It is a natural inclination of the human soul, upon feeling alienated in its native country for a protracted time, to take it upon itself to find belonging elsewhere. There exists within mankind a deep and unrelenting need to belong, particularly within a coterie of those whom he deems kindred spirits, those whose orientation—be it earthy, spiritual, mental, or physical—closely aligns with his own, and, upon finding such a group, he endeavours to become a permanent fixture among their ranks.
There is a natural inclination amongst humankind to endeavour to understand that which is otherwise seemingly incomprehensible. Since man first gazed upon the winking expanse of heaven and roamed the lengths of the unspoilt earth, he attempted to unravel its fabric, chasing the golden threads of the untiring sun, as though by doing so he could cut through the fog of mystery that shrouded his existence.
A general consensus exists among an increasing number of churched millennials: Christianity is not all it was cracked up to be.
We’re tired of the rampant hypocrisy that has spread across the West like a festering plague, and of the cultural judgement that spews from so-called adherents. We’re tired of archaic morality, and of megalithic institutionalization. We’re tired of the demonization of art, film, literature, and music. We’re tired of half-baked answers to burning questions almost as much as we’re tired of stale dogma and nebulous theology.
There seems to be no middle ground amidst the war-zone that is modern Christendom: either churches cling to adamantly to centuries old doctrines that have been regurgitated since their pre-Constantinian credence; or churches blithely capitulate to the surrounding culture with nary a blink and a shrug, citing the idea that Christianity must adapt or whither under the overbearing influences of modernity. Yeah, we’re tired of that too.
More, we’re tired of the dramatic polarization of Christianity into mutually exclusive and seemingly irreconcilable denominational camps. At it’s most basic level, we see Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Protestantism, and Evangelicalism. Then we see the Calvinists, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, Pietists, Baptists, Charismatics, and Anabaptists. Even here, the vast host of unmentioned denominations bear testament to the excessive fragmentation of Christianity.
But wait, the churches are also fractured within denominations as well: Infant baptism? Healings? Tongues? Election? Spiritual gifts? The rapture? Eternal damnation? Female leadership? Hand raising? Hymns? Choirs? Instruments? Pants? Head-coverings? The last days? The list is almost as expansive as the number of Christians who argue over it.
And yet theological frictions only graze the surface of Christian divisions. Further camps have emerged, rifting Christendom into pieces yet again. Having become particularly noticeable since the rapid popularization of apologetics, we are not torn between the thinkers and the feelers, the rationalists and the emotivists, the minds and the hearts. And thus division ferments. There is a saying among Jewry: Two Jews, three opinions. If this is the case, we Christians carry the torch of our Judaic heritage proudly.
This entire fiasco has left an indelible taste on our tongues, bitter with animosity and apathy, that we’re all too eager to retch over the sanctuary floor as we turn tail and bolt for the door, screaming our half-hearted farewells in some vain hope, however fleeting, that someone will follow us.
But our departure is not, as some might erroneously presume, instantaneous. It arrives in incremental stages: realization, dissatisfaction, scorn, and, finally, disillusionment. Under the cautious influence of parents, friends, leaders, and pastors, we continue to grace these church establishments, fractured though they may be, with our quasi-enlightened presence. Yes, we’re tired of the whole disaster, but a swift amputation remains a premature, albeit tempting, evacuation strategy.
The more sensitive millennials among us may find themselves heartbroken by the pieces of Christendom scattered across the world, each lonely fragment fighting for preeminence above the others. Those less inclined to such noble sympathies (myself among them), cast a single trained stare over the wobbling, skeletal mess, swallow a mouthful of disgust and superiority, and wonder at what point in the history of Christianity a handful of bickering buffoons snagged the reins of God’s kingdom on earth. We find ourselves not just a little bit embarrassed in God’s stead, and can’t but wonder, “Is every Christian simply too blind and stupid to see what we’re seeing?” Christianity, for all its worth, looks more like a world-wide, two-millennia-old hot mess. Jesus surely had something in mind when he came to earth, but we’re quite certain this wasn’t it.
Christianity, for all its worth, looks more like a world-wide, two-millennia-old hot mess. Jesus surely had something in mind when he came to earth, but we’re quite certain this wasn’t it.
