Post 88, Alexander the Great and Adventist Biblical Interpretation

Yesterday Joan and I, in company with a small group of friends, travelled 125 kilometres South to view a remarkable exhibition of some 400 artifacts that are currently on display at the Australian Museum. Alexander the Great is the focus of this particular exhibition; we are grateful to people like Catherine the Great of Russia who helped to stock the world-famous State Hermitage in St Petersburg with a great many such treasures that illumine the past. It is a wonderful privilege to have these items on loan from Russia, touted as “the most exciting and prestigious classical culture exhibition ever to be hosted by the Australian Museum in Sydney.”

Why refer to Alexander III (356 BCE to 323 BCE), usually simply named as Alexander the Great, in a blog about Adventist Studies? Because, in part, Alexander is one of the most important historical figures alluded to in the Book of Daniel, an apocalypse written by a Jewish prophet who was exiled to Babylon by crown-prince Nebuchadnezzar’s first raid on Jerusalem in 605 BC.

Uriah Smith (1832-1903) published his Thoughts Critical and Practical, on the Book of Daniel in 1873. At last, Millerite prophetic interpretation was re-packaged in a more-sustainable but still experimental manner. Smith standardised for Seventh-day Adventists the concept that the Greek empire was the shaggy goat of Daniel 8 that “touched not the ground” and “had a notable horn” between its eyes, symbolising Alexander its “first king” (verse 21).

My interest in Daniel and Revelation was (as mentioned elsewhere on this website) enhanced when LeRoy Edwin Froom delivered a series of lectures at Avondale in 1955. Froom was able to offer us an historical context that helped us to better understand how we arrived at our interpretation of Daniel, not least with his four volumes entitled The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers. Also, about that time, I bought a newly-published book that I couldn’t really afford, Volume 4 of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary. Our church was on a journey toward a faithful exegesis (leading out of the meaning) of Scripture, including its apocalyptic portions, such as Daniel. We can now more adequately, with the help of a vast literature, interpret the complex symbols of Daniel. Chapter 2 depicts various metals (Greece is the kingdom of bronze that was to  “rule over the whole earth”); Daniel 7 portrays fearsome beasts (Greece is the creature that “looked like a leopard”); Daniel 8 describes a ram and a goat in deadly conflict (Greece is the goat that “became very great”).

The exhibition emphasised that almost 2,500 years ago Alexander, as a twenty-year-old Macedonian, embarked on a military campaign that, within a decade, enabled him to rule the then-known world and thus experience unparalleled power. It also documented for us, yet again, that Alexander was a multi-faceted personality whose “conquests dramatically shaped history with effects still felt today” in Western civilisation and even Asia. It further portrayed how history shaped Alexander; indeed, it created many “Alexanders” over the centuries, “few of whom would be recognisable to those who knew him.” Was he a ruthless destroyer, a chivalrous liberator, a military genius, a visionary statesman, an alcoholic, a god, a megalomaniac and a murderer? Yes, and much more.

“Alexander’s life was what legends are made of – gods and heroes, love and war, murder and betrayal, adventure and conquest.” Therefore, it is understandable that “his deeds were used to inspire or terrify, his name was invoked to achieve glory and his face became an artistic ideal.”

I had not realised the extent of the ancient sources that are available, nor the many fascinating ways that medieval legends and modern biographies have depicted Alexander the Great. A BBC series of DVDs on Alexander, that was kindly loaned to us, also helped us prepare for the Museum exhibition. Back in 2009, we spent about six weeks in Turkey, constantly confronted with evidence of Alexander’s travels, conquests and cultural inclinations. That experience spurred me to read the 2005 book by Paul Cartledge, Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past. Now the exhibition in Sydney offers a marvellous visual experience for anyone interested in either ancient history or the symbolism of Daniel’s prophecies. Even the story of the New Testament would be different without the influence of Alexander the Great on Greek language (koine) and society. Rome ruled the world of the first century when Christ came to earth, but is was Greek speech, writing and culture that helped to facilitate the founding and development of Christianity, “the religion of Jesus.”

Arthur Patrick, posted 20 December 2012