Judea during Hellenistic Rule

332 BCE - 165 BCE

Alexander the Great, the king of Macedonia in northern Greece, set out on one of the most extensive military expeditions in history in 334 B.C.E. His armies swept eastward, conquering the Persian Empire and eventually reaching the border of India. As part of this campaign, he captured Jerusalem in 332 B.C.E. This ended more than two centuries of Persian rule over Judea.

Following Alexander’s death in 323, his empire was divided among several of his generals. One of these, named Seleucus, governed Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and Syria. Another, named Ptolemy, governed Egypt. They established the Seleucid and Ptolemaic dynasties. In years to come, the rulers of these kingdoms would vie for control of Palestine, which lay between Syria and Egypt.

Alexander’s conquests introduced Greek culture into the eastern Mediterranean world. This culture was known as “Hellenism.” Cities such as Alexandria in Egypt became influential centers of Greek learning. The Greek language replaced Aramaic as the principal language for trade, education, and international relations. The cities of the Decapolis (east of Galilee and Samaria), mentioned in the New Testament, were centers of Hellenistic culture.

Jewish people lived in towns and cities throughout the Hellenistic world. Some had resided in Babylonia since the time of the exile centuries before. Others moved outside of Palestine for economic reasons. There were important Jewish communities in Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, and many other places.

Jewish life revolved around two centers: the temple and the Torah. The temple was located in Jerusalem, and it remained the one place where sacrifices could be offered. There were, however, increasing numbers of local gatherings or “synagogues” where Jews could read Scripture and pray together. These synagogues helped Jews everywhere maintain a sense of community and tradition.

The Torah included the stories and laws that shaped Jewish life. Practices like circumcision, eating kosher food, and observing the Sabbath helped Jews maintain a distinctive identity under Hellenistic rule. The Torah, of course, was written in Hebrew. To keep it accessible to Jews who no longer spoke Hebrew, it was translated into Greek during this period. Traditionally it was said that the Torah was translated in Alexandria, Egypt, by a group of seventy-two scholars. Therefore, this translation–which eventually included the Law, Prophets, and other Writings–was called the Septuagint, a word based on the Greek word for seventy.

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