Thursday, February 23, 2017

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Was Chanukah a Complete Rejection of Greek Culture?

Now that Chanukah is past, I thought we could address an interesting question: Was the Maccabean revolt fundamentally an open rejection of Greek culture (i.e., Hellenism)? Over the years I have seen lots of Messianic appeals portray the festival of Chanukah as Jews vs. Greeks. These sermons/blogs etc. often make a “prophetic-style” call for us to reject Greek culture today – separate from the pagans! Some Messianics see Christianity as a pagan, or Greek from of the Jewish faith. Or they call us to reject American/Western/scientific culture – insert your favorite choice here. These impassioned appeals are intended to inspire the same disdain today for modern culture as some Christians have for secular humanism.

But was that really the main issue on the table for Chanukah? Did the Jews of the period, a few hundred years before Yeshua, outright reject anything and everything Greek? You might be surprised to learn that Chanukah actually was not an across-the-board rejection of Greek culture. Far from it.

Let me quote from an author who has done, in my opinion, a marvelous job in highlighting the richness and the importance of Jewish history in the formation of Christianity today. Oskar Skarsaune, author of the masterful work “In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences o Early Christianity,” summarizes the effects of the influence of Hellenism for Jews very nicely here:

"… the Maccabean fighters, who eventually established the Hasmonean Kingdom, were themselves deeply influenced by Hellenism. But theirs was a Hellenism of a different sort—a Hellenism adjusted so as not to contradict the fundamental truths of Judaism. At the same time, as the Maccabees secured political freedom for Judea, their religious supporters—the forerunners of the Pharisees—were able to integrate important elements of Hellenistic culture into Judaism in such a way that it was no longer felt as a threat, but as an enrichment.” (Pg. 27)

Did you catch this subtle, but critical point? The Maccabeans adopted elements of Greek culture as an enrichment of Judaism. Thus it was not Greek vs. Jew in terms of absolute rejection, as is sometimes claimed.

But how can this be so? How can the Jews- the keepers of Torah - be influenced by Greek customs? To document the extent of how Judaism incorporated influence from the Greeks is a bit beyond my scope here –you should read Skarsaune’s book. But I’ll list a few of Skarsaune’s main points here:

1. The concept of logos, a divine reason/law/morality ruling the universe, was applied to the Torah.

2. Jewish exegesis (e.g., the 7 rules of Hillel) reflected Greek thought in rhetoric and law code interpretation.

3. The concept of the tradition of the elders (Rabbi X said in the name of Rabbi Y).

4. The value of study and importance of philosophy.

5. The concept of Judaism as a way of life for people to adopt – it was not just for ethnic divisions.

6. The widespread use of Greek language in Israel.

We could go on, but I hope you get the point. And please do not misunderstand me – it is not to say that these ideas are all Greek replacing Jewish culture. But rather, stated again beautifully by Dr. Skarsaune:

"Instead of a question of incorporating Judaism into Hellenistic culture on Greek terms, the strategy was now to incorporate elements from Hellenistic culture into Judaism—on the terms of the Torah." (pg. 35)

However, lest we think that Jews were abandoning their own culture and identity, we must ask why then would the Jews start a war if they were OK with incorporating elements of Greek culture into their own? Stated another way, what was the line that the Jews did not cross?


That was the Rubicon for Israel - the point of no return. As it should be for us!

You see, Jews were OK with speaking some Greek, and were happy to use Greek rhetorical methods – the catch was that these were accepted insofar as they did not “negate Torah.” But worshiping other gods, replacing the Lord with idols, sexual immorality ... well these were not in the game plan for Israel. Pagan idol worship was clearly against the Torah, and so the Jewish reaction to this “extreme form of Hellenism” was understandably negative. And thus, we have a revolt.

The lesson of Chanukah is still valid today, but not as an absolute rejection of American/Greek/Western etc. culture. There are too many Messianics, too many Christians, who withdraw and separate from society because they hate American culture. Yes, there are clearly some bad elements of American culture – but not all of our modern culture is bad. Need I point out that congregations develop their own cultures too - and not all the time is this culture “Biblically inspired.” But I digress.

Rather than blog violently against anything we don’t like, instead we need to find ways to live in the world through the power of the Gospel, and not adopt elements that negate the Gospel. We must become mirrors that reflect the glory (i.e., light) of God to a dark and depressed world. If you lock yourself in the closet, for fear of being “contaminated by Greek culture,” you will break the Torah supposedly by trying to follow it (Matthew 5:14-16).

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