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HELLENISM, HELLENISTS (̔Ελληνισμός, Hellenism, imitation of the Greeks; ̔Ελληνιστής, G1821, Hellenist, a Greek-speaking Jew). Hellenism is the devotion to ancient Gr. thought, customs, and life style.

Alexander the Great, who was taught by Aristotle, devoted his life to conquering the world for the spread of Gr. culture. He was convinced of the superiority of the Gr. way of life and carried with him on his campaigns copies of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In the summer of 334 b.c. he entered Asia Minor and by the autumn of 333 b.c. he was already entering Syria and had conquered the whole of Syria and Pal. and then Egypt by the winter of 332/331 b.c. In 331 b.c. the Pers. empire was in his hands. He died in 323 b.c. and the empire came into the hands of his generals. His eleven years of conquest changed the course of history, introducing a new life style which affected every nation conquered, even the Jewish nation.

Alexander and his successors broke down the old national, political, cultural, and religious establishment and introduced Gr. culture by establishing new Gr. colonies and cities, by rapidly spreading Koine or common Gr., by the intermarriages of the Greeks with the Asiatics.

According to Josephus, Alexander’s relationship to the Jews both in Pal. (Antiq. xi. 8. 5 § 329-339) and in Alexandria (War ii. 18. 7 § 487, 488; Apion ii. 4 § 35) was friendly. After Alexander’s death until 198 b.c. the Jews were under the Ptolemaic influence. During this time they were treated with consideration, particularly in Alexandria where the Ptolemies, trying to compete with Athens, encouraged scholars and writers from every nation to help them achieve their goal. The Ptolemies set up the largest library in the world, founded learned societies, and established schools to teach the Gr. culture and language. It was this influence that led the Alexandrian Jews in the 3rd cent. to tr. the Bible into Gr.

The Ptolemaic influence over Pal. ended with their defeat by the Seleucids in 198 b.c. The Seleucids gained control of the selection of the high priesthood which allowed some Hel. influence to penetrate. However, with the Seleucids trying to force their way of life, the Jews finally resisted this influence which finally led to the Maccabean War beginning in 168 b.c. (see Maccabees). But only three decades later John Hyrcanus made a pact with the Seleucids, and from then on one can see some influence of Hellenism in Pal. right down to the time of the Rom. invasion in 63 b.c. The Hel. influence continued with the Roman and Herodian rulers.

The entrenchment of Hellenism can more readily be seen among the Alexandrian Jews, esp. among some of their philosophers such as Philo, who adopted the allegorical interpretation which led to the sacrificing of the truth in the OT on the altar of pagan philosophy.

The Hel. influence can be seen early in the church’s history (Acts 6:1; 9:29; variant reading in 11:20). In Acts 6:1 there was a dispute in the early Christian community at Jerusalem between the Hebrews and the Hellenists (KJV “Grecians”) because the widows of the Hel. group were being neglected in the daily allocation from the common pool of property. The problem is to identify these Hellenists. In observing the context one notices from Acts 2:5-11 that the Jews from several different lands throughout the Near and Middle E had gathered in Jerusalem for the observance of Pentecost. These foreign-born Jews were able to understand the disciples’ message in their own language and no doubt one of the languages was Gr. Hence, in Acts 6:1 it refers to Jews who spoke Gr. as opposed to the Jews who spoke Aram.

Some think that the Hellenists refer to Greeks (i.e., non-Jews), but this is not likely because (1) the context of Acts 1-5 is the spread of the church among Jews in Judea; (2) the Gentiles being admitted into the church marked a new phase which begins in Acts 10; 11; (3) the later conflict of the church regarding the admission of the Gentiles without circumcision (Acts 15) would have been pointless if the Gentiles were admitted in the church at its inception; and (4) the reference to Hellenists in Acts 9:29 makes no sense if it means “Greeks,” for Paul was not disputing with Gentiles in Jerusalem.

Regarding the reading in Acts 11:20, the word ̔̀Ελληνας has a slight edge over the variant, and clearly the context indicates Greeks, for it was the Gr.-speaking Jews in 11:19 who preached to the Greeks or Gentiles in 11:20.


