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 viewed as a synthesis of the two forces.

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”.


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 spiritual 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 – science and 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, pp. 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”.

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, T. 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.