This perspective breeds into an innocuous whisper of scorn that ferments in the millennial sub-conscious each time we wander through the (increasingly unwelcoming) church doors. Maybe we couldn’t run the circus better, but we could definitely run it less worse.
Those noble millennials among us use their discontentment to make their criticisms known. Blogs unleashing all manner of religious angst are cut loose like the Titans. Facebook is another platform of choice. Twitter is even better, letting us connect with likeminded young adults who share our anger and join us as we verbally spew every ounce of our exasperation over the status quo of the church.
The logic driving such social media rage is simple:
Premise 1: Christianity will change if it can see the problem.
Premise 2: I can show Christianity what the problem is.
Conclusion: My voice can be used to inspire radical change that will overhaul all of Christendom and lead it into a new renaissance.
So, with unabated passion and unchecked rage, we draft our 21st century equivalents of Luther’s 95 Theses and release our polished beauties to the world naively hoping—perhaps even praying—for some kind of instantaneous reformation, or even for the slightest glimmer of hope to bequeath us with faith for Christianity.
As it is, we pen our observations in vain. It all too swiftly becomes patently clear that we have zero effect on the largest religion on earth. A second reformation is not on the horizon. Too many arguments, too many voices, too much noise for our shouts to be more than a shallow murmur muted by a dissonant cacophony of opinions. No one is listening. No one cares. Eventually we are driven to silence by the sheer futility of effort. It is akin to shouting into a black hole that not only swallows our screams, but reduces them to less than nothing. The worthlessness of our endeavors spurs us deeper into the rabbit-hole, tumbling heels first after the invisible white rabbit, although, in the shadow of the altar, we gird up our loins, fake a plastic smile, and nod, “It’s okay. I’m fine.”
Thus begins our descent into disillusionment. It’s not for lack of effort that many of us find ourselves in this vast wasteland. We wanted to believe in Christianity. We longed to be the change we wanted to see in church sanctuaries. We almost became a voice alone and bereft in the wilderness, crying, “Not that way! Please, stop! Can’t you see?” We all but became Nietzsche’s madman announcing, “God is dead and the church has killed him.”
Finger-pointing ensues. Blame is subsequently hurled at every imaginable priest, pulpit, and pew by everyone from youth pastors, to parents, to the disheartened millennial’s themselves. We’re all eager to have our say, to sling filth at whomever we hold responsible for our spiritual languor. Who is guilty of dragging our faith into a mire of lethargy from which it could not emerge?
“The church itself!” we cry, our defiant fists raised high in the air. “The church is to blame, along with all those discontented, arguing hypocrites who claim to be a part of it!” This chant becomes the sound of our retreat as we hasten from the corpse-ridden fields of Christianity in droves, surrendering our allegiance to anything but The Church. As the dust of our haste settles over pulpits and state-of-the-art surround sound systems, those who remain scratch their heads in confusion—why are they running?
A certain misconception inundates the echelons of western Christianity: churched millennials are unique among their peers.
A certain misconception inundates the echelons of western Christianity: churched millennials are unique among their peers. They’ve been raised in the shadow of the altar, taken part in the sacrament, been swamped by decades worth of Christian doctrine from the pulpit, learned the words to all the worship songs, memorized verses prolifically until the age of ten, and attended church-run youth group since the fourth grade. Clearly the youths who waltz into our sanctuaries week after week do not reflect the millennials raised in a religious void.
While such assumptions ring, in part, with truisms, they inevitably serve as the syllogism from which a pointed, albeit mistaken, conclusion is drawn: if Christian millennials are a species unto their own, their disillusionment must by necessity stem from something wholly other than the malaise that has swamped the rest of their generation. This spurs a hunt to diagnose which terminal disease has uniquely infected “churched millennials.” Why do they hate church? What causes them to abandon the church in droves? Has the church done (or not done) something in order to inspire this mass migration of millennials from the church?
Research is conducted. Statistics are gathered. Millennials are interviewed ad infinitum. And WHAM! The problem is diagnosed: the church has been getting sloppy. In its lackadaisical slumber it failed to adequately dote on the fragile youth who wandered through its doors. We wanted a Christianity that was bloggable; we found the eye-watering monotony of doctrine. We wanted a Christianity that catered to our hobbies; we found teachings that catered to our souls. We wanted a Christianity that brought God to us so we needn’t waste our time looking; we found ourselves uninspired and spiritually dissatisfied. We wanted a Christianity composed of saints who would ignore and overlook our moral shortfalls; we found churches full of wretched humans seeking Christ to give them strength in their weakness. Perhaps some naive part of us thought that we would find Jesus incarnated in the church, but we walked out reviled when all we found were broken people kneeling at the cross.
