set of idols, a patron god custom-made for the family, as well as a whole set of sacrificial rites. Worst of all, Greek strongholds embraced all the terrible moral looseness of the Greek world.

As time passed, more and more Jews not only spoke like Greeks, but took on their customs, attitudes and behaviors, which on so many levels were antithetical to the values of Judaism. Estimates are that a 30-40% of the Jewish population became Hellenists. Most of the upper class was simply swept away by this tide of Hellenist thought.

Some were no doubt simply ignorant of Jewish life and tradition. Others, however, became vicious self-haters. The Greeks found many willing collaborators among the Jews in their attempt to eradicate Judaism and install the more “enlightened” pagan culture of theirs in Israel. These Hellenist Jews hated their brethren and openly sided with the enemies of Israel who attempted to destroy the Jewish nation and faith. They hated themselves for being Jewish and resorted to things like painful cosmetic surgery not only to blend in better with the Greeks but as a sign of defiance in their attempt to remove any trace of being Jewish from their bodies. Naturally, the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks (which we will discuss next) was a great disappointment to them.

Jews true to Judaism were an increasingly shrinking island awash in a sea of Greek culture. They were victims of a cultural revolution that in a short time would have completely swamped them.

However, historical currents were at work which would give the besieged Jews an opening not only to stop the momentum of Greek culture, but reverse it and replace it with a brand new aspect of Jewish identity that would provide spiritual nourishment for countless generations in the future. That nourishment would become known to posterity as the story of Chanukah.

[1] Also known as Ptolemy II or Ptolemy Philadelphus, who reigned from 285-246 BCE.

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Crash Course
Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor

One Response to “The Hell in Hellenism”

  1. Patricia says:

    My daughter married a Persian. We have European and christian roots.

    They named our new grandchild Alexendra. What is the significance of this? Is it Jewish or Iranian or Christian and why?