Our story starts in 336 B.C., when Philip II of Macedon was assassinated and his son Alexander became king of Macedonia and ruler of Greece.
Two years later, Alexander launched an invasion of the Persian Empire; over the course of the next few years, Alexander fought and won three major battles against the Persian King Darius III. Alexander eventually became ruler of all of Persia, and he continued to push eastward across the Indus River Valley into India. In this lecture, we discuss the conquest of Alexander the Great and Alexander’s impact on the Jews and Jewish tradition. We conclude by exploring possible parallels between the traditions surrounding Alexander the Great in Jewish eschatological thought and the mythology of Jesus.
Jewish Traditions about Alexander the Great
- During the course of Alexander the Great’s march through the Persian Empire, he traveled to Egypt in 332 B.C. While there, he took two signi cant actions that would contribute to his legacy: He founded a new city on the coast, Alexandria, named after himself, and he visited an oracular shrine dedicated to the god Zeus Ammon in the Siwa Oasis. Of particular consequence is that when Alexander approached the shrine, he was greeted by the local priests as if he were a god.
- The Judeans were now under Alexander’s rule. However, Greek historians do not mention Jerusalem or the Jews in connection with Alexander’s conquest, which is not surprising because Judea was the home of an obscure people and an insigni cant tribe. In fact, no contemporary Jewish sources refer to Alexander either.
- In order to reach Egypt from the north, Alexander would have traveled along the coast. It is unlikely that he would have taken the mountainous roads into the interior of the country, which would have led to Judea and Jerusalem.
Alexander the Great’s Impact on the Jews
- The Judeans submitted peacefully to Alexander as he marched through Palestine on his way to Egypt.
- When Alexander took the coastal road to Egypt, he had to make arrangements to administer the country. It is signi cant that he maintained the religious and political privileges that the Jews had enjoyed under the Persians. Basically, he left the governing system intact and replaced the Persian officials and administrators with his own officials.
- In the centuries after the death of Alexander, when he became “the Great,” the Jews sought to associate themselves with Alexander and his greatness. Jewish sources told of a supposed visit by Alexander to Judea and Jerusalem, and other traditions began to develop and circulate, as well.
- Perhaps the best known of these stories is Daniel’s vision, which is told in Daniel 8:1–27. In this passage, Daniel is shown a vision that involves a ram and a he-goat. The passage explicitly identi es the ram, which has two horns, with the king of Media and Persia—hence, the two horns. The he-goat, coming from the west, is Alexander the Great, who conquers the ram; in other words, Alexander conquers the Persian Empire.
- Daniel’s vision relates to the coming end of days, embedding Alexander in Jewish eschatological thought.
- Another celebrated legend involving the Jews and Alexander is preserved by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.
- According to Josephus, in visiting Jerusalem, Alexander was greeted by the Jewish high priest, Jaddua, who presented the king with the Jewish community’s capitulation; then, Alexander offered a sacri ce in the Jerusalem Temple.
- In this story, not only did Alexander make a detour in order to meet with the Jews and go to Jerusalem, but when he saw the high priest and the name of God, he was so awed that he bowed down. Alexander, according to this legend, recognized the greatness of the God of Israel.
Alexander and the Samaritans
- What happened with the Samaritans under Alexander provides an interesting contrast with the legend of Alexander among the Jews. While the Jews submitted peacefully to Alexander, the Samaritans did not. At rst, the Samaritan governor, Sanballat III, supported Alexander and was even given permission by him to build the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. However, after Sanballat III died, the Samaritans, for reasons that are not clear, rebelled against Alexander and burned his governor alive.
- In punishment, Alexander destroyed the city of Samaria and banished the Samaritans from the city. The Samaritans went to live at the foot of Mount Gerizim, their sacred mountain. From that point on, the district of Samaria had two religious and political centers: the Samaritan, or Yahwist, population that was concentrated in the area of Mount Gerizim, and Samaria itself, which became a Greek city.
Alexander’s Empire after His Death
- Alexander died in 323 B.C., and his death plunged his empire into a civil war that lasted for the next 20 years. Eventually, his empire was divided among various generals, the two most important being Seleucus and Ptolemy.
