Political Backgrounds

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Overview of the influences of the Persian, Greek and Roman Empires on the Jewish nation. Also, a summary of the Jewish political and religious rulers and movements, and the tensions that arose between the Jews and the occupying Roman authorities.



Part 1

I. Political Backgrounds

A. Key Developments in Persian Period

1. Relative freedom of worship

2. Increased preoccupation with the Law

3. Earliest developments of oral law

4. Concept of synagogue

5. Use of Aramaic language

B. Alexander and his Aftermath

1. Numerous key results all unified under "bane and blessings of Hellenism"

2. Ptolemaic period comparatively peaceful; Seleucid period increasingly turbulent

3. The last straw: Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) desecrates temple

C. Maccabean Revolt and Hasmonean Dynasty

1. Ideals of revolution increasingly corrupted

2. Emergence of Pharisees vs. Sadducees

3. Key results:

a. Conservative backlash and hatred of foreigners

b. Messianic fervor but largely for political king

D. The Six Herods of the New Testament

1. Herod the Great: the first generation

2. Archelaus, Antipas and Philip: 3 of his sons

3. Agrippa I: a grandson

4. Agrippa II: a great-grandson

5. Tried to kill Jesus as a baby

6. Antipas the key Herod during Jesus' ministry

7. See Acts 12

8. Key ruler for much of 2nd of 1st century Israel (Paul has hearing before him)

E. The Jesus Movement and the Romans

1. Positive Period (AD 30-64)

a. Still viewed as Jews

b. Thus a religio licita

c. Oldest hostility from various other Jews

2. Negative Period (>AD 64)

a. Viewed as new religion

b. Persecution by Rome

c. Refusal to join Jewish rebellion; increased hostility there too


Course: Introduction to the New Testament: Gospel and Acts

Lecture: Political Backgrounds


I. Opening Remarks

This is the first file for the online class of NT 511, “Understanding the Gospels and Acts,” to be used in accompaniment with the textbook Jesus and the Gospels: an Introduction and Survey, by Craig Blomberg. In this first file, we survey the historical and political background for the events in the Gospels and Acts, in accompaniment with Chapter 1 of our textbook.

II. Introduction

Had modern media existed in the ancient world, there would have been no reason for a news report to announce anything of significance at the beginning of what Christians today call the intertestamental period. The book of Malachi, chronologically probably the last of the Old Testament books to be written, was probably completed roughly around 425 B.C. It would be nearly a half a millennium before the New Testament books would begin to be written. The time with which the intertestamental period begins was simply that in the middle of the period of Persian rule of Achaemenid throughout much of the Ancient Near and Middle Eastern world. The PowerPoint slide gives a picture of the map of the Persian Empire, and the boundaries show the large swath of territory that Cyrus the Great and numerous other Persian emperors dominated.

As we read in the chronologically later books of the Old Testament, Cyrus adopted the policy of allowing a select number of subjugated people to be repatriated to their homeland, and thus Israelites scattered about the Diaspora (that is, dispersed outside of the land of Israel itself) who chose to do so, particularly under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, returned to the land of Israel and began to rebuild not only their cities but also their lives.

At first glance, this period of time so far removed from the New Testament would seem to have little direct relevance for understanding books written almost five hundred years later. But our next PowerPoint slide outlines five key developments that all began during the Persian period of rule in the Middle East, including over Israel, which has some relevance which we will explain for understanding the New Testament.

III. Freedom of Worship

The first of these items is a relative freedom of worship. Whereas, in exile under Assyria and Babylon, the two great empires of the Ancient Near East that had subjugated the Israelites prior to the Persians, restrictions on religious life were severe, not least because the majority of the people and its leaders were not even allowed to live in the Promised Land or have access to the Temple. Under the Persians, repatriation, rebuilding of Jerusalem, the Temple and its walls, and most of the city, and other religious institutions allowed for people so long as they remained loyal and were not perceived as committing treason of any sort against their Persian overlords, to once again begin to practice the Law in all of its civil, ceremonial and moral forms.

