Philo of Alexandria: A Study in Social Identity

The best (and most current) Philonic resource is Torrey Seland’s Philo page.


§1. Introduction – Philonic Commentary

The distinctive nature of the Philonic project does not facilitate easy classification, particularly when filtered through the concept of Hellenism. Philonic scholarship has been dominated by, broadly speaking, two “schools” of thought which have excited extremes of denigration and admiration. Over the past hundred years or so several commentators have characterized Philo as being superficial, a dilettante, unorganized, derivative, verbose, incoherent and anti-philosophical (see Runia’s detailed survey 1986, pp. 8-31). Led by scholars such as Goodenough (1940) and Wolfson (1947) these fallacious charges have been rightly countered. But in doing so, enthused by what they believed to be a gross injustice, they have overstated their case, consequently failing to lay to rest the criticism they were supposed to rebut. Wolfson in trying to locate Philo as an “original” thinker within the broader tradition of Western philosophy, undermined the real distinctive contribution of Philo as theosopher (Runia 1986, p. 544). Philo never claimed nor aimed at originality: his purpose was exegesis. One cannot help feeling that Wolfson and others following in his wake, sought to reclaim, rehabilitate or retrieve Philo the Jew (Philo Judaeus) for Jewish interest from Christianity’s Philo (Philo Alexandrinus), the Christian avant la lettre (Runia 1990, pp. 10, 14). This tendency to ascribe a social identity with metaphysical intent has outlandish and counter-intuitive conclusions perhaps best illustrated by three well-known variant examples. First, we have Saul the persecutor of the Christians and Paul as their champion. Yet Saul and Paul are one and the same person. In the second case, we have the positing of two different personalities, a schizophrenic condition if you like, in the form of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Again we are referring to one and the same person. Lastly, is Cicero one and the same person as Tully? Yet again, we are referring to one and the same person even if different people only know him by one of the names. Whichever way you slice it, some sort of socio-psychological duality ascribed to one mind, in this case Philo, is incoherent.

Greek philosophical thought was the standard, the intellectual currency into which Philo was born and with which he was imbued through education. The fact that it was Philo and so far as we know no-one else that attempted or felt impelled to undertake such a project, regardless of how one might view the cogency of his project, itself confers an originality of sorts upon Philo. Whatever the merits of Philo as a thinker, his work has undeniably profoundly influenced the author of the Fourth Gospel, the Johannian λόγος being single most important Christian doctrine and perhaps one of the most important notions in the history of ideas.

Fortunately, over the last ten years, through the meticulous work of David Runia, the pendulum of Philonic scholarship has swung towards a more nuanced evaluation, redressing the earlier excesses. Of course, the works of Bury (1940) and Dodd (1954) still stand as brilliant pieces of scholarship but they were not laboring under the task of trying to locate the Jew in Philo; it was just that they saw him as a fascinating and interesting figure.

Philo was first and foremost an observant Jew, an apologist and defender of the Mosaic law. Runia (1986, p. 543) believes that Philo’s raison d’etre was determined by the tripartite loyalty to his Judaic heritage (Pentateuch), his appreciation of the Greek παιδεία (his philosophical education) and concern for the Jewish people’s welfare (apologetics). Hebrew was no longer the mother tongue (Momigliano 1975, pp. 90-92) and it had long since been a necessity to translate the Pentateuch into Greek – thus Philo’s bible was the Septuagint.

Greek philosophy which was as much a part of Philo’s heritage as any Greek’s, was instrumentally a handmaiden in the service of exegesis. Philo saw as his task to utilize the plasticity of Greek thought, the intellectual idiom of his age and class, to show or retrieve through exegesis that the “highest” wisdom was to be found in the Mosaic law, and that, as the “highest” wisdom, commend it to all – Jew and Greek. Philo in his endearing way believed that the Greeks were on the right track and similarities between the Pentateuch and the “Platonist’s bible,” the Timaeus, were not fortuitous and that the truth which was glimpsed by certain philosophers, in particular Plato, was validated by revelation in the Pentateuch – Moses being the greatest philosopher (Runia 1986, pp. 524, 540). Distinctively, Philo denied any contrast between revelation and reason – they are identical.

