Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Greek and Jew.

Alexander the Great.

The Greeks and the Jews have been the greatest contributors toward the higher civilization of mankind, the Greek in the intellectual and artistic realm, the Jew in the religious and moral. Therefore we discern the hand of Providence in bringing them together for they influenced each other. The meeting of Greek and Jew is one of the great events of history, greater than many of the battles that have decided the fates of empires. Greece had already lived her most thrilling epoch when the meeting began, but Plato, disciple of the moral philosopher, Socrates, had but recently passed away and Aristotle, profoundest philosopher of antiquity, still lived.

Macedonia had absorbed other Greek principalities and Alexander, now sole master, carried his army eastward in the hope of founding a universal empire. Whenever he conquered a land, he colonized it with Greeks and thus spread Greek civilization. Egypt, Asia Minor, Syria, Phoenicia, and ultimately Ethiopia and India fell successively before his triumphant approach.

The Persian empire that had been fast decaying, was included in the great array of conquests. Tired of the intriguing adventurer placed over them in the last years, the Jews gladly welcomed the conqueror. Legend weaves a pretty story of the Jewish High Priest, Onias, going forth with a company clad in white to meet Alexander, and that in this picture Alexander saw the fulfilment of a dream. It is certain that the Jews hailed this change of masters and many settled in several of the new Greek colonies he founded. In this rise and fall of empires a new grouping of the countries took place. The rebellious Samaritans were quelled and Alexander gave their land to the Judeans, to whom he further showed his favor by freeing them from taxation during the Sabbatic year. (see Lev. xxv.)

Another reason for Alexander's kindness to our ancestors may be the fact that some Jews already settled in many places outside Judea became his guides and interpreters when he entered the unfamiliar realm of Asia. Indeed, this broad-minded conqueror was a second Cyrus to the Jews; but there was no Isaiah now to immortalize his advent in the grandeur of prophetic address, or to interpret his triumphant advance in terms of divine purpose.

Judea Part of Greco-Egypt.

All too soon, in the midst of his ambitions, Alexander died. Conflict among his generals followed, and the great empire was dismembered. In one of the many wars which followed, the Jews showed their religious fidelity by submitting to slaughter rather than defend themselves on the Sabbath day. Finally, the empire was divided into the following four kingdoms: The Greco-Syrian, the Greco-Egyptian, the Thracian and the Macedonian. Greco-Syria, including the greater part of Western Asia, with Persia as its centre, was claimed by one of Alexander's generals named Seleucus. He introduced the Seleucidan era named after him beginning with the year 312. This calendar was used by the Jews when they later came under Seleucidan sway; for this name, too, came to be applied to the kingdom itself. Many Jews were invited to settle in the new capital—Antioch, on its Mediterranean border. The next kingdom fell to Ptolemy Lagos and included Egypt and the adjoining Asiatic lands, one of which was Caelo-Syria, with boundaries from Lebanon to Egypt, really corresponding to Palestine. Thus the Jews first came under the Ptolemaic regime. It will be well to keep these geographical divisions distinctly in mind. The remaining two divisions of the empire, Thrace and Macedonia, hardly enter into this history.

The Jews did not suffer in the change of rule. They were as free as before to live their own life, and with even greater political independence than under Persian rule. The High Priest continued as the head of the Jewish community, the centre of which was still Jerusalem. Alexandria, a seaport named after the conqueror, was made the capital of Greco-Egyptian kingdom. Many Jews settled there, and it gradually became the most important Jewish community outside of Palestine, both intellectually and religiously. If there were Jews in Greek towns, so also were there Greeks in Jewish towns. This meant a mingling of the two races and a lessening of Jewish isolation. Alexander had brought the Greek tongue to the East; it became the international language; and even the commercial interchange of commodities brought necessarily with it an interchange of ideas. The Orient was becoming Hellenized.

