Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: Book 1, Chapter 2

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Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: Book 1, Chapter 2


Subjects in this Topic:

Chapter II. The Jewish Dispersion in the West - The Hellenists - Origin of Hellenist Literature in the Greek Translation of the Bible - Character of the Septuagint.

When we turn from the Jewish ‘dispersion’ in the East to that in the West, we seem to breathe quite a different atmosphere. Despite their intense nationalism, all unconsciously to themselves, their mental characteristics and tendencies were in the opposite direction from those of their brethren. With those of the East rested the future of Judaism; with them of the West, in a sense, that of the world. The one represented old Israel groping back into the darkness of the past; the other young Israel, stretching forth its hands to where the dawn of a new day was about to break. These Jews of the West are known by the term Hellenists - from 'e5̔'eb'eb'e7'ed'e9́'e6'e5'e9'ed, to conform to the language and manners of the Greeks.

Whatever their religious and social isolation, it was, in the nature of things, impossible that the Jewish communities in the West should remain unaffected by Grecian culture and modes of thought; just as, on the other hand, the Greek world, despite popular hatred and the contempt of the higher classes, could not wholly withdraw itself from Jewish influences. Witness here the many converts to Judaism among the Gentiles; witness also the evident preparedness of the lands of this ‘dispersion’ for the new doctrine which was to come from Judaea. Many causes contributed to render the Jews of the West accessible to Greek influences. They had not a long local history to look back upon, nor did they form a compact body, like their brethren in the East. They were craftsmen, traders, merchants, settled for a time here or there - units which might combine into communities, but could not form one people. Then their position was not favourable to the sway of traditionalism. Their occupations, the very reasons for their being in a ‘strange land,’ were purely secular. That lofty absorption of thought and life in the study of the Law, written and oral, which characterised the East, was to them something in the dim distance, sacred, like the soil and the institutions of Palestine, but unattainable. In Palestine or Babylonia numberless influences from his earliest years, all that he saw and heard, the very force of circumstances, would tend to make an earnest Jew a disciple of the Rabbis; in the West it would lead him to ‘hellenise.’ It was, so to speak, ‘in the air;’ and he could no more shut his mind against Greek thought than he could withdraw his body from atmospheric influences. That restless, searching, subtle Greek intellect would penetrate everywhere, and flash its light into the innermost recesses of his home and Synagogue.

To be sure, they were intensely Jewish, these communities of strangers. Like our scattered colonists in distant lands, they would cling with double affection to the customs of their home, and invest with the halo of tender memories the sacred traditions of their faith. The Grecian Jew might well look with contempt, not unmingled with pity, on the idolatrous rites practised around, from which long ago the pitiless irony of Isaiah had torn the veil of beauty, to show the hideousness and unreality beneath. The dissoluteness of public and private life, the frivolity and aimlessness of their pursuits, political aspirations, popular assemblies, amusements - in short, the utter decay of society, in all its phases, would he open to his gaze. It is in terms of lofty scorn, not unmingled with indignation, which only occasionally gives way to the softer mood of warning, or even invitation, that Jewish Hellenistic literature, whether in the Apocrypha or in its Apocalyptic utterances, addresses heathenism.

From that spectacle the Grecian Jew would turn with infinite satisfaction - not to say, pride - to his own community, to think of its spiritual enlightenment, and to pass in review its exclusive privileges. It was with no uncertain steps that he would go past those splendid temples to his own humbler Synagogue, pleased to find himself there surrounded by those who shared his descent, his faith, his hopes; and gratified to see their number swelled by many who, heathens by birth, had learned the error of their ways, and now, so to speak, humbly stood as suppliant ‘strangers of the gate,’ to seek admission into his sanctuary. How different were the rites which he practised, hallowed in their Divine origin, rational in themselves, and at the same time deeply significant, from the absurd superstitions around. Who could have compared with the voiceless, meaningless, blasphemous heathen worship, if it deserved the name, that of the Synagogue, with its pathetic hymns, its sublime liturgy, its Divine Scriptures, and those ‘stated sermons’ which ‘instructed in virtue and piety,’ of which not only Philo, Agrippa, and Josephus, speak as a regular institution, but whose antiquity and general prevalence is attested in Jewish writings, and nowhere more strongly than in the book of the Acts of the Apostles?

