The Graeco-Judean Connection

Nicholas Carter


It is axiomatic that people cannot be rightly understood and fairly judged unless they are regarded in the light of the standards and values of the society in which they lived. In other words, the peoples of the ancient world should not be judged by our intellectually and culturally molded standards and values.

Comprehending this principle better than most, F. Jackson and K. Lake, the authors of The Beginnings of Christianity, observed several decades ago that the application of psychology to the problems of Christian origins would be more valuable to future writers than the collection, analysis and synthesis of material. To evaluate the processes of man’s subconscious for the purpose of understanding the motivations that bring about monumental changes, however, one must know as much as possible about the people involved – how they lived, what they meant by the words they used, and the AGE in which they lived; and regarding the origins of what eventually became known as Christianity, we must begin this investigation with a day and time that antedates the Palestine of the legendary Nazarene. We must begin with the ancient Greeks.

A moment first to clarify an important point: Since there was no Jesus and no Christianity during the 1st century of the Common Era, there were no “Christians.” Rather than referring to the participants of the early movement that preceded the development of mythological Catholicism as the “early Christians,” I will describe them from this point on as the New Messianists.

The Greek peninsula, jutting southward into the Mediterranean Sea, is a mountainous land, with some plains, divided by small rivers and streams. For many centuries before 1200 B.C., a pre-Greek civilization had developed at Mycene and Argos and Tiryns on the Greek mainland and at Troy on the Asiatic coast.

The established kingdoms of this civilization were eventually overthrown by a series of waves of migration of tribes belonging to an Indo-European family of peoples. These newcomers, who called themselves Achaians, came from the North, possible through Thrace, and settled in Thessaly and Boeotia, in the Peloponnesos and the islands of the western coast, in Crete, and in a few of the neighboring islands off the coast of Asia Minor. They were a true Greek race and they spoke a true Greek tongue.

The Pelasgians (the Greeks gave them the name), who inhabited the area first, remained on the land as a plebeian class governed by the Achaians, who in turn went on to become innovative builders, achieve great wealth, and rule for at least several centuries.

Tragically, the Achaian civilization was destroyed around 1000 B.C. by the invading Dorians, primitive tribes of Greek mountain people who pushed southward from the hills around Thessaly. The Dorian invasion slowed the growth of Greek civilization to the point that it took some time to recreate an equally vigorous social system.

The next important step in the evolution of the luminous Greek cosmos belongs to the Ionians. The appearance of the Ionian name significantly marks the difference between pre-historic and historic Greece. In Homer, the Greeks are a unity – the Achaians. In the Historic age they are divided into three distinct entities: Aeolians, Dorians, and Ionians. The Aeolians were the descendants of the Achaians; the Dorians were Greek mountaineers; and the Ionians, who evolved out of a mixture of the old pre-Hellenic or Pelasgian population and the Achaians, developed as the type of all that is most Greek in the world of intellect. The beginnings of nearly all the great things that civilized minds now respect were then being cultivated in Greece.

And thus it was that the new Greeks emerged to display qualities of leadership in every department of life. Long before the repressive Christian-Judaic system began, Ionian Greek physicists started the world on an orderly, naturalistic interpretation of the cosmos. They discovered the uniformity of nature and the analysis of cause and effect in materialistic terms; and in just a few centuries they achieved more in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, physics and medicine than had been achieved in all previous history.

The remarkable Greeks of the 5th century set the pace for all that was to follow. They produced some of the noblest poetry and art, the finest political thinking, and the most vital philosophy known to the world. In everything they did, from their beautifully cut inscriptions to the epitaphs on the dead, the Greeks displayed a great and pervading instinct for beauty. The conception of beauty as a joy in itself and as a guide in life was first and most joyously expressed in Greece, and the very laws by which things are beautiful or ugly were to a great extent discovered and laid down then and there.

