Biblical Nations - Greek Empire

Greek Empire

Key Scripture: Daniel 8:21

Figures: Alexander the Great, Ptolemy, Antiochus

This week, as we begin to turn our attention towards the empires and kingdoms that ruled over the Hebrew people, we will look at Greece.  In this study we discover one of the most influential people groups that almost entirely missed the time frame of the Biblical narrative.  It was, however, spoken of on several occasions and left an indelible mark on the psyche of the Jews during the time of the New Testament.  It is also worth noting that the Greek Empire was the first European power to hold political sway over the descendants of Israel.

The people who settled in what would one day become Greece were descended from Noah's son, Japheth.  This is likely the same name that they identify with their ancestor, Iapetos.  They did not call themselves Greek - that is a name that the Romans would later give them after their empire came to an end.  Instead, they referred to themselves as Hellenes.  The first civilization that can be identified with this group would be the Minoans, which were centered on the island of Crete rather than on the European mainland.  Established before the time of the Patriarchs, they lasted until approximately the same time Joshua led the invasion of the Promised Land.  Interestingly, the Philistines that Abraham encountered and who caused a great deal of drama for the people of Israel during the time of the judges and early kings were said to be from Caphtor, the Hebrew name for Crete, so they may have been closely related or even the same people.  After the time of the Minoans ended, a group centered on the mainland arose called the Myceneans.  It was this civilization that famously warred against Troy, as recorded by the Greek author, Homer.  The first Biblical mention of the Greek people can be found in the prophecy of Daniel, when a mighty king is foretold who would overthrow the ruler of the Persian Empire.

Just as Scripture said, a mighty conqueror came from this far-away location that was never part of the Biblical story until the very end of the Old Testament.  During the reign of Esther's husband, Ahasuerus (known to history as Xerxes I), Persia invaded the Greek mainland in an attempt to avenge a disastrous loss by King Darius at Marathon a decade earlier.  The city states of Athens, Sparta, and several others that made up a loose confederation once again repelled the vast invasion - to learn more about one of the more famous engagements, you can read my post about the Battle of Thermopylae here.  It would be nearly another 100 years before a 20 year old man took over the kingdom his father, Philip of Macedon, had built from his capitol in Pella and rapidly took over territory stretch all the way to Egypt and India, including all of the lands of the Jewish people.

Known as Alexander the Great, this new king had been tutored by the famous philosopher Aristotle, and successfully unified all Greeks during a brilliant, focused military campaign that lasted 10 years.  He likely considered the land that had become known as Palestine as merely a path to Egypt and largely left the Jewish people alone with their customs and religious practices.  Upon his untimely death at the age of 30, the massive empire was divided among several generals, with the Jewish people initially falling under the control of Ptolemy.  Various wars between the post-Alexander factions continued until 200 BC when all of Syria and Palestine were taken by the Seleucid Empire.  As Daniel prophesied, a ruler of "bold face" arose in the person of Antiochus Epiphanes, who in 167 BC desecrated Jerusalem's Temple with a statue of Zeus and unclean pig sacrifices.  Much of this period is recounted in the apocryphal books of I and II Maccabees, and continues to be remembered by Jewish families today with the celebration of Hanukkah.  The Greek Empire was eventually conquered by the Romans, who admired and adopted much of their culture.  Therefore control of the Hebrew people changed hands once again shortly before the events outlined in the New Testament, which was written in the very dialect that Alexander had spread throughout much of the known world - Koine Greek.  Many of the events of Jesus' followers during the first century took place in prominent Greek cities, including Antioch, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth.


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