And in these Synagogues, how would ‘brotherly love’ be called out, since, if one member suffered, all might soon be affected, and the danger which threatened one community would, unless averted, ere long overwhelm the rest. There was little need for the admonition not to ‘forget the love of strangers.’ To entertain them was not merely a virtue; in the Hellenist dispersion it was a religious necessity. And by such means not a few whom they would regard as ‘heavenly messengers’ might be welcomed. From the Acts of the Apostles we knew with what eagerness they would receive, and with what readiness they would invite, the passing Rabbi or teacher, who came from the home of their faith, to speak, if there were in them a word of comforting exhortation for the people. We can scarcely doubt, considering the state of things, that this often bore on ‘the consolation of Israel.’ But, indeed, all that came from Jerusalem, all that helped them to realise their living connection with it, or bound it more closely, was precious. ‘Letters out of Judaea,’ the tidings which some one might bring on his return from festive pilgrimage or business journey, especially about anything connected with that grand expectation - the star which was to rise on the Eastern sky - would soon spread, till the Jewish pedlar in his wanderings had carried the news to the most distant and isolated Jewish home, where he might find a Sabbath-welcome and Sabbath-rest.

Such undoubtedly was the case. And yet, when the Jew stepped out of the narrow circle which he had drawn around him, he was confronted on every side by Grecianism. It was in the forum, in the market, in the counting-house, in the street; in all that he saw, and in all to whom he spoke. It was refined; it was elegant; it was profound; it was supremely attractive. He might resist, but he could not push it aside. Even in resisting, he had already yielded to it. For, once open the door to the questions which it brought, if it were only to expel, or repel them, he must give up that principle of simple authority on which traditionalism as a system rested. Hellenic criticism could not so be silenced, nor its searching light be extinguished by the breath of a Rabbi. If he attempted this, the truth would not only be worsted before its enemies, but stiffer detriment in his own eyes. He must meet argument with argument, and that not only for those who were without, but in order to be himself quite sure of what he believed. He must be able to hold it, not only in controversy with others, where pride might bid him stand fast, but in that much more serious contest within, where a man meets the old adversary alone in the secret arena of his own mind, and has to sustain that terrible hand-to-hand fight, in which he is uncheered by outward help. But why should he shrink from the contest, when he was sure that his was Divine truth, and that therefore victory must be on his side? As in our modern conflicts against the one-sided inferences from physical investigations we are wont to say that the truths of nature cannot contradict those of revelation - both being of God - and as we are apt to regard as truths of nature what sometimes are only deductions from partially ascertained facts, and as truths of revelation what, after all, may be only our own inferences, sometimes from imperfectly apprehended premises, so the Hellenist would seek to conciliate the truths of divine revelation with those others which, he thought, he recognised in Hellenism. But what were the truths of Divine revelation? Was it only the substance of Scripture, or also its form - the truth itself which was conveyed, or the manner in which it was presented to the Jews; or, if both, then did the two stand on exactly the same footing? On the answer to these questions would depend how little or how much he would ‘hellenise.’

One thing at any rate was quite certain. The Old Testament, leastwise, the Law of Moses, was directly and wholly from God; and if so, then its form also - its letter - must be authentic and authoritative. Thus much on the surface, and for all. But the student must search deeper into it, his senses, as it were, quickened by Greek criticism; he must ‘meditate’ and penetrate into the Divine mysteries. The Palestinian also searched into them, and the result was the Midrash. But, whichever of his methods he had applied - the pešat, or simple criticism of the words, the deruš, or search into the possible applications of the text, what might be ‘trodden out’ of it; or the sod, the hidden, mystical, supranatural bearing of the words - it was still only the letter of the text that had been studied. There was, indeed, yet another understanding of the Scriptures, to which St. Paul directed his disciples: the spiritual bearing of its spiritual truths. But that needed another qualification, and tended in another direction from those of which the Jewish student knew. On the other hand, there was the intellectual view of the Scriptures - their Philosophical understanding, the application to them of the results of Grecian thought and criticism. It was this which was peculiarly Hellenistic. Apply that method, and the deeper the explorer proceeded in his search, the more would he feel himself alone, far from the outside crowd; but the brighter also would that light of criticism, which he carried, shine in the growing darkness, or, as he held it up, would the precious ore, which he laid bare, glitter and sparkle with a thousand varying hues of brilliancy. What was Jewish, Palestinian, individual, concrete in the Scriptures, was only the outside - true in itself, but not the truth. There were depths beneath. Strip these stories of their nationalism; idealise the individual of the persons introduced, and you came upon abstract ideas and realities, true to all time and to all nations. But this deep symbolism was Pythagorean; this pre-existence of ideas which were the types of all outward actuality, was Platonism! Broken rays in them, but the focus of truth in the Scriptures. Yet these were rays, and could only have come from the Sun. All truth was of God; hence theirs must have been of that origin. Then were the sages of the heathen also in a sense God-taught - and God-teaching, or inspiration, was rather a question of degree than of kind!

