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The Jewish Prophesy of Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great in Temple of Solomon , Jerusalem
A prophecy about Alexander the Great is found in the Jewish Book of Daniel, which was written 200 years before his birth. Credit: painting by Sebastiano Conca/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain

According to the the Jewish Book of Daniel, Alexander the Great was prophesied 200 years prior to his birth and was to change the course of Judaism forever.

In 336 BC, at the age of twenty, Alexander the Great succeeded his father Philip II to the throne of the kingdom of Macedonia, the ancient Greek state located in northern Greece. Alexander spent most of his ruling years conducting a lengthy military campaign throughout Western Asia and Egypt.

The Greatest Leader of All Time

Thousands of soldiers followed him. What are now the modern-day countries of Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and the entirety of the modern-day Arab world, became Greek in less than ten years’ time. In a few short years, Alexander had conquered all the way east to the western borders of India. He would be dead by the time he was thirty-three.

Greek Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great
The vast Macedonian Empire. Credit: Wikimedia commons / Own work CC BY-SA 3.0

Philip gave to his son a tutor, namely the famous philosopher Aristotle. It was Aristotle who instilled the high philosophical ideals of the Greeks in the young Alexander, that made him respect all the different peoples he conquered, their cultures as well as their particular religious traditions.

Alexander the Great Meets the High-priest of the Jews in Jerusalem

The only “historical” event connecting Alexander the Great with the Jews is his visit to Jerusalem, which was recorded by the Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

During one of his campaigns in his short life and after the siege of Tyre, he marched through the land of Israel (Judea), which was likely between 329 to 332 BC, at the time of the reign of the great High Priest Jaddua. According to the Mishnah of the Talmud, the high priest is identified as the last of the Men of the Great Assembly, or as Shimon HaTzaddik (Simon the Just or the Righteous) rather than Jaddua.

This could simply be a legend, since Plutarch—the main historian who wrote about the life of Alexander—did not mention anything about this visit to Jerusalem.

The Jews were not about to defeat Alexander in battle; therefore, the correct way to deal with the matter was to come to an accommodation with him, so they peacefully submitted to him. According to the Talmud, when Alexander the Great reached Judea, Simeon the Just, went to Antipatris to meet him—although Josephus states that Alexander himself came to Jerusalem.

The Talmud describes the drama of that first encounter (Yoma 69a). Simon the Just came forth with other members of the priesthood, as well as the sages of the Sanhedrin(the supreme council and tribunal of the Jews), to greet Alexander at the gates of Jerusalem as he strode in on his famous horse, which he rode throughout the world in his conquests. As claimed, both Alexander and his horse were enormously tall.

Jewish Story has it that Alexander Bowed to High Priest and was Criticized by Greeks

 According to legend, when Alexander saw him clothed with his sacerdotal garment, he descended from his chariot and bowed respectfully before him. Alexander’s courtiers criticized this act. How could one who ought to be adored by all as king bow to the high priest of the Jews? Alexander responded to his fellow Greeks:

I did not adore him, but the God who hath honored him with this high-priesthood, for I saw this very person in a dream, in this very habit, when I was at Dios in Macedonia, who, when I was considering with myself how I might obtain dominion of Asia, exhorted me to make no delay, but boldly to pass over the sea. 

It was then, that the representatives of the Jewish people informed the great King that the Samaritans who stood before him misled him and his generals into destroying the Holy Temple. Alexander the Great handed them over immediately to the Jews.

The great leader then gave the high priest his right hand, and went into the Temple and “offered sacrifice to God according to the high priest’s direction,” treating the whole priesthood magnificently.

When Alexander requested that an image of himself—a statue—be placed in the Temple, the high priest explained that this was impossible. He promised instead that all the sons born of priests in that year would be named Alexander, and from then on, the name “Sander” or “Sender” (Alek-sander) was to become a common Jewish name to this day.

illustration of the temple of solomon jerusalme
Illustration of the Temple of Solomon, Jerusalem. Credit: Public Domain

Alexander and the Jewish Prophecy of Daniel

When Alexander went up into the Temple, he offered sacrifice to God, according to the High Priest’s direction and magnificently treated both the High Priest and the priests.

In reference to the Book of Daniel, wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks would destroy the empire of the Persians, Alexander supposed that he himself was the person intended.

As claimed in detail by the priests, the prophecy which was written by Daniel foretold how a goat from the West—in this case Macedonia, Greece—would knock out the ram with the two horns (Medo-Persian Empire). Daniel’s predictions clearly talked about the dissolution of the Medo-Persian empire. As we know, the angel Gabriel specifically named the Medo-Persian and Greek empires in Daniel’s 8th chapter of the Book of Daniel, where we can find the highly symbolic passage about a ram and a goat:

[8:20] As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. [8:21] And the goat is the king of Greece. And the great horn between his eyes is the first king.

The ram had two horns, one longer than the other, representing the empire of the Medes and the Persians and:

[8:5] As I was considering, behold, a male goat came from the west across the face of the whole earth, without touching the ground. And the goat had a conspicuous horn between his eyes.

The horn represents the king, Alexander. The goat killed the ram and:

[8:8] Then the goat became exceedingly great, but when he was strong, the great horn was broken, and instead of it there came up four conspicuous horns toward the four winds of heaven.