So to whom was Philo’s work addressed given that his piety did not offset any worldliness, i.e. his leading a delegation to Gaius? Was Philo concerned about the possible apostasy of Jews faced with a dominant and attractive culture as Hellenism or was he concerned about the “natural” process of assimilation? Or was Philo simultaneously seeking to commend the Mosaic law to the Greeks, some of whom may have already been sympathetic and familiar with Jewish ideas, another way of stemming the “tide” of assimilation? Both Runia (1986, p. 36) and Sandmel (1979) concur that the former explanation is more likely. In this the case, the resonance with the developments within Judaism’s various responses to modernity is obvious – the rise of Conservative Judaism, the Reform movement and Liberal Judaism.

§2. The Concept of Hellenism

The seeds of classificatory problems for Jewish identity are evident long before they entered into the modern way of thinking: the Greek saying Πλάτων φιλωνίζει ‘ή Φίλων πλατωνίζεί was popularized in the Latinized proverb attributed to St. Jerome (c 341 – 420), “either Plato Philonizes or Philo Platonizes” (Jer. de Vir. ill. II). The concern in this paper is primarily limited to the use of Hellenism as a term of art in nineteenth-century historiography and the attendant ideological concerns expressed by many modern commentators.

It is widely regarded that Droysen in his Geschicte Des Hellenismus (1836) ushered in the first modern conception of the term Hellenism. Besides Iggers (1968), Momigliano (1933, 1970), Preaux (1978) and White (1987) there is little or no reference to Droysen. The standard line of attack against Droysen is that his conception of Hellenism was functional to the prevailing Prussianism of the day. Then there are those who fail to mention Droysen at all (G.W. Clarke ed., 1989; Jenkyns, 1980) which is particularly strange given the ascendancy of German classical scholarship in the nineteenth-century.

Very broadly, in our application of this term, are we referring to political history (the study of institutions especially in Egypt), typically from the death of Alexander in 323 BC to the Battle of Actium in 31 BC (Green 1990, p. xv & Momigliano 1970, p. 307; Hengel 1980, p. 52), or are we referring to a cultural ascription, inextricably linked to, but an entity beyond, the geographic and chronological limits of the former? The former, it has been suggested is a bourgeois reflection of mid-nineteenth century capitalism and imperialism; the latter emphasizing the intrinsic value and “superiority” of Hellenism as a highly developed culture.

Perhaps the earliest expression of the concept of Hellenism can be found in Acts 6. 1 where ́Ελληνισταί are “opposed” to ́Εβραίοι and brought into common scholarly usage by Scaliger who disseminated the notion of ́Ελληνισταί to mean Jewish speakers who used Greek in the synagogue service (Momigliano 1970, p. 309). It is interesting to note that in Liddell & Scott ́Ελληνιστής is rendered as an “imitator of the Greeks,” a Hellenist and a Greek-Jew. Clearly the inference to be drawn is that the Jew was the paradigm example of a non-Greek’s acceptance of the dominant culture compared with, say, the native Egyptian’s reluctance or inability to assimilate. The verb ́αφελληνίζειν in the transitive sense is to be found for the first time in the writing of Philo; the cultural program of the “Hellenization of the barbarians” only became a general theme in the time of the Romans (Hengel 1980, pp. 54-55). The rare noun ́Ελληνισμός, with an extended meaning which includes both the Greek lifestyle and culture, appears for the first time in the work of Jason of Cyrene (Hengel 1980, pp. 77-78). The word ́Іουδαισμός makes its first appearance in Maccabees II and was used as a contrastive term with ́Ελληνισμός, limited to the philologically unobjectionable dominance of “common Greek” as opposed to the dialects or barbarisms that had both a racial and political connotation along with the obvious religious connotation (Hengel 1974, pp. 1-2). Goldstein (1981, pp. 64, 71) takes Hengel to task for overstating the opposition between the terms “Judaism” and “Hellenism.” My view is that Goldstein is mistaken. All Hengel and for that matter Momigliano have stressed are that these terms are on one level, contrastive terms; they are mutually defining, ascribing content to each and this is self-evident in the above etymological discussion. On the contrary, Hengel is concerned not to severely enforce distinctions which could hinder rather than assist explanation, and that to insist in talking in terms of such a clear distinction, could give rise to the vulgar and spurious conclusion that Judaism and Hellenism are inherently and irresolvably opposed in principle. That the Jews held a reciprocal sense of superiority with regard to paganism has encouraged a false dichotomy which permeates much contemporary scholarship.

