Jews and Greeks in Alexandria

  • Klemen Klun Univerza v Ljubljani, Filozofska fakulteta, Oddelek za filozofijo, Aškerčeva 2, 1000 Ljubljana
Keywords: Jews, Greeks, Hellenism, diaspora, Bible, allegory

Abstract

The article deals with the history of contacts and cultural exchange between the Jews and the Greeks in early and late antiquity, especially relevant not only for historians and philologists, but also for those interested in Hellenistic philosophy and the origins of Christianity, having its roots into a very complex fusion of Jewish and Greek tradition.

Metropolitan city of Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt provided a very fruitfull milieu for this kind of cultural contact just from the time the group of seventy-two translators arrived to the city to translate the Hebrew Scripture for the famous library in the time of Ptolemy II (285-247 BCE) and his librarian Demetrius of Phalerum.

For the genealogy of contacts between two nations that both contributed so much to the Western thought, we may, of course, go back to the history and relevant sources. The City of Jerusalem, for instance, is mentioned for the first time in the old Egyptian Tell el-Amarna correspondence (XIV. century BCE), while the Jews (though often named as the Syrians of Palestine) are referred to by many Greek authors (poet Alcaius from Lesbos, Herodotus, Theophrastus, Hecataeus of Abdera, an Egyptian priest in Heliopolis Manetho, Polybius, Menander, and many others).

The Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) on the other hand, provides an interesting source of records of contacts between the old Israelites and the Greek speaking tribes (from the Ionian isles, Crete, Cyprus etc), back to the reign of king David and king Solomon (X. century BCE), which both allegedly enrolled Greek soldiers and officials in their armies (cf. 2 Samuel 20, 23; 1 Kings 1, 38). The Bible also reports about trade contacts between Palestine and Greek lsles (cf. Ezekiel 27, 7; Joel 4.6), and also about Greek settlers in the 'Holly land' (cf. Deuteronomy 2, 23; Jeremiah 47, 4; Zephaniah 2, 5). The period after Alexander the Great is also very important for relations between Greeks and Jews. When his diadochoi came to Palestine, they soon started to enforce Greek customs, language and religion to the local population - as recorded in the Books of Maccabees and in rabbinic sources.

Much more tolerant and fruitful was the situation in Alexandria, where king Ptolemaius VI even asked a Jewish scholar Aristobulus to explain him some difficult passages in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (Septuagint). Our God, he said to the king who had problems how to understand the spiritual being as God could have 'hands' as in Exodus 13, 9, has employed a metaphor well for the purpose of saying something elevated. Latter on the same Jewish author will turn to Platonistic philosopher when he says that God is everywhere, and thus not belong to Israel only. The descent of God upon Sinai is to be interpreted symbolically as an expression of divine activity and its omnipresent majesty.

First Jewish philosopher Aristobulus so provide important information about how Jew in the second century BCE attempted to reconcile Jewish tradition and Hellenistic philosophy. Latter on his Jewish pupil Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE - 40) will continue the task, using the same spiritual (and not legalistic, as does the rabbis) hermeneutical method and made the Biblical laws (Torah), prophecies (neviim) and poetry (ktuvim) metapors, mysteries and allegories that lead us to some higher philosophical truths.

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Published
2003-12-06
How to Cite
Klun, Klemen. 2003. “Jews and Greeks in Alexandria”. Keria: Studia Latina Et Graeca 5 (2), 51-83. https://doi.org/10.4312/keria.5.2.51-83.
Section
Scholarly Articles