Alexander the Great: Good for the Jews?

While the conqueror is still seen as being good for the Jews, his death brought about a tough new era.

08.02.15 4:01 AM ET

Alexander the Great silver-screen hero and global conqueror is back in the news, but this time because his face was discovered on the floor of an ancient Jewish synagogue.

In July of this year, news reports announced the discovery of a non-Biblical mosaic on the floor of an ancient synagogue in Huqoq, Israel. The discovery of the mosaic was news not only because it was non-Biblical —almost unheard of synagogue mosaic—but also because of its subject. According to UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Jodi Magness, the exquisitely preserved three-part scene depicts a legendary story of a meeting between Alexander the Great, the conqueror of what was then the entire world, and the Jewish High Priest Jaddus.

I first saw these mosaics last December on a bumpy ride from Jerusalem to Masada. I was filming a documentary with Magness, and she showed me the mosaic because some scholars think it shows Jewish martyrs from the Maccabean period (I’m a specialist in ancient martyrdom). Magness agrees, but adds another interpretation to the brightly colored scene of the Hellenistic era.

According to Magness, the late Roman scene may show Alexander the Great meeting with Jewish leaders. This event, which is described in rabbinic literature, is probably fictional. The inclusion of this scene on the floor of a synagogue was likely intended to signal cooperation between Greeks and Jews and the deference of the great emperor to the God of the Jewish people. In the version of this story told by the Jewish historian Josephus, Alexander the Great “adored [the] name [of God], and … saluted the High Priest.”

This happy scene, apocryphal though it may be, obscures a much more complicated and oppressive legacy. Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire in 333 BCE may have ousted another occupying power, but life in Israel was relatively peaceful under the Persians. They enjoyed relative political autonomy and were encouraged to construct and develop their religious institutions.

The inauguration of the Hellenistic age brought Greek culture, language, art, architecture, theatre, athletics, education, religion, and politics to the region, and Alexander was and continues to be a beloved figure among many Jews. But he also brought increased foreign control and, later, more tyrannical administrations were able to capitalize on his particular brand of cultural colonialism.

After Alexander’s death, his empire was divided into smaller kingdoms, and ancient Israel became a point of contention between the Ptolemaic (roughly Egyptian) empire to the southwest and the Seleucid empire to the north and east (stretching from Turkey all the way to the border of India). In order to solidify his hold over the region, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes IV engaged in an aggressive Hellenization program that, among other things, outlawed circumcision and observance of the Sabbath and resulted ultimately in the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple around 168 BCE.

Hellenization may have been embraced under Alexander, but 150 years later people felt quite differently about becoming “Greekified.” The introduction of Greek language and culture turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.

The same thing happened with the Persians. Cyrus the Great is proclaimed as the Messiah (anointed one) in the Hebrew Bible for conquering the Babylonians and returning the Jewish exiles to their homes, but a hundred years later this kind of a claim would likely have elicited some embarrassment. After all, a new monarchy and independence never actually emerged. (Although, to be fair, the inhabitants of ancient Israel always thought Rome was bad news.)

The invocation of moments of historical significance like that portrayed in the mosaic is common in politics, media commentary, and even rap music. From the apparently irresistible desire to compare one’s rhetorical opponents to Hitler and one’s triumphs to Independence Day to the invocation of heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., history regularly bubbles to the surface of cultural commentary. Just this week, evangelical leader Franklin Graham (son of Billy) wrote an open letter to 2016 presidential nominees encouraging them to be more like King Solomon (Solomon the prayerful, not Solomon the polyamorous).

What we often forget, and what the memorialization of Alexander the Great on the floor of an ancient synagogue reminds us, is that we rarely see the wide-reaching and long-lasting significance of any given event when it actually happens. Hindsight is 20/20, they say. But even our vision of the past blurs from moment to moment. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as a response to the oppressive power of the Hapsburg Empire, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) consciously rebranded itself as a Slavic nation allied with other large nations like Russia. The celebration of Czech language, literature, and art helped bolster national identity. But 200 years later this focus on Slavic identity made it difficult to resist occupation by their Soviet “neighbors.”

What all of this goes to show is that the cultural significance of a historical event or person is never fully set. It is reshaped and recast by subsequent generations who rewrite narratives of allegiance and influence. The discovery of art, artifacts, and antiquities that reinterpret even the events of their own times serves as a good reminder that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are always subjective.