This freedom of worship would reach its zenith as we will see later in this historical survey, during the period of relative independence spanning 164 B.C. to 53 B.C. during the Maccabean period, or the time of the Hasmonean dynasty, long after the Persians were off the scene. But it would also foreshadow a very similar kind of experience that Jews would have at the time the New Testament was birthed under the Roman Empire- a relative freedom of worship so long as the proper tribute to the Caesars or emperors of Rome were paid. This is the first time, back in the time of the Persians, when Israel finds herself in such a situation, and because it establishes a precedent that will be reenacted in later times, it is worth noting here.

IV. Preoccupation with the Law

Our second item is an increased preoccupation with the Law. This follows naturally from the first. The relationship which God in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the subsequent historical books from Joshua onward, the arrangement which God established with the Israelites was one often referred to as the Deuteronomic Covenant, by which God promised Israel peace and safety, security from her enemies, and prosperity in the Promised Land, contingent on an adequate amount of obedience to His laws and particularly, obedience on the part of Israel’s leaders. Interpretations that the prophets who predicted the downfall of Israel, first for Northern Kingdom and later for Southern Kingdom, gave for her punishment was understandably inadequate obedience to the Law. Thus Israel’s leadership was naturally concerned that this kind of punishment not be replicated.  Ezra, the great lawgiver and law teacher, sought to enact a far more scrupulous obedience to the Law, so that the relative freedom that the Israelites had now received and the repatriation under the Persian rulers would not again be lost and hopefully one day they would gain their independence altogether. Again, this would be fulfilled in the Hasmonean dynasty. It would however be taken away by Rome in 63 B.C, and so one of the reactions, though not the only one- but definitely an important response of Jews in the first century, will again be to try to inculcate among the entire people of the land an adequate obedience to God’s Torah, so that He might once again bless her with freedom and prosperity. We will see that the Christian message suggests a different plight and a different solution but a scenario that is understandable only against this backdrop of a zeal for Torah keeping.

V. Development of Oral Law

Item number three we have phrased as the earliest development of the oral law. As centuries moved on from the era of the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai, not everything that was appropriate for a wilderness generation, nor even appropriate for the settled conquerors of Canaan back in the second millennium B.C., would make sense for a new age and place, especially in the centuries in which the Israelites were exiled in Assyria and then Babylonia and finally Persia. As a result, interpretations and applications that contextualized the Law for new situations began to develop. The earliest of these is lost in antiquity. We really cannot date when many of the oldest oral interpretations and modifications of the Law began. But we know that it was a gradual process that reached encyclopedic proportions by the centuries after the time of Christ and already in the first century, we see the Gospels referring to the traditions of the ancestors, a way of referring back to interpretations and applications and supplements to the written laws of Moses, found particularly in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in ways that Jesus and the first apostles often took issue with it. And so, once again we need to highlight the origins of this development centuries earlier.

VI. The Synagogue

Our fourth point is the concept of the synagogue. Because Christians tend to worship simply at one location usually called a church, it is easy for them to confuse the distinct role in Judaism of the Temple and the synagogue. The Temple of course, was the building that was erected for animal sacrifice and a permanent site in Jerusalem dedicated in the reign of Solomon as a replacement for the simpler, more portable device known as the Tabernacle, which had just been transported from the time of the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings on to several different settings and sites in the land of Canaan. The sole distinctive purpose of that Temple was the place for offering the sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins, though many other forms of worship did occur there.

The Jews over time however, also developed the pattern of worshipping on a weekly basis in conjunction with the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week or Saturday, the day of rest, probably originally family units and perhaps in extended clans or tribes and then in very small villages. But as groups of Israelites were exiled the situation became exacerbated because the seasonal festivals that took place in the Jerusalem Temple, the much more elaborate kind of worship and the one and only venue for offering sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins was now entirely taken away from the Jewish people. How were they to worship? How were their sins to be forgiven? Texts out of Samuel and Psalms and Hosea in varying ways set the precedent when such themes as “God desires mercy rather than sacrifice” were echoed, and the conviction arose that in lieu of the ability to offer animal sacrifices in the Temple, heartfelt prayers of repentance and contrition followed by good works demonstrating the genuineness of that repentance, would substitute for the forgiveness of sins.