W. W. Tarn, Hellenistic Civilization, 2nd ed. (1930); H. J. Cadbury, “The Hellenists,” BC, V (1933), 59-74; E. C. Blackman, “The Hellenist of Acts vi. 1,” ExpT, XLVIII (1937), 524, 525; M. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World (3 vols; 1941); F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, 2nd ed. (1952), ad loc.; M. Simon, St. Stephen and the Hellenists in the Primitive Church (1958), 1-19; C. F. D. Moule, “Once More, Who Were the Hellenists?” ExpT, LXX (1959), 100-102; A. J. Toynbee, Hellenism: The History of Civilization (1959); V. Tcherickover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, trans. by S. Applebaum (1959); F. C. Grant, “Hellenists,” IDB, II (1962), 580; D. S. Russell, The Jews from Alexander to Herod (1967); B. Reicke, The New Testament Era, tr. by D. E. Green (1968), passim; H. Windisch, “̔̀Ελλην,” TDNT, II (1968), 511, 512; F. F. Bruce, New Testament History (1969), 217, 218, passim; E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, tr. by B. Noble et al., 14th ed. (1971), ad loc.; A. Momigliano, L. H. Feldman, and H. A. Fischel, “Hellenism,” Encyclopaedia Judaica, VIII (1971), 290-303.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

hel’-en-iz’-m, hel’-en-ist: Hellenism is the name we give to the manifold achievements of the Greeks in social and political institutions, in the various arts, in science and philosophy, in morals and religion. It is customary to distinguish two main periods, between which stands the striking figure of Alexander the Great, and to apply to the earlier period the adjective "Hellenic," that of "Hellenistic" to the latter. While there is abundant reason for making this distinction, it must not be considered as resting upon fortuitous changes occasioned by foreign influences. The Hellenistic age is rather the sudden unfolding of a flower whose bud was forming and maturing for centuries.

1. The Expansion of the Greek Peoples:

Before the coming of the Hellenic peoples into what we now call Greece, there existed in those lands a flourishing civilization to which we may give the name "Aegean." The explorations of archaeologists during the last few decades have brought it to light in many places on the continent, as well as on the islands of the Aegean and notably in Crete. When the Hellenic peoples came, it was not as a united nation, nor even as homogeneous tribes of a common race; though without doubt predominantly of kindred origin, it was the common possession of an Aryan speech and of similar customs and religion that marked them off from the peoples among whom they settled. When their southward movemerit from Illyria occurred, and by what causes it was brought about, we do not know; but it can hardly have long antedated the continuance of this migration which led to the settlement of the coast districts of Asia Minor and the islands of the Aegean from about the 13th to the 10th centuries BC. In the colonization of these new territories the Hellenic peoples became conscious of their kinship, partly because the several colonies received contingents from various regions of the motherland, partly because they were in common brought into striking contrast to the alien "Barbarians" who spoke other untintelligible languages. As the older communities on the mainland and on the islands began to flourish, they felt the need, arising from various causes, for further colonization. Among these causes we may mention the poverty of the soil in Greece proper, the restricting pressure of the strong tribes of Asia Minor who prevented expansion inland, a growing disaffection with the aristocratic regime in almost all Greek states and with the operation of the law of primogeniture in land tenure, and lastly the combined lure of adventure and the prospect of trade. Thus, it came about that in the 8th and 7th centuries BC, two great movements of colonial expansion set in, one toward the Hellespont and to the shores of the Pontus, or Black Sea, beyond, the other westward toward Southern Italy, Sicily, and beyond as far as Gades in Spain. To the 7th century belongs also the colonization of Naucratis in Egypt and of Cyrene in Libya. Then followed a period of relative inactivity during the 5th century, which was marked by the desperate conflict of the Greeks with Persia in the East and with Carthage in the West, succeeded by even more disastrous conflicts among themselves. With the enforced internal peace imposed by Macedonia came the resumption of colonial and military expansion in a measure before undreamed of. In a few years the empire of Alexander embraced Thrace, Asia Minor, Egypt, and Asia eastward beyond the Indus. The easternmost regions soon fell away, but Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt long continued under Greek rule, until Rome in the 1st century BC made good her claims to sovereignty in those lands.

