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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

The Period of Ptolemaic Dominance

Alexander's sudden death in 323 BCE plunged the lands he had conquered into decades of uncertainty, as his generals and would-be successors fought it out for territory and power. In the scale of things, the land of Judea itself was not worth fighting for, but its location was sufficiently close to the major thoroughfares connecting or dividing Egypt and Mesopotamia that Alexander's close friend Ptolemy experienced satisfaction when Judea and neighboring lands at last fell into his hands.

Ptolemy and his immediate successors adopted a policy toward their northern possessions that was on the whole mutually rewarding, largely mirroring previous Persian practice. Unless they saw a specific reason to intervene, the Ptolemies allowed the Jews considerable self-rule under the leadership of the high priests and the bureaucracies the latter maintained. Taxes of all sorts were collected in support of the Jerusalem Temple and the vast Ptolemaic government centered in Alexandria. Friction probably arose on occasion, but there is no record of far-ranging attacks on the central institutions that supported Israel's monotheistic faith. Presumably sacrifices were regularly offered on behalf of the Ptolemaic monarch, as they had been in the past and would be in the future. Throughout most of the third century such sacrifices would most often have been sincere expressions of gratitude for genuinely benign governance rather than simply politically expedient actions.

Paradoxically, we are better informed about life in Judea for earlier times than for the period of Ptolemaic dominance, the third century BCE. Archaeological remains, including hoards of coins, along with a handful of historical documents and accounts provide scant, if valuable, information. We have, for example, a cache of letters written by and addressed to Zenon, who was the chief aide to Apollonius, finance minister in the court of the first Ptolemy. A powerful figure in his own right, Zenon toured Judea and neighboring areas for several years during the mid-third century on a fact-finding mission for both his immediate master and the king. His reports support the picture of Ptolemaic rule as widely, if not firmly, established throughout this region. Along with coins probably minted in Jerusalem as well as along the Mediterranean coast, these letters demonstrate the extent of Egyptian/Macedonian bureaucratic incursions into all areas and all aspects of life. Still, Hellenistic influence was less prominent in Jerusalem and its immediate environs than elsewhere.

The Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the first century CE, provides information on this period as well. He is often the major source for many incidents, but modern scholars remain divided on the reliability of Josephus's work. Moreover, since Josephus himself depended on earlier sources, his accounts are bound to vary considerably in their trustworthiness. Nonetheless, even taking into account the conditions under which he labored and the biases he regularly displays, Josephus's record remains an invaluable resource to be fully but critically mined.

Josephus preserves what appears to be a domestic saga, taking in several generations of the Tobiad family. Well-connected to the ruling Jerusalem priesthood, the Tobiads stood equally close to their Egyptian rulers. Their fortune seems to have originated from their lucrative tax farming in Transjordan and perhaps elsewhere. Through the practice of tax farming, individuals or consortia bid for the right to collect government revenue in a certain area. Whatever they gathered above that bid was their profit, which throughout the Greco-Roman world could be considerable. So successful were the Tobiads in this enterprise that they constructed a veritable mini-empire near present-day Amman, Jordan, one that survived the change in power from Egyptian Ptolemies to Syrian Seleucids. At the same time, the Tobiad saga provides interesting as well as entertaining data on the question of assimilation and maintenance of distinctive Jewish identity.

Another source for this period is the Letter of Aristeas, which like the more extensive history of Josephus has been both promoted and reviled as a reliable historical source. The Letter of Aristeas is most often cited as a witness to the earliest Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, known as the Septuagint. It also reports that the second Ptolemy, surnamed Philadelphus, early in his reign freed thousands of Judeans who had been brought to Egypt as slaves by his father. If correct, this contradicts the view that Ptolemaic rule over Egypt's northern territories was always peaceful and that a considerable number of Jews had voluntarily migrated to Egypt, and in particular to its capital city, Alexandria. But there is good reason to give this report considerable credence. During the several decades after Alexander's death, when the fate of Syria-Palestine hung in the balance, there were undoubtedly many Judeans who favored Seleucid control, just as many others supported Ptolemaic claims. Ptolemy's forcible deportation of those who had given aid to his enemy is not surprising, nor would it be difficult to imagine that he actively encouraged some of his supporters to join groups of Jews who had earlier settled in Egypt. Philadelphus's freeing of members of the former group and their eventual amalgamation into the growing Jewish population of Alexandria is in character with this monarch, who regularly lived up to his epithet (“man of brotherly love”).