But what about corporate worship? The word synagogue itself, simply comes from a Hebrew word that means “an assembly”, the kahal, the congregation of Israel. And as the people were in exile, they began to sometimes no doubt out of doors, sometimes in buildings that may have been available to them, sometimes in private homes, began to worship on the Sabbath on a weekly basis and a liturgy, a rotation of reading of selections from the Torah, singing of hymns and offering of prayers, all would have gradually developed, taking more and more of its shape as the centuries went by. Again, although we know that the concept is as old as at least the period of the Exile, the only structures that have been identified as synagogues in Israel are no earlier than the first century B.C., so that the details of the origins of this development are again lost in antiquity.

But again, this development will prove crucial for understanding the New Testament, particularly after AD 70, when the Temple once again in Jerusalem is destroyed, this time by the Romans, and Jews and Christians alike have to come to grips with and give competing interpretations of how to worship God when one cannot offer sacrifice for sin. Christians obviously, would say that the Law is still in effect, but Jesus was the once-for-all sacrifice. Jews would turn to their age-old solution and speak again of prayers of repentance and good works.

VII. The Aramaic Language

Our final development the origin of which can be traced to the Persian period of rule over Israel is the development of the use of the Aramaic language in Israel. Aramaic was one of a collection of Semitic tongues in the nations in and around Israel and it became the language of commerce and therefore, slightly anachronistically, we might call it the language of international trade and business in the time of the Persians. Jews up to this point had spoken Hebrew in Israel and their sacred writings had been written in Hebrew, but we begin to see portions of books like Ezra and Daniel appearing in Aramaic from this time period, and Jews during this Persian period, especially those who had doings in the public sphere, became increasingly bilingual. Aramaic is a separate language from Hebrew, as opposed to being simply a dialect of it. But it is what we call a cognate language, extremely similar, so that it would not have been hard to learn. A rough analogy in the modern world might be the relationship between Spanish and Portuguese. The significance of the development of Aramaic for New Testament background is that as subsequent developments in the ancient Mediterranean world took place, Aramaic died off in countries outside of Israel, but it continued to be the language of common everyday household use in Israel, so that Jesus and His disciples in the first century, undoubtedly spoke Aramaic as their first language.

VIII. “The Vein and Blessings of Hellenism”

What transpired, as we now progress through this period of intertestamental history? The first event that does merit the attention of secular historians, even those compiling an exceedingly brief overview of the centuries prior to the time of Christ is derived of what some historians of warfare of military exploits have considered to be one of the greatest empires along with one of the greatest emperor-generals in the history of the world, a man by the name of Alexander, son of Philip of Macedon, the northern half of the Greek peninsula, dubbed by later historians Alexander the Great. And we see on the next screen a statue of his face and shoulders from the ancient Greek world.

The exploits of Alexander can scarcely be exaggerated. In our textbook, we have itemized them in great detail, but we may summarize them under the expression “The Vein and Blessings of Hellenism.” Helos is the Greek word for Greece, so that Hellenism and its cognate adjective Hellenistic, refer to things Greek, particularly from the ancient world. For subjugated people, like Israel, there were new developments in transportation, in commerce, in communication that made life by secular standards more pleasant for those dwelling in the Hellenistic world. But Alexander, much more so than the emperors of those empires that had preceded him, was concerned to resettle Greek people, people from his homeland, throughout the provinces and lands that he had conquered and thereby to spread Greek culture as well as simply the benefits of political unification. For a world that would not conceive of the notion of the separation of church and state for another two millennia, any particularly new development in the area of culture also had significant impact in the area of religion. We will come back and illustrate this point with a reading from an ancient text as we come to the end of this period. But suffice it to say for now, the temptation for many Jews to gain the favor of the Greek people by engaging in activities that were viewed as compromising the Jewish religion was an ever-present temptation.

