The Seeds of Christianity: The Hellenization of Judaism

With light and insight shed on the competing philosophical and theological systems from the 3rd century BCE to the first few centuries after the death of Christ and the advent of early Christianity, Middle Platonism and Stoicism in particular, we now have the intellectual building blocks from which we find the foundations of early Christian theology are constructed and through which the canonical Gospels in particular, which encapsulate the core life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, are viewed and interpreted by early Christian theologians and apologists. In this period of theological history, the focus turns toward interpretation of these books which stemmed from the tradition surrounding Jesus’s life and teachings from which the New Testament canon was constructed by the early Church, as well as the Old Testament on which this tradition squarely rested, in light of Hellenistic philosophy which was the intellectual philosophic standard of the times.

In the works of the early Christian apologists and theologians, we find the exploration of the notion of good and evil, fate versus free will, salvation, the meaning of Christ and his resurrection, the role of wisdom and law, etc. as reflected in the Old Testament canon and the New Testament books all within the philosophical and metaphysical framework of the Hellenic tradition that preceded it. In these early phases of Christianity, before the doctrine of the Trinity is established, the role of Reason – Logos – is seen as the hand of God so to speak, and then only later, as the doctrine of the Trinity becomes more mature and is firmly established in Christian orthodoxy, Christ himself is looked upon as a manifestation of this Logos in human form, the so-called Word of God in John (which was written in Greek of course as were all the Gospels), whose first 18 verses, i.e. the Prologue, encapsulate this Hellenic philosophical interpretation of the meaning of (the Jewish) Christ perhaps more so than any other New Testament language:

 

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 This one was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and apart from him not one thing came into being that has come into being. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of humanity. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 A man came, sent from God, whose name was John. 7 This one came for a witness, in order that he could testify about the light, so that all would believe through him. 8 That one was not the light, but came in order that he could testify about the light. 9 The true light, who gives light to every person, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, and the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to his own things, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But as many as received him—to those who believe in his name—he gave to them authority to become children of God, 13 who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a husband, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and took up residence among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John testified about him and cried out, saying, “This one was he about whom I said, ‘The one who comes after me is ahead of me, because he existed before me.’” 16 For from his fullness we have all received, and grace after grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came about through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has seen God at any time; the one and only, God, the one who is in the bosom of the Father—that one has made him known.

 

In this oft quoted passage, we see here not only very close references and analogues to Genesis[1], but also a classically Stoic, or perhaps better put a classically Hellenistic philosophical interpretation of the birth and teachings of Jesus, ignoring the reference to John the Baptist which plays a central role here clearly in John’s conception of setting the stage for the tale of the life of Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke – known collectively as the synoptic Gospels because they share many of the same characteristics and story line – are distinct from the Gospel of John in many respects, especially given the clear Hellenic philosophical influence we see in John.

Within the context of later Christian theological development, we see a clear shift away from the view of the supremacy of Reason over God, and a focus more on salvation through Christ. The tradition almost inverts the priority with the doctrine of the Trinity, where Reason is not the pinnacle of metaphysics as it is in the Neo-Platonic tradition quite explicitly and in the Peripatetic tradition implicitly, but Reason – or more specifically what has come to be known as the Word – is looked upon as a medium through which the power of the Trinity moves through man, and is personified in the Son of God, Jesus, who is the one and only savior of mankind.

In exploring this notion of what has come down to us as the “Word” in New Testament and Christian canon and theology, and its place within the tripartite theology of the Christians (the Trinity), it’s important to have a clear notion as to the history and context of the term as it used by the author of John, and its meaning within the philosophical community from within which it emerges in the first few centuries after Christ, particularly in the Gnostic tradition which was shunned by later Christians as heretical but which exerted at least some influence over early Christian theological development, even if only as a point of reference for its critics.[2]

 

Perhaps the most fleshed out philosophical notion of Logos in the Judeo-Christian tradition can be found in the work of Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BCE – 40CE), a Jewish philosopher who synthesized the tradition of Moses as reflected in the Old Testament directly into the Hellenistic philosophical tradition, landing on the idea of Logos as one of the core theological and philosophical principles upon which his theological scheme rested, a scheme which placed Moses as the most revered and esteemed of all philosophers in antiquity. [Interestingly, Philo’s works were mainly conserved in the Christian theological tradition despite his Jewish heritage and that the main thrust of his teachings were the legitimization and synthesis of the teachings of Moses (Old Testament) into Hellenistic philosophy, even going so far as to suggest that the Greek philosophical tradition borrowed from the Jewish sage rather than emerging independently.]

