Greek Literature, Ancient

views updated May 11 2018


Greeks came into contact with the Land of Israel long before the Hellenistic period, but there is no information as to the impression made by Jews or Judaism upon them in the classical period. The only classical writings extant referring to the Jews are *Herodotus' Histories, but his acquaintance with them is at best highly superficial, and he considers them to be Syrians who practiced circumcision, which custom they had acquired from the Egyptians. Aristotle does mention a lake in Palestine, but without connecting it in any way with the Jewish people. Thus, although the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Babylon, and Persia were familiar to the Greek men of letters and philosophers – at least in their general outline even before the days of Alexander the Great – they were apparently completely ignorant of the specific religion and culture of Palestine.

This situation changed radically after Alexander the Great and the foundation of the various Macedonian kingdoms throughout the East. From earliest times descriptions of Jews and Judaism occur in the works of Greek authors, some of whom belonged to the school of Aristotle. Thus, Theophrastus, one of Aristotle's foremost pupils, in his work "On Piety" described the Jewish sacrificial rites as utterly different from those of the Greek, consisting entirely of holocausts, offered in the middle of the night. The Jews are described by him as philosophers whose custom it is to converse among themselves about theology at the time of the offering of the sacrifices and to gaze at the stars. His contemporary, Clearchus, who was also a member of the Peripatetic school, in his dialogue "On Sleep" gives the contents of a conversation supposedly held between Aristotle and a Jew in Asia Minor (see below). The Jews are also described as philosophers in the work of the traveler Megasthenes (see below).

More detailed, and in some respects more realistic, is the detailed description vouchsafed by *Hecataeus of Abdera, who spent a long time in Egypt at the beginning of the Hellenistic period. Hecataeus describes the origin of the Jewish people as resulting from an expulsion from Egypt of undesirable elements at the time of a plague. Their leader Moses, who excelled in ability and valor, conquered the land of Judea for the Jews, founded Jerusalem, erected the Temple there, and set down the constitution of the Jewish people. Hecataeus was familiar with the division into 12 tribes and was the first of the Greek writers whose works are still extant to note that the Jews make no images of their godhead, nor conceive Him to be of human form, since, according to him, the Jews equate their God with the heavens. Moses entrusted the keeping of the laws to the priests, whom he also appointed as judges. The Jewish constitution does not know the form of monarchy, and the high priest is described as the head of the Jewish nation. The position of high priest is filled by one of the priests, chosen from among the rest for his excellence of character and wisdom. Moses also commanded the Jews to raise all the children born to them, which is the reason for the rapid increase in their numbers.

At the beginning of the Hellenistic period, Judaism was known to Greek thinkers and men of letters only in the vaguest of outlines. Their impressions are not very different from those they had of other ancient civilized peoples of the East. Their tendency to consider the Jews to be the bearers of a philosophic religion is evident, and their descriptions are generally quite highly idealized. It should be noted that the descriptions of the Jews, not excluding that of Hecataeus, still lack any taint of that hostility which is characteristic of most of the later writers. This general attitude continues into the third century. Thus, Hermippus of Smyrna states that Pythagoras received some of his teachings from the Jews, and that his philosophy was influenced by Judaism.

From the third century b.c.e. on, however, with the crystallization of an anti-Jewish outlook, the Jews, their religion, customs, and origins, begin to be described in a definitely negative light. This new approach flourished in the anti-Jewish atmosphere of Egypt and was abetted not a little by the old tensions between Egyptians and Jews. As time passed, it continued to gather strength, fanned by the Greco-Jewish clash in Alexandria, particularly during the days of the early empire. Since the Greco-Alexandrian literature was one of the main cultural flowerings of the age, it was a very important instrument in the formation of informed public opinion throughout the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire.

One of the most important authorities of this new, anti-Jewish spirit in Greek literature was the Egyptian priest, *Manetho. He seems already to have identified the Jews with the *Hyksos and Moses with the Egyptian priest Osarsiph, who was described by him as the leader of the lepers and the other unclean and defiling elements who had been harming the population of Egypt. It was probably at this time that the belief that the Jews worshiped an ass – the animal holy to the Egyptian god Seth-Typhon, Osiris' enemy – was evolved. Manetho was only one of the many mouthpieces for the anti-Jewish propaganda. Even more rabid than he was *Lysimachus of Alexandria. According to him also, the Jewish nation stems from the impure and undesirable elements who had been expelled from Egyptian society. Their leader, Moses, taught them to hate all mankind, and their opposition to the temples of other nations typifies their entire approach.

