Peter Thonemann, “The Hellenistic Age”

In order to understand the Bible, one needs to know something of the time and culture in which it was written, and so to understand the New Testament in particular, one needs to know something of the Hellenistic age.  That’s why, after reading a favorable review of this book in the Wall Street Journal — “using a small set of representative topics to introduce the era’s central themes [dynastic struggles, the rise and fall of smaller powers like Pergamon and Rhodes, advances in science and exploration, literary movements, and works of architecture and engineering],” it “captures beautifully the landscape of the brave new world that followed Alexander” — I sought it out.  I’m glad that I did.

It’s a short book (133 pages of actual text, with some helpful maps, intriguing photographs, a timeline, and suggestions for further reading), written with clarity and confidence.   The author teaches ancient history at Oxford; to his credit, his academic background does not keep him from recognizing (70) “the general pedantic ghastliness of the scholars’ guild” (though in the next paragraph he also acknowledges that, at least the case of Hellenistic Alexandria, those scholars “quietly transformed man’s understanding of his place in the world” (71)).

There’s an opening chapter on “The Idea of the Hellenistic,” and then the second chapter “provides a road map to the twists and turns of Hellenistic history, from the accession of Alexander (336 BC) to the death of Cleopatra and the end of the Ptolemaic kingdom (30 BC)” (20).  There follow chapters on Hellenistic kingship and what we would now call intellectuals, more or less, followed by a chapter about “Encounters” on the various frontiers of the empire, with the concluding chapter on Hellenistic cities.  But I should hasten to add that, in each instance, the author’s approach is to take a very specific and interesting example, discussing it at some length and then extrapolating a bit from it.

Some deja vu here:  Twelve years ago, another favorable review in the Wall Street Journal of a short book titled The Hellenistic Age, this one by Peter Green, prompted me to read that book, which was also excellent.  The more recent review mentions Green’s much longer and earlier book, Alexander to Actium.


The index to Mr. Thonemann’s book includes only two references to Christianity.  The first is to pages 5-6, in which the author (wisely) dismisses the argument of a 19th century German scholar that Christianity itself was the grand culmination of Hellenism, a “religion born out of the fusion of the Greek and Oriental spirit.”  The second comes after Thonemann notes that the Greeks decided to start worshiping as divine certain emerging powerful and charismatic men, this being the best way to structure their relationship with them (57):

This is less surprising than it might seem at first sight.  The Greeks — unlike, say, Christians or Muslims — had never placed a high premium on individual religious conviction (“belief”).  Greek religion was an eminently social phenomenon, based on collective rituals — festivals, sacrifices, processions — performed by the entire community.  Theology never interested Greeks very much, and “faith” was not a salient category in Greek thought.  The crucial thing was the reciprocal relationship between men and gods, mediated through prayer and animal sacrifice;  we offer you cattle, and you protect us from plague and disaster.

But there is more than those two passages in the book that is of interest to Christians.  For example, there are recurring references to the Galatians (e.g., 33, 40, 116), to some of whom Paul later wrote a letter, but who were apparently of the same warlike Celtic ethnicity as the Gauls whom Julius Caesar fought, and came to settle in Turkey only after they were barely kept from plundering the oracle at Delphi; even then, they “continued to cause trouble for generations to come” (33).

And some familiarity with philosophy at that time is also worthwhile — to give us some idea, for example, of what Paul was up against when he spoke in Athens (Acts 17:16-34).  Here is, I think, the book’s key paragraph on this (86):

Perhaps surprisingly, the scholars of the Alexandrian Museum paid little attention to philosophy.  In this field — and in this field alone — the city of Athens maintained its pre-eminence in the Greek world right down through the Hellenistic period and beyond.  By the late fourth century, two major Athenian “schools” of philosophy were already in existence, Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lycecum ….  In the last decade of the fourth century, two heterodox philosophers, Epicurus of Samos and Zeno of Citium, settled at Athens.  The philosophical traditions founded by these two men, Epicureanism and Stoicism … , proved astonishingly fertile and long-lived.  Most significant Roman philosophical writing is either Epicurean (Lucretius, Philodemus) or Stoic (Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius) in inspiration.

The author goes on to explain that “Perhaps the single most distinctive feature of Hellenistic philosophy is its turn away from politics and political theory toward the cultivation and perfection of the individual” — “the therapeutic treatment of the individual soul” (87) — and that “Neither system [i.e., neither Epicureanism nor Stoicism] concerned itself much with human communities outside the narrow circle of its own devotees” (88).

It’s interesting, then, that the Gentile culture of Jesus’ time and place was, on the one hand, open to individual appeals but, on the other hand, not yet used to the sort of divinity that the Jews (and Christians) had faith in.  So the early Christians found fertile, but not exhausted, soil in which to plant their seed.

Finally, the author notes (65-66) a recurrent Hellenistic story about a ruler who refused to give a hearing to an old woman, saying he had no time; she chastened him and changed his mind by screeching at him, “Then don’t be king!”  Perhaps Jesus’ parable in Luke 18:1-8 echoes this.


Some odds and ends:

  • I was intrigued by the reference (16) to “the Exagoge of Exekiel the Tragedian [which] translates the Biblical narrative of Moses’ flight from Egypt into the language and form of Greek tragic drama.”  And I enjoyed even more the reference to “Ptolemy VIII Physkon (‘Fatso’)” (98).
  • As an American lawyer and someone interested in the political theory of our founding, I noted this sentence (34):  “These new [third century BC] federal states (koina) in central and southern Greece were one of the great constitutional innovations of the Hellenistic world (and later served as a model for the Founding Fathers of the United States) — an attractive ‘third way’ between the autonomous Greek city-state and the autocratic Hellenistic kingdom.”
  • The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, was financed by selling off the enemy’s abandoned siege equipment following an unsuccessful attack on the city (56).  More impressive, and successful, than Donald Trump’s idea of getting Mexico to pay for his wall!
  • The last sentence of the book (133) speaks lyrically of “the vast expanses of the Hellenistic world — that brief and wonderful moment in human history when, as William Tarn once remarked, the Greek language ‘might take a man from Marseilles to India, from the Caspian to the Cataracts.'”  This reminds us, too, of why Jesus’ birth almost precisely in the middle of this expanse at the end of this period was, shall we say, providential, since it greatly facilitated the spreading of that good news in a series of Greek writings that became the New Testament.