- Seleucus received most of Asia Minor, Syria, and Mesopotamia. This was known as the Seleucid kingdom. Ptolemy received Egypt, which became known as the Ptolemaic kingdom.
- Judea was located right between the Seleucids to the north and the Ptolemies to the south. During most of the 3rd century B.C., it was under the rule of the Ptolemies. During most of the 2nd century B.C., it was under the rule of the Seleucids.
- One of the challenges that Alexander’s successors faced was to legitimize themselves as the heirs of Alexander in the eyes of the local populations. The problem here was that none of Alexander’s successors was actually related to Alexander. In antiquity, the law of succession was usually dynastic and proceeded through family ties.
- One way that these generals established their legitimacy as Alexander’s successors was to imitate what Alexander had done. Specifically, they founded Greek cities, which they named after themselves. Each of these cities was a polis with Greek- style institutions, such as theaters for the performance of Greek plays, temples dedicated to Greek gods, council houses for Greek-style meetings, and gymnasia so that the youth could be educated in the Greek manner.
- The populations who lived in these cities grew loyal to the king because they benefited from the sophisticated Greek cultural and political institutions. The spreading of Greek culture in this way is called Hellenization, and it was an effective tool used throughout the realms ruled by Alexander’s successors.
Parallels between Alexander and Jesus
- A number of possible parallels exist in the later traditions and legacies surrounding both Alexander the Great and Jesus Christ. These parallels have been explored by the scholar Ory Amitay in From Alexander to Jesus. In his book, Amitay examines the ways in which Alexander might have served as a model for the mythical Jesus. Importantly, Amitay focuses on the mythical Jesus rather than the historical Jesus—that is, the traditions that surrounded Jesus after his death.
- In the Greek and Roman world, it was common for royal families to trace their ancestry back to a hero or a god. In this case, Alexander’s family traced its ancestry back to the Greek hero Heracles or Hercules. Amitay argues that Alexander lived his entire life in emulation, competition, and self-identification with Heracles. This established a basis for Alexander’s transformation from human to divine, which was not a characteristic of the Greek world before then. This was a new feature introduced into Greek culture—the idea that the ruler becomes a god and is worshiped as one.
- In addition, Amitay points out that Alexander’s legacy adopted a number of motifs from the mythology of Heracles. Not only do we see a divine ancestry going back to Heracles, but there are also other aspects of the mythology of Heracles that became features of traditions surrounding Alexander: the divine son, double paternity, a world mission on behalf of humanity, and divinization. Interestingly, these motifs are also a part of the myths associated with Jesus.
Prelude to the Messiah
- Alexander was already a key figure in Jewish eschatological thought, that is, Jewish thinking and expectations about what would happen at the end of days. In Jewish eschatological thought, Alexander is situated at the beginning of a new era that is perceived as the last stage of history before the end of days— the eschaton. In other words, Alexander was understood as a necessary step on the road to the advent of the messiah.
- We have already seen that Alexander played a key role in the most influential piece of apocalyptic literature produced by Second Temple–period Judaism: the Book of Daniel. According to this book, Daniel stands in the royal court of three successive kingdoms: Babylon, Media, and Persia.
- Daniel looks into the future and sees the progress of human history in a series of distinct visions presented as a succession of kingdoms. The fourth and last kingdom is Macedonia; this kingdom—significantly—is to be followed by God’s kingdom. The perception of Alexander as the instigator of the last stage in history before the messianic kingdom would become a staple in Jewish traditions about the end of days.
- One of the central questions posed by Amitay is how a monotheistic religion led to mythology about the son of God.
- Amitay proposes that Alexander is the key figure here. Amitay argues that Alexander’s historical role as the paragon of divinization helped prepare the way for the acceptance by Jews of the principle of the divine son. Alexander was a flesh- and-blood person who broke the barrier between humanity and the divine. Another well-known parallel between Alexander and Jesus is that both died at the age of 33.
- Amitay notes that Alexander was a bridge between the worlds of monotheism and polytheism. He concludes, “Alexander and Jesus were close neighbors in the boiling matrix of God’s heroes and demons which characterized the religious life of later antiquity.”
Questions to Consider About Alexander the Great
- How did Alexander the Great’s conquest affect the Jews in the short term and in the long term?
- In what ways might Alexander have served as a model for the mythical Jesus?