During the last years of the Beis HaMikdash, the city of Alexandria in Egypt was home to the largest and most prestigious Jewish community outside of Eretz Yisroel. About 150,000 Jews lived there amongst 800,000 gentiles. In general, the Jews lived prosperously, except once, when they were threatened with being crushed by elephants, about sixty years before the story of Chanukah.
However, beneath the surface things were not as tranquil as they seemed. First of all, the population was a volatile brew of Egyptians, Greeks and Jews. The Egyptians hated the elitist Greeks, who were generally better off, and both the Egyptians and Greeks resented the Jews who were a foreign element in their midst. From the Torah’s perspective, the Jews were in danger because of their attraction to Greek culture. Torah scholarship was at such a low that historians believe that generations of Alexandrian Jews knew no Hebrew and studied the Torah only from the newly translated Greek Septuagint.
Although the Jews were mitzvah observant, they were also deeply involved in Greek culture, studying its philosophy and enjoying its entertainments. Typical of this type of Jew was the famous Philo of Alexandria, who wrote dozens of books trying to synthesize the Torah with Greek philosophy. Yet, according to most historians, he was ignorant or almost totally ignorant of Hebrew and may have had to rely on ancient dictionaries in his discussions of the Torah’s etymology.
Philo came from an important Alexandrian family. His brother, Alexander, was a major tax official who plated the nine gates of the Beis HaMikdash with silver and gold, while his nephew, Tiberius Julius Alexander, later apostatized and became the governor of Egypt.
Obviously, Philo’s writings were ignored by learned Jews. Ironically, they only survived because they were “adopted” by the early Christians. Other Jewish- Greek intellectuals of the time were Philo Epicus, a poet; Yechezkel Tragicus, a playwright; and Artapanus who wrote about history and geography.
AGRIPPA’S VISIT BRINGS CATASTROPHE
In 3798/38 CE, seventy years after Egypt came under Roman rule, things came to a climax, when King Agrippa, who had been raised in Rome, passed through Alexandria on his way to Judea. As Philo records in his book, “Against Flaccus”:
“The Roman emperor, Gaius Caligula Caesar, had given Agrippa, the grandson of King Herod, the third part of Judea under his sovereignty, advising him to travel there via Alexandria. When he arrived there, the gentiles of Alexandria erupted with jealousy and ill-will. They were filled with an ancient enmity towards the Jews and indignant at any one becoming a king of the Jews.
“Friends of the Roman governor, Flaccus, infused him with envy, saying, ‘The arrival of this man to take over his government is tantamount to your demotion. He has greater dignity of honor and glory than you. He attracts all eyes towards himself when they see the sentinels and bodyguards around him, adorned with silvered and gilded arms.’
“When the king heard this, he encouraged the idle, lazy mob of the city to abuse King Agrippa. They drove a madman, named Carabbas, to the public arena, setting him up there on high, and flattened out a leaf of papyrus on his head instead of a crown, clothed his body with a doormat instead of a cloak and, instead of a scepter, they put in his hand a small stick of papyrus, and young men bearing sticks on their shoulders stood on each side of him as a parody of bodyguards of a king. Then the multitude shouted out ‘Maris,’ the name they call the kings among the Syrians.
“After that, the mob demanded, as if at a given signal, to erect idols in the synagogues.”
This was a shrewd measure, because, if the Jews refused to set up these images of the emperor, they would be insulting Caesar. Flaccus seconded the proposal and pogroms broke out when the Jews resisted. In a terrible portent of the future, a ghetto was created. Jews were herded from the five sectors of the city into one place. Their deserted homes were plundered, and they were slaughtered in their new ghetto.
“Flaccus issued a notice in which he called us all foreigners and aliens, and allowed anyone to exterminate the Jews as prisoners of war,” Philo recorded. “What then did they do? They drove the Jews entirely out of four quarters of the city, and crammed them all into a very small portion of one, while the populace plundered and divided the booty among themselves. The enemies turned into wild beasts and slew thousands with all kinds of agony and tortures, and newly invented cruelties. “Flaccus arrested thirty-eight members of our council and arranged them in a splendid procession through the middle of the marketplace, with their hands bound, some with thongs and others with iron chains. He led them into the theater, commanded them to be stripped and scourged with stripes so severe that some of them died.”
PHILO GOES TO ROME
King Agrippa meanwhile informed Emperor Gaius what was going on and he had Flaccus arrested and banished to a lonely island. However, by the time a Jewish delegation of five dignitaries, including Philo, reached Rome, Emperor Gaius seems to have flip-flopped and he was once again firmly in favor of the anti- Semites.
