Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

The Alexandrian School.

Jew and Greek.

Before resuming the story of Judea under the procurators, let us take another survey of Jews and Judaism in lands outside of Palestine. The voluntary dispersion still went on. The Jews were now scattered over all the Roman Empire, which included Asiatic and European lands from Syria to Spain. We also find our ancestors, at the beginning of the Christian era, in Arabia and in Parthia, an Asiatic kingdom south of the Caspian Sea. But, however widely scattered, religion was the bond of union and Jerusalem the spiritual centre. From distant lands many would from time to time make pilgrimages to the Temple.

The attitude of the heathen world was on the whole not unfriendly to the Jews. They were disliked for their rejection of the heathen gods, for their aloofness, their stern morality, their sobriety, and their material success; while their exclusiveness—partly but not wholly justifiable—led to the erroneous supposition that they were hostile to mankind. But the Jews of the Diaspora were less exclusive and more tolerant than those of Judea. This was particularly true of Alexandria, capital of Egypt, now part of the Roman Empire. There had existed here—apart from occasional outbursts of racial antagonism among the populace, a cordial interchange of ideas in which the Jews met the Greeks more than half way. (chaps. ii and vi.)

The Jews admired the culture of the educated Greeks and felt drawn toward the lofty philosophy of Plato, the nearest Greek approach to the monotheism and morality of the Hebrews. The broadening effect of this infusion of Greek thought, gave to Judaism in Alexandria a distinct character, and it came to be known as Hellenistic Judaism, and its espousers, Hellenistic Jews. We have used the term Hellenist in an earlier chapter, in a bad sense as descriptive of Jews who yielded to those Greek influences that were pagan, to the detriment of Judaism. Here we apply the term in a good sense to those who were open to Greek influences that were intellectual, to the advantage of Judaism. We have already marked the effect of Greek thought in some of the Apocryphal writings, particularly in the "Wisdom of Solomon." Appreciating the metaphysics of the Greek philosophers, the Jewish Hellenists were anxious to bring home to the Greeks and to others the spiritual and moral truths of Judaism.

Jewish Missionaries.

But how to present the revelation of the Law and of the Prophets in a manner that would most appeal to the Greeks? In their fervor to make proselytes to the Law of Moses, they resorted to a strange expedient. There existed among the Greeks women-seers called Sibyls, who were supposed to foretell in mysterious oracles the destinies of nations. So some Jewish writers cast the Bible teachings of God and morality in the literary form of Sibylline oracles. Like the Bible prophets, these Jewish Sibylline writers, warned those who followed false views and bad lives, and promised salvation to those who accepted the law of the God of Israel. They popularized the teachings of the Mosaic law and so generalized it as to present it as a religion for mankind. These writings exerted a salutary influence on many followers of Greek thought.

The Hellenists went so far as to try to prove from Jewish Scriptures many of the loftier ideas of Greek philosophy. In this way Judaism was represented as anticipating the highest knowledge of the time. In their enthusiasm, this reconciliation of Judaism and Greek philosophy was occasionally carried further than conditions quite warranted. The attempt was also made to explain every biblical law allegorically, as though it was intended to convey ideas other than those that appeared on the surface. Thus they read Greek philosophy into the Bible. The habit of reading the science of the day into the old Bible books still prevails. This poetic explaining away of many injunctions of Scripture led in some instances to their actual neglect. This was the dangerous extreme.

The assumption that Jews discourage proselytes has been refuted in chaps. xii and xiv. It is certainly not true of the Alexandrian Jews who were most zealous in their missionary efforts. They not only felt that it was the mission of the Jew to carry his message to the world; they did it. The translation of their Scriptures into Greek, the presentation of the message of their faith in the form of Sibylline oracles, and the allegorizing away of many of their ceremonials were all employed for the bringing of Judaism to the Gentile. So successful were their efforts, that just when the Jewish state was dying, many heathens were seeking this Faith of their own accord, attracted by its ethics and repelled by heathen uncleanliness. Philo says that the adoption of Judaism by many heathens immediately resulted in a marked moral improvement in their lives. The number of female proselytes in Damascus, Asia Minor, Egypt and Rome steadily grew. Pagan writers remark it. Josephus writes:—"There is not any city of the Greeks or of the barbarians . . . to which our custom of resting on the seventh day has not been introduced and where our fasts and dietary laws are not observed." He adds further how enthusiastically these converts fulfilled all Jewish rites. A zealous Jewish missionary converted Helen, the queen of Adiabene, a province on the Tigris, and all her family. She made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, sent valuable gifts to the Temple, and helped the people in the time of famine.

So, although Judaism was a religion that imposed on its followers severe restraints and, although the Jews were a very small people, whom some heathens despised, still, many knocked at its doors to be admitted into the fold, even for fifty years after its Temple was destroyed and its nationality overthrown—tragedies which we shall presently have to tell. Yes, many of the very people that overthrew it—the Romans—accepted the Jewish faith. The Emperor Domitian made severe laws against proselytes to Judaism, in order to discourage the practice. Indeed, a cousin of the emperor, who was also a senator and consul, together with his wife, accepted Judaism.

But ultimately the stream of converts was diverted to the new creed, born of Judaism, Christianity—more particularly as in its second stage it sent its missionaries to the heathen world proclaiming that acceptance of Jesus as savior and divinity would bring them salvation without conforming to the burdensome Jewish Law. Furthermore it became a doctrine of the new religion that the death of Jesus abrogated the Law. Thus, salvation made easy, brought thousands to the fold. The Jewish missionaries had really simplified the task for the Christian missionaries who followed later. They prepared the soil.

This is looking a little further ahead to events yet to be related. By that time the followers of the two religions had become people of two different races: Judaism followed almost exclusively by Jews who were Semites; Christianity by Aryans, Greeks, Romans and other Europeans. This racial distinction became the final barrier which completely separated them.


Aryans and Semites:—Not all Semites are Jews, for example the Arabians; nor are all Aryans Christians i.e. the Persians. Religious and racial lines are no longer identical.

Theme for discussion:—Why did most heathen converts to Judaism ultimately become Christian?