The Other Tyre

The Other Tyre August 14, 2015

I say this with some nervousness, but I think I have a minor discovery to report, involving one of the most puzzling passages of the Bible. I’ll wait for experts to look at the idea and tell me if I actually have anything worthwhile.

Let me first state the problem, about which I have posted recently. The last six chapters of Zechariah are commonly taken as being a separate text called Deutero-Zechariah. They describe an era of crisis, with Palestine enmeshed in multiple foreign invasions and internal conflicts. There are also very specific coded references to particular events that are probably completely beyond recovery, such as the puzzling “three shepherds cut off in one month.”

Presumably these reflect actual events in progress at the time of writing, but that scarcely helps us as the text has variously been dated to points from the early-fifth century BC through the mid-second BC. Some scholars favor a date in the Hellenistic period, partly because of Greece is cited as a formidable presence or enemy, and also because of what looks like a reference to a siege of Tyre. (“Tyre has built herself a stronghold; she has heaped up silver like dust, and gold like the dirt of the streets”: Zech. 9.3). The famous siege of that city occurred under Alexander the Great.

I suggest, though, that if we are looking for a tumultuous period of intense crisis that fits the general description, we might turn to the late third and early second centuries. This was the period in which the Seleucids took Palestine over from the Ptolemaic empire, and there was apparently a period of fraternal civil war within the Tobiad family. This really does appear to have drawn popular politics into the world of family factions and dynastic feuds. And if I might be cryptic here, this era did produce another, quite separate Tyre.

The foreign context is quickly told. Josephus describes the war between the Seleucid emperor Antiochus III and Ptolemy Philopator (221-203 BC), and his successors. Antiochus invaded Palestine in 219, and won repeated victories until he was defeated at Raphia, in Palestine, in 217 (one of the great battles of the Hellenistic era). In 198, Antiochus defeated the Egyptians at Panias, decisively winning the country for the Seleucid Empire. The struggle ended when the new king Ptolemy Epiphanes (203-181 BC) married Antiochus’s daughter Cleopatra. Incidentally, Josephus incudes a much quoted (and much debated) letter of Antiochus granting special privileges and tax exemptions to the Temple and its priests.

Much of Josephus’s story, though, concerns the Tobiad family, one of the two great clans that dominated Palestine in this era. The family’s fortunes were made by Joseph, who became the chief tax-collector for the Ptolemies, and his son was Hyrcanus, who had extensive dealings with the royal family. The story here deserves quoting at some length because it offers a brief illumination of such a totally dark era. Josephus writes (using Whiston’s translation for convenience):

But, upon the death of Joseph, the people grew seditious, on account of his sons. For whereas the elders made war against Hyrcanus, who was the youngest of Joseph’s sons, the multitude was divided, but the greater part joined with the elders in this war; as did Simon the high priest, by reason he was of kin to them. However, Hyrcanus determined not to return to Jerusalem any more, but seated himself beyond Jordan, and was at perpetual war with the Arabians, and slew many of them, and took many of them captives. He also erected a strong castle, and built it entirely of white stone to the very roof, and had animals of a prodigious magnitude engraven upon it. He also drew round it a great and deep canal of water. He also made caves of many furlongs in length, by hollowing a rock that was over against him; and then he made large rooms in it, some for feasting, and some for sleeping and living in. He introduced also a vast quantity of waters which ran along it, and which were very delightful and ornamental in the court. But still he made the entrances at the mouth of the caves so narrow, that no more than one person could enter by them at once. And the reason why he built them after that manner was a good one; it was for his own preservation, lest he should be besieged by his brethren, and run the hazard of being caught by them. Moreover, he built courts of greater magnitude than ordinary, which he adorned with vastly large gardens. … This place is between Arabia and Judea, beyond Jordan, not far from the country of Heshbon. And he ruled over those parts for seven years, even all the time that Seleucus was king of Syria.

That would be Seleucus IV (187-175). When Seleucus was succeeded by his brother Antiochus IV (175) Hyrcanus was driven to suicide.

Apart from these bitter struggles, we also know of other splits affecting the High Priesthood around 180. Seleucus IV attempted to seize Temple treasures, leading to a violent conflict between priestly factions, and an open battle for the high priesthood between Oniads and Tobiads. Both parties appealed to the Seleucid court to vindicate their claim.

Several points emerge here, but most important is the series of wars, occupations and transitions occurring at the start of the second century, and the combination of foreign invasion with fratricidal civil war, in which the high priesthood was deeply involved. Making them all the more dangerous was that internal schisms became aligned with dynastic loyalties: Hyrcanus was pro-Ptolemaic, but the high priests and most of his family were pro-Seleucid. That posed deadly dangerous when, for instance, Ptolemaic forces reoccupied the country after a period of absence. These divisions were doubly important because they prefigured the ideological splits that ultimately provoked the Maccabean revolt of the 160s.