The key to understanding Hellenism is in substituting the term Hellenism with the word “Greekness,” which is after all what the Greeks themselves (ideological considerations aside) had in mind. The two typical features of Greekness (banal as they are) have to be those of language and education. There is, however, a problem in using the term “Greekness”: it is taken (at least my by the modern mind) to have an essentialist flavor – that is, a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for its application. The corollary being that notions of “Jewishness” or “barbarianess” can also be specified. Though modern scholarship disavows essentialist theories, particularly racial ones, there is nonetheless an essentialism that does still pervade post-war thinking. Suffice to say, Hellenism should be taken as “Greekness” not in an essentialist way, but in a more polymorphous way, appropriate to the porousness of cultural dynamics: language and education being the obvious conduits. This is consistent with the Hellenization as a process whereby non-Greek peoples can indeed become “Greek”.

There are two points that need to be made about Droysen’s conception of Hellenism.

1. Droysen regarded hellenization as an example – just one example – of an ongoing, regularly recurrent historical process of fusion between civilizations. This quasi-Hegelian view is not the deep Hegelianism typically attributed to Droysen. Hegel doesn’t talk much about, or regard with particular favor, the mingling of civilizations. Each civilization has its historic work to do, and (once that work has been accomplished) it passes the torch of Geist. The Mazzinian idea of different nations making distinct, contemporaneous contributions to the development of civilization, is more in line with Hegel than is the Droysenian emphasis on fusion.

Some commentators might well invoke the Hegelian notion of synthesis. The synthesis which each world historical civilization represents, on Hegel’s account, however, is only a logical synthesis (out of thesis and antithesis) at the level of the dialectic, not a “physical” synthesis in the way of one culture penetrating and transforming another in the manner of hellenization.

2. Droysen regarded the Greek element in the process of hellenization as generally “superior” (though by what standard I’m unable to determine) to the Eastern material upon which it worked. The exception to this was Jewish culture: hellenization was historically progressive because the fusion of Greek and Jewish culture produced Christian civilization. I do not see that this view sidelines Judaism as Momigliano (1970, p. 310) contends. Droysen may not have dwelt on the Jewish aspect, not because he denied Christianity could only have existed through Judaism, but because of complex personal reasons that Momigliano brings out in his article. Droysen was hardly alone in holding this view. Newman in his The Idea of a University offered the formularistic Greece + Jewry = Rome.

This brings me to one final aspect that many commentators feel that Droysen is most vulnerable to, i.e., that his interest in Hellenism was functional to a policy of Prussianism. It has with tedious frequency been pointed out that the formulation of many concepts are permeated by the prevailing and dominant ideology of the day though not necessarily in a conscious way (Samuel, 1983, pp. 67, 74 & 1989, p. 1; Green, 1990a, p. 312; Goudriaan, 1988, p. 1; Turner 1989, p. 97). Concepts are supplemented and invigorated by new insights which themselves might be outmoded in another hundred years. Droysen’s idea that studying the conquests of Alexander had contemporary political relevance is no different from our study/conceptualization of historical epochs and interpreting them in light of contemporary concerns and new discoveries. Droysen was politically active. That in his later work he emphasized the nationalistic character of the Macedonian victory analogously becoming the Prussia of antiquity (Momigliano 1933, p. 268), should not be taken as a crude apologist for Prussianism. To suggest that his concept of Hellenism has any less value because it was functional to the “ideology” of his age is preposterous: the modern is no less subject to current ideologies. Jenkyns (1980, p. 14) makes what seems a plausible point in that twentieth century utopian impulses could be exercised through fascist or communist systems whereas in the nineteenth century the only alternative “utopian” society was ancient Greece.