Alexander himself did not live to see his thirty-third birthday, by which time he had already conquered a section of territory that extended even further to the east than portions of the Persian Empire. Because he left no living heir, his empire was divided among his generals. The two main ones which quickly consolidated power, being of the names of Ptolemy and Seleucus. Ptolemy gained the territories of Egypt and North Africa, and the southern Mediterranean portions of the empire, and Seleucus gained all of the lands from Syria to the north, and then back westward towards Greece and eastward towards India. The Ptolemies originally controlled the little slice of the land of Israel. If we recall our map and remember the so-called “Fertile Crescent”, the area of arable land that is an upside-down horseshoe shape in an age when no one dwelt in what we call Saudi Arabia because it was simply useless desert land, then one understands why Israel was in such a vulnerable geographical location. Any powers to her north or to her south who wanted to gain land, who wanted to invade the other portion of the Middle East, had to go through Israel, and potentially conquer Israel if they did not already have her under their sway. The Ptolemies occupied Israel from 323 to 198 B.C. and as a broad generalization, continued a fairly benign and peaceful period of rule, continuing the Persian practices of allowing the Israelites relative freedom to practice their religion.

But in 198 B.C., as the Seleucid rulers with their expansionist tendencies were marching southward to fight the Ptolemies, all of that changed. And Israel came under Seleucid rule. As a series of Seleucid rulers, each taking upon themselves the name of Antiochus, reigned from Syria, things became increasingly turbulent for the Israelites.

The last straw and the most horrible of the Antiochene emperor from a Jewish perspective, was the fourth, Antiochus IV, who also took upon himself the name Epiphanies, which in Greek means “manifest”, because he believed himself to be God manifest. After banning the reading of Torah, the burning of many of the holy books of the Jews, after issuing an edict forbidding circumcision, in short attacking the very central dimensions of the Jewish faith, Antiochus finally desecrated the Holy Place in the Israelite Temple itself in Jerusalem by sacrificing swine, the most unholy of animals from the Jewish perspective, on the altar there.

To get a feel for one Jewish author’s perspective on this kind of Antiochus Epiphanies, we turn to the Old Testament apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, chapter 1, beginning at verse 41. The king in this passage refers to Antiochus IV:

“Then the king wrote to his full kingdom that all should be one people, each abandoning his patriarchal custom. All the Gentiles conformed to the command of the king, and many Israelites were in favor of his religion. They sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath. The king sent messengers with letters to Jerusalem and to the cities of Judah ordering them to follow customs foreign to their land, to prohibit sacrifices, burnt offerings and libations in the sanctuary, to profane the Sabbath and feast days, to desecrate the sanctuary and the sacred ministers, to build pagan altars and temples and shrines, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, to leave their sons uncircumcised, and to let themselves be defiled with every kind of impurity and abomination, so that they might forget the law and change all their observances. Whoever refused to act according to the command of the king should be put to death. Fresh with the orders he published throughout his kingdom, he appointed inspectors over all the people and he ordered the cities of Judah to offer sacrifices, each city in turn. Many of the people, those who abandoned the Law, joined them and committed evil in the land. Israel was driven into hiding wherever places of refuge could be found. On the fifteenth day of the month of Kislev, in the year 145, the king erected a horrible abomination upon the altar of holocaust, that is burnt offering, and in the surrounding cities of Judah they built pagan altars. They also burnt incense at the doors of houses and in streets. Any scrolls of the Law which they found they tore up and burned. Whoever was found with a scroll of the covenant and whoever observed the law was condemned to death by royal decree. So they used their power against Israel, against those who were caught each month in the city. On the twenty-fifth day of each month they sacrificed on the altar erected over the altar of burnt offerings. Women who had had their children circumcised were put to death in keeping with the decree, with the babies hung from their necks. Their families also and those who had circumcised them were killed. But [verse 62] many in Israel were determined and resolved in their heart, not to eat anything unclean. They preferred to die rather than be defiled with unclean food or profane the holy covenant, and they did die. And terrible affliction was upon Israel.”

If one imagines oneself as a God-fearing Jew of this era of the first half of the one hundreds or second century B.C., one can imagine the horror of this time. This leads then, to the next period. The slide that you see now on the screen labeled “The Political Fortunes of Israel in the Intertestamental Period” reviews the key dates that we have surveyed thus far, the Persian period coming to an end with the conquest by Alexander in Israel in 331 B.C. as his empire continued to march eastward. Alexander dies in 323 B.C. The period of Hellenism, or Greek influence, extends until 167 B.C., when Antiochus desecrates the Temple. And that period is then subdivided into the period of Ptolemaic rule, the Egyptian province was still Greek-speaking, and the period of Seleucid rule after 198, from Syria, but again still Greek-speaking in nature and in culture.


