Alexander, writes historian Paul Johnson, “cracked the Persian Empire like a rotten egg.”20 Following Alexander’s conquest of Persia, explains Durant, “Still enterprising and alert, the Greeks moved by hundreds of thousands into Asia and Egypt. . . .”21 They established cities, built gymnasiums and theaters, spread their language and culture, and attracted or repulsed diverse members of the local populations. Judea, in particular, was sorely conflicted about the impact of the Greeks.

Jews, if the Old Testament is taken as history, date their beginnings to the patriarch Abraham, around 2000 BC.22 According to legend, they are the first people to repudiate polytheism and embrace monotheism, belief in one God. Abraham, a wanderer and man of indeterminate profession, rejected the idol worship of his father and venerated a single god. This approach morphed across centuries into worship of an all-powerful Being who created and governed the universe.

Somewhere in Mesopotamia, God (Jehovah or Yahweh) reputedly spoke to Abraham. God proposed a covenant to the seventy-five-year-old patriarch. If Abraham would obey God’s commandments, then God would make Abraham’s descendants His chosen people, place them under His protection, and bestow on them the land of Canaan, the Promised Land (roughly present-day Israel). Abraham agreed.23 Thus began the tortured saga of history’s most persecuted people, who, despite ceaseless travails, throughout thirty-five centuries, retained belief in the God of their fathers. States Johnson, “The Jews are the most tenacious people in history.”24

And the Jewish religion is one of the most irrational.

Jews have survived unspeakable oppression at the hands of pagans, Muslims, Christians, and National Socialists (Nazis.) Under such harrowing circumstances, this survival is awe-inspiring and exalting. And yet, what the Jews have perversely chosen to keep alive is the worship of an alleged all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving deity who, despite His stated promise, exhibits not the slightest inclination to protect them from an endless procession of monstrous tormentors. Jewish history includes two key turning points. The first is their encounter with, and reaction to, the Greeks.

Johnson writes: “Alexander had created his empire as an ideal . . . he ordered all men to regard the world as their country . . . good men as their kin, bad men as foreigners.”25 The best of the Greeks were poets, sculptors, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians; their advanced culture was irresistible to the most rational Jews, chafing under the narrow fundamentalism of their religious society.

Durant states: “The basis of Judaism was religion: the idea of a surveillant and upholding deity entered into every phase and moment of Jewish life . . . Into this simple and puritan life the invading Greeks brought . . . a Hellenism devoted to science and philosophy, art and literature. . . .”26

Writes Johnson: “Many of the better-educated Jews found Greek culture profoundly attractive. [Some were] torn between new foreign ideas and . . . inherited piety, between the critical spirit and conservatism.”27 Predictably, orthodox Jews railed against apostasy, against educated Jews adopting a rationally critical method and rejecting faith-based beliefs. The pious regarded the Greek philosophers “with more alarm” than they did the Greek’s liberal sexuality. States Jewish historian Max Dimont: “The latter could corrupt only the body, while the former corrupted the mind.”28 Aristotle, the orthodox Jews understood, was vastly more dangerous to religion than was promiscuity.

At this time, Judea was part of the Seleucid Empire, a Hellenistic successor state to Alexander’s realm. In 175 BC, the party of reforming Jews allied themselves with the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, in an attempt to speed up the Hellenizing process. In 167, the king enacted a pair of decrees that outraged orthodox Jews: He “abolished the Mosaic law . . . replacing it with secular law.”29 The orthodox Jews, known in this iteration as Hasideans or pietists, more than howled. They went to war.

In the town of Modin, writes Durant, a Greek official called upon the Jews “to repudiate the [Mosaic] Law and sacrifice to Zeus.” Mattathias, a Jewish zealot, stepped forth. He was the father of five sons, Johannon Caddis, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan. He said: “Even should all the people in the kingdom obey the order to depart from the faith of their fathers, I and my sons will abide by the Covenant of our ancestors.” When one of the Jews came forward to make the requisite sacrifice, Mattathias murdered him, and then slew the Greek official.30 Mattathias, his sons, and their supporters, proceeded to wage guerrilla war against the secular rulers.

