When Alexander the Great came to Jerusalem

Although we don’t meet Alexander the Great directly in the Bible record, Bible students recognise him clearly in Bible prophecy. Approximately 200 years before Alexander began his campaign to conquer the world, the Hebrew prophet Daniel was inspired to write of a series of beasts that represented great empires. First, he wrote of a great ram:

“As I raised my eyes, look! there was a ram standing before the watercourse, and it had two horns. The two horns were tall, but one was higher than the other, and the higher one came up later.” (Daniel 8:3)

Immediately after seeing the ram, the prophet sees another fearsome beast, a hairy he-goat closing in on the ram with two horns:

“As I kept watching, look! there was a male goat coming from the west crossing the surface of the whole earth without touching the ground. And the goat had a conspicuous horn between its eyes. It was coming toward the ram with the two horns, which I had seen standing before the watercourse; it was running toward it in a powerful rage. I saw it closing in on the ram, and it was filled with bitterness toward it. It struck down the ram and broke its two horns, and the ram was powerless to stand up to it. It threw the ram to the ground and trampled it down, and there was no one to rescue it from its power.” (Daniel 8: 5-7)

As to the identities of the beasts, the prophet was clear:

“The two-horned ram that you saw stands for the kings of Media and Persia. The hairy male goat stands for the king of Greece; and the great horn that was between its eyes stands for the first king.” (Daniel 8: 20, 21)

At the time the prophet was writing his prophecy, Israel was no longer independent and was subject to the Persian Empire (it being a combination of Media and Persia). The Persian rulers were descended from Cyrus the Great, the famous conqueror of Babylon. Before Cyrus, Persia was subject to Media. Cyrus reversed this and Persia became the dominant half of the empire, the one horn that was taller than the other. The Empire founded by Cyrus the Great (also called the “Achaemenid” Empire) lasted about 200 years. According to Daniel, this Persian empire would in turn be supplanted by the “first” king of Greece.

Before Alexander the Great, Greece was a loose collection of city-states without any political unity. Alexander’s father, Phillip II of Macedon had succeeded in uniting most of Greece into a single federation but was assassinated almost immediately after its establishment. The invasion of the Persian empire that Phillip had long hoped for would fall to his son Alexander. Alexander the Great was more than just the most successful military conqueror of ancient times. He began his rule at the age of 20 and was not quite 33 years old when he died in Babylon under mysterious circumstances. During his short life, he subdued most of the world that was known to the ancient Greeks. After his death, his empire quickly splintered but the influence of Alexander and the cultural dominance of the Greeks remained for centuries. Greek became the international language of culture and commerce, even while the Roman Empire dominated the ancient western world. Greek philosophy and the views of Alexander’s teacher Aristotle on the natural world became widely accepted. The promotion of Aristotle’s teachings would dominate science and medicine until the European enlightenment.

Immediately after inheriting his father’s throne, Alexander consolidated his power by murdering a number of his rivals and putting down military insurrections from the Greek city-states. With the home-front secured, Alexander’s forces crossed into Asia and began the conquest of the vast Persian Empire in 334 B.C. Almost immediately his forces engaged a large Persian army commanded by various Persian governors (Satraps) at the Battle of Granicus. The battle was a decisive victory for Alexander, but the Persian Empire was not defeated yet. Now the army of Alexander swept through modern Turkey were they again fought against the Persian forces at the Battle of Issus.


According to Flavius Josephus, after taking Tyre and Gaza, Alexander the Great visited Jerusalem. After a brief visit, Alexander’s forces continued south into Egypt. After conquering Egypt (and founding Alexandria) he turned his forces east through Damascus in 331 B.C and then pushed deep into the heart of the Persian empire (and beyond).


Now if you are looking at the map of Alexander’s march through the Levant, you cannot help but to have noticed that there is a significant gap between Tyre and Gaza. What about Jerusalem? Is it likely that Alexander would have just ignored the once capital of a notoriously rebellious nation? Doing so, without securing the loyalty of Jerusalem would have opened up his forces to the danger of fighting enemies on two fronts, the Egyptians in front of him and the Jews behind him. Two of the most ancient accounts of Alexander’s military campaign, the “Anabasis of Alexander” by Arrian and the “Histories of Alexander the Great” by Quintus Curtius Rufus are silent on this question. Yet another ancient account, one that is generally high regarded by historians, fills in details that are overlooked by the other historians.