The horrors of the desecration of Antiochus give way to the Maccabean revolt and to the Hasmonean dynasty. Maccabean, because of a family of brothers, the oldest one named Judas, who was given the nickname Judas Maccabeus. In Greek Maccabeus meant hammerer for his fierce, effective, warlike fighting ability. Hasmonean, because of the revered ancestor in this family of brothers whose name was Hasmoneus. This was one of the first recorded instances of what today we would call guerilla warfare in the ancient world, so that although the Maccabean brothers and the rag-tag band of freedom fighters that they gathered around them were greatly outnumbered by the Seleucids, their use of surprise and clandestine attacks on small Syrian outposts coming down from hiding in the Judean hill country, helped also by a period of time when Antiochus was not able to devote his entire army to fight the Jews because of troubles on his northern flank, led to the amazing liberation of the Temple from Seleucid troops in a roughly three-year period of time by the end of 164 B.C., when the Temple was re-purified and rededicated and we know this feast even to this day which Jews celebrate every December as the feast of Hanukkah, meaning the feast that remembers the liberation of the Temple and eventually by 142 B.C., the entire land of Israel from Syrian troops. John 10:22 in the New Testament also refers to this feast by its alternate title, the “Feast of Dedication.”

As has happened many times throughout history, however, the ideals of a successful revolution over time do often become increasingly corrupted. After several in the Maccabean family ruled in Israel, successors still had the legacy of Greek culture and customs and influence all around them, still had to deal with their own Jewish countrymen, who had become accomodationists with Hellenistic culture in a past era. And as the Seleucid power waned, the century or so of independence in Israel, from 164 to 63 B.C., increasingly also had to deal with the new emerging world power of the ancient Mediterranean, Rome, from the Italian peninsula, whom they kept at bay through a series of increasingly severe taxes, and eventually were no longer able to keep at bay when the period of independence ends in 63 B.C.

But before we move to the end of this final golden era or century of independence, as it has often been memorialized, we come back again to a reading from the Old Testament apocrypha, as we promised earlier in this lecture to illustrate this issue of cultural compromise. Not the all-out attack on everything central to Judaism, as we saw with Antiochus IV, but in some ways perhaps in the long run was the more insidious, because less obvious carries of compromises with new cultural customs. This reading comes from 2 Maccabees, chapter 4, verses 10-17. Speaking of Jason, one of the appointees to the high priesthood, who was not a legitimate heir to that office:

“When Jason received the king's approval and came into office, he immediately initiated his countrymen into the Greek way of life. He set aside the royal concessions granted to the Jews through the mediation of John, father of Eupolemus; he abrogated the lawful institutions and introduced customs contrary to the law. He quickly established a gymnasium at the very foot of the acropolis.”

Pause for a moment there to raise the question what’s wrong with good athletic competition? And of course the answer from the Jewish perspective is that Hellenistic introduced the practice of male athletes competing in the nude and for a Jewish man to be seen in public, even if just by other men, in the nude was considered a shameful thing going all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve, who had to cover their private parts after they had sinned because they were naked and now ashamed. Back to the text in 2 Maccabees:

“established a gymnasium where he introduced the noblest young men to wear the Greek hat.”

I’ll stop again and ask, “What’s wrong with a hat?” But again there was religious symbolism. Just as people today may wear certain types of caps as signs of loyalty to gangs or to athletic teams or other forms of dress or apparel that can have religious symbolism. Verse 13:

“The craze for Hellenism and foreign customs reached such a pitch, through the outrageous wickedness of the ungodly pseudo-high-priest Jason, that the priests no longer cared about the service of the altar.”

