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Alexander, the Jews, and Hellenism

Below by Rabbi Ken Spiro

The one pivotal scene that you won't see in any movie sets the stage for the story of Chanukah.

With a star-studded motion picture featuring Colin Farrel, Alexander the Great seems to be suddenly all the rage. In keeping with the spirit of Hollywood, the movies will probably focus on Alexander's impressive military career, his colossal battles with the Persian Empire and his sordid personal life. What will be overlooked are the fascinating interactions Alexander had with the Jewish people and the complex relationship that developed between the Greeks and the Jews that set the stage for the story of Chanukah.


Alexander, born in 356BCE, was the son of Phillip II (382-336BCE), the King of Macedonia in northern Greece (and considered a barbarian by the southern Greek city states). Phillip created a powerful, professional army which forcibly united the fractious Greek city-states into one empire.

From an early age, Alexander displayed tremendous military talent and was appointed as a commander in his father's army at the age of 18. Having conquered all of Greece, Phillip was about to embark on a campaign to invade Greece's arch-enemy, the Persian Empire. Before he could invade Persia, Phillip was assassinated, possibly by Alexander, who then became king in 336BCE. Two years later in 334 BCE, he crossed the Hellspont (in modern-day Turkey) with 45,000 men and invaded the Persian Empire.

In three colossal battles -- Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela -- that took place between 334 and 331, Alexander brilliantly (and often recklessly) led his army to victory against Persian armies that may have outnumbered his own as much as ten to one. By 331 BCE, the Persian Empire was defeated, the Persian Emperor Darius was dead, and Alexander was the undisputed ruler of the Mediterranean. His military campaign lasted 12 years and took him and his army 10,000 miles to the Indus River in India.

Only the weariness of his men and Alexander's untimely death in 323BCE at the age of 32 ended the Greek conquest of the known world. It is said that when Alexander looked at his empire, he wept for there was nothing more to conquer. His vast empire did not survive his death, but fragmented into three large chunks centered in Greece, Egypt, and Syria and controlled by his former generals.

At its largest, Alexander's empire stretched from Egypt to India. He built six Greek cities, all named Alexandria. (Only Alexandria in Egypt still survives) These cities, and the Greeks who settled in them, brought Greek culture to the center of the oldest civilizations of Mesopotamia.

The Greeks were not only military imperialists but also cultural imperialists. Greek soldiers and settlers brought their way of life -- their language, art, architecture, literature, and philosophy -- to Middle East. When Greek culture merged with the culture of the Middle East, it created a new cultural hybrid -- Hellenism (Hellas is the Greek word for Greece) -- whose impact would be far greater and last far longer than the brief period of Alexander's empire. Whether through the idea of the pitched battle, art, architecture or philosophy, Hellenism's influence on the Roman Empire, Christianity, and the West was monumental. But it is the interaction between the Jews and the Greeks and the impact of Hellenism on Judaism that we want to take a closer look at.


During his military campaign against Persia, Alexander took a detour to the south, conquering Tyre and then Egypt via what is today Israel. There is a fascinating story about Alexander's first encounter with the Jews of Israel, who were subjects of the Persian Empire.

The narrative concerning Alexander's first interaction with the Jews is recorded in both the Talmud (Yoma 69a) and in the Jewish historian Josephus's Book of Antiquities (XI, 321-47). In both accounts the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem, fearing that Alexander would destroy the city, went out to meet him before he arrived at the city.

The narrative describes how Alexander, upon seeing the High Priest, dismounted and bowed to him. (Alexander rarely, if ever, bowed to anyone). In Josephus's account, when asked by his general, Parmerio, to explain his actions, Alexander answered, "I did not bow before him, but before that God who has honored him with the high Priesthood; for I saw this very person in a dream, in this very apparel."

Alexander interpreted the vision of the High Priest as a good omen and thus spared Jerusalem, peacefully absorbing the Land of Israel into his growing empire. As tribute to his benign conquest, the Sages decreed that the Jewish firstborn of that time be named Alexander -- which remains a Jewish name to this very day. And the date of their encounter, the 25th of Tevet, was declared a minor holiday.