Perhaps this was a prediction of Alexander’s untimely death. The single horn is replaced with four new horns, which are [8:22] “four kingdoms that will emerge from his nation but will not have the same power.”

The four new kingdoms are mentioned again in the 11th chapter of the Book of Daniel, which says that [11:4] “his [Alexander’s] empire will be broken up and parceled out toward the four winds of heaven. It will not go to his descendants, nor will it have the power he exercised.” These passages describe, two centuries in advance, precisely what happened to Alexander and his empire.

Upon hearing this, Alexander was glad but he did not appoint a viceroy over the Jews to run the Jewish province for him like he did with many of his other conquered territories mainly because he was expressed in Daniel’s scripture figuratively while the other kings of the empires had been mentioned by name.

The following day, Alexander asked the people what favors he should grant them, and, at the high priest’s request, he accorded them the right to live in full enjoyment of the laws of their forefathers.

He, furthermore, exempted them from the payment of tribute in the seventh year of release. To the Jews of Babylonia and Media, he also granted similar privileges. To the Jews who were willing to enlist in his army, he promised the right to live in accordance with their ancestral laws.

The vision of the Prophet Daniel
The vision of the prophet Daniel. Credit: Luigi Sabatelli
The Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Public Domain (CC0 1.0)

Are Daniel’s Prophecies Post-dated and Did Alexander Visit Jerusalem?

Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem is perceived as a fictitious account by the Jewish Encyclopedia, and many scholars do not accept it as historical. Hecataeus of Abdera, a contemporary of Alexander, is also said to have written about Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem, but his writings on the topic did not survive into the modern era.

The prophets Daniel and Zechariah wrote prophecies concerning Greece and Alexander’s Macedonian Empire. The non-eschatological prophecies in Daniel have proven unreliable, and some critics have tried to post-date his writing even though biblical factors point to a date of writing in the sixth century BC. The same applies to Zechariah’s accounts, which are dated sometime between 520 and 470 BC also well before Alexander’s rise to power.

Book of Daniel, a Powerful Apocalyptic Biblical Book Often Attacked

The Book of Daniel is a very powerful apocalyptic biblical book, detailing in prophecy many things that later occurred, and this is why it is often attacked and presumed to have been written much later. It is a work characterized by visions and symbolism with an emphasis on cosmic events, angels, and pseudonymity (false authorship).

This is probably the main reason why secular historians reject Josephus’ account. For the scholars to accept what Josephus recorded would mean that the world has to accept that Daniel is the word of God, and his prophecies are indeed authentic.

Although Josephus is regarded by many as a reputable historian on the same footing as other ancient authorities, scholars simply cannot accept that the book has been divinely inspired and foretold Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire several centuries before the Macedonian king was born.

Hence, rather than accept that Daniel was inspired by God as a Jewish prophet in Babylon during the sixth century BC, they argue that it must have been written long after Alexander lived and died.

Perhaps Josephus believed the story to be true and included it in his history, such as all those modern scholars who pick and choose what they deem as “accurate” from ancient sources.

As claimed by John J. Collins in Daniel: With an Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature, the Book of Daniel originated as a collection of folktales among the Jewish community in Babylon and Mesopotamia in the Persian and early Hellenistic periods—5th to 3rd centuries BC—and was later expanded on by the visions of chapters seven to twelve in the Maccabean era of the mid-2nd century. Daniel is a legendary figure, and his name was presumably chosen for the hero of the book because of his reputation as a wise seer in Hebrew tradition.

Sibley Towner and Lester Grabbe suggest that although Daniel’s 8th chapter is set during the reign or regency of King Belshazzar (who probably died in 539 BC), the subject of the vision is Antiochus’ oppression of the Jewish people during the second century BC. His program sparked a Jewish uprising which led to the retaking of Jerusalem and the Temple by Judas Maccabeus.

It is clearly an interpretation of the real author’s own time from 167 to 164 BC with a claim that God will bring to an end the oppression of the Jewish people. It begins with the Greek conquest of the Persian empire, touches on the rise of the four Greek successor-kingdoms (Diadochi), and then focuses on the career of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who took the throne of Seleucid Syria in 175 BC.

The “little horn” that follows the history of Daniel’s prophecy is believed to be a code-word for the Greek King Antiochus IV. The real author seems to know about Antiochus’ two campaigns in Egypt (169 and 167 BC), the desecration of the Temple (the “abomination of desolation”), and the fortification of the Akra (a fortress built inside Jerusalem).

Further evidence of the book’s date is apparent in the fact that Daniel is excluded from the Hebrew Bible’s canon of the prophets, which was closed around 200 BC. The Wisdom of Sirach, a work dating from around 180 BC, draws on almost every book of the Old Testament except Daniel. This leads scholars to suppose that its author was unaware of it.

There are also those who believe that approximately two and a half centuries before Alexander began his world conquest, God provided Daniel with a glimpse into the future. This was important to Daniel and his people, as God also informed them of their return to their land and that they would be taken care of by Him through the coming tumultuous times. According to this theological approach, kingdoms rise and fall, but God holds the future, and His Word stands.

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