Finding Alexander: In the Old Testament

If you attend Mass today at a Catholic church be prepared for a familiar name to pop up at the start of the First Reading. It comes from 1 Maccabees. Here are the opening lines as given on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

[From the descendants of Alexander’s officers]
there sprang a sinful offshoot, Antiochus Epiphanes,
son of King Antiochus, once a hostage at Rome.
He became king in the year one hundred and thirty seven
of the kingdom of the Greeks…

The first line is in square brackets because it is a truncated version of a much longer passage. Livius gives the longer version of the book’s opening:

After Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came from the land of Kittim, had defeated Darius, king of the Persians and the Medes, he succeeded him as king. (He had previously become king of Greece.) He fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth. He advanced to the ends of the earth, and plundered many nations. When the earth became quiet before him, he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up. He gathered a very strong army and ruled over countries, nations, and princes, and they became tributary to him.

After this he fell sick and perceived that he was dying. So he summoned his most honored officers, who had been brought up with him from youth, and divided his kingdom among them while he was still alive. And after Alexander had reigned twelve years, he died.

Then his officers began to rule, each in his own place. They all put on crowns after his death, and so did their sons after them for many years; and they caused many evils on the earth. From them came forth a sinful root…

As we know, Alexander didn’t divide up his empire at all – it might have been better if he had – and I can’t help but note the writer’s sweeping statement that the diadochi ’caused many evils on the earth’. This makes me want to try and find out more about the situation of the Jews in the Successor empires – especially Egypt as I am most interested in Ptolemy I and his descendants.
The reason I would like to do so is because I had the impression that – by the time that 1 and 2 Maccabees were written, in the second century BC – Jews were well established in Alexandria having (under the patronage possibly of Ptolemy I and certainly Ptolemy II) translated the Septuagint. Perhaps life had been and still was bad for them despite this or maybe the writer was speaking from the perspective of his own age and location. I’m afraid I don’t know enough to say.
Anyway, it was a nice surprise to see Alexander’s name this morning. I believe he is referred to more allusively in the Book of Daniel and even in the Quran. If I can locate the references I will certainly mention them here.

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One thought on “Finding Alexander: In the Old Testament

  1. This is very interesting, The Livius (RSV) translation looks to be consistent with the copy I have beside me, the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint. It seems that Alexander does indeed factor into Daniel’s visions. The “horn that made war” (Daniel 7:21, SAAS) belonged in Daniel’s vision to a goat who almost certainly represents Alexander, defeating a Ram (Darius) and later being broken into four (Ptolemy I, Seleucus I, Lysimachus, and Cassander) (8:5-8, LXX).

    I should look at these histories more closely myself. I don’t think we read them in our services in the Orthodox Church, although they are a part of our Scriptures.


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