Reviews - What do customers think about The 'Hellenization' of Judea in the First Century After Christ?
Jesus the Hellenized Jew Apr 15, 2010
Martin Hengel was a German theologian and historian, specializing in the history of early Christianity. Hengel was critical of the sharp demarcation between "Jewish" and "Hellenistic" often made by historical-critical scholars who study the emergence of Christianity. The usual critical scenario is that Jesus and his earliest followers were very "Jewish". Jesus was essentially a Jewish prophet or wisdom teacher. Later, his message was "Hellenized" by Paul. Real Christianity therefore began with Paul, or perhaps even somewhat later. Hengel, by contrast, believed that all of Palestine was sufficiently "Hellenized" already before the time of Jesus. Therefore, Jesus and the original disciples might very well have been "Hellenized" as well. If so, religious ideas considered more Hellenistic than Jewish might have developed in Palestinian Jewish circles. Perhaps Paul's message wasn't a complete break with the original ideas of the Jesus Movement? Of course, Hengel's idea of a continuity between Jesus, The Twelve and Paul is ultimately an attempt to prove the veracity of the New Testament. In other words, the position is based on a theological agenda. Still, Hengel makes an interesting and even somewhat compelling case, making him well worth reading.
It should be noted that Hengel rejects the term "Hellenization", since in his opinion Jewish and foreign cultures had become so intertwined by the time of Jesus, that there really was no difference between the "Jewish" and the "Greek" in the Jewish culture of Palestine, at least not in the cities, within the educated elite or among the middle classes. The distinction between "Jewish" and "Hellenistic" often made when discussing early Christianity is, in Hengel's opinion, methodologically flawed. "Hellenism" had become an integrated part of Judaism. Of course, another way of saying the same thing, would be to claim that Judaism was so Hellenized that Jesus himself may have been a Hellenized Jew. Indeed, this seems to be Hengel's real point.
As already noted, Hengel believes that Palestinian Judaism was just as Hellenized (or "Hellenized") as Diaspora Judaism. This process, ironically, started with the Maccabees, who despite their militantly Jewish and anti-Greek stance, nevertheless adapted themselves to Greek cultural forms and expressions. The Hasmoneans weren't much different from other Hellenistic monarchs, and they cultivated the legend that Jews and Spartans were actually related peoples (a legend mentioned in 1 Maccabees). The Graeco-Roman and cosmopolitan spirit of Herod the Great is obvious, but was of course combined with promotion of the Jewish religion. That certain elite groups in Palestine were Hellenized is hardly big news, but Hengel believes that this was true of a larger segment of the population as well. Between 10% and 20% of Jerusalem's native population may have been Greek-speaking Jews. The coastal towns were primarily Greek-speaking. In Caesarea, half of the population were Hellenized Jews. In Ashdod and Jamnia, more than half. Archaeological evidence includes synagogue and ossuary inscriptions in Greek.
Even more to the point, Hengel states that Galilee was virtually hemmed in by Gentile towns: Ptolemais, Tyre, Sidon, Caesarea Philippi, Scythopolis and the notorious Gadara. Both Cynics, Pythagoreans and worshippers of Dionysius may have existed in these towns. Galilee itself was Jewish but couldn't escape the influence of Hellenism. Tiberias and the famed Sepphoris probably had a Hellenized Jewish population. The most sensational piece of information is perhaps the claim that the fishing industry at Lake Tiberias may have been owned and operated by Greeks. (Clue: Peter was a fisherman.) An often overlooked fact is that two of Jesus' disciples had purely Greek names: Andrew and Philip. Hengel also believes that Thaddeus and Bartholomew are Aramaized Greek names, as is the name Bartimaeus, the blind beggar cured by Jesus. The names Simon and Shimeon are almost interchangeable. The Gospel of John claims that Andrew, Philip and Simon Peter came from Bethsaida, a village refounded by Herod's son Philip in honour of Augustus' daughter Julia, and therefore a more "Hellenized" and important village than the surrounding ones. From this, Hengel draws the conclusion that Peter may indeed have been bilingual. Another inevitable conclusion is that Jesus got some of his earliest followers from Hellenized Jewish milieus.
Another topic discussed by the author is the class composition of the earliest Palestinian Christians. Hengel regards them as middle class, with some support from wealthy patrons. At one point, he half-jokingly calls the class base of early Christianity "petty bourgeois". He seems to believe that the common people outside the towns were the least Hellenized, and that the Jewish radicals drew their support primarily from this group. The aristocracy and the middle classes, by contrast, were less radical. This presumably explains why the Christians didn't support the Jewish war against Rome, but preferred to abscond. According to a much later tradition, the Christians fled from Jerusalem to Pella, a town inhabited by Gentiles and Hellenized Jews! In this context, Hengel speculates that Jesus himself was middle class. He wasn't a lowly carpenter, but rather a skilled builder.
Another interesting chapter, but also a weaker one, deals with concrete Greek influences on various Jewish writings, including the "Old Testament". The author admits himself that this is a tricky subject, since Greek culture may have been influenced by Persian and Semitic culture at an earlier date. A "Greek" idea found in a Jewish scripture may just as well be indigenous to the Middle East. For some reason, Hengel doesn't discuss the Egyptian dimension. Nor does he want to permit out and out pagan influences on Judaism, i.e. pagan in the religious sense. Perhaps this is too close to home for a theologian? The idea that Christianity was connected to the mystery religions isn't safely buried just yet. Curiously, Hengel nevertheless admits that the story of the wedding at Cana contains Dionysian elements (Jesus turning water into wine), and that Dionysus was indeed worshipped in Scythopolis, only eighteen miles away. Scythopolis was the purported burial place of the god's nurse! As a side point, Hengel points out the remarkable fact that the anti-Greek Essenes nevertheless was the Jewish group most readily interpreted in Greek terms, as a Pythagorean order...
As already noted, the message of "The hellenization of Judea in the first century after Christ" is that typically Christian ideas which are usually pinned on Paul or later writers might as well have started with Jesus and The Twelve. At the same time, the author does allow for a "Judaizing" tendency within the early Church, centred around James, but believes that this was a conservative reaction to the innovations of Jesus and the original disciples, due in part to the harsher and more nationalistic climate of later years.
I don't believe that Martin Hengel has "proven" his position, any more than, say, Bart Ehrman have "proven" his. It's exceedingly difficult to prove or disprove claims about the historical Jesus and his earliest movement. However, this little book (only 100 pages) at least shows that a relatively coherent case can be made for Jesus, The Hellenized Jew.