What’s So Bad About Speaking Greek?

(Slightly revised version of the article originally published on June 30, 2023)

In discussions about the New Testament over the years, we always seem to go back to blind spots that keep the parts everyone knows about from making logical sense.

Such is the case when we talk about how things got the way they were at the time the Gospel accounts begin. Who were the scribes and pharisees? Where did they come from? What did the average Jew on the street in the first century think about them? Few realize the most important question of all. What is going on with that group of “Essenes” who wrote and maintained the Dead Sea Scrolls?

My second book, Revelation and the AntiChrist, discusses many common assumptions about concepts and ideas in Revelation that are not actually there at all. My new book goes into more detail about the striking similarity between the book of Revelation and other works of first century apocalyptic Jews found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The Dead Sea Scrolls came from a vast library that was maintained at or near Qumran until 68 C.E. Some of the documents in that library came from other parts of the world. And some of those documents are written in Greek. But there is no evidence that the caretakers of that library wrote anything in Greek. All of the documents that appear to have been composed there are in Hebrew or Aramaic.

There is a good reason for that which is often overlooked by modern Christians. All of the earliest copies of New Testament documents are in Greek. But the people at Qumran were violently opposed to foreign languages and customs. And even though they required fluency in Greek from their leaders, they were especially opposed to Greek writing and culture.

Where did this visceral rejection of anything Greek come from? The following excerpt from Chapter Three should help clear up some of this confusion:

We Have Met the Enemy and They are Greek

Jeremiah, writing in the sixth century B.C.E., shortly after Babylon had taken the Jewish people into captivity (in 586 B.C.E.), predicted that their captivity would end after seventy years.

When the Persian King Cyrus conquered Babylon (539 B.C.E.) their suffering should have ended. The Temple was to be rebuilt and the golden eternal age of peace and prosperity would begin.

But within two hundred years the rebuilt Temple and all it represented faced a new threat of annihilation.  In 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great stood poised to capture Jerusalem and replace Jewish culture with Greek.

It would seem that enough appeasers occupied positions of leadership to convince Alexander to preserve the status quo for a while. Josephus relates a fantastical story of how they pointed him to a prophecy from Daniel[i] that predicted a great Greek ruler would come through at about that time[ii].

Whenever Josephus relates something that he cannot rationally explain (or his handlers do not want him to explain), he tends to use this technique to move the narrative along.[iii]

Regardless of the real reason, the bore worm of Greek influence was now firmly planted within Jerusalem leadership. In another one hundred and fifty years, the gloves came off and the pretensions were gone.

By 175 B.C.E., the Greeks had their boy. Antiochus forced Onias III who was against the Hellenization of Israel to relinquish the office of High Priest to his brother, Joseph (a/k/a Jason). Antiochus IV had become king of the Seleucid Empire and was now auctioning off the office of High Priest in Israel.

Like Paul of the New Testament and like Josephus of the first century, the new High Priest traded in his Hebrew name “Joshua” for the Greek name “Jason”.

Israel was selling out to Greek culture in every conceivable way. Jason was granted permission to build a city (Antioch) and a gymnasium for Greek style games. Because these games were played in the nude, a surgical procedure was developed to undo circumcision[iv]. That way Jewish athletes could perform with Greek competitors without looking so conspicuously Jewish.[v]

But alas, even Jason was not Greek enough to make everyone happy. A group of malcontents led by Menelaus believed Jason was still favoring at least some aspects of traditional Judaism.

In 171 B.C.E. Jason sent him to Antiochus to pay the annual tax/tribute to maintain the office of High Priest, Menelaus outbid him and claimed the office for himself.[vi] Antiochus sent an officer and soldiers to make sure Jason was ousted and to collect the increased tribute promised to him by Menelaus.

Menelaus and his brother, Lysimachus pissed off everyone by looting the Temple and murdering the former High Priest Onias.

You Don’t Tug on Antiochus’ Cape – You Don’t Spit Into the Wind

Hope, greed, and hunger for power do not die easily. After hearing a rumor that Antiochus had died in Egypt, Jason instigated a coup to reclaim the office for himself. This resulted in an ugly war. Unfortunately for Jason (and the people of Israel) Antiochus was not so dead after all.

When he heard of these goings-on he was not amused. Antiochus interpreted this as an insult to his authority. He reacted in 168 B.C.E. by sending an army whose initial purpose was to destroy Jason and his allies.

Jerusalem was attacked twice. The new government took over everything and seized the property of those who had been loyal to Jason.

The simmering cauldron boiled over in 167 B.C.E. when a Jewish priest, Mattathias ben Johanan, was ordered to make a sacrifice to the Greek gods. He refused, then killed the guy who stepped forward to do the sacrifice in his place. He then killed the Seleucid government official who ordered the sacrifice. This was the beginning of a rebellion and a guerilla war led by Judah Maccabee[vii] and his family, and ultimately the recapture of the Temple in 164 B.C.E.

The Maccabees’ victory and subsequent cleansing and dedication of the Temple to purge the sacred place from Hellenistic corruption are remembered each year at Hanukkah. These were the pioneers of the Hasmonean Dynasty. Ironically, the official story of their exploits was only preserved in the books of I Maccabees and II Maccabees – both written in Greek.

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[i] Antiquities II.8.5. Whiston, William. trans. The Works of Josephus Complete and Unabridged. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987. p.307.

[ii] If those sections of Daniel had existed in 332 B.C.E. this would probably have been a reference to Daniel 7:6; 8:3-8; 8:20-22; and 11.3.

[iii] Aside from the fact that the passages from Daniel that describe the rise and fall of the Greek empire had not been written yet, we must notice that Josephus says exactly the same thing about Vespasian’s decision to spare his own life and to spare Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai and allow him to found the academy at Yavne.

[iv] This was still evidently practiced in the first century as it is referenced by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:18.

[v] See Antiquities XII.5. Whiston, William. trans. The Works of Josephus Complete and Unabridged. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987. p.323.

[vi] 2 Maccabees 4:24.

[vii] Maccabee means “hammer” in Aramaic. But the name is thought to have been taken from an acronym for the Hebrew battle cry of the Maccabean fighters: מי־כמכה באלם יי “Who is like you among the mighty, O’ Lord!” Exodus 15:11.


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