The Ptolemies And The Seleucids


When Alexander died in 323 B.C. he left no heir. He had many able generals, but there was not one that arose as his logical successor. By 315 B.C., after seven years of struggle, four leaders appeared. Alexander’s empire was divided between the four. The Jews found themselves sandwiched between the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids in Syria.

While the Jews had fared well under Alexander they were now to enter into a period of bitter suffering. This was because of the struggle for control of Palestine between the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria.

It is said that within 25 years after the death of Alexander, Jerusalem changed hands seven times. In the beginning, Judea was under the control of Egypt. At first, Ptolemy was harsh in his treatment of the Jews, but later on, he learned to respect them.

His son was known for the lighthouse of Pharos, and the establishment of the Alexandrian library. It was during his reign that the translation of the Old Testament Scriptures into Greek was made. This became known as the Septuagint.

From an early date, there were Jewish settlements in Egypt, and Alexandria soon won itself an honoured name, particularly as a literary centre. The translation of the ‘Torah’ or Pentateuch took place probably during the reign of Ptolemy II (285-247).

There is a legend that the Septuagint was the result of a royal command of Ptolemy II. The Septuagint was extended later to cover the other parts of the Old Testament. It was given into the hands of 70 elders. These men carried out their work of translation in separate rooms and produced results which were all exactly alike.

Both Christ and the apostles quoted from it. It also meant that all Greek-speaking Jews now had access to the Old Testament scriptures in a language they could understand. Later the New Testament was would be written in Greek because Greek had become universal. Greek was to the world then what English is to the world today in that many countries today teach English as a second language.

For the most part, the Jews were permitted to live in peace and in accord with their religious and cultural traditions. Tribute was paid to the Egyptian government, but local affairs were administered by the High Priests who had been entrusted with responsibility for the government of the Jews since Persian times.

One of the great figures among the Jews of the Ptolemaic period is Simon the Just, the High Priest who is the subject of high praise. He is credited with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem which had been demolished by Ptolemy I. He is said to have repaired the Temple and directed the excavation of a great reservoir which would provide fresh water for Jerusalem even in times of drought or siege.

In addition to his office as High Priest and head of the community, Simon was reputed to be the chief teacher of the people. His favourite maxim was, ‘The world rests on three things, on the Law, on Divine Service, and Charity.’

As the power of Syria grew Palestine increasingly became the battleground between them and Egypt. In a decisive battle between them Ptolemy of Egypt and Antiochus the Great of Syria the latter lost, therefore Judea remained an Egyptian province. Ptolemy, drunk with victory, came to Jerusalem and endeavoured to enter the Holy of Holies of the temple but backed away before actually entering.

He vented his wrath on the Jews, for opposing his plan, through a cruel persecution. He was succeeded by his son Ptolemy Epiphanes, a child 5 years old. Antiochus now invaded Egypt and Judea would now be occupied by the Syrians and passed over into the possession of the Seleucids.


During the Syrian period, Israel will now enter into the valley of the shadow of death. This entire period was an almost uninterrupted martyrdom. Although they hated the Jews Antiochus and his son Seleucis were not cruel to them. The high priests, as in former periods, were still the nominal ruler in Judea. But everything would change when Antiochus III (Epiphanes 175 – 164) came to the throne.

He may be described as the Nero of Jewish history. Antiochus III was only eighteen years of age when he came to the throne of Syria in 223 B.C. He had had experience in government having served as ruler of Babylonia under his brother Seleucus III. He bore the surname Epiphanes meaning (the illustrious, almost a title of deity).

The Jews gave him the nickname, Epimanes (‘the madman’). He was born in Athens and had served as chief magistrate of the city whose culture was the epitome of everything Greek.

In the early days of the reign of Antiochus Jerusalem was ruled by the High Priest, Onias III who was a strict orthodox Jew. To Antiochus, the high priesthood was a political office. As Syrian king, he would have the right to appoint whomever he chose. To the pious Jews, however, the priesthood was of divine origin, and its sale to the highest bidder was looked upon as a grave sin against God.

A man named Jason was placed as High Priest by promising a larger tribute to Antiochus. Antiochus visited Jerusalem in 170 B.C. He showed his approval of things by authorising the citizens to call themselves ‘Antiochites’ after himself as their sovereign king. While there a dispute arose between Jason and one of his close associates, Menelaus who was of the tribe of Benjamin.

As such, he had no right to hold a priestly office. Nevertheless, by offering a higher tribute to Antiochus than that paid by Jason, he was nominated to the office of High Priest. The orthodox Jews were infuriated with a Benjamite installed as the new High Priest. On the return of Antiochus from Egypt, Menelaus welcomed him to Jerusalem. What was left of the Temple treasure was placed at Antioch’s disposal.

If Egypt was going to remain a rival power to Antiochus he found it necessary to retain his hold on Palestine as a buffer between him and Egypt. He sent his general, to occupy the city of Jerusalem. In a Sabbath attack when he knew that the orthodox Jews would not fight, he slaughtered large numbers of the opponents of Menelaus. The city walls were destroyed, and a new fortress was built.


