45.The attraction of the Greek culture

The untimely death of the Greek Emperor ‘Alexander the Great’ brought the issue of his successor to the fore as he had not selected any. The army generals, who had fought shoulder to shoulder with Alexander in all the battles, were now up against each other to gain control over the Greek Empire, especially over the part of the Persian Empire that Alexander had conquered and merged into his own empire. The conflicts continued from 322 BC to 275 BC.

By 306-305 BC, the Greek Empire that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indus River found itself broken into three fragments – Egypt and its neighbouring areas; Greece and Macedonia; Asia Minor and the regions eastward to it.

By 301 BC, ‘Ptolemy’, an army general, appointed ‘chieftain’ of Egypt and its neighbouring areas after Alexander, established sole and singular command over the region but only after facing intense conflicts. Assuming the name ‘Ptolemy-I’, he declared the establishment of the Ptolemy dynasty over the region.

Greek culture, attraction, Alexander the Great, Jews, conflicts, Greece, Torah
Ptolemy as Pharaoh of Egypt (British Museum, London)

With power changing hands, the land of Judah, already a part of the region also came under Ptolemaic sway resulting in an increase in the interaction and exchange of ideas between the Jews and the Greeks to a great extent. Many new cities which epitomized the Greek architecture and lifestyle were built in the regions conquered by Alexander. Of these, the city of Alexandria built by him near Egypt began to be frequented by the Jews. The highly developed lifestyle of the city left them awe-struck. The accounts of an exceedingly advanced social life given by the Jewish travelers on their return to Judah attracted fellow Jews.

The Jews though diligent had spent the last few centuries toiling even for the most basic needs and rights. Moreover, constant foreign invasions had forced them to flee their native land. Thus, the Jews who were weary of hardships were attracted to the glittering Greek society and culture, urban for the most part and at the peak of its glory in the fields of literature, mathematics, science, arts, architecture and sports.

Greek culture, attraction, Alexander the Great, Jews, conflicts, Greece, Torah
Construction in Upper Egypt by the Ptolemies

The fulfillment of basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter was an issue of no relevance for the Greek society that was at the zenith of prosperity. Moreover, the abundance in resources had rendered it hedonistic and materialistic to an extent. The sybaritic society and culture thus greatly fascinated and lured the Jews, especially the youth. They slowly adopted the Greek way of dressing and aiming for the well-built Greek physique, also started training at the gymnasiums. They opted for the forms of entertainment that the Greeks preferred and also began to prefer Greek names for their babies. Moreover, they even revered the Greek deities. The Jewish culture started to mingle with that of the Greeks and was later named by scholars as ‘Hellenistic Judaism’.

Public Greek gymnasiums had become the places for physical training as well as intellectual and philosophical discussions thus attracting the contemporary youth –

Greek culture, attraction, Alexander the Great, Jews, conflicts, Greece, Torah
Public Greek gymnasiums had become the places for physical training as well as intellectual and philosophical discussions thus attracting the contemporary youth

Thus, many contemporary Jewish youth, rather than forsaking the things that went against the Torah, began to abandon their own religious beliefs which they felt, stood in the way of their imbibing the liberal or rather unrestrained Greek lifestyle. Wise Jewish elders, reduced to mere helpless spectators to the changing scene, could do nothing more than swallow the bitter pill. ‘Was the new generation just never going to learn a lesson? Had history not knocked any sense into them?’ regretted the wise, old generation. The thought that theirs was probably the last generation to have made a sincere effort to study the Torah and imbibe its teachings in life, perturbed them.

On the one hand, the Jewish youth felt attracted to the Greek culture while on the other, the Ptolemaic rulers and many others felt an attraction for the Jewish monotheism believing in ‘One Supreme God’. In 272 BC ‘Philadelphus’, the son of Ptolemy-I, succeeded him to the throne of Egypt and its neighbouring areas. He assumed the name of ‘Ptolemy-II’. He felt curious about the Jewish literature especially the Torah. He wished that the holy Torah be translated into Greek and so had 72 Jewish visionary clairvoyants assemble in his capital. He did first test them but then who would vouch for the factual correctness of the translation? Hence, as a remedy to the problem, he asked each of the seventy-two clairvoyants to translate to Greek the entire Torah individually and observing confidentiality.

Greek culture, attraction, Alexander the Great, Jews, conflicts, Greece, Torah
The Ptolemaic Empire

However, when the works of all the seventy-two clairvoyants were compared, they were found to exactly match with one other. The only explanation to this otherwise inexplicable phenomenon could have been divine grace!

But then evidently there was another reason: The Jews had maintained a feeling of reverence for the Torah and the other holy scriptures. There would also be detailed studies and analysis of these scriptures till this period. In addition to divine grace, this was also a reason for all the translations to match with each other. Also, the scholars of this period would explain the Torah to the common masses. Moreover, discussions would also be held during which the scholars would address their doubts.

….and this exactly happened to be the reason why the Jewish scholars objected to the translation of the Torah to Greek or to any other language. They felt that the foreign translators being unaware of the concept of Judaism, its background and of its history, would only be able to literally translate the text. It was very likely that the essence or the spirit; the real message contained in it and could even be misinterpreted.

However, common Jewish masses, especially the youth that was attracted to the Greek culture, took pride in the fact that their religious scripture was being translated into Greek at the demand of the Greeks themselves.

After the death of Alexander the Great, just like Ptolemy who had established his reign over Egypt and its neighbouring areas, ‘Seleucus’, a Syrian-Greek general, established his Seleucid Empire in the ‘Near East’ (modern-day West Asia) and was trying everything to conquer the Ptolemaic Empire.(To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar