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Alexandria by David L. Eastman

Alexandria was the second-most important city in the Roman Empire, after Rome itself. It was named for its founder, Alexander the Great, who built the city after his conquest of Egypt (331 B.C.E.) in order to facilitate naval trade and communication with Greece. It soon became the political capital of Egypt and a center of Hellenistic culture, featuring one of the greatest libraries of the ancient world. During the Roman period (30 B.C.E. onward), the city also featured one of the largest Jewish communities in the Mediterranean and is traditionally believed to be the place where the Septuagint (ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) was produced.

How did the Hellenistic culture of Alexandria influence the Bible?

In the later Hellenistic and Roman periods, large numbers of Jews were living outside the traditional Jewish homeland as part of the Diaspora. For many of them, Greek was the everyday language, not Hebrew, so the original biblical text was less accessible.

Some time in the third century BCE, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (initially just the Torah) was begun in Alexandria. The pseudonymous Letter of Aristeas credits this work to 72 (or 70) translators, but the text actually took shape over several centuries. Some details in the translation seem to reveal the Hellenistic, urban context of the translators, in contrast to the earlier contexts of the Hebrew texts. For example, into the diatribe against the king of Babylon in Isa 14 translators inserted references to Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ruled 175-164 B.C.E.), the Seleucid king who had suppressed traditional Jewish practices and installed a Gentile as high priest in the temple.

Similarly, in Deuteronomy geographical references are updated, and Moses at one point tells the people to “return to your houses” (Deut 5:30, NETS), instead of “return to your tents” as in the Hebrew text. Attempts by scholars to demonstrate systematic, ideologically motivated changes in the Septuagint, however, are difficult to support based on the evidence. Alexandrian Jews immediately received this translation as having full authority and condemned anyone who would try to alter it, and there is no question about its impact on Diaspora Jews. The Jewish interpreter Philo of Alexandria (circa 20 B.C.E.-50 C.E.) used this Greek version exclusively in his commentaries, and he expanded the legend in the Letter of Aristeas by claiming that the 72 translators had worked independently but produced identical Greek translations (Moses 2.25-44).

By the time of Jesus, the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures was translated and widely read in Greek. In fact, the authors of the New Testament typically quote from and interpret the Hebrew Scriptures in their Greek forms, not their Hebrew forms. This impacts the Gospels, for Jesus is often presented as quoting the Septuagint version, even when it differs from the Hebrew text. Paul also displays a preference for the Greek text of the Hebrew Scriptures in his letters. Thus, for most early Christians, their “Old Testament” was the Septuagint.

Later, it was an Alexandrian scholar, the Christian writer Origen (circa 185-254 CE), who united the Hebrew and Greek texts into a single edition called the Hexapla, which listed a Hebrew text and several Greek translations in parallel columns. It is unknown why Origen undertook this project. Could it have served a polemical function in debates with Jewish authors? Or did he simply desire to work out a “best text” for his own sermons and commentaries? Either way, the Hexapla is significant as an early attempt to perform textual criticism.

How did thinkers from Alexandria shape biblical interpretation?

Just as Jews in Alexandria were influenced by the Greek language, they were also influenced by Greek philosophy. Some Greek philosophers and grammarians used a method of literary interpretation called allegory to defend or explain problematic accounts in Homer’s epics. According to these philosophers, these troublesome passages should be read symbolically, not literally.

In Alexandria, Philo applied this method to interpreting the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. He produced numerous allegorical commentaries on the Pentateuch, with particular emphasis on Genesis and Exodus. Philo’s method influenced early Christian commentators such as Clement (circa 150-215 C.E.) and Origen. Origen, for example, proposed that scripture may have three levels of meaning: literal, moral, and allegorical. When the literal reading of a passage is problematic, this was a sign to Origen that an enlightened reader must seek a deeper, symbolic meaning. Only the “simple” remain mired in literalistic readings, he thought. Origen’s method reveals that for ancient readers, like for us today, some biblical passages resist easy interpretation.

David L. Eastman, "Alexandria", n.p. [cited 25 May 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/main-articles/alexandria

Contributors

David L. Eastman

David L. Eastman
Associate Professor, Ohio Wesleyan University

David L. Eastman is associate professor of religion at Ohio Wesleyan University. In his research he employs archaeological, textual, liturgical, and artistic evidence for the study of early Christian constructions of identity, the cult of the saints, and the reception and expansion of the apostolic histories. He is the author of Paul the Martyr: The Cult of the Apostle in the Latin West (Society of Biblical Literature and Brill, 2011) and The Deaths of the Apostles: The Ancient Martyrdom Accounts of Peter and Paul (SBL Press, 2015).

Alexandria was a city in which Greek and Jewish cultures intermingled, and this had a profound impact on the development and interpretation of biblical texts.

Did you know…?

  • Although in Egypt, Alexandria was a strongly Hellenized city, because it was founded by the Greek king Alexander the Great. Some Greeks in Alexandria even spoke of native Egyptians as foreigners.
  • The city’s lighthouse (or Pharos) was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
  • The events of 3 Maccabees, which is part of the Bible in the Orthodox Christian tradition, take place primarily in Alexandria.
  • The Wisdom of Solomon is part of the Septuagint and the Roman Catholic Old Testament canon and was probably written by a Hellenistic Jew in Alexandria.
  • Egyptian grain shipped from Alexandria was critical for feeding the population of Rome at the height of the empire.
  • Early Christian traditions about Mark, the author of a New Testament Gospel, state that he founded the church in Alexandria.
  • Apollos, a very important early Christian teacher mentioned by Paul and in Acts, was a native of Alexandria.
  • Some later translations of the Christian Old Testament were based on the Septuagint, rather than on the Hebrew Scriptures.
  • Although Origen was one of the most important interpreters of his day, most of his works were systematically destroyed when he was declared a heretic—about 300 years after his death!
  • Arius and Athanasius were two of the most famous Christian theologians of the fourth century. Both came from Alexandria, but they fundamentally disagreed about the nature of Christ.

A Macedonian (Greek) general who conquered the Persians and ruled over a vast empire, from Greece to the Indus River, in the 330s B.C.E.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

Ruler of the Seleucid Empire from 175 to 164 BCE, he was emperor during the Maccabean Revolt.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

Jews who live outside of Israel or any people living outside of their native land.

Six different versions of the Old Testament in Hebrew and Greek in parallel in one book, first compiled by Origen in the hird century C.E.

An early (second-century B.C.E.) Jewish document considered part of the Pseudepigrapha and dealing mostly with the circumstances and rationale for the creation of the Septuagint, a Hellenistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

Written under a false name.

Isa 14

Restoration of Judah
1But the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel, and will set them in their own land; and aliens will join them an ... View more

Deut 5:30

30Go say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’

A mode of writing, reading, or interpreting that operates on a symbolic, rather than literal, level.

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

Evaluating its subject carefully, rigorously, and with minimal preconceptions. "Critical" religious scholarship contrasts with popular and sectarian studies.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.

The world's largest Christian church organization administered by hierarchy made up of a single pope and a network of cardinals, bishops, priests, and renunciates (such as nuns and monks).

A Wisdom book located in the Apocrypha.

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