I have always been interested in Alexander the Great, but I have never studied him. Of course I already knew a lot about him through my studies of Biblical history, Greek philosophy, Hellenism, and the rest, but I have never studied him specifically. And since Hellenism is what shaped the culture of the New Testament, I thought that it would be imperative for me to go back and to study this great commander.
I turned to Jacob Abbott's book, "Alexander the Great," (currently out of print) because it seemed fairly short (being that it was the first biography I would ever read on the man) and thorough. And it was both. The book did not seem short in the sense that the author simply said, "here's what happened. Next..." but rather, the author managers to combact a lot of information into a short amount of space. I would, by no means, say that this is the greatest biography I have ever read, but I would argue that Abbotts biography is a good place to start for someone wanting to study Alexander.
The author does not waste his time in petty controversies. Where such a discussion is needed, the author, instead of giving an analysis, rather points out the issue, where he stands, and then moves on. This is one of the reasons why this is a great place to start. Oftentimes, those beginning to inquire of a historical figure get distracted by modern debates over the individual and loose sight of the task at hand. Abbot manages to stay the course and walk us through Alexanders life.
At the same time, Abbott manages to chronicle the decay of Alexanders morality. When Alexander first becomes ruler, he is mildy moral and shows some mercy upon those whom he conquers. But as his campaign continues, Alexander becomes more ruthless, more of a drunk, and sexual devient. The decay of Alexander (though widely known) is always shocking to read about.
One of my biggest frustration with the book is the short remarks regarding Scripture, Jewish history, and how it relates to the story of Alexander. Abbott brings up Josephus' account of how the Jews in Jerusalem encountered Alexander. Abbott makes Josephus look like a dunce suggesting that Josephus made up his account in order to make the Jews look like their God was looking after them.
The story goes that the high priest at the time had a vision from God telling him that He would protect the city from Alexander. And so, the priest comforted the people with his dream and then proceeded to speak to Alexander who sacrificed and worshiped in the Jewish manner to Yhwh and the people were spared destruction and conquest. Whether or not this story is accurate or not is none of my concern. Josephus has earned his credibility as a historian throughout the years and this does not change that.
Abbott points out that none of the Greek authors makes mention of such a story. In fact, they seem silent on the conquest of Jerusalem. Therefore, Abbott suggests that it never happened. My problem with this is that this is how persons typically act in Greek-Roman history. Scripture, Jewish accounts and historians are dismissed automatically, while Homer and other fantasy writers are taken seriously. Many try to argue that Jesus never existed and there is no historical proof that he did (outside of Tacitus and many others of course). But what about the New Testament? The New Testament was written in the 1st century and contains pages of historical accounts about Jesus. Why do we have to write them off?
And so, my complaint isn't just against Abbott, but against much of the scholarship of this time period. Why do we take the fanciful writings of Homer and other poets seriously, which are full of references to the gods, and discount the New Testament, Josephus, and others as proposterous because it is full of monotheist language and intent? Do they not describe the time? Are they not sources as well?