Philo’s work can be roughly categorized between his Old Testament exegesis and commentary and his more philosophical treatises that dealt with more classical philosophical problems such as ethics, free will, the nature of the soul, etc. A good summary of his doctrine of Logos and its influence on subsequent Christian theological development can be found in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Philo:

 

The pivotal and the most developed doctrine in Philo’s writings on which hinges his entire philosophical system, is his doctrine of the Logos. By developing this doctrine he fused Greek philosophical concepts with Hebrew religious thought and provided the foundation for Christianity, first in the development of the Christian Pauline myth and speculations of John, later in the Hellenistic Christian Logos and Gnostic doctrines of the second century. All other doctrines of Philo hinge on his interpretation of divine existence and action….

In the Septuagint version of the Old Testament the term logos (Hebrew davar) was used frequently to describe God’s utterances (Gen. 1:3, 6,9; 3:9,11; Ps. 32:9), God’s action (Zech. 5:1-4; Ps. 106:20; Ps. 147:15), and messages of prophets by means of which God communicated his will to his people (Jer. 1:4-19, 2:1-7; Ezek. 1:3; Amos 3:1). Logos is used here only as a figure of speech designating God’s activity or action. …

The Greek, metaphysical concept of the Logos is in sharp contrast to the concept of a personal God described in anthropomorphic terms typical of Hebrew thought. Philo made a synthesis of the two systems and attempted to explain Hebrew thought in terms of Greek philosophy by introducing the Stoic concept of the Logos into Judaism. In the process the Logos became transformed from a metaphysical entity into an extension of a divine and transcendental anthropomorphic being and mediator between God and men. Philo offered various descriptions of the Logos.[3]

 

The general consensus is that Philo’s philosophical and allegorical work is less innovative and more reflective of the current thinking among Jewish scholars in his day. Philo was a product of the intellectual melting pot of Alexandria which we know had strong ties to Hellenistic philosophy, his writings show clear signs of this. But at the same time, Philo is first and foremost a Jewish scholar. His work is an exegesis of Jewish tradition, mythology and history in the light of Hellenistic philosophy which was considered to be the intellectual benchmark of the times. His work to a large extent is meant to establish Moses as one of the great philosophers of antiquity and his allegorical interpretation of Genesis for example follows the lines of the Greek philosophic tradition of interpreting mythology allegorically, a tradition that was well established by the time of Philo.

With Philo we do have a significant break from the more orthodox Jewish interpretation of the Old Testament however, a well-documented tradition that is reflected in the (Hebrew) Old Testament that covers the history of the Jewish people roughly from 2000 BCE to 350 BCE or so, starting from the moment of creation in Genesis, to the world of primordial man/woman and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, to the time of Moses and the Exodus of the Jewish people out of Egypt (circa 1280 BCE), through the construction of the First Temple dedicated to the worship of Yahweh (Elohim) by King Solomon around the 10th century BCE, through the period of Babylonian captivity and exile to the (re) construction of the Second Temple under Persian rule circa 530 BCE. This long period of Jewish history effectively comes to an end with the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, his life and teachings, and the (orthodox) interpretation thereof of course captured in the New Testament scripture, works that reflect a significant Hellenic influence not just linguistically (there were written in using the Greek language) but also theologically as subsequent theologians incorporate the mysterious role of the living Christ into their Abrahamic monotheistic tradition, i.e. enter Christianity.

All of this history, representing the lineage and trials and faith of the Jewish people is captured in the Old Testament, In Hebrew, and in it we find the core tenets of the Jewish faith stemming in large part from the covenant that Yahweh makes with Moses when he leads the Jewish people out of Egypt, i.e. the Ten Commandments, and the introduction of the Torah or “law” which is captured primarily in the five Books of Moses and is established to guide the Jewish people, a people that are distinguished by their long history of trials and tribulations and exile from, and re-establishment of their homeland in modern day Israel and their three thousand year relationship with the Temple of Jerusalem, a place that not only plays a significant role in the Old Testament but also of course continues to play a significant role in Middle East politics even today.

It is in the Torah that we find seeds of all of the Abrahamic religions which are so prevalent in the world today, representing more than two-thirds the global population. But this history and culture, the language (Hebrew), the mythology, etc. becomes deeply Hellenized starting in the 3rd century BCE after Alexander the Great conquers Israel/Judea and incorporates the land into the Macedonian Empire, marking the beginning of the period of Greek influence over the Middle East and Northern Africa (Egypt primarily) and establishing the social and political foundations for Western civilization.

