History Of The Holy Land-The Greek and Hasmonean Periods


When Alexander the Great marched through the Levant in 333 B.C., he kept to the coastline in order to destroy the Persian navy and so bypassed Jewish areas. All of the Persian Empire fell under Greek control. After the death of Alexander (323 B.C.), a Greek family known as the Ptolemies took control of Egypt. The Levant fell under the control of Ptolemies as well. The letters of Zenon, a business manager under Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.), reveal that there was active trade between the Levant and Egypt in various food staples and in slave girls (used as prostitutes). Meanwhile, the process of Hellenization moved forward, with many societal leaders embracing Greek culture and religion.

Ancient armies of the Seleucid Empire.
(image credit: ancient-battles.com)

Ptolemaic rule in the region continued until 200 B.C., when it fell under the rule of the Seleucids, the Greek rulers of Syria. The Seleucid who took the Levant from the Ptolemies was Antiochus III (223-187 B.C.). After losing Asia Minor to Rome in 189 B.C., however, Antiochus III found his kingdom in financial straits. His son, Seleucus IV (187-175 B.C.) failed in an attempt to plunder the riches of the Jewish temple, but Antiochus IV (175-164 B.C.) did so around 170 B.C. Antiochus IV is the best remembered Seleucid in Jewish history. Around 168 B.C. he destroyed much of Jerusalem, set up an altar to Zeus in the temple and forbade the observance of Judaism. The Jews, under Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, defeated the Seleucids in successive campaigns. Judas died in battle in 160 B.C., but his brother Jonathan took the lead until his death in approximately 142 B.C. He was in turn followed by a third brother, Simon (rulers in the Maccabean line are referred to as “Hasmoneans”).

Hasmonean Coins
(image credit: ancient-art.com)


By this time Judea had become all but independent (Simon became in effect both king and high priest, although the Hasmonean rulers typically presented themselves as high priests only). Simon was followed by his son John Hyrcanus (134-104 B.C.), who extended the domain of Judah. After the brief reign of Aristobulus I (104-103 B.C.), the next Hasmonean leader was Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.), who continued to expand Judah’s domain through military means. Enormous ideological divisions developed in Jewish society, however—primarily between the more conservative and religious groups, led by the Pharisees, and the more Hellenized and aristocratic groups, led by the Sadducees. Alexander Jannaeus’s widow, Salome Alexandra, ruled after him, and with her death in 67 B.C. her sons Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II fought for the throne.

(Next: The Roman and Byzantine Periods)

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