Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period: (Abridged Edition)

Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period: (Abridged Edition)

by Erwin Ramsdell Goodenough

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This volume presents the most important portions of Erwin Goodenough's classic thirteen-volume work, a magisterial attempt to encompass human spiritual history in general through the study of Jewish symbols in particular. Revealing that the Jewish religion of the period was much more varied and complex than the extant Talmudic literature would lead us to believe,


This volume presents the most important portions of Erwin Goodenough's classic thirteen-volume work, a magisterial attempt to encompass human spiritual history in general through the study of Jewish symbols in particular. Revealing that the Jewish religion of the period was much more varied and complex than the extant Talmudic literature would lead us to believe, Goodenough offered evidence for the existence of a Hellenistic-Jewish mystic mythology far closer to the Qabbalah than to rabbinical Judaism.

Originally published in 1989.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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"Since [Jacob Neusner's one-volume abridgement] presents the fruits of Goodenough's decades-long study of ancient Jewish art, climaxed by his study of the third-century synagogue at Dura-Europas, it is probably the best introduction to Goodenough's mature thought. Neusner contributes a twenty-nine-page foreword that explains the enduring importance of the entire thirteen-volume work."—David M. Hay, Studia Philonica Annual 1

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Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period

By Erwin R. Goodenough, Jacob Neusner


Copyright © 1968 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-09967-5


The Problem

The problem in the origin of Christianity to which this study hopes to contribute is that of its rapid hellenization. Christianity began, as far as we know, with a simple Galilean peasant, who, like Amos of old, spoke moving words to an audience which as a whole little understood or liked his message. As to details of Jesus' message we are in almost constant difficulty, but his way of thinking seems to have been so genuinely a product of the Judaism of his environment that strongly as he denounced aspects of that Judaism, any real departure from it has usually seemed foreign to his mind. The Fourth Gospel has been taken to be an interpretation of Jesus in terms recognizably hellenistic: but how could such a transformation of Jesus' teaching so early have begun in the Christian community, so early indeed that the documents most generally dated as the earliest, that is the letters of Paul, seem to me completely oriented to Hellenism? Could Paul have met Peter and James and Andrew and Bartholomew, have heard their burning messianism as he led them and their followers to persecution, and then, miraculously converted, have looked about him to borrow this from Platonism, that from Mithra, the other from Isis, so as to construct a new religion of salvation about the risen Lord? Or did someone else do so, and Paul follow him? One has to admit such possibilities, but deny categorically their remote probability. It seems incredible that early Christianity could ever out of hand have borrowed the sacred cup from Dionysus, the Virgin Mother from any one of a dozen stories of the miraculous impregnation of a human mother by the god to produce the saving infant, baptismal regeneration from, again, one of a number of sources, and a Savior who had conquered death from the hellenized Egyptian-Roman-Syrian world in general, while it continued its Jewish detestation of all these religions, and its refusal, at the price of martyrdom, to have any truck with them whatever. Paul himself certainly did not "found" such a hellenized Christianity, for subsequent but early hellenized documents of Christianity use surprisingly little the phrases which distinguish Paul's own thought.

How then could Christianity so early and quickly have been hellenized? Only two answers to the problem are possible. The first is the traditional position of the Church, that divine revelation continued throughout the Apostolic Age and was institutionalized by God himself in the Church. SoJesus himself founded the Eucharist and the Church; Paul, "John," and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews got by direct revelation from God himself the theologv of original sin, baptismal regeneration, the theory of atonement, and the incarnate Logos, all of which were implicit in Jesus' own teaching; and the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, with the Descent into Hell, happened as truly as the Crucifixion itself. Traditional Christian faith has no important problem. Conceiving the origin of Christianity in this way, Catholic theologians have denied any essential development or evolution in Christian doctrine. That early Christians changed the form of presenting their message, Catholic theologians admit, but they hold this change to represent a divine unfolding of ideas already implicit in the teaching of Jesus himself, who of course taught all that is ascribed to him in the Fourth Gospel. Hellenistic religiosity never brought into Christianity anything essentially foreign to the thought of Jesus and his disciples. Catholics admit that Christians learned to speak and write in Greek, and came to express themselves in words which have an ancient history in paganism. But into these words, it is believed, the early Christians, Jesus himself, put a new content The old words charis (grace), pistis (faith), agape (love), soteria (salvation), took on new meanings under divine revelation, meanings which we learn from Christian sources, not from the previous usages of these words in Plato or the Stoics or the papyri.

