Jewish Assimilation into Greek Culture
Jewish Assimilation into Greek Culture
By Rook Hawkins
Recently, I published several blogs on the mythicist position. One was in response to the recent occult-like followers of Acharya S on the radical claim of hers that both Krishna and Buddha had established some sort of influence on the development of the Jesus mythos. Why this is near impossible has already been discussed in that blog, and thee are other threads dealing with said topic in my Jesus Mythicist Campaign forum, and won’t be touched on much more in this entry. However, with the recent blog to Rick Hillegas who published in American Atheist magazine recently, I felt it necessary to explain what counts as credible acculturation and socio-cultural assimilation.
Hillegas’ claims in his article, although refreshing, do suggest a very naïve understanding of history and the methodology that modern historians use to determine what happened in antiquity. The dismissal of one such method in his entry, the method by which one understands and identifies the genre of a manuscript, was all but ignored by Hillegas. As I touched on in that blog post, genre helps historians make specific inductions from the manuscript about such cultural interactions. Much of this subject will be discussed in great detail in my book, but I would like to stress a few very important key points. The points of this entry are as follows: (1) Assimilation and acculturation and their meaning, (2) What is acceptable for claiming acculturation and assimilation, (3) What sort of acculturation and assimilation did the Jews actually experience before and during the first century Common Era and finally (4) What sort of evidence is needed to show such assimilation and acculturation happened? I will now attempt to make very simple points on these four topics to allow for a broader understanding of what is acceptable and why some scholarship should be looked at with suspicion, i.e. Acharya S, and additionally why such scholarship as the work I’m doing and what Richard Carrier is doing with the mythicist position is so vital.
Imagine you’re a Jew in Alexandria. You get up in the morning, walk out your front door into a bustling street. Thousands of people are running around, working, selling, bartering, worshipping, traveling, writing, chiseling, painting, laboring and milling. There are Jews, like you near by. Many live in your neighborhood, but also all about in the city. You know of some who have even entered the court of Ptolemy, and some even teach at the library in the city. Some of your friends even attend school to learn to write in Greek, although they are wealthier than you. You enter the busy street and immediately bump into a soldier. He isn’t a Greek, indeed he is a Jew too, who has joined up to fight for Ptolemy. Your father was also a soldier. Apologizing you continue to work your way through the crowds, and brush off some grindings that land on your shoulder which fell there as you passed under a ladder where a man you didn’t know was carving an inscription dedicated to the Ptolemy’s on one of the Jewish synagogues nearby your house. You smile and the man waves. As you go by the cemetery you read the sometimes painted, although generally chiseled, inscriptions on tomb stones. Many of these graves belong to Jews, although most are written in Greek, some even talk about Hades, and Greek Gods, and various other intricacies. You recite a prayer briefly to Yahweh before moving on.
(1) Though you don’t get a real understanding of your characters feelings, I hope the image of this street is vivid enough for me to make a point. Assimilation here for this character, your character, is minor. He can probably only recognize a little written Greek, although he may not be able to speak it. His father’s service in the military may represent a strong leaning towards appreciating the Ptolemy line and thus he respects the Greek elites of the city and probably envies some of his friends who are studying there, and because of this our fictional character may not have a keen liking of the Egyptian population. He lives in a Jewish neighborhood, where many other Jews also show signs of assimilation. For the sake of being completely clear, I’m going to define some terms.
Assimilation is not to be confused with acculturation. It is defined as “social integration:” Specifically those contracts and interactions of those around a particular culture which is the host to another. In essence, those who are assimilated into a culture tend to be those who mimic the host culture. John M.G. Barclay writes that those who are assimilated concern “social contacts, social interaction and social practices,” (p. 92) of which would require a certain level of acculturation. Acculturation, per Barclay, is “by contrast…the linguistic, educational and ideological aspects of a given cultural matrix.” (ibid.) Thus it is often that with acculturation, assimilation becomes apparent, and even unavoidable. However, Barclay warns that it is possible the two can be exclusive, and that although generally both are found together or as a consequence of each other, there are instances which can be found to show that such necessities are not required. For example, he uses the case that a Jewish slave or house servant would most likely be assimilated into daily life of a Greek household, yet may not be acculturated.
Even so, it would be perpetually difficult for assimilation to exist without some form of acculturation. In the case of our character, pretending for a moment he was a slave, if he were to interact with a Greek merchant on behalf of his master, it would only be prudent he knew or understood some Greek even as a Jew. Additionally, he would need to be aware of some Greek or even Egyptian culture to socially function where normally somebody unacculturated or nonassimilated would offend the other party, maybe even bringing about his own demise. So assimilation and acculturation are very important, even to the house servant, the slave, the merchant, your stone worker, whoever you were in antiquity, especially in the Diaspora, being acculturated and assimilated was a benefit.
(2) & (3) I’ve lumped topics (2) and (3) together here because they deal with the same thing in principle, although they are different entities. Where one is the means (claim) the other is the medium (discussion of evidence). In our example, our character and those around him presented some very important evidence of assimilation and acculturation. There are a great many things that need to be established to show that there were in fact some sort of linkage between the Jews and the Greeks in order to really make a case for assimilation and acculturation. I’ll simply re-list a few of them from my previous blog on Acharya S and explain them all in more detail here. (These are in no way technical names, just descriptions I’ve given to a much more technical sociological framework)
1.) Settlements. What evidence does one have of Jewish settlements in Egypt? What archaeological finds have been presented for this? This is the first and most important thing to establish. Can we even be sure the Jews lived among these cities? Of course, for Alexandria the evidence is overwhelming that they did. But for somebody trying to suggest a link between Krishna and Jesus, there would have to be some level of daily functionality or daily interaction between a Jewish settlement or Jewish neighborhood inside a state where Krishna was worshipped. To believe, for example, that Jews would have grasped the delicate theology and works of the Gitas in passing is juvenile thinking in terms of scholarship. Our character obviously a part of such a Jewish settlement or neighborhood in Alexandria obviously has dealings and interactions with not only Greek documents of some form but also inscriptions, language, probably even prayers and mysteries, albeit he certainly isn’t in a cult.