Throughout this era, which began in the 6th century, culminated in the fifth in the Age of Pericles in Athens, and extended down almost to the beginning of the New Messianic age, much of the civilized world was dominated by the genius of Greece. Hence the descriptive appellation – “Hellenistic. (Hellas was a name for Greece; Hellenism represented the culture, ideals and pattern of life of Greece, as represented in Athens at the time of Pericles.) Most amazing of all, perhaps, Greek civilization, while being curiously unstable in some respects and containing serious flaws, was almost totally free of entanglements of elaborate creeds, ceremonies, customs and traditions.

By contrast, little Israel in Palestine was more encumbered with entanglements of just that sort than possibly any other nation on earth. While I can barely scratch the surface of the Greek soul in these pages, my aim is to provide enough of that essence to serve as an introduction to the all-important connection between the Israelites and the Grecians. The genesis of that history-making relationship occurred during the 4th century B.C. when Alexander conquered Palestine and initiated the spread of Hellenic civilization over that part of the world – and nothing that had ever happened to the Jewish nation was as disrupting or as stimulating as that development.

Taking their philosophical and theological writings mostly at face value, we find that the Israelite/Judeans were the strangest of people – overly sensitive under a brash exterior; offensively arrogant but consumed with self-pity; explosive in their emotions, fanatical in their zeal; formalistic, literalistic and legalistic in their religious intensity: always ambivalent, gravitating between self-love and self-hate; obsessed with symbols to the point that they had created a commandment outlawing them; ritualists in conflict with themselves because of the way ritual had enslaved them; hungering for other-worldliness, but contemptuous of the other worlds around them; fanatical in defense of their prejudices; and, for the most part, alienated forever from Gentiles because of a lack of ego-identification, and the curious blend of superiority and inferiority complexes that had emerged to fill that vacuum.

A day in the life of a pious Israelite might follow this pattern: From the moment he awakened until he fell asleep his life would be regulated and governed by what he called holy writings. When he arose he would walk no more than four cubits before washing his hands, nor touch his mouth, nostrils, eyes or ears; he would pour water alternately on each hand three times to the wrist, and then wash his face and mouth; and he would utter a benediction while drying his hands. In dressing and undressing he would observe many divine rules, such as removing or fastening the left shoe or sandal first, or putting on his garments before walking four cubits, or covering his head before uttering thanks. Eating involved the observances of many laws, such as not eating with unclean people. And was the meat nebelah or terefah? Did the animal die only of blood effusion? Were its entrails inspected? If he intended to eat a piece of bread no larger than an egg he would not wash. If he bit into bread and found on it a speck of blood from his gums he would throw it away. Rather than eat meat and milk at the same time he would cut off his hands.

After eating he would neither walk nor ride nor excite his body or in any way weary himself. He would sleep neither on his face nor back, but the first part of the night on his left side, the second part on his right side. It was the duty of his wife to make certain that his position when asleep was correct. Before copulating with his wife, he would have to observe so many rules that it would take him hours to get ready, and then a whole day afterward to purify himself. He would never laugh or play with his children, because the famous sage Jeshua ben Sirach never laughed or played with his children for fear of losing his holiness.

If he was a learned scribe (although not always Pharisees, the scribes were usually of that party) he would be endlessly involved in the disputing of countless matters in the holy writings. Which trees might be used for the booths, for instance. Some said the palm and willow; others, that palm and willow were to be borne aloft by the worshipers before the Holy Place. An eminent scribe, one Hosea ben Jorah, had ruled that the fruit of the godly trees meant the ethrog or citron; that the boughs of thick trees meant the myrtle (provided that it had not more berries than leaves); that the citron must be without blemish; that the palm branches must be three hands high and suitable for shaking; and that all branches must be free of the pollution found {in} idolatrous groves where the heathen worshiped. And on and on, ad infinitum.

Why was the life of the devout Son of Israel consecrated by religious rites? Because so may mitzvoth (duties or opportunities to serve Yahweh) that had been developed over the long centuries by this ritual-intensive nation – with the very plethora of mitzvoths being regarded as just one more indication of Yahweh’s dedication to his chosen people.

