intended to increase the knowledge, interest, and anticipation of the reader, thereby hastening the realization of our hopes and prayers for the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Beit HaMikdash.
Surmounting the Wave
The magnificence of torpid Achaemenian Persia was reserved for the Shah and his entourage hidden away in Persepolis and Shushan HaBira. For this reason, the art and culture of Achaemenian Persia had no real influence on the private lives and tastes of the subject peoples of the empire. The Greeks, on the other hand, threw open the doors of their new bouncy cosmopolitan civilization to all. The Greeks became the world's best architects, artists and sculptors; they wrote magnificent plays and composed melodious music. They were philosophers, scientists, mathematicians and debaters. The fact is that the Greeks did enjoy a more refined life and a higher standard of living than any but their most royal neighbors. The new Greek cities planted in the East by Alexander and his successors, whether Ptolemaic and Seleucid, or Roman, radiated Greek mores, culture, and philosophy throughout the "known world".
Unlike previous conquerors, the Greeks permitted, if they did not encourage, additions to their ranks by the process of cultural assimilation. There were no racial or national barriers. It was no wonder that so many members of the "native" upper classes and literati in Judea and elsewhere in the oikoumene were hypnotized by the brilliance of this new world wide civilization and speculated how they might participate. II Mac. 4:12 describes how young Kohanim, "despising the Temple, and neglecting the sacrifices, hastened to… the place of exercise… not setting by the honors of their fathers, but liking the glory of the Grecians best of all." Josephus notes how the aristocratic Tobiads and their "cultured" friends "retired to King Antiochus (IV) and informed him that they were desirous to leave the laws of their country (i.e. the Torah), and the Jewish way of living… and to follow… the Grecian way of living." The steady "brain drain" of the "best and the brightest" that was suffered by local cultures throughout the oikoumene over generations and centuries, caused them to weaken, atrophy and die. There was, however, one exception.
Judaism had one very important advantage over other local cultures. In contradistinction to the hide-bound sacerdotal cultures of Egypt, Babylonia, and our own Sadducees who restricted religious learning only to members of the priesthood, the Yahadut of Chazal demanded of all Am Yisrael "to occupy themselves with words of Torah." Under the patient tutelage of Chazal, the written Torah and its Oral Tradition became the heritage of Am Yisrael collectively, and not just the property of a small coterie of Mikdash-based Kohanim. This difference in outlook between the Sages and the Sadducees is dramatically illustrated in an absorbing narration from the Gemara. King Yanai asked a Sadducee leader, Eleazar ben Poira, how he should punish the sages whom he believed affronted him. The Sadducee replied, "Trample them under foot." The king then asked, "And what will happen to the Torah?" The Sadducee answered, "It will be wrapped up and laid in a corner, and all who wish to study it, let them come and study" (Kiddushin 66a).
Contrast this Sadducee lassitude with the virile "affirmative action" of Chazal who taught, "Raise up many students!" In Babylon, under the corrosive influence of Hellenic civilization, the ancient Babylonian civilization withered away and entered a long twilight ending in extinction. The number of priests who were able to read and write the sacred cuneiform script and perform the hallowed rites in the Babylonian temples continually decreased; the latest extant cuneiform tablet was written in 76CE. High priests from all over the oikoumene had to "modernize" and "update" their templerites to assuage Greek taste. Even the venerable Egyptian cults were largely Hellenized. Josephus comments, 'Of the nations, some still preserve the names given to them by their founders, some have changed them, while yet others have modified them to make them more intelligible to their neighbors.
It is the Greeks who are responsible for this change of nomenclature; for when after ages they rose to power, they appropriated even the glories of the past, embellishing with names which they (the Greeks) could understand and imposing on them forms of government (and religion), as though they were descended from them- selves'" (AntiquitiesI,5,5). Professor Millar summarizes, "When Seleucus I had been spreading Greek colonies over much of the Fertile Crescent, it is very likely that there had been a large-scale immigration by Greek speakers from Greece itself, the Aegean, and Macedonia… There may even have been some immigration during the Hellenistic period,for instance, when the Greek cities of the Decopolis… came into existence. But, paradoxically, while the full expression of Greek city-culture in the Near East was a feature not of the Hellenistic but of the Roman period, there is nothing whatsoever to suggest that this was achieved by further immigration or settlement from the rest of the Greek world. It was not that, but the adaptation of the norms of Greek city culture by both dependent kings (such as Herod) and local communities which progressively transformed not only cities, old and new, but a vast network of villages into urban, or suburban, communities using Greek" (pg 524).
Deprived of new leadership for generations, the local cultures had stagnated and finally ceased to exist! "By the moment of the conversion of Constantine in 312CE, there was almost no place west of the Euphrates where texts were being inscribed in any other language except Greek and Latin. One isolated… exception is provided by (one) Arabic inscription; another (exception) is a few Nabatean texts… and the third is the continued use of both Hebrew and Aramaic in the epitaphs, mosaics, and building- inscriptions from the Jewish areas of Syria- Palaestina. This last exception of course is the major one… (Jewish culture) was to survive… and express conceptions of a single deity which were wholly at variance with the anthropomorphic cults of Greek paganism. Judaism cannot but be seen in sharp contrast to Graeco-Roman culture" (p.521) "…If we think of a 'culture' in the full sense, as a tradition, an educational system, a set of customs and above all, a collective understanding of the past, then we can find in the Roman Near East only two established cultures: Greek and Jewish" (p. 517). But the dazzling all-encompassing Greek oikoumene is long gone, the Roman Empire, "eternal and divine" has vanished and … B"H, we are still here!
Catriel's book in progress: The Temple of Jerusalem, A Pilgrims Prospective; A Guided Tour through the Temple and the Divine Service