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Author Topic: Chapter 11: The Ptolemies and the Jews  (Read 3822 times)
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« on: January 10, 2016, 01:41:27 PM »

Chap. 11-Heroes of the Hellensitic Age (2016) Charles N. Pope

The initial approach of the Ptolemies was to win over the Jews with singular favor.  The liberal Jews of Lower Egypt were treated to a new designer cult called Serapis, which became wildly popular.  The funerary cults of Ptah (“Joseph”) and Osiris had been at least partially merged from the 18th Dynasty onward. The first Ptolemy, Soter, son of Lagus gave it an extreme make-over.  Serapis, as it was now to be called, featured the Patriarch Joseph in a triad with Isis and Osiris, and with borrowings from Hapi and Anubis.  Early Christian writers such as Tertullian further equated the Greco-Roman god Serapis (Asar-Hapi) with Patriarch Joseph and called Isis the 'wife of Joseph.' " (R.E. Witt, Isis is the Ancient World, pp 53, 205, 272.)

Isis and Osiris were of course the Egyptian Athena and Dionysus, and were already the objects of fervent devotion throughout the ancient world.  Anubis was a cool but creepy canine deity, and a funerary god associated with On/Anu and later Thoth (Greek Hermes).  It was referred to by the Greeks as Hermanubis and Cerberus (a "three-headed dog.”  In both Lower and Upper Egypt (Nubia), the annual inundation itself was represented as the god Hapi (Hapy/Hapu), a form of the venerated water-god Ptah/Khnum.  Hapi was a male god of the Nile but depicted with breasts to emphasize his fatness and fertility.

The celestial basis for Serapis can be found in the constellation of Orion, associated with both Horus and Osiris, and especially the dead Horus resurrected as Osiris, which had as its “attendant” the dog constellation Canis Major. Canis Major in turn held the brightest star of all, Sirius, associated with Isis.  Serapis took on two earthly embodiments, one human and one animal.   As a sacred bull (the Apis bull), Serapis could be sacrificed once a year for the propitiation of sins.  However, Serapis was also portrayed as a Greek-styled statue of the biblical patriarch Joseph, the Hebrew equivalent of Ptah, which had been transported ceremoniously to Alexandria in Egypt from distant Pontus in northern Asia Minor.  The fashionable new deity Serapis was an absurd theological concoction and therefore it naturally became chic among Egyptian natives and Greek expatriates alike.  It would also soon become a leading export to other parts of the Hellenized world.

Translation of the Torah and other Hebrew Scriptures into Greek was possibly begun in the reign of Ptolemy II, even if not exactly as Josephus and the Letter of Aristeas suggest.  The motivation of the Ptolemies to produce Jewish Scripture (of some type) in the Greek language is clear.  Ptolemy II was not directly in control of Thebes (archetypal Jerusalem), the ancestral seat of world-wide Jewry.  His half-brother Ptolemy Epigone was High Priest in Thebes and essentially an independent dynasty thanks to the influence of their shared mother.  Ptolemy II would have still sought to win the favor of Upper Egyptian Jews through temple gifts and other favors granted to the Jews in regions that he did control.  Making a public show of freeing of Jewish slaves (in territories that were under their control) and distributing Greek translations of Jewish writings would have been excellent and logical policy for the Ptolemy II and Ptolemy III.  On the other hand, Upper Egypt, and Thebes in particular, resisted Hellenization, therefore Greek translations would not have been generally appreciated there.

Note: The apocryphal Letter of Aristeas makes the Septuagint a work authorized directly by Ptolemy II Philadelphius that was miraculously performed by 72 eminent rabbis from Jerusalem who were sequestered for 72 days, and states the final product was declared immutable upon pain of death.  However, the Hebrew Bible itself did not take on its final form until well into the Common Era.  Modern scholarly consensus is that the Septuagint was developed over a period of decades if not centuries, and that the Letter of Aristeas was a typical pseudo-epigraphical work (of propaganda) generated much later in order to better establish the authority of the Septuagint by exaggerating its age and the marvel of its composition.

The (proto-) Septuagint would have been a monumental granting of royal favor to the Jews, and in effect renewed “The Covenant” between God and the Jews in what was now a Greek-speaking kingdom on earth.  And it was certainly not without serious potential benefit to the Ptolemies who sponsored this work.   By restoring the traditional status of Jews as approved loyalists and facilitators, the Ptolemies proclaimed themselves to be patrons of international Jewry (and beneficiaries of a ready-made network of international production, trade, and capital – a masterfully planned economic system under “full-spectrum-dominance” by the royal family.  There was just one problem.  The capital city of Judaism had become a power almost unto itself and a challenge to effectively rule.

“The region of Thebes during the Ptolemaic period has been regarded by many writers, with amply argued justification, as a province that was separate both politically and culturally from the direct influence of the ruling dynasts resident in Alexandria and the north.”


Investigators have proposed socio-economic, religious and nationalistic causes for the general Ptolemaic neglect of Thebes and the Great Revolt in Thebes and surrounding areas that followed.  However, the fundamental cause turns out to be that the Ptolemies allowed the impression of independence in Thebes and governance by the High Priest of Amun.  This resulted in Jewish pride, but also Jewish resistance to changing royal policy.  Moving the center of Judaism to Palestine was an attempt to break age-old local tradition in Upper Egypt and make the cult more pliable to royal management.  The new location was also more convenient for world-wide Jewry to visit and send offerings.

