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Creating a Commonplace: Alexander’s Visit to Jerusalem in Judeo-Christian Narratives

Christian Thrue Djurslev

University of Edinburgh

This paper offers a sidelight to Paper 2 and 3 by discussing the Judeo-Christian creation of a new Alexander commonplace in ancient literature, namely the fictional story of Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem. Jews and Christians fully accepted the tale as part of genuine Alexander history, which sets them apart from the imperial ‘pagan’ writers, who never mention the visit. The story thus circulates in religious milieus as opposed to the acknowledged historiographical channels of Alexander literature, such as Arrian and Plutarch. The paper thus explores a discrepancy in the common Alexander idiom of ancient literature by examining a story that defined Judeo-Christian intellectual activity across a wide geographical expanse, as opposed to other literary communities.

The story is first attested in Flavius Josephus (J. AJ 11.304-47), who preserves otherwise lost material dated to the mid-second century BC (cf. Momigliano 1994: 79-87). A basic summary of the tale is that the Macedonian king arrived at the gates of Jerusalem, saw the high priest Jaddous, bowed down before him, came into the Temple by invitation and there heard Old Testament prophecies that he thought concerned himself. Then he launched his expedition to Persia by God’s will after enrolling some Jewish soldiers in his army. In this Hellenistic appropriation of Alexander, Jews wrote themselves into the new landscape created by the king’s campaign, the Hellenistic world.  

Whereas scholarship has lingered over the Helleno-Jewish background and contexts of the Josephan tale (Gruen 1998: 189-202; Amitay 2010), I redirect the focus to the neglected Christian versions. This idea of Alexander visiting the city captivated early Christian writers from Origen to Jerome and far beyond. Although Christians did not support all the claims made in Josephus’ version, there is a striking continuity in the tale’s use in apologetic, exegesis, and historiography. The story’s purpose in various genres is often similar, but striking details are added or omitted. Regardless of how Christians recount the story, for the Christians it became an exemplum/paradeigma to reflect upon virtue, piety, and providence. This tendency, as well as the story’s supposed historicity, also helps to explain its appeal to Christian writers.

The argument of the paper is structured around the genres, with a strong focus on the spread of the story: since this panel analyses commonplaces, it is important to survey the cross-cultural perspectives, and this is a significant task when we consider the mission of Christianity. In the Romano-Greek world, we have a number of imperial authors engaging with the story. I offer a brief list. For apologetic, Origen’s Contra Celsum 5.50 and Augustine Civitate Dei 18.45; for exegesis, Jerome’s Commentarii in Danielem and the wider commentary tradition on Daniel; for historiography, Eusebius of Caesarea’s works, Sulpicius Severus Chronica 2.17, and Byzantine works, including the Excerpta Latini Barbari. These works reflect the spread of the story across the corpus.  

Through texts such as these, the story is transmitted to, for example, Armenian (translation of Eusebius’ Chronici Canones) and Syriac literatures (Daniel commentaries, e.g. by ps.-Ephrem and Isho’dad of Merv). The story does not enter the Alexander Romance tradition until c. AD 800 (gamma-recension, Stoneman 2008: 49), but it circulates on its own from Britain to Mesopotamia. There is also a Hebrew tradition in Rabbinic literature. Intriguingly, one medieval Muslim even claimed that Alexander was buried in Jerusalem (Stoneman 2008: 31).

I argue that this new Alexander commonplace is created in a political context but its diffusion as a common idiom is dependent on political as well as religious discourse. This discourse is important because of its wide-ranging influence over the following millennia. The Jerusalem tale is but one of the ways in which this discourse distinguishes itself from the traditional and imperial writers of the later Roman Empire. And so this paper aims to provoke thoughts and perspectives on what constitutes ‘Alexander commonplaces’ and how we can use the concept to understand ancient literature and intellectual identities.  

Session/Panel Title

Reframing Alexandrology

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