Following the introduction of Hellenism to Palestine, a schism soon began to develop within Israel that would inexorably lead to a civil war. Due to the growing dissension the Israelites began to divide their numbers into two principal factions: the Hasidim or Pious – those who were dedicated to being a peculiar and a chosen people who faithfully obeyed the Torah to its last letters, and who were glad to be bitterly contemptuous of all heathen; and the Letzim or Hellenists – those with more adventurous spirits who had learned to value Greek medicine, science, philosophy, sports and arts.

The best philosophy invariably encompasses some eternal quality of creative imagination. And thus it was that the more enlightened Israelites could not help but observe that Hellenism was a thing of the spirit, and not dependent on the place where a person was born, or whether he belonged to a God-chosen race.

Hellenism offered the venturesome Judeans the conception of Freedom and Justice – freedom in body, in speech and in mind, and justice between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor – that penetrates the whole body of Greek political thought, and was, amid obvious faults, actually realized to a remarkable degree in the best of Greek communities. There was also the Greek conception of Truth as an end to pursue for its own sake, a thing to discover and puzzle out by experiment and imagination and especially by reason, a conception essential{ly} allied with that of freedom and opposed both to anarchy and to blind obedience.

What, on the other hand, did Judaism have to offer? Submission instead of beauty; the acceptance of tradition instead of the pursuit of truth; the belief in hallucination or ecstasy instead of reason and temperate thought; a religious aristocracy in which only Jews were good, and all others were evil; a total patriarchy in which the son was exalted, and the daughter ignored: a religious structure in which an entrenched orthodox minority could exercise an exclusive authority over all areas of life and religious practice for an entire people; and inflexible faith in which the prophets demanded with clenched fists and enraged voices, total obedience to Yahweh and total obeisance to the inviolate Law of Yahweh.

Is it any wonder that Hellenism attracted young Israelites hungry for a world of art and poetry? …for a language habitually toned to a higher level both of intensity and nobility than theirs? …for a world of books produced with such genius and vitality, that instead of falling out of fashion in the lifetime of their authors, they continued to inspire men with lofty thoughts and passionate emotions?

Is it any wonder that Judeans exposed to Hellenism could not help but compare Zone who taught that virtue alone established differences between men, with Saul ben Jorah who spent a lifetime trying to prove that Jews were superior to all other peoples? …Euripides who said that humanity drifts on legends, with Amiel ben Micah who speculated endlessly about how many heathen souls it would take to equal one son of Israel? …Epicurus who said that there was no supernatural, with Jeshua ben Sirach who wrote that the badness of men was better than the goodness of women?

As the Letzim saw the Stoic philosophy deny and condemn slavery and preach a religion based on philosophy and humanitas, and a concept of the world as one great city of god and men, they realized above all that while the Jews had the burdensome baggage of righteousness, the Greeks had the liberating wings of reason. And thus it was that many Israelites returned from Alexandria, Tarsus, Ephesus and other cities, steeped in Hellenism, and convinced that Israel should eventually be Hellenized – by force, if necessary.

For over 100 years this controversy swirled within Judea until finally, in the latter part of the 2nd century B.C., the Letzim, well outnumbered by the faithful Jews of Israel, but supported by the Syrians, sought to bring their fellow Israelites, kicking and screaming, out of their own Dark Age. What became known as the War of the Maccabees was the result.

Antiochus Epiphanes had placed the Hellenic Jew Menelaus in absolute power in Jerusalem, assisted by Syrian officials and troops. It was Menelaus who abolished Israel’s worship, making the laws of circumcision and the sabbath punishable by death. He then decreed that heathen altars would be built in all the cities of Judea. And it was Antiochus who declared that Jerusalem would soon be known forevermore as Antiochus Hierosolyma. He was wrong. The Hasidim, organized and led by Judas Maccabaeus and his sons, fought with such fury that they surged to victory by defeating four successive Syrian armies. Around the middle of the 2nd century, the war ended, temple worship was restored, and the surviving Letzim were forced to flee to neighboring countries where people were devoted to the culture of the Greeks. Eventually, this dispersion of Hellenic Judeans was to have an enormously significant effect upon the Western world.

