A brief history of 'Palestina' during the period between the Old and New Testaments.
What happened in the biblical lands during the period book-ended by accounts mentioned in the Old Testament and the New Testament writings? In the Prostestant canon of 66 books, which excludes tha Apocrypha and the Pseudepigrapha, not much is stated regarding events after the return of some of the exiles from Babylonia to Jerusalem. The New Testament begins with annunciation to Mary, that she will bear a child who is to be named Jesus.
Please note that while the OT describes events up until the 500s B.C., their dates of composition are largely undetermined with certainty. Similarly, the NT describes events from about 4 B.C. but they were first composed around the 50s A.D. The inter-testamental period therefore covers a period in excess of 500 years. To put this in perspective, it spans a period from the time of William Shakespeare to our own time.
This is the reason why students of the Bible find the resources of this period very important to set biblical history in context. It also greatly aids our interpretation of texts we encounter in both the OT and the NT. A study of this period also links biblical history to secular socio-political history of the Near East and affirms many of the historical claims found in both the testaments.
Powers that ruled Palestina
539-331 B.C. Persian Rule
331-143 B.C. Grecian Rule
142-63 B.C. Hasmodean Rule
63-4 B.C. Roman Rule
The Rise of Cyrus (626-539 B.C.)
The death of the Assyrian King Asshur-bani-pal in 626 B.C. set in motion a series of political events in the Near East that led to the surprising emergence of Cyrus of Anshan (tributary to the Medes) less than a hundred years later. By 608 B.C., Judah, which had been under Assyrian control, was now ruled by Egypt. But this did not last very long.
In 605 B.C., Pharaoh Necho was soundly defeated at the great battle of Carchemish by the upstart Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, who was destined to lead Babylonia to replace Assyria as the superpower. Misled by Egypt, King Jehoiakim of Judah revolted against Babylon in 597 B.C. despite the protests of the prophet Jeremiah. Jehoiakim died before the arrival of Nebuchadnezzar. His son Jehoiachin reigned for only 3 months – his singular achievement being the decision to surrender to Nebuchadnezzar. He was taken captive and died in Babylonia. His uncle Zedekiah was appointed the new puppet-king of Judah. After 10 years, Zedekiah himself was enticed by the Egyptians to revolt against Babylonia. This time, the response from Babylonia was staggering. King Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 586 B.C., sending yet another wave of captives into exile – destroying any remnant of the monarchy or of the nation of Judah.
Gedaliah was appointed governor of Judah with Jeremiah as the Babylonian-approved prophet. However, one Ishmael murdered the governor and his entourage, prompting a surviving senior official, Johanan, son of Kareah, to flee to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with him for safety (Jer. 41:11-18). The situation for the Jews was politically hopeless. They looked to the kingdom of Media for possible salvation, hoping that it could topple Babylonia. But that was not to be. Instead, Judah’s savior was an unknown warrior named Cyrus.
In 550 B.C. Cyrus of Anshan revolted against King Astyages of Media and succeeded when the Median army mutinied and handed its own king to Cyrus, who was then crowned the new king of the Medes. Three years later, Cyrus became known as king of Persia. This double achievement marked the emergence of the Medo-Persian Empire - the greatest civilization in the world to date, stretching from modern Iran in the east to Europe in the west, and to Ethiopia in the south. Alarmed by this supreme warrior, Babylonia allied with Lydia, Egypt and Sparta to put a stop to the Persian expansion.
In 547 B.C. Croesus of Lydia crossed the river Halys, which marked the eastern boundary of his jurisdiction and attacked the Persians. He then retired to Sardis to spend out the winter, agreeing with his three allies to join forces in the spring against Cyrus. To avoid having to fight on several fronts, Cyrus did not wait. He followed Croesus to Sardis and roundly defeated the Lydians. The Delphian oracle was reported to have told Croesus that if he crossed the river Halys he would destroy a mighty empire. He did. It was his own.
The next kingdom to fall to Cyrus was Armenia. This was subsequently followed by Babylonia itself. The last king of Babylonia was the scholarly Nabonidus, who set himself up in retirement while his regent, Belshazzar, ruled Babylonia. In 539 B.C. Cyrus advanced to defeat the army of the fabled empire, to become … also, king of Babylonia.
