Jewish literature contains an account of the arrival at Jerusalem of Alexander the Great. Bent on attack, Alexander was surprised to find himself met by a procession led by the high priest, wearing vestments and mitre. According to the story, Alexander approached by himself, the two conversed, and they parted friends.
This dramatic meeting between the representative of the Greek spirit and the high priest of Jewry had an important impact. From that time, Jewish life followed less and less the pattern of freedom from external influence urged by Ezra and Nehemiah. Now, for at least three centuries, there was continuous contact, with varying degrees of cordiality, between Jewish and Greek cultures, two distinct approaches to the purpose of living.
Greek culture penetrated Judea on two levels:
1. On the intellectual level, it introduced the Jews to a brilliant system of science, philosophy and art.
2. On the level of social life, it influenced language, dress, name of places and people, civic organisation, fashions in entertainment and the like. This was not an attempt to impose one nation’s way of living, in the narrow sense, or another nation, but rather a campaign to establish a universal world culture. It was a campaign that attracted many Jews, especially among the higher social classes, encouraged by the tolerant way in which Alexander, and then the Ptolemies and Seleucids, treated their Jewish subjects.
If a peaceful cross-fertilisation of the two cultures could have developed, there is no telling how brilliant a civilisation might have resulted. The hellenistic approach would have benefited from the faith and ethics of Judaism, while the latter could have employed the best features of hellenistic artistic and intellectual genius in spreading the Torah.
But history does not work so symmetrically and peacefully. Human beings rarely enjoy the luxury of formulating an outlook calmly and deliberately, remote from the stresses and strains of reality. Events did not allow a gradual exchange of ideas between Judaism and hellenism.
What was confronting Judaism was not classical hellenism at its best – that of Pythagoras, Socrates, Aristotle and Plato – but a debased form which expressed itself in paganism, immorality, sensuality and barbarism.
Secondly, important ingredients of hellenism offended against Jewish law, sentiment and susceptibilities. The universalism of hellenism was a threat to Jewish national identity. Jewish tradition was wary of the Greeks’ allegorical interpretation of the Bible. The ideals of the two cultures clashed. Dubnow said:
“It was a duel between ‘The Eternal’ on the one side, and Zeus on the other – between the Creator of the universe, the invisible spiritual Being who had, in a miraculous way, revealed religious and ethical ideals to mankind, and the deity who resided upon Olympus, who personified the highest force of nature, consumed vast quantities of nectar and ambrosia, and led a pretty wild life upon Olympus and elsewhere.
“In the sphere of religion and morality, Hellene and Judean could not come close to each other. The former defied nature herself, the material universe; the latter deified the Creator of nature, the spirit informing the material universe. The Hellene paid homage first and foremost to external beauty and physical strength; the Judean to inner beauty and spiritual heroism.
“The Hellenic theory identified the moral with the beautiful and agreeable, and made life consist of an uninterrupted series of physical and mental pleasures. The Judean theory is permeated by the strictly ethical notions of purity, of ‘holiness’; it denounces licentiousness, and sets up as its ideal the controlling of the passions and the infinite improvement of the soul, not of the intellect alone, but of the feelings as well.”
Political factors aggravated the situation and made a showdown inevitable. Relations between the Jews and their overlords were deteriorating. Intrigues divided the high priestly family and one party embarked upon a determined campaign of thorough hellenisation, symbolised by the introduction of Greek games into Jerusalem and the participation in them of some of the priests. This the pious among the Jews would not countenance. Greek sport was associated with pagan worship and moral levity; and being taken naked, it involved some Jews in attempts to deface their circumcision in order to cover up their origin.
Now, when Antiochus IV, seeing Jewish religious observance as a barrier to the progress of the supra-national culture, instituted aggressive measures to exterminate Jewish worship and study, the banner of outright revolt was raised, and Matityahu (Mattathias) and his sons turned passive resistance into open warfare.