Thus began one the most interesting and complex cultural relationships in the ancient world. The Greeks had never met anyone like the Jews, and the Jews had never met anyone like the Greeks. The initial interaction seemed to be very positive. To the Jews, the Greeks were a new and exotic culture from the West. They had a profound intellectual tradition that produced philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (who was Alexander's tutor for two years).

Their love of wisdom, science, art, and architecture set them apart from other cultures the Jews had interacted with. The Greek language was considered so beautiful that the Talmud called it in some ways the most beautiful of all languages and the Rabbis decreed that a Torah scroll could even be written in Greek.

The Greeks had never met anyone like the Jews -- the world's only monotheistic nation who had a unique concept of a loving, infinite God who cares about creation and acts in history. The Jews had incredibly profound and complex legal and philosophical traditions. They had literacy rates and a social welfare infrastructure unheard of in the ancient world.

So fascinated were the Greeks with the Jews that they became the first people to translate the Bible into another language when King Ptolemy II (c. 250 BCE) forced 70 Rabbis to translate the Hebrew Bible into Greek (known as the Septuagint, which means "70" in Greek).

Two Greek Empires emerged in the Middle East after the death of Alexander: The Ptolemies in Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria. The Land of Israel was the border between these two warring Empires. Initially, the Jews were under the control of the Ptolemies, but after the Battle of Panias in 198BCE, Israel found herself in the domain of the Seleucids and their king, Antiochus.

While much of the upper crust of Jewish society, along with the rest of the population of the Mediterranean world, readily embraced Hellenistic culture (some to the point of denouncing their Jewish identity), the vast majority of the Jews remained loyal to Judaism. This "rejection" of the Hellenistic lifestyle was viewed with great hostility by many Greeks and seen as a form of rebellion.

The exotic differences that had once served as the source of attraction between the two cultures now created the flashpoint for a cultural war. To make matters worse, Israel was the border state between these two rival Greek Empires, and the Jews, who refused to assimilate, were viewed as a disloyal population in strategically vital part of the Seleucid Empire.

It would be wrong to view the conflict as purely Greece versus the Jews. Internal tension within the Jewish community contributed significantly to the conflict. Many of the Hellenized Jews took it upon themselves to "help" their more traditional brethren by "dragging" them away from what they perceived was their primitive beliefs into the "modern" world of Greek culture. (This pattern has repeated itself many times in Jewish history -- in Russia in the 19th century and in Germany, to name just a few examples.) To aid them in their endeavor, these Hellenized Jews enlisted the help of their Greek allies, ultimately bringing the king himself, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, into the conflict.


In the mid-second century BCE, Antiochus issued a decree which until that time was unheard of in the multicultural and religiously tolerant ancient world: He outlawed another people's religion. He banned the teaching and practice of Judaism. The book of the Maccabees (probably written by a Jewish chronicler in the early first century BCE) describes it as follows: "Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their fathers and cease to live by the laws of God, and also to pollute the Temple in Jerusalem and call it the Temple of Olympian Zeus." (II Maccabees 6:1-2).

Brutal Greek persecutions of the Jews triggered the first religious/ideological war in history -- the Maccabean revolt. The revolt was led by the priestly family of Matithias and his five sons, the most famous of whom was Judah. Against all odds, the outnumbered guerilla army of the Maccabees beat the much larger, better equipped, professional Greek armies.

After three years of fighting, Jerusalem was liberated. The Temple which had been desecrated was cleaned and rededicated to God. It was during this period of cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple that the miracle of Chanukah happened. One small flask of oil used by the High Priest to light the menorah in the Temple, that should have been sufficient for only one day, miraculously burned for eight.

The conflict dragged on for many more years and cost the lives of many Jews, including Judah Maccabee and several of his brothers. Ultimately, the Greeks were defeated and Judaism survived.

