The Missing Century

The Missing Century November 17, 2014

I am in search of a missing century.

As I recently described, the second century BC was an incredibly fertile time for Jewish culture and religion, with emerging ideas about Judgment and the afterlife, angels and demons, and a major outpouring of writings. From a Christian perspective, we are looking at the essential prehistory of that faith. Some of the most innovative and influential texts shaping that era probably emerged at the end of the third century, especially in writings attributed to Enoch. The problem is that same third century is so obscure, making it difficult to understand just where that creativity is coming from. I’m going to devote a couple of posts to trying to unravel that mystery.

We actually know a great deal about the political context of this time. When Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, he began a period of 170 years during which the land of Palestine was directly under the political rule of well-documented Hellenistic kings and emperors. Although Jewish history commonly remembers the Greeks as the deadly enemies against whom the Maccabees rose in 167, the relationship was usually far more accepting and even cordial.

For virtually all the third century, the land was ruled by the Ptolemaic Empire which was centered in Egypt, but which at times extended its power into Cyprus and Asia Minor. In so far as that empire is recalled today, it is usually as yet another Egyptian dynasty. The famous Rosetta Stone, which allowed the translation of ancient hieroglyphics, was produced in 196BC under Ptolemy V. Yet the ruling class was thoroughly Greek in language, culture and personal names. Although the empire’s last ruler is sometimes depicted today in African guise, Cleopatra is of course a Greek name.

The dynasty was at its height in the first half of the third century. Ptolemy I was a companion of Alexander who ruled as Egypt’s king from 305-285, taking the modest description of Soter, the Savior. His best-known monument was the Great Library of Alexandria, one of the world’s cultural centers for centuries to come. He  was then succeeded by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-247 BC), a very prestigious ruler whose diplomatic contacts extended to India: he even received Buddhist emissaries from the Indian court. His son in turn was Ptolemy III Euergetes, the Benefactor (246-222). Such long reigns suggest stability, although later members of the dynasty were notorious for acts of tyranny, inter-family feuds and violence, and truly bizarre behavior. In the second century, the empire suffered from internecine court politics at its worst. (Ptolemy II had begun the practice of kings marrying their sisters, and it is not too surprising that later monarchs often showed the signs of mental illness and instability).

Partly for political reasons, later Jews looked back fondly on the Ptolemies. During the first century AD, the Jewish community in Alexandria was repeatedly engaged in risings and civil wars with non-Jews, and writers of the time tended to idealize relations in bygone times, to stress the positive role that Jews had played in founding the city. Also, writing in hindsight, Jews wrote up the Ptolemaic dynasty in opposition to the rival dynasty of the Seleucids, with whom they had had such disastrous experiences. For whatever reason, Ptolemy I left a golden reputation, and reportedly made strong efforts to encourage Jews and Samaritans to settle in the land.

The bizarre later text 3 Maccabees claims that the late third century Ptolemy IV persecuted and tried to destroy Egyptian Jews, but this seems to have no basis in reality. This work does include the unforgettable image of the king attempting to annihilate the Jews by having them trampled by enraged elephants.

Despite knowing so much about the Ptolemaic dynasty and its empire, but we can say remarkably little about what was actually happening in the land of Palestine during their period of rule there. Our main source for daily affairs is the so-called Zenon papyri. I quote the summary by Lawrence Schiffman:

These documents tell us of Palestine under the rule of Ptolemy II Philadelphus … The country was often beset by Seleucid attacks and Bedouin incur­sions. Ptolemaic military units were stationed throughout Pal­estine, and many Greek cities were established. Many of these were set up as cleruchies (military colonies) in which soldiers who married native women were given homes and fields, thus fostering the intermarriage which was so much a part of the Hellenistic world. In addition, an extensive Ptolemaic bureaucracy managed governmental affairs and taxation….

Such an account could fit any part of the Hellenistic world, and we wonder about what happened in specifically Jewish affairs:

Judea continued to be governed by the high priest and the priestly aristocracy. One of the few incidents we know about is the quarrel about taxation between the high priest Onias II and Ptolemy III Euergetes (246‑221 B.C.E.), who reportedly visited the Jerusalem Temple. The end result of the dispute was the appointment, in 242 B.C.E., of the young Joseph, son of Tobiah, a nephew of the high priest, as tax collector for the entire country.

As Josephus tells us in the Antiquities, that Tobiad family played a prominent role in Jewish political debates over the following decades. To summarize a complicated story, in the early second century, Jewish elites were divided between two dynasties, the Oniads and Tobiads. The two were radically at odds over how far the Jews should accept Hellenization, and the resulting debates culminated in the revolution of the 160s.

It’s a critical story, but it still portrays Jewish affairs in terms of elite squabbles. What else was happening at this time to generate such far-reaching changes in the substance and practice of faith?

More in my next post.


A great source on the period is Günther Hölbl, A History of the Ptolemaic Empire.


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