Please Help Us Keep These Thousands of Blog Posts Growing and Free for All
“The Hellenistic Judaism is so intertwined with Paul’s thought that the most obvious conclusion is that Paul has spent his youth and early years in a Hellenistic-Jewish milieu. This background clarifies many difficult passages in the letters of Paul and leads to a better understanding of his theology.” – Peter van ‘t Riet, in his book Paul, a Hellenistic Jew?
Some Bible scholars are very mistaken and confused when they claim Paul was Hellenized or call him a Hellenized Jew. First, let’s define Hellenized. Many scholars mean by this term that the Hellenized person actively promoted Greek culture and paganism. Some, on the other hand, mean a Greek-speaking person impacted by Greek culture, morals, and paganism in that they only lived or worked in such a community. Like when Abraham lived in the pagan city of Ur, and yet he remained faithful to God.
Were there Hellenized Jews in the first century? Yes, Acts 6:1 says, “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists () arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” Thus, we can divide the Jews of that day into two different groups. There were those that primarily lived in Judea, near Jerusalem (but some lived in areas within other parts of the Roman Empire and in Babylon). These spoke the Hebrew language and used the Hebrew Old Testament. These ones in the Jerusalem area were who the apostle Paul wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, as they were referred to as the “Hebrews.” The other group of Jews was Hellenized Jews who lived in Greek cities or Roman colonies that had been totally Hellenized. They spoke the Greek language and used the Greek Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Old Testament. They were referred to as the “Hellenists.” A person who adopted Greek customs, language, and culture during the Hellenistic period, especially a Hellenized Jew. Acts 9:29 says of Paul, “And he [Paul] spoke and disputed against the Hellenists [Greek-speaking Jews]. But they were seeking to kill him.” If Paul was a Hellenist, why would the Hellenists [Greek-speaking Jews] seek to kill him?
(1) Paul was a Greek-speaking Jew who also spoke Hebrew from Asia Minor. Paul grew up in the Hellenized town of Tarsus. Paul was a Pharisaic Jew who studied under the renowned Gamaliel. Abraham grew up in a household where he and his father, Terah, lived in Ur, a city steeped in Babylonian idolatry. According to Joshua 24:2, “And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Thus says Jehovah, the God of Israel, ‘Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods.’” Terah worshiped gods, possibly the moon-god Sin. Nonetheless, God chose Abraham to leave Ur, not Terah. Abraham was a man of faith in God, just as was true of his forefathers, Shem and Noah. And it was this reputation that caused him to be referred to as “the father of all who believe without being circumcised so that righteousness would be counted to them as well.” (Rom. 4:11) So, Abraham never indulged in such paganism regardless of what Bible scholars may claim, and there is no Bible verse that says otherwise. So too, Paul was not Hellenized in that he never indulged in Greek culture, morals, or paganism, and he never promoted such.
(2) Paul was assigned by the apostle to evangelize Greek cities or Roman colonies that had been thoroughly Hellenized. “And some of them [Hellenistic proselytes] were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.” (Acts 17:4) This does not make him Hellenized any more than missionaries serving in other cultures today adopt their paganism. What kind of sense does it make for Paul to pull Greeks out of paganism, culture, and morals contrary to God, and all the while, he is supposedly a Hellenized Jew? What kind of sense does it make to pull Jews out of Judaism if Paul still supposedly clung to the Mosaic Law?
(3) Paul wrote letters to churches in Greek cities or Roman colonies that had been thoroughly Hellenized because these were the areas the apostles assigned him. This does not make him Hellenized.
(4) Paul made good use of ideas and examples common in Greek culture, which any good evangelist would do while working in another culture. If speaking with a farmer, and you need to use illustrations, they will be about farming, not life living in New York City.
Growing up in a Greek area does not make one Hellenized any more than growing up in San Francisco makes one automatically a Democrat. Second, Paul was sent by the apostles to evangelize the Gentiles does not make him Hellenized either. It means that he was predominantly assigned by the apostles to convert to Christianity. Many Christians have been sent to evangelize Muslim countries. Does that make them Muslim, or that they promote Islam and Shariah Law? So, once again, those who claim that Paul was a Hellenized Jew are twisting Scriptures that they clearly do not understand. Show one Bible verse where Paul is explicitly promoting Greek culture, morals, ideals, or Greek paganism.
