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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
( ῾Ελληνιστής, A.V." Grecian;" comp. ῾Ελληνισμός, 2 Maccabees 4:13). In one of the earliest notices of- the first Christian Church at Jerusalem (Acts 6:1), two distinct parties are recognized among its members, "Hebrews" and Hellenists, who appear to stand towards one another in some degree in a relation of jealous rivalry. So, again, when Paul first visited Jerusalem after his conversion, he spoke and disputed with the Hellenists (Acts 9:29), as if expecting to find more sympathy among them than with the rulers of the Jews. The term Hellenist occurs once again in the N.T. according to the common text, in the account of the foundation of the Church at Antioch (Acts 11:20), but there the context, as well as the form of the sentence (καὶπρὸς τούς, though the καὶ is doubtful), seems to require the other reading "Greeks" (Ε᾿λληνες ), which is supported by great external evidence as the true antithesis to "J Jews" (Ι᾿ουδαίοις, not ῾Εβραίοίς , 5, 19). (See HEBREWS).
The name, according to its derivation. whether the original verb ( ῾Ελληνίζω ) be taken, according to the common analogy of similar forms (μνδιζω, ἀττικίζω, Φιλιππίζω), in the general sense of adopting the spirit and character of Greeks, or, in the more limited sense, of using the Greek language (Xenophon, Anwb. 7, 3, 25), marks a class distinguished by peculiar habits, and not by descent. Thus the Hellenists as a body included not only the proselytes of Greek (or foreign) parentage (οἱ σεβόμενοι ῞Ελληνες,, Acts 17:4 (?); οἱ σεβόμενοιπροσήλυτοι, Acts 13:43; οἱ σεβόμενοι,, Acts 17:17), but also those Jews who, by settling in foreign countries, had adopted the prevalent form of the current Greek civilization, and with it the use of the common Greek dialect, to the exclusion of the Aramaic, which was the national representative of the ancient Hebrew. Hellenism was thus a type of life, and not an indication of origin. Hellenists might be Greeks, but when the latter term is used (῞Ελληνες, John 12:20), the point of race and not of creed is that which is foremost in the mind of the writer. (See Jour. Sac. Lit. Jan. and April, 1857.) (See GRECIAN).
I. As to the particular class in question, referred to in the Acts, the following are the different opinions that have been held:
1. That the distinctive difference between them was simply one of language, the Hebrews speaking the Aramaic of Palestine, the Hellenists the Greek. This is the most ancient opinion, being that expressed in the Peshito, and given by Chrysostom, Theophylact, etc.; and it is the one which has received the largest number of suffrages in more recent times. Among its advocates are Joseph Scaliger, Heinsius, Drusius, Grotius, Selden, Hottinger, Hug, etc.
2. That the distinction was partly of country, partly of language: the Hebrew being a native of Judaea, and using the Aramaic language, the Hellenist born among the Gentiles, and using the speech of the country of which he was a native. So Erasmus, Lightfoot, Bengel, Wahl, De Wette, Davidson, Alford, Baumgarten, etc.
3. That the difference was one of religious history, the Hebrew being a born child of the covenant, the Hellenist a proselyte from heathenism. So Beza, Salmasius, Pearson, Basnage, Pfannkuche, etc.
4. That the difference was one of principle: the Hebrew adhering to the one set of beliefs or modes of thought, the Hellenist adopting another. According to some, this difference had the effect of constituting the Hellenists into a distinct sect among the Jews, such as the Essenes; whilst others, without going this length, regard the two classes as standing to each other very much in the relation in which parties in the state holding different political views, or parties in the same Church having different aims and modes of regarding religious truth in modern times, may stand to each other; the Hebrews being like the Conservative or High-Church party, while the Hellenists advocated a more progressive, unfettered, and comprehensive scheme of thinking and acting. This latter view, in its substance, has recently found an able advocate in Mr. Roberts (Discussions on the Gospels, p. 148 sq.). According to him, "the Hellenists were those Jews, whether belonging to Palestine or not, who willingly yielded to the influence of Gentile civilization and habits, and were thus distinguished by their free and liberal spirit; the Hebrews, again, were the rigid adherents to Judaism, who, in spite of the providential agencies which had been long at work, endeavored to keep up those peculiar and exclusive usages by which the Jews had for so many centuries been preserved distinct from all other nations."
