The Politics of “Invasion” of Greek and the “Demise” of Hebrew of Late Antiquity

in Horizons in Biblical Theology
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Colonialism and imperialism have enormous impact on every aspect of human life including languages, which is one of the significant markers of cultural identity. Often the colonial subjects had to face suppression of their languages by imposition of the language of the colonizers. When a language that has never been written down dies, it is as if it never existed. Imperialism or colonialism has always been at the heart of the murder of languages. The “linguistic imperialism” is not a modern phenomenon but it has been a reality throughout the history and all over the globe. The underlying reason for this sabotage is that the more linguistically coherent the society is, the easier it is to control. Take away a person’s language, and one robs them of the ability to express unique cultural concepts. The people in ancient Israel became one of the victims of this language incursion. This paper critically examines the impact of colonialism and imperialism on the gradual decline of Hebrew as spoken language during the Hellenistic period by analyzing the archaeological and epigraphic evidence as examples and illustrates the extent of the impact of “foreign” languages on Hebrew that eventually paved the way for its demise. The study further proves that colonialism and imperialism have been functioning throughout the history in a similar pattern to subjugate the “other,” and to exercise their power and interests over the “other.”

The Politics of “Invasion” of Greek and the “Demise” of Hebrew of Late Antiquity

in Horizons in Biblical Theology




E.g. A. Saenz-BadillosA History of the Hebrew Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1993) 112-201; and P.S. Alexander “How Did the Rabbis Learn Hebrew?” In Hebrew Study from Ezra to Beh-Yehuda edited by W. Horbury 77-89 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1999).


Israel Eph’al“Changes in Palestine during the Persian Period in Light of Epigraphic Sources,” Israel Exploration Journal 48: (1998): 106-119.


See the discussion in Saenz-BadillosA History of the Hebrew Language72-74; and 193-95.


SchwartzHebrew and Imperialism in Jewish Palestine61. On Aramaic as the primary spoken language of Palestine see Schürer History 2 20-28. For a survey of this matter see J.C. Greenfield “Aramaic in the Achaemenian Empire” The Cambridge History of Iran vol. 2 ed. Ilya Gershevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1968) 698-713. David Noy does a similar discussion on the choice of language based on his study among the Jews in Italy. David Noy “Writing in Tongues: The Use of Greek Latin and Hebrew in Jewish Inscriptions from Roman Italy” Journal of Jewish Studies 48 (1997): 300-11. Also see L.V. Rutgers The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora Religions in the Greco-Roman World 126 (Leiden: Brill 1995) 176-209.


van der Horst“Greek in Jewish Palestine” 156-7.


Martin Hengel“Der vorchristliche Paulus,” in Paulus und das antike Judentum ed. Martin Hengel and U. Heckel (Tübingen: Mohr1991) 257-58. Also idem “Jerusalem als Judische und hellenistische Stadt” Judaica hellenistica et christiana: Kleine Schriften II (Tübingen: Mohr 1999) 147.


For e.g. see Baruch Lifshitz“Jerusalem sous la domination romaine,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt 2 no. 8 (1977): 459. Also see Moses Hadas Hellenistic Culture: Fusion and Diffusion (New York and London: Columbia University Press 1959) 36.


LevineJudaism and Hellenism76. For a study of epigraphy see R. MacMullen “The Epigraphic Habit in the Roman Empire” American Journal of Philology 103 (1982): 233-46.


van der Horst“Greek in Jewish Palestine” 159. He argues that the tombstones found at Beth Sheʿarim are not only of rabbis and public officers but also of merchants and artisans. Also see R. Hachlili Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in the Land of Israel (Leiden: Brill 1988) 103; and James Barr “Hebrew Aramaic and Greek” in The Cambridge History of Judaism vol. 2 The Hellenistic Age edited by W.D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989) 102 with note 4.


van der Horst“Greek in Jewish Palestine” 159.


LevineJudaism and Hellenism24.


JosephusAnt. 20.263-64.


