After Alexander the Macedonian, Philip’s son, who came from the land of Kittim [Greece], had defeated Darius, king of the Persians and Medes, he became king in his place, having first ruled in Greece. –I Maccabees 1
Alexander the Great changed the fortunes of the Jews forever. For centuries a quiet province at the edge of the Persian Empire, Judah quickly found itself caught between two rival Greek kingdoms in Syria and Egypt at the geographical center of a vast Mediterranean empire. The great challenge for the Jews of the Hellenistic age was maintaining their Jewish identity in the face of a culture that claimed superiority and, too many, seemed superior.
Quickly integrating into the Hellenistic world, Jews, more than other nations, developed internal boundaries to distinguish themselves from the Greeks. The centrality of the Jerusalem Temple, the Biblical commandments, the one God’s unique relationship with his Chosen People, Biblical food laws, the Sabbath, disdain for idolatry, and particularly circumcision were all fortified as cultural markers. Jews took these markers of identity with them as they emigrated near and far throughout the breadth of the Hellenistic world, translated Scripture into Greek so that they might continue to study God’s word in their adopted language, and established major centers of settlement in Alexandria in Egypt and in Asia Minor.
Negotiating Jewish identity in the Greco-Roman world was not easy. In 166 BCE a popular rebellion broke out in Judea, led by a relatively obscure rural family of priests known as the Hasmonians. The causes of the Maccabean (or, Hasmonian) revolt are complex, but what is clear is that a majority of Jews revolted against an alliance of a Hellenizing aristocracy in Jerusalem and the Seleucid Greek king Antiochus Epiphanies IV. The revolt was a response to the attempt to transform Jerusalem into a Greek city in every way, and to absorb the God of Israel into the high god Zeus (just as the Semitic god Baal had been absorbed in Syria to the north). After a prolonged battle, the Hasmonian kings established an enlarged kingdom in Judaea, free of “idolatry.” However, their kingdom was thoroughly Hellenistic, in both its governance and in the kinds of art they created. Hasmonians minted coins in the Hellenistic manner, and inscribed them with their own names in both Hebrew and Greek script—though pointedly, not with images that they thought might be taken for idolatrous.
Though Greeks considered Jews strange for their foreign customs, and their unwillingness to give them up, they generally respected the antiquity of Judaism. Over time, the Jews and Judaism became integral to the world that Alexander created just as his world had become integral to theirs.