Mattathias, who was very old, soon died, leaving his son, Judas, known as the Maccabee, or Hammer, as head of his troops. In the years 166–164 BC, the Maccabees drove the Greeks from the area around Jerusalem and, in time, from Judea. The pro-Greek Jews were slaughtered or exiled.31

The victorious fundamentalists now controlled the culture. Where the Greeks, in power, had permitted open disagreement regarding religion and philosophy, the orthodox Jews, in power, severely limited such freedom. Johnson writes: “The secular spirit and intellectual freedom which flourished in the Greek gymnasia and academies was banished from Jewish centers of learning . . . the education provided in these schools was entirely religious, rejecting any form of knowledge outside the [Mosaic] Law.”32

To understand this complex conflict, bear in mind that the king, Antiochus Epiphanes, although undoubtedly a tyrant, was significantly less tyrannical than were his zealous foes. One is reminded of the 20th-century struggle between the Shah of Iran—a foreign-backed brutal secular dictator—and the indigenous, fanatical supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini, a dictator vastly more brutal and totalitarian. Perhaps more to the point, the Maccabees were the Taliban of their day—slaughtering their more secular coreligionists as apostates and tolerating nothing but a strict adherence to fundamentalist religion.

Both Jews and Greeks, in their own fashion, claimed to support freedom. The difference is eloquently stated by Johnson: “With the Greeks it [freedom] was an end in itself, realized in the free, self-governing community, choosing its own laws and gods, [but] for the Jews it was no more than a means, preventing interference with religious duties divinely ordained.” In other words, freedom to the Jews meant that no foreign (or indigenous secular) power restricted religious authorities from imposing orthodoxy on the masses. “The only circumstances in which the Jews could have become reconciled to Greek culture was if they had been able to take it over. . . .”33

Dimont analyzes the conflict like this: “Antiochus Epiphanes has been so entrenched in Jewish history as a villain that few Jews can see the war that ensued for what it really was—not an uprising against tyrannical Seleucids, but a revolt by Jewish anti-Hellenizers against Jewish Hellenizers.”34 A point that Johnson makes about Jewish rebels in another context is applicable to the Maccabees: They put into practice “the ancient doctrine that Jewish society was a theocracy, acknowledging rule by none but God.”35

The fundamentalists reclaimed the Jewish Temple, purged it of pagan elements, and re-dedicated it to Jehovah “at a solemn service in December 164 BC.”36 To this day, Jews celebrate as Hanukkah this victory of orthodox over Hellenizing Jews. For roughly nineteen hundred years thereafter, the Jewish mind, with all of its latent genius (with several notable exceptions) voluntarily and overwhelmingly removed itself from philosophy, science, and the arts, and buried itself exclusively in study of religion.

To see the big picture: Religion—including and initially Judaism—is the second of the two philosophies that have dominated most of Western history.

Religion is necessarily faith-based. Faith is belief in something in the absence of—or even in contradiction to—factual evidence. Faith is required for any commitment to a transcendent world, which by definition allegedly exists above or beyond the world of observable nature.

According to Jewish legend, as Durant states: “Moses had ruled bloodlessly by inventing interviews with God.”37 The Jews also invented other, similar fables—of a bush that spoke, of a man who lived within a whale, of a woman turned to salt, and so on. Here lies a critical parting of the ways in human cognition: The leading Greek thinkers rejected the myths of their culture— for example, that Pallas Athena sprang fully developed from her father’s head, without benefit of a mother;38 whereas the leading Jewish thinkers upheld theirs. Aristotle’s method of logical, noncontradictory thinking about facts was hereby rejected by the first culture to exert a deeply religious influence on Western civilization.


20. Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (New York: Harper Perennial, 1987), p. 97.

21. Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. 557.

22. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 11; Max Dimont, Jews, God and History (New York: Signet Classics, 2004), p. 18; Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, vol. 1, “Our Oriental Heritage” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954), pp. 300–301.

23. Dimont, Jews, God and History, p. 19.

24. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 3.

25. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 101; Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. 542.

26. Durant, “Life of Greece,” pp. 580–81.

27. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 99.

28. Dimont, Jews, God and History, p. 76.

29. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 103.

30. Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. 583.

31. Durant, “Life of Greece,” p. 584. Dimon, A History of the Jews, p. 79.

32. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 106.

33. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 120.

34. Dimont, Jews, God and History, p. 78.

35. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 122.

36. Johnson, History of the Jews, p. 104.

From The Objective Standard, Vol. 9, No. 1. Andrew Bernstein holds a PhD in philosophy from the Graduate School of the City University of New York and taught philosophy for many years at SUNY Purchase. He is the author of The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic, and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire (2005); Objectivism in One Lesson: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (2008); Capitalism Unbound: The Incontestable Moral Case for Individual Rights (2010); and Capitalist Solutions (2011). Dr. Bernstein is currently writing a book, Heroes and Hero Worship, at the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism, and is a contributing editor of The Objective Standard.

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