Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Cities

By John R. Bartlett | Go to book overview

2

THE HELLENISTIC CITY OF JERUSALEM 1

Lester L. Grabbe

The place of Jews in the various Hellenistic cities in the Greek and Roman world has been the focus of a variety of studies. 2 What is often overlooked is possibly the most important Hellenistic city for Jews in the ancient world: the Hellenistic city of Jerusalem itself. Here we have not just a city in which Jews lived as a minority population and semi-outsiders (except for the very few Jews who were citizens). Rather, we have a city which was created and run by Jews and in which the vast majority of citizens - if not every one - were themselves Jews.

The so-called Hellenistic reform which took place in the early part of Seleucid rule and led to the Hellenistic city of Jerusalem has generally been described by pens dipped in vitriol, beginning with the books of Maccabees. Our attitude to the ancient Greeks is strangely ambiguous. We admire Athens, we prefer the Greeks to the barbarians, we take the Greek side in many of the famous battles such as Marathon. Yet when it comes to Jewish history, the Greeks suddenly cease to be the cowboys and become the Indians - to use a phrase which would no doubt be very politically incorrect these days.

For this reason, it is very important that we read our sources carefully and critically and not be stampeded into believing simply what 'everyone knows'. Can we trust the books of Maccabees? This may seem a strange question to ask. If we want to know anything about the Maccabean period, where do we get this information? Apart from the books of Maccabees, there is very little other information. The few references in non-Jewish literature

1 This paper was prepared specifically to be delivered orally; apart from some minor editings, I have not changed this style in the published form. A version of this paper was also delivered on 21 January 1997 as the second Maccabean Lecture, sponsored by the Society of Maccabees and King's College London Department of Theology and Religion. I thank the Maccabees and also Professor M.A. Knibb for the invitation to deliver the lecture there, as I thank the Royal Irish Academy for inviting me give this paper in the present context.

2 For recent studies, see Barclay 1996, Leon 1960; Trebilco 1991; Rutgers 1995.

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