.sqs-featured-posts-gallery .title-desc-wrapper .view-post

The Remarkable Interfaith Significance of Alexander the Great

So Much More Than a Warrior

The Remarkable Interfaith Significance of Alexander the Great

by Henry Karlson

Interfaith dialogue is a constant element of any religious faith. Such dialogue, however, tends not to be on the level of the dogmatic teachings of the different faiths but on practical matters, such as questions concerning the morality or immorality of particular actions or on the way communities as a whole understand shared historical experiences. Dialogue brings people with their differing beliefs together. Each will share their respective understanding, and in doing so, each tradition finds itself influenced by and adapting what it learns from its engagement with the other.

Great events in history, indeed, force people to come together to dialogue. Take, for example, the Holocaust. It has raised all kinds of theological questions such as why God would allow it to happen, but it has also raised questions concerning the historical relationships between Christians and Jews, with the result that many of the unjust prejudices Christians have had against the Jews have been excised. Christians cannot look at their own history without questioning themselves and where they have let sinful attitudes towards the Jews hold sway. It is not just Christians and Jews, however, who have to be concerned about the Holocaust, all peoples of the world have to look at it, see the great evil done by it, and raise questions as to how it happened, who is to blame, and how to prevent similar evil from happening again. Dialogue concerning the Holocaust not only continues, but it continues to bring in more people, more faiths, and more questions which need to be answered.

Promoting Pluralism 2,400 Years Ago

A victory medallion with the image of Alexander the Great, minted around the second century CE. – Photo: Wikimedia, Marie-Lan Nguyen

A victory medallion with the image of Alexander the Great, minted around the second century CE. – Photo: Wikimedia, Marie-Lan Nguyen

In the pre-Christian world, perhaps the greatest event which various cultures and religious faiths explored together was the conquest of much of the known world by Alexander the Great. While some of the interpretations which developed helped set the stage in which Christianity was to emerge (and so could be seen as serving as a preparation for the Gospel), we find the significance and influence of Alexander’s campaigns continued far into the Common Era. Jews, Christians and Muslims would interpret Alexander’s work in and through the development of various legends of Alexander the Great, and they would do so, not in contrast with each other, but often together, so it becomes difficult to know who had which particular legend first.

The reaction towards Alexander the Great is far different than we would expect. As he rode through the world as a great conqueror, changing the destiny of several different nations in his wake, it is easy to assume that he would have been reviled by those he overcame. Instead, he was often seen as blessed by God (or the gods), even if he had faults which prevented him from attaining his full potential.[1] And so we find in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Alexander was often understood as a servant of God’s justice. Josephus recorded how Alexander’s apparent place in Jewish prophecy pleased him, leading him to give special privileges to the people of Israel:

And when the Book of Daniel was showed him wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that himself was the person intended. And as he was then glad, he dismissed the multitude for the present; but the next day he called them to him, and bid them ask what favors they pleased of him; whereupon the high priest desired that they might enjoy the laws of their forefathers, and might pay no tribute on the seventh year. He granted all they desired. And when they entreated him that he would permit the Jews in Babylon and Media to enjoy their own laws also, he willingly promised to do hereafter what they desired. And when he said to the multitude, that if any of them would enlist themselves in his army, on this condition, that they should continue under the laws of their forefathers, and live according to them, he was willing to take them with him, many were ready to accompany him in his wars.[2]

Jewish tradition would eventually suggest, in and through their legends, that Alexander’s fate was to be seen as a friend and benefactor of the Jews, even if this was not his original intention.[3] Accordingly, he was guided by a hunchback around the Temple grounds, finding much which impressed him, and this perhaps was the foundation for his benevolent treatment of the people of Israel. And yet, he also wanted to leave his mark; he wanted his image to be placed within the Temple, but he was willing to accept a different kind of honor which was suggested to him by Simon the Just: he was told the priests who had sons born to them that year would be named Alexander in his honor.[4]