Again I’ll pause just to insert the comment, notice how what starts as seemingly a comparatively trivial compromise escalates to a series of stages that our author is not describing so that it now impacts the very heart of worship. And we might talk about those who begin by missing church in order to participate in some kind of sporting event but then that becomes so customary that they give up on Christian worship altogether, even today in the 21st century over a period of time. Back to 2 Maccabees:

“Disdaining the Temple and neglecting the sacrifices, they hastened at the signal for the discus throwing, take part in the unlawful exercises on the athletic field”

Again not only because of exercising nude but the Greek games were often dedicated to various Greek gods. Verse 15:

“They despised what their ancestors had regarded as honored, while they highly prized what the Greeks esteemed as glory. Precisely because of this they found themselves in serious trouble with the very people whose manner of life they emulated and whom they desired to imitate in everything became their enemies and oppressors.”

And the writer of 2 Maccabees ends this paragraph in verse 17 with the understandable theological interpretation:

“It is no light matter to flout the laws of God as the following period will show.”

This kind of compromise characterized both the Hellenistic era but also came again to plague portions of Israel under the Hasmonean dynasty as well. And because of this polarization the second bulleted point on our slide labeled “Maccabean revolt and Hasmonean Dynasty”, refers to the emergence of two leadership sects within Israel by the names of the Pharisees and Sadducees, well-known to any reader of the Gospels and the book of Acts.

The Pharisees, and what must be remembered to interpret them properly even in New Testament times, were those who at the outset were entirely well-intended reformers wanting to purify the nation of its compromise with foreign practices. The Sadducees were those who were willing to accommodate and compromise, first of all by paying tribute to Rome and then later under the Roman period by allowing certain restrictions on their Temple practices for the sake of an uneasy truce with the Roman troops that overlooked them from the nearby Antonia fortress. We will say much more about both of these groups in a later lecture, but it is important to notice that they stem from this Maccabean period and the polarizations and tensions of that time period.

The final main bulleted point on this slide reflects a key result of the Maccabean era. Namely, at least among the reformers and those desiring to keep Israel pure, a conservative backlash against not only foreign practices but against Gentiles themselves- both inside and outside of the land of Israel, and a hatred of foreigners that seems to have grown at times to a fevered pitch, more intense than anything characteristic of previous eras in Israelite history.

Accompanying this understandably was a Messianic fervor and hope, a longing for that Son of David, a descendant of David, who would fulfill the as yet unfulfilled prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures, about one who would sit on a political throne in Jerusalem and subdue the Gentiles and allow the people of Israel to rule over all of the earth in peace and prosperity. This was not the only concept of a Messiah that either was preserved or developed and we will talk more about this topic in later lectures as well. But in order to understand a good portion of the Jewish hopes into which Christianity was birthed, we must recognize the centrality of the hope for a Messiah-liberator, a Christ, for that is what christos means- Messiah or Anointed One- who would be first of all a political king and a military general.  Jesus of course in His Incarnation was neither of the above, leading to much of the tension and misunderstanding and even hostility that we see in the New Testament.

One interesting illustration of the pervasiveness of this conservative backlash and hatred for foreigners can be found in the book of Acts. Again if we skip ahead to the first century, in Acts 22, Paul has returned to Jerusalem after one of his missionary journeys, and has been falsely charged with bringing an uncircumcised Greek into the Temple, into the area permitted for only Jews, so that a mob is rioting and the Romans must arrest Paul to basically save his life from the mob. But he receives permission to speak to the crowd and speaks to them in Aramaic, chapter 22 verse 1, an illustration of what we spoke of earlier, how Aramaic remained the language within Israel all the way from the Persian Era up to the Roman period in the first century. Not thinking that Paul could speak their own tongue, they are surprised and quiet down and he begins to give what is both a testimony and a defense and an autobiographical narrative of how he had been a most loyal and zealous, conservative Pharisaic Jew but God turned him around when Christ appeared to him on the Damascus Road. It is interesting to observe how the crowd listens with hushed tones to this entire narrative, even as Paul began to talk about Jesus. Today unfortunately, in many Christian-Jewish conversations, the first mention of Jesus brings an end to the conversation. But that was not the sticking point in this context. Rather, it is as Paul continues the story and says in chapter 22 verse 21 of Acts:

“Then the Lord said to me, Go, I will send you far away to the Gentiles to the Greek-speaking people in the Diaspora.”