Arguably, a far greater miracle than the oil lasting for eight days was the military victory of the Jews over the Greek Empire. But the light of Chanukah is symbolic of the real victory -- the survival of the spiritual light of Judaism. Judaism's miraculous survival enabled the Jews to have a monumental impact on the world that has far exceeded the miniscule size of the Jewish people, giving the world the concept of one God and the values of the sanctity of life, justice, peace and social responsibility that are the moral/spiritual foundations of Western civilization.


Quoting Judaism and Hellenism: The Encounter by Clare Goldfarb,

When Alexander defeated the Persians at Gaugamela, the Macedonian became undisputed Emperor of the Persian Empire. By destroying the Persian Kingdom, Alexander had abolished the frontier between East and West. He opened the countries of the Orient to the Greeks from the Mediterranean Sea--merging the East and the West into one cultural body. The resulting mixture of culture was to be known as Hellenism. Tush, the Hellenistic Era was born. In the remote hills of Judaea Hellenism came face to face with deeply rooted Jewish traditions. Inevitably, the two cultures clashed...

Before Alexander, there was little contact between the the cultures. There is no mention of the Jews in Greek literature; perhaps a stray remark by Herodotus, regarding the practice of circumcision among the Syrians refers to Jewish practice, but the reference could also refer to the Egyptians. Certainly the Jews, being traders, did have contact with the Greeks, but the uniformity of the language, Aramaic, concealed national differences.

We must bear in mind that barbarian mean 'non-Greek speaking' and that Greeks considered anyone not speaking their language as uncivilized...(Alexandria) needed workers and immigrants streamed in from all parts of the empire. The King had already transferred Jews from Samaria to Egypt and the Palestine campaigns of Ptolemy I brought more Jews as captives and slaves. In the first century B.C.E., Philo estimated the Jewish population of Alexandria as more than one million, outnumbering Judaea.21 The figures are probably exaggerated. Modern historians estimate the total population to be about 300,000 and it grew to one million in Roman times...

The Hellenization of the Jews began inconspicuously. First it infected their language, manners and customs and eventually encroached on their morals, ethics and religion...In Palestine and Babylonia Hebrew remained a literary language. Oral tradition in Aramaic was sufficient to keep the uneducated informed. But in Egypt knowledge of Hebrew became exceptional while there were all the attractions of Greek literature.

The Torah had to be made accessible in Greek, both for the religious services and for private reading. The story of the Septuagint (LXX) as the Greek translation of the Holy Scriptures is called, is told to us in the Letters of Aristeas as preserved in The Antiquities of the Jews. An Egyptian Jew, Aristeas, tells us that Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 B.C.E.) invited a group of seventy-two scholars to translate the Law of the Jews for inclusion in the Alexandria Library...

Jewish philosophers tried to reconcile Jewish morality and ethics with Hellenistic logic and rationality. Philo Judaeus (aka. Philo of Alexandria) was a Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher from one of the wealthiest families in Egypt. He received a thorough education in the Holy Scriptures and in Greek literature and philosophy. His output included metaphysics, ethics and Biblical commentary. Philo believed the divinity of Jewish Law was the basis of all true philosophy.

He believed Judaism to be a universal religion and that it did not achieve this universality by any abandonment of its beliefs or practices. "The Law of Moses was enshrined in his soul." Many of his works are concerned with the allegorical interpretation of Genesis and with the exposition of the Law of Moses for Gentiles...

The First and Second Book of the Maccabees, which are now part of the Apocrypha (Greek for hidden), are our main sources for the period both before and during the Hasmonean rebellion. Both I and II Maccabees are accounts of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid state. I Maccabees opens with a brief summary of the history of the Greek empire from Alexander the Great to Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The remainder of the book covers the period of the Maccabean Revolt to the death of Simon (135 B.C.E.).

II Maccabees is made up of glorious accounts of the victories of Judah Maccabee-The Hammer. It includes supernatural ailments, angels, miracles and resurrection of the dead.38 But it also relates events prior to the revolt. It is the only source furnishing the "historian with ...orderly material on the period of the Hellenizer's rule in Jerusalem."

