Last time I talked about the interaction between the Greeks and the Israelites around the time of the judges.  We talked about Mycenaean Greeks and tunics and Homer.  All wonderful things, and all to show how the (almost) constant contact between Greece and Israel makes it important to study “the mind of the ancients.”

Now, I’ll pick up where I left off.

The Dark Ages

At the tale-end of the time of the judges, we get the sense that the Israelite world is careening out of control.  The infamous refrain is, “in those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever he wanted” (Judges 17:6, 21:25).  There are terrible stories of child sacrifice, rape, and violence (all very reminiscent of the Greek myths, mind you).

As it turns out, the entire world was being turned upside down.  There were mass migrations as one displaced people group conquered and displaced another.  Major empires fell, including the Hittites and our Mycenaean Greeks.  A new people group – the Dorians – took over the Peloponnese and eventually became the Classical Greeks.

When the Mediterranean finally emerged from the “Dark Ages” c. 800 BC, the culture had changed drastically.  Not only had empires fallen, but Israel had risen and was now on the international map as a sovereign state.  There would have been interaction between the two groups as trade resumed throughout the Mediterranean basin.

Classical Greece

In After the Flood, Bill Cooper states that the Israelites “were invariably viewed with a poorly disguised contempt by the Greeks throughout their centuries of contact with one another,”[1] and he is probably correct.  After all, the Greeks viewed everyone as “barbarians” compared to themselves, especially those to the east.  This does not, however, mean they didn’t know about Israel and their Great God.  It also doesn’t mean they paid much heed to Him, however.

Babylon captured Israel around 587, which makes contact between Israel and Greece a bit tricky to trace.  We know Greek mercenaries fought on behalf of Babylon,[2] and we can assume relations between them deteriorated further once Persia got involved in 538 BC.[3]  The Persians and Greeks didn’t get along much (300 anyone?).

That would, however, be a complete assumption.  I will admit, there is a gaping hole in my knowledge of history between c. 800 – 350 BC.  Although I would assume there was contact between the Greeks and Hebrews after the Mycenaeans, I haven’t researched those time periods as extensively.  Thus, I’ll skip ahead to the 4th century BC, when my knowledge picks back up…

The Hellenistic World and the Hebrews

Finally, the Greeks won their centuries-old dispute with Persia when Alexander the Great conquered King Darius III in 330 BC.  This made Greek culture the dominant culture throughout the known world, prizing learning and philosophy above all else.

It was the Hellenistic age that brought us the epitome of Greek-Israelite interaction: the Septuagint – the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek.  It was most likely compiled in Egypt (of all places!) in the mid-3rd century BC.[4] This means, for about 250 years, the Greeks definitely and indisputably had the ability to interact with the Hebrew Bible.

And – judging from Acts – it seems they did.  From Biblical accounts, we know there were synagogues – implying a large Jewish population – in many major Greek cities during this time, [5] and many gentiles attended them, too.

Furthermore, we know from extant Hellenistic plays that the Hebrews were a known and common people group.  As early as Menander (c. 342/1-290 BC), the name “Davos” – or “David” – is found in Greek comedies.  Generally attributed to a slave who wins his freedom, it is almost certainly referring to Hebrews; who else would take such a name and give it to their children?  Three out of five of Menander’s extant plays use this name,[6] which in turn affected Roman playwrights such as Terence and Plautus, who continued the motif.[7]  Since the point of comedy is to take current culture and poke fun at it, we can therefore surmise that the Hebrew people were known throughout the region.

Thus, we know that Hebrews – both slave and free – were a known people group and culture by Alexander’s day and well into the Roman age.  Granted, from about 164 BC, the Maccabee revolt[8] succeeded in ending the Hellenistic monarchy, which sprung up after Alexander the Great.  However, after 150 years of influence, they could not have eradicated the culture entirely.  Furthermore, it simply returned when Rome took over about 70 years before Jesus was born, for it was the Hellenistic culture that forged the Greco-Roman culture of Jesus.

Where History Meets Faith

All this evidence points to one conclusion: the Greek and Hebrew cultures have an extensive history of contact which shaped how the gentiles – and the Hebrews – saw the world.  It is certainly enough evidence to say that understanding the minds of the ancient Greeks will help us understand many aspects of our Bible and faith better.

By the time of Jesus, Israel was ready to revolt from her Roman overlords.  They expected the Messiah to come and help them throw off the yoke of oppression.  However, those “Roman overlords” were exactly who God intended to use in His plan for the nations.   His plan DID include throwing off the yoke of oppression – the oppression of sin.  He chose to do this within the Greco-Roman context, to people who know the old myths and had a certain way of viewing the world.

The Greek culture may have dominated the world for three hundred years, and Rome may have dominated the land for about 70 years before Jesus came.  But over all of it, God dominated, moving the pieces so as to place His son in the perfect context to reach the nations with His plan of salvation.

The Greco-Roman context, to be exact.

 

Sources

[1] Bill Cooper, “Chapter 1: The Knowledge of God amongst the early Pagans,” After the Flood, accessed October 23, 2017, http://ldolphin.org/cooper/ch1.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Babylonian Exile,” Encyclopædia Britannica, accessed October 15, 2017, https://www.britannica.com/event/Babylonian-Exile.

[4] Crawford Howell Toy and Richard Gottheil, “Bible Translations,” Jewish Encyclopedia, accessed October 15, 2017, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3269-bible-translations

[5] Salamis (Acts 13:5), Antioch (Acts 13:14-16), Iconium (Acts 14:1), Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-3), Berea (17:10), Athens (17:17), Corinth (Acts 18:1-4), Ephesus (18:19, 19:8-10); Tim Brister, “Paul and the Synagogue,” Tim Brister, May 20, 2008, accessed October 15, 2017, http://timmybrister.com/2008/05/paul-and-the-synagogue/.

[6] Menander, Four Plays of Menander: The Hero, Epitrepontes, Percieiromene, and Samia, trans. Edward Capps (Boston: Ginn & Company, 2010), https://archive.org/stream/fourplaysofmenan00menaiala#page/296/mode/2up

[7] B. L. Ullman, “Proper Names in Plautus, Terence, and Menander,” Classical Philology, January 1916, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/261982.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A4c2883b5db559e38a7bf1c36a9a4660d

[8] “The History of Israel – A Chronological Presentation,” History-of-Israel.org, 2015, accessed October 15, 2017, http://history-of-israel.org/history/chronological_presentation11.php.


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