Although we know little more about Hyrcanus beyond what we are told here, he was clearly a very significant figure, who sounds like a builder as prodigious as the later Transjordanian, Herod the Great. The fortress he built may coincide with the well-known site of Qasr al ‘Abd, in modern Jordan.

Based on analogies from other eras, like the Maccabean wars, it would not be surprising if he attracted fervent enmity, expressed in coded and prophetic denunciations. That such texts ever existed is a speculation, but I do make one comment. Josephus says that when Hyrcanus had everything in order in his great fortress, ton topon Tyron onomasen: he called the place Tyre.

Hyrcanus ruled from a new Tyre.

That was an interesting name, considering the long tradition of prophecies against the actual city of Tyre, notably from Isaiah and Ezekiel. But how natural for an enemy of Hyrcanus’s family, or his faction, to allude to that literature in denouncing him. Like the prophets of old, the new “Zechariah” mocked the fortress that claimed the proud name of Tyre, and warned that in this era too, God would strike it down and ruin its wealth.

I suggest that the Tyre reference in Deutero-Zechariah reads very well as a reference to conditions in the early second century BC, far better than to the time of Alexander the Great.

In this context, we read the final chapter of Zechariah, in which God establishes his earthly rule, and all the nations acknowledge the supremacy of Jerusalem and Israel. All nations will have to com up and pay tribute, but only one is specifically named:

And if the family of Egypt do not go up and present themselves, then upon them shall come the plague with which the Lord afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the feast of booths. This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the feast of booths. (14.18-19)

Hyrcanus, I mention once more, was a supporter of Egypt’s Ptolemies.

Do I say this with any confidence? Of course not. But I wonder if anyone has ever picked up the “Tyre” reference in that context?


Martin Hengel, “The Political and Social History of Palestine from Alexander to Antiochus III,” in W. D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein, eds., The Cambridge History of Judaism Volume 2: The Hellenistic Age (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 63-78. For the lands beyond Jordan as the “Wild East” of the ancient Jewish world, see Rachel Havrelock, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line (University of Chicago Press, 2011).



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  • MesKalamDug

    Sounds right to me – but I do not qualify as a expert. There is the faintest of chances that some writing may yet turn up to help us understand but this is
    best yet suggestion I know of for what deutero-Zechariah is all about.

  • bgcurtis


    Thanks for posting on Zechariah again, and thanks for drawing attention to this neglected portion of Scripture.

    I’m intrigued by your suggestion about Qasr al–’Abd at Iraq al-‘Amir as the “Tyre” of Zechariah 9. I’ve read thousands of pages of Zechariah research and Zechariah commentaries, and have no memory of your suggestion elsewhere. Your notice of the line about “ton topon Tyron” in Josephus give some plausibility to the suggestion. If it’s right, it could serve as one of the few data points in Zech 9–14 for building a case for a terminus post quem relative date.

    I’ve been to that mysterious site in Jordan, and climbed around the stones that have been so meticulously restored to their original locations by the archaeologists. Glorious.

    However, interesting though it is—brilliant even—I am not convinced by your argument. Respectfully, here are two reasons why:

    Zech 9’s reference to Tyre comes in two contexts, neither of which sustains your suggestion. The first context is the flow of discourse in 9:1–8, which highlights a string of city and regional names, starting with Hadrach (Hatirikka) in the far northern Levant and ending with Ashqelon and Ashdod in the far southern Levant. The list of places flows roughly north-to-south, and majors in coastal toponyms. Damascus is the list’s only city-name far inland from the Mediterranean coast; that name is very probably listed because its prominence as the most important regional capital in the north. That observation renders Qasr al-‘Abd an unlikely outlier in the list–it’s too far south, too far inland, and too obscure a place to fit the rest of the list.

    The second context involves common parlance in Mediterranean world: Before Tyre is described as heaped with riches (verse 3), the city is named in Zech 9:2 in a common idiomatic pairing of city names: “Tyre and Sidon.” The two cities share a common geography and history: they’re adjacent (and wealthy) city-states on the Phoenician coast. The pairing of “Tyre” with “Sidon” is attested 17 times in Hebrew Bible and New Testament. It’s rather like the biblical pairing of “Sodom and Gomorrah,” or the North American pairing of the Twin Cities, “Minneapolis and St. Paul.”

    Because the idiomatic pairing of Tyre and Sidon is so common in ancient literature, including the Bible, it seems difficult to unbolt coastal Tyre from the Levantine auto so as to mount a spare “Tyre” from an inland supplier.

    So why “Turon” in Josephus? — Because “Turon” denotes “Rock,” and “Rock” often denotes a fortress or fortress site or fortress-like construction. “Tyre” itself is named for the off-shore rock upon which its fortress is built, and to which Alexander built his siege-causeway, back in the 330s BC. Today, that rock ends a peninsula—courtesy of Alexander’s engineers. The palace (or mausoleum? or vacation Xanadu?) at Iraq al-‘Amir uses immense rocks in a most unusual architecture for the place and for that period. Hence, “Turon” seems a name that works well for the obscure and scarcely-mentioned site.