The first man of achievement to hear from in this epoch was the High Priest, Simon the Just. That he was called "The Just" tells much in a word. Like Aristides the Good he really earned his title. He rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, ravaged by war, and improved the water supply. Ben Sirach (one of the writers of the Apocrypha) speaks of Simon in these words of exalted praise:

"How was he honored in the midst of the people
In his coming out of the sanctuary!
He was as the morning star in the midst of a cloud,
And as the moon at the full;
As the sun shining upon the temple of the Most High
And as the rainbow giving light in the bright clouds:
And as the flower of roses in the spring of the year,
As lilies by the rivers of waters,
And as the branches of the frankincense tree in the time of summer;
As fire and incense in the censer,
And as a vessel of beaten gold set
With all manner of precious stones;
And as a fair olive tree budding forth fruit,
And as a cypress tree which groweth up to the clouds.
When he put on the robe of honour,
And was clothed with the perfection of glory,
When he went up to the holy altar,
He made glorious the precincts of the Sanctuary."

Here is one of his maxims: "The world rests on three pillars, on the Law, on worship, and on Charity." He took a broad and moderate view of life. When over-zealous souls would wish to impose upon themselves the abnegations of the Nazarite (see Numbers vi) he discouraged such extremes. "Why voluntarily renounce gifts that God in his love has bestowed for our joy?" That voices the spirit of Judaism. It is said that certain wondrous manifestations of Divine grace ceased with his death. These are but legends, but they show how much he was revered and loved.

Joseph the Satrap

Joseph, the nephew of Onias, a man of resources, was appointed tax-gatherer of the Palestinian lands. A tax-gatherer was given a military retinue to enforce his claims. It was a position of great importance, and made him practically governor of all Palestine with title of Satrap. He exercised his power with severity. Still he brought wealth and improvement to Judea and awakened in the Jews a greater confidence in themselves.

Certainly contact with the Greeks widened the horizon of the Jews, furthered their culture, and gave them a taste for the arts of architecture and sculpture. The Greeks also inculcated love of freedom, the dignity of man, and intellectual research in the realms of science and philosophy. But Greek civilization had perils as well as advantages. Nor was it transplanted to the East in its noblest form. The best of Greek thought was evolved in Athens, not in Alexandria. Then too, the Greeks everywhere were fond of conviviality, so often the stepping-stone to immorality. That was why the prophets, from Samuel on so frowned upon Canaanitish revelries. Some Jews quickly imitated this pagan frivolity and dissipation. Joseph, the satrap, in order to please Ptolemy Philopater, the Greco-Egyptian monarch, introduced the festivities of Dionysus (Bacchus) into Jerusalem; these really meant drunken orgies. Next he imported to the Jewish capital dissolute dancing-women. These associations began to loosen the adherence of the people to Judaism's strictly moral code. Epicureanism, that had become a sanction for indulgence, was beginning to take its place.

Judea Part of Greco-Syria.

In the meantime the greed and ambition of kings changed the map once more. Antiochus the Great, of Syria, seized Egypt and its Asiatic possessions in 203. This transferred Judea from the Egyptian to the Seleucidan rule. Warring nations had played battledore and shuttlecock with the land of our ancestors since the year 600. Antiochus was checked by the newly rising power of Rome from retaining all the Greco-Egyptian dominions, but Celo-Syria including Judea remained under his sway. In the struggle some Jews sided with the Egyptian and some with the Seleucidan party.

For Jews were beginning to differentiate; they were not any more all of one mind either politically or religiously. Led by the unfortunate example of Joseph and his successors, some Jews began cultivating Hellenistic (from Hellas, Greece) habits to win favor with their surroundings. A Jewish leader of the Greek faction was one Joshua, who Grecized his name to Jason. This worldly man encouraged his people to neglect their Jewish ideals in favor of pagan standards of life. The safeguards built around the Jewish Law by the teachers of old were ruthlessly overthrown. But these traitorous extremes brought their own reaction. A pious party sprang up to counteract them and it zealously determined to fulfil the Jewish Law in its strictest interpretation. These were the Chassidim (Greek, Assidean), meaning the pious.

Here then were two extreme parties in Israel—one, the Hellenists, whose mania for everything Greek made them almost traitors to the Jewish cause; and on the other hand the Chassidim, who observed the law with a rigidity greater than its own demands; and in the midst the great bulk of the people, who tried to avoid the extremes of both.


Greek and Jew:—Read "Hebraism and Hellenism" in Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy.

Someone remarks, "The Greek praised the holiness of beauty: the Jew the beauty of holiness." Heine writes: "The Greeks were only beautiful youths, the Jews strong and steadfast men."

Theme for discussion:—What was the significance of the defeat of Persia by Greece for civilization in general and for the Jew in particular?