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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Alexandria

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ALEXANDRIA was founded (b.c. 332) by Alexander the Great after his conquest of Egypt. Recognizing the inconvenience caused by the want of a harbour for 600 miles along the shore, he selected as the site of a new port the village of Rhacotis, lying on a strip of land between Lake Mareotis and the sea. This he united to the little island of Pharos by a huge mole about a mile long, and thus he formed two splendid havens, which speedily became the commercial meeting-place of Africa, Asia, and Europe. The city was laid out in shape like the outspread cloak of a Macedonian soldier; in circumference about 15 miles: and it was divided into quarters by a magnificent street nearly 5 miles long, and 100 feet wide, running from E. to W., and crossed by another of somewhat lesser dimensions from N. to S. One of these quarters ( Soma , ‘the body’) received the corpse of Alexander, and preserved it embalmed in the Royal Mausoleum. The Ptolemys, who succeeded to the Egyptian portion of Alexander’s divided empire, made Alexandria their capital, and by their extensive building operations rendered the city famous for the magnificence and beauty of its public edifices. Besides the Royal Palace, the Royal Mausoleum, the Temple of Neptune, the Great Theatre, the Gymnasium, and the vast Necropolis, Alexandria possessed three other structures for which it was celebrated. (1) The Museum , which was not a place where collections were laid out for instruction, but a spot where the fine arts, science, and literature were studied. The Museum of Alexandria became in course of time practically the centre of the intellectual life of the world. It answered very largely to what we associate with the idea of a great modern university. It had its staff of State-paid professors, its professorial dining-hall, its shaded cloisters, where eager students from all parts of the world walked to and fro, listening to lectures from men like Euclid, Eratosthenes, and Hipparchus. (2) The Library , which was the greatest treasure of the city, was founded by the first Ptolemy. His successors increased the number of volumes till the collection embraced upwards of 700,000 MSS, in which were inscribed the intellectual efforts of Greece, Rome, Asia Minor, Palestine, and even India. The value of this unrivalled collection was immense. The Library was in two portions; and, in the siege of Alexandria by Julius Cæsar, the part stored in the Museum was burned; a loss, however, which was largely made up by the presentation to Cleopatra, by Mark Antony, of the Royal Library of Pergamum. The other portion was stored in the Serapeum, which in 1895 was discovered to have been situated where ‘Pompey’s Pillar’ now stands. History is undecided as to whether this celebrated Library was destroyed in a.d. 391 by Bishop Theophilus or by the Caliph Omar in a.d. 641. (3) The third structure which attracted the attention of the world to Alexandria was the Pharos (Lighthouse), erected by Ptol. II. Philadelphus, on the island which had been joined to the mainland by Alexander. Rising in storeys of decreasing dimensions to a height of 450 490 ft., adorned with white marble columns, balustrades, and statues, it was justly reckoned one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the World.’ Though it was destroyed by an earthquake in a.d. 1303, it has nevertheless exercised a permanent influence on mankind. The idea of humanity to the mariner which it embodied was accepted by almost every civilized nation, and the thousands of lighthouses throughout the world to-day can all be traced to the gracious thoughtfulness which was displayed in the costly erection of this first Pharos.

In its times of greatest prosperity, Alexandria had a population of between 800,000 and 1,000,000. Trade, amusement, and learning attracted to it inhabitants from every quarter. It was an amalgam of East and West. The alertness and versatility of the Greek were here united with the gravity, conservativeness, and dreaminess of the Oriental. Alexandria became, next to Rome, the largest and most splendid city in the world. Amongst its polyglot community, the Jews formed no inconsiderable portion. Jewish colonists had settled in Egypt in large numbers after the destruction of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 42:14 ), and during the Persian period their numbers greatly increased. The Ptolemys, with one exception, favoured them, and assigned a special quarter of the city to them. More than an eighth of the population of Egypt was Jewish. Their business instincts brought to them the bulk of the trade of the country. They practically controlled the vast export of wheat. Some had great ships with which they traded over all the Mediterranean. St. Paul twice sailed in a ship of Alexandria ( Acts 27:6 ; Acts 28:11 ). The Jews were under their own governor or ‘Alabarch,’ and observed their own domestic and religious customs. Their great central synagogue was an immense and most imposing structure, where all the trade guilds sat together, and the 70 elders were accommodated in 70 splendidly bejewelled chairs of state.

It was in Alexandria that one of the most important events in the history of religion took place, when the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into the Greek tongue. The legendary tales narrated by Josephus regarding the accomplishment of this task may be dismissed as baseless. But it is undisputed that during the reigns of the earlier Lagidæ (somewhere between b.c. 250 and 132) the ‘Septuagint’ made its appearance. It is certainly not the product of a syndicate of translators working harmoniously, as Jewish tradition asserted. The work is of very unequal merit, the Pentateuch being the best done, while some of the later books are wretchedly translated. The translation was regarded by the Jews with mingled feelings, execrated by one section as the grossest desecration of the holy oracles, extolled by another section as the means by which the beauties of the Law and the Prophets could be appreciated for the first time by the Greek-speaking Gentile world. The LXX [Note: Septuagint.] became, under God’s providence, a most valuable preparation for the truths of Christianity. It familiarized the heathen nations with the God of righteousness as He had been revealed to the Jewish race. It paved the way for the gospel. It formed the Bible of the early Church. In the Eastern Church to-day it is the only orthodox text of the OT.