2. The Hellenic State:

Throughout this course of development and expansion we speak of the people as Greeks, although it is evident that even such racial homogeneity as they may have had on coming into Greece must have been greatly modified by the absorption of conquered peoples. But the strong individuality of the Hellenic population manifested itself everywhere in its civilization. In the evolution from the Homeric kingship (supported by the nobles in council, from which the commonalty was excluded, or where it was supposed at most to express assent or dissent to proposals laid before it) through oligarchic or aristocratic rule and the usurped authority of the tyrants, to the establishement of democratic government, there is nothing surprising to the man of today. That is because Greek civilization has become typical of all western civilization. In the earlier stages of this process, moreover, there is nothing strikingly at variance with the institutions of the Hebrews, at least so far as concerns the outward forms. But there existed throughout a subtle difference of spirit which made it possible, even inevitable, for the Greeks to attain to democratic institutions, whereas to the Hebrews such a development was impossible, if not unthinkable. It is difficult to define this spirit, but one may say that it was marked from the first by an inclination to permit the free development and expression of individuality subordinated to the common good; by a corresponding recognition of human limitations over against one’s fellow-man as over against Deity; by an instinctive dread of excess as inhuman and provoking the just punishment of the gods; and lastly by a sane refusal to take oneself too seriously, displaying itself in a certain good-humored irony even among men who, like Socrates and Epicurus, regarded themselves as charged with a sublime mission, in striking contrast with the Hebrew prophets who voiced the thunders of Sinai, but never by any chance smiled at their own earnestness. Even the Macedonians did not attempt to rule Greece with despotic sway, leaving the states in general in the enjoyment of their liberties; and in the Orient, Alexander and his successors, Roman as well as Greek, secured their power and extended civilization by the foundation and encouragement of Hellenic cities in extraordinary numbers. The city-state, often confederated with other city-states, displaced the organization of tribe or clan, thus substituting a new unit and a new interest for the old; and the centers thus created radiated Hellenic influence and made for order and good government everywhere. But in accordance with the new conditions the state took on a somewhat different form. While the city preserved local autonomy, the state became monarchical; and the oriental deification of the king reinforced by the Hellenic tendency to deify the benefactors of mankind, eventuated in modes of speech and thought which powerfully influenced the Messianic hopes of the Jews.

3. Hellenic Life:

The life of the Greeks, essentially urban and dominated by political interests fostered in states in which the individual counted for much, was of a type wholly different from the oriental. Although the fiction of consanguinity was cultivated by the Hellenic city-state as by the Semitic tribe, it was more transparent in the former, particularly in the newer communities formed in historical times. There was thus a powerful stimulus to mutual tolerance and concession which, supported as it was by the strong love of personal independence and the cultivation of individuality, led to the development of liberty and the recognition of the rights of man. A healthy social life was the result for those who shared the privileges of citizenship, and also, in hardly less degree, for those resident aliens who received the protection of the state. Women also, though not so free as men, enjoyed, even at Athens where they were most limited, liberties unknown to the Orientals. In the Hellenistic age they attained a position essentially similar to that of modern Europe. There were slaves belonging both to individuals and the state, but their lot was mitigated in general by a steadily growing humanity. The amenities of life were many, and were cultivated no less in the name of religion than of art, literature, and science.

4. Hellenic Art and Letters:

As in every phase of Greek civilization, the development of art and letters was free. Indeed their supreme excellence must be attributed to the happy circumstances which suffered them to grow spontaneously from the life of the people without artificial constraints imposed from within, or overpowering influences coming from without: a fortune which no other great movement in art or letters can boast. Greek art was largely developed in the service of religion; but owing to the circumstance that both grew side by side, springing from the heart of man, their reactions were mutual, art contributing to religion quite as much as it received. The creative genius of the Hellenic people expressed itself with singular directness and simplicity in forms clearly visualized and subject to the conditions of psychologically effective grouping in space or time. Their art is marked by the observance of a just proportion and by a certain natural restraint due to the preponderance of the intellectual element over the purely sensuous. Its most characteristic product is the ideal type in which only enough individuality enters to give to the typical the concreteness of life. What has been said of art in the narrower sense applies equally to artistic letters. The types thus created, whether in sculpture, architecture, music, drama, history, or oratory, though not regarded with superstitious reverence, commended themselves by the sheer force of inherent truth and beauty to succeeding generations, thus steadying the course of development and restraining the exuberant originality and the tendency to individualism. In the Hellenistic age, individualism gradually preponderated where the lessening power of creative genius did not lead to simple imitation.

