By Lance lambert…In order to understand the Jewish background of the N.T., we need to remember that Jewish life flowed into two distinct streams during the Inter-Testamental period. Both streams shared completely in all the fundamentals of the faith, but beyond that differed greatly.
Indeed there was more than a little antipathy between them. One stream, the go ahead open minded, liberal stream, are called in the N.T. “Hellenists:” The other conservative, narrow and puritanical stream, are called “Hebrews.”
Let’s look at the Hellenists first. We find this term in a number of New Testament writings and it was used of the Jews who were dispersed throughout the Gentile world, outside of the Promised Land, from the Euphrates area and East; to Spain and France in the West (and even Germany); to Arabia. Egypt, and Ethiopia in the South. We even know of a Jewish community and synagogue in KaiFeng in China (the inscription made in 1488AD speaks of a synagogue in 1166AD. Another says that the Jewish faith entered China in 3rd Century AD.) This dispersion began probably as early as Solomon’s reign, in the establishment of commercial outposts in different Gentile centres. Certainly its greater development came through the deportation of Israel’s upper classes by Assyria in 728BC and again at the fall of Judah in 586BC by Babylon, and the fleeing of others at a later time to Egypt. Thus its real rise can be traced originally to the judgment of God.
The Jewish communities throughout Babylon, Asia Minor, and Egypt became well established and prosperous. Indeed there is evidence that they dominated much, not only of business life but professional life too. These communities cured of idolatry, worshipping the living God, were utterly distinctive in every way in their Gentile setting. When the Persians came to power and permitted the return of the deported peoples, the majority of Jews remained. These became the basis of “The Diaspora” or “The Dispersion.” They had adopted for the most part the customs and background of the surrounding Gentiles, and indeed some of their spirit. Yet they remained essentially aloof!
It was with Alexander and the Greek era, and the universal adoption of Greek and Greek customs, that these Jewish communities became Hellenized, and were given the name by the Jews in the homeland of “Hellenists.” Gradually Jews settled further and further afield, continually increasing by fresh emigration from the homeland, and multiplying wherever they settled. In the 4th Century A.D. Philo numbers the Jews in Egypt as 1,000,000! Philo says of Cyrene “This people has made its way into every city and it is not easy to find a place in the habitable world which has not received this nation, in which its power has not been felt.” As early as 139BC there was an expulsion order against the Jews in Rome.
The Jewish hub
Alexandria became the natural centre for all the Hellenists. Jews occupied two of the five city quarters. Its magnificent synagogue was famous. The export of was in Jewish hands grain (Egypt was the granary of the known world). Sometime during the 2nd Century BC they produced the Septuagint (LXX Version.), perhaps the greatest single contribution to the coming of Christ by the Hellenists. Much other literature was produced in Alexandria, which showed the very real influence of Greek thought upon Jewish faith e.g. Wisdom of Solomon. Philo the great Jewish philosopher finds in Greek philosophy the real meaning of the Jewish Scriptures!
These communities, their life centered in the synagogue, had a considerable influence. The Hellenists were not narrow, cautious and puritanical like the Hebrews. They appeared to take the best of Greek culture and thought while remaining altogether different. They had an ethical, moral code, a family life, an understanding of God, by far superior to anything in the Gentile world. For whilst The Hellenists imbibed much of the Greek spirit and introduced many innovations to Jewish life, they remained absolutely loyal to the Scriptures, the Law, the Coming Messiah, the Sabbath, Jerusalem, the Temple sacrifice and worship.
What constitutes a Hellenist Jew?
All good Hellenist Jews sent the yearly half shekel, the Temple tax, and sought to make pilgrimages to the Temple at the great feasts. In fact many wanted to die and be buried in Jerusalem, Thus there was always a large Hellenist colony there. It was the more restrictive practices and limitations they put aside, tending to see and emphasize the inner and essential meaning of the faith. And it was this combination of Greek thought and true living faith, which appealed to many Gentiles.
Moreover the Hellenists had a far greater missionary spirit than the Hebrews (among whom it was well-nigh nonexistent.) Thus it was that in any synagogue of the Dispersion, from East of the Euphrates to Spain, Gentiles could hear the Word of God read and explained in their own language; they could listen to the one Living God worshipped; they could hear of the coming world Messiah and Deliverer. They could see in those people a kind of life and knowledge nowhere else to be found. So it came to be that all over the Roman Empire and beyond, attached to almost every synagogue were large numbers of Gentile converts. These Gentile coverts we come to know in the New Testament. There would have been those who had been admitted into the faith fully, with circumcision, baptism and sacrifice. These were allowed all the privileges of a Jew. There was
also another class, who while believing, were not circumcised yet attended synagogue and believed. They were called “God fearers,” “devout men or women” or “one who worshipped God.” There has been much discussion about these proselytes. Later Jewry made a distinction between “Proselytes of Righteousness” (full Jews – circumcised, baptized etc.) and “Proselytes of The Gate” (those who believed, but were not circumcised etc.)
Rites of Passage
There has also been discussion about baptism as the mode or rite of admittance. It is not mentioned in the O.T. but there is more than a little evidence for it. What does seem clear is that by N.T. times there were many gentiles who became full Jews, and many who accepted the faith but did not go the whole way! The influence of the Hellenists and others in the Dispersion on the N.T. cannot be minimized. Here is the evidence of God in history turning even judgment into good!
We can sum up its contribution thus: a universal view of things taking in Gentile as well as Jew; an understanding of the times and the essential meaning of the faith; the Scriptures appearing in Greek, the necessary first step to the N.T. in Greek. No Hebrew would have countenanced such a step; in nearly every sizeable Gentile community in the Roman Empire and beyond, there was a Jewish synagogue with a large number of Gentile converts. It was a centre of Biblical teaching etc. Thus there was a “spirit of preparation and anticipation” for the coming Messiah. It was to these centers that the first Messianic believers went. Most of the great them in the early church were Hellenists: Stephen, Barnabas, Philip, Apollos, Timothy, Silvanus, Titus, Aquila and Priscilla. Paul was a Hebrew but brought up in Hellenistic Tarsus. It was among the Hellenists and the God fearers that the gospel made such headway, and spearheaded the attack into the purely Gentile world.
“The Hebrews” by N.T. times had become a name for all the Aramaic and Hebrew speaking Jews in the Land. They were of decidedly nationalistic sympathies. The Hebrews came to cover all who adhered strictly and in a puritanical way to the faith. They had resisted the influences of Greek thought and culture, and remained “Jewish Jewish!” They regarded Hellenism as a second grade Judaism, a semi heretical form of the faith! They looked upon the innovations of Hellenistic Jews with absolute horror as looseness and adaptation. To them it was the sign of grave apostasy. They felt that the true stream of divine life and light was with them. They were the true successors to the Patriarchs and Prophets, the true guardians of the Oracles of God.
 John 7:35 Jas 1:1, 1 Pt 1:1 cf. Acts 2:5, 8-11. Note also Acts 6:1.
 Deut 28:26, 36, 64, and 65.
 Acts 6:1, II Cor 11:22, Phil 3:5