Throughout recorded history, Jews have had a tough time with everyone else.
That the rabbinate became Hellenized does not mean they were Hellenic. I refer to it often as a bastardized intellectual shift because it is not exactly a full embrace of clear Platonic and/or Aristotelian logic. It retains a certain amount of mysticism, but nothing like it was originally. Rather, it’s highly influenced by their time under Babylon and Persia with all the broad mixture of heathen influences those two empires embraced. Given that whole libraries were written to discuss the details, I can only mention in passing the basic idea that the Hebrew scholars were hit with successive waves of intellectual influence starting around the time of Solomon.
Prophets made note of this sinister influences and by the time of Malachi it was already quite far gone. So when Alexander the Great swept through the land a century after Malachi’s ministry, Hebrew intellectuals were ripe for harvest.
Have you ever seen a sharp-minded teenager discover the power of logic? Maybe some of you can remember when you first seized upon formal analytical reasoning (AKA abstract logic), and the thrilling sense of mastery it granted. It wasn’t so far different from how the rabbis felt when they were first exposed to Alexander’s generous donation of Hellenic literature everywhere he conquered. Alex was a hard-core evangelist for Hellenism. In some ways, military conquest was simply a tool for his passion to give the world his homeland’s cultural legacy.
This was a significant shift from previous waves of conquest in the Levant, as Hellenism was entirely man-centered. It was like a drug to fallen human nature. This was the part the rabbis absorbed most, though not in quite those terms. They still clung to the idea that they were the living, breathing revelation of God. For them, the logical analysis of Hellenism granted them a mastery that even Jehovah was forced to respect — so say the Talmudic legends. What we see is carrying over the very same fundamental error Jeremiah warned about prior to the Fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The rulers in Jerusalem felt they had God over a barrel; surely He couldn’t allow the the city to fall because His House was there! In other words, it was an anthropomorphism of God that displaced the Ancient Near Eastern reflexive mysticism about things we could not possibly comprehend in our minds.
The rabbis believed they could understand now, though it meant running everything through a kind of linguistic analysis frankly foreign to their ancient ways. It wasn’t the logical, materialistic idealism of the Greeks, but a legalism unique to the new Hellenized Hebrew thinking. While the result was a very heavy dose of materialism, it retained a kind of mystical feel. They were the Chosen to absorb the ultimate truth of all things and help God out by fixing up revelation. They were demigods of a sort.
The result was an ugly two-edged knife pointed at the back of humanity. One edge was a sacred elitism with multiple layers and grades of “holiness” and a matching spite for those who weren’t so holy. The other edge was a sudden necessity for guarding the secrets, thinking that they had somehow become that Flaming Sword at the gate of Eden. Keep an eye on that dagger as we proceed through the story here; it characterizes everything they do.
This new analytical knife was applied to the whole of their heritage, but particularly noteworthy is the matter of their being God’s Chosen. Some part of their thinking grudgingly accepted the Exile as punishment for their previous endless flirtation with idolatry. About the only thing they got right coming out of that was never again overtly turning to other deities on any grounds. But part of the package of Restoration was the rather vivid image of a Messiah, someone to arise and restore their lost greatness. Completely lost was the initial comment from God that they were chosen for a mission. The “mission” part faded from memory while the “chosen” part took center stage.
Starting with Isaiah’s prophecy, then again with Daniel during the Exile, we have a growing body of hints about a specific figure who would come to set things right in the nation. When Haggai and Zechariah performed their tag-team ministry to provoke the building of the Second Temple, the image of Messiah loomed quite large in the minds of those who returned to the Land. There had been no such thing as synagogues and rabbis until the Exile; it was a system that arose to keep religion alive without the Temple. Now rabbis were a major presence in the nation and they began studying and weaving together an image of this Messiah figure. The mixture of lyrical parables and mystical symbols with presumably literal statements was confusing, and there were competing theories among the scholars. However, as a broad general trend, you would naturally expect that the militant conquering hero part of the image would become by far the most popular among both the ignorant and learned.
By the time the Messiah was actually born, the mythology was full-blown and very little of it was accurate. The Messianic Expectations literature describe a military conqueror using miracles to defeat all the secular rulers. He would turn stones into bread and no Jew would ever hunger again. All the Gentiles would surrender themselves as slaves to Judeans and bring with them the wealth of all the world as tribute. The Wilderness Temptations of Jesus were clearly a matter of testing just which kind of Messiah He would be, and Satan clearly preferred the one in popular mythology. That Jesus rejected that path sealed His doom as a human. He was rejected out of hand by the Jewish leadership because His teaching was wholly inconsistent with their logical legal tests.
If you pay attention to how the Jewish leadership manipulated the Romans into performing their dirty work of crucifixion, you begin to understand how that Hellenized dagger works. In their minds, these elite rabbis were God’s Chosen to rule the whole world, and God had appointed them to make it happen. Jesus talked about compassion for the multitude of Jewish peasants, whom the leaders despised as ignorant of their murky Talmudic mythology. Worse, He dared to suggest this business of the Law was meant as a gift to the Gentiles, too! And while Jesus Himself had little contact with Gentiles, the whole thrust of His commission to Peter about the Keys of the Kingdom was to gradually spread the message to the peasants, then Samaritans and finally all the rest of humanity. Oh, horrors! The Jews were supposed to simply give away their sacred trust?
Do you remember how Paul’s defense of himself to the crowd from the steps of the Roman armory (Acts 22) went just fine until he dared to mention taking the gospel to the Gentiles (verses 21-22)? We could cite a long list of references but it’s not hard to demonstrate the common Jewish hatred for anyone who wasn’t a “proper” Jew. Anyone in that part of the world was familiar with the arrogant treatment, clannish withdrawal, the nasty looks and ugly slang labels coming from the Jews. That is, until a Jew was ready to take your money or needed something you had. No wonder the early churches struggled with keeping peace between the Gentile believers and Jewish Christians!
You wonder how the Romans were so patient with the Jews.