Friday, February 5, 2016

Greek Week! The Bible and the Hellenistic Period

            My last two posts have been focused on the Three Cs of the Bible: composition, compilation, and canonization. This week, however, is going to deviate from that theme slightly. The other day, while enjoying a plate of huevos rancheros, I was skimming over a book on the Septuagint, because really... what goes better with Mexican breakfast than literature on the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, right? Anyway, it occurred to me that I should offer a little bit of background on the Greek (a.k.a Hellenistic) period of Jewish history first. This will set the stage for talking about the books of Esther and Daniel, apocalyptic literature and Apocrypha, the Roman period, and ultimately Fiddler on the Roof and Yentl.

            Last week's post talked a little bit about the return of the Jews back to their homeland after the exile. However, not all of the Jews returned to Judea. Some stayed in Babylon; some went to Egypt, others to Syria, some to Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), and so on throughout the Mediterranean. Jewish peoples had also been dispersed across the Mediterranean and the Near East as a result of the Assyrian deportation of Israel some 140 years before the Babylonian exile. This scattering of the Jewish people is known as the Diaspora (Hot dog, that's a 2 dollar word!). Despite cultural clashes with the pagans in whose lands they resided, these communities thrived and managed to preserve their own unique faith, law, and culture. For the most part, Jews of the Diaspora or in Judea lived relatively tranquil lives under Persian rule. But then Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BCE) came about and conquered the Persians... and just about everyone else as well. He loved Greek culture so much, he thought everyone would love it too. I mean, gosh, why wouldn't they? Have you ever tried a gyro? They're delicious!

            Well... some Jews thought it was okay and assimilated to the Hellenistic culture of the day – usually the wealthy ones who benefitted from life under Greek rule. But others most definitely did not! After Alexander's death, his empire was cut up like a cake, and the pressure for assimilation continued. The Egyptian slice of that cake was ruled by the Ptolemies (I think the P is silent), and they also had control of Palestine – the Greek name of that territory formerly known as Israel and Judah. Even more confusing... what had been Judah was now called Judea and was considered a province in the region of Palestine. Why did Judea get the works? That's nobody's business but the Greeks. (Gosh, I wished that rhymed.) Anyway, there was a rather large slice of the empire that extended from Asia Minor all the way to modern day Afghanistan. This portion was ruled by the Seleucid dynasty, and they took over Palestine from the Ptolemies in 199 BCE.

Follow the link here to visit the map's original site

            During the first century and a half of Greek domination, I'm sure life could not have been too cozy for faithful Jews whether in Palestine or of the Diaspora. There were surely culture clashes between Jews who refused to assimilate on the one hand and the Gentiles (non-Jews) and Hellenized Jews on the other. But things didn't get really bad until Antiochus IV usurped the Seleucid throne in 178 BCE. By the way, he also called himself Antiochus Epiphanes, suggesting that he was god manifest and proving just what kind of an egomaniac he was. Here he is below. Yeesh.
Google Images
            This man was probably clinically insane, and he pretty much took a dump on Judaism around the year 167 BCE, effectively outlawing it and making Jewish observances of their law punishable by death! Everything from having your infant son circumcised to refusing to eat pork could have the most grisly consequences. Furthermore, he desecrated the Temple – the one that had been rebuilt during the post-exilic period of the Reconstruction – by confiscating its treasury, erecting in it a statue of Zeus, and slaughtering pigs on the altar... and you know how the Jews felt about pork. I cannot express enough how heinous all of these things were to the Jews – their holiest site defiled; people being martyred for living according to God's law. They were being crushed and defeated once again, and it must have felt like the end of the world!

            (For a ridiculously over-simplified summary of Jewish life under Antiochus IV, I invite you to click here to see the Rugrats version of his reign. It's a far less violent depiction of a horrific period in history, but oddly enough captures the idea of cultural tension and assimilation pretty well.)
Google Images

             Now enter Mattathias and his sons, particularly Judas Maccabeus. This family and their supporters, known as the Maccabees after Judas Maccabeus, led a Judean revolt against Antiochus and the Seleucid empire. Long story short, their revolt was surprisingly successful. They rededicated the Temple around the year 165 BCE – from which Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, derives – and not long after the death of Antiochus IV and the rebel leader, Judas Maccabeus, they were able to secure fairly independent rule under J.M.'s descendants. And so began the Hasmonean dynasty, a line of priest-kings that reigned from 160 – 63 BCE. Fabulous, right? Or was it? On paper this sounds pretty good. The Jews of Palestine were finally self-governing again. But apparently the Hasmoneans were rather corrupt rulers and were not well appreciated by some Jewish groups. It is important to keep this unpopular Hasmonean dynasty in mind for later posts, but to go on about them now would be to get ahead of myself.

            It was in this environment, a world of persecution by the Greeks, that the books of Daniel and Esther were written. Both were likely composed around the time of Antiochus IV. Both are meant to offers Jews consolation and courage to remain faith to God and to their national identity under foreign oppression. The book of Esther is a novella set in Persia. In it, the Jewish people are saved from genocide thanks to the Jewish consort to the Persian king who pleads to him on her people's behalf. Interestingly enough, God does not intervene directly in the story, though the rescue of the Jews through the pious woman's actions is viewed as divine providence.

            The book of Daniel is a compilation of books. In the first (chapters 1-6), the title character is portrayed as an interpreter of dreams/messages (Daniel 2 and 4-5). He is also depicted as a model of Jewish religious observance in the midst of the Babylonian exile. As in Esther, this was to encourage readers during the Hellenistic period to maintain their Jewish identity in the face of cultural opposition from oppressors. In the second section of Daniel, he is more of an apocalyptic visionary (Daniel 7-12). Frankly some of the visions in Daniel sound as if he's trippin' on 'shrooms, but really they're meant to point to the dire situations the Jewish audience was facing under the reign of Antiochus IV and to give them hope of salvation.

