I’m taking a course in Jewish History. It’s not for credit, but for learning. It is offered by Dr. Henry Abramson of Touro College, online, and for free. The course itself deals with the survival of the Jews as a people. As I went through one of the readings for the first lesson of the course, the book of 2 Maccabees, I came across the account of the death of Antiochus Epiphanes in that book. Wanting to check some details (did he *really* indicate a desire to convert to Judaism?), I read that the violent persecution against the Jews under the Seleucids was only in Judea and Samaria. Jews in the Diaspora – as well as Jews under other Diodachi rulers – were not subject to this violence, at least not on this level. Nevertheless, they *were* subjected to the Hellenistic influences of the conquerors. Inside of that frame, I want to answer this question.
All through time, conquerors have imposed their cultural stamp on the conquered to the point where the cultures of the conquered either vanish, become invisible, or leave but a few words, sayings, and dinner entrees behind. Consider the people of the Indus Valley civilizations: we cannot interpret their writings and it does not seem anything of what they once had as a culture has remained in the Indian subcontinent. We have to strain our historical eyes to see what is left of Assyria, Babylon, and Sumeria. And yet, in spite of the massive power of Hellenism, we can look around today and see that Judaism has indeed survived. So, how did it make it through the gauntlet of Hellenism?
On the surface, it seems as though it took the force of arms to sustain Judaism, but as noted above, that was only the case in Judea and Samaria. In places such as Alexandria, the question was much more fundamental: Abandon the law and the covenants or remain true to them?
In this sense, although Philo Judaeus has a heavy infusion of Hellenic philosophy in his writings, at their core they are still Jewish because they hold true to the covenants and the law. He may be saying things that seemed unusual to the scholars both of his day and of later periods, but he’s still working from a world view that prizes the Jewish law and religion. He does not replace it with Hellenism, as the antagonists in Maccabees do. He *reconciles* it with Hellenism.
But even in that reconciliation, there is a danger. Does the philosophical reconciliation introduce elements of culture and thought that undermine or alter the core narrative of the culture in question? In the case of Christianity, the prophetic Christianity of the 1st Century CE (believe me because I was a witness to the miracle) was replaced with Augustine’s philosophic Christianity of the early 5th Century CE (believe because I am using Platonic philosophy to prove it). So, the question now becomes one of whether men like Philo changed the fundamental reason to practice the Jewish faith, namely, that one is descended from a person who made a covenant with the Almighty, and is part of a people who received a law from the Almighty.
Set aside things such as desires or even needs to translate scriptures into Greek or to have Greek signage within the temple. Those things still imply a need to observe the law. Perhaps the greatest challenge to Judaism was when men like Saul of Tarsus were able to leverage general Greek interest in mystery religions with a declaration that one need not undergo convert circumcision to enter into fellowship with a Christian congregation. These congregations of Gentiles were overwhelmingly Greeks or Hellenized populations. When we see a lack of Hellenized Jewish congregations in the world, it may be because those populations themselves were absorbed into the Christian church of the Romans, itself highly Hellenized as a result of Saul/Paul, Augustine, and other early Christian leaders.
Given how Christian rulers in Europe have constantly troubled the Jews living in their borders, one can see that if the Christians themselves are seen as the product of Hellenized Jews, the conflict of the Maccabees is a conflict of today.
Through it all, the Jews have to ask the question of survival. Maybe they have to ask if they should fight or fly, but they have to first ask the question if there is anything worth fighting or fleeing over. If not, why bother? Both Judah Maccabee and Philo of Alexandria held that there was a reason to retain the law and covenants they had been given in their youth. Both determined that, yes, there was a reason to not drop these things and go with the times. To these people and their devout associates and followers, the covenant of Abraham and the law of Moses were worth taking a stand for. Even if Hellenism were accommodated, it was not allowed to replace these core concepts. The true path to survival in the Greek world lay not in force of arms, but in scholarship and creativity. The Jewish people had to know who they were before they could struggle to retain that identity.
The definition of identity is possible only in the face of the *other*, the Greek, the Babylonian, the Egyptian, and so on. One can start to define what one is only when one can point to what one is *not*. The child would not ask a parent why they do not do as the others do if there are no others, and merely do as he or she is told, more or less. (This should not devolve into a discussion about rebellious teenagers, as they are a completely separate challenge to survival…) But when there are others who do this and that which one does not do, the questions will arise from the mouths of children and it is up to the parents to turn their hearts towards their children, that the children might turn their hearts towards their parents and honor the ancient laws and covenants.