According to the Chronicle of George the Monk, Alexander was mostly pleased with his treatment by the Jews and he wanted to show his thanks by sacrificing in the Temple following their customs; the High Priest accepted his offering as a god-fearing man.[5] Because of his interest and support of the Jews, it was believed God took interest in him and gave him many rewards, not the least of which was supernatural abilities such as the ability to fly, but also, giving him an extraordinary glimpse of paradise itself.[6]

 The best representation of the way he was believed to uphold the justice of God is in relation to the way he rounded up the people of Gog and Magog, the evil descendants of Japheth. They were doing great evil, causing great harm to the world around them. To stop them, Alexander is said to have rounded them up and excluded them from the civilized world, establishing a gate which was to protect the world from their onslaught. In the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, Alexander is believed to have done this with the direct aid of God himself:

The people of Gog and Magog being walled off from the rest of the world by Alexander's forces, from Jean Wauquelin’s 15th century “Book of Alexander.” – Photo: Wikipedia

The people of Gog and Magog being walled off from the rest of the world by Alexander's forces, from Jean Wauquelin’s 15th century “Book of Alexander.” – Photo: Wikipedia

Therefore Alexander immediately called upon God, and the Lord God heard his prayer and commanded two mountains, whose name is the Paps of the North, and they were joined together and drew as close as twelve cubits to one another.
And he constructed brazen gates and covered them with asincitum, so that if they should want to open them with iron they would not be able or to dissolve them with fire they would not prevail either, rather straightway all the fire would be quenched. For the nature of asincitum is such that neither is it broken by the striking of blows of iron nor does it undergo dissolution by fire. For it is effective with all the inventions of the demons and deadly and useless contraptions. [7]

But the gate, it was believed, would be breached – and then the prophecies of Ezekiel concerning Gog and Magog would be fulfilled:

In the end times, according to what the prophecy of Ezekiel says, in the last day of the consummation of the world will come out of the land of Israel Gog and Magog, who are the nations and kings that Alexander hid in the ends of the North.[8]

This legend was not just believed by the Christians; we find it also mentioned in the Qur’an, with Alexander being called the great King Dhul-Qarnayn, “he who has two horns,” representing an ideal king.

Jews, Christians and Muslims would all see elements of greatness and the work of providence in the campaigns of Alexander. Justice was accomplished through him, as Alexander was able to protect not only Israel, but the world order, from evil forces which threatened to cause the destruction of the world. Alexander served as a righteous savior figure, though one who was imperfect and one who certainly could not save the world by himself. God had to give Alexander the means by which he lived out his God-given task. Because he was but a man of the world who had sins of his own, he could not entirely stop evil, only postpone its power to destroy the world. And yet, this was more than enough to show how well Alexander was perceived by the three Abrahamic religions. He not only served as an arm of God’s justice in the world, like so many other figures, but he was himself active in that engagement, knowingly going into the world to promote righteousness as a part of his conquest of the world.

Building East-West Bridges

And yet it was not just the Abrahamic religions which looked upon Alexander with awe. Throughout his campaign, he often was interested in the people he encountered, learning from them while giving elements of his wisdom back. So there was a true world-wide engagement of theological and philosophical questions with Alexander serving as its catalyst. Some religious traditions were willing to see him as a god, others as a great man aided by the gods.

His deeds spoke for themselves – he not only cut through the Gordian Knot, but the divisions which kept the people of the world separated from each other. They were to share with each other their traditions which could and would become universalized in his wake. Because of how he brought the world together there was much advance in philosophy, not only in Greece, but also in India – an ancient inter-religious and inter-philosophical discussion emerged, forming new philosophical and religious interpretations as a result.

