Part A. What is Hellenism and Hellenization

So what is hellenism and what does it have to do with context?

About 350 or so years before the times of Christ, Alexander the Great conquered the then known world and in doing so, began a process of radically changing those cultures. This process of Greek thought and life permeating the culture is called “Hellenization” which is the process of “Hellenism” taking root in a culture.

For a more detailed explanation, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hellenization

How hellenism affected the people groups of scripture?

The Hebrew peoples were largely effected by Hellenization, but asymmetrically.

Roughly 600 years prior to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the known world, Israel divided into two distinct groups – the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom.

The Southern Kingdom – also called “Judah” remained in Jerusalem and became who/what are today referred to as the Jewish people and Judaism. Though experiencing a brief exile of seventy years in Babylon, the Southern Kingdom returned to Jerusalem and were largely successful in preserving their Hebrew heritage, though no doubt were effected by the life and culture of the Babylonians – especially their idols.

The Northern Kingdom, also called “Israel” dispersed among the Gentile nations. They were assimilated into the cultures into which they lived never to be re-united with the Souther Kingdom again.

Many of the dispersed held on to their Hebrew culture but syncretized their faith in the God of Abraham and the Law of Moses with the thoughts and ideas of their surrounding cultures – largely pagan cultures at that time. Those dispersed were living in the lands conquered by Alexander the Great and became “Hellenized” entirely by the time of Christ. These were the locations of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys, and the context for most of his epistles (letters).

One of the core outcomes of Hellenism was the establishment of city-states throughout the ancient world. Prior to this, communities were more primitively structured and would have been governed more like smaller primitive cultures still present today in the remote corners of the world.

Though many times, local leaders were permitted to continue governing after being militarily defeated, their communities were nevertheless assimilated into Greek culture which valued cities, a civic, hierarchical structure, government, society, Et. al.

Hellenism was at times, very aggressive and hostile to Judaism. Just a century and a half or so before Christ, Antiochus IV Epiphanes sacked Jerusalem and outlawed the religious rites, customs, practices and worship of the Jews living there. He attempted, though unsuccessfully, to assimilate the Jews into Greek culture. The Maccabean revolt prevented this from happening. The Jewish holy day of Hanukkah commemorates the re-dedication of the Jewish temple after this revolt was finally successful.

Fast forward to the time of Christ. Jesus’s ministry was confined largely to the area surrounding Jerusalem, an area where the Southern Kingdom Jews had largely resisted Hellenization. This is evidenced by the oft-repeated descriptions of Jewish structures such as “The elders”, the “chief priests”, the “scribes”, the “Pharisees”, etc. It is also evident in the crucifixion of Jesus where you see a the above Jewish civic subservient to the hellenized Roman civic structure. The Jewish people were a sub-culture of families struggling to be faithful to their religious heritage in the context of an ever-increasingly hellenized society. This is important to understand.

All throughout the Gospels and much of Acts, one repeatedly sees references to “the elders”.  In these contexts, elders were local Jewish men who watched over their communities in much the same way as one would find today in small villages around the globe. One could also picture these elders similarly to the way American Indian and first nation leaders are portrayed historically. 

Ancient Judaism was Theocratic (ruled by God), and so religious and civic life among the Jews were integrated – as much as they could be integrated within the wider hellenized culture.

Nevertheless, though these elders were very religious Jews, they were not the primary religious leaders of their communities. Those duties belonged to the Chief Priests, the Scribes, the Pharisees and other leaders of the Synagogue.

During the times of Christ, there were at least three distinct religious cultures present in Jerusalem and the known world: Hellenistic Gentiles – those persons outside of the Covenants of God, Hellenistic Jews – those Jews that had mostly cultural practices and values of the Greeks but a heritage that was Jewish (similar to many Americans tracing their roots back to Europe, despite being born Americans), and lastly – Traditional Jews – those who held to the traditional form of Judaism from the time of Moses onward. Each group had their own languages as well with at least three or more common languages being spoken in and around Jerusalem at the time of Christ; Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek.

How did this affect the culture?

It’s clear across many scriptures to follow that during these times, there were collisions of culture and world views taking place. There were people groups with distinctly different cultures, ideas about civic society, languages, and values – all living in a common area. This is the context for the Gospels and the New Testament.

It’s during these tumultuous times that The Church was born. Suddenly, people from each of these three or more distinct world views found themselves brothers and sisters in the same communities.

This is the setting that a scripture reader is “parachuting into” when looking into them for understanding about leadership in the local church, or any biblical topic for that matter.

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