One step only remained; and that, as we imagine, if not the easiest, yet, as we reflect upon it, that which in practice would be most readily taken. It was simply to advance towards Grecianism; frankly to recognise truth in the results of Greek thought. There is that within us, name it mental consciousness, or as you will, which, all unbidden, rises to answer to the voice of intellectual truth, come whence it may, just as conscience answers to the cause or moral truth or duty. But in this case there was more. There was the mighty spell which Greek Philosophy exercised on all kindred minds, and the special adaptation of the Jewish intellect to such subtle, if not deep, thinking. And, in general, and more powerful than the rest, because penetrating everywhere, was the charm of Greek literature, with its brilliancy; of Greek civilisation and culture, with their polish and attractiveness; and of what, in one word, we may call the ‘time-spirit,’ that 'f4'f5'f1'e1'ed'ed'ef'f2, who rules all in their thinking, speaking, doing, whether they list or not.

Why, his sway extended even to Palestine itself, and was felt in the innermost circle of the most exclusive Rabbinism. We are not here referring to the fact that the very language spoken in Palestine came to be very largely charged with Greek, and even Latin, words Hebraised, since this is easily accounted for by the new circumstances, and the necessities of intercourse with the dominant or resident foreigners. Nor is it requisite to point out how impossible it would have been, in presence of so many from the Greek and Roman world, and after the long and persistent struggle of their rulers to Grecianise Palestine, nay, even in view of so many magnificent heathen temples on the very soil of Palestine, to exclude all knowledge of, or contact with Grecianism. But not to be able to exclude was to have in sight the dazzle of that unknown, which as such, and in itself, must have had peculiar attractions to the Jewish mind. It needed stern principle to repress the curiosity thus awakened. When a young Rabbi, Ben Dama, asked his uncle whether he might not study Greek Philosophy, since he had mastered the ‘Law’ in every aspect of it, the older Rabbi replied by a reference to Jos_1:8 : ‘Go and search what is the hour which is neither of the day nor of the night, and in it thou mayest study Greek Philosophy.’ Yet even the Jewish patriarch, Gamaliel II., who may have sat with Saul of Tarsus at the feet of his grandfather, was said to have busied himself with Greek, as he certainly held liberal views on many points connected with Grecianism. To be sure, tradition justified him on the ground that his position brought him into contact with the ruling powers, and, perhaps, to further vindicate him, ascribed similar pursuits to the elder Gamaliel, although groundlessly, to judge from the circumstance that he was so impressed even with the wrong of possessing a Targum on Job in Aramaean, that he had it buried deep in the ground.

But all these are indications of a tendency existing. How wide it must have spread, appears from the fact that the ban had to be pronounced on all who studied ‘Greek wisdom.’ One of the greatest Rabbis, Elisha ben Abujah, seems to have been actually led to apostacy by such studies. True, he appears as the ‘aḥer’ - the ‘other’ - in Talmudic writings, whom it was not proper even to name. But he was not yet an apostate from the Synagogue when those ‘Greek songs’ ever flowed from his lips; and it was in the very Beth-ha-Midrash, or theological academy, that a multitude of sip̱rē minim (heretical books) flew from his breast, where they had lain concealed. It may be so, that the expression ‘sip̱rē homeros’ (Homeric writings), which occur not only in the Talmud but even in the Mishnah referred preeminently, if not exclusively, to the a religious or semi-religious Jewish Hellenistic literature, outside even the Apocrypha. But its occurrence proves, at any rate, that the Hellenists were credited with the study of Greek literature, and that through them, if not more directly, the Palestinians had become acquainted with it.

