Wednesday, November 19, 2014

First-Century Judaism in Alexandria

During the Maccabean period (165-63 BC), Pharisaism became the major and normative form of Judaism. It was not, however, the only one. Its major rival was Jewish Hellenianism.

Antiochus 4th, Olympian ruler over Jerusalem from Antioch in Syria, did not cause the Maccabean revolt in the 160s BC. That grew out of the split in Judea between Pharisees and Jewish Hellenians. It was the military victory of the Pharisaic Maccabees over their Hellenian rivals that made Pharisaism normative in Judea.

Even so, Herod 1st was a Jewish Hellenian and powerful ruler for decades (ca 37 BC-AD 1). His huge influence over Judean society and culture again increased the intensity of the conflict between Jews over degrees of assimilation. That conflict eventually ended in the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70) and the exile of Jews from Judea.

When Pharisaic Jews leaving Judea met with Diasporan Jews in communities like Alexandria, they discovered that these Jews were Hellenian. Of course, a continuum existed: even the Pharisees were to some degree Hellenian. It was a question of where on the spectrum and toward what end a person and community were moving.

At the time of Jesus and beyond, a million people lived in Alexandria. A full third of these were Jews. The Jewish community of Alexandria was the largest and strongest within Roman society. An even larger Jewish community lived outside of Rome in Babylon. It too was Hellenian.

Hellenian culture was one form of Olympian culture. It celebrated, in its own unique exciting Hellenian way, the six gods of Olympianity. Alexander of Macedon, along with his armies and the host of traders and adventurers who followed them, brought this Hellenian Olympianity to the eastern Mediterranean in the 330s BC. It continued to enjoy great popularity after the Roman state took control of the region between 63 and 30 BC.

Educated Jews in eastern Olympia wanted a meaningful synthesis of their religion with this Hellenian culture, despite its Olympian foundations, for three reasons. One, they found Hellenian culture exciting. Two, Hellenian thinking led to new ways of expressing their Judaism which they found intellectually creative and emotionally satisfying. Three, a Jewish Hellenianism allowed them to reply to Hellenian critics in ways they regarded as more relevant.

The best representative of this synthesis of Judaism and Hellenianism was Philo of Alexandria (d. AD 50). He was a contemporary of three other significant Jews: Jesus, the apostle Paul, and the Pharisee Gamaliel. We may imagine Jesus and Paul at the prophetic end of a spectrum, Gamaliel as somewhere in the middle but closer to Paul, Philo as somewhere in the middle but closer to Plato, and Plato toward the Olympian end of that spectrum.

Philo was wealthy and a leader of the Jewish community in Alexandria. Some of Philo’s views: (1) Pharisaic Judaism was for the uneducated while Jewish Hellenianism was for the educated (those no longer barbarians compared to educated Hellenians). (2) An allegorical interpretation of Jewish Scripture allowed one to find close correlations between biblical witnesses and Platonic philosophy. (3) Man was a spiritual soul locked in a physical body until released by death, as Plato imagined, and not a unity of soul and body as affirmed by biblical witnesses. One implication of this last view: Philo found sexual intercourse repugnant.

(Today we continued our reflections on Norman Cantor’s The Sacred Chain: A History of the Jews [HarperCollins, pp. 66-77]).

Copyright © 2014 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.