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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

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Wisdom

Dianne Bergant

The Hellenization of the World

The last half of the fourth century BC saw rapid and sweeping changes in the ancient world. The conquests of Alexander the Great had brought the entire eastern world under the influence of Greek culture. This served to unify an otherwise diverse and disorganized world. It also threatened the integrity of other cultures and religious perspectives. With Alexander's death in 323 BC, the empire was divided among his followers, and three independent and mutually hostile kingdoms were formed. Two of these kingdoms played significant roles in the affairs of the Jewish nation. Ptolemy gained control of Egypt and established himself in Alexandria; Seleucus triumphed over Babylon and made Antioch his center. In its own way, each kingdom contributed to the shaping of biblical tradition.

The hellenization that was forced upon the Jewish community by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes was the background for the Jewish war of independence known as the Maccabean revolt (167–142 BC). This struggle is narrated in 1 and 2 Maccabees (see Reading Guides on Maccabees) and is the real context for the story found in the book of Daniel. The military and religious victory the Jewish people gained at this time is celebrated each year at the feast of Hanukkah.

The influence of the Ptolemies is more relevant to an understanding of the wisdom literature. It occurred earlier than that of the Seleucids and appears to have been quite well received. A large colony of Jews lived in Alexandria and accommodated itself to Greek language and culture. This was the group that translated its religious traditions from Hebrew into Greek, thus producing the basis of what has come to be known as the Septuagint (Latin for seventy, frequently designated LXX). A tradition grew up claiming that seventy scribes, working independent of each other, labored over the translation for seventy days in seventy different locations and produced identical versions. This marvel was seen as evidence of the inspired nature of the translation. Most likely the task took decades, but this fact did not detract from the reverence accorded the Septuagint over the years.

The Alexandrian or Greek version of the Scriptures was probably the one in popular use during the first century of the Christian era. During this same period, however, the Jewish community adopted the older Palestinian or Hebrew version as its official text. The Christian practice of adding its own writings to the collection may have contributed to this decision.

Christians continued to revere the Alexandrian tradition. In fact, by comparing the Old Testament citations used by New Testament writers, scholars conclude that a good number, if not most of them, come from the Alexandrian rather than from the earlier Palestinian version. At the time of the Reformation, the official version of the Old Testament became a point of disagreement among Christian denominations. Protestant churches retained the shorter Hebrew canon and thus preserve the more ancient Jewish version of the tradition. The Roman church accepted the wider Greek canon and thereby preserves an authentic early church tradition. The collection of those books not found within the Hebrew canon are called deuterocanonical (second‐listing) by Roman Catholics and apocryphal (originally meaning “hidden,” now understood as inspirational but not canonical) by Protestants. This explains why some Bibles include such books as Wisdom and Sirach, while others do not.

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