From a biblical and theological perspective, it was as if the short-lived Babylonian empire (605-539 B.C.) emerged specifically to punish the Judeans until God was ready for their return to Judah.
1. Persian Rule: 539-331 B.C.
1.1 Persian Strength: 539-423 B.C.
Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonians and permitted the dispersed nations to return to their homelands. The Jews (Judeans) returned to Jerusalem and the rest of Judah under Zerubabbel in 538 B.C. and under Ezra in 457 B.C. Nehemiah came to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in 444 B.C. and remained in Jerusalem until 433 B.C., when he returned to Persia, before a final return back to Judah in 423 B.C.
1.2 Persian Decline: 423-331 B.C.
Darius II protected the Jews from Egypt but his son, Artaxerxes II defiled the temple at Jerusalem. He imposed heavy fines on the Jews but the Samaritans escaped persecution. In the end, he was poisoned to death. His son, Arses, was made king.
Arses himself was murdered and was succeeded by Darius III. This new king himself escaped death by poisoning. But soon after his ascension, the Macedonians threatened Persia.
Philip II, of Macedon was murdered as he prepared to battle the Persians. His son Alexander III, the Great avenged this setback when he defeated Darius III, and went on to carve out the Greek Empire which his father began in 338 B.C. (not to be confused with the Greek Democracy, 403-338 B.C., which followed the Greek Tyranny of the Thirty Tyrants, 404-403 B.C.).
2. Grecian Rule: 331-143 B.C.
2.1 Alexander III, the Great: 331-323 B.C.
At the age of 20, Alexander took to the throne and soon consolidated the Hellenic League. In Palestine, he permitted the Jews to keep their religious practices. Some say this was because he believed them when they informed him that the rise of Greece as destroyer of Persia was prophesied in the sacred book of Daniel. He went on to conquer territory all the way to India, where he sustained fatal battle wounds and died before he could return to Macedonia.
2.2 Ptolemaic Rule: 323-198 B.C.
2.2.1 Division of the empire: 323-301 B.C.
At his death, Alexander failed to appoint a successor. This set off a power grab among his generals. A compromised reached was the co-rulership of his half-sane brother Arrhidaeus (renamed Philip) and his Bactrian wife, Roxanne, with general Perdiccas as regent. The empire was divided into more than 20 satrapies.
The satrap Ptolemy of Egypt seized the body of Alexander in Syria as it was being transported to Macedonia for burial. He had the body of Alexander buried in Egypt. In response, general Perdiccas attacked Egypt but was killed in the attempt by the mutiny of his own generals, among whom was Seleucus. The regency of Perdiccas was replaced by Antipater, and later, by Antigonus I Monopthalmus (the one-eyed), who wanted to ‘unify’ the empire directly under himself.
Seleucus of Babylonia formed a coalition with the satraps Ptolemy, Lysimachus, and Cassander against the regent Antigonus. In 311 B.C., following a series of battles between Antigonus and the alliance of four, Selecus was acknowledged ruler of Babylonia. This was the beginning of the Seleucid empire.
When the dust settled and Antigonus died in battle in 301 B.C. these four commanders inherited the empire of Alexander:
1. Ptolemy I Soter ruled Egypt and Palestine from his capital in Alexandria. He died in 283 B.C. It was this dynasty that he began which the Romans finally defeated in 31 B.C. at the battle of Actium, signaling the end of the Hellenistic period.
2. Seleucus I Nicator ruled Syria and Phrygia as far as the Indus from his capital in Antioch
3. Lysimachus ruled Thrace and Bithynia, and
4. Cassander ruled Macedonia for only 4 years before his death in 297 B.C. Macedon was eventually lost to the descendents of Antigonus, founder of the Antigonid dynasty, one of the three Hellenistic dynasties along with the Ptolemaic and the Seleucid.
The division of Alexander’s empire among the four satraps
In 22 years Palestine changed hands 6 times.