Hellenism is a self-conscious appreciation of Greek culture, whether viewed from the Greek perspective, or from our modern perspective. Such self-consciousness can only have arisen from a long process of development and maturation of a given culture. It is the mark of a highly developed society that cultural self-consciousness entails ideological considerations, often interpreted as arrogant and intrinsically superior. At most Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) is only making a socio-psychological claim about all self-conscious cultures and not as he would have us believe that only occidental cultures are inherently imperialistic. The Chinese, Japanese and Moorish conquests are obvious counter-examples.

If the term Hellenism does have any meaning it is perhaps the famous saying of Isocrates (Panegyricus 50) that is as valid as ever: “He who shares in our παιδεία is a Greek in a higher sense than he who simply shares in our descent.” In dealing with matters of cultural/political identity modern nationalisms could do well to adopt this view.

§3. A Metaphysics of Identity?

Though several writers ostensibly tackle the subject of social identity, they do so oblivious of canonical notions of philosophical identity – Leibniz’ law, synchronic and diachronic identity, and so forth. Furthermore, there is little or no reference to the tricky aporia generated by social (plural) identity within the philosophy of social science. Admittedly, though personal identity in the Lockean tradition offers no consideration of social identity, much is changing under the aegis of recent work in cognitive science (distributed cognition) and in social epistemology.

At best, much work on social identity is platitudinous; at worst, fundamentally misconceived. When writers like Borgen (1992, p. 122) still pose that well-worn question, ‘Was Philo “basically” a Jew or was he an intellectual pagan wearing a Jewish robe?’, the mere posing of the question presupposes a procrustean attempt to force Philo into one or the other of these ill-fitting categories. Even Goodenough (1940, p. 12) one of the most distinguished Philonic scholars, writes that Philo tried to combine Judaism and Hellenism “not so much in a metaphysical system, but existentially in his aching Jewish heart.” Goodenough in so brief and dramatic a phrase assumes so much. Firstly, he attributes the possibility that Philo’s project may have been metaphysical in intention. Secondly, that Philo was indeed metaphysically speaking a Jew – the ontologically prior aching Jewish heart; the Greekness being a conscious development, tacked on so to speak. Winston (1985, p. 13) in less earnest terms, and more typically, viewed the Philonic enterprise as a “Graeco-Roman reconciliation.” A more tenable suggestion is proposed by Nikiprowetzsky (Runia 1986, pp. 537, 543) who was the first to come to the realization that the Jewish and Greek “elements” of Philo are indissociable, and that any attempt to do so presupposes a distinction that would have not been apparent to Philo. It makes no sense to talk of these streams of thought, at least in Philo’s case, as if they had some ontological status. Recall the identity anomalies I mentioned earlier in the paper. This singular mind could not be mereologically resolved into two component parts. Conceived thus, this is at odds with much of Philonic scholarship that takes Greek thought categories to be an afterthought even if they do accept that it was in the service of exegesis. Still, this should not be taken to mean that Greek modes of thought were downgraded. Greek thought was Philo’s thought, and facilitated his intellectual enterprise. This is precisely the problem faced by the Philonic scholar even with no theological patch to defend and which Nikirowetzky (Runia 1986, pp. 537, 543) first identified. An interesting socio-philosophical view is put forward by Volker and Weiss (Runia 1986, p. 543) who view Philo’s use of Greek philosophical doctrines as a “sweetener”, an edulcorator to make his message more palatable to Greek and Jewish intellectuals. This view is not implausible as it is still consistent with the need to understand Philo primarily as an exegete. They key to a sound understanding of the Philonic project is this emphasis on exegesis, or as Runia characterizes Philo – the work of the theosophist – the idea that we can understand God through deep cultivation of the inner life (Runia 1986a, pp.189, 193; 1989, p. 588).