It was *Apion of Alexandria (first century c.e.) who collected this anti-Jewish material. Not only did he refine the literary form of the tradition concerning the Exodus, which was most derogatory to the Jews, but he also protested against the Alexandrian Jews' demands to be considered citizens of the city, spoke with contempt of the Jewish religious practices, repeated the statement that the Jews worshiped an ass, stressed their supposed hatred of foreigners, said that they had contributed nothing to human civilization, and saw in their lowly political status an expression of the worthlessness of their religion. Actually, Apion added little of his own, but in his works the anti-Jewish spirit was given free rein and his writings contain virtually the entire gamut of the anti-Jewish themes which formed the antisemitic stereotype in the ancient world, and they also left their mark on Latin literature.

In spite of the generally extreme anti-Jewish character of the Alexandrian Greek literature, which was not a little influenced by the national Egyptian tradition, one nevertheless finds at least one writer – Timagenes of Alexandria (second half of the first century c.e.) – who apparently preserved a more objective approach to the Jews and in his history even expressed admiration for the Hasmonean king Aristobulus i. Interest in Jews and Judaism was also shown by Greek writers outside Egypt, from Syria and other parts of the Greek world. Asia Minor was of first rank in the intellectual and cultural life of the Hellenistic-Roman period, and it was also liberally sprinkled with areas thickly populated by Jews. It is in the works of one of the writers from Asia Minor – the historian Agatharchides of Cnidus (second century b.c.e.) – that the first mention in Greek sources is found of the Sabbath rest. He notes with scorn that it was because of this superstition that Jerusalem, the capital of the Jews, was conquered by Ptolemy i.

In the wake of the conflict between the Jews and Rome and Pompey's conquest of Jerusalem, there was an increased interest in the history of the Jews and in their religious observances on the part of the Asia Minor writers. It found its expression, inter alia, in the writing of books devoted entirely to this subject. Among these, *Alexander Polyhistor's anthology is particularly interesting, consisting as it does largely of excerpts from other authors and particularly from Jewish-Hellenistic literature. Teucer of Cyzicus also wrote a special work on the Jews. *Apollonius Molon's book on the Jews enjoyed great influence. Apollonius was a rhetorician from Alabanda in Caria and some of the foremost men of Roman society were influenced by his works. He had some knowledge concerning Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, and Moses, and the biblical tradition is clearly reflected in his work. Nevertheless, his attitude toward the Jews was most negative, and he considered them to be the least capable of the barbarians (i.e., non-Greeks), a nation which had added nothing to the cultural store of mankind.

A different approach is to be found in the works of the historian and geographer *Strabo, from Amaseia in Pontus, who lived in the time of Augustus. In the 16th book of his geography he describes Moses as an Egyptian priest who rejected the Egyptian forms of divine worship which centered around the deification of animals, and likewise objected to the anthropomorphism of Greek theology. Moses' god was identified with the heavens and the natural world, and many people of discerning intellect were convinced by him and became his followers. Under Moses' leadership they gained control of what is now called Jerusalem and there he founded a polity in accord with his views. Strabo expresses his complete approval of this polity and adds that for some time Moses' successors continued to live according to his constitution and were truly just and God-fearing. However, in the course of time the priesthood – which among the Jews encompassed the political power as well – fell into the hands of superstitious men, and after them in the hands of those who had despotic leanings. The superstitions which were introduced gave rise to the Jewish laws concerning forbidden foods, circumcision, and the like. The tyranny engendered robbery and violence, and large portions of Syria and Phoenicia were subjugated by the Jews. In short, Strabo looked upon Judaism as a basically positive phenomenon, and lauds the pure belief in God which typified it in its early days, but according to him Judaism had in the course of time degenerated and become corrupt.

Among the representatives of Greek literature in Syria, the philosopher, historian, and polymath *Posidonius of Apamea is of importance. He also wrote concerning the Jews and undoubtedly influenced those who came after him, but his views concerning Jews and Judaism are still a mystery, since it is difficult to determine what is to be ascribed to him and what to his followers. An allusion to "the cold Sabbath" of the Jews is to be found in the works of the poet Meleager of Gadara (first century b.c.e.). More than any of the other Greco-Syrian writers, *Nicholas of Damascus was intimately connected with Jewish affairs. He wrote his "Universal History" under Herod's inspiration and spent many years in his court in Jerusalem. The history of Herod's reign and the events of contemporary Jewish history were assigned a very prominent place in his work. He also included biblical traditions in the earlier portions of the history. Unlike the other contemporary gentile authors, Nicholas dealt with the period of the Israelite monarchy, including such events as David's wars with the Arameans. Abraham is described by him as a king in Damascus.

Typical of the level of knowledge concerning Judaism current among the educated classes of the Hellenistic world in the first century b.c.e. is the material brought by the universal historian, Diodorus of Sicily. He mentions Moses among those lawgivers who ascribed their constitutions to divine inspiration, and he states that the God of the Jews was called ʾΙἁω. Elsewhere in his work – where he is apparently dependent upon Posidonius – he relates the origins of the Jewish people according to the version which grew up and became current in Greco-Egyptian circles; i.e., that the first Jews had been lepers who had been expelled for this reason from Egypt. The personality of Moses is also presented in a positive light by Pseudo-Longinus, a literary critic of first rank, in his excellent work "On the Sublime." The author, whose name has not come down, quotes the early part of the Book of Genesis ("…and there was light…" etc.) as an excellent example of lofty and exalted style and in this connection also expresses praise for the Jewish lawgiver.

*Plutarch is the only Hellenistic writer of the period of the early Roman Empire from Greece proper who is known to have written about Judaism. Most of his comments respecting the Jewish religion are to be found in his "Table-Talk," where the essence of the Jewish ritual is discussed as well as the nature of the Jewish godhead, and one of the participants even explains the supposedly close connection between the Dionysian rites and the Jewish festival of Tabernacles. At any rate, the tone is serious and does not reflect any innate animosity toward Jews or Judaism, and this is equally true in respect of the parts dealing with Jewish history which appear in his biographies of famous people, although in his work "On Superstition" the conduct of the Jews on the Sabbath during wartime is brought in as an illustration of superstitious conduct – just as it was already stressed by Agatharchides of Cnidus at the very beginning of the Hellenistic period.

In short, it may confidently be stated that Judaism as a phenomenon was familiar to the writers of the later Hellenistic period and to those who wrote during the early days of the Roman Empire. Their information concerning the history of the Jewish people is scanty and the influence of Jewish literature, even in translation (the Septuagint), is extremely meager. The attitude toward Judaism in Greek literature is not monolithic. Whereas particular hatred for the Jewish people and its religion is the hallmark of the representatives of the Greco-Egyptian literary school, definite sympathy is reflected in the writings of Pseudo-Longinus, and writers like Strabo or Plutarch express a relatively balanced view. In the descriptions of Judaism, stress is usually laid upon the origin of the Jewish nation and its religion, upon the personality of Moses on the one hand and on contemporary events on the other.

The attitude toward Judaism continued to be a live issue during the second half of the second century c.e., even after the rebellions during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian had greatly weakened the Jewish people, and its religious influence diminished because of the competition posed by the spread of Christianity. *Numenius of Apamea, the forerunner of the neoplatonic school, may have been influenced in his philosophic thought by Philo of Alexandria. Be that as it may, his attitude to Moses was one of open admiration, and he even compared Moses to Plato. *Galen treats the Jewish philosophical conceptions seriously and critically. He is familiar with the cosmogony of Moses and specifically states his preference for the Greek conceptions in the form in which they are expressed by Plato. Whereas, he states, according to the Jewish view God's will is sufficient cause for anything and everything, according to the Greek view certain things are physically impossible and God chooses the best out of the possibilities of becoming. Moses is censured for having omitted the causa materialis and having thus postulated the creatio ex nihilo.