Ptolemy I Soter, king of Hellenistic Egypt
2.2.2 Domination of the Ptolemies, 301-198 B.C.
Following the fourfold division of Alexander’s old empire, a short peace ensued. But in 282 B.C. Ptolemy I Soter died and was succeeded by Ptolemy II Philadelphus. In 281 B.C. Seleucus was restless to gain control of his beloved Macedonia, so he crossed the Hellespont and invaded Europe, in violation of the common agreement of the four satraps. But he was soon assassinated and succeeded by his son, Antiochus I Soter. In the confusion, Antigonus Gonatus, son of Demetrius of the Antigonid household, gained control of Macedon.
The result was the survival of three superpower dynasties :
The house of Seleucus over Babylon, Upper Syria and Asia Minor
The house of Ptolemy over Egypt and Lower Syria
The house of Antigonus over Europe
Disagreements over who should rule over Lower Syria (Coele-Syria) erupted between the houses of Ptolemy (Ptolemy II) and Seleucus (Antiochus I) and the first of the four Syrian wars ensued.
188.8.131.52 The First Syrian War, c.273 B.C.
184.108.40.206 The Second Syrian War, c.250s B.C.
220.127.116.11 The Third Syrian War, 246-241 B.C.
18.104.22.168 The Fourth Syrian War, 219-217 B.C.
In 201 B.C., the fate of the Jews would change. Antiochus III invaded Palestine and captured Gaza. In defeat, Ptolemy V granted the Jews freedom of worship, released their prisoners and exempted temple officials from tax. But this was to last only 3 years. From 198 B.C. until Roman control in 63 B.C., the Jews came under the Seleucid dynasty, and soon experienced fierce persecution.
2.3 Seleucid Rule: 198-143 B.C.
Selecus I Nicator
2.3.1 Seleucid Control: 198-168 B.C.
In 197 B.C., the successors of the two dynasties made peace. Antiochus III, the Great made a treaty with Ptolemy V Epiphanes in which Ptolemy would marry Antiochus’ daughter, Cleopatra. He hoped that any future grandson of his from this marriage might rule Egypt with a positive disposition to the Seleucids, the people on his mother’s side.
In 187 B.C., Antiochus III was succeeded by his son, Seleucus IV Philopator. Seleucus IV was assassinated by Heliodorus in 175 B.C. Another son of Antiochus III, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, avenged his brother’s death and made himself king. The priests in Jerusalem formed rival factions, with the pro-Ptolemaic high priest Onias challenged by his pro-Seleucid brother Jason. In 174 B.C., Antiochus IV made Jason the high priest after he offered a larger bribe to the king than his brother Onias and promising to make a wholesale Hellenization of the Jerusalemites (1 Macc. 1:10-15; 2 Macc. 4:4-17). However, in 171 B.C. Jason lost his office to Menelaus who offered an even larger bribe to the king. Menelaus plundered the temple and was attacked by Jason and his supporters. He took refuge in Acra. When Antiochus himself also stole from the temple, this stirred up the wrath of the people and led to the Maccabean Revolt.
2.3.2 Maccabean Revolt: 168-143 B.C.
22.214.171.124 Antiochus’ Vengeance: 168-166 B.C.
To appease the might of Rome, Antiochus put pressure on the Jews to abandon their national religion in favor of Hellenization. He ordered the destruction of copies of the Torah and commanded the Jews to eat swine meat. The observance of the Sabbath was forbidden.
126.96.36.199 Mattathias: 166 B.C.
While every Palestinian village was ordered to set up a heathen altar for ritual sacrifice, in the village of Modein, a priest named Mattathias refused to comply. When another Jew offered to do so in his place before the king’s agent, Mattathias killed both the other Jew and the agent. He also tore down the altar and declared his resistance to Antiochus, calling for supporters to join him and his 5 sons (John, Simon, Judas , Eleazar, and Jonathan) as they fled to the mountains. The Hasidim sect joined them to begin the Maccabean revolt , the struggle to resist Hellenization of the Jews. They did not hesitate to kill fellow Jews who complied with Antiochus. When Mattathias died in 166 B.C., his third son Judas took over the leadership.
