Palestine in the Hellenistic Age

While the Seleucids and Ptolemies battled for control of Palestine, Hellenism--the synthesis of Greek and native Near Eastern cultures--took hold.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism (Ktav).

Palestine Goes Greek

In the summer of 332 B.C.E., Palestine was conquered by Alexander the Great. The land and people of Israel were now part of the Hellenistic world. Alexander passed through Pales­tine first on his way to Gaza during his campaign to subjugate the Phoenician coast and then on his way from Egypt to Baby­lonia. He may have spent some time in Palestine dealing with a revolt in Samaria, and it is possible that he met then with Jewish leaders. By the time Alexander died at age thirty‑three in 323 B.C.E., he had conquered the entire area from Macedonia to India. Palestine was part of this new empire.Ancient Greek Temple 

Ptolemies and Seleucids

After Alexander's death, his generals, known as Diadochi ("successors") were unable to maintain the unity of the empire and it soon fragmented. Individual generals were appointed, on the old Persian pattern, to rule as satraps over particular areas. In 323 B.C.E., Ptolemy took control of Egypt. This date is regarded as the beginning of the Ptolemaic Empire, although he was not officially crowned until 305 B.C.E.

After some difficulties, he had established himself and his empire on a sound footing by 312 B.C.E., extending his authority to the entire eastern part of Alexander's domain. The rest went to Cassander in Macedonia and Lysimachus in Thrace. The Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms were destined to play a profound role in the history of Hellenistic Palestine.

During the period of the Diadochi, Palestine changed hands between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids five times. The lack of stability prevented Hellenism from making more than a modest beginning in the country in the early years of the Hellenistic period. The unstable situation must also have fostered some degree of local autonomy, enhancing the already significant role of the high priest in the affairs of Judea.

The Ptolemies Establish Control

By 301 B.C. E., however, Ptolemy had finally established a firm hold on Palestine. Despite the damage caused by their ongoing conflict with the Seleucids, the Ptolemies were able to maintain at least de facto control over Palestine. Considerable informa­tion about this period comes from the Zenon papyri, a collection of administrative documents from the archives of an Egyptian finance minister some of which were sent to him by his agent in the Land of Israel.

These documents tell us of Palestine under the rule of Ptolemy 11 Philadelphus (283‑246 B.C.E.). The country was often beset by Seleucid attacks and Bedouin incur­sions. Ptolemaic military units were stationed throughout Pal­estine, and many Greek cities were established. Many of these were set up as cleruchies (military colonies) in which soldiers who married native women were given homes and fields, thus fostering the intermarriage which was so much a part of the Hellenistic world.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

Lawrence H. Schiffman is the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Yeshiva University.