Had Philo not been imbued with Greek philosophical thought, he would not have had a philosophical problem to confront. It’s only the contemporaneous consciousness of the Greek λόγος on the one hand, and the Judaic transcendental God on the other hand, that together created a problem that would not have been apparent to or questioned by the non-Hellenized Jew. By the same token, had Philo as a Greek been unable to conceive of a singular transcendent God, he wouldn’t be confronted with this philosophical problem. Had there been no conceptual continuities or compatibilities between the Greek λόγος and the Wisdom literature’s דבר, there also could not have been this philosophical problem, whether or not there was a Philo acting as a conduit.
The Jew/Greek identity template is not as amenable to analysis as many Philonic commentators feel it intuitively should be. The question that needs to be asked is, “what beliefs were held by Philo that he couldn’t possibly have held as a Jew who had never come into contact with Greek thought?” Those who view Philo as “predominately” or “primarily” a Jew are giving this “Jewishness” an ontological primacy over his Greekness, a notion I’ve already explained is incoherent. The burden for such writers would be to show that aspect is context independent of its occurrence, constant no matter what variations occur in the social milieu of a Jew. This is hardly a plausible task given that it is the mark of a viable culture that the borders between cultures are indeterminate and porous.

§4. Lessons for the Modern

This view challenges attempts at specifying “identity criteria” enticingly derived from two quite distinguishable strands of thought. Cultural dynamism or evolution is not cultural destruction. Culture is not a concept that one can coherently ascribe the property of fixity, a state of affairs that has clear cut continuity and persistence conditions; and this is certainly the case with our concept of Hellenism. The notion of an Englishman now is hardly the notion of an Englishman one hundred years ago, yet few would deny that both are Englishmen. Yet there are those who believe that there are necessary and sufficient conditions for a given social identity – these people are without doubt fundamentalist in their worldview. Conversely, if the criteria for marking off significant cultural attributes cannot be agreed, then the problem in marking off the cultural attributes of “Greekness” cannot easily be undertaken. Were it to be asserted that Philo is predominantly a Jew or predominantly a Greek and that these two aspects comprise his identity, the only valid inference that can be drawn from this is that there is an identifiable group known as Jews who do not have these attributes of Greekness – language or education. Those who hold out the possibility of such a task are inclined towards an essentialist position (Goldstein 1981, p. 67; Mendelson 1988, p. 53), a position that is untenable and inappropriate to the subject matter.

When Goldstein (1981: 67) ventures, what he terms peculiarly Greek, he is marking off traits that are unique or quintessentially Greek, very much akin to an essentialist position. The question of what type of concept “Jew” or “Greek” or its composite “Hellenized Jew” is, or most like, is never posed, resulting in a one dimensional discussion. In fact, to talk of “Greeks” is inaccurate. The so-called Greeks of Alexandria were more than likely second, third and fourth generation “Greeks,” born and bred in Alexandria. Strictly speaking languages and economies are not groups at all – they do not easily admit mereological analysis. To talk of the Greek κοινή is to talk of the linguistic attributes of a group: and one must distinguish social groups from social properties. Of course, properties have an ontological dependence upon their bearers: no Greek speaking groups, no Greek language.

Do the Jews, then as now, have a common identity or are they a series of locally defined peoples? If we accept that Philo was first and foremost a Jew, how can he be differentiated from a Jew without the Greek attributes? What justifies us in saying that the Hellenized Philo is less of a Jew or not a Jew because in fact he is a Greek as well? I reiterate. At most, the only point that scholars can claim is that there are or have been a group of people known as Jews who do not have or are resistant to these attributes of “Greekness” – language or education. Analogously, what is the common social property between the modern French Jew, the Cochin Jew, the Argentinean Jew, the Ethiopian Jew, the Israeli Jew? – the permutations are endless. Montefiore (1993, p. 233) makes just this point in his example of the Hungarian Jew – “both Hungarian and Jewish identity might present itself as the ineluctably indissociable one.” Who, besides the fundamentalist, would deny that they can all participate in the category of being a Jew? Even if all these Jews were uniformly committed to the strict terms of halacha the problem would still arise.

§5. Conclusion

Philo’s Jewishness does not diminish in the face of his Greekness and vice versa. One does not need an appeal to any concept of Jewishness or Greekness beyond an open concept – a Wittgensteinian family resemblance concept. Furthermore, one has to admit the more radical possibility that the concept of Jew, casting its net through too great a pool of diversity, fails to have any stable identity criteria. Though I argue against any metaphysical conception of Philo as Jew or Greek, it is not contradictory to tease out the two strands of thought that can be uncontentiously attributed to these two traditions. It is precisely this possibility that draws commentators into the mistaken metaphysical theorizing. Why shouldn’t Philo have utilized the plasticity of his Greek education? His language was after all commensurate with the scriptures he was interpreting, the Septuagint. To suggest he could have done otherwise is incoherent.