Another account that is significant for the explanation of the events in Judaea is The Wisdom of Ben Sira, or as it is known in the Apocrypha, Ecclesiasticus. Ecclesiasticus is the only book that we have knowledge of the author. His grandson translated the Book into Greek in about 132 B.C.E. some fifty years after Ben Sira wrote it, and that is the version that had been preserved. Ben Sira was a scholar who dedicated his life to education the young and preaching morality.

His book contains hints and allusions to the great tribulations that were occurring in Judea in 180 B.C.E. He hints of the growing dissatisfaction of the poor and of the great schism between rich and poor. He understood the danger threatening Judaism from Hellenization and fought against it.41 He writes, "Seek not (to understand) what is too wonderful for thee, and search not out that which is hid from thee." Ben Sira declares the "fear of God is the foundation of all wisdom."

Modern historians looking at these writings wonder, how Hellenized were the Jews? Unfortunately the works of the great historians of the Hellenistic Age are lost and those that do survive are fragmentary. Most of the sources that modern historians rely on are written by Jews who were either interested in retelling biblical history or recounting events in terms of whether "he did evil--or good--in the eyes of God."44 If it was not part of Jewish canonical literature, the Rabbis were no interested in keeping it.

For the period between the fourth century and the early Christian Era, the scholars rely on the Apocrypha, which had been preserved in Greek and Latin translations by the early Christian fathers and is now part of the Old Testament in the Catholic and Greek Bibles.

The entire long article can be read at http://members.tripod.com/~Kekrops/Hellenistic_Files/Judaism.html.

APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE. A type of writing that flourished in Judaism and early Christian thought (165 B.C.E. to 120 C.E.), with the purpose of encouraging the faithful to stand firm under persecution.

The encouragement was in the form of a promise of speedy deliverance from current evils by the intervention of God, which would bring about the end of the present world order, the resurrection, and the eternal reward of the righteous and damnation of the unrighteous.

APOCRYPHA. Greek: "hidden, stored away." The Apocrypha refers to fourteen books found in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) but not in canonical Hebrew Scriptures. These books are important for the development of Jewish religious thought in the Second Temple period.

ARAMAIC. The language spoken by various northwest Semitic peoples from the eight century B.C.E. up through the first few centuries of the present era. Large portions of Daniel, Ezra, the Talmud, and the Midrash are written in Aramaic. Also the Lingua Franca of the ancient Near East.

BABYLONIAN EXILE. A period of time between the destruction of the kingdom of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.E. During this epoch, a small group of Jews remained in Palestine, although the majority of the Jews were exiled in Mesopotamia.

The Babylonian Exile is important for the development of the synagogue and the beginnings of the organized prayer book and canonization of the Scriptures. In 538 B.C.E. the Persian king, Cyrus, permitted the Jews to return to Palestine.

DIASPORA. This word, which is derived from the Greek word meaning "dispersion," has referred to all Jewish settlements outside the land of Israel or Palestine. Jews began to live outside the Holy Land during the decline of the First Temple period.

After the first large exile residents of Judah by the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C.E., many Jews did not return to Palestine when they were permitted to do so in subsequent centuries. They became scattered throughout the existing kingdoms.

ESSENES. A Jewish sect which flourished during the Hasmonean dynasty and whose members lived an ascetic and sometimes mystical life in monastic communities.

PHARISEES. Emerged as a distinct group during and after the Maccabean Revolt (c. 165 B.C.E.). They believed in the authority of the Written Law, along with the Saducees; but they also held the Oral Law to be authoritative.

As the latter was an interpretation of the Written Law from viewpoint of each successive generation, the Pharisees represented the mass of Jewish people in religious and social outlook, and Pharisaism became the foundation of later rabbinical Judaism.

SADDUCEES. Tracing their ancestry back to Zadok, high priest during the time of David, this Jewish sect, in the Hasmonean period, was composed of the Jewish aristocracy, prosperous merchants, and Temple priesthood. In their conservatism, they accepted as religiously authoritative only the Written Law, refusing the Oral tradition of the Pharisees.


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