See HengelJudaism and Hellenism59.


HengelJudaism and Hellenism60.


VanderKam“Greek at Qumran,” in Hellenism in the Land of Israel175.


See Emmanuel Tov“Appendix III: A List of the Texts from the Judaean Desert,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls after Fifty Years: A Comprehensive Assessmentvol. 2 ed. P. Flint and James C. VanderKam (Leiden, Köln and Boston: Brill1999) 669-717. Most of these writings are dated back to second century bce to first century ce. VanderKam “Greek at Qumran” 178. Also see Louis H. Feldman Judaism and Hellenism Reconsidered (Leiden and Boston: Brill 2006) 31-2.


L. Greenspoon“The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Greek Bible,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls after Fifty Yearsvol. 1 ed. Peter W. Flint and James C. VanderKam (Leiden: Brill1998) 113.


Y. MeshorerJewish Coins of the Second Temple Period (Tel Aviv: Am Hasefer1967) Plates ii/iii nos. 5 5a 7 8 9; Schürer History 1 219-28 603-4. The symbols appearing on the coins from the Hasmoneans period had non-living beings such as anchors cornucopia a wheel star or floral representation. No living beings or representation of sacred places was inscribed. This peculiar inscriptions are significant because one can see a dramatic change a change from using religious symbols (Ex 25: 18-20; and 1 Kings 7: 44) to non-living and non-religious symbols in the Hasmonean attitude. With few exceptions this attitude continued until the late second century ce. For different views on this subject see Boaz Cohen “Art in Jewish Law” Judaism 3 (1954): 167; M. Avi-Yonah Oriental Art in Roman Palestine (Rome: University of Rome Press 1961) 13-27; Morton Smith “Goodenough’s ‘Jewish Symbols’ in Retrospect” Journal of Biblical Literature 86 (1967):60; N. Avigad Beth Sheʿarim 277-78; G.J. Blidstein “The Tannaim and Plastic Art: Problems and Prospects” in Perspectives in Jewish Learning 5 ed. B.L. Sherwin (Chicago: Spertus College of Judaica Press 1973) 22-23.


HengelThe “Hellenization” of Judaea in the First Century after Christ8. These coins bore Herod’s royal title together with a repertoire of contemporary symbols (e.g. tripod diadem wreath and eagle). See Y. Meshorer Ancient Jewish Coinage vol. 2 (Dix Hills ny: Amphora Books 1982) 22-30.


For a discussion see Y. MeshorerJewish Coins of the Second Temple Period (Tel Aviv: Am Hassefer, 1967); idem, Ancient Jewish Coinage, 2 vols. (New York: Amphora Books1982); idem City Coins of Eretz Israel and the Decapolis (Jerusalem: Israel Museum 1985); L. Mildenberg “Yehud-Munzen” in Palestina in vorhellenistischer Zeit ed. H. Weippert (Munich: C.H. Beck 1988) 721-28; Dan Barag “Jewish Coins in Hellenistic and Roman Time” in A Survey of Nuismatic Research 1985-1990 vol. 1 ed. Tony Hackens et al. (Brussels: International Numismatic Commission 1992) 106; and Andrew Meadows “Money Freedom and Empire in the Hellenistic World” in Money and Its Uses in the Hellenistic World ed. Andrew Meadows and Kirsty Shipton (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001) 53-64. Also see the remarks in J.C. Greekfield “The Languages of Palestine 200 BCE-200 CE” in Jewish Languages: Theme and Variations ed. H.H. Paper (Cambridge ma: Association for Jewish Studies 1978) 147. On seals see the survey in Ephraim Stern Material Culture in the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period (Warminster: Aris and Philips 1982) 202-13.


See HengelJudaism and Hellenism58-61.


MussiesGreek in Palestine and the Diaspora1058; Fitzmyer Languages of Palestine in the First Century A.D 46; and van der Horst “Greek in Jewish Palestine” 166.


van der Horst“Greek in Jewish Palestine” 166.


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