Exercises in cultural metaphysics tend to go hand in hand with vague notions of cultural purity feeding intellectually suspect socio-political theories with insidious and destructively divisive consequences. This is very much a recent phenomenon; the recent troubles in the Balkans being a paradigm case. Liberal democracies faced with the issues of multi-culturalism vs. assimilation could do well to look to the past for some intimations of how best to approach this vexing area.


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Hellenism and Hellenization

“Hellenism”, the noun for Greek idiom or spirit and “Hellenization”, the intransitive verb, are terms that are used so diversely in different contexts by different disciplines such that no substantive nor consistent meaning can be ascribed to the term’s content. Martin Hengel (1974, I:2) attributes the significance the term “Hellenism” now bears, to the work of J.G. Droysen in 1831. Droysen considered Hellenism as the “modern period of antiquity”, which came to full fruition with the rise of Christianity. Further, Droysen subscribed to the description of Hellenism as a “world culture”, which penetrated all those parts which Alexander had conquered.

Hengel challenges this orthodoxy with a two-pronged attack. First, he challenges the disproportionate importance Droysen places on the theological history of Hellenism. Theology was but one dimension of what was a complex lattice of social, political and economic forces, all of which were inextricably linked. It is too simplistic a view to hold that the rise of the Church was the result of a contrast between Judaism and Hellenism, but should be view as a synthesis of the two forces. More on this later.

The second point of contention concerns the historical dimension. Historically speaking, the “age of Hellenism” does not begin with Alexander’s expedition in 334 BC and end with the battle of Actium in 31 BC. There is some foundation for this idea in antiquity, specifically in Plutarch’s De fortuna aut virtute Alexandri Magni (Hengel, 1989, p. 52). It is a matter of ongoing dispute whether it was Alexander’s purpose to act as “educator”, “reconcilor” and “civilizor” of the disparate peoples his armies conquered. Hegel, for instance, saw particular nations as embodying the zeitgeist, the spirit of history, at crucial times in the development of civilization. Mazzini thought that nations had “missions”; that these were “Ideas” for which they stood and which it was God’s purpose that they should enact in the course of history. This approach gives “nations” a basic role in social ontology and some scholars may well hold the view that Alexander’s actions did embody these ideas.

The verb hellenizein in the transitive sense is to be found for the first time in the writing of Philo of Alexandria (c. 30 – c. AD 45) and again much later in Libanius (AD 314 – c. 393) in his Orationes (Hengel, 1980, p. 54). Elsewhere hellenizein means “speak Greek correctly”, transitively “translate into Greek” (Liddell and Scott, 1993, p. 213) and only secondarily “adopt a Greek style of life”. More on this later.

The concept of Hellenization does hold on many levels but very often it is also self-contradictory which is perhaps inevitable when examining such a slippery term. As is usual in my approach to conceptual analysis, I do not hold an essentialist view, neither do I think it is proper nor possible to do so. At best we can only seek out typical features and my guide in this quest is Martin Hengel whose rigorous and lively scholarship has been centrally concerned with the concepts of hellenism and hellenization.

A brief remark needs to be made about “colonial discourse theory” to be found in the work of Edward Said particularly in his Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978) and elsewhere and which has gained widespread currency in some circles. Said’s view, that it is an intrinsic feature of European politics and culture to seek dominance in a region, is at first sight quite plausible. I would accept this only insofar that European imperialism has been driven by a technological superiority in war machines and industry. However, two points needs to be made. First, I would argue that it is a feature of any dominant culture to have such a disposition. We need only look at the Moors’ conquest of Spain as a counter-example. All that I’m claiming is that it is a de facto feature of any dominant culture to be “domineering”.  The second point is that there may be unforeseen consequences from any political action that may be chauvinistic in nature.