The biggest factor leading to the conclusion for a late (rather than early) completion of the Septuagint is handling of Thebes itself.  Thebes and Egypt in general is effectively written out of the history of the Jews.  Major biblical events that took place in Egypt were made to appear as though they occurred in Palestine.  The name of Thebes is virtually extirpated and replaced by the generic name of Jerusalem.  This required more than a minor gloss to existing histories, but a major re-editing.  Only the royal family could have orchestrated such a radical change in emphasis, however during this time period the royal family exercised the prerogative to control all religious activities, and as the leading religion of the Near East, Judaism had top priority.
A major shift in emphasis toward the Jerusalem of Palestine occurred about eight years after the destruction of Thebes by Antiochus Epiphanes.  Josephus claims that Judas Maccabee was High Priest (although other sources do not), however Josephus also states that the High Priesthood was vacant for eight years, and by implication, the very eight years that Judas Maccabee was leader of the Jews!  After the demise of Judas, his “brother” Jonathan was offered the vacated office twice!  He was first ordained by the Seleucid king Demetrius.  Josephus informs that Jonathan took up residence in Jerusalem and began minor refurbishment of the city according to his own wishes.  But, Jonathan is then offered the High Priesthood again by Alexander Balas, and with unprecedented terms of self-governance.  However, this new concession specifically includes not only Jerusalem and Judea, but also Samaria, Galilee, and Perea.  And this Jerusalem is the object of far more extensive construction and fortification, not only in the city itself but all over the surrounding countryside.

With his usual aplomb, Josephus explains just how easy it was for a Great King to change the entire course of religion and to rewrite history.   Josephus writes (Antiquities Book 13, Chapter 3) that Ptolemy VI granted a request by the defunct High Priest Onias (son of the deposed Onias) to build a replica Jewish temple in Lower Egypt on an abandoned temple site formerly belonging to the cult of Bastet/Diana.  Josephus then goes on to relate that Alexander the Great had approved the construction of a modest Jewish temple in Samaria on Mt. Gerizim, and that when the main Jewish temple was destroyed by Antiochus Epiphanes, the Samaritan Jews had the audacity to petition pharaoh Ptolemy (VI) Philometer to elevate the status of their temple in lieu of restoring the old one.  The Jews of Alexandria however argued that only the old site was “so ancient and so celebrated all over the habitable earth,” and that it alone had received rich donations even from foreign kings.

We are told that Philometer was swayed by these arguments and denied the Samaritan proposal.  The passage does, nevertheless, indicate that a temple relocation project was being quite seriously debated, and especially in light of Josephus’ statement that the High Priesthood had been in abeyance for eight years.  We also have clear evidence that other major cities were being “cloned” during this same time period, such as Ptolemais and Tyre.

The story of Onias building a Jewish temple in the area of Heliopolis is exceptionally clever.  To the naïve reader it reinforces the belief that Jerusalem had always been a place outside (and wholly separate from) Egypt.  To the initiate, it reveals the exact time in which the Jerusalem of Egypt, namely Thebes, was permanently demoted in favor of a site in Palestine.  The privileged reader also understood that Egypt was a double land, and it was typical for someone in Upper Egypt to speak about “going-down-to-Egypt,” that is, to the other (Lower) Egypt.  The case brought to Ptolemy VI by the Samaritans therefore only makes the most sense in the context of an alternative regional Jewish capital being established in Palestine (to go along with the one in Lower Egypt proposed by the deposed Onias).  The Samaritan delegation would not have been concerned about a new temple in either Upper or Lower Egypt.  However, if a new temple was to be built in Palestine, they obviously felt that their site upon Mt. Gerizim was superior, not to ancient Thebes of course, but to whatever presently graced the top of Mt. Moriah.

Josephus intimates that even though the Samaritan bid was rejected by Ptolemy, it was definitely not a victory for Egyptian Jews either.  Josephus ends this chapter by saying, “And these are the events that befell the Jews at Alexandria in the days of Ptolemy Philometer.”  Both events described in this chapter were blows to traditional Jews and Judaism!  They not only had to accept a new Jewish center on an undesirable site in Lower Egypt, but another one in Palestine that would be in direct competition to the original site in Upper Egypt.   The proud and exceedingly ancient religion of Judaism would be given a fresh start in the relative backwater of Palestine (where it could be better managed by the ruling elite).  And when even that turned out badly, Judaism would be replaced by a brand new religion, that of Christianity.  By definition, all things had to work together for the good of the crown.

Josephus indicates that Jerusalem in Palestine did not replace mighty Thebes overnight.  The process seems to have been a gradual one occurring over 100 years or more.    However, after the story of Onias and Lower Egypt, the remainder of the history of High Priest Jonathan (in Josephus) focuses on activity in what is now modern day Israel and in the cities of the Philistine Coast, namely Joppa (Tel Aviv-Yafo), Ashdod, Gaza, and Ashkelon.  Josephus also specifically uses the place name of Palestine and mentions Lake Genesseret of Galilee.  The Roman Senate gave orders that Jews throughout their provinces be sent back to “their country,” suggesting a program to dramatically increase the Jewish repopulation of Palestine and the Jerusalem in Palestine (rather than in Upper Egypt).  Jonathan is supported in his work by Simon, who at last manages to succeed him as High Priest in this Jerusalem, if not also the Jerusalem of Egypt where the Jews had for so long refused his appointment.

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