Hellenism: A Case of Cultural Diffusion
In 336 B.C.E., Alexander the Great succeeded his father Philip II, King of Macedonia in Northern Greece who was assassinated. He was known as one of the greatest conquerors in history. He defeated the Persians and expanded his kingdom to the east subduing Egypt, Palestine (332 B.C.E.) and Babylon (Schwarz: 64). His ambition to farther expand his conquest was cut-short by the rebellion of his generals who grew tired of war.
Alexander untiringly introduced the use of Greek language, culture and religion in all his subject-nations. This was his means of realizing his dream of uniting his empire. As a result, “there was massive ideas of cosmic dualism and rich religious imagery derived in part from Eastern influence as a result of the Greek conquests” (britanica.com/Biblical- literature), also known as Hellenism. The term Hellenism or Hellenization was derived from Hellas, the ancient name for Greece (Schwarz: 65).
Alexandria, one of the Greek cities built by Alexander the Great, became so Hellenized that the Hebrew Old testament has to be translated to Greek in order to be read. The outcome of this translation was the Septuagint (Ibid).
There were several assumptions as to the cause of Alexander the Great’s death at a young age of thirty-three. The character of Ptolemy in the 1994 movie Alexander by Oliver Stone said that he was poisoned by his generals in order to prevent him from fulfilling his dream of further conquest and the establishment of Hellenic civilization, for they were too weary to carry on. They however, made it appear that “he died of fever at a weakened condition.”
I am inclined to believe that he was indeed, stricken by typhoid fever or malaria (Schwarz: 65). His exhaustion and the loneliness he suffered from the death of Hephaestion, worsened his condition which eventually led to his death.
His empire was divided among his generals because he had no legal heir. In the East, Ptolemy became the ruler of Egypt and Palestine, with his capital at Alexandria. Seleucus became the ruler of Syria and Babylonia, with his capital at Antioch (Schwarz: 65), this explains why most of the kings gave themselves the name Antiochus (from Antioch). Thus, Hellenization continued even after the death of Alexander the Great.
Since Israel fell within the Egyptian sector (the Ptolemies), it was undeniably influenced by Greek or Hellenic civilization. The Diaspora or dispersion also contributed greatly to the Hellenization of Jews. One of the Gospel writers, Luke was believed to be a Hellenists because of his excellent command of the Greek language although most of the scholars believe that he was a Gentile. There was even an instance in the early church when a tension between Aramaic-speaking Jews and the Hellenistic Jews (Greek-speaking Jews) arose. The Hellenistic Jews complained that their widows were being unfairly treated in the daily distribution of food. To resolve the issue, the church appointed officials to oversee the matter. It turned out from the names of these officials that they were Hellenists.
Cultural diffusion is defined as the spreading of a thing, an idea, or a behavior pattern from one culture to another (Ferraro and Andreatta: 40). It is significant not just in terms of cultural change but most importantly in the rapid development of a society.
In the case of the fusion of Hellenistic and Jewish cultures, it was reciprocal, For example, “Greek words were transliterated into Hebrew and Aramaic even in connection with the religious ideas and institutions, such as, synagogue (religious assembly), Sanhedrin (religious court), and paraclete (advocate, intercessor)” (britanica.com/Biblical- literature). We see here a process of fusion and dialogue.
However, according to Ferrarro and Andreatta, “cultural diffusion is selective. When two cultures come in contact, they do not exchange every cultural item.” For example, “the conquest of Alexander the great opened the way for religious interchange between East and West or the Hellenization of religions like those associated with female deities in the West; the Hellenization of native cults (most famously that of the archaic Egyptian god Serapis whose Greek form was promulgated by Ptolemy I; the founder of the Egyptian Ptolemaic dynasty in 305 B.C.E.) and the development of the ideology of divine kingship based on Oriental kingship traditions” (britanica.com/Hellenistic-religion).
In spite of this development, the Jews refused to be influenced by Hellenistic religion as evidenced by the spread of the gospel through the missionary journeys of St. Paul recorded by Luke, the Evangelist and historian. They allowed their language to be fused with the Greek language but they preserved and practiced their own Jewish religion.
Hellenism may also be used as a model in doing local theology where a theologian should establish the dialogue between local cultural themes and Judeo-Christian tradition in order to come up with a theology that will resonate with that of the local folks.
Ferrarro, Gary and Andreatta, Susan. Cultural Anthropology. An Applied Perspective. United States: CENGAGE Learning, 2018.
Schwarz, John. A Handbook of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Bethany House Publishers. Published in the Philippines by Christian Literature Crusade. Valenzuel City, 2004.