Social Nationality

A loyal political community is simply the socio-political precondition of a viable city state or region. Some accept this point and go no further. Others press considerably further and claim that (typically or most favourably) a cultural unity of:

- a common language

- a common religion

- common customs

- common traditions

will and alone can maintain a loyal political community. It has been the New Right and the emergent African states that have held this view. More recently, one need only look to the ex-Soviet Bloc states and Yugoslavia to see these claims being touted. Some have even talked of the Soul of a People or Spirit of a Nation as did Herder and the late 18th Century German Romantics. As early as the first half of the third century BC, Clearthes of Soloi reported the meeting of Aristotle and a Jew from Jerusalem who had a Greek education:

he was a Hellene not only in his language but also in his soul

Fable or not, the point is that one can argue for a common culture as a necessary condition of a loyal political community without making these larger and more extravagant claims about a city or regional character. So that a “nation” as a cultural group may or may not coincide with the frontiers of a region. I call this the idea of “social nationality” taking the label from Hertz (1944, pp. 5-15). It makes the possibility of common language, religion, customs and traditions – a unified culture – without a state in which to encapsulate them.

We now have a framework with which to examine the concepts in question. Of course the multiplicity and permutations within these concepts give rise to a variety of nuances and subtleties. Does “Hellenistic” simply mean “Greek in the late period” or “Oriental syncretistic”? Does it refer to art, economics, politics or religion? Might it simply mean “pagan” as it did later from the 3rd Century on? Perhaps it relates to ancient Greek mythology, to Iranian, Egyptian, Babylonian or even Gnostic mythology? I cannot hope to resolve these questions here, but will confine the discussion to the components of social nationality in an attempt to seek some clarity.


There can be little doubt that the bond which held the Hellenistic world together despite its fragmentation which began with the death of Alexander and continued thereafter, was Attic Κοινὴ. One might argue that language is a necessary but not sufficient condition of social nationality. Only through language can one penetrate the spheres of literature, philosophy and religion: that language is the conduit to a culture seems axiomatic. Of course, the notion of language is inextricably linked to that of education which is also a defining feature of Greek culture. So much so that Hengel cites H.I. Marrou’s Histoire de l’education dans l’antiquite (1948, p. 139) whereby the Hellenistic period is viewed as a period of education.

We need to make two important qualifications. First, access to higher education was confined to a very narrow upper strata of society, even in Alexandria, the spritual heart of the Hellenistic world. So there is a sociological dimension to language and education. And further, the simple Κοινὴ of early Hellenistic Egypt had no rhetorical polish: people who read the Septuagint rarely were able to read the Greek classical writers in the original.

Second, by contrast, the Greeks seldom took the trouble to learn the language of their new surroundings: a position not unlike native English speakers given that English is the language of the dominant cultural phenomenon – capitalism.

It seems then that even the necessary conduit, that of Attic Κοινὴ,did not entail cultural penetration on any significant scale. Only with Philo and Josephus, for example, do we meet an apologetic deliberately aimed at outsiders.


Religion is also premised on the layering of language and education. But more than that, religion is an intellectual expression of sorts.

Philo aimed not at assimilation but a genuine interpretation of the challenge presented in the superior thought of the Greeks. The Letter of Apisteas combines the most varied Hellenistic forms of literature into an apologetic which has two dimensions. On the one hand it defends Greek education, culture and loyalty towards the Ptolemaic royal house against radical Jewish nationalism which had been aroused by the Maccabean wars, while on the other hand, it attacks those who despised the Jews’ attachment to the “Law”. This schism was typical of the Jewish upper class in Alexandria with their Greek education and it had been a theme or tension within Jewish identity ever since.

William Barclay (1956) conveys some idea of St. John’s brilliantly imaginative mingling of Greek and Jewish notions in the conception of the λόγος. We don’t know who wrote the 4th gospel – no scholar now believes that it was written by John the Apostle. That aside, “John’s” problem was not the problem of presenting Christianity to the Jewish world: early Christianity spoke Aramaic and used Jewish categories of thought. The problem was how Christianity could be presented to the Greek world. And so the 4th gospel turns on the conception of the λόγος found within both Judaism and the Greek world – the Word, and Reason, both intertwined (Liddel and Scott, 1993: 416-417). Not surprisingly, it is the most philosophical of the Gospels.

