For more than a century after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E., his heirs, the Seleucids in Syria and Mesopotamia and the Ptolemies in Egypt, fought for control of the portion of southern Israel known as Judea.
Early in the second century B.C.E., a Jew named Joseph stepped into the fray. The son of a Jerusalem nobleman named Tobias, Joseph traveled to Alexandria—the capital of Ptolemaic Egypt and the home of a sizable Jewish community—where he met with the king and was given the right to collect taxes in Syria and Phoenicia. Later, the youngest of Joseph’s eight sons, Hyrcanus, also visited Alexandria and was befriended by Ptolemy V (204–180 B.C.E.). While returning to Jerusalem, Hyrcanus was ambushed by his brothers, who, resenting the young Hyrcanus’s rapid rise to prominence, had apparently cast their lot with the rival Seleucids. In the fight, Hyrcanus killed two of his brothers, along with many of their followers; he then fled across the Jordan River.1 Hyrcanus lived for some time in Transjordan, all the while hoping to return to Jerusalem. But things changed when his father died. The first-century C.E. Jewish historian Josephus, who lived in Rome and wrote in Greek, recounts what happened next: