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The Alexandrian Jewish Community and Chag Yeshua

The Alexandrian Jewish Community and Chag Yeshua
James Scott Trimm

As Chag Yeshua is coming soon (Aug. 27th – Sept. 2nd) it seemed a good time to write an article about the largely forgotten Jewish community of Alexandria, the community which Ptolemy IV attempted to destroy, and for whom YHWH intervened to save in 3rd Maccabees, and whose salvation is commemorated by Feast of Salvation/Deliverance (Chag Yeshua) on the 12th-13th of Elul.  

The Tanak records that a large Jewish population took refuge in Egypt after the destruction of Judah in 597 BCE, and the subsequent assassination of the Jewish governor, Gedaliah. (2 Kings 25:22-24, Jeremiah 40:6-8) The Jewish population had fled to Moab, Ammon, Edom and in other countries but returned to Judah upon the appointment of Gedaliah as a Jewish governer. (Jeremiah 40:11-12) However, before long Gedaliah was assassinated, and many sought refuge in Egypt. (2 Kings 25:26, Jeremiah 43:5-7).

According to Josephus, when Alexander was dead and his government had been divided among his generals, Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, by treachery seized Jerusalem, and took away many Jewish captives to Egypt and settled them there. (Josephus, Ant. 12:1:1)

His successor, Ptolemy Philadelphus, restored to freedom 120,000 Jews who had been kept in slavery at the instance of Aristeus, one of his most intimate friends. He also dedicated many gifts to the Jewish God, and showed great friendship to the Jews in his reign. (Josephus, Ant. 12:2:1-15).

The center of the Jewish community in Egypt was the great center of Alexandria, and this became one of the largest Jewish communities of the world during the Second Temple Era.  It is this community whom the letters prefacing 2nd Maccabees is addressed.

The Jewish community at Alexandria had a grand synagogue, which is described in the Talmud as one of the great glories of the Jewish people:

It has been taught, R. Judah stated, He who has not seen the double colonnade of Alexandria in Egypt has never seen the glory of Israel. It was said that it was like a huge basilica, one colonnade within the other, and it sometimes held twice the number of people that went forth from Egypt. There were in it seventy-one cathedras of gold, corresponding to the seventy-one members of the Great Sanhedrin, not one of them containing less than twenty-one talents of gold, and a wooden platform in the middle upon which the attendant of the Synagogue stood with a scarf in his hand. When the time came to answer Amen, he waved his scarf and all the congregation duly responded. They moreover did not occupy their seats promiscuously, but goldsmiths sat separately, silversmiths separately, blacksmiths separately, metalworkers separately and weavers separately, so that when a poor man entered the place he recognized the members of his craft and on applying to that quarter obtained a livelihood for himself and for the members of his family.
(b.Sukkot 51b)

Relations between the community in Alexandria and the community in Judea were very good.  The Talmud records that the sages of Judea once consulted with experts from Alexandria on the baking of showbread and on the making of incense for the Temple (b.Yoma 38a).  

The Alexandrian Jewish Community was Hellenistic and used the Greek Septuagint as their primary text of the Scriptures.   These were not like the Hellenists of the Maccabean period who abandoned Torah for Paganism, but like Stephen (Acts 7) and the Hellenists in Acts 6. These Hellenists were Greek speaking Jews who remained Torah Observant (at least in there own understanding) while accepting Greek culture.  They were very much like American Jews today who embrace American culture, use English Scriptures as their primary texts and write commentaries in English, but retain their Jewish identity.

With the exception of a a few fragments from others, the writings of only one Alexandrian scholar have survived, those of Philo.  Philo was an Alexandrian Jew who was born nearly 20 years before Yeshua and died around 20 years after his death. Philo wrote commentary, primarily on the Torah, which was highly midrashic.  Philo interpreted the texts in an allegorical manner, finding in them philosophic symbolism.  Philo saw the commandments of the Torah as pregnant with deep symbolic truths, which he sought to express in his commentaries.  However Philo was very clear that the Torah still retains its literal meaning and he emphasized the importance of Torah observance.

This raises another question.  If Alexandrian Jews like Philo were Torah Observant, what was their halacha?  Had the Alexandrian community survived, Judaism today might be quite different than it is.  Had the Alexandrian Community survived into the fourth and fifth centuries, we might well have ended up with three Talmuds, and the third would have been an Alexandrian Talmud, probably written in Greek.  Instead, what remains of the lost Alexandrian Halacha is to be found scattered throughout the large library of the writings of Philo of Alexandria (scattered, because Philo’s primary concern in his writing was the Philosophic symbolism of  the Torah, rather than halacha).  

Sadly, the grand Jewish community of Alexandria was completely annihilated by Trajan in the wake of the Jewish uprising in 116 CE.   But it is important to remember that in the Second Temple Era the Jewish Community of Alexandria was as important as the Jewish communities in Judea and in Babylon, and their tradition survives in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, their primary spokesman of the first century.  It is the deliverance of this Jewish community from the hand of Ptolemy IV that we celebrate each year at the feast of Chag Yeshua.

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