Blank Page: The Ptolemies in Judaea

Alexander the Great is dead. His glorious empire has fractured. Jerusalem is ruled by the Ptolemies. Spanning the fourth and third centuries BC (approximately 301 to 200 BC), the Ptolemaic dynasty in Judaea is fraught with conflict.

Judaea’s strategic location, bordering Egypt, has transformed the province into a tug-of-war hotspot between the Ptolemies and the neighbouring Seleucid kings. Six wars are waged over its borders. Foreign troops occupy Jerusalem as many as twelve times.

Due to a dearth of sources, this period is shrouded by obscurity. Even so, enough evidence has been afforded us to paint a picture, nebulous though it may be, of this chapter of Judaean history. Here we’ll look at two aspects of particular relevance: autonomy and hellenism.

Priests and Landlords

Would Alexander the Great’s policy of Jewish autonomy be perpetuated after his death? And further, would the Jew’s be afforded their right to worship according to the laws of their fathers?

In Judaea, these questions burned fiercely as Alexander’s generals wrestled over his fracturing empire.

Under Alexander, Judaea was afforded a considerable level of administrative autonomy under the aegis of the empire, during which time the high priests served as Jerusalem’s de facto religious and political leaders. The high priests acted as the primary microphone between king and country. This level of priestly power was hitherto unprecedented in Jewish history.

Enter Ptolemy I, trusted general of Alexander the Great.

Under the guise of offering sacrifices, Ptolemy waltzes into Jerusalem’s open gates on a sabbath and takes control. Although Josephus claims that Ptolemy entered the city by means of deceit and “ruled over it in a cruel manner,” material indications suggest otherwise (Ant. 12.3-7). In particular, coinage dating to Ptolemy I’s rule bears the inscription יהדה (YHDH), the old Hebrew form for the province of Judaea, and are otherwise bereft of officials’ names. This is indicative that Judaea retained a level of centralized political autonomy during this time (Schwartz, 162).

Meaning? Maintaining Alexander’s policy, Ptolemy supported Jewish autonomy under the leadership of the high priests. Judaea was essentially ruled by an aristocratic priesthood. The Jews lived according to their laws, under their own religious authority, and the Temple became a dominant provincial lynchpin. Greek interference remained limited.

But it would not last. 

Following his father’s death, Ptolemy II steps onto the scene, where he is joined by the Tobiad family.

Hold up. Who are the Tobiads and where did they come from? Good question. Here’s what we know: The Tobiads were neither priests nor kings, but rather a grossly wealthy Jewish family with political connections. Remember Nehemiah’s arch nemesis in Neh. 2:10-20, Tobiah the Ammonite? Probably the same family, generations removed but still conniving.

Under Ptolemy II, things change.

In an attempt to integrate Judaea with the rest of his kingdom, Ptolemy II establishes an a new Ptolemaic administrative system over Judaea which, although not subverting the authority of the priestly institution, ceases to support it. Instead, the bulk of administrative control falls to wealthy landlords, such as the Tobiad family. With the backing of the king, the Tobiads become the de facto leaders of Judaea while the priests are reduced to religious figureheads. 

So what if Judaea is administered by high priests or wealthy landlords? What difference does it make?

So glad you asked. In a word: hellenization.

To Be or Not to Be Greek

Hella-what? Hellenism.

Hellenism can most comprehensively be defined as follows: The influence and interplay of Greek and non-Greek culture on all aspects of society throughout the civilized world: religion, literature, philosophy, economics, social, political, artistic, and material (Levine, 26-27).

(Think: an ancient version of the Americanization of the known world.)

The decentralizing shift of power away from Jerusalem, the religious focal point of Judaism, and into the hands of the Tobiads dramatically hastened the movement of hellenization throughout Judaea.

Under Ptolemy II, the balance of power shifted from priests to landlords. Unlike priests, however, the authority of wealthy landlords was not legitimized by God. At least not in the eyes of the people. Rather, the Tobiads were fundamentally dependent on Ptolemy II for their power.

Hint: If you want the uber powerful Greek king of Egypt and Judaea to place vested interest in you, he has to trust you, relate to you, like you. As it is, like likes like. So if you’re a Jew, become a Greek. Speak Greek. Dress Greek. Think Greek. Embrace all that is Greek.

This strategy worked for the Tobiads. By becoming Greek in every noticeable manner and integrating with the hellenized crème de la crème, they effectively set themselves apart from their fellow countrymen as an elite ruling class in whom the trust of the king was placed.

In doing so the Tobiads and the other landlord potentates like them set a trend. Greek luxuries became a mark of the wealthy and well-connected. As a result, the assimilation of Greek culture in Judaea was vastly accelerated.

Hellenism percolated through every area of life, from literature to architecture. Greek-styled gymnasiums, agoras, and theatres cropped up in Judaean civic centres. Greek language swelled to become the lingua franca of the known world, Judaea not excluded. Jewish literature, such as that of Philo of Alexander, came to reflect aspects of pagan philosophy.

Like the Greeks who had introduced it, hellenism ran rampant across the ancient world.

At this point, we’re nodding our heads. “Sounds great! What’s not to love about Plato, theatre, and Corinthian columns?” To many Jews of the third century, very much in every way.


Because hellenism posed a threat against the very existence of Judaism, not by threat of eradication, but by threat of assimilation. 

Since their emergence as God’s chosen nation, the Jewish identity was vested in the concept of being set apart by the Law as God’s covenant people. Defined by the Torah, they were distinctive and utterly “other” from the cultures surrounding them.

During the periods of Babylonian and Persian captivity, this became particularly the case. Where other nations were dispersed and absorbed, the Jews clung to their separateness. Their survival as a people was contingent on their radical and adamant otherness.

To assimilate was to disappear.

Hellenism, then, posed a problem. In so far as it integrated the Jews with the nations surrounding them, it threatened their survival as a nation.

It would not take long before this understanding would spur a dramatic counter-movement. Fears and disputes over the continuity of God’s covenantal law would soon give rise to divergent religious groups that would forever shape the history of the Jewish people. These we know from the New Testament as the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the scribes and the teachers of the law.

And the time of their emergence had almost arrived.

The Blank Page Chronicles:

References and Recommended Reading

Brutti, Maria. The Development of the High Priesthood During the Pre-Hasmonean Period. Leiden: Brill, 2006.

Levine, Lee E. Judaism and Hellenism in Antiquity: Conflict or Confluence? Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998.

Schwartz, Seth. “On the Autonomy of Judaea in the Fourth and Third Centuries B.C.E.” Journal of Jewish Studies 45, no. 2 (1994): 157-339.

See also Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words. 

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