188.8.131.52 Judas Maccabeus: 166-160 B.C.
Within 2 years, Judas had regained almost the entire region of Palestine except for Acra. In 164 B.C., he marched into Jerusalem and restored the temple. He replaced the pagan altar with a Jewish one and appointed priests who resisted the Seleucids. Finally, he reinstituted the practice of daily sacrifices at the temple. This marked the beginning of the Jewish Feast of Dedication (Light) – what today, we refer to as Hanukkah.
Although Judas was defeated by Antiochus V Eupator, who succeeded his father Antiochus IV, rumors of a pending attack on Syria by the Persians led to a relaxing of the terms of surrender. The Jews were given back their religious freedom even though they were still under Syrian rule. However, when Judas pressed for political freedom, he was met with another wave of enforced Hellenization upon the Jews. Relief came from another quarter.
In 162 B.C. Antiochus V was murdered by his cousin, Demetrius I Soter, who became king. He confirmed the appointment of Alcimus as high priest for the Jews. Alcimus was originally welcomed by the Hasidim who were prepared to break off from Judas as long as the high priest favored their concerns. But Alcimus reneged on his word and killed 60 Hasidim. Warfare broke out between Judas and the Syrian authorities, resulting in the death of Judas in 160 B.C. at the battle of Elasa.
184.108.40.206 Jonathan: 160-143 B.C.
Jonathan, the youngest brother of Judas, took over a badly demoralized army and his resistance movement made Michmash its new headquarters. His rule was helped by internal quarrels in Syria. When Alexander Balas challenged Demetrius I for the throne of Syria, Jonathan supported Alexander.
In 150 B.C., Alexander killed Demetrius I in battle and became king of Syria. He rewarded Jonathan with the triple title of governor, general and high priest of Judah.
In 145B.C., Demetrius II Nicator, son of Demetrius I, killed Alexander for the throne.
In 143 B.C. the army of Demetrius rebelled, led by general Diodotus Tryphon, who claimed the Syrian throne for Alexander Balas’ son, Antiochus VI. Jonathan supported Tryphon and was rewarded with authority over both the civil and religious aspects of Jewish life. His brother Simon was made commander of the military. But, fearful of Jonathan’s increasing power, Tryphon had Jonathan murdered that same year.
3. Hasmonean Rule: 142-63 B.C.
The Hasmonean rule marks the success of the Maccabean revolt in establishing Israel’s independence, sort of. The Hasmonean dynasty refers to the period of Simon’s rule until 63 B.C.
3.1 Simon: 143-135 B.C.
In Syria, Tryphon killed Antiochus VI and reigned in his place as a rival to Demetrius. II. Since Tryphon killed his brother Jonathan, Simon aligned himself with Demetrius II. In return, he was given authority over southern Syria, of which he had little control anyway. Simon seized the fortress of Gazzara, expelled the Gentiles living there, and replaced them with Jewish settlements. He appointed his son John Hyrcanus as governor. Commemorating Simon’s achievements, the Jews in 140 B.C. made him high priest forever, until a faithful prophet should arise. This was a major change in the lineage of the Jewish high priesthood. It was formerly of the house of Onias, until 174 B.C., when Jason bribed his way to acquire it, and the Syrian king became the benefactor of the office. Now it belongs to the line of the Hasmoneans, i.e., the line of Simon.
In 139 B.C., Antiochus VII Sidetes took over from Demetrius II, who was captured by the Parthians. When Simon lost interest in helping the new king, he was marked for assassination. He survived the attempt, only to be killed along with his two sons by his own son-in-law, Ptolemy, in 135 B.C. Simon’s second son, John Hyrcanus I, avoided capture and took over from his father.
3.2 Hyrcanus I: 135-104 B.C.
John Hyrcanus I succeeded his father Simon as high priest. But he was soon to lose Judah’s independence when Antiochus VII besieged Jerusalem for over a year and forced the city into submission. Relief came to the Jews from an unexpected quarter. In 129 B.C., Antiochus died while launching a successful attack against the Parthians. This won the release of Demetrius II, who reclaimed his Syrian throne.