With the death of Alexander the Great, there was no heir. None of his generals could step forward as the leader of the Greek Empire. They clashed among themselves. After seven years, Alexander’s kingdom was divided among four of his generals by about 315.

Of concern to us is the Ptolemy dynasty which ruled Egypt and the Seleucid dynasty which ruled Syria. This left the Jews sandwiched between Syria on the north and Egypt on the south with both wanting to be in control of Palestine.

As time progressed the Jews would suffer severely under the rulers of these two countries. By 301 Jerusalem and Judea came under the control of Egypt which would last for 103 years. The first two Egyptian rulers were not too hard on the Jews. Expected tribute.

The second ruler Ptolemy II is famous for his Lighthouse of the Pharos (7 wonders). He is also known for the great library built in Alexandria. The largest in the world.

Tradition says that during his reign he ordered the Old Testament Pentateuch to be translated into Greek. It was named the Septuagint meaning 70. Seventy scholars from Jerusalem made the translation. Each worked independently in separate rooms. Results – all were alike.

Jews who had lost their mother tongue but read and spoke Greek now had access to Old Testament. As the Jews spread out over the world the Septuagint went with them. Jews lived in relative peace in accord with their religious & cultural practices. By paying their taxes local affairs were administered by the High Priest. Responsible for the people.

After the battle between Ptolemy II and Antiochus the Great of Syria Ptolemy won. Drunk with victory came to Jerusalem and tried to enter the Holy of Holies of the temple. Rejected, he vented his wrath on the Jews with a cruel persecution.

His child was only 5 years old when he came to the throne. Antiochus, king of Syria took advantage of the situation and invaded with the result Jerusalem and Judea now became occupied by the Syrians. Jew would now enter into the valley of the shadow of death. First, the two rulers were not cruel. The high priests as in the former period still nominal rulers.

The next Syrian ruler Epiphanes was only 18 when he came to the throne. Bore surname Epiphanes meaning ‘the Illustrious.’ The Jews nicknamed him Epimanes (the madman). Born in Athens he was a disciple of Hellenism. He is described as the Nero of Jewish history. Became violently bitter against Jews for their refusal to give up their religion and identity and accept Hellenism.

Attempted to eradicate them. Devastated Jerusalem, and desecrated the temple by offering a pig on its altar. Put an altar to Zeus in the temple. Prohibited temple worship, and forbade circumcision on pain of death. Thousands were sold into slavery.

Destroyed all copies of Scripture that could be found. Resorted to torture to force the Jews to renounce their religion. It is said he killed more than 100,000 Judeans. He gave the priesthood to the one who would pay the most. This resulted in a corrupt priesthood, one in particular who was not even from the tribe of Levi.

Sent a general to occupy Jerusalem. In a Sabbath attack, he knew orthodox Jews would not fight he slaughtered a large number in a Sabbath attack. Deep resentment was building and would find him the target of the famous Maccabean revolt.

Daniel amazes us with how events are presented in such a clear and precise way. Little doubt that it furnishes a history from the Persian Empire to the reign of the Epiphanes. Zero in on the 11th.

Daniel 11:2 Gives succession of kings of Persia, four in all. Includes Xerxes married to Esther.

Daniel 11:3, Without doubt, is Alexander the Great.

Daniel 11:4 State of his Empire after death. Broken into four parts. Egypt, Syria, Greece, A.M.

Daniel 11:5-19 Prophetic history zooms in on two of these empires. Ptolemy kings of the south and the Selucian kings of Syria in the north. A great amount of detail–so much so principal events could have been readily anticipated by those in possession of Daniel’s book.

Daniel 11:20-35 The ‘contemptible person’ is the notorious Antioch Epiphanes. His actions against the Jews are described in Daniel 11:28 / Danial 11:30-35. God used this man to punish wicked Jews. We might label Daniel as the prophet of world history.

The period covers around 560 years. It is so detailed you have to be a student of history to appreciate the chapter. How could Daniel layout in such a vivid way the events of history 200 years before they happened? He could not on the basis of his own wisdom and knowledge. The answer is he was provided divine help by Holy Spirit or else it would have been impossible.

This chapter is just one of the many internal pieces of evidence that the Bible is the inspired word of God. Critics say written after the events. Historical fiction with the name of Daniel forged. We agree with Halley who writes, ‘We suspect that the real crux of the attempt to discredit the book of Daniel is the unwillingness of intellectual pride to accept the marvellous miracles and amazing prophecies recorded in the book.’

There are some strange things that occur in Daniel’s prophecy. The angel in Daniel 10:13 is delayed 21 days is interesting along with the appearance of Michael along with an angel in Persia. It would seem God has placed an angel over each country. But the angel of darkness has his angels too and places his angels to oppose what the angels of God attempt to do.

Then there is the angel of Greece. Then there are 20-21. Seemingly there is rank among angels. Michael was over the angel sent by God to Daniel. This arouses our curiosity since are not aware of what is going on. See Revelation 12:7-9 A spiritual warfare between the Devil’s angels and God’s angels is apparent.