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Israel and the Hellenistic kingdoms

This map is part of a series of 12 animated maps showing the history of The Bible and History.

The Persian Empire ended with the conquests of Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, which carried him to Egypt and as far as India.

Alexander died on 11 June 323 BCE in Babylon, and his generals divided the various regions of his Empire among themselves. Three large groups emerged: in the west, the kingdom of the Antigonids, situated mostly in Macedonia; in the east, the powerful Seleucid kingdom, corresponding, for the most part, to the Asian part of the Empire; and to the south, in Egypt, the Lagid kingdom founded by Ptolemy I.

The Hebrew Bible contains few references to these events. Only the Book of Daniel indirectly mentions them when recounting the prophet’s dreams, in particular a succession of beasts walking out of the sea, which represented the different empires that had subjugated Israel, up to and including the Seleucid king Antiochos IV, in the 2nd century BCE [Dan 7.1-8].

The history of this period can be reconstituted from a work written by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus in the 1st century CE, titled  Jewish Antiquities.

According to his writings, Alexander the Great went to Jerusalem and demonstrated his great respect for the Temple of the Judeans. But historians agree that this story is probably a legend. It is more likely that Alexander would have taken the coastal road which allowed him to travel more quickly to the Egyptian delta.

In the 3rd century BCE, the Levant became an integral part of the Lagid Kingdom of the Ptolemies and there were numerous connections between Judea and Egypt.

According to a 2nd century BCE Jewish text, the Letter of Aristeas, King Ptolemy I took Jewish prisoners in Egypt where they were then sold into slavery. Later, Ptolemy II is believed to have freed them.

In the 3rd century BCE, the books of the Torah were translated into Greek in Alexandria.

Yet the Jewish diaspora in Egypt developed not only in Alexandria, the kingdom’s political and cultural centre, but also in the Faiyum and the rest of Egypt. For example, in Herakleopolis, papyrus scrolls tell of the existence of a Jewish community established as a politeuma, an ethnic association which enjoyed a certain autonomy in legal affairs.

Moreover, Josephus writes that in the 2nd century, a Jewish temple was founded in Leontopolis.

Under the Lagids, Judea apparently enjoyed a period of relative prosperity.

Around 200 BCE, however, Judea came under the domination of the Seleucid dynasty. There were initially few problems due to this political upheaval, but around 175 BCE, a tax reform and rivalries among the priestly elite families in Jerusalem created a major crisis, known as the Maccabean revolt. This gave rise to an independent Judea under the authority of the Hasmoneans, a dynasty of priests.