For nearly 100 years following the Maccabaen War and prior to the capture of Jerusalem by Pompey in 63 B.C, bringing the 150 miles of Palestine – a tiny country, bordered by sea on one side and mostly by deserts on the other – under Roman dominance, Jewish priest-kings ruled the country. They were “kings” in name only, however, with none of the power and glory associated with monarchs who ruled under the umbrella of “the divine right of kings.” While the priest-kings were not Hellenized to an extreme degree, they were at least liberalized to the point that they desired more power and influence over all of Israel. During the ascendancy of the priest-kings, the party known as the Sadducees (from the Jewish Tsadduqim), and composed largely of the priestly aristocracy, was formed. Described by orthodox Judeans as “the scoffers” and the “boorish” who were able to persuade only the rich, the Sadducees originated, it appears, in a reaction against the Pharisees, because the priest-kings favored less rigidly observed views and practices of the Law and interests of the Temple priesthood.

The Pharisees (corresponding to the Jewish word parush, separated) represented the militant arm of orthodox Judaism. Noted for their strict and formal observation of rites and ceremonies of the written law and for insistence on the validity of the traditions of the elders, they even added their own further injunctions to the 248 positive commands in the Torah (known to the Christians as the Pentateuch). In the words of Josephus, “They take a pride in the scrupulous observance of the religion of the Fathers and think to themselves that God loves them more than others.” That “scrupulous observance” led them to an “all-embracing scholasticism,” “a cold iron-bound legalism,” and a “zealous formalism.” It is worthy of note that the Catholic hierarchy would eventually perceive in the Pharisees’ claims to the Law only a means to insinuate themselves into the good opinion of the people, while the Jews in turn would regard the Christians’ claims to a superior holiness only as an excuse to emancipate themselves from the common duties of life.

When the Jewish high-priests finally dared to declare themselves to be military and political kings, the schism between the Sadducees and the Pharisees widened even further. Many Jews resented and objected to this arbitrary ascension to power, and it’s possible that some of them withdrew into the wildemess and joined the mysterious group known as the Essenes – “the outsiders”… “the silent ones”… “the pious ones” who had founded the Qumran community. The atmosphere of the time gave rise to numerous fanatical or extremist sects – the Morning Bathers, the Water Drinkers, the Worshipers at Sunrise, and others. The Essenes, whose community was located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, were the people who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Philo said their number was relatively insignificant – less than 4000.

The Essenes were able to make their presence felt, however, when they joined with the Pharisees in a revolt against Alexander Janneus, who succeeded his brother Aristobulus as the high priestly ruler of the Jews in 103 B.C. He then issued coins with the title “king” on them and completed the conquest of Palestine. In violent opposition, the Pharisees led a six-year revolt against Janneus. It’s possible that the Great Teacher of Righteousness whose sufferings are reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls was involved in that uprising. Janneus crushed the revolt in 90 B.C. As for the Righteous Teacher, he was “abandoned by his friends, abused by his enemies, persecuted by the wicked priest who chastised him and harassed him at his place of exile on the day of atonement, and put to death.” The suggested parallel between this scenario and the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth indicates the possible resurrection of the Great Teacher as the New Testament Christ.

An account of the Great Teacher portrayed as the prototype of Jesus the Christ is delineated in my book, The Late Great Book: the Bible. The purpose of this study is to present a different scenario. Why? Orthodox Christianity provides us with a theological view of reality brimming with distorted myths and dramatized allegories based on some profoundly elusive aspects of man’s existence. On the objective side of the fence, we are faced with the most mysterious period of time in Western history due to the fact that we simply don’t know what happened during the first hundred years or so of the Common era – a uniquely significant period of time characterized by the events that apparently paved the way for the development of Gentile Catholicism. Within the purview of speculation and educated guesses, anybody may be right in a situation such as this where nobody knows, even though nobody knows who is right. Nonetheless, the more information that you the reader have, the easier it will be for you to draw your own conclusions about what really happened – should you be so inclined.