This is the position of traditional faith, but faith alone can hold it. Liberal Christian scholars on the other hand have been so busy minimizing the importance of theology and the sacraments in order to throw into relief the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (well expurgated), that they have essentially ignored the historical problem of how what they admit to be the hellenized version of Christianity can have begun. They have called the change "hellenization" without facing the problem such a word implies. Theology and sacrament seemed to them in one way or another false growths on a tree whose inner core of being was the ethics of Jesus. But Jews hated paganism, especially pagan worship and mvthology, and Christians learned this lesson well from Judaism. The wall of prejudice against paganism could not have been suddenly broken down, or scaled, so that Christianity could be hellenized while it continued, as it did in all its writings, to show only deep hatred for paganism. Indeed a sudden collapse of resistance to paganism would have meant a complete fusion with it in the suction of contemporary syncretism. For Judaism and Christianity to keep their integrity, any appropriations from paganism had to be very gradual. In three centuries Christianity might have made its eclectic borrowings, but not in three decades, or less. It has taken Christianity centuries even partially to accept the modern world of empirical knowledge, yet liberal historians of Christianity would have us believe that Christianity had begun in a quarter of a century to adopt the pagan thoughtways it professed to hate, and that by the time another fifty years had passed, the Church was united in a largely pagan point of view and cultus.

It is this problem of the speed with which the transition was made, without any one thinker actually "founding" a new hellenistic Christianity, which has seemed to me for many years not adequately to have been faced. No master mind set the character of hellenized Christianity as Plato set the character of the thinking of his disciples. From the letters of Paul, the Fourth Gospel, and the Letter to the Hebrews we have three approaches to the problem which, for all they have in common, seem independent expressions of a similar tendency toward hellenized thinking rather than developments of any two of them from the third. Liberals like Frank Porter tried to solve the problem by minimizing the differences in point of view between Paul and Jesus, making the "mind of Christ," as presented in the first three Gospels, the "mind of Paul." With Paul thus in the "Palestinian" tradition, the Fourth Gospel and Hebrews could be dated as much later as one pleased, and so time would be gained, at least a little time, for the transition. But Porter seems to me to have obscured the essential interest of Paul, which was to experience what in Greek tradition we should call the Orphic escape from the body or flesh to the soul or spirit, a dream of escape which is nowhere in the synoptic tradition ascribed to Jesus. Only time, and much time, could have made possible such a change in the value of Jesus to his disciples as the bringing in of this pagan notion represents. A single individual like Paul could have done it, but if he had done it all alone, subsequent writings would have been "Pauline" as the letters to Timothy are Pauline, and the Fourth Gospel is not.

We must then, with the Catholics, give up any reality in the word "hellenization," explain Christianity as a divinely inspired flowering of ideas with a verbal, but no essential debt to the pagan world, or else see where there might have been time for a leisurely fusion of thinking. If that leisurely fusion with paganism did not take place in Christianity, then it must have been antecedently prepared for the early Christians in a Judaism (not all Judaism) which had in a gradual way come to be hellenized. The fusion of Jewish and pagan attitudes in Christianity, already beginning to be adapted to Christianity in Paul and "John" and Hebrews, could not have occurred de novo in those early Christian decades, and so must have been made antecedently ready for that adaptation within Judaism itself, or some type of Judaism. So if we had no evidence for a hellenized Judaism at all we should have had to invent it, I early concluded, to make the origin of Christianity historically conceivable. Or else we should have to admit with the Catholics that for all that the beginning of Christianity occurred in a period of history as an actual phenomenon of the past, it was never in its character subject to the criteria or developments of historical movements, was never itself an historical movement at all, but something which came revealed as a totality from God. The dilemma has not been properly faced because liberal Christians, to whom the mass of students of Christian origin and history for the last century have belonged, have wanted to make Christianity almost an historical movement, but to discover, as its Wesen, a core which is essentially superhuman and beyond the vicissitudes of human origin and development. So they would talk of the "development" of theology and its hellenization, but speak of the ethical teachings of Jesus as though these were transcendent ultimates. These scholars were so dedicated to the task of demonstrating the dominance, especially through the New Testament literature, of the divine Wesen, the ethics of Jesus, that they ignored the difficulties which their recognition of Christian theology as a hellenization implied.