Philo describes his journey to the Emperor in his book, Embassy to Gaius. At first, Gaius welcomed them warmly, too warmly for Philo’s liking. Philo reports what happened next:
“Afterwards, while we were anxiously considering his intentions, a man arrived, with bloodshot eyes and looking very much troubled, out of breath and palpitating and, leading us away to a little distance from the rest, he said, ‘Have you heard the news?’ And then, when he was about to tell us what it was, he stopped, because of the abundance of tears that choked him. And beginning again, he was a second and a third time stopped in the same manner.
“And with difficulty, sobbing aloud and in a broken voice, he spoke as follows: ‘Our Temple is destroyed! Gaius has ordered a colossal statue of himself to be erected in the Holy of Holies, having his own name inscribed upon it with the title of Jupiter!’ And while we were all struck dumb with astonishment and terror at what he had told us, others arrived bearing the same sad tale.
In a subsequent meeting with Gaius, the Emperor accused the Jews of disloyalty. Philo reports his ridiculous claims:
“‘You are haters of god,’ he told us, ‘because you do not think that I am a god, I who am already confessed to be a god by every other nation!’ And immediately all the ambassadors opposing us were filled with joy, thinking that their embassy was already successful. They clapped their hands and danced for joy, and called him by every title applicable to the gods.
“And while he was triumphing in these super-human praises, a flatterer said, ‘O master, you will hate with still more just anger these men whom you see before. For when all other men were offering up sacrifices of thanksgiving for your safety, these men alone refused to offer any sacrifice at all.’ And when we all cried out, ‘O Lord Gaius, we are falsely accused, for we did sacrifice,’ he retorted, ‘That all this is true. You did sacrifice. But you sacrificed to another god and not for my sake and what good did you do me?
“And while he was saying this, he entered into the outer buildings, examining the chambers of the men and the chambers of the women, and the rooms on the ground floor, and all the apartments in the upper story, and planning alterations and suggesting designs. And we followed him up and down through the whole place, mocked and ridiculed by our adversaries like people in a play in the theater.
“And when he had given some orders about the buildings, he asked us, ‘Why do you abstain from eating pig’s flesh?’ And at this question our adversaries laughed violently, partly because they were delighted, and partly as they wished to flatter the Emperor. Gaius finally declared, ‘These men do not appear to me to be wicked so much as unfortunate and foolish, in not believing that I have been endowed with the nature of a god.’And so he dismissed us and commanded us to depart.”
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
Josephus reports, in Antiquities of the Jews (18.257), how the Jews in Judea were ready to lay down their lives rather than allow an idol to be put up in the Beis HaMikdash:
“Emperor Gaius sent the governor Petronius to invade Judea with a great body of troops and erect Gaius’ statue in the Beis HaMikdash. But tens of thousands of Jews begged Petronius to desist. ‘If you are resolved to erect this statue, kill us first,’ they said. For forty days, living off the tilling of their land, they threw themselves down upon their faces and stretched out their throats, saying they were ready to be slain.
“Petronius wrote to Gaius and entreated him not to kill so many people and lose the revenue from them. In addition, King Herod Agrippa (the grandson of the original King Herod and Miriam, the Hasmonean princess), who was a good friend of Caligula, made him a sumptuous banquet. When Gaius was merry with wine, he said to Agrippa, ‘Everything that may contribute to your happiness shall be at your service, as my ability will reach,’ thinking he would ask for some large country or the revenues of certain cities. Instead, Agrippa said to him, ‘My petition is this: that you no longer think of dedicating that statue which you ordered to be set up in the Jewish Temple.’
“Gaius granted his request. He also wrote to Petronius stating, ‘If you have already erected my statue, let it stand. But if you have not yet dedicated it, do not trouble yourself further about.’
“All this was before Gaius received Petronius’ letter, informing him that the Jews were very ready to be killed rather than submit to the decree. But when Petronius’ letter arrived, Gaius wrote back to Petronius, ‘Because you value the gifts given to you by the Jews more than my commands, and have been insolent enough to be subservient to them, I order you to become your own judge and consider what you should do now you are under my displeasure (and kill yourself).’”
In the end, the Jews’ troubles miraculously ended with Gaius’ sudden assassination, in 3801/41 CE. Petronius was reprieved. As Josephus reports:
“A letter informing Petronius of Gaius’ death came before the above letter commanding him to kill himself with his own hands. Whereupon he rejoiced at G-d’s Providence, who, immediately gave him a reward for the regard he had for the Temple, and the assistance he rendered to the Jews.”
Peace settled in Alexandria for another twenty years until another pogrom broke out, two years before the Churban HaBayis. A few decades later, in 4915/115 CE, the Romans finally eradicated the Jewish community during a civil war.
(Quotes from classical sources above are abridged.)