This Gandhara Buddha statue (1st-2nd century CE) is an example of what is now called Greco-Buddhist art. – Photo: Wikipedia

This Gandhara Buddha statue (1st-2nd century CE) is an example of what is now called Greco-Buddhist art. – Photo: Wikipedia

It is suggested that India developed their own cosmological speculations in part through their contact with the Greeks.[10] But the influence was not just one way. Hindus and Buddhists were to be seen as a mystery to the Greeks and Greek philosophers and later Christian theologians would take some interest in the Indian ascetical tradition. They used Alexander the Great as a foundation for this fascination by suggesting he was interested in and learned from the wisdom the gymnosophists as can be seen in a work attributed to Palladius, “On the Life of the Brahmans.”[11]

This explains how Alexander would be looked upon with reverence from India, and indeed, from within the Buddhist tradition. The Greeks had significant influence on various aspects of Indian culture, including the arts. It is said that statues of Alexander the Great became the model used to create and establish statues of the Buddha. Why would the Buddhists think this appropriate? Because of the kinds of karma Buddhists thought made Alexander’s accomplishment possible. It was to a large extent the same kind of karma associated with a Buddha. A world conquering monarch, “wheel turning monarch,” if they abandoned worldly profession early in life could become a Buddha, indeed, if someone with the karma associated with Buddhahood did not become a Buddha, the only other possibility is that they would become a world-conquering monarch:

According to the tradition of our mantras, Ambaṭṭha, the great man who is possessed of thirty-two marks of a Great Man has only two courses open to him. If he lives the household life he will become a ruler, a wheel-turning righteous monarch of the law, conqueror of the four quarters, who has established the security of his realm and is possessed of the seven treasures. These are: the Wheel-Treasure, the Elephant-Treasure, the Horse-Treasure, The Jewel-Treasure, The Woman-Treasure, the Householder-Treasure, and as seventh, the Counsellor-Treasure. He has more than a thousand sons who are heroes, of heroic stature, conquerors of the hostile army. He dwells having conquered this sea-girt land without stick or sword, but by the law. But if he goes forth from the household life into homelessness, then he will become an Arharant, a fully-enlightened Buddha, one who draws back the veil from the world.[12]

A world-conquering monarch would bring justice and enforce the dharma in the world. Alexander is seen to have done this, and so he was seen to possess many similarities to the Buddha, including the physical marks of the great man, making him someone whose bodily form was seen as the height of human potential and similar to what was seen by those who met with Siddartha. Using Alexander’s image, which the Greeks had produced, made sense as a foundation for establishing Buddha’s image in the world (which had not been made in his lifetime). Alexander and his successors left a great mark in India, and their righteousness was so praised by the Buddhists that it made sense that the Bactrian king, Menander I, would become a Buddhist himself (as Buddhists believe happened and was recorded in the important treatise known as The Questions of Milinda).[13]

From A History of the Ancient World (1913) by George Willis Botsford

From A History of the Ancient World (1913) by George Willis Botsford

Alexander the Great stood at the intersection of many different religious (and philosophical) traditions. He brought people into contact with each other, and all of them had to find ways to understand him and his legacy. There was interreligious dialogue and interfaith sharing which came out of his activity, not just during his lifetime, but more importantly, after his death, when each tradition had to find a way to understand his legacy in relation to their religious beliefs. And in doing so, they shared their interpretation to others, who then took what was said and incorporated it in their own reflections.

While we do not believe all the legends associated with him today, we can see that the theological implications of them remain valid. From the Christian perspective, while we might not believe that he built gates which are holding back Gog and Magog, we can see how his journey helped prepare the world for the coming of Christ, and so behind the legend there are elements of truth. He helped hold back the powers of darkness and set up the world in which Christians could and would be able to spread their faith far and wide. He also set up a world in which Christians would come in contact with other faiths who also encountered Alexander, and through Alexander, have a point of contact in which they can share ideas with each other about the significance not only of Alexander the Great, but also the questions and answers about life itself which emerged from his campaigns.

There was interreligious dialogue and interfaith sharing which came out of his activity, not just during his lifetime, but more importantly, after his death, when . each tradition had to find a way to understand his legacy in relation to their religious beliefs.

Alexander helped bring the peoples of the world just a little bit closer, allowing them to know more of each other, and find ways to be transformed by their mutual contact in and through his legacy. He brought a great ripple into the history of the world, bringing new thoughts and ideas from all over the world as a result of his accomplishment. Even though the different religious traditions did not agree with each other on dogmatic notions, they could and did find ways to come together and understand an element of history together.