The wars of the Ptolemys with the Seleucidæ at Antioch are described in Daniel 11:1-45 . Ptolemy II. Philadelphus left his mark on Palestine in the cities of Philadelphia (= Rabbath-ammon, Deuteronomy 3:11 ), Ptolemais ( Acts 21:7 = Acco, Judges 1:31 ), Philoteria, etc. Under Ptolemy III. Euergetes I. (b.c. 247 222) the famous ‘stele of Canopus’ was inscribed. With Ptolemy IV. Philopator the dynasty began to decline, and his oppressions of the Jews (largely mythical) are narrated in 3 Maccabees. Under Ptolemy V. Epiphanes the Alexandrian supremacy over Palestine was exchanged for that of Antiochus III. the Great ( Daniel 11:14-17 ). In his reign the celebrated ‘Rosetta stone’ was erected. The ten succeeding Ptolemys were distinguished for almost nothing but their effeminacy, folly, luxury, and cruelty. The city increased in wealth, but sank more and more in political power. Julius Cæsar stormed Alexandria in b.c. 47, and after a brief spell of false splendour under Cleopatra, it fell after the battle of Actium into the hands of the Romans, and its fortunes were henceforth merged with those of the Empire.

But while its political power was thus passing away, it was developing an intellectual greatness destined to exercise a profound influence through succeeding centuries. Among its Jewish population there had arisen a new school which sought to amalgamate Hebrew tradition and Greek philosophy, and to make the OT yield up Platonic and Stoic doctrines. This attempted fusion of Hebraism and Hellenism was begun by Aristobulus, and reached its climax in Philo, a contemporary of Jesus Christ. The Jews found in the Gentile writings many beautiful and excellent thoughts. They could logically defend their own proud claim to be the sole depositaries and custodians of Divine truth only by asserting that every rich and luminous Greek expression was borrowed from their Scriptures. Plato and Pythagoras, they declared, were deeply in debt to Moses. The Greeks were merely reproducers of Hebrew ethics, and Hebrew religious and moral conceptions. The next step was to re-write their own Scriptures in terms of Greek philosophy, and the most simple way of doing this was by an elaborate system of allegory. Philo carried the allegorizing of the OT to such an extent that he was able to deduce all the spurious philosophy he required from the most matter-of-fact narratives of the patriarchs and their wives. But it was a false issue. It was based on a logical figment, and Philo’s voluminous works, gifted and learned though he was, merely reveal that there was no hope either for Greek philosophy or for Hebrew religious development along these lines. The results of the allegorical method of interpretation, however, were seen in Christian Church history. We read of a ‘synagogue of the Alexandrians’ in Jerusalem, furiously hostile to St. Stephen with his plain declaration of facts (Acts 6:9 ). Apollos of Alexandria ( Acts 18:24-28 ) needed to be ‘more accurately instructed’ in Christian doctrine, though we have no direct evidence that he was a disciple of Philo. The Ep. to the Hebrews shows traces of Alexandrian influence, and there are evidences that St. Paul was not unfamiliar with Alexandrian hermeneutics and terminology (cf. Galatians 4:24-31 ). But there is no proof that St. Paul ever visited Alexandria. He seems to have refrained from going thither because the gospel had already reached the city (cf. Romans 15:20 ). Eusebius credits St. Mark with the introduction of Christianity into Egypt. In the 2nd and 3rd cents. Alexandria was the intellectual capital of Christendom. The Alexandrian school of theology was made lustrous by the names of Pantænus, Clement, and especially Origen, who, while continuing the allegorical tradition, strove to show that Christian doctrine enshrined and realized the dreams and yearnings of Greek philosophy. The evil tendencies of the method found expression in the teachings of the Alexandrian heretics, Basilides and Valentinian. Alexandria became more and more the stronghold of the Christian faith. Here Athanasius defended contra mundum the true Divinity of Christ in the Nicene controversy, and the city’s influence on Christian theology has been profound. In a.d. 641, Alexandria fell before Amrou; in the 7th cent. it began to decline. The creation of Cairo was another blow, and the discovery in 1497 of the new route to the East via the Cape of Good Hope almost destroyed its trade. At the beginning of the 19th cent. Alexandria was a mere village. To-day it is again a large and flourishing city, with a rapidly increasing population of over 200,000, and its port is one of the busiest on the Mediterranean shore.

G. A. Frank Knight.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Alexandria'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/a/alexandria.html. 1909.


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Saturday, October 20th, 2018
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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