March 18, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 12

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    Biblical scholars ready to discuss influences of Hellenism on Judaism

    By Theresa Carson
    News Office

    Hellenism in the Land of Israel, a conference of internationally known scholars jointly sponsored by Chicago and the University of Notre Dame, will explore a historical period that Divinity School Professor John Collins calls “one of the first great confluences of two cultures.”

    Biblical scholars from around the world will debate the influence of Greek culture on Judaism at a conference scheduled for April 18 through 20.

    The influence of Hellenistic culture on Jews who lived in the Diaspora, outside the land of Egypt, has always been acknowledged. Judaism in the land of Israel, however, was often viewed as largely immune to this influence. In 1969, Martin Hengel, currently a professor at the University of Tubingen in Germany, published his dissertation, Judaism and Hellenism, which argued all Judaism in this period was Hellenistic Judaism.

    Hengel’s book, which revolutionized the field of biblical study, will be revisited through conference discussions that will take place on both university campuses. With 30 years of hindsight, Hengel and other scholars will analyze the evidence and debate their differences of opinion about the influences Hellenism had on the Jewish people. Some scholars think Hengel went too far in playing down the differences between the Diaspora and the Jewish homeland.

    The Hebrew culture and the Greek and Latin tradition are the sources of Western culture, Collins said. “After 300 B.C., the whole Near East came under the influence of Greek culture,” he said. One level of Greek influence is shown by the building of gymnasia throughout the Near East, including one in Jerusalem that was to be very controversial.

    In the realm of ideas, Greek philosophy made possible a kind of natural theology in which God was inferred from nature rather than through special revelations. Belief in life after death, which had existed among the Greeks for centuries, also gained ground in Judaism during the Hellenistic period. Natural theology and the belief in life after death also had antecedents in Hebrew tradition, however. They were not simply borrowed from the foreign culture.

    In the realm of social practice, private associations were a widespread feature of Hellenistic society. In this period, Jews too tended to form groups with distinct religious perspectives, such as the Pharisees or the Essenes.

    The main point at issue in the meeting of Hellenism and Judaism is the distinctiveness of biblical tradition. Both in antiquity and in modern times, some people have taken a particularist view that associates revelation with a particular cultural tradition. Others have taken a universalist view, holding that truth can be found in all traditions, and so Greek philosophy and biblical revelation are complementary rather than opposed to one another.

    In an indirect way, the conference will offer insight into today’s merging and clashing of cultures. “It is sort of a case study,” Collins said. “It is good to look at such a problem in circumstances other than one’s own. The distance of 2000 years allows us to see the cultural conflict in perspective.”

    Hellenism in the Land of Israel is open to the public and will begin at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 18, at the Swift Lecture Hall, 1025 E. 58th St. It is sponsored by the Divinity School and the Committee on Jewish Studies at the University and the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

    Opening the conference, Collins will address the impact of Hellenism in Judea with a response by Hanan Eshel from Bar-Ilan University in Israel. Hengel will revisit his book, Judaism and Hellenism, from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Sunday, April 18.

    Other conference speakers will be Erich Gruen from the University of California, Berkeley; Robert Doran from Amherst College; Jan Willem van Henten from the University of Amsterdam; Shaye Cohen of Brown University; Pieter van der Horst of Utrecht; Sean Freyne of Trinity College, Dublin; Tessa Rajak of the University of Reading; and Gregory Sterling of Notre Dame.

    The conference will continue at the University of Notre Dame Monday evening, April 19, and Tuesday, April 20.

    More information may be obtained by phoning (773) 702-8240 or writing Collins at jj-collins@uchicago.edu.