The words for democracy, philosophy, Europe and music all have Greek roots. The Greeks were masters of earthly life and it shows in their culture’s excessive glorification of wine, women and song. But our language owes as deep a debt to another ancient civilization, one with much more heavenly priorities than the Greeks. Words like Messiah and Hallelujah come from the tradition of the Jews. Yes Hallelujah is a Hebrew word! Now we Christians in our services drift between the two languages frequently as the New Testament, thought written by Jews, it was penned in Greek. We find ourselves using terms like Christ and Deacon as frequently as X and Y. It may come as a shock to us that the ancient heights of the Greek and Jewish people were marked by a profoundly bitter military conflict as the Jews felt compelled to resist the rule of the Greeks. How is it that these two great traditions so unified today came to such heavy blows still memorialized in Hanukkah over twenty-two centuries later?
Seeing versus Hearing
The lasting contribution of the Greek mindset is its emphases on the senses and on reason. The Greeks believed that to be real something had to be seen and they saw as much as they could. The great Greek philosophical school; the Epicureans (whom Paul debated in Acts 17) and the Cult of Dionysus inspired the Greeks and other pagans to great works of art, as well as to the senseless debauchery of the gladiatorial games. The Jews by contrast placed their emphasis on hearing over seeing, specifically hearing the Word of God over seeing the intensity of the natural world. To be Jewish in the second century BCE meant more than anything to study the Torah and the living of Torah to hear the Word of God clearly. The scribes had spent centuries since the Prophet Ezra teaching the Jewish people that the ideal Jew is one who studies Torah and that a simple fisherman was more noble than the wealthiest merchant if his love of Torah was greater.
Is all life Sacred?
The pagan world accepted inequalities among men. That the world was clearly divided between the rich and poor, weak and strong was largely considered the natural and preferable order of the world. One can see this most clearly in the blood sports of the arenas. Rather than simply being high stakes combat to enthrall the crowd, they were also something of a civics lesson, especially in the later Greek inspired Roman Empire. The gladiatorial arena was they way for citizens, the wealthy and other elites to revel in their power, seeing men fight to the death simply for your own amusement was their power and prestige laid out clearly before them. This condition was intolerable to devout Jews. God makes clear, repeatedly in scripture that all life is equally sacred. This basic culture clash was repeated in dozens of ways in the classical world, the Jewish demand that all life be seen as equally worthy of respect and love was anathema to the Pagan mind in many ways, but it did win the Jews many followers known as God Fearers – gentiles who closely associated with Israel and the God of Israel. The centurion and perhaps the Phoenician woman Jesus spoke with are examples.
What is Divinity?
The greatest difference between Jews and pagans was their conception of Divinity. In the pagan world, some specific philosophies aside, gods were to be visible representations of natural forces. The Greeks sought to personify the sea so they invented Poseidon. It was also a common practice across the world for leaders to identify themselves as a god. Like Pharaoh in Egypt, many pagan kings saw fit to see themselves as gods, scripture however is very clear that God is not like anything in nature. Not only are Jews forbidden from worshipping a secular king as God, Jews are forbidden from comparing him to any aspect of nature. The prohibition against Idolatry is not just a restriction concerning graven images but a refusal to demean God with any earthly or human comparison.
Not a Conversation but a Demand.
These differences were not always a strong wall between Jews and Greeks. Just before the events commemorated by Hanukkah the Jews translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The Septuagint was an effort of the Jewish scribes to create a bridge between the Greek and Jewish worlds. It was so important a story spread that between the seventy translations written by scribes working on isolation from each other produced identical translations, word for word without deviation. It was considered a minor miracle at the time. Jews also numbered among the great scholars of Greek learning like Philo of Alexandria. The difference was the context at the time. Rather than seeking a dialogue with the Jewish people, Antiochus Epiphanes demanded the Jews convert to Hellenism, the Greek way of thinking and behaving. Rather than seek to speak to the scribes and educate himself, Antiochus banned the study of Torah. Rather than visiting Jerusalem during a pilgrim festival, he had a pig slaughtered in the temple. The Greek mind could not accept the moral authority of an unseen god who values all life nor is answerable to a pagan king.
Thus it was that the Greeks and Jews came to blows.