This is what the crowd could not fathom. Luke writes in verse 22, “The crowd listened to Paul until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, ‘Rid the earth of him, he is not fit to live.’ “

It would be hard to find a better example of the dramatic animosity between Jew and Gentile, and understanding this animosity is crucial for New Testament background.

We move on to our next slide, and we return to the chronological sketch of major periods. We have referred to the hundred years of Jewish independence, both as the Maccabean period or as the Hasmonean dynasty. Yet a third way of referring to it is as the time of the Hassidim or as a movement, the period of Hassidism. A Hassid was a holy or pious, we might say today ultra-orthodox Jew, valuing the unique relationship of Jews as the one and only chosen people of God, and so this label also reflects a significant component of this hundred year time.

Someone said all good things must come to an end, and if Hassidism was viewed by many as a good, and independence in Israel likewise, in 63 B.C. the Roman general  Pompei was knocking on the northern doors of Israel. Tribute was no longer enough to keep the Roman expansionist military powers at bay and a deal was bartered whereby Israel would surrender peacefully, though there were a few brief skirmishes that did occur without governmental authorization. But in return for which Rome would grant to Israel a status known in Latin as a religio licita, that is to say a licit or a legal religion, much like the status we mentioned earlier they had had back in the Persian Period. And that will be important for the birth of Christianity because for as long as Christians are viewed by the Romans as just another Jewish sect, they too will have freedom of religion, and like the rest of Judaism be exempt from the requirement to offer an annual sacrifice to the gods on behalf of the emperor, saying that Caesar is Lord and God. By the time that Christianity grows in the 60s of the first century to be sufficiently multi-cultural as to be recognized by Rome as no longer just a Jewish sect, then this freedom from offering the sacrifice will be rescinded, and those Christians who refuse to perform what they believe to be a blasphemous act of emperor worship will begin to be persecuted. More about that at a later time.

There are many things that we could highlight during the Roman period and again our textbook goes into more detail on a number of them, but one issue that often confuses readers of the New Testament, we should take the time to explain in some detail here, and that is illustrated on the PowerPoint slide labeled “The Six Herods of the New Testament.”

The original man by the name of Herod, whom historians as they did with Alexander, later came to call Herod the Great, both for his exploits in warfare and in building projects, though certainly not for any moral scruples that he had, was the first Herod that we come to in the Gospel of Matthew in the birth narratives, in conjunction with the attempt to kill Jesus as a baby. When that Herod dies, his kingdom is divided among three of his sons. Archaleus, who receives the territories of Judea and Samaria, Antipas, who retains Galilee and Perea, to the east of the Jordan River, and Philip, who has the areas to the northeast including Gallinitus, Trachinitus, parts of Syria, Decapolis, and portions of nearby territories.

Archaeleus appears by name only once in the Gospels, in Matthew 2 as the tetrarch ruler whom Joseph and Mary want to avoid upon their return from Egypt to Israel, thus returning back to Nazareth rather than staying in Bethlehem in the south, as apparently they had originally planned to do. Antipas is the ruler who appears by name most often as the Herod with whom Jesus has to do during His adult ministry, the man John the Baptist condemns for committing adultery, and literally loses his head over it, and the Herod whom Pilate sends Jesus to during the trial during the last hours of his life, only to have Herod returned back to Pilate without having found Him legally guilty of any crime.

Philip then is the individual whose wife Herodius leaves him to remarry Antipas, and fall under the Baptist’s condemnation. A fourth son, Aristobolus, becomes the father of Agrippa I, thus now we are into the next generation, a grandson of Herod the Great, who becomes noteworthy because of his appearance throughout Acts 12, first as the ruler between 41 and 44 A.D., who imprisons James and Peter. James the son of Zebedee in turn is martyred though Peter miraculously escapes. But in the second half of the chapter, Agrippa receives acclimation from the citizens of Tyre as a god, and therefore is smitten by an angel. Simultaneously we are told he was struck down by worms, some type of intestinal disease apparently and died.  These explanations are by no means mutually exclusive.

And then finally we come to Agrippa’s son, what historians would later call Agrippa II, and thus a great-grandson of Herod the Great, who is a key ruler for most of the second half of first-century Israel and the Herod and the Agrippa before whom Paul has a hearing, with his sister/wife Bernice, just before Paul is sent off to Rome for the appeal that he has requested with the emperor concerning his case there.