    Do I convince?
    Have I overlooked something?
    Maybe so.

    I think the whole of Zechariah 9:1-8 functions as a declaration of the God of Israel’s universal sovereignty, a rule that shall result in the adoption of the pagans as equal partners with faithful Judeans in God’s redemption of the world. Even that Philistine of verse 7 shall have that pagan-style pork roast yanked from his mouth, so as to practice good kosher holiness, with Israel. So, “rejoice Zion Daughter” (9:9), good things are yet to come.

    Despite my argument, I am truly grateful for your interest in posting about the forgotten Zechariah 9–14. I do love that text, and hope it shall soon (re)surface in the consciousness of the Church of Jesus Christ.

    Kind regards,


    Byron G. Curtis, PhD
    Professor of Bible
    Geneva College

  • philipjenkins

    Once again, I very much appreciate your taking the time to comment, and supplying the verdict of an actual expert in such matters, as opposed to an amateur like myself. Your patience and courtesy are both admirable.

    You raise excellent points, but let me suggest that my argument is a bit subtler than you outline here. Yes, Tyre follows in that geographical sequence, of course, and the primary reference is to the coastal city. No argument. However, it is clearly singled out in a way that suggests the name is being given a special symbolic significance. A common theme in the literature is that this is because it refers to Alexander’s conquest and siege, which would definitely imply a fourth or third century date. (I do understand that this is not your position).

    My suggestion is that the author is here saying “Look at the famous city of Tyre ! Think back to Alexander’s siege! And while we are at it, let us think of that other modern day echo of the place, that other stronghold where the evil Hyrcanus thinks he is safe. And also, let’s remind him how weak his Egyptian friends really are. His Tyre will go the way of the other place.” In other words, the name Tyre is meant to have (at least) a double resonance, the famous one, but also the other “pile of rocks”.

    Spare Tyre, indeed. Ouch. I thought I was the only person who would perpetrate such a thing.

  • bgcurtis

    Dear Philip,
    I thought you might have recourse to that argument, and it is the natural rejoinder. Yes, these ancient poets can be subtler than serpents, and as packed with polysemous allusion as Eliot’s “Wasteland.”

    I’m not at all sure, however, that Zech 9 has anything to do with Alexander’s siege. Here I follow my mentors in Zech, Eric and Carol Meyers, and think that Zech 9:13’s reference to the Sons of Yavan (the Greeks) pertains to early fifth century rivalries rather than Alex’s coastal march to Egypt. If you’ll recall, the last dateline in Zechariah comes at 7:1, the fourth year of Darius, 518 BC. That literary unit ends at 8:23. After Cyrus’s 546 BC conquest of the pluticratic Croessus and his kingdom of Lydia in western Turkey, Persian troops found themselves looking out over the Aegean Sea toward Athens. The first military confrontation between Greeks and Persians came in 517 BC, one year after Zech 7:1’s date, and two years after the main body of the Persian army had passed through the Levant and back again in their successful suppression of the 519 Egyptian revolt.

    As it passed through the southern Levant, there can be little doubt that the Persian military picked up a lot of good Jewish boys from the Persian province of Judah. My non-Alexandrian hypothesis is that Zech 9:13 makes excellent sense if we surmise that Jewish soldiers from Jerusalem in the Persian army are busy confronting those upstart Greeks in the NE Mediterranean world, ca 517-516 BC. Those military confrontations will pose Persia’s most intractable puzzle—what to do about the Greeks? Greece and Persia will nearly bleed each other to death until the uneasy truce of the Peace of Callias, c 450 BC.

    I know I’m in the minority in my non-Alexander reading of Zech 9. The total package of Zech 1-14 makes more sense, however, if we attempt to read it all as a production of the early Persian Period, rather than as a composite book with a two-or-three-hundred-year gap between Zech 8 and Zech 9. Such a span of ages is not even posed for Isaiah. If Zech 1-8 has been read as sacred Scripture for two or three centuries, 500–200 BC, why attach such a piece as Zech 9–14 onto it, post 200 BC? That editorial strategy eludes me.

    Again, thanks much for the interaction over a difficult but lovely text.

    And thanks for camaraderie over “spare Tyres” (Surely their manufacturer must be British). My students groan at my mid-lecture puns, and then try to best me with their own.

    I’m used to reading you on themes like the “lost history” of Christianity and the “Next Christendom,” so it’s a pleasant surprise to see you posting on Old Testament.

    Warm regards,


  • philipjenkins

    I hope you will enjoy several other Zechariah-related blogs in the coming weeks. Thanks again!