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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In addition, an extensive Ptolemaic bureaucracy managed governmental affairs and taxation. Central to this officialdom was the goal of developing economic life and trade. Among the exports to Egypt from Palestine and southern Syria were grain, olive oil, smoked fish, cheese, meat, dried figs, honey, dates, and other products. Palestine also assumed importance as a crossroads for the spice trade.

Limited Information about the Jews

In contrast with what we know about Ptolemaic affairs in Palestine, we have virtually no information about Jewish political developments. Judea continued to be governed by the high priest and the priestly aristocracy. One of the few incidents we know about is the quarrel about taxation between the high priest Onias 11 and Ptolemy III Euergetes (246‑221 B.C.E.), who reportedly visited the Jerusalem Temple.

The end result of the dispute was the appointment, in 242 B.C.E., of the young Joseph, son of Tobiah, a nephew of the high priest, as tax collector for the entire country. The rivalry between the Tobiad family and the Oniad high priests eventually played a part in the attempted radical Hellenization of Judea later on in the second century B. C. E.

The Seleucid Conquest

In 221 B.C.E. the Seleucid king Antiochus III invaded Palestine for the first time. When this attempt failed, he persisted in seeking an opportunity to gain control of this important land bridge. The death of King Ptolemy IV Philopator in 203 B.C.E. opened the way for him. In 201 B.C.E. he invaded the country again and quickly conquered it.

By 198 B.C.E. the Seleucids were solidly in control, and would remain so up to the Maccabean Revolt (168‑164 B.C.E.). By the time the Ptolemaic sway over Palestine came to an end, Greek cities had been established throughout the country, and Hellenism had sunk strong foundations, ultimately to tear the nation apart before Judea regained its independence.

Was It Good for the Jews?

In the years of conflict between the Ptolemies and Seleucids each of the rivals was supported by a Jewish party or faction. The Gerousia, or council of elders, mentioned for the first time in sources from this era, backed the Seleucids. Indeed, the high priest Simeon the Just (ca. 200 B.C.E.), who probably headed the Gerousia, is known to have supported the Seleucids. He must have regained the power over taxationwhich had been assigned to Joseph ben Tobiah and was now charged with refurbishing the Temple and the city.

When Antiochus III (223­-187 B.C.E) won control of Judea, he affirmed the right of the Jews to live according to their ancestral laws. Yet only some thirty years later the Jewish proponents of extreme Hellenization would see his son, the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphianes, as the agent who would carry out their plans to hellenize Jerusalem and its people.

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Lawrence H. Schiffman

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