None of this makes Paul Hellenized, meaning that he did not promote Greek Culture, morals, and Greek paganism. Many of Paul’s letters were written to Churches in Greek cities or Roman colonies that had been totally Hellenized. Paul’s writings, in articulate and powerful Greek, used ideas and examples that were common in Greek culture. Paul talks about the athletic games, the reward of the victorious one, the tutor escorting a boy to school, and many other visual images from Greek life. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Galatians 3:24, 25) While Paul was more than willing and perfectly fine to borrow terms from the Greek language, he strongly repudiated Greek morals and religious ideals. Paul never spread Greek culture, but he had to work within Greek culture the same as, at times, he worked within Jewish culture.
Again, there is no such thing as Hellenized Paul. Anyone claiming otherwise is twisting the Scriptures. Many persons, before becoming Christians at this time, had been accustomed to eating meats offered to idols with a feeling of reverence for the idol. (1Co 8:7) In so doing, these former pagans had been sharers with the demon god represented by the idol. (1Co 10:20) Quite fittingly, therefore, by a formal letter from Jerusalem, the apostle, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, forbade such formal, religious eating of meats offered to idols, thus safeguarding Christians from idolatry in this regard. (Ac 15:19-23, 28, 29) This does not mean that they could not eat the meat. They could not eat it if it were done with a worshipful attitude.
The apostle Paul realized that in order to share the Gospel with others, he had to “become all things to all people.” “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews,” and “To those outside the law I became as one outside the law,” in order to help them grasp God’s intentions. Paul, of course, was greatly qualified to do that, as he was a Jewish citizen of a Hellenized city. Christians today have to do something similar. (1 Corinthians 9:20-23) However, Paul never looked to anything or anyone for salvation other than Jesus Christ. If he was a spiritually weak person who could not eat meat sold in the marketplace because it was formerly at the idol temple, and he could not set aside his worshipful attitude, so he obtained from meat, Paul would obtain from meat on that occasion. It is like a person who has an alcoholic over to his house for dinner. He would not drink a beer while the person was there. This does not mean, as a Christian, he could not drink a beer.
Paul does not have a “Jewish” or a “Hellenistic” or a “Hellenistic Jewish” conception of man and God. Paul’s thoughts were God’s thoughts. As he was inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16), he was moved along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:21) If one speaks of Hellenization, he needs to qualify what he means by it. (1) Is he speaking of a person who is a Greek-speaking Jew who grew up in or works within Roman colonies that had been totally Hellenized? (2) Is he speaking of a person who is a Greek-speaking Jew who not only grew up in or works within Roman colonies that had been totally Hellenized but also has adopted their customs, culture, morals, and even some pagan rituals? (3) Further, does the person who is a Greek-speaking Jew go beyond living within that culture, adopting their customs, culture, morals, and even some pagan rituals to promote these things? The only thing that we can say of the apostle Paul is that he was a Greek-speaking Jew who also spoke Hebrew and grew up in and worked within Roman colonies that had been totally Hellenized. He also used the Greek Septuagint, which means nothing in that it was far more used at that time than the Hebrew Old Testament, as Greek was the lingua franca (common language) of the Roman Empire. Even Jesus quoted the Greek Septuagint at times. Therefore, it is an extreme misrepresentation of the Scriptures to lump the apostle Paul in with the Hellenist Jews of Acts 6:1; 9:29.
 This Greek term (Ἑλληνιστής Hellēnistēs; from Ἑλληνίζω Hellēnizō) is not found either in Greek or Hellenistic Jewish literature. Ελληνιστής, οῦ m: a Greek-speaking Jew in contrast to one speaking a Semitic language—‘Greek-speaking Jew.’ ἐγένετο γογγυσμὸς τῶν Ελληνιστῶν πρὸς τοὺς Εβραίους ‘a quarrel arose between the Greek-speaking Jews and the native Jews’ Ac 6:1; συνεζήτει πρὸς τοὺς Ελληνιστάς ‘he argued with the Greek-speaking Jews’ Ac 9:29. The Greek-speaking Jews were basically Jewish in culture and religion, but they had adopted certain customs typical of the larger Greco-Roman world in which many of them lived. This inevitably resulted in certain suspicions and misunderstandings. – Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 134–135.