By Yehuda Shurpin
Is there any evidence that Jewish thought and philosophy had an influence on the Greeks?
Contemplating your question, I thought that perhaps it would be best to begin by quoting Hermippus of Smyrna, where he accused Pythagoras of doing and saying “things imitating and transferring to himself the opinions of the Jews.”1
Or perhaps I would quote Clearchus of Soli, who related the following from an encounter between Aristotle and a certain Jew: “He conversed with us and with other philosophical persons, and made a trial of our skill in philosophy; and as he lived with many learned men, he communicated more information than he received from us.”2,3
Then there is the evidence of Jewish impact on many of the other advancements for which the Greeks are renowned, like their alphabet and architecture.
Much has been made of the architectural acuity of the Greeks, especially the Greek columns, with the Aeolic and Ionic capitals as examples of Greek creativity. However, there is hardly a mention of the Israelite architects who first incorporated, centuries earlier, the now-famous motif of a pair of scrolls spiraling out from a central triangle into the capital of a column.
These motifs have been discovered by archeologists in many “pre-Greek” capitals found in ancient Jewish cities, leading one renowned archaeologist to comment: “One can hardly believe it coincidental [that] not even one [of these motifs] has been found in an adjacent land until several hundred years later, yet we still refer to them as merely ‘Proto-Ionic.’”4
The impact on the Greek alphabet probably needs the least elaboration; after all, its very name is derived from the Hebrew letters “Aleph-Bet.” Even in the letters of the alphabet itself, there are remnants of its origins. For example, the letter Q, which in the Greek and Latin alphabets is a redundant letter and useless on its own, can be traced to the Semitic guttural Quf.5
These facts lead us to the glaring question of why we do not hear more about all this. Why, for example, do historians who rely so heavily on Josephus barely make mention of his account of the Jewish influence on Greek civilization?
Is there some truth to what Josephus writes, that this is “because they envied us, or for some other unjustifiable reason”?6 Perhaps. But, for some reason, I get the feeling that there is more to it than just that.
Sitting and pondering these thoughts, scanning the titles lining the bookshelves for something that might help, a thought suddenly hits me: I have been going about this all wrong! The answer is not to be found in some book of philosophy, ancient or modern; rather, it is sitting there right in front of me in the form of my Hanukkah candelabrum (the menorah). For isn’t the story of Hanukkah really about a battle between the Greek and Jewish philosophies, with the Jews being victorious? When we walk down the street on an average day, can one not still see the signs of this victory? But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself, and should start from the beginning . . .
While there were many different, and often opposing, schools of thought in Greek philosophy, what they all had in common was their focus on the role of logic, inquiry and reason, and the supremacy of human intellect. This is not only true of Greek philosophy, but of almost all Western philosophies, which are extensions of Greek philosophy. Even if we would be exaggerating by saying, as Alfred Whitehead did, that “Western philosophy is nothing more than a series of footnotes to Plato,” it is not a stretch to say that as a whole it has been shaped by the Greeks. This brings us back to the story of Hanukkah.
At the time of the Hanukkah story, the enlightening Hellenistic culture was spreading throughout civilization. It influenced a large percentage of the Jewish population, and led them to forsake their faith for rationalism, exchanging the supernatural for the natural and the spiritual for the physical.
The story of Hanukkah is not only about a physical revolt of the Jews against the Greek oppressors; it is the story of the revolt of faith from the place it was assigned as the domain of the gullible and uneducated. It is about the triumph of the supernatural over the natural, and the spiritual over the physical. (See Seeing Lessons for greater elaboration about this aspect of the story of Hanukkah.)
Over two thousand years later, are signs of the triumph of faith not apparent? To be sure, Western civilization and philosophy still thrive. Many still put their faith in reason and the physical. But when we walk down the street, drive a car, or ride the subway, do we not see and hear the expressions of faith and belief all around us? Do we not see the many institutions dedicated to faith and the spiritual rather than the physical?
If “Western civilization is but a footnote to Plato,” is it not equally true to say that the aforementioned expressions of faith in G‑d and belief in the spiritual are, in large part, thanks to Judaism and its faith in the One Creator?
Please see Why Couldn’t the Jews and Greeks Just Get Along? from our Jewish Holidays site.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin
Ask the Rabbi @ The Judaism Website—Chabad.org
Josephus, Contra Apionem I:22; Origen, Contra Celsum I:15. See also Porphyry of Tyre, Life of Pythagoras11.The full paragraph in Josephus reads: “Then [Hermippus] adds after this the following as well: ‘And Pythagoras used to do and say these things imitating and transferring to himself the opinions of the Jews and the Thracians. For that man is in fact said to have transferred to many of the customs of the Jews to his own philosophy.’” While many scholars are very skeptical in attributing the last sentence (“For that man . . .”) to Hermippus, they see no reason to dispute the attribution of the previous sentence (“And Pythagoras used to . . .”) to him, as it matches the approach he takes toward Pythagoras in surviving passages of his biography (Bezalel Bar-Kochva, The Image of the Jews in Greek Literature: The Hellenistic Period, ch. V).
Josephus, ibid.; Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, Book I, ch. 15. Regardless of whether this incident took place, the fact that a student of Aristotle would write this is an indication of what his impressions of the Jews were.It is interesting to note that one of the aims of Clearchus’ work, On Sleep, of which only fragments have survived and from which the above quotation is taken, was to show that Aristotle himself believed in the immortality of the soul—i.e., that the body and soul are separable, and the soul lives on after death, as was the opinion of Aristotle’s teacher Plato—a view that the other students of his vehemently claim he abandoned. See Hans Lewy, “Aristotle and the Jewish Sage According to Clearchus of Soli,” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 31, No. 3 (1938), pp. 205–235.
The meaning and ramifications of these quotes, as well as the degree of credence given to them, are matters of considerable debate between scholars. However, since the point of this article is about Jewish impact on Western thought in general (beyond the impact on any one specific person or philosophy), their purpose here is to draw attention to them and to the fact that these discussions do exist. It is for this reason that none of the other myths and legends of Greek philosophers having met, or learned from, Jewish sages are cited in this article.
Yohanan Aharoni, Archaeology of the Land of Israel, trans. A. F. Rainey (Westminster Press, 1982), p. 215.
Samuel Kurinsky, The Eighth Day—The Hidden History of the Jewish Contribution to Civilization; Joseph Naveh, The Origin of the Greek Alphabet.
Contra Apionem, ibid.