By April 7, 2008 Read More →

Hellenism 332-167, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.

Ptolemy IIThere are almost no written records enabling us to reconstruct the history of Jerusalem for the next hundred years, up to the fall of the Persian Empire before the youthful wonder king of Macedonia, Alexander the Great, in the year 332 BC. What is known however is that Jerusalem was now the capital of a considerably truncated Judah, the Jewish region within the larger Persian satrapy (colonial province) called Abar-Naharah (Aramaic for “beyond the river”). It appears to have experienced rather less turbulence than the previous years, and from the prophet Joel we get a picture at the beginning of the fourth century of a pastoral and God-fearing people. Beyond the city walls, Jewish farmers tend their olive groves, vineyards and cornfields. Above the Temple Mount rises the smoke of sacrifice. And at the great annual festivals come the murmur of the throngs at prayer in the Temple courts and the shout of their responses.

From the history of the area we know that at this time the influences of the Greeks, great seafarers and traders, was making itself felt in the Middle East, and Judah could not have been immune. This Hellenistic influence was given wings by the phenomenal military successes of Alexander, who had conquered western Asia, including India, before he died in 323 BC at the age of thirty-two.

Alexander left Jerusalem untouched, but with his death came the disintegration of his newly-won empire, his generals quarrelling among themselves. Two of them vied with each other for the control of, among other areas, the land of Judah. The two were Ptolemy, who had seized Egypt and set up his capital in newly established Alexandria, and Seleucus, who after some years had become master in the north, with capitals in Antioch in Syria and Seleucia in Babylonia. After a series of battles fought between former comrades-in-arms, Ptolemy won, and for the next century Jerusalem came under the authority of his dynasty.

Ptolemy took back with him to Egypt a large number of Jewish prisoners, and from this nucleus there grew the important Jewish community of Alexandria, soon to become the greatest centre of Diaspora Jewry. Beyond this, however, Ptolemaic rule in Jerusalem and Judah was on the whole benevolent, and the Jews enjoyed almost complete autonomy, though they paid an annual tribute. This period, the third century BC, was one of comparative stability—though the Seleucids tried several times to take the country and were driven back by the Ptolemies—and Jerusalem developed and prospered. Contemporary Greek writings dwell on the thriving agriculture of Judah and the strength of Jerusalem, its community well organized and administered. The Temple and its worship continue to dominate Jewish national life.

Incidentally, it was under Ptolemy II’s patronage that the translation of the Bible into the Greek language was inaugurated in Alexandria. The result was the Septuagint—so called because the translation was believed to have been done by seventy notable Jewish scholars brought specially to Alexandria from Jerusalem for the purpose. The project was initiated by the Jewish community of Alexandria so that their Greek-speaking children could remain familiar with their own sacred writings.

To these Jews of Alexandria, as indeed to the growing Jewish communities in other cities of Egypt and elsewhere in the world, Jerusalem remained the city of their devotion, and the Temple the target of their spiritual loyalty. Exile enhanced their fervor towards the Holy City—just as it had to the Babylonian deportees. When they prayed, they turned to Jerusalem. Each year they sent their half-shekel for the support of national worship as Temple tribute. Whenever they were able, they went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem on the annual “pilgrim” festivals. This was to be the pattern continued by Diaspora Jewry after the Great Exile in AD 70.

Posted in: Persian Period

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