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Alexander and the Jews

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Alexander the Great mosaic

“7. Next came the Greek empire, or the ‘third kingdom’, first made great by Alexander (but) inferior to both the Babylonian and the Persian empires in terms of finances, character and spread. Thus, the reference to ‘brass’.” (From my Bible study on Daniel 2, when Daniel gave his interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s vision or dream).

Daniel 8 contains an allusion to Alexander’s conquests. Also see Daniel 10 (end) and 11. These accounts appear to fit perfectly with the history known of Alexander. For more details about my interpretation, see the relevant studies.

Alexander and Jerusalem

Alexander was a young man who died whilst still on his path of military glory. He lived 356-323BC, and his campaigns spread Hellenic culture well beyond Greek shores, including Syria, Egypt and Hebrew lands (I don’t call them either ‘Israel’ or ‘Judah’ because God removed them as nations). Interestingly, rabbis say he had more influence on the development of Judaism than any other non-Jewish leader (Jewish Encyclopaedia).

In spite of this reference, almost nothing links Alexander to Jewish history. His name became known to the Jews when he took Tyre by siege, in 332BC, and marched through Hebrew lands afterwards. The people of Gaza opposed him, so Gaza was burnt to the ground.

Not mentioned directly in scripture, he is however mentioned once in the Apocrypha. Indirectly, however, I strongly believe he is mentioned in the book of Daniel. His kingdom was certainly destroyed after his death (Daniel 11).

Josephus wrote an account of Alexander’s arrival at the gates of Jerusalem after taking central Hebrew lands. Some rabbi’s think the historian’s account is mythical – but I am not in the habit of believing everything Jewish sources say. Josephs said (Ant. xi. 8, §§ 4-6):

“Alexander went to Jerusalem after having taken Gaza. Jaddua, the high priest, had a warning from God received in a dream, in which he saw himself vested in a purple robe, with his miter -that had the golden plate on which the name of God was engraved - on his head. Accordingly he went to meet Alexander at Sapha ("View" [of the Temple]). Followed by the priests, all clothed in fine linen, and by a multitude of citizens, Jaddua awaited the coming of the king. When Alexander saw the high priest, he reverenced God (Lev. R. xiii., end), and saluted Jaddua; while the Jews with one voice greeted Alexander.

When Parmenio, the general, gave expression to the army's surprise at Alexander's extraordinary act - that one who ought to be adored by all as king should adore the high priest of the Jews - Alexander replied: "I did not adore him, but the God who hath honored him with this high-priesthood; for I saw this very person in a dream, in this very habit, when I was at Dios in Macedonia, who, when I was considering with myself how I might obtain dominion of Asia, exhorted me to make no delay, but boldly to pass over the sea, promising that he would conduct my army, and would give me the dominion over the Persians."

Alexander then gave the high priest his right hand, and went into the Temple and "offered sacrifice to God according to the high priest's direction," treating the whole priesthood magnificently. "And when the Book of Daniel was shown him [see Dan. vii. 6, viii. 5-8, 20-22, xi. 3-4], wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that he was the person intended, and rejoiced thereat.

The following day Alexander asked the people what favors he should grant them; and, at the high priest's request, he accorded them the right to live in full enjoyment of the laws of their forefathers. He, furthermore, exempted them from the payment of tribute in the seventh year of release.

To the Jews of Babylonia and Media also he granted like privileges; and to the Jews who were willing to enlist in his army he promised the right to live in accordance with their ancestral laws. Afterward the Samaritans, having learned of the favors granted the Jews by Alexander, asked for similar privileges; but Alexander declined to accede to their request.”

Opposing Rabbis say:

“The historical character of this account is, however, doubted by many scholars (see Pauly-Wissowa, "Realencyklopädie," i. col. 1422). Although, according to Josephus ("Contra Ap." ii. 4, quoting Hecatæus), Alexander permitted the Jews to hold the country of Samaria free from tribute as a reward for their fidelity to him, it was he who Hellenized its capital (Schürer, "Gesch." ii. 108). The Sibylline Books (iii. 383) speak of Alexander—who claimed to be the son of Zeus Amon—as "of the progeny of the Kronides, though spurious."

One of my problems with accepting the views of these “many scholars” is that most rabbis do not even believe their own Torah. Also, these ‘many scholars’ tend to be of the liberal, unbelieving kind. Certainly, after the historical accounts, Jews did mythologise Alexander and his exploits, but this does not negate the truth (or not) of the historical accounts. The structure and content of Josephus’ comments appear to be actual and historical.

Though it is claimed “many scholars” reject the Flavius Josephus account of Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem, others point to a number of odd discrepancies that allow the account to be true, at least in generality. For example, in the account the Samaritans, though dismissed by Alexander, were allowed to keep their temple. It has been said that no Jewish writer would admit to this unless it were true (Livius. Org). Secondly, Alexander did not give the Jews any favours they did not already receive from their former Persian rulers (as was Alexander’s custom).