Perhaps some naive part of us thought that we would find Jesus incarnated in the church, but we walked out reviled when all we found were broken people kneeling at the cross.
In essence, we churched millennials desired a religion that was tantamount to entertainment: a religion that takes little effort to reap benefits, that has survived the rigors of postproduction and emerged like a cut and polished diamond, and that isn’t inhabited by (God forbid!) humans who are as prone to creating disasters of their lives as we are. We moronically imagined that Christianity works like the greatest diet known to man, requiring no exercise, including all our favorite foods, and is 100% satisfaction guaranteed. But that’s not what we found. And now we’re angry.
So we blamed the church. We blamed denominations. We blamed dry theology and antiquated morality. We blamed anything and everyone.
But we should have been blaming ourselves.
Alexander the Great is dead. His glorious empire has fractured. Jerusalem is ruled by the Ptolemies.
Spanning the fourth and third centuries BC (approximately 301 to 200 BC), the Ptolemaic dynasty in Judaea is fraught with conflict. Judaea’s strategic location, bordering Egypt, has transformed the province into a tug-of-war hotspot between the Ptolemies and the neighbouring Seleucid kings. Six wars are waged over its borders. Foreign troops occupy Jerusalem as many as twelve times.
Due to a dearth of sources, this period is shrouded by obscurity. Even so, enough evidence has been afforded us to paint a picture, nebulous though it may be, of this chapter of Judaean history. Here we’ll look at two aspects of particular relevance: autonomy and hellenism.
Priests and Landlords
Would Alexander the Great’s policy of Jewish autonomy be perpetuated after his death? And further, would the Jew’s be afforded their right to worship according to the laws of their fathers?
In Judaea, these questions burned fiercely as Alexander’s generals wrestled over his fracturing empire.
Under Alexander, Judaea was afforded a considerable level of administrative autonomy under the aegis of the empire, during which time the high priests served as Jerusalem’s de facto religious and political leaders. The high priests acted as the primary microphone between king and country. This level of priestly power was hitherto unprecedented in Jewish history.
Enter Ptolemy I, trusted general of Alexander the Great.
Under the guise of offering sacrifices, Ptolemy waltzes into Jerusalem’s open gates on a sabbath and takes control. Although Josephus claims that Ptolemy entered the city by means of deceit and “ruled over it in a cruel manner,” material indications suggest otherwise (Ant. 12.3-7). In particular, coinage dating to Ptolemy I’s rule bears the inscription יהדה (YHDH), the old Hebrew form for the province of Judaea, and are otherwise bereft of officials’ names. This is indicative that Judaea retained a level of centralized political autonomy during this time (Schwartz, 162).
Meaning? Maintaining Alexander’s policy, Ptolemy supported Jewish autonomy under the leadership of the high priests. Judaea was essentially ruled by an aristocratic priesthood. The Jews lived according to their laws, under their own religious authority, and the Temple became a dominant provincial lynchpin. Greek interference remained limited.
But it would not last.
Following his father’s death, Ptolemy II steps onto the scene, where he is joined by the Tobiad family.
Hold up. Who are the Tobiads and where did they come from? Good question. Here’s what we know: The Tobiads were neither priests nor kings, but rather a grossly wealthy Jewish family with political connections. Remember Nehemiah’s arch nemesis in Neh. 2:10-20, Tobiah the Ammonite? Probably the same family, generations removed but still conniving.
Under Ptolemy II, things change.
In an attempt to integrate Judaea with the rest of his kingdom, Ptolemy II establishes an a new Ptolemaic administrative system over Judaea which, although not subverting the authority of the priestly institution, ceases to support it. Instead, the bulk of administrative control falls to wealthy landlords, such as the Tobiad family. With the backing of the king, the Tobiads become the de facto leaders of Judaea while the priests are reduced to religious figureheads.