In the “Antiquities of the Jews”, first century historian Flavius Josephus reports that during the siege of Tyre, Alexander sent a message to the High Priest in Jerusalem asking him to send both men and provisions. The High Priest responded through messengers that he had sworn a vow to the Persian King Darius III that he would not take up arms against him and he could not go back on his word as long as Darius III yet lived. Not surprisingly, Alexander was infuriated. Rejecting the request of Alexander had led to Tyre being besieged and sacked. Yet while his forces were occupied at Tyre, Alexander would do nothing about what he may have regarded as an intolerable snub.

During this time, the leader of the Samaritans, a rival nation to the north of Jerusalem who practised a form of Judaism considered heretical by the Jews (for example, they offered their sacrifices not in Jerusalem but on Mount Gezerim) saw an opportunity to curry favour with the conquering Alexander. Unlike the Jews, the Samaritans quickly renounced Darius III and sent him many soldiers.

After a difficult siege lasting almost a year, Tyre was defeated.  Alexander next turned his attentions to the strategically significant coastal city of Gaza, which was defeated after a relatively short siege. Now he was free to deal with intransigent Jerusalem! Josephus recounts the following:

“…and Jaddus the high-priest, when he heard that, was in an agony, and under terror, as not knowing how he should meet the Macedonians, since the king was displeased at his foregoing disobedience. He therefore ordained that the people should make supplications, and should join with him in offering sacrifice to God, whom he besought to protect that nation, and to deliver them from the perils that were coming upon them; whereupon God warned him in a dream, which came upon him after he had offered sacrifice, that he should take courage, and adorn the city, and open the gates; that the rest should appear in white garments, but that he and the priests should meet the king in the habits proper to their order, without the dread of any ill consequences, which the providence of God would prevent…And when Jaddus understood that Alexander was not far from the city, he went out in procession, with the priests and the multitude of the citizens.”

After literally throwing open the doors of Jerusalem and taking pains to be as friendly and non-threatening as possible, Jaddus the High Priest and a large column of prominent citizens went out to meet the army of Alexander. Alexander’s forces were accompanied by his new Samaritan allies who may have hoped that Alexander would punish the city for its initial recalcitrance. They may have even have hoped that they would be allowed to plunder Jerusalem.

Instead, when the inhabitants of Jerusalem encounter Alexander, the unexpected occurs. When Alexander sees Jaddus dressed in the robes of the High Priest and in a turban adorned with a gold plate engraved with the Hebrew name of God (the four Hebrew consonants “YHWH” commonly rendered in English as “Jehovah”) , “he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first saluted the high-priest.

In explanation, Alexander said that he had seen the High Priest in a dream before embarking on his campaign of conquest. Further, in his dream the High Priest had assured Alexander that he would be victorious over the Persians. Alexander is next taken into Jerusalem where he offers a sacrifice to God at the Temple, “according to the high-priest’s direction“.

Josephus offers another important but highly controversial detail about Alexander’s brief visit to Jerusalem. While in the city, a scroll is brought to Alexander:

“And when the Book of Daniel was showed him wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that himself was the person intended. And as he was then glad, he dismissed the multitude for the present.”

No doubt Alexander identified himself with the male goat from Daniel chapter 8 who tramples down the Persian empire (passage quoted at the onset of the article).

Finally, the Jews are granted the same rights they enjoyed under Persian rule and the Samaritans are given the same. According to the Talmud (a central text of Rabbinic Judaism which contains the “Oral Law” and  Rabbinic commentary) many of the boys born in Jerusalem that year were named Alexander in honour of the pagan conqueror (the Yiddish variation “Sender” is a popular Jewish boys name to this day). After a short stay, Alexander and his army would press on to Egypt and eventually into Persia, never to return to Jerusalem.

Now it may surprise the reader to learn that, in spite of the high regard historians generally have for Josephus, his account of Alexander visiting Jerusalem is often dismissed as fiction. Why? It is because many Bible critics hold to the idea that the book of Daniel was written much later than it claims to have been. Daniel was taken to Babylon as a teenager, he survived the 70 year Babylonian exile and was still alive when Babylon fell and even served for a short time as a Persian official. He would have been close to a hundred years old at his death. Assuming that he wrote most of the book of Daniel in his final years the book would have been completed before the death of Cyrus in 530 B.C. Those who hold to the late date theory of authorship maintain that the book of Daniel was in fact written by an anonymous fraudster around 165 B.C.

The “late date” theory maintains that the real author of Daniel fraudulently took past events and wrote them to appear to be prophecies. So if the prophecies are accurate, it is no cause for surprise because they were written long after the fact!

