Hellenism, Hellenists

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.

Bibliography 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.