Culture and Context of Jewish Greek Writings in the Second Temple Period

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Dr. Marieke Dhont presented the ANELC eLecture this week, demonstrating linguistic connections between Greek and Jewish culture. Her study provides evidence for a bilingual community of Jews in the Second Temple Period.

This time period followed the introduction of Hellenism from the west into the whole of the ancient Near East. Hellenistic Greek language immigrated with the people. Many Jews during this time were rebuilding the temple in Judah, and while they spoke Aramaic, they must have also learned Greek. Dr. Dhont’s presentation addressed evidence of Jewish Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek bilingualism. This linguistic study has implications about the integration of Jews in a Greek-speaking world, and how this influenced the shape of the Jewish identity in Second Temple Period.

Dr. Dhont presented evaluations of Jewish writings in Greek language, focusing on historiographies written by Demetrius and Eupolemus. She found that these writings were often dismissed by scholars as “inferior” and “clumsy,” among other insults. However, when she compared the texts to other post-classical, Hellenistic Greek writings, she found that they were comparable. Even where specific phrases and word groupings were called out as “shapeless” and “awkward,” Dr. Dhont demonstrated that these were actually a common part of the Greek vernacular. Furthermore, she showed evidence for an educated use of Greek in these writings. So, why the criticism?

Dr. Dhont suggested the disapproval may be linked to an effort to keep Greek language and the Greek speaking world as expressed outsiders of the Jewish community. Instead, the linguistic study she presented demonstrates evidence for an educated Greek speaking Jewish population as early as 3rd C. BCE. This made way for her appeal that “Jewish literature in Greek reflects Jewish engagement with the Greek world as an expansion of the Jewish literary tradition across languages.”

Historical scholarship has been critical of Jewish Greek writings based on the idea that Second Temple Period Judaism was concerned with Greek influences upon their culture. Greek was seen as “a language purchased with the betrayal of Judaism.” This has become a premise for reading Jewish Greek works as externally facing. This could mean they are propaganda or apologetic. Ultimately, it avoids dealing with the possible reality of true cultural and societal integration.

Even though Judaism and Hellenism have been viewed as “monolithic cultures in opposition,” the linguistic evidence presented by Dr. Dhont shows a connection that demonstrates otherwise. In her recently published article, Greek education and cultural identity in Greek-speaking Judaism: The Jewish-Greek historiographers, Dr. Dhont recommended that “the context in which Eupolemus and Demetrius are to be situated is that of Hellenistic Judaism.” She believes they should be considered insiders to the Greek-speaking world.

The idea that these two cultures were mutually influential has implications for how we accept and read Greek translations and writings about the Hebrew Bible.

The written Greek version of the Hebrew Bible is called the Septuagint. One of the earliest literary evidence for Jewish Greek writing is a papyri of the Septuagint Pentateuch, dated 2nd C. BCE, and found in Egypt (P. Ryl 458) and Palestine (4Q122). Dr. Dhont pointed to a Greek paraphrase of the Hebrew Book Exodus (4A127), as well as some Dead Sea Scrolls texts which appear in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, as evidence for late Second Temple Period bilingualism among Jews.

Dr. Dhont made a fantastic appeal for Jewish literature in Greek to be viewed as “at-home” within the Jewish community. The implications of this study allows for a deeper consideration of complexities involved in Jewish identity and the shape of indigenous cultures during the spread of Hellenism nearing the Common Era.

Beyond the scope of Hellenistic Judaism, it is also relevant to study how two societies interact and merge language and literary traditions. The coming together of multiple different cultures by a variety of means is a common event throughout history and in the present. It is a universal human situation. The study of Hellenistic Judaism offers a model for us to view how societies can change and adapt their practices, and even their religion, to new scenarios. The study of human interaction in history provides a spring board for discussions about how we can bring multiple cultures and contexts into alignment today.

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