 

This Hellenization process of Judaism, which lays the groundwork for the later interpretations of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the advent of Christianity, has essentially two parallel transformations that take place in the last half of the first millennium BCE. The first path is represented by the writings that are accepted within the orthodox Jewish community that reflect (relatively later) interpretations of the Torah. These texts were primarily written in Hebrew (and to a lesser extent Aramaic as with the later books such as Daniel and Ezra) and were the last works to be incorporated into the Jewish canon as the Ketuvim (Writings) between the 1st century BCE to the second century CE. This is the so-called Wisdom tradition that has Jewish roots but is essentially adopted and incorporated into the Christian tradition albeit transformed theologically and otherwise into the doctrine of the Trinity and the deification of Jesus.

The second parallel track of the Hellenization of Jewish theology takes place primarily in Alexandria and starts with the commissioning of the translation of the Old Testament from the Hebrew into Greek proper, a work commissioned by the Ptolemaic Dynasty that takes place starting in the 2nd century BCE supposedly by seventy Jewish scholars (hence the name of the work as the Septuagint or simply LXX). The lasting import of this translation cannot be over stated as it represents not just the beginning of the direct availability of Jewish history and theology in the Hellenic world but also represents the beginning of the interpretation of Jewish theology into the more modern and widely accepted Greek philosophical framework and syntax which had evolved independent of the Semitic/Hebrew culture for at least a thousand years. It is from the tradition of the LXX that not only the influential pseudo-Christian theologian Philo of Alexandria comes from, but also from which the New Testament and its interpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus are crafted and squarely rest.

The LXX categorized a good portion of what were later to be incorporated into the Ketuvim as the “Wisdom Books”, a categorization stemming primarily due to the significant Hellenic philosophic influence that is displayed that marks a departure from earlier Jewish canon, characterized primarily with the role that Wisdom (the Greek σοφία or Sophia) plays as one of the defining features of Jewish history and theology. The books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs which are all part of the Ketuvim fall into this Wisdom literature category, along with the Sirach and Book of Wisdom which were included in the LXX and therefor in almost all Christian Old Testament literature, but are not included in the Jewish Old Testament (Tanakh).[4]

 

In the main, wisdom was greatly valued and eagerly sought during the Second Temple, and the wise became the teachers of the young and the models of the old. An extensive Wisdom-literature, of which large portions may have been lost, sprang up in continuation of the Proverbs of Solomon. Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) proves, on analysis, to be a compilation of writings which belong in part to an older generation; and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which recent research has reclaimed for Jewish literature, may also be classed among these Wisdom-books.

In all these books wisdom is extolled and invested with divine attributes (Ecclus. [Sirach] i. 1-26, iv. 11-29, li. 13-30, and especially xxiv. 1-29, where it is identified with the law of Moses; Test. Patr., Levi, 13; Enoch, xlii. 1-2). The book on astronomy and cosmography in the writings of Enoch is described as celestial wisdom (Enoch, xxxvii. 2, xlix. 1-3, lxxxii. 2-3; comp. Book of Jubilees, iv. 17, xxi. 10), and Noah’s book on healing (Book of Jubilees, x. 13) belongs to the same class.

Under the influence of Greek philosophy wisdom became a divine agency of a personal character (Wisdom vii. 22-30), so that Philo terms it the daughter of God, “the mother of the creative Word” (“De Profugis,” §§ 9, 20), while as the creative principle of the world, wisdom occurs in Targ. Yer. to Gen. i. 1 (comp. Ḥag. 11b; Gen. R. i., where the Torah takes the place of wisdom; see also the midrash on Prov. iii. 19 in Jellinek, “B. H.” ii. 23-39, v. 63-69). In Christian and Gentile Gnosticism, wisdom became the center of speculation (see Gnosticism). The so-called Fourth Book of Maccabees, a philosophical sermon on self-control with reference to the seven martyred sons of the Maccabean heroine, is another contribution to the Hellenistic Wisdom-literature.[5]

 

This Wisdom tradition, which again has its roots in Jewish philosophy, represents at a very basic level a synthesis of Greek philosophical thought and Judaism, with some strong connections that can be drawn, particularly with the Book of Wisdom or the Wisdom of Solomon and Isis, the ancient Egyptian Goddess that was associated with the throne and royalty, eternal life and salvation, light and order – maat to the Egyptians, kosmos and/or nomos to the Greeks and the torah of the Jews – all characteristics that are attributed to Wisdom in Old Testament scripture, again particularly in the Book of Wisdom which is a fairly late (1st century CE) work[6]. This salvation attribute to Sophia, which runs as a consistent theme in Jewish Old Testament commentaries and interpretations of the Second Temple Period as Yahweh personified as Sophia is looked upon as the savior of the Jews, along with her association with light, order and the Sun, is to gain significant traction in the Gnostic tradition that takes root after the death of Jesus and his life and teachings are adopted and interpreted by various schools and sects throughout the Mediterranean, particularly in Alexandria which is the source of many of the Gnostic sects which are prevalent in the first few centuries after Jesus is crucified and before Christian orthodoxy takes shape.