But distracted by internal troubles and Judah’s alliance with Rome, Syria left Judah alone. This encouraged Hyrcanus I to go on a campaign of extending his borders. He conquered lands in Transjordan and surrounding areas. In a fit of mean-spiritedness, he also destroyed the Samaritan temple. Finally, he captured Idumean cities and forced the Jewish law upon them, making the men undergo circumcision on pain of death. He died in 104 B.C., leaving 5 sons.
3.3 Aristobulus I: 104-103 B.C.
Hyrcanus I’s oldest son, Aristobulus I ruled for only a year. But during this reign of terror, he imprisoned his own mother, who died of starvation; imprisoned all his brothers except Antigonus whom he appointed co-ruler, until he later had him killed; and conquered Galilee, compelling its inhabitants to be circumcised. Why did he turn on his own family? He had feared that his mother would take the throne that he felt was his to inherit because his father had intimated that she would have the first right of refusal.
3.4 Alexander Janneus: 103-76 B.C.
After his death, the widow of Aristobulus I released his brothers from prison and appointed one of them, Alexander Janneus, king and high priest. Oh yes, and she married him. He also went on a conquering spree and took much of Gaza and the coastal cities, forcing the Jewish law on its inhabitants. He was a drunkard and during a Feast of the Tabernacle, poured the water of libation over his feet instead of on the altar, as prescribed by Pharisaic ritual. On the matter of the religious rivalry, the Hasmoneans were closer to the Sadducees than to the Pharisees, so this act was seen as a deliberate slight on the Pharisees. When the angry pro-Pharisaic worshippers pelted him with lemons, he responded with military action that killed over 6000 Jews.
Desperate, the Pharisees called upon the Seleucid Demetrius III Eukairos for help. In an ensuing battle, Janneus fled to the hills. But he later managed to fight back and Demetrius III retreated. Janneus regained his throne. To punish the Pharisees for calling upon Demetrius, he ordered 8000 of them to be crucified. But first they were forced to witness the execution of their wives and children.
3.5 Salome Alexandra and Hyrcanus II: 76-67 B.C.
Janneus died in 76 B.C. but at his deathbed, appointed his wife Salome Alexandra as his successor. She appointed their eldest son Hyrcanus II the new high priest and made peace with the Pharisees, signaling the emergence of Pharisaic dominance in Jerusalem. However, her younger son, Aristobulus II sided with the Sadducees. Only one religious sect could be accommodated and with Alexandra’s permission, the Sadducees left the city and made their homes in other districts. Upon Alexandra’s death, Hyrcanus II ascended the throne – but it was short lived, only 3 months. His brother Aristobulus II declared war on him and forced him to surrender the crown.
3.6 Aristobulus II: 67-63 B.C.
Hyrcanus II was tempted to take back his crown and sided with the Idumeans to defeat Aristobulus. When a stalemate ensued, both sides bribed Roman general Pompey, who was marching through Asia Minor, to decide whom should prevail. The price of Roman power was 400 talents and Aristobulus’ bribe was preferred. But Pompey wanted to delay his decision until after his campaign against the Nabateans. The Jews were expected to participate in the Roman cause. Aristobulus was fed up of waiting and withdrew support for Pompey against the Nabateans. In anger, Pompey dropped the Nabatean campaign and instead, turned on Aristobulus. In 63 B.C., Pompey laid siege on Jerusalem for 3 months and demanded its surrender. While Aristobulus’ men held the gate, Hyrcanus II took advantage of the situation against his brother and sent his men to open the gates to let Pompey in. The Roman general killed 12,000 Jews that day. This ended the Hasmonean rule. Aristobulus II and his sons, Antigonus and Alexander, were taken to Rome as prisoners of war. Hyrcanus II was appointed high priest but not king and became a mere vassal of Rome.
4. Roman Rule: 63-4 B.C.
4.1 Hyrcanus II: 63-40 B.C.
Although Hyrcanus II was the high priest, it was Antipater II, governor of Idumea, who was the real kingmaker. He and his Arabian wife Cypros had 4 sons: Phasael, Herod , Joseph, Pheroras and a daughter, Salome.
