Is Greek Wisdom Jewish?


Jews, in the words of Tolkien (he of Lord of the Rings fame), are a “gifted people”. John Adams was fulsome in his praise. “They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their Empire were but a Bauble in comparison of the Jews. They have…  influenced the affairs of Mankind more, and more happily, than any other Nation ancient or modern.” Mark Twain: “His contributions to the World’s list of of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning are also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.”

It would seem then, that so impressive are the Jews and their accomplishments, that it would be entirely unnecessary to exaggerate the matter. Whereas other groups the world over feel compelled to lie about their past greatness (the so-called Muslim Golden Age springs to mind as a prime example) in order to massage their fragile egos and convince the world (and themselves) of their past (or current) greatness, the Jews need not resort to such shameless prevarications.  The Jews are great, and everyone knows it.

It is with this mind that one can ask the question: is Greek wisdom Jewish? What prompted me to address this was the book on Chanukah “Through Your Hands: The Complete Story of Chanuka”. The book, written by one Meir Lamberski, is unashamedly parochial, for which I do not plan on giving him any grief. What I will focus on (in this paper, and in the future) are what I consider to be factual errors, and damaging ones at that. Winston Churchill is said to have remarked, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” I therefore attempt to set the record straight, regarding one important matter, forthwith.

The book “Through Your Hands” (p. 3-4) states:

“The Greeks or Yevanim, descendants of Yefes, were the font of wisdom for the nations of the world. History’s most renowned philosophers, including Aristotle and his colleagues, came from the Greeks… Their fame as the wisest of nations, though, stems from the wisdom they spread which was actually borrowed from others sources. When the Greeks, under the leadership of Alexander the Great, conquered the Persians, they adopted the Persian wisdom as their own. The Persians had, in turn, amassed this wisdom from King Shlomo, the wisest of men. Shlomo’s intelligence and perception was a gift from Hashem Himself.”

End quote. This an astonishing piece of hogwash to be coming from a writer today, in the age of computers and public libraries. I say that because it is always easier to pardon mistakes made in the olden days when hand-written books were few and far-between. The author, in a footnote, quotes the Kuzari, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, renowned Spanish poet and philosophically-inclined anti-philosopher, as evidence (Kuzari part 1, section 63 and part 2, section 66). The Kuzari bases much of of his philosophy on the idea that Solomon the Wise transmitted his learning to the Chaldeans, who then gave it to the Persians, whereupon the Greeks got it “when they became powerful” (which means they conquered Persia).

In truth, the Greeks did not get their wisdom from the Persians via conquest. This is easily shown. The great outpouring of Greek wisdom happened before Alexander the Great conquered the Persians in 331 BC, not after. This is patently true, but I went over a large section of Bertrand Russell just to be sure. What follows is a very short summary of the history of some of the major Greek philosophers who lived before Alexander (and thus before the Greeks conquered the Persians).

Thales, the first philosopher, who said that everything was made of water, lived at around 585 BC (we know this because he predicted an eclipse for that year). Anaximander, the second philosopher, who may of been born at around 610 BC, believed that the earth was shaped like a cylinder. It is said that he is the first person to make a map. He was followed by Anaximenes, born 585 BC, who believed the earth was shaped like a round table. Pythagoras, he of the famed Pythagorean theorem, was born around 570 BC, and succeeded in starting a cult-like school where the students were taught such things as the need to stay away from beans and not to walk on highways, but also mathematics and philosophy. Xenophanes, who died at around 476 BC, was a Monotheist who sharply attacked Polytheistic views. Heraclitus, who lived around 500 BC believed that everything was in a state of flux. He stridently attacked his predecessors, writing that  “Homer should be turned out of the lists and whipped” and the wisdom of Pythagoras was “an art of mischief”. Parmenides, born 502 BC, was the opposite of the previously mentioned Heraclitus; while Heraclitus believed that everything changes, Parmenides believed that nothing changes. Empedocles, born 495 BC, was many things, including a scientist who is credited with discovering that air is a separate substance. He also believed himself a miracle-worker, a contention he put to the test when he leapt into the volcano Etna, to an inevitable death. Anaxagoras, born 497 BC, got into trouble in Athens for saying things like the sun is a red hot stone.  Anaxagoras also held that everything is infinitely divisible. Leucippus and Democritus, who flourished in around 440 BC and 420 BC, respectively, were the first Atomists (which is the belief that everything is comprised of atoms). Democritus complained that no one in Athens knew him and supposedly Plato disliked Democritus to  the extent that he wished his books burnt. Protagoras, born 487 BC, was the leading Sophist, who were professors that went around teaching the youth. He toured Greece teaching, for money, “any one who desired practical efficiency and higher mental culture”. Socrates, who was at odds with the Sophists, was born in 470 BC and taught Plato (born in the 420’s BC) who in turn taught Aristotle (born 384 BC). These three, especially Plato and Aristotle, are at the same time the culmination of Greek thought up until that point and the foundation of all Western thought until the present. When Galileo Galilei was condemned by the Catholic Church, it was in part because because he went against “the Philosopher” Aristotle, who had been dead some 1900 years, by asserting such things as the existence of mountains on the Earth’s moon (our moon) and the existence of moons around Jupiter. Regarding Plato a single sentence from Alfred Whitehead is sufficient: “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”.

The history of the Greek speaking-world in ancient times can be divided into three parts. All of the aforementioned was contained in the first part, when it came to an end in the reign of Alexander the Great, a student of Aristotle. The second period, ushered in by Alexander, is called the Hellenistic age. In regards philosophy, it was dominated by the Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics. Even though in science and math it was superior to its predecessor, it was commonly understood, even in that time period, that it was inferior in philosophy. There can be no doubt that the Greeks were philosophizing at a higher level before invading Persia than after, which, elementarily, disproves the Jewish sources, for whom it is axiomatic that the Greek flowering of wisdom occurred after the invasion of Persia.