Although at first glance this slight shift in emphasis in the interpretation and analysis of Torah into an albeit simplified pseudo-Greek philosophic framework might seem inconsequential, it marks the beginning not only of a new phase of Jewish exegesis, but also establishes the philosophical framework from which Christianity in all its forms is constructed, Gnosticism included.

Another important figure in this Hellenization of Judaism leveraged by the early Christian Church Fathers and theologians is Josephus, a first century CE Jewish scholar and historian who initially fights against Rome during the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73 CE) when the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem is destroyed and is later adopted by the Roman Emperor Vespasian first as a hostage and interpreter and then later granted freedom.

In his first major work entitled The Jewish War, or Judean War, Josephus accounts the struggles of the Jews in Judea from the capture of Jerusalem by the Seleucid (Greek) ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 164 BCE to the fall and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE by the Romans. His second major work, which is authored in Greek and is oft cited by Christian theologians as evidence for the historical Jesus as well as John the Baptist, is entitled Antiquities of the Jews (circa 94 CE) and covers Jewish history back from the Garden of Eden up to the 1st century CE Jewish War against Rome. The last major work by Josephus which is extant is Against Apion, a defense of Judaism as a classic religion and philosophy addressed to detractors and critics of the Jewish faith which were presumably prevalent at the time, Apion and Manetho specifically.

The Jewish literature that is extant from this period – from the Wisdom Books that come down to us as part of the Old Testament literature which personify Wisdom as the agent of salvation, order and knowledge to the Jews, to the work of Philo the philosopher and theologian who applied a classically Greek philosophic lens to Old Testament interpretation, resting on Stoic and Platonic themes and language to explain the true meaning of the Old Testament to the Greek intellectuals and authorities of the time, to Josephus the Jewish historian who interpreted the Jewish tradition from an historical perspective for the Greeks and Romans during the first century CE – all established the foundations, set the stage almost, for the interpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, in all its forms, which was to provide the theological and historical foundations of Christianity, perhaps the most influential religious (and political) movement of all time. A movement ironically enough which diverges significantly from the prevalence of truth and order as prime metaphysical and philosophical building blocks as had been so well established by the Greeks (and to a lesser extent Jews) to the rise in prevalence of the role of salvation and eternal life, through Christ, as the core tenets of faith.

 

[1] Genesis 1:1-1:5 “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth— 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light. 4 And God saw the light, that it was good, and God caused there to be a separation between the light and between the darkness. 5 And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” Lexham English Bible, from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+1&version=LEB.

[2] Much insight into early Gnostic philosophical development was gained with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library in 1945 and the subsequent translation of the texts therein. In the twelve leather-bound papyrus codices that were discovered as part of the Nag Hammadi library were mostly texts labeled as Gnostic, but also some works belonging to the Corpus Hermeticum as well as a partial translation of Plato’s Republic speaking perhaps to the eclectic philosophical milieu within which philosophic schools, and in turn libraries, evolved during this time period (circa 4th century CE).

[3] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE-40CE) entry. http://www.iep.utm.edu/philo/#H11

[4] Sirach and the Book of Wisdom are referred to as deuterocanonical, a term used to describe certain passages or books of the Christian Old Testament that are not included in the Hebrew/Jewish Bible proper.

[5] Jewish Encyclopedia, entry on WISDOM – http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14950-wisdom.

[6] For a detailed account of the similarities and parallels between Isis and Sophia in the Book of Wisdom see Isis and Sophia in the Book of Wisdom, Harvard Theological Review by John S. Kloppenborg (1982), 75, pp 57-84 and for a more broad picture of Second Temple Period Wisdom literature and themes in The Way of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Bruce K. Waltke (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House), pgs 212-225 – chapter on Wisdom of Solomon and Biblical Interpretation in the Second Temple Period.

About snowconenyc
Author and computer scientist with expertise in scalable and secure SaaS solutions and cyber security solutions as well as the mythology and philosophy in Eurasian antiquity.

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