When Julius Caesar defeated Pompey in Egypt in 48 B.C., Antipater II and Hyrcanus II promptly joined the new Roman master. Julius appointed Antipater II procurator of Judah and Hyrcanus II, Ethnarch of the Jews. In 47 B.C., Antipater II appointed his son Phasael governor of Jerusalem and his son Herod governor of Galilee.
In 44 B.C. Julius Caesar was murdered. Cassius and others of the Roma elite came to Syria. Antipater instructed his sons to raise further taxes to impress the Romans. Herod became betrothed to Mariamne, the granddaughter of Hyrcanus II, further strengthening his position among the Jews.
In 42 B.C., Anthony defeated Cassius and asked Hyrcanus II to select whom to rule Judea. Upon Hyrcanus II’s recommendation, Anthony appointed Herod and Phasael tetrarchs of Judea.
4.2 Antigonus: 40-37 B.C.
In 40 B.C., when the Parthians appeared in Syria, they joined Antigonus, the son of Aristobulus, in trying to remove Hyrcanus II from power. When they could not proceed with victory, they sued for peace and invited Hyrcanus and Phasael to meet them at Galilee, whereupon the Parthian king put them in chains. Fearing for his life, Herod fled to Masada and then on to Petra. Antigonus was crowned ‘king’. The Hasmonean rule was briefly revived. To prevent Hyrcanus II from reclaiming the high priesthood, Antigonus had him mutilated. Herod went to Rome where he was designated king of Judea. In early 39 B.C., he returned to Palestine with Anthony’s legate, Sossius, and captured Galilee. In 37 B.C., Jerusalem fell to him. At Herod’s request, the Romans beheaded Antigonus, ending once for all, the Hasmonean dynasty.
4.3 Herod the Great: 37-4 B.C.
Herod had at least four enemy groups to contend with: (a) the Pharisees (because he is a half-Jew), (b) the aristocracy, many of whose friends he executed, (c) the remnants of the Hasmonean family, especially Alexandra, mother of Mariamne, whose son Herod arranged to be drowned, and (d) Cleopatra VII of Egypt.
In 32 B.C., civil war broke out between Antony and Octavius. At the battle of Actium a year later, Octavius defeated Antony, who subsequently committed suicide with Cleopatra in 30 B.C. Herod then had Hyrcanus II executed to demonstrate his loyalty to Octavius and later, killed his own wife Mariamne in 29 B.C. as well as her mother Alexandra a year later. Finally, to ensure that no male relatives of Hyrcanus II survived to ever challenge him for the throne, he executed his brother-in-law, Costobarus.
Herod carefully appeased both the Jewish and Roman expectations and built a royal palace and Gentile temples as well as a Jewish temple in Jerusalem, begun in c.20 B.C. He married 10 wives: Doris, Mariamne I (Hyrcanus II’s granddaughter), Mariamne II, the Samaritan Malthace, Cleopatra of Jerusalem, Pallas, Phaedra, Elpsis and two unnamed women. His warring sons caused him to change his will which named his successor, several times.
Shortly before his death, he faced the troubling news from the magi, which led Herod to massacre all the male children of Bethlehem two years, and under. He was now 70 years old. His final will named Archelaus as king but after his death, the Romans converted the title to Ethnarch instead.
5. Literary Activity
During this period, literary activity within the various sects of Judaism centered on the Septuagint, the Greek text of the Jewish/Hebrew scriptures.
6. Spiritual Conditions
The increasing importance of the synagogue eclipsed the former dominance of the temple. With the synagogue came the power of the rabbis over the priesthood. The religion became more personal than corporate. Ritualism was overtaken by observance of Torah. The long suffering from persecution ignited a rise in Messianic expectation as seen in the increase of apocalyptic literature. It appears that God would send a messiah to destroy the enemies of the Jews and set up a promised messianic kingdom.
It was during this period that the Pharisees (‘the separated ones’), the Sadducees and the Essenes were becoming distinct groups and the figure of the Messiah took shape.