So what if Judaea is administered by high priests or wealthy landlords? What difference does it make?
So glad you asked. In a word: hellenization.
To Be or Not to Be Greek
Hellenism can most comprehensively be defined as follows: The influence and interplay of Greek and non-Greek culture on all aspects of society throughout the civilized world: religion, literature, philosophy, economics, social, political, artistic, and material (Levine, 26-27).
(Think: an ancient version of the Americanization of the known world.)
The decentralizing shift of power away from Jerusalem, the religious focal point of Judaism, and into the hands of the Tobiads dramatically hastened the movement of hellenization throughout Judaea.
Under Ptolemy II, the balance of power shifted from priests to landlords. Unlike priests, however, the authority of wealthy landlords was not legitimized by God. At least not in the eyes of the people. Rather, the Tobiads were fundamentally dependent on Ptolemy II for their power.
Hint: If you want the uber powerful Greek king of Egypt and Judaea to place vested interest in you, he has to trust you, relate to you, like you. As it is, like likes like. So if you’re a Jew, become a Greek. Speak Greek. Dress Greek. Think Greek. Embrace all that is Greek.
This strategy worked for the Tobiads. By becoming Greek in every noticeable manner and integrating with the hellenized crème de la crème, they effectively set themselves apart from their fellow countrymen as an elite ruling class in whom the trust of the king was placed.
In doing so the Tobiads and the other landlord potentates like them set a trend. Greek luxuries became a mark of the wealthy and well-connected. As a result, the assimilation of Greek culture in Judaea was vastly accelerated.
Hellenism percolated through every area of life, from literature to architecture. Greek-styled gymnasiums, agoras, and theatres cropped up in Judaean civic centres. Greek language swelled to become the lingua franca of the known world, Judaea not excluded. Jewish literature, such as that of Philo of Alexander, came to reflect aspects of pagan philosophy.
Like the Greeks who had introduced it, hellenism ran rampant across the ancient world.
At this point, we’re nodding our heads. “Sounds great! What’s not to love about Plato, theatre, and Corinthian columns?” To many Jews of the third century, very much in every way.
Because hellenism posed a threat against the very existence of Judaism, not by threat of eradication, but by threat of assimilation.
Since their emergence as God’s chosen nation, the Jewish identity was vested in the concept of being set apart by the Law as God’s covenant people. Defined by the Torah, they were distinctive and utterly “other” from the cultures surrounding them.
During the periods of Babylonian and Persian captivity, this became particularly the case. Where other nations were dispersed and absorbed, the Jews clung to their separateness. Their survival as a people was contingent on their radical and adamant otherness.
To assimilate was to disappear.
Hellenism, then, posed a problem. In so far as it integrated the Jews with the nations surrounding them, it threatened their survival as a nation.
It would not take long before this understanding would spur a dramatic counter-movement. Fears and disputes over the continuity of God’s covenantal law would soon give rise to divergent religious groups that would forever shape the history of the Jewish people. These we know from the New Testament as the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the scribes and the teachers of the law.
And the time of their emergence had almost arrived.
The Blank Page Chronicles:
- The Silent Years Between Testaments
- From Ezra to Alexander
- The Ptolemies in Judaea
- Seleucid Rule (323-163 BC)
- Antiochus IV Epiphanes (174–163 BC)
- Maccabean Revolt (167-152 BC)
- Hasmonean Priesthood and Kingship (142-63 BC)
- Arrival of Rome: Pompey (63 BC)
- Herod the Great (39-4 BC)
References and Recommended Reading
Brutti, Maria. The Development of the High Priesthood During the Pre-Hasmonean Period. Leiden: Brill, 2006.
Levine, Lee E. Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence? Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998.
Schwartz, Seth. “On the Autonomy of Judaea in the Fourth and Third Centuries B.C.E.” Journal of Jewish Studies 45, no. 2 (1994): 157-339.
See also Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words.
The Old Testament dwindles to silence so innocuously, so subtly, that it almost closes without notice. The year is circa 430 BC and all has been set aright: the children of Israel have begun to return from Persian exile; the Temple has been rebuilt, albeit ingloriously; the Law has been reestablished; and a portion of Jerusalem’s wall has been reconstructed.
Welcome to the Second Temple period, where the Old Testament ends and the blank page begins.