Next slide reminds us of where a number of these territories were, and follows the map in your atlas, which will enable you to read the detailed print, probably not otherwise legible on this PowerPoint slide, the entire territories encased by the thick red line reflect what Herod the Great originally ruled over and then the regions that were apportioned to his various sons.

The next slide contains a much more stylized map, not drawn as closely to scale, but which has the advantage of color-coding, to enable one to view how Herod’s empire was in fact divided up. The brown for Decapolis and neighboring cities, and in fact a slightly larger portion of land that should probably have been included in that area allotted to Herod Philip- Galilee and Perea. In the lighter tan or beigish color to Herod Antipas, and the golden rod, areas of Samaria and Judah, and even parts of Idumaea where Herod the Great originally came from, reflecting the domain that was originally given to Archalaeus, but because of his ruthlessness, was taken away in A.D. 6 and handed over instead to procurators who were directly appointed by Rome. Of a succession of these who ruled in the first century, the three who appear by name in the New Testament are Pontius Pilate, whose territory is outlined here, the procurator at the time of Jesus’ adult life and death and resurrection, and then later in the mid 50s governor Felix, and then at the end of the 50s the governor Festus, both of whom appear in the book of Acts in conjunction with the hearings held at which the apostle Paul was asked to testify.

The final slide in this lecture sums up how Roman rule was initially, from the crucifixion in 30, until around AD 64, more of a positive force than not, a fact often missed by those whose knowledge of this period is limited to movies like, say, Ben Hur. While Christians were still viewed as just another Jewish sect, they could be labeled a religio licia, or legal religion, and have the same exemption from having to worship and sacrifice to the emperor that Jews had. But as we read the book of Acts and some of the epistles concurrent with the period of time covered in the book of Acts, we see that consistently, the earliest hostility to the fledgling Jesus movement comes from fellow Jews, scandalized by what they view as their fellow co-religionists committing apostasy. It is only with the beginning of A.D. 64 and the great fire of Rome, when Nero already in power for 10 years, perhaps looking for a scapegoat for the start of the fire and the losses incurred in it, begins to unleash persecution against Christians, though limited largely to Rome and the immediate environs in Italy adjacent to it. Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear by the 60s that Christians are more than just another Jewish sect, and the clinching event to demonstrate this is their general refusal, including the refusal by most Jewish Christians to join in the Jewish Rebellion led by the Zealots at the end of the 60s and leading up to the war with Rome in A.D. 70, and the horrible massacre of Jewish freedom fighters, indeed the razing of the Temple and the burning of much of Jerusalem in its wake.

Finally we retape for lesson two, the segment that stands approximately two minutes through four minutes and forty two seconds:

Again we can separate the options into those aligned with the Jewish and those aligned with more dreadful Roman backgrounds. The Jewish options will prove far more significant for study of the life of Christ and the birth of Christianity, certainly within Israel but also to a significant extent elsewhere, simply because Christianity was the outgrowth and byproduct of the Jewish religion. We will therefore spend more time on the Jewish backgrounds, but begin by briefly considering the Greco-Roman side of religious life in the first century. It is interesting to ask the question what you or I might have been, what religion and what segment of that religion we would have identified with if we lived in the opening years of the first century before the Jesus movement was a religious option on the landscape.

The PowerPoint slide labeled “Non-Christian Religious Options in the First Century” begins with a pie chart of the Greco-Roman world and the first reasonably-sized piece of pie refers to devotees of the traditional mythology of Greece and/or Rome. We of course have no censuses that have been preserved with records of numbers or percentages of supporters of the various first-century religious options, and particularly in the Greco-Roman side of things, there would have been many who would have combined two or more potentially separable options, including combinations that were not always true to the genius or core thought of one or more of the options combined, combinations which scholars therefore refer to as syncretism, creating at least a portion of religious belief or practice that would have been heretical by one or more of the earlier religions or worldviews that have been combined together to form the new one.



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1 Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospels and Acts - Quiz 1

Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospels and Acts - Quiz 1


34 min

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