Is Alexander the Great in the Bible?
Historical context to biblical passages is important because it offers us a greater understanding of God’s work in the world. So, the question above—if you’ve ever thought to ask it—is a good one. Are there references to famous historical figures, such as Alexander the Great, Ptolemy I, and Cleopatra, in Scripture? And, if so, what does this tell us about God?
It’s sometimes tempting to read the Bible without giving any thought to the historical context of what was happening around the Jewish people of the Old Testament. This is partly due to our limited familiarity, outside of Scripture, with many of the early peoples and rulers who had dealings with Ancient Israel. But the closer we come to the New Testament—in which the historical figure of Caesar Augustus figures prominently in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel—the clearer we begin to see the canvas of a world history we recognize apart from Scripture.
But before the New Testament, we know there’s roughly a 400-year span between the return from exile, chronicled in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and the beginning of the New Testament, at the height of the Roman Empire. During that time, quite a lot had happened in the world.
Here’s an outline of the big names and events that took place then and how they impacted the Jewish people. All this happened between Scripture’s two major parts.
The fact is that many of these events are referenced in the text of the Old Testament itself—much of it appearing in a particularly dense and unsettling vision of Daniel’s while he was in Babylon captivity. To read Daniel chapter 11 is like looking at a stained-glass rendition of the rise and fracturing of the Greeks and the many generations during that period. But it’s a stained-glass window made before any of what it’s representing has happened yet, making it prophetic by nature.
Is Alexander the Great directly referenced in the Bible? According to scholars, the simple answer is yes. In Daniel 11:3 it’s written, “Then a mighty king will arise, who will rule with great power and do as he pleases.” This is Alexander the Great, who succeeded to the throne of Macedonia in 336 BC (information taken from the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the Old Testament).
Daniel, who recorded his vision during the years of the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BC, then goes on to record the upheavals of many of the rulers and factions resulting from Alexander’s conquest, some of which is recorded in the deuterocanonical books of the Maccabees, which describes the Jewish struggle for independence from the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes in 175 BC and takes place a century after the conquest of Judea by the Greeks under Alexander himself.
Daniel 11 is enigmatic and really has no analogy elsewhere in the Old Testament. But Daniel did know the narrative of his people up to that point in time, and he knew the time he was living in then, in which they were the objects of Babylonian conquest, and for him to see a vision of God’s sovereignty and presence among future upheavals must have been both hopeful and overwhelming.
The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the Old Testament offers a verse-by-verse account of what corresponding history scholars understand to be referenced in the chapter, and reading it is to enter into a sense of confusion but also trust in God’s control.
Membership to Bible Gateway Plus unlocks access to this resource’s notes, and I highly recommend reading these passages with a commentator’s assistance. (From these notes, you’ll also find that Cleopatra is most likely referenced in Daniel 11:17!)
It’s largely understood that Daniel uses a recognized literary form but adapts it for his own use: which is to express the sovereignty of the God of Israel over history and all of humanity. Understood this way, Daniel 11 is eerily powerful: it conveys in just two sentences (11:3-4) the rise and fall of one of the most well-known icons of power, and—long before it happens—puts Alexander’s reign within God’s narrative for the world.
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