Others add that the account of Alexander’s visit would otherwise be far too elaborate and incredible to be invented. This is a good argument. In my own studies and teaching it is often the smaller details that prove something is an actual historical event. Alexander claimed to be a son of the Egyptian god, Ammon, so no Jew would invent any links to the Jewish God. As these observers say, “the easiest explanation is that Alexander did indeed sacrifice to the God of the Jews” (this noted by a source that studies ancient histories -

A translator of Josephus’ account says that when Alexander besieged Tyre he wrote to the high priest at Jerusalem to send him auxiliaries and supplies, assuming automatic compliance to prevent a slaughter, and assuming total victory in advance. (A practice also known to the later Romans, who augmented their stretched armies with local soldiers). He also demanded that Jerusalem send him the same ‘presents’ as were formerly sent to Darius and as a token of Hebrew acceptance of Macedonian friendship.

The high priest replied that he had vowed never to fight against Darius, and this made Alexander angry (though he must surely have admired the Jews for their courage and ethical answer). So, after dealing with Tyre, the Macedonians marched to Gaza. The leader of the Samaritans, Sanballat, seeing the situation was grave, sent 7,000 soldiers to assist Alexander in his siege of Tyre, and renounced any obedience to Darius. Now in favour with Alexander, Sanballat urged him to let him build a temple for the Samaritans, and promised that a divided Hebrew kingdom would best serve him. Alexander agreed and Sanballat immediately began construction of their temple, making Manasseh (his son-in-law) the high priest. Sanballat died when the sieges of Tyre and Gaza had ended.

Alexander, with both cities dominated, then went on to Jerusalem. Jaddus (also known by other names) the high priest was afraid and called on the priests to make sacrifices to God, asking Him to protect the people. After the sacrifice God assured him all would be well. God instructed the high priest to wear all his regalia and for the priests to wear pristine white clothing, and for the city to be festooned. He and the priests were then to walk out to meet the invader, with every hope that nothing bad would happen. All that God said was done, to the letter.

At this, the Phoenicians and Samaritans expected to plunder Jerusalem (as was their dream) – but the reverse occurred, and the high priest was saluted by Alexander, who dismounted from his charger and lay prostrate before Jaddus before paying homage to his God. His soldiers thought he must be mad. Someone dared to ask Alexander why he had adored the high priest – but Alexander explained that he did not adore the high priest, but the God He served, because he had been visited by the same God in a dream even before he began his military campaigns, and he saw the high priest exactly how he looked that day outside Jerusalem. The same God, said Alexander, told him to take the Middle East and depose Darius, which he went on to do. Thus, this Macedonian unbeliever accepted the express instructions of the Jewish God.

When Alexander saw the high priest and priests, he said they looked exactly like the persons in his dream whilst still in Macedonia, and this prompted him to then worship God in the Temple. All of this implies very strongly that the Josephus account was genuine and described actual actions taken by Alexander and the priests.

Shown the Book of Daniel, Alexander supposed himself to be the one prophesied to defeat the Persians, and thus treated the Jews with great favour. And this is why many Jews agreed to join Alexander as auxiliaries on his campaigns. Seeing how wonderfully Alexander treated the Jews, the miscreant Samaritans then began to profess they were also Jews, but it did not bring them much comfort, when Alexander ignored them!

Additional Notes

Alexander was not just a military commander, he was a scholar. Not wanting his son to grow up untutored, Philip of Macedon hired the famed Aristotle to teach his son the finer points of philosophy, as well as the history of the Greeks. As a result, Alexander became a polished adult and, unlike so many of his day, he believed in ‘god’. That is, a ‘god’ defined by Aristotle as the “first cause”. Not the God of scripture, but not entirely pagan, either. This predisposed Alexander to the Jews, who believed in a personal God, whereas pagans invented their many impersonal gods. ( And, more to the point, Alexander had been given a vision by God that played itself out in reality outside Jerusalem, and this saved the Jews.

Thus, I believe the true God gave Alexander a mind to treat Jews kindly from the start, moving history to benefit His chosen people.

It seems Alexander was very tall, as was his famous white horse. Both gave the soldier a mighty impressive image. Alexander must have looked even taller because he wore a plumed helmet. Overall, then, he was about 13 feet tall on his horse. Yet, this impressive warrior bowed to the high priest and God.

Because of his predisposition towards the Jews, Alexander left the Jews to run their own country so long as they paid him taxes and remained loyal. This, even though they had previously supported the Persian army. Everything points to God’s involvement. There would be compromise – every male child born in the following year would be named ‘Alexander’ (shortened to ‘Sender’, now a common Jewish name). It was also the start of giving Jewish children Greek names. This also began the inclusion of Greek culture and language in Jewishness. The bad side to this was the imposition of a tax collecting system that became badly corrupt, causing many to view tax collectors as thieves... which carried on under the Romans.

The acceptance of Alexander included portraying him in a mosaic floor depicting the face of Alexander – in a synagogue ( More importantly, the synagogue floor at Huqoq, Israel, was in three parts, showing the account of Alexander meeting with the High priest, Jaddus.

This confirms the authenticity of Josephus’ history. ( Though some think this is fictional, the continuing love for Alexander by Jews testifies not to a myth but to real history. And it is a history that protected the Jews at a time when they had only recently returned from exile and after suffering for two centuries as a vassal state to the Persians. Though Alexander’s empire only lasted as long as he did, it removed the yoke of servitude. God does, indeed, ‘work in mysterious ways’! 

© November 2016

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