            Apocalyptic literature seems very bizarre and frightening to us today, but it served an important purpose for its time and, believe it or not, was actually meant to be a consolation to the readers, not a horror movie. The belief behind it was that things in the world had had gotten so bad that God needed to intervene directly. God basically had to hit the reset button on the world – much like you would in a Mario Brothers game when you have no lives left and you're about the face King Koopa for the third time. The reset button God would press, however, wasn't so much an annihilation of  the world as it was an end of the world as they knew it and ultimately a renewal of the world. Apocalyptic literature usually ends with the establishment of God's reign, for it was believed that God Himself – not a pagan ruler, not the Hasmoneans – should be the sovereign ruler of Israel.

            As for the nightmarish creatures and scenarios of apocalyptic literature, these were usually meant to symbolize evil or unfavorable pagan kingdoms. In Daniel 7:7-8, the Seleucid dynasty is depicted as a terrible beast with horns. The little horn with eyes that speaks arrogantly represents Antiochus IV. Similarly, the he-goat in chapter 8 also symbolizes the Greek empire and Antiochus. But why such whacked-out imagery? One reason why this is typical of apocalyptic literature is because the crazy symbolism was meant to conceal the meaning of the text should the scroll find itself in the wrong hands. Furthermore, as my apocalyptic lit. professor would say, "Extreme times call for extreme literature.... Nobody writes apocalyptic literature sitting at a Starbucks drinking lattes!" Mind-blowing tragedy had to be met with something just as mind-blowing to read. That is why the book of Revelation in the New Testament is so tripped out. The author and audience were likely under oppressive situations, and rather than frighten the original hearers – as it does for readers today – apocalyptic literature actually provided hope in a renewed earth whose ruler would ultimately be God.

            Daniel and Esther are just two examples of Jewish literature written during the Greek period, and they appear in both the Jewish canon and all of the Christian canons. But Jews everywhere were composing religious works in the centuries leading up to the time of Jesus and beyond. Some are part of certain canons of Scripture, and others never made it into any official canon. Like Daniel, some were apocalyptic (e.g. the book of Enoch, which is not in any canon of Scripture and so is called apocryphal). Some were not apocalyptic but rather tell the history, or a version of history, of the Maccabean revolt – namely 1 and 2 Maccabees which are found in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.

            Other writings were like the book of Esther, novellas for Jews of the Diaspora about Jewish piety in foreign lands. The book of Tobit (again, in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles) is a rather cute story set in Assyria. Tobit, a devout Jewish deportee in Assyria, goes blind when bird droppings fall into his eyes. In misery and close to death, he sends his son, Tobiah, on a mission to bring back a sum of money he had deposited in a distant land before he dies. He is accompanied on his journey by Raphael, an angel incognito, and he marries a woman who had been afflicted by a demon that would kill her husbands on their respective wedding nights (yikes!). Luckily, thanks to Raphael, Tobiah escapes that same fate. He returns home with his bride and honorably buries his deceased parents.

            Like Esther, Judith also is another fictional novella in which Israel is saved by the hand of a woman. Much like the book of Judges, in which the woman, Jael, drives a tent peg into the head of an enemy general, Judith deceives the Assyrian general, Holofernes, and cuts off his head. As with Esther and Jael, the achievement of salvation by the actions of a pious woman in Judith only underscores the mighty and providential work of God in saving his people.

Judith and Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi. Google Images

            For reasons I hope to finally cover in the following post, the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees, Tobit, Judith and other books only made it into Catholic and Orthodox canons of Scripture. They are not part of today's Jewish or Protestant canons. Much of this has to do with the use of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known has the Septuagint, but we'll get into that next week. For now, however, I hope a little context is provided for the Hellenistic age and the kind of literature it inspired - especially the stuff from the 2nd century (200-100 BCE), because those books are wild.

            Since today's post had a bit to do with apocalyptic literature, I suggest reading chapter 7 of Daniel. As I mentioned, it uses apocalyptic imagery to symbolize the succession of conquering empires, particularly the Seleucids, who persecuted the Jews. It also assures its 2nd  century audience that God will eventually be the definitive ruler of the world and will establish an everlasting kingdom. I recommend using a Bible that has good explanatory footnotes for this passage, like the New American Bible. These will provide some historical context as you read. Given that this post also referred to the plight of persecuted and displaced Jews in foreign lands, perhaps you could use your reading of Daniel 7 to pray for immigrants and refugees throughout the world. So many people today must flee their homelands because of war, gang violence, and crushing poverty. Daniel 7 assures us that the "beasts" of war and destruction will be conquered by God, and God will establish his kingdom – a kingdom we know more clearly from the New Testament to be one of love, mercy, peace, justice, generosity, humility, patience, and gentleness.

            As always, I welcome questions and comments via e-mail ( Facebook, Twitter (@biblecodega), and the comment box below. Today, however, and for the rest of the month, I am making a special request. Embedded here is a survey of the Bible Codega blog. As some of you know, this blog is part of a final project for a Master of Arts degree in Pastoral Ministry. I humbly request that you take 10 to 15 minutes to fill out an on-line, anonymous survey in order that I may gather data about the effectiveness of this blog. Please be honest and open in your responses; I will not take offense at anything. In fact, I would be interested in knowing how best I might be able to improve this blog in order to better serve you. It would be most appreciated if you could take this survey before February 29, 2016. To take this survey, simply click here. Thank you all so much, and until next time...

Peace and all good![1]

[1] This post would not have been possible without this text as a reference:
Harris, Stephen L. and Robert L. Platzner. The Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

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