This sketch will prepare us for a rapid survey of that Hellenistic literature which Judaea so much dreaded. Its importance, not only to the Hellenists but to the world at large, can scarcely be over-estimated. First and foremost, we have here the Greek translation of the Old Testament, venerable not only as the oldest, but as that which at the time of Jesus held the place of our ‘Authorized Version,’ and as such is so often, although freely, quoted, in the New Testament. Nor need we wonder that it should have been the people’s Bible, not merely among the Hellenists, but in Galilee, and even in Judaea. It was not only, as already explained, that Hebrew was no longer the ‘vulgar tongue’ in Palestine, and that written Targumim were prohibited. But most, if not all - at least in towns - would understand the Greek version; it might be quoted in intercourse with Hellenist brethren or with the Gentiles; and, what was perhaps equally, if not more important, it was the most readily procurable. From the extreme labour and care bestowed on them, Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible were enormously dear, as we infer from a curious Talmudical notice, where a common woollen wrap, which of course was very cheap, a copy of the Psalms, of Job, and torn pieces from Proverbs, are together valued at five maneh - say, about 191. Although this notice dates from the third or fourth century, it is not likely that the cost of Hebrew Biblical MSS. was much lower at the time of Jesus. This would, of course, put their possession well nigh out of common reach. On the other hand, we are able to form an idea of the cheapness of Greek manuscripts from what we know of the price of books in Rome at the beginning of our era. Hundreds of slaves were there engaged copying what one dictated. The result was not only the publication of as large editions as in our days, but their production at only about double the cost of what are now known as ‘cheap’ or ‘people’s editions.’ Probably it would be safe to compute, that as much matter as would cover sixteen pages of small print might, in such cases, be sold at the rate of about sixpence, and in that ratio. Accordingly, manuscripts in Greek or Latin, although often incorrect, must have been easily attainable, and this would have considerable influence on making the Greek version of the Old Testament the ‘people’s Bible.’

The Greek version, like the Targum of the Palestinians, originated, no doubt, in the first place, in a felt national want on the part of the Hellenists, who as a body were ignorant of Hebrew. Hence we find notices of very early Greek versions of at least parts of the Pentateuch. But this, of course, could not suffice. On the other hand, there existed, as we may suppose, a natural curiosity on the part of students, especially in Alexandria, which had so large a Jewish population, to know the sacred books on which the religion and history of Israel were founded. Even more than this, we must take into account the literary tastes of the first three Ptolemies (successors in Egypt of Alexander the Great), and the exceptional favour which the Jews for a time enjoyed. Ptolemy I. (Lagi) was a great patron of learning. He projected the Museum in Alexandria, which was a home for literature and study, and founded the great library. In these undertakings Demetrius Phalereus was his chief adviser. The tastes of the first Ptolemy were inherited by his son, Ptolemy II. (Philadelphus), who had for two years been co-regent. In fact, ultimately that monarch became literally book-mad, and the sums spent on rare MSS., which too often proved spurious, almost pass belief. The same may be said of the third of these monarchs, Ptolemy III. (Euergetes). It would have been strange, indeed, if these monarchs had not sought to enrich their library with an authentic rendering of the Jewish sacred books, or not encouraged such a translation.

These circumstances will account for the different elements which we can trace in the Greek version of the Old Testament, and explain the historical, or rather legendary, notices which we have of its composition. To begin with the latter. Josephus has preserved what, no doubt in its present form, is a spurious letter from one Aristeas to his brother Philocrates, in which we are told how, by the advice of his librarian (?), Demetrius Phalereus, Ptolemy II. had sent by him (Aristeas) and another officer, a letter, with rich presents, to Eleazar, the High-Priest at Jerusalem; who in turn had selected seventy-two translators (six out of each tribe), and furnished them with a most valuable manuscript of the Old Testament. The letter then gives further details of their splendid reception at the Egyptian court, and of their sojourn in the island of Pharos, where they accomplished their work in seventy-two days, when they returned to Jerusalem laden with rich presents, their translation having received the formal approval of the Jewish Sanhedrin at Alexandria. From this account we may at least derive as historical these facts: that the Pentateuch - for to it only the testimony refers - was translated into Greek, at the suggestion of Demetrius Phalereus, in the reign and under the patronage - if not by direction - of Ptolemy II. (Philadelphus). With this the Jewish accounts agree, which describe the translation of the Pentateuch under Ptolemy - the Jerusalem Talmud in a simpler narrative, the Babylonian with additions apparently derived from the Alexandrian legends; the former expressly noting thirteen, the latter marking fifteen, variations from the original text.