5. Philosophy of Nature and of Conduct:

The traditional views of the Hellenic peoples touching Nature and conduct, which did not differ widely from those of other peoples in a corresponding stage of culture, maintained themselves down to the 7th century BC with comparatively little change. Along with and following the colonial expansion of Hellenism there came the awakening intellectual curiosity, or rather the shock of surprise necessary to convert attention into question. The mythology of the Greeks had contained a vague theology, without authority indeed, but satisfactory because adequate to express the national thought. Ethics there was none, morality being customary. But the extending horizon of Hellenic thought discovered that customs differed widely in various lands; indeed, it is altogether likely that the collection of strange and shocking customs which filled the quivers of the militant Sophists in the 5th century had its inception in the 6th and possibly the 7th century At any rate it furnished the fiery darts of the adversary until ethics was founded in reason by the quest of Socrates for the universal, not in conduct, but in judgment. As ethics arose out of the irreconcilable contradictions of conduct, so natural philosophy sprung from the contradictions of mythical theology and in opposition to it. There were in fact two strata of conceptions touching supernatural beings; one, growing out of a primitive animism, regarded their operations essentially from the point of view of magic, which refuses to be surprised at any result, be it never so ill-proportioned to the means employed, so long as the mysterious word was spoken or the requisite act performed; the other, sprung from a worship of Nature in her most striking phenomena, recognized an order, akin to the moral order, in her operations. When natural philosophy arose in the 6th century, it instinctively at first, then consciously, divested Nature of personality by stripping off the disguise of myth and substituting a plain and reasoned tale founded on mechanical principles. This is the spirit which pervades pre-Socratic science and philosophy. The quest of Socrates for universally valid judgments on conduct directed thought to the laws of mind, which are teleological, in contradistinction to the laws of matter, which are mechanical; and thus in effect dethroned Nature, regarded as material, by giving primacy to mind. Henceforth, Greek philosophy was destined, with relatively few and unimportant exceptions, to devote itself to the study of human conduct and to be essentially idealistic, even where the foundation, as with the Stoics, was ostensibly materialistic. More and more it became true of the Greek philosophers that they sought God, "if haply they might feel after him and find him," conscious of the essential unity of the Divine and the human, and defining philosophy as the endeavor to assimilate the soul to God.

6. Hellenic and Hellenistic Religion:

The Homeric poems present a picture of Greek life as seen by a highly cultivated aristocratic society having no sympathy with the commonalty. Hence, we are not to regard Homeric religion as the religion of the Hellenic peoples in the Homeric age. Our first clear view of the Hellenic commoner is presented by Hesiod in the 8th century. Here we find, alongside of the worship of the Olympians, evidences of chthonian cults and abundant hints of human needs not satisfied by the well-regulated religion of the several city-states. The conventionalized monarchy of Zeus ruling over his fellow-Olympians is known to be a fiction of the poets, having just as much--no more--foundation, in fact, as the mythical overlordship of Agamemnon over the assembled princes of the Achaens; while it caught the imagination of the Greeks and dominated their literature, each city-state possessed its own shrines sacred to its own gods, who might or might not be called by the names of Olympians. Yet the great shrines which attracted Greeks from every state, such as those of Zeus at Dodona (chiefly in the period before the 7th century) and Olympia, of Apollo at Delos and Delphi, and of Hera at Argos, were the favored abodes of Olympians. Only one other should be mentioned: that of Demeter at Eleusis. Her worship was of a different character, and the great repute of her shrine dates from the 5th century. If the Zeus of Olympia was predominantly the benign god of the sky, to whom men came in joyous mood to delight him with pomp and festive gatherings, performing feats of manly prowess in the Olympic games, the Zeus of Dodona, and the Delphian Apollo, as oracular deities, were visited in times of doubt and distress. The 7th and 6th centuries mark the advent--or the coming into prominence--of deities whose appeal was to the deepest human emotions, of ecstatic enthusiasm, of fear, and of hope. Among them we must mention Dionysus, the god of teeming Nature (see Dionysus), and Orpheus. With their advent comes an awakening of the individual soul, whose aspiration to commune with Deity found little satisfaction in the general worship of the states. Private organizations and quasi-monastic orders, like those of the Orphics and Pythagoreans, arose and won countless adherents. Their deities found admission into older shrines, chiefly those of chthonian divinities, like that of Demeter at Eleusis, and wrought a change in the spirit and to a certain extent in the ritual of the "mysteries" practiced there. It was in these "mysteries" that the Christian Fathers, according to the mood or the need, polemic or apologetic, of the moment, saw now the propaedeutic type, now the diabolically instituted counterfeit, of the sacraments and ordinances of the church. The spirit and even the details of the observances of the "mysteries" are difficult to determine; but one must beware of accepting the hostile judgments of Christian writers who were in fact retorting upon the Greeks criticisms leveled at the church: both were blinded by partisanship and so misread the symbols.

