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HELLENISTIC JUDAISM

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  • Dennis Goffin
    I am currently reading Howard Marshall s commentary on the Book of Acts. It is clear that the central clues to the development of Christianity are to be found
    Message 1 of 2 , Aug 27 6:23 AM
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      I am currently reading Howard Marshall's commentary on the Book of Acts. It is clear that the central clues to the development of Christianity are to be found there and Marshall is very helpful in giving pointers. One of the things which he brings out and which I find important is that he goes into the composition of the various synagogues in existence at the time of Jesus in Jerusalem. He makes the point for example that Paul probably belonged to the synagogue of the Cilicians and this would be one of the synagogues of the Hellenists, that is to say those Jews settled in Jerusalem whose first language was Greek.

      These Hellenists however were not totally unified in their beliefs, since some were very conservative and strongly held to the Temple and the law whereas others had absorbed not only the Greek language but also the whole hinterland of Greek thought including the details of the various mystery religions. There would accordingly appear to be at least four different strands of belief in existence. The Sadducees for example and the Pharisees would still hold to Judaism without believing in Jesus as the Messiah. Some of the priests became converted and may possibly have continued to believe in the Temple and the law whilst believing that Jesus was the Messiah. It would seem that the dynastic group under James was of this type. All these Jews would have Aramaic as their first language and their 'Weltanschauung' would be dominated by traditional Hebrew thought patterns. The trouble that seems to have broken out which caused the persecution of Stephen and Philip would seem to have arisen from conflict within one or more Hellenistic synagogues between conservative members and those who had started to import Greek ideas from mystery religions into their Judaism.

      Given the fact that earlier, Judaism had imported Iranian ideas into its theology and at the time of Jesus the whole of the ancient world including the Romans held the Greek language and thought in such high esteem makes it highly probable that Hellenistic Jews brought up in the diaspora would easily synchretize elements from their Greek education into their Judaism. It has been puzzling me for some considerable time as to why workaday expressions like 'the son of man' in Aramaic should suddenly have attained transcendent meanings in the Greek Gospels and also in Acts. The answer I believe is that although originally these words were merely being translated literally yet nevertheless once they were transferred into the Greek language and the whole hinterland of Greek thought they started to acquire a significance totally different from that carried by the original Aramaic.

      This is particularly exemplified by the Greek word for Messiah which in Paul's epistles becomes not so much a description of Jesus's role but almost an integral part of his name. 'Son of God' also changes significantly from Aramaic usage into Greek. In the Old Testament all the Jews were regarded as sons of God and there was no special ring of divinity to such an expression unlike its use in the New Testament. I would therefore like to postulate the scenario that Saul was a conservative Hellenistic Jew who persecuted those Hellenistic Jews who imported ideas from the mystery religions into their Judaism and regarded Jesus accordingly. Paul's conversion was in fact to the belief system of the very people he had started to persecute and Paul's theology is merely an extension of the ideas of the Hellenistic Jews whom he originally persecuted.

      This is a rough sketch of the bare outline of my thesis and it obviously still needs a lot of fleshing out and emendation.

      Dennis Goffin

      Chorleywood UK


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