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The Exposure of Jews to Hellenism

Antiochus continued the wars against the Ptolemys in Egypt, and found some success ranging from minor to great. In 168 B.C., however, an invasion into Egypt ended in complete and utter humiliation at the hands of the Romans, an up and coming empire of the time. The Romans, who were allied with the Ptolemys, sent a single representative to Antiochus' army, and the representative commanded Antiochus to withdraw or face some dire consequences. Humiliated, Antiochus complied and limped back home to Persia. Asimov suggests, "it seems reasonable enough to suppose that Antiochus IV, half-maddened with frustration, would be anxious to vent his anger on some victim. . .the Jews were weak enough for the purpose. .." (715). Antiochus IV came to the conclusion that the time had come to put the Jews in their place and began to emphatically thrust Hellenism upon them. He equated Zeus and the God of the Jews, demanded the sacrifice of swine and the like to the gods, and decreed that "pagan altars, idols, and sacred precincts were to be established" (1 Maccabees 1:47 REB). Most the altars Antiochus erected, at least those in the Temple, were probably to himself, since he considered himself an incarnation of Zeus (Asimov 715). Furthermore, and perhaps more interestingly, Antiochus also forced the Jews "on the feast of Dionysus to wear ivy-wreaths and join the procession in his honour" (2 Maccabees 6:7 REB). Some have taken this to suggest that some or all the Jews were forcibly made to join the Mystery Cult of Dionysus (Benson). More on Mystery Cults later.

The Jews had never taken well to such things; in the past, they were repeatedly exiled from their country, forced to live in alien lands, and compelled at sword point to accept pagan gods, and yet Judaism had never buckled. The Jews responded to Antiochus with the rebellion of the Maccabees as recounted in, fittingly enough, the First and Second Book of the Maccabees in the Apocrypha.

Ironically, where thrusting Greek thought on the Jews had failed to particularly influence Judaism as a whole, gradual exposure over the centuries succeeded. Greek thought actually found its way into several of the books of the Old Testament, including later portions of Proverbs and the Apocryphal Song of Solomon (Noss 389).

From all of this, it is clear that the Jews of the era just before Jesus had extensive exposure to Greek thought. This would heavily influence early Christians at the dawn of their theology.

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