Alexander the Great Comes to Jerusalem: The Jewish Response to Hellenism

By the first century A.D., much of Palestine, the area known to the Israelites as the “land of promise,” was divided under the Romans into five areas of provincial or semiprovincial status: Galilee, Idumea, Judea, Perea, and Samaria. Only Judea was overwhelmingly Jewish, while the other provinces, although mostly Jewish, also supported mixed populations of Jews, Greeks, and Syrians. This ethnic background and many historical factors become significant when one seeks to understand the elements that contributed to Jewish rebellion and to Galilee as a seedbed of revolt, including the Jewish War against Rome.

Galilee, the northernmost region of Palestine, encompassed villages and small towns made up mainly of Jewish inhabitants, as well as larger towns composed of Jews and many Gentiles, some of whom were remnants of peoples imported by the Assyrians after their conquest of the district around 732 B.C. Galilee’s diverse ethnicity may be the reason Isaiah referred to “Galilee of the nations” as an area filled with a people who “walked in darkness,” but who would see “a great light”—presumably referring to a future time when the region would be repopulated by Jews and the Messiah would arise from that re-Judaized area (Isa. 9:1–2). The name “Galilee” (Hebrew galil) seems to be derived from Northwest Semitic languages (Canaanite or Hebrew) and may have meant something like “circuit,” “circle,” or “ring” and by extension, the “district” that surrounded the great inland sea, the Sea of Galilee. Evidence suggests that the initial appearance of the name in a text comes from Pharaoh Thutmose III’s fifteenth-century B.C. town list. He was the great warrior-pharaoh of the New Kingdom, who first conquered Megiddo in northern Israel in 1468 B.C. and subsequently participated in some twenty campaigns in that region.

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