Keeping the 4th Gospel and Philo in mind, I am in accordance with Hengel (1989, p. 53) that it is a crudity to contrast Judaism against the Greeks and vice versa (recall Droysen). Judaism and Christianity, indeed the whole of the Western tradition, has evolved through both the Old Testament and the Greek tradition.

Further, the usual distinction between Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism needs to be rectified. This distinction emanates from a spurious geographical contrast. From about the middle of the third Century BC all Judaism must really be designated “Hellenistic Judaism” in the strict sense – that is, linguistically. A more accurate differentiation could be made between the Greek speaking Judaism of the Western Diaspora and the Aramaic/Hebrew speaking Judaism of Palestine and Babylonia (Hengel 1974, I: p. 104). The complicating factor is bilingualism in Palestine, making the differentiation between Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism and the heuristic principles of New Testament scholarship that much more difficult. Hengel (1989, p. 53) believes that the distinction no longer has any validity. And further, Hengel suggests that we should be more cautious in the use of the adjective “Hellenistic” in descriptions of early Christianity:

“it says too much and precisely because of that says too little”

In other words, the concept is so broad it is emptied of any meaning.

It should be apparent that Hengel’s dictum has resonance throughout the discussion: the use of any term or concept too loosely can only result in its becoming meaningless.

Customs and Traditions

It is self-evident that customs and traditions are premised upon language and religion which give rise to the penetration of large areas of daily living. Yet despite the external Hellenization (language and education), the Jewish Diaspora did not become unconditionally assimilated into the Hellenistic environment. The paramount reason for this was the Jews’ rejection of Greek polytheistic religion.

This seriously disputes the notion of the possibility of being a Hellene in one’s soul as well as in language and education. Perhaps the distinction formulated in such terms is not a real distinction and therefore is unfair in its application. This has a modern resonance in so far as we live in a de facto multi-cultural society and so when one poses the question “who is an Englishman?” for example, only the liberal state with its minimal conditions for nationality has a cogent answer.

This brings us full circle back to the discussion of cultural unity and to the view of Alexander as a unifying force. The later Hellenistic kings did not pursue a policy of “unity”. On the contrary, they were engaged in perpetual warring from the death of Alexander until the final victory of Rome. In the West, Rome with its power was able to enforce peace.

In the East, what was part of the Greek world fell to nationalistic oriental rulers. A more thorough Hellenization which included all social strata, only became a reality in Syria and Palestine under the protection of Rome. It was Rome which first assisted Hellenism to cement its “victory” in the East as far as the Euphrates frontier.

So from the end of the 2nd Century BC onwards, support for the Hellenistic civilization became increasingly identical with loyalty to Rome, which underwrote the protection of the minor Hellensistic states, thereby integrating the civilizing power of Hellenistic culture against the background of the political and economic decline of the city state.

There is the famous saying of Isocrates (Panegyricus 4: 50):

He who shares in our paideia is a Greek in a higher sense than he who simply shares in our decent

Despite Isocrates’ ulterior motives, I am inclined to share this view. The designation, Hellenism or Hellenization is at least a disposition or cast of mind arising from contact with the complex lattice of language, religion, customs and traditions.


Barclay, W. (1956). The Gospel of John. Edinburgh.

Hengel, M. (1974). Judaism and Hellenism Vol. I & Vol. II. Trans. J. Bowden, London.

Hengel, M. (1980). Jews, Greeks and Barbarians. Trans. J. Bowden, London.

Hengel, M. (1989). The “Hellenization” of Judea in the First Century after Christ. Trans. J. Bowden, London.

Hertz, F. (1944). Nationality in History and Politics. London.

Liddell & Scott (1993). Greek-English Lexicon. Abridged ed. of 1871 ed. Oxford.

Lieu, North & rajak eds. (1992). The Jews Among Pagans and Christians in the Roman Empire. London.

Millar, F. (1983). The Phoenician Cities: A Case-Study of Hellenization. In Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society 55-71.