2.) Assimilation and Socio-Cultural Accommodation. One must present some level of sociological assimilation or acculturation where the Jews have lost some of their own cultural distinctiveness to the host culture or gained some cultural distinctiveness from the host culture as discussed earlier. Our character above certainly has some level assimilation, where he seems to have gained some level of distinctiveness from the Greeks, although he has maintained his own cultural identity as a Jew. We can be certain that he recited his prayer in Aramaic rather than Greek, although even if he recited it in Greek, it would be another step towards acculturation.
3.) Access to Host Manuscripts. This is important. Not only must a person interact daily with a host, but also must have some access to their language outside of vocalization. In our brief story, our hero has friends in gymnasium, who are learning to write in Greek, and are studying the Greek philosophies. This is a move by his friends to be almost completed assimilated and acculturated into the Greek society. The library at Alexandria makes access to these various Greek texts more than available and the fact that in order to learn to write in Greek at a school one had to become acquainted with the Greek’s own “bible” – the Homeric epics – it is more than reasonable to conclude that access was not a problem. Even more, the dedications and inscriptions in Greek around his community would have allowed our character to not only interact daily with the language, but also the beliefs and values of Greeks. At the cemetery, we can already see signs of this when our character recognizes some Greek names, Gods and even Hades on the grave stones. As well, it can be induced that the Jews buried with such graves would have also been assimilated or acculturated into the Greek lifestyle to some degree, although it would be speculative to guess at what length simply from their grave stones.
I’m not going to go further into this particular venue at the moment because it will be covered more greatly in my book; however this should give somebody an adequate understanding of what a historian looks for when they go to determine assimilation or acculturation. But it does not end there.
(4) The evidence found in the story above all comes from actual data accumulated by archaeological finds and manuscript attestation. We have found inscriptions on Jewish buildings in Jewish neighborhoods that specifically dedicate the building to Ptolemy (who was considered a God) and many were written in the flavor of appeasement to his deity status. There are literally hundreds of these inscriptions, many not yet translated. We have gravestones also in the manner described in our story as well. For information on these inscriptions and dedications, consult my book for a full bibliography. However, for now a great source is the book by Horbury and Noy, Jewish Inscriptions of Graeco-Roman Egypt (1992).
More impressive than the inscriptions and dedications however are the manuscript evidences which specifically allow us a glimpse at the amount and varying degrees of assimilation and acculturation. Aside from those Graeco-Jews like Philo, who wrote in Greek and who were familiar with Greek values and philosophies, there were Jews like Josephus who sought specifically for Greek appeasement of his histories, which specifically were written in Greek but mimicked the Roman Antiquities. These are more well-known cases. But like I said, there are more impressive instances. Take the book of Sirach, which was written in Greek to Jews in the Diaspora trying to bring them back to the distinctiveness of the Jewish culture – which being a product of that very divergence. The same could be said for 2 Maccabees where it seems as though the whole point is to discourage Jews from becoming to Greek, and even looks down upon such assimilation, again while being written in Greek, not Aramaic.
Other examples include the use of the Homeric epics like the Odyssey in writing a Jewish narrative like Tobit. Similarities to the Odyssey abound when reading the narrative of Tobit, which was originally composed in Aramaic, not Greek! Or of the Jewish poem to Orpheus entitled Orphica, where it discusses Greek mystery cults in relation to Orpheus – and then lists Moses as a participant! Jewish synagogues with mosaics to Greek Gods, again like that of Orpheus, show more assimilation and acculturation. Or what of the constant need by Jewish writers to establish a kinship with the Greeks, such as Josephus’ tale of Jews being kin to the Spartans, or where in some Jewish folklore of the time they claim the Greeks had read the Torah and had learned their ways from them. Such is obviously myth and fiction, but these stories represent actual evidence of attestation, both by Jews who knew and read and spoke in Greek, but also those who wrote and spoke Aramaic as well.
Examples such as these abound in all forms of texts and inscriptions which is how historians can adequately show assimilation of the Jews, and give degrees and level an understanding at influence. This is part of the very foundation of my book. Just how assimilated were some Jews? So much so, were some of them, that they actually lead Roman legions against their brethren!
I hope this blog entry has been informative and interesting.
 Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: From Alexander to Trajan (1996), p. 92
 It should be understood what is meant by the host culture. In this case, the host is not the indigenous culture of the land, but rather they are the culture that establishes the laws and governs the indigenous culture that has either been conquered or annexed. However there are often other factions involved, not just the host culture. For example, Alexandria had several types of host cultures; initially there were the Egyptians, then the Greeks, then the Romans. In addition to the Host culture, there were also other factions like immigrants from all over the ancient Near East. This means that establishing specific factions as the assimilated and whom they are mimicking is important. In the case of the Jews, it seems clear that the host culture in Alexandria is the Greeks, although some parallels to Egyptian culture and tradition could be established.
 Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora, p. 92
 There are a great deal more things that can be said concerning assimilation and acculturation, for example the levels of assimilation and acculturation, specifically dealing with the Jews in Egypt and other Greek cities. This will be discussed in great detail in my book, but it is worthy of digressing a bit to remind the reader that many Jews, albeit assimilated and acculturated maintained some level of distinctiveness and kept some Jewish uniqueness.