The Pentateuch once translated, whether by one, or more likely by several persons, the other books of the Old Testament would naturally soon receive the same treatment. They were evidently rendered by a number of persons, who possessed very different qualifications for their work - the translation of the Book of Daniel having been so defective, that in its place another by Theodotion was afterwards substituted. The version, as a whole, bears the name of the LXX. - as some have supposed from the number of its translators according to Aristeas’ account - only that in that case it should have been seventy-two; or from the approval of the Alexandrian Sanhedrin - although in that case it should have been seventy-one; or perhaps because, in the popular idea, the number of the Gentile nations, of which the Greek (Japheth) was regarded as typical, was seventy. We have, however, one fixed date by which to compute the completion of this translation. From the prologue to the Apocryphal ‘Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sirach,’ we learn that in his days the Canon of Scripture was closed; and that on his arrival, in his thirty-eighth year, in Egypt, which was then under the rule of Euergetes, he found the so-called LXX. version completed, when he set himself to a similar translation of the Hebrew work of his grandfather. But in the 50th chapter of that work we have a description of the High-Priest Simon, which is evidently written by an eye-witness. We have therefore as one term the pontificate of Simon, during which the earlier Jesus lived; and as the other, the reign of Euergetes, in which the grandson was at Alexandria. Now, although there were two High-Priests who bore the name Simon, and two Egyptian kings with the surname Euergetes, yet on purely historical grounds, and apart from critical prejudices, we conclude that the Simon of Ecclus. 50 was Simon I., the Just, one of the greatest names in Jewish traditional history; and similarly, that the Euergetes of the younger Jesus was the first of that name, Ptolemy III., who reigned from 247 to 221 b.c. In his reign, therefore, we must regard the LXX. version as, at least substantially, completed.

From this it would, of course, follow that the Canon of the Old Testament was then practically fixed in Palestine. That Canon was accepted by the Alexandrian translators, although the more loose views of the Hellenists on ‘inspiration,’ and the absence of that close watchfulness, exercised over the text in Palestine, led to additions and alterations, and ultimately even to the admission of the Apocrypha into the Greek Bible. Unlike the Hebrew arrangement of the text into the Law, the Prophets, and the (sacred) Writings, or Hagiographa, the LXX. arrange them into historical, prophetical, and poetic books, and count twenty-two, after the Hebrew alphabet, instead of twenty-four, as the Hebrews. But perhaps both these may have been later arrangements, since Philo evidently knew the Jewish order of the books. What text the translators may have used we can only conjecture. It differs in almost innumerable instances from our own, though the more important deviations are comparatively few. In the great majority of the lesser variations our Hebrew must be regarded as the correct text.