Interfaith dialogue, therefore, is shown to be more common than many normally think is possible. It is because we limit our notion of what such dialogue is about that we ignore how common it actually is. If we consider more than the specific doctrinal differences of the religious faiths, and what they can and do hold in common, such as their shared history, we can see how interfaith dialogue has always been at work and helped shape and mold the great religions of the world. This is where interfaith dialogue should begin. Yes, we can and should discuss the differences and the higher doctrinal teachings of each faith. But to limit religion to these elements is to cut off religion from its lived reality and to create abstractions which have no reality in the actual world.

[1] This is not to say there were not criticisms of his faults, in particular, his pride; we can see a hint of this in the opening of First Maccabees:

After Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came from the land of Kittim, had defeated Darius, king of the Persians and the Medes, he succeeded him as king. (He had previously become king of Greece.)  He fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth. He advanced to the ends of the earth, and plundered many nations. When the earth became quiet before him, he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up.  He gathered a very strong army and ruled over countries, nations, and princes, and they became tributary to him.
After this he fell sick and perceived that he was dying.  So he summoned his most honored officers, who had been brought up with him from youth, and divided his kingdom among them while he was still alive.  And after Alexander had reigned twelve years, he died.  Then his officers began to rule, each in his own place.  They all put on crowns after his death, and so did their sons after them for many years; and they caused many evils on the earth (1 Macc. 1:1-9 RSV).

Alexander’s plundering the nations combined with his hubris can be seen leading to his fall, that is, his early death, and from this we see his successors followed him in his failings, doing great evil, instead of following him in those functions which brought him God’s blessing.

[2] Josephus, “Jewish Antiquities” in The Works of Josephus. trans. William Whiston, A.M. (Peabody, MA: HendricksonPublications, 1994),  307.

[3] See Judah Nadich, The Legends of the Rabbis. Volume I (Northvale, NJ:  Jason Aronson, 1994), 37.

[4] See ibid., 39-40.

[5] See Richard Stoneman, trans. and ed. Legends of Alexander the Great (London: Everyman, 1994), 29.

[6] He not only was given a glimpse of the city, but he was given a gift from its inhabitants, which he took with him and found to have supernatural powers of its own. See Richard Stoneman, trans. and ed. Legends of Alexander the Great (London: Everyman, 1994), 67 -75 for one such example of the legends surrounding his journey to paradise.

[7] Pseudo-Methodius, “Apocalypse” in Apocalypse Pseudo-Methodius and An Alexandrian World Chronicle. ed. and trans. Benjamin Garstad (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 99.

[8] Pseudo-Methodius, “Apocalypse,” 101.

[9] The Holy Qur’an. trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Rev. Edition. (Brentwood, MD: Amanda Corporation, 1989), 18:92-99.

[10] See Akira Sadakata, Buddhist Cosmology. trans. Gaynor Sekimori (Tokyo: Kosei, 1999), 22-25.

[11] See Richard Stoneman, trans. and ed. Legends of Alexander the Great (London: Everyman, 1994), 34-56. The Christian text takes interest in promoting asceticism in general; it is not clear who these Brahmans were, whether or not they were Hindus, Jains or some other sect from India.

[12] The Long Discourses of the Buddha. trans. Maurice Walshe (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995), 112.

[13] The text itself has to be seen as another legend. While it is associated with a Bactrian king who truly existed, it is unlikely the discussion in it actually occurred. This should not detract us from reading it – it provides an important piece of early Buddhist philosophy, and it is likely that Menander was interested in Buddhism and gave his patronage to Buddhist monks and could be seen as a kind of convert to Buddhism in general.

Header: “The Battle of Guagamela” (detail), a relief inspired by a 17th century painting by Charles LeBrun, portrays Alexander leading his forces into battle. Photo: Wikimedia, Luis Garcia, Creative Commons 3.0