After Alexander the Great conquered much of the Middle East, the homeland of the Jews in ancient Palestine spent several centuries under the rule of Greek empires. During this time, a process called "Hellenization" occurred, in which Jews and other peoples within the Greek empires adopted elements of Greek culture. This formed an important period in Jewish history in which a conflict arose over how much Hellenization was acceptable among the Jewish people.
During the time of Greek control, the Jewish people were influenced by an influx of Greek language, art and ways of thinking. Greek education was a source of knowledge for Jews within the empire, and Jewish literature was greatly influenced by traditions from Greece. Many Greek words made their way into Hebrew, and some Jews read and wrote largely in the Greek language. Some modern scholars argue that in a sense all Jews were "Hellenized" during this time. However, Greek influence on Jewish culture declined in later centuries as anti-Greek voices gained prominence among Jewish emigrants, and the most strongly Hellenized Jewish traditions became increasingly associated with early Christianity.
Although Greek culture did come with its own religion--the polytheistic belief system connected to what we today call "Greek mythology"--it was not adopted by Hellenized Jews. Religion was not something the Jews would compromise, and even the most assimilated of Hellenized Jews usually refused to worship the Greek gods. However, even the adoption of non-religious Greek traditions was controversial within Jewish society, and when Greek rulers attempted to institute their own religion in Palestine, a Jewish group known as the Maccabees overthrew the Greeks and established the Jewish Hasmonean Dynasty in the Holy Land.
Despite the fact that Hellenized Jews refused to worship the Greek gods, some other religious concepts may have been influenced by Greek beliefs. In early Jewish sacred books, a dark underworld known as Sheol dominated Judaism's belief regarding the afterlife. However, in later times Jews came to believe in heaven and hell, the immortality of the soul and a future of eternal salvation. These beliefs began to change during the time of Greek rule, and some argue that they took inspiration from concepts in Greek religion and astrology.
Worship of Greek gods was considered off limits by Hellenized Jews, but broader ideas from Greek philosophy were widely adopted by Jewish writers. For example, the Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish work that is included in some versions of the Bible, writes about wisdom and ethics using concepts from Greek philosophy. The book defines wisdom similarly to how Greek philosophers define reason, and its concepts of the relationship between the soul and the body closely follow the teachings of Plato.
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images