We are not disposed to reject entirely any of these opinions. Each of them seems to have an element of truth in it, though the contributions they make to the whole truth on this subject are by no means of equal importance. The last alone points to what must be regarded as the fundamental and formative characteristic of Hellenism among the Jews. There can be no doubt historically that some such distinction as that to which it refers did subsist in the Jewish, nation (see Jost, Gesch. des Judenthuns, 1, 99 sq., 345 sq.), and had come to a height at the commencement of the Christian era; and nothing can be more probable than that the existence of such a distinction should manifest itself in the very way in which the distinction between the Hebrews and the Hellenists is asserted to have shown itself in Acts 6:1 sq. It is in agreement with this, also, that Paul should have entered into discussion chiefly with the Hellenistic Jews at Jerusalem; for it is probable that as his early Hellenic culture pointed him out as the person most fitted to meet them on their own ground, he may have been specially set upon this work by the other apostles. Kitto, s.v. Still this difference of views could hardly of itself have constituted so marked and obvious a distinction as is implied in the various texts above cited, unless it had been exhibited in some outward characteristic; and no external sign could have been more certain, natural, and palpable than that familiar use of the Greek language which at once betrayed a foreign Jew, to whom it was vernacular, in contrast with the Palestinian Jew, by whom Greek, although too prevalent in that age everywhere to have been unknown to any, was nevertheless always spoken with a Hebrew coloring and accent. (See DISPERSION).
II. It remains to characterize briefly the elements which the Hellenists contributed to the language of the N.T., and the immediate effects which they produced upon the apostolic teaching:
1. The flexibility of the Greek language gained for it in ancient times a general currency similar to that which French enjoys in modern Europe; but with this important difference, that Greek was not only the language of educated men, but also the language of the masses in the great centers of commerce. The colonies of Alexander and his successors originally established what has been called the Macedonian dialect throughout the East; but even in this the prevailing power of Attic literature made itself distinctly felt. Peculiar words and forms adopted at Alexandria were undoubtedly of Macedonian origin, but the later Attic may be justly regarded as the real-basis of Oriental Greek. This first type was, however, soon modified, at least in common use, by contact with other languages. The vocabulary was enriched by the addition of foreign words, and the syntax was modified by new constructions. In this way a variety of local dialects must have arisen, the specific characters of which were determined in the first instance by the conditions under which they were, formed, and which afterwards passed away with the circumstances that had produced them. But one of these dialects has been preserved after the ruin of the people among whom it arose, by being consecrated to the noblest service which language has yet fulfilled. In other cases the dialects perished together with the communities who used them in the common intercourse of life, but in that of the Jews the Alexandrine version of the 0. Test., acting in this respect like the great vernacular versions of England and Germany, gave a definiteness and-fixity to the popular language which could not have been gained without the existence of some recognized standard. The style of the Sept. itself is, indeed, different in different parts, but the same general character runs through the whole, and the variations which it presents are not greater than those which exist in the different books of the N.T.
The functions which this Jewish-Greek had to discharge were of the widest application, and the language itself combined the most opposite features. It was essentially a fusion of Eastern and Western thought; for, disregarding peculiarities of inflection and novel words, the characteristic of the Hellenistic dialect is the combination of a Hebrew spirit with a Greek body, of a Hebrew form with Greek words. The conception belongs to one race, and the expression to another. Nor is it too much to say that this combination was one of the most important preparations for the reception of Christianity, and one of the most important aids for the adequate expression of its teaching. On the one hand, by the spread of the Hellenistic Greek, the deep, theocratic aspect of the world and life, which distinguishes Jewish thought, was placed before men at large; and, on the other, the subtle truths which philosophy had gained from the analysis of mind and action, and enshrined in words, were transferred to the service of revelation. In the fullness of time, when the great message came, a language was prepared to convey it; and thus the very dialect of the N.T. forms a great lesson in the true philosophy of history, and becomes in itself a monument of the providential government of mankind.