A further point: Unlike dogma, scholarly research should always be open-ended. We should be forever aware that what we have learned might be subject to change in the light of future findings, or due to the awareness of new concepts. Hopefully, a deeper understanding is waiting to be recognized. A discovery of ancient scrolls, for instance, which would actually shed some light upon the New Messianic activities of the 1st century, would be of inestimable value.

To be continued with The Messianic Age.


BREASTED, JAMES H.: “We must therefore adjust our minds to the fact that the moral heritage of modern civilized society originated in a time far earlier than the Hebrew settlement in Palestine, and has descended to us from a period when the Hebrew literature now preserved in the Old Testament did not exist.”

DELITZSCH, FRANZ: “Israel in the time of Jesus regarded with suspicion and contempt every trade which necessitated an intercourse with women.”

FOWLER, H.T.: “The Pharisees sought with pathetic devotion to carry out the will of God as prescribed in his law.”

GLOVER, T.R.: “It is interesting to note in passing that the land (Greece) which introduced the Mother of God (Cybele) to the Roman world, also gave the name theotokus (Mother of God) to the church.”

GUIGNEBERT, CHARLES: “It is well established that the Old Testament [the Jewish Old Testament] knows nothing of a suffering messiah… a contradiction in terms, unspeakably repulsive to a Jew, but apologetic exegesis has always been able to accommodate passages to its needs.”

HARNACK, ADOLF: “A great deal of useless discussion has taken place as to the historicity of Jesus, but we know that nineteen-twentieths of his supposed acts and teachings were attributed to various gods all over Asia.”

HATCH, E.: “A large part of what are sometimes called Christian doctrines, and many usages which have prevailed and continue to prevail… are in reality Greek theories and Greeks usages changed in form and color… but in their essence Greek still.”

JOHNSON, WENDELL: “Our problem is in large degree one of unraveling this net of symbolism in which our human destiny has become entangled.”

KLAUSNER, J.: Such is the Jewish conception of God; the wicked are not worthy that God’s sun should rise upon them.

LAKE, KIRSOPP: “If the history of religion has any clear lesson it is that a nearer approach to truth is always a departure from orthodoxy.”

LECKY, W.E.H.: “Sin, in the conception of the ancients, was simply disease… the philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome appealed most strongly to the sense of virtue, and Christianity to the sense of sin.”

MANSON, T.W.: “If with St. Peter (Acts 15:10) we describe the Law as ‘a yoke which neither our fathers nor we are able to bear’, we should have to regard the new law of the Sermon on the Mount as a still more intolerable and impossible burden.”

MONTEFIORE, C.G.: “To talk to a woman, to look at a woman, indeed to have anything to do with a woman, was regarded as dangerous and objectionable to pious Jews.”

OESTERLEY, O.E.: “Judaism had very little sympathy to offer to the unlearned, the ignorant, the weak, the fallen, the sinner.”

RENAN, ERNEST: “The hostility between the good and the bad led him (Enoch) to an eschatology that was absolutely ferocious… perfectly ridiculous… he knows a whole race or celestial beings, whose names he fabricates in the most audacious fashion. All this is pure nonsense.”

ROBERTSON, J.M.: “If the reader, cowed by the truculent negations of some of the anti-mythologists, should reply that there is no documentary ground for the hypothesis of a pre-Christian Jesus-cult, let him be assured that he has been deceived.”

SCHMIDT, N.: “One cannot doubt that Jewish teachers honestly believed the story of the virgin birth to be designed to cover up the disgrace of an illegitimate birth.”

SMITH, ROBERTSON: “The origin and meaning of sacrifices constitute the central problem of ancient religion.”

SUMNER, WILLIAM G.: “It may well be believed that the change from the Mother family to the Father family is the greatest and most revolutionary in the history of civilization.”

SOURCE: The Liberty Bell, September 1990

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