Greek and Jew
In the late 4th century (332 BC) Alexander’s troops took control of Palestine en route to a successful conquest of Egypt. The arrival of Greek conquerors in the eastern Mediterranean, with their vibrant, expansive culture, presented a major challenge to the Jews, especially to the theocracy of Judaea. The Greeks now embraced the ‘known world’ and integrated all its many cultures into their own. The product was a multifaceted, cosmopolitan and secular civilization. According to one historian, Alexander ‘treated the Jews generously’ (Cantor, The Sacred Chain - A History of the Jews). Initially, the Jews were ruled by the Greeks of Alexandria. Then, for a 150 years, Syrian Greeks ...view middle of the document...
Its very liberalism and inclusiveness placed Gnosticism directly at odds with all who argued for faith and a blind and unquestioning acceptance of dogma. Later Christianity was to stigmatise Gnosticism as a ‘heresy’ but in fact it pre-dates the established church by centuries.
Gnosticism embraced many schools of thought, and within it even some Jews could find a theological niche. Simon Magus (‘Simon the Magician’) was one – in later centuries, stigmatised by the Christians in the sin of 'simony' (the buying and selling of ecclesiastical favours). Simon Magus was apparently Nero’s court magician and a leading light among the Jews of Rome. Not only did Jewish cities adopt Hellenic styles of architecture but, after centuries without schools and academies, the Jews embraced the value of literacy.
Unlike the Greeks however, most ‘practicing’ Jews never questioned texts critically but elevated them as sacred objects in their own right, to be revered and ‘close-read’ for hidden meaning. This ferreting out of subtleties – or contorting old words for new purposes – was called ‘midrash’, a particular gift of the priesthood. But the process began of rewriting even the sacred texts into the language of the Greeks, the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world. But whilst they might ‘borrow’ from the conqueror, the Jewish priesthood, a ruling caste of several thousand and the personification of social exclusion and theocratic privilege, recoiled in horror at Greek attempts to integrate them into their world.
Roman and Jew
Rome’s ambitions in the east brought Pompey and his legions to Judaea in 63 BC. Though the conqueror of Greece, Rome had been seduced by the rich Hellenic culture and had made it her own. In contrast, though the Romans had no racist or economic envy of the Jews, like the Greeks, they had unbridled contempt for Judaism, which they interpreted as a primitive religion. But theology was not an issue for the imperium – securing the eastern front was. The Jews presented a particularly troubling problem. Jewish communities existed in many parts of the Persian Empire and, in fact, most ‘exiled’ Jews were pleased to live under Persian rule. The loyalty of Jews within the Roman Empire was therefore always in question.
Pompey ended a century of Jewish independence by imposing a mosaic of client kingdoms and self-governing cities in the region (Philistia, Phoenicia, Israel, Judah, etc.) But a Parthian (Persian) invasion twenty years later triggered a civil war among the Jews and revived hopes for a ‘Messiah.’ One claimant to the Jewish throne – Herod – appealed to Rome. The other – Antigonus – appealed to Parthia, promising the Parthian king ‘500 wives of his enemies’! In 37 BC Herod and his Roman allies drove out the Persians and defeated his domestic enemies. In return for his staunch loyalty Herod gained for himself the kingship of the whole of Palestine, and for his people, exemption from military service and official recognition of the...