It is also consistent with Philadelphus's intellectual curiosity that he would have given strong royal support to his chief librarian's request for a Greek translation of the sacred texts, especially the laws, of his Jewish subjects. At the same time, such a version would have been promoted and widely accepted in the Alexandrian Jewish community, among whom knowledge of Hebrew was growing rarer. Although the Letter of Aristeas narrates the arrival from Jerusalem of seventy-two elders as translators, Alexandria itself probably supplied the group responsible for this earliest foreign-language version. As indicated in the letter, this first translation effort covered the Pentateuch, or Torah, only; the term Septuagint (meaning “seventy”) was later expanded as other portions of the Hebrew Bible were subsequently translated into Greek.

According to the Letter of Aristeas, the process by which the translators produced their Greek text was a collaborative effort, with the work of individuals and subcommittees revised and reshaped by their colleagues into a finished product. There is little, if any, of the miraculous in Aristeas's account. Later accounts added details, such as the picture of seventy-two scholars working in isolation and yet producing identical versions. Modern scholars have detected sufficient distinctions in the Greek translations of each of the five books of the Torah to cast serious doubt on the view that the Greek Pentateuch was the product of one group at one time. Nonetheless, the high quality of this work served as a model for many later translations, both in Greek and in other languages both ancient and modern.

No precise precedents guided these earliest Greek translators. They seem to have constructed their own path, which lay closer to a literal rendering than to a free one. Although their choice of Greek vocabulary and syntax was partially conditioned by the Semitic text they were translating, in general the language they chose was the koine, or common Greek, then in wide usage throughout the Hellenistic world. Greek papyri from Egypt form the closest parallels to the language of the Septuagint and point to a date in the first half of the third century for the Pentateuch at least. Most if not all of the translators were bilingual. Such was clearly not the case for their intended audience, and misunderstandings and misconceptions would have arisen on the part of those who read or heard the original or Old Greek version of the Septuagint. Additionally, differing interpretations of the sacred text abounded, and some readers of the Greek, even if ignorant of the Hebrew language, were conversant with interpretations other than those in the Septuagint. These considerations would have led to calls for revising or recasting of the Greek.

But there was a more pressing issue. Even a cursory examination of the Old Greek reveals instances where this text reflects wording at variance with the established Hebrew version that came to be known as the Masoretic Text. Although it would be anachronistic to project the work of the Masoretes, vowels and all, back to this much earlier period, it is appropriate to imagine a Hebrew text close to it, at least in the Torah, at home in Jerusalem. When differences between this text and the Greek version became known, inevitably there would be calls to revise the Septuagint to reflect more closely what was regarded as the authoritative Hebrew, and revisions of that sort are known.

The author of the Letter of Aristeas was opposed to such calls for revision. In his view the Septuagint possessed an authority equal to that of any Hebrew text, even one located in Jerusalem. He makes this clear near the end of his letter, where he describes the Septuagint's tumultuously positive acceptance by the Jews of Alexandria, using language reminiscent of that used in the book of Exodus to characterize the Israelites' approval of the law of Moses. The first-century CE Jewish philosopher Philo held that the Septuagint translators, no less than the Bible's original authors, were inspired prophets. Augustine championed a similar view, which to this day is the position of Orthodox Christianity.

It is not surprising that Hebrew fell out of general usage among the Jews of the Diaspora, especially in an intellectual and cultural center such as Alexandria. We might think, in contrast, that the ancestral tongue or perhaps its close kin, Aramaic, held sway against a similar linguistic incursion into Judea. But this was not always the case. Although it is demonstrable that the Semitic languages continued in use among portions of the population throughout the Hellenistic period, Greek was a practical necessity not only for those who wished to succeed in occupations involving trade and commerce, but also for bureaucrats and political functionaries of all sorts. There does not appear to have been any organized reaction against the speaking of Greek as such during the first part of the Hellenistic period. It could not have escaped notice that foreign notions and patterns of thought went hand in hand with the introduction of a new language; but the new idiom might also be useful for expanding the representation of older, even venerated concepts. And with no outside power actively pressuring the Jews to give up their ancestral ways, the trade-offs probably seemed, at least to those who considered them, more positive than negative.

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