This view of the Hellenistic dialect will at once remove one of the commonest misconceptions relating to it. For it will follow that its deviations from the ordinary laws of classic Greek are themselves bound by some common law, and that irregularities of construction and altered usages of words are to be traced to their first source, and interpreted strictly according to the original conception out of which they sprang. A popular, and even a corrupt dialect is not less precise, or, in other words, is not less human than a polished one, though its interpretation may often be more difficult from the want of materials for analysis. But in the case of the N.T., the books themselves furnish an ample store for the critic, and the Sept., when compared with the Hebrew text, provides him with the history of the language which he has to study.
2. The adoption of a strange language was essentially characteristic of the true nature of Hellenism; the purely outward elements of the national life were laid aside with a facility of which history offers few examples, while the inner character of the people remained unchanged. In every respect, the thought, so to speak, was clothed in a new dress. Hellenism was, as it were, a fresh incorporation of Judaism according to altered laws of life and worship. But, as the Hebrew spirit made itself distinctly visible in the new dialect, so it remained undestroyed by the new conditions which regulated its action. While the Hellenistic Jews followed their natural instinct for trade, which was originally curbed by the Mosaic law, and gained a deeper insight into foreign character, and with this a truer sympathy, or at ‘ least a wider tolerance towards foreign opinions, they found means at the same time to extend the knowledge of the principles of their divine faith, and to gain respect and attention even from those who did not openly embrace their religion. Hellenism accomplished for the outer world what the Return accomplished for the Palestinian Jews: it was the necessary step between a religion of form and a religion of spirit: it witnessed against Judaism as final and universal, and it witnessed for it as the foundation of a spiritual religion which should be bound by no local restrictions. Under the influence of this wider instruction, a Greek body grew up around the synagogue-not admitted into the Jewish Church, and yet holding a recognized position with regard to it-which was able to apprehend the apostolic teaching, and ready to receive it. The Hellenists themselves were at once missionaries to the heathen and prophets to their own countrymen. Their lives were an abiding protest against polytheism and pantheism, and they retained with unshaken zeal the sum of their ancient creed, when the preacher had popularly occupied the place of the priest, and a service of prayer, and praise, and exhortation had succeeded in daily life to the elaborate ritual of the Temple. Yet this new development of Judaism was obtained without the sacrifice of national ties. The connection of the Hellenists with the Temple was not broken, except in the case of some of the Egyptian Jews. Unity coexisted with dispersion; and the organization of the Church was foreshadowed, not only in the widening breadth of doctrine, but even externally in the scattered communities which looked to Jerusalem as their common center. In another aspect Hellenism served as the preparation for a catholic creed. As it furnished the language of Christianity, it supplied also that literary instinct which counteracted the traditional reserve of the Palestinian Jews. The writings of the N. Test., and all the writings of the apostolic age, with the exception of the original Gospel of Matthew, were, as far as we know, Greek; and Greek seems to have remained the sole vehicle of Christian literature, and the principal medium of Christian worship, till the Church of North Africa rose into importance in the time of Tertullian. The Canon of the Christian Scriptures, the early creeds, and the liturgies, are the memorials of this Hellenistic predominance in the Church, and the types of its working; and if in later times the Greek spirit descended to the investigation of painful subtleties, it may be questioned whether the fullness of Christian truth could have been developed without the power of Greek thought tempered by Hebrew discipline.
The general relations of Hellenism to Judaism are well treated in the histories of Ewald and Jost; but the Hellenistic language is as yet, critically speaking, almost unexplored. Winer's Grammar (Gramm. d. N.T. Sprachidions, 7th ed. 1868) has done great service in establishing the idea of law in N.T. language, which was obliterated by earlier interpreters, but even Winer does not investigate the origin of the peculiarities of the Hellenistic dialect. The idioms of the N.T. cannot be discussed apart from those of the Sept., and no explanation can be considered perfect which does not take into account the origin of the corresponding Hebrew idioms. For this work even the materials are as yet deficient. The text of the Sept. is still in a most unsatisfactory condition; and while Bruder's Concordance leaves nothing to be desired for the vocabulary of the N.T., Trommius's Concordance to the Sept., however useful, is quite untrustworthy for critical purposes. (See GREEK LANGUAGE).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Hellenist'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/h/hellenist.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20