The historian *Dio Cassius also makes some interesting remarks touching upon Jewish history, in connection with his general survey of the history of Rome. Pompey's conquest of Jerusalem gave him the opportunity to describe the nature of the Jewish religion. He states that the Jews differ from all the rest of mankind in respect of their way of life, but in contrast to some of his predecessors he does not explain Jewish separatism on the grounds of misanthropy. He stresses the monotheistic and abstract nature of the Jewish belief, noting particularly the observance of the Sabbath, the Jew's loyalty to his faith, and the phenomenon of proselytization. As a contemporary of the Severi, he appreciates the fact that the Jews, in spite of their repression in the period immediately preceding, had nevertheless preserved and eventually won the right to live freely according to their customs.

The struggle between paganism and Christianity brought in its wake a pagan reappraisal of its attitude toward Judaism. The polemical works against Christianity of Celsus of Porphyry and of Julian, who had been raised as a Christian, reflect some accurate knowledge of the Bible. But to the extent that they come to grips with the Jewish outlook their attacks are in fact aimed mainly against Christianity, the roots of which are in the sanctified Jewish tradition. Hence, in spite of Judaism's particularistic and intolerant attitude toward paganism, they evince a sincere readiness to try to understand it as a national religion, anchored in an ancient tradition, contrasting it in this way to revolutionary Christianity. As the domination of Christianity became a fact, pagan writers like the Antiochene rhetor Libanius began to see Judaism as being in the same defensive camp as the pagan Hellenistic tradition.

No less than in the regular literary sources, the influence of Judaism is also clearly reflected in the syncretistic magical texts of the ancient world and in *Hermetic writings. Both these genres are replete with Jewish elements. The name of the Jewish godhead and the names of the angels are extremely common in magical papyri, and the thread of the biblical cosmogony is inextricably woven into the fabric of Hermetic tradition.


Reinach, Textes (the basic source on the subject); Pauly-Wissowa; M. Radin, The Jews Among the Greeks and Romans (1915), 97ff.; O. Staehlin, in: W.V. Christ and W. Schmid, Geschichte der griechischen Literatur, 2, pt. 1 (19206), 539ff.; I. Heinemann, in: Pauly-Wissowa, suppl. 5 (1931), 3–43; J. Lewy, Olamot Nifgashim (1960), 3–14; V. Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (1959), 287, 358ff.; M. Hadas, Hellenistic Culture (1959); F. Jacoby, Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (1958); S. Lieberman, Greek in Jewish Palestine (1942); E. Schwartz, Griechische Geschichtschreiber 1957), 36ff.; E. Gabba, Appiano e la storia delle guerre civili (1956); Y. Gutman, Ha-Sifrut ha-Yehudit ha-Helenistit (1958); L.G. Westerink (ed. and tr.), Damascius, Lectures on the Philebus (1959); W.N. Stearns (ed.), Fragments from Graeco-Jewish Writers (1908); B.Z. Wacholder, in: htr, 61 (1968), 451–81, J.G. Gager, in: jts, 20 (1969), 245–8 [on Helladius]. add. bibliography: M. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism, 3 vols. (1974, 1980, 1984).

[Menahem Stern]

Greek literature

views updated Jun 08 2018

Greek literature One of the longest surviving traditions in world literature. The earliest Greek literature took the form of epic songs, as epitomized by the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, and the didactic poetry of Hesiod, such as Theogony. It also saw the development of lyric poetry, exemplified by the choric lyrics and odes of Pindar. Throughout the Classical period (c.480–c.323 bc) there was a tradition of fine literature in poetry and prose writing. During the Hellenistic Age (323–27 bc), epic, epigrammatic and didactic poetry flourished in the works of Apollonius of Rhodes, Aratus and Callimachus. Herodus revitalized the art of mime. During the Roman period (c.27 bc– 330) important figures included Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, and Ptolemy. Writing in Greek died out after the Turkish invasions of the 15th century, and only revived after their overthrow in 1828. Prominent among the new generation were Dionysios Solomos and Andreas Kalvos. Modern Greek writers of international stature include Nikos Kazantzakis.

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ancient Greek literature