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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Ptolemaic Period

As far as the Jews were concerned, the first century and a half of Greek rule is very sketchy. This is not true just of the Jews, however, because significant gaps still exist in the history of the Ptolemaic kingdom in the third century BCE. Our knowledge of the invasion of Alexander comes from Arrian. The forty years of the Diadochi (‘Successors’) who fought over his empire after his death are also well known through Diodorus Siculus, who has some good sources at this point. But then from about 280 BCE there are problems even in general Hellenistic history.

We have no contemporary records that mention the Jews as such during the time of Alexander or the Diadochi. We know that Alexander led his army down the Mediterranean coast in 333, taking Tyre and Gaza and wintering in Egypt. Evidently the Jews, along with all the other local peoples of Syria and Palestine, submitted, but we have no direct information. There is a story told by Josephus (AJ 11. 8. 1–6, §§304–45) that Alexander came to Jerusalem, bowed before the Jewish high priest, and honoured the Jews; however, most scholars recognize this as a highly stylized legend with little or no basis in events from Alexander's time. During the wars of the Diadochi (about 320 to 280 BCE) the armies must have marched and fought near, and even in, Palestine many times. One writer quoted by Josephus makes a statement to the effect that Ptolemy I captured Jerusalem at one point (Ap. 1. 22, §§209–11), but we cannot confirm this any more precisely.

One of the most valuable sources for the early Ptolemaic period is the account of Hecataeus of Abdera, as quoted by Diodorus Siculus (40. 3. 1–7). The following points emerge from his account:

  • 1. The supposed origin of the Jews is their expulsion from Egypt under the leadership of Moses.

  • 2. There is a Jewish ethnic and national community centred on Jerusalem.

  • 3. As well as running the cult and teaching the law, the priests provide leadership and act as judges.

  • 4. Chief authority is invested in the high priest, who is chosen for his wisdom.

  • 5. The description of the religion gives the picture of an aniconic and most likely a monotheistic temple-based religion.

  • 6. The Jews have a written law, and a quotation is given which closely parallels Lev. 27: 34 and Num. 36: 13.

This remarkable description was probably taken at some point from a Jewish informant with priestly views, but it differs at several points from the biblical text, while agreeing with what we know of the Jewish community in the post-exilic period. There are also some quotations, allegedly from Hecataeus, in Josephus (Ap. 1. 22, §§183–204), but a major question has always been whether these quotations were also authentic. B. Bar-Kochva (1996) argues that the latter are not from Hecataeus but were composed by an Egyptian Jew about 100 BCE.

A second source for the Jews in the Ptolemaic period is the Zenon papyri. Zenon was an agent of the Egyptian finance minister, and took a journey through Palestine and southern Syria in 259 BCE. He continued to correspond with a number of people whom he had met for some years afterward. The Zenon archive is therefore a treasure-trove of information relating to the region of Palestine under Ptolemaic rule. As contemporary documents, these papyri are valuable primary sources. Because of the nature of the documents, we also have first-hand information on the local economy and society. What they show is a Palestine well integrated into the Ptolemaic empire and an important source of certain products valued by the upper classes of Egypt.

Among the many documents from Zenon's archive are several letters and documents that mention Jews or relate to individuals identified as Jewish (Tcherikover, Fuks, and Stern 1957–64). One of these was a man called Tobias who was head of a military colony in what seems to have been an ancestral home on the east side of the Jordan. He appears to be a descendant of the ‘Tobiah the Ammonite’ mentioned in the book of Nehemiah, and also to relate to the Tobiad family whose activities later in the century are described in a section of Josephus known as the ‘Tale of the Tobiads’. Tobias writes letters in Greek, not only to Zenon but to his boss Apollonius and even to the ruler Ptolemy II himself, sending gifts and speaking as one who moves in rather high circles of the Greek administration.

The story of the Tobiads told by Josephus (AJ 12. 4. 1–11, §§157–236) is evidently based on some sort of family chronicle. The story itself has many legendary and romantic elements. The story is that an upper-class Jew named Tobias married into the family of the Jerusalem high priest (the Oniads), went to the court of Ptolemy, and obtained the tax-farming rights to the whole region, bidding in competition with other wealthy would-be tax farmers. Through this he was able to gain wealth and power and to exercise considerable control over the region for about twenty years. He had eight sons, seven of whom sided with him, but the eighth, named Hyrcanus, rebelled and wrested the tax-farming rights away from his father. This set him against his father and brothers, but he maintained his position for many years and built a rich estate across the Jordan.

D. Gera (1990; 1998: 36–58) has written an important evaluation of the Tobiad story, concluding that the details of the account are unreliable, especially the picture of the Tobiad family as internally divided, with Joseph and his other sons against Hyrcanus. Gera's cautions are salutary. Nevertheless, it seems to tell us something about Ptolemaic Judah in the mid- to late third century BCE if used cautiously. Its main contribution is that it draws attention to a family, the Tobiads, who exercised considerable influence and leadership over a period of several generations, perhaps even centuries (Mazar 1957). It also suggests that this family made itself very much at home in Hellenistic culture and the Hellenistic world. Archaeology has confirmed the opulence of the Tobiad family home across the Jordan, though it was probably built before the time of Hyrcanus.

In sum, the picture we currently have of the Ptolemaic period is much like that of the Persian period. The sources are episodic, and information on the Jews is partial and incomplete. Yet, from a lot of different scattered bits of data, we can piece together a good deal that is interesting and significant. The high priest remains the leader of the Jewish community, even if his power appears to fluctuate over time. The Diaspora communities that we know date from as early as the Persian period (or even before?) begin to become visible. Synagogues are first attested about the middle of the third century. Powerful families such as the Tobiads, as well as the priestly Oniads, become visible. One of the most far-reaching events, though, was the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek, which was to be one of a number of developments that would be part of major changes to Judaism in transforming it from a temple-based religion to a religion of the book.

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