Putting aside clerical mistakes and misreadings, and making allowance for errors of translation, ignorance, and haste, we note certain outstanding facts as characteristic of the Greek version. It bears evident marks of its origin in Egypt in its use of Egyptian words and references, and equally evident traces of its Jewish composition. By the side of slavish and false literalism there is great liberty, if not licence, in handling the original; gross mistakes occur along with happy renderings of very difficult passages, suggesting the aid of some able scholars. Distinct Jewish elements are undeniably there, which can only be explained by reference to Jewish tradition, although they are much fewer than some critics have supposed. This we can easily understand, since only those traditions would find a place which at that early time were not only received, but in general circulation. The distinctively Grecian elements, however, are at present of chief interest to us. They consist of allusions to Greek mythological terms, and adaptations of Greek Philosophical ideas. However few, even one well-authenticated instance would lead us to suspect others, and in general give to the version the character of Jewish Hellenising. In the same class we reckon what constitutes the prominent characteristic of the LXX. version, which, for want of better terms, we would designate as rationalistic and apologetic. Difficulties - or what seemed such - are removed by the most bold methods, and by free handling of the text; it need scarcely be said, often very unsatisfactorily. More especially a strenuous effort is made to banish all anthropomorphisms, as inconsistent with their ideas of the Deity. The superficial observer might be tempted to regard this as not strictly Hellenistic, since the same may be noted, and indeed is much more consistently carried out, in the Targum of Onkelos. Perhaps such alterations had even been introduced into the Hebrew text itself. But there is this vital difference between Palestinianism and Alexandrianism, that, broadly speaking, the Hebrew avoidance of anthropomorphisms depends on objective - theological and dogmatic - the Hellenistic on subjective - Philosophical and apologetic - grounds. The Hebrew avoids them as he does what seems to him inconsistent with the dignity of Biblical heroes and of Israel. ‘Great is the power of the prophets,’ he writes, ‘who liken the Creator to the creature;’ or else ‘a thing is written only to break it to the ear’ - to adapt it to our human modes of speaking and understanding; and again, the ‘words of the Torah are like the speech of the children of men.’ But for this very purpose the words of Scripture may be presented in another form, if need be even modified, so as to obviate possible misunderstanding, or dogmatic error. The Alexandrians arrived at the same conclusion, but from an opposite direction. They had not theological but Philosophical axioms in their minds - truths which the highest truth could not, and, as they held, did not contravene. Only dig deeper; get beyond the letter to that to which it pointed; divest abstract truth of its concrete, national, Judaistic envelope - penetrate through the dim porch into the temple, and you were surrounded by a blaze of light, of which, as its portals had been thrown open, single rays had fallen into the night of heathendom. And so the truth would appear glorious - more than vindicated in their own sight, triumphant in that of others!

In such manner the LXX. version became really the people’s Bible to that large Jewish world through which Christianity was afterwards to address itself to mankind. It was part of the case, that this translation should be regarded by the Hellenists as inspired like the original. Otherwise it would have been impossible to make final appeal to the very words of the Greek; still less, to find in them a mystical and allegorical meaning. Only that we must not regard their views of inspiration - except as applying to Moses, and even there only partially - as identical with ours. To their minds inspiration differed quantitatively, not qualitatively, from what the rapt soul might at any time experience, so that even heathen philosophers might ultimately be regarded as at times inspired. So far as the version of the Bible was concerned (and probably on like grounds), similar views obtained at a later period even in Hebrew circles, where it was laid down that the Chaldee Targum on the Pentateuch had been originally spoken to Moses on Sinai, though afterwards forgotten, till restored and reintroduced.

Whether or not the LXX. was read in the Hellenist Synagogues, and the worship conducted, wholly or partly, in Greek, must be matter of conjecture. We find, however, a significant notice to the effect that among those who spoke a barbarous language (not Hebrew - the term referring specially to Greek), it was the custom for one person to read the whole parašah (or lesson for the day), while among the Hebrew-speaking Jews this was done by seven persons, successively called up. This seems to imply that either the Greek text alone was read, or that it followed a Hebrew reading, like the Targum of the Easterns. More probably, however, the former would be the case, since both Hebrew manuscripts, and persons qualified to read them, would be difficult to procure. At any rate, we know that the Greek Scriptures were authoritatively acknowledged in Palestine, and that the ordinary daily prayers might be said in Greek. The LXX. deserved this distinction from its general faithfulness - at least, in regard to the Pentateuch - and from its preservation of ancient doctrine. Thus, without further referring to its full acknowledgment of the doctrine of Angels (comp. Deu_32:8, Deu_33:2), we specially mark that it preserved the Messianic interpretation of Gen_49:10; Num_24:7; Num_24:17; and Num_24:23, bringing us evidence of what had been the generally received view two and a half centuries before the birth of Jesus. It must have been on the ground of the use made of the LXX. in argument, that later voices in the Synagogue declared this version to have been as great a calamity to Israel as the making of the golden calf, and that its completion had been followed by the terrible omen of an eclipse, that lasted three days. For the Rabbis declared that upon investigation it had been found that the Torah could be adequately translated only into Greek, and they are most extravagant in their praise of the Greek version of akulas, or Aquila, the proselyte, which was made to counteract the influence of the LXX. But in Egypt the anniversary of the completion of the LXX. was celebrated by a feast in the island of Pharos, in which ultimately even heathens seem to have taken part.