This is the problem, accordingly, which has been before me all my life. I was spared the difficulty of "inventing" hellenistic Judaism by early discovering it as an actuality, and as a vital influence in early Christianity. My doctor's dissertation, The Theology of Justin Martyr, gained point by having as its thesis the obvious fact that Justin's Old Testament allegory was in large part a patent adaptation for Christian purposes of allegories known to have been Jewish because they appear in Philo. That Justin, in the way dear to philological fancy, was writing with the text of Philo in mind did not at all appear: but that he was writing with a very similar tradition in mind was indisputable, and was much more important than his having the text of Philo before him, for it indicated a widespread Judaism similar to that of Philo on which Justin could draw, a tradition which turned the Old Testament stories into revelations of the nature of the Logos, and made the pattern of religion the pagan one of appropriation of and union with this Logos rather than the typical Jewish one of obedience. So I suggested at the end of the dissertation that the hellenization of Christianity had been made possible because Jews in the pagan world had opened doors through which pagan notions had come into their Judaism; that when such Jews became Christians these notions were already at home in their minds as a part of their Judaism itself, and so at once became a part of their Christianity.

To investigate the possibilities of this hypothesis has been the concern of all my subsequent investigations. Actually, direct evidence for a hellenized Judaism does exist and can be studied. Philo, of course, is the chief source, and in studying his writings the important thing seemed to me to study and reconstruct the sort of thinking he revealed. How had his Judaism modified what he took from paganism, and how did paganism affect his Judaism? Still more important was it to come to appreciate the fusion of the two into a unit, the unit that all Philo's writings passionately try to present. To pull the two apart and keep them apart, to insist that Philo was essentially a normative or Pharisaic Jew, expressing Pharisaism in a Greek terminology which never really changed the Pharisaism, is to miss Philo himself altogether. I am sure it is to miss hellenized Judaism just as completely. That all Jews in Alexandria (or Rome or Ephesus) were as mystical as Philo, Philo himself assures us over and again was not the case. The question of the relevance of Philo for understanding the background of early Christian hellenization hangs squarely upon this: How typical was Philo? It is easy to demonstrate the hellenization of Philo—even G. F. Moore admitted this; but he insisted that Philo was a unique phenomenon, and concerned with Greek points of view in a way that other Jews even in Alexandria could not have been; thus Philo, except as one could find that his writings were actually used by a later writer, could not be considered important to explain anything else, either in early Christianity or Judaism.

On this I think Moore was demonstrably wrong from the evidence of Philo himself. Philo was not unique in his thinking. He speaks to and of a group of mystic Jews, and contrasts their point of view frequently with that of the ordinary Jew, who could not "cross the Jordan," as he called it, that is, get beyond (while still observing) the legal requirements, to come into the metaphysical reality that Philo found implicit in the Torah. But direct evidence outside Philo's writings for such a group is almost negligible. There are, to name only the most important works, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Letter of Aristeas, the Jewish Sibylline Books, the three last books of Maccabees, especially Fourth Maccabees, the strange fragments quoted by Eusebius, the pseudo-Justinian Oratio ad Graecos, the Mystic Liturgy, and the little Jewish apology in the Clementine Homilies. None of this, or all of it added together, justified my a priori, namely that there must have been a general movement of hellenized Judaism, not just a few stray hellenized Jews, since the hellenization of Christianity seemed to me to imply a general tradition on which Paul and the authors of the Fourth Gospel and of Hebrews could have drawn for their ideas, and which could have produced an audience capable of understanding them. The Letter to the Hebrews, for example, very probably is actually that, a letter to Jews. It would, so far as we know, have been utter nonsense to Hillel: Philo would have understood it very well, though he probably would have rejected its Christian novelties. But who were the Jews who could read it with understanding and sympathy? Still we have no evidence for a hellenized Judaism as a general and popular movement such as it seems to me much of the New Testament presupposes.

To assume a general and widespread hellenized Judaism from the evidence of Philo and the rest of the surviving miscellany is so much the harder because all literary records of such a hellenized Judaism disappear shortly after the beginning of Christianity. If there was a widespread and deeply established hellenized Judaism, why is it that we have no body of documents from such a Judaism after Philo? This point has often been raised. Used against the existence of such a Judaism in the Roman world, it is an argument from silence, but at first a telling one. Actually from the period after Philo we have an increasingly large body of Jewish literature. There is Josephus (only slightly hellenized), and there is the growing body of rabbinical tradition gradually getting itself formed and written through the centuries. In the rabbinic writings, especially in the Midrash, are a few oddments which seem hellenistic, such as a rabbinic tradition, like that of Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium, that man was originally created a monster with both sexes, and then split to form male and female. These traces of hellenistic influence, if such they be, occur so rarely in rabbinic writings, however, that they do not affect the total rabbinic point of view which Wolfson calls "native," and which shows in general a strong antipathy toward hellenistic civilization, and a striking!) different way of thinking.


Excerpted from Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period by Erwin R. Goodenough, Jacob Neusner. Copyright © 1968 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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