Alexander the Great and Hellenization

Our journey continues in time, and now Alexander the Great will come onto the scene. Alexander had a huge impact on the world at the time, and it is no different for Judaism and the Middle East. We still haven’t made it to the time of Jesus, but European influence will, from this point, be a major force in the Middle East until present. The Persian Empire still ruled over the Jewish lands, but in 333BCE, Alexander came sweeping out of southeastern Europe to conquer the known world.

Greece before Alexander and his meteoric rise

The Greek territories were originally not united but a few city-states that vied with each other for influence. The four main cities were Athens, Sparta, and Thebes. Macedonia, Alexander’s homeland, was a backwater of the Greek region. At the end of the 6th century BCE, Persia controlled all of the Levant, Mesopotamia, Iran, and Egypt. The Spartans were locked in battle with Athens, who had a stronger navy, so the former invited the Persians to help. This brought Persian influence into Greece, where it was eventually resented. By 490BCE, the Greeks and Persians were already fighting each other, and over the century Persia lost Egypt then regained it a few decades later.

In 350BCE, before Persia retook Egypt, Philip of Macedon started to unite the Greek city-states. He had to do away with the image of Macedonia as poor, brutish state, but once his reworking was finished, Macedonia was the one to rule the other Greeks. Once Greece became a unified force, it was nearly unstoppable. Philip started the wars, but he died as he was poised to take more territory. Alexander the Great, his son, took over, conquering Persian lands in Turkey in 333, in Egypt in 332, then from 331 to 323 he rapidly conquered what remained of the Persian Empire (which was a lot).

Alexander and the Jews

Alexander was surprisingly accommodating to the Jews, unlike the other empires that had conquered their lands. He allowed them to follow their traditions as long as they paid their taxes and remained loyal vassals. The people of Israel were in no way ready to fight Alexander, so they agreed to be his vassals.

Alexander himself had very little interest in the Jewish people. He visited them only once, on his way to conquering the rest of the Persian Empire. Indeed, if rulers are enticed by luxury, Persia held far more luxury for him to adore than the Jewish kingdom. The Jews, however, were heavily influenced by Alexander (just as the rest of the world was). This was the period of Hellenization (assimilation of Greek ideas into local cultures), and the Jews were no different. They started to learn Greek, dress like them, and take on some of the Greek customs that did not oppose their traditional customs. Not all was well, for the tax system was unfortunately pernicious, but at least the Jews were spared from being decimated and they could continue their traditions.

Collapse of the Empire

Shortly after all this conquest, Alexander died. He was only 32 years old, which says two things: he died at such an early age that he could have done much more, and he had indeed been a Great leader, as he had conquered the entire Persian Empire in only a few short years. The empire split into two main parts along a north-south divide, the north becoming the Seleucid Empire and the south Ptolemaic Egypt. The third piece, in Greece proper and a bit of Turkey, was Antigonids, but it plays little role for us here. The capital of the northern half was in Damascus, and the capital of the southern half was in Alexandria. Unfortunately for Israel, the two capitals were happy with everything except where the boundary lay. That put the Jewish state  right in the middle of the struggle.

This is actually where Chanukah comes from: as the Jewish people were trying to balance between the two empires without being killed, the northern remnant of Alexander’s empire became tired of their refusal to join the Seleucids. The leader of the empire, Antiochus, tried forcing the Jews to come to his side, implementing such practices as slaughtering pigs on the altar and prohibiting the religion. The Jews revolted and actually succeeded. When they tried to rededicate the Temple (which had been desecrated), they only had enough oil for one day, but the oil miraculously lasted eight. Or so the story goes.

The Septuagint

Hellenization was no small force in the Jewish world. The Old Testament was even translated into Greek as early as the 3rd century BCE. The Jewish community in Alexandria is thought to have been a motivating force for the translation. The community was robust, and Alexandria’s leader Ptolemy is thought to have commissioned its translation. He purportedly placed 72 translators into separate rooms and had them translate. When they finished, they all incredibly had the same copies. The name Septuagint stems from these seventy-two scholars.

There are advantages and disadvantages of having a translation into a much more widely used language. The main advantage was about spreading the ideas.  Hebrew was not nearly as influential and widely spoken as Greek, so having the ideas of the religion written into a text that many more could read, or at least understand when read aloud, helped spread Jewish ideas. This newfound understanding of the foreign is good for tolerance – at least to those who are open, as scholars usually are. Later, it allowed a lot of non-Jewish Christians to follow the religion, as they could not read Hebrew but they did understand Greek.

Despite the advantages, the Jewish leaders did not see the translation in a positive light from the beginning. First, there are many problems with the translation, which is important in a document that comes from God. A lot of these mistranslations were compounded by further translation into Latin and then again into vernaculars of the people centuries later. Another disadvantage was non-Jewish peoples could now know the religion and attempt to usurp it for their own causes. If one converts to Judaism and is serious enough to learn the language of the Hebrew Bible, then it is much less likely that person has unsavory intentions.

The biggest disadvantage, though, was that Greek became an approved language. With the approval of Greek as a language came the approval of the culture. With the approval of the culture, Hellenization started to infiltrate Jewish life. The allure was strongest in the upper classes, and many Jews lost their identity or, worse, hated their own people. Unfortunately this still occurs today in the “self-loathing Jew”: when one wants to assimilate so badly into local culture, s/he gives up tradition in favor of the adopted culture’s customs.

Certainly Alexander the Great had an major impact on Jewish life during his life, and his campaign of Hellenization coupled with the breakup of his empire further impacted Judaism. As much of the ancient world was fascinated with Greek culture, this carried over into the time of the Romans, who are intimately intertwined with Judaism and Christianity.

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