As evidence for their theory the critics point to certain Greek words (three in total) used in the book of Daniel that they claim are anachronistic. They argue that widespread Hellenization (the spread of Greek culture, philosophy and language) had not yet taken place in the 5th century B.C (when Daniel lived) but only by the 2nd century B.C. This argument ignores the fact that Daniel lived in a very cosmopolitan city (Babylon) that would have been in regular contact with traders from all over the ancient world. Also, the Greek words used refer to musical instruments (in Daniel chapter 3). Arguing that Daniel would not know the names of Greek musical instruments makes as much sense as arguing that I couldn’t possibly know what a ukulele is because I don’t speak Hawaiian!

The “late date” theory runs aground on certain unyielding facts. First, the writer of the apocryphal book of First Maccabees completed his account shortly after 165 B.C. (Although not a part of the Bible canon it is an excellent historical account of  the Maccabean revolt.) Yet the writer of that book references events from the book of Daniel showing that he was familiar with the book and recognised its canonicity, which would have been unlikely if it had been a very recent invention.

The discovery of several copies of the book of Daniel among the Dead Sea Scrolls offers another challenge to the “late date” theory. For Bible students, the recovery of these scrolls from caves near the Dead Sea was without a doubt, the most significant archeological discovery of the 20th century. Dozens of scrolls or portions of scrolls were discovered in these caves which proved to contain books from the Hebrew portion of the Bible. Other texts are related to the ascetic religious community who lived nearby (commonly believed to be the “Essenes”). This treasure trove provided copies of the scriptures hundreds of years older than any that had been previously known. Among these were 8 manuscripts, in whole or in part of the book of Daniel. The oldest of these has been dated to the late 2nd century B.C. That would mean that if the late date theorists are correct, this copy of Daniel was produced less than 50 years after the original.

This is problematic for proponents of the theory. It is evident that the book of Daniel was one of the most popular Bible books for the religious community that hid the scrolls in the caves. There are more fragments from Daniel than any other Hebrew Bible book save the Psalms or the book of Exodus. Is it likely that the book of Daniel would have gained such widespread acceptance and popularity in so short a period a time as the “late date” theory requires? For it to have been accepted as canonical by this time suggests a much earlier date for its production than the “late date” theory allows.

Finally there is the testimony of Flavius Josephus. If Alexander was shown the scroll of Daniel during his visit to Jerusalem in 330 B.C as Josephus relates, than the “late date” theory is false. Alexander would have had good reason to visit Jerusalem. It would have been risky for Alexander to pass by Samaria and Judea (with its capital Jerusalem) without first securing their loyalty. It was strategically sound to treat Jerusalem mercifully after they initially (politely) refused to declare themselves on Alexander’s side. Alexander didn’t want to get bogged down in another siege if he could help it. The long and costly siege of Tyre only occurred after the people of Tyre refused to let Alexander enter Tyre and make sacrifice to the Tyrian god Melqart. Jerusalem had opened her gates wide to Alexander. No doubt his relative leniency towards Jerusalem would have swiftly ended if she had refused him entrance at this point. It was wise to show other cities throughout the Persian empire that they could expect to be treated humanely and fairly if they cooperated with Alexander and renounced their allegiance to Darius III.

The fact that the other ancient histories of Alexander (notably by Arrian and by Quintus Curtius Rufus) do not mention this event is not at all surprising. Both accounts concentrate only on the major engagements in Alexander’s campaign and they may have thought the brief, peaceful encounter at Jerusalem to have been relatively unimportant. Indeed it was relatively unimportant to everyone save the Jews.

Nor should the detail about Alexander having claimed to have seen the High Priest in a dream cast any doubt on Josephus’s account. Anyone familiar with Alexander the Great and his campaigns will know that he put a great deal of stock in dreams, signs and omens. He may well have believed that he had seen Jaddus the High Priest in a dream. Or Alexander may have been meeting Jaddus’s charm offensive with a clever charm offensive of his own.

Really there is no reason to disbelieve Josephus’s account unless one has a previous commitment to the discredited “late date” theory of Daniel. Bible critics will require another explanation for the accuracy of the remarkable prophecies in the book of Daniel.


Image Credits:

Bust of Alexander the Great at the British Museum. Circa 1st to 2nd Century B.C. {CC BY-SA 2.0} Photo by Andrew Dunn. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Alexander the Great 334-331 B.C campaign map by author. Created using StepMap.com


Quotes from the works of Flavius Josephus are from the English translation by William Whiston (1737 C.E.)




One thought on “When Alexander the Great came to Jerusalem

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s