The Sadducees may have taken their name in honor of Zadok, the original high priest of Jerusalem appointed by King Solomon to the exclusion of Abiathar. Their priesthood was Zadokite, rather than Aaronic. They favored intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles. Apparently, they were on good terms with the Persian official Sanballat, who mocked the Jews (Judeans who returned from exile) in the presence of the Samarian army (Israelites who stayed behind) when they were trying to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem (Neh. 4:2).
The Pharisees were eager to convert (Matt. 23:15), perhaps Gentiles, to their beliefs. The Mishnah, for which they were largely responsible, records dealings between Jews and Gentiles. The origin of their name is probably found in Chasidim, the men who placed loyalty to the Law (Torah/Pentateuch) above all else. Although the word chasid is related to the Hebrew word chesed (mercy, loving-kindness), over time, it came to mean those who were devoted to the Law, and translated as holy ones, pious ones, or saints. However, unlike the Hasidic Jews in our time, the Pharisees were very missionary in their attitude to the Gentiles.
How were they different? On the whole, the Sadducees were supported by the elite while the Pharisees were the common peoples’ party. While the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the body, the Sadducees believed in the Sheol doctrine . The Sadducees held only to the Law of Moses and rejected the Oral Tradition as well as the Prophets, to the exasperation of the Pharisees. For the Sadducees, angels and spirits did not exist and unlike the Pharisees, they rejected any notion of a Messiah.
The Essenes arose during the second century B.C. and shared with the Pharisees a horror of giving formal allegiance to any king except God. In c. 21 B.C., King Herod excused these two groups from the requirement to make any formal oath of allegiance to him. The Essenes comprise of several sects.
While they took vows of celibacy and extreme asceticism, some sects permitted the adoption of children whom they brought up in their beliefs. Others permitted trial marriages that would last 3 years during which if a child was born, the marriage would be ratified. They typically lived in Orders of brotherhoods and held all property in common. They had hostels in various towns to provide hospitality for traveling Essenes. Would-be initiates had to undergo a 4-year probation. Their goal was to preserve ritual purity in the presence of what they saw to be an unholy relaxation of spiritual standards in the cities of Israel, hence their retreat into the desert. They sought to observe justice for all men and taught themselves to hate the wicked but to help the just. One curious and inexplicable practice was their custom of praying to the sun.
Note the great amount of intra-Jewish conflict after the return from Babylonian exile. Unlike the Assyrian exile of the 10 tribes of Israel (northern kingdom), in which no identifiable return to Palestine took place, the Babylonian exilic return came with high expectations of religious significance clouded by cultural and nationalistic aspirations. So intense was the nationalism that fellow Jews in the north and even southern Jews, who were left behind because they were not deemed the cream of the Judean crop, were despised as unworthy of association.
The Christian community claims to be the spiritual successors of YHWH’s promise to the chosen people. As such, we can learn much from this period during which many of the problems that beset NT Jews and later, Christians, took root.
Among the many issues, consider (a) the role of the Pharisees in religious life and their strong rivalry with the Sadducees, (b) the intense hatred of Samaritans who were considered polluted, (c) the change from the religion of Moses and priests to the new religion of the rabbis, (d) the complicated communal hatred for their former Syrian masters (see how topical and current all this is?) and their ambiguity to their Roman masters who ‘liberated’ Judah from Syria, (e) the new interpretation of what it means to be a chosen people following all the calamities that befell them, and (f) the roles that physical land and race play in the interpretation of Judaism.
This was not to be the first time that Judaism underwent massive reinterpretation. It was to happen again after the holocaust of world war two.
In its long history, much soul searching within Jewry gave rise to the many sects of Judaism, one of which transformed itself into a truly global religion – Christianity.
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2. Burn, A. R. The Lyric Age: The Greek World, c.750-510 BC London: The Folio Society. 2002.
3. Burn, A. R. The Persian Wars: The Greeks and the Defense of the West, c.546-478 BC. London: The Folio Society. 2002.
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6. Gruen, Erich S. Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1998.
7. Harrison, R. K. Introduction to the Old Testament. Peabody: Hendrickson. 1969.
8. Hoehner. Harold W. “Between the Testaments” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 1979.
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Written by Rev. R. Choong for Project Timothy, Academy for Christian Thought. www.actministry.org