Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE) and Christian origins (NT 1.2)

Alexander the Great (Istanbul Archeological Museum)In the history of civilizations, few people have made as much of an impact, directly or indirectly, as the guy who stands to your right (who died in 323 BCE). Although living over three hundred years before the origins of Christianity, his impact is in many ways essential for understanding Christian origins and the New Testament. Alexander, the son of Philip, King of Macedon (a.k.a Alexander “the Great”), successfully conquered a larger area than previously accomplished in the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean world, from Greece, Asia Minor (Turkey), Syria, Palestine, and Egypt to Iraq (Mesopotamia) and Iran (Persia), as far as India itself.

What matters most for us is what Alexander and his successors brought with them: Hellenistic culture, including the Greek language, Greek modes of social and civic organization, Greek philosophies and religions. Although local languages and cultures continued in various areas, social and cultural interactions were now inevitable and the degree of assimilation to Hellenistic ways depended on the person, group, or situation. Moreover, this situation of considerable cultural commonalities across such a vast geographical space was unparalleled at the time.

Alexander’s legacies can be seen in the fact that the New Testament, and most of early Christian literature, was written in Hellenistic Greek (also known as koine, or common, Greek), and Greek language carries with it Hellenistic culture. As a sect within Judaism, the Jesus movement in Palestine entered into a Jewish world already in interaction with Hellenism, as you can read about in my earlier brief discussion of the Jewish Maccabees (of the second century BCE). And as this Jewish movement made its way into cities throughout the Greco-Roman world (especially in the Greek East), further interaction with Hellenistic (and Roman) culture was the result. A figure like Paul of Tarsus (a Greek city in Asia Minor) seems to have been well-trained in Hellenistic modes of rhetoric (in how to make a good argument or speech), for instance. The Book of Hebrews expresses its understanding of Jesus’ significance in terms drawn not only from Judaism but also from Platonic philosophy, to provide another preview. We will see how important Hellenistic, as well as Roman, culture was for early Christianity as we continue in this series.

For further web resources on Alexander the Great, including more photos, go here. For the Wikipedia article on Alexander, go here.

Photo (by Phil): Statue of Alexander the Great from Magnesia on the Sipylos (by Menas, a sculptor from Pergamum), now in the Istanbul Archeological Museum (mid-third century BCE).

4 thoughts on “Alexander the Great (d. 323 BCE) and Christian origins (NT 1.2)

  1. Jaume

    Thanks for your great blog. One question on Alexander and Christianity: Is there any ground in the affirmation that the traditional age of Christ’s death was thougt to be when he was 33 after Alexander, who had also died at that same age? And that the general belief of the time is that therefore 33 was the “ideal age” for a hero to die?

  2. Andrys Basten

    Hi, Phil. I just found your interesting pages! and will link back to this informative page on the Alexander statue from my page of photos taken of this at the museum in Nov. 2004, and
    specifically the photo at
    http://www.pbase.com/andrys/image/37141205

    I had seen this as ‘Manisa’ elsewhere but that must be a variant on ‘Magnesias’ ? I would be interested in any other information you have on this find (in general there or specifically) and on Menas, if you hae time. Thanks! – Andrys

  3. T.K.Sunil - Chennai, INDIA

    Even though Alexander believed in Hellinistic religion and culture and his empire spread from Greece to as far as Iran ( he was defeated in the battle with the Indian King Purushottam), why did his Hellinistic religion and culture, perish from Greece? All the Hellinistic temples were destroyed and replaced with Christian churches. Who did this ? Was it a genocide or forced upon them?

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