If we thus find a true praeparatio evangelica in the Hellenistic developments of earlier Hellenic religion, there are parallel developments in the other religions which were adopted in the Hellenistic age. The older national religions of Persia and Egypt underwent a similar change, giving rise respectively to the worship of Mithra and of Isis, both destined, along with the chthonian mysteries of the Greeks, to be dangerous rivals for the conquest of the world of Christianity, itself a younger son in this prolific family of new religions. Space is wanting here for a consideration of these religious movements, the family resemblance of which with Christianity is becoming every day more apparent; but so much at least should be said, that while every candid student must admit the superiority of Christianity in moral content and adaptation to the religious nature of man, the difference in these respects was not at first sight so obvious that the successful rival might at the beginning of the contest have been confidently predicted.

See Religion in Ancient Greece.

As with other manifestations of the Hellenic spirit, so, too, in matters of religion, it was the free development of living institutions that most strikingly distinguishes the Greeks from the Hebrews. They had priests, but were never ruled by them; they possessed a literature regarded with veneration, and in certain shrines treasured sacred writings containing directions for the practice and ritual of the cults, but they were neither intended nor suffered to fix for all time the interpretation of the symbols. In the 5th and 4th centuries the leaders of Greek thought rebuked the activity of certain priests, and it was not before the period of Roman dominion that priests succeeded even in a small measure in usurping power, and sacred writings began to exercise an authority remotely comparable to that recognized among the Jews.

A most interesting question is that concerning the extent to which Greek civilization and thought had penetrated and influenced Judaism. During three centuries before the advent of Jesus, Hellenism had been a power in Syria and Judea. The earliest writings of the Hebrews showing this influence are Da and the Old Testament Apocrypha. Several books of the Apocrypha were originally written in Greek, and show strong influence of Greek thought. The Septuagint, made for the Jews of the Dispersion, early won its way to authority even in Palestine, where Aramaic had displaced Hebrew, which thus became a dead language known only to a few. New Testament quotations of the Old Testament are almost without exception taken from the Septuagint. Thus the sacred literature of the Jews was for practical purposes Greek. Though Jesus spoke Aramaic, He unquestionably knew some Greek. Yet there is no clear evidence of specifically Greek influence on this thought, the presuppositions of which are Jewish or generally those of the Hellenistic age. All the writings of the New Testament were originally composed in Greek, though their authors differed widely in the degree of proficiency in the use of the language and in acquaintance with Hellenic thought. Their debt to these sources can be profitably considered only in connection with the individual writers; but one who is acquainted with the Hebrew and Greek literature instinctively feels in reading the New Testament that the national character of the Jews, as reflected in the Old Testament, has all but vanished, remaining only as a subtle tone of moral earnestness and as an imaginative coloring, except in the simple story of the Synoptic Gospels. But for the bitterness aroused by the destruction of Jerusalem, it is probable that the Jews would have yielded completely to Hellenic influences.