Alexander and the Age of Hellenism

Alexander's conquests unite the Eastern Mediterranean regions (Asia Minor, Phoenician coastal plains, Judah, Gazah, etc.), Egypt, and the vast expanse of the Persian empire (Mesopotamia, Persia, Western parts of India) under Greek cultural influence. The new age inaugurated by this conquest is known as the age of HELLENISM. In a broad sense, Greek/Hellenistic influence on Judah (Palestine), Jerusalem, and much of the Middle East lasts until the Arabian conquests of the 7th century CE. This period of exchange between Hellenic and Judaic cultures, lasting approximately 900 years, is of considerable influence on the cultures of mediaeval and modern Europe. The age of Hellenism may be divided into three major epochs: the age of Hellenic rulers (the kingdoms of the diadochoi, or successors, of Alexander), the age of pagan Roman rule (continuing Greek cultural influence), and the age of Byzantian Christendom. The first of these periods lasts from the death of Alexander in 323 until the advent of the Romans in the Middle East (64 BCE), and the second of these periods lasts until the edicts of Constantine establishing the Christian faith as an official religion of the Roman state (314). The age of Hellenism therefore divides into three periods, each lasting approximately 300 years.

In some respects, Hellenistic civilization lasted even longer. The Arab Umayyads adopted the luxurious ways of Hellenistic potentates; the Byzantian empire continued to exist even after the Islamic conquest until the fall of Constantinople in 1458 at the hand of the Ottomans; and the Greek and Slavic Orthdox Churches continue Byzantian cultural and religious traditions until today.

Hellenism is also of constitutive significance to the shaping of Judaism, and the Judaism shaped during this period is of constitutive significance to the origins of Christianity and Islam.

While the cultural influence of Greece continues throughout the centuries until the advent of Islam (and in some respects continues through the agency of the Byzantinized Islamic civilizations of the Umayyads and Abbasids), our focus on Jerusalem and Judah/Palestine allows us to subdivide the period following the conquests of Alexander with respect to the authority wielded by Alexanders successors, the diadochai (first Ptolemees, then Seleucids) and with respect to shifts in internal Jewish power (Oniads, Tobiads, Hasmoneans).

Jewish religion, pivoting around the Temple in Jerusalem and the Mosaic Torah, is greatly diversified during the centuries of Hellenic rule. Major spiritual movements and schools of interpretation arise over the question of how to interpret and apply the Torah to the political reality of Jewish life under foreign rule. Pharisees, Saducees, and Essenes compete with one another for the leadership of a community ever more dominated by an elite of Jews emulating the neighboring Greco-Oriental potentates in pursuit of mundane interests. Once the worldly ambitions of political independence are crushed, Judaism is reborn in the image of those who had condemned the worldly ambitions of their rulers in the first place.

We are well informed about many aspects of the lively period leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE whereas, in the period following the destruction with the last vestiges of political sovereignty gone, Jewish literary activity shifts to law and interpretation of sacred literature, i.e., to the kinds of learned pursuits reflected in the Mishnah, in Midrash, and in the Talmudic works.