There was no great transference of wisdom from Persia to Greece, as is asserted by the Jewish sources. The influences were political and cultural, with the Greeks picking up Oriental despotism and superstition from the Persians. On the contrary, Greek culture and wisdom was introduced to the East. In Egypt the ruling Ptolemies spoke Greek, dressed Greek, wrote Greek, and, significantly, thought Greek. This occurred to considerable extent in Seleucia, as well. 

The Ancient Greeks, in my view, were the great thinkers of all time, unmatched in the breadth and depth of their intellectual pursuits. The bulk of math, science and philosophy originated from them, (or at the very least, passed through them as a vital part of its intellectual formation). Thus we find that the binomial definition in biology in use today was first championed by Aristotle. The diameter of the earth was gauged by Eratosthenes (born 276 BC) to be 7850 miles, which is 67.5 miles from the truth. Maimonides (basing himself on the Gemara) says the world is 6,000 parsaos in circumference {a parsao is greater than a mile by 2.41–2.85 or 2.27-3.03}, which means that Maimonides is off, at least, by some six thousand miles. Thales, the first philosopher, was able to measure the height of an Egyptian pyramid based on the length of its shadow. The way a man is judged today, in front of a jury of his peers, is derived from the Greeks. (Although juries were larger. Pericles, ruler of Athens, was found guilty of misappropriation of public money by 1,501 people).

In coming to the conclusion that the Greeks were the premier thinkers, and that they did not get their wisdom from the Persians who got it from the Chaldeans who got from the Jews, we must not be despondent about the seeming slight this delivers to the Jews and their accomplishments. The Jews did invent Ethical Monotheism. If it can be said that the modern West is simply the intellectual evolution of the Greeks then it is also the religious and moral evolution of the Jews. But Jews do not need to elevate themselves with stolen glory. And part of that is is coming to terms with the idea that the Greeks did not get their vast stores of wisdom and knowledge from the Jews.

Author: 004


  1. great , erudite article! I fear it will go well over the heads of our brothers and sisters who have no inkling about the world and science at large!


  2. You are too kind. Thank you. Between the two of us (and others) we shall expand the Overton window of knowledge.


  3. This was certainly not the conclusion I would expect from someone like yourself, Yossi. But I imagine that your undying devotion to the truth outweighs your devotion to the Jews.

    To claim that Judeo-Christian values have had significant influence over Western thought and Western culture is one of the major points I think you swinging at pretty hard in the last concluding portion of your article. I think it would be difficult if not impossible for even the most scholarly cultural Marxist to disagree with you on this point. Even if that Marxist did desperately desire to discredit religion’s contribution on Western hegemony.

    The article was very well researched and I can tell you put a lot of work into it so this next statement is not a criticism in the least and please do not take it as such, but I would have liked to have heard about some of the philosophical and technological contributions of the Jews. Of course we can all do our own google search but I certainly felt like hearing second hand accounts of Jewish awesomeness from John Adams and J. R. R. Tolkien was incomplete without a little proof regarding what these Jews actually did to deserve that kind of praise.

    If not the Greeks, have the Jews made contributions to other nations or empires? (Rather then just western culture in general) Since this article was primarily dealing with what the Jews did for the Greeks, I know that was not a question you were obligated to answer in this article.

    My last question is; Do most Jews have a misconception that Greek wisdom came from the Jews? Is this a commonly held belief by many that your disproving?


  4. Hello Yossi,

    What a great article, as you keep ’em coming I am having more and more respect for you.

    For many years, I have been struggling with a logistical question you touched on and was wondering to your understanding of it. At the same time, I can give some insight to one of your questions.

    I comprehend and fully understand that in the shtetl superstition, folklore, wives tales, was the norm. Living in a closed world, in dread of the ruling anti-Semites, with an education being given by the second lowest element in society (only the water carriers was below the Melamid), it is no wonder how all this nonsense crept in. Living in constant fear while being un-educated is a recipe for the imagination to run uninhibited.

    Books, such as “Through Your Hands” would not have seen daylight a century ago. At that time the printer was your investor and in a way guarded against untruths and figments of imagination by the authors. How can a book like this be published today? Well, who stops anyone from using his creative imagination from putting it into printed paper. If the famous Art Scroll can do it, why can’t this author do the same? In the frum world of today, only warm, fuzzy, feel good, content can be printed, while G-d forbid the slightest remark, not in this vain can destroy an author’s career. The books of old indeed had many mistakes in them, but were not fantasy in totality.

    Here is what baffles me. Today’s day almost all of us get somewhat of a decent education. The libraries are free and they also allow Jews in. The internet is open, where Wikipedia and Google are available, How is it that our frum society can still be influenced by every star-gazer and fortune-teller plying his trade? How is it that the Safardi society, shrewd businessmen and all, (where you can never pull the wool over their eyes in a given transaction) yet every bird watcher has them eating seeds right out of his hands (note; Pinto and the others).

    Most probably you have also come across intelligent, learned, decent people, who you wouldn’t hesitate to ask advice from on many things. Yet, they still wait in line to eat the food given to them by some Rebbe, whom most of his followers are more intelligent and of a finer character than him. Ask them what they think happens when they eat his leftover food, and they go into this most un-rational, superstitious ideas. In my shul, the Rebbe has a special “Purim Stick” where they all lineup, bent their heads, while the while entreating the Rebbe to hit them – the Rebbe does not let them down.

    What are your thoughts?

    Sholi Katz


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