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Between Two Testaments: The Background of First Century Palestine

Updated on November 20, 2017

The Background of the Intertestamental Period

Brief Overview of Israel and Judah

When the ancestors of Israel entered into the promised land, ending their sojourn in the wilderness, they first were ruled by the prophets and high priests, then by appointed judges, and finally by kings. The Israeli monarchy, however, was ill fated, and in the wake of King Solomon’s rule (Solomon died in the latter half of the tenth century [between 940-920B.C.]) the ten northern tribes revolted. These ten tribes established for themselves a separate monarchy, forming the nation of Israel, henceforth, those who remained in loyal submission to Solomon’s successor were known as the nation of Judah1. If times had been difficult as a unified nation, Israel and Judah fared no better apart; weakened by revolts, successions, and the faithlessness and disobedience of their rulers they atrophied.

Israel and Judah sat in the crossroads of the Middle East; perfectly situated along the trade routes between Egypt in the south, Tyre and Sidon in the west, Assyria in the north, and, the great powers of the eastern interior such as the Chaldeans. Their kingdoms weak, but their land desirable, they became victims of imperial conquests.

Israel and the origin of the Samaritans

In 722B.C. Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and its tribes dispersed across the whole of that empire. As was the goal of such dispersion, these tribes quickly abandoned their faith and their former people, disappearing into the mists of time as the “Ten lost tribes of Israel.”

In the place of the Israelites, foreign settlers were brought to the land of Israel, bringing with them their own gods and customs. However, as we will see, the pagan religions were often characterized by “religious syncretism” – a willingness to accept and honor other gods alongside their own. Because of this syncretistic tendency, the Assyrian settlers included the name of “Yahweh” in their pantheon. But Yahweh is not a god to be worshiped alongside others, he is The God alone, and so, although they were unwilling to abandon their old gods altogether, remarkably they subordinated these lesser deities, becoming non-Jewish worshipers of God known as the Samaritans.

Judah

Judah was spared from the Assyrian conquest, but a series of events led to its conquest by the Neo-Babylonian Empire in the late 7th century under Nebuchadnezzar II. Shortly afterward, vast numbers of Jews, particularly among the wealthy and skilled, were removed and resettled in Babylon in an event known as the Babylonian Captivity c. 597 B.C. An attempted revolt against the Neo-Babylonians resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and an additional deportation.

The Jews may never have been returned to their homeland if not for an uprising in Media, (a province of the Babylonian Empire in modern Iran) which rapidly spread, bringing about the total collapse of Babylonia and the rise of the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great. According to Ezra (chapter 1), God put it in Cyrus’ mind to decree that the people of Judah would return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. Construction on the new temple started c. 534B.C., but opposition from factions among the Jews resulted in work being stopped. The temple was eventually finished c. B.C.515. The region remained under Persian control until a new power arose, one which would set the stage for the birth of Christ’s church – Macedonia.

The Babylonian Captivity - Tissot
The Babylonian Captivity - Tissot

The Intertestamental Period

Setting the Stage (B.C. 332-A.D.)

The Macedonian Conquest

When Alexander the Great took the Macedonian throne, he embarked on a series of ambitious and far reaching campaigns which resulted in the capture of The Levant in B.C.332. His aim was not only to conquer the world, he also desired to bring the culture and national character of Greece and Macedon to the world, a process known as “Hellenization.”

The purpose of Hellenization was to unify Macedon’s expansive holdings under a single identity. By phasing out the individual, national patriotism of conquered peoples and replacing them with a new, homogenous culture, the Macedonians hoped to make their conquered subjects more flexible while not posing any apparent threat to long held traditions and beliefs.

The most significant manifestations of Hellenization were the spread of Greek learning and Philosophy, the Greek language (which became the common language of trade and academia), and religious syncretism – the incorporation of other gods into the national pantheon. Although there is no time to do justice to the topic here, Greek philosophy and language laid the groundwork for the spread of the early church even beyond the eastern borders of the later Roman Empire. Religious syncretism, on the other hand, would ironically prove the basis for many centuries of persecution, first against the Jews and then against the Christians.

From a secular perspective, Alexander’s hopes for a world united under High Hellenistic culture proved vain. Alexander the Great died in 323B.C. and his Empire was divided among his former generals who struggled endlessly for supremacy, but its legacy would prove of supreme importance to the spread of the early church.

The Seleucids and the Maccabean Revolt

With Alexander’s Empire dissolved, the region of Palestine once again found itself in the midst of a great power struggle between nations. In Egypt, Alexander’s once general, Ptolemy I sought to gain control of the region before one of his rivals could snatch it away. In the east, another general, Seleucus, also sought control. The region would trade hands frequently, but by 305B.C. Seleucus had established an Empire of his own from the Indus River in the east to Palestine and Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the west; his kingdom became known as the Seleucid Empire and would play the most important role in the unfolding history of Israel.

After another period of occupation by the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, Palestine was retaken by the Seleucids under Antiochus IV. The Seleucids had continued the Hellenization of their domain that Alexander had begun, but one people in particular remained singularly reluctant to allow themselves to be blended into the culture of Pagan Greece – the Jews of Palestine. The Hellenized world had long since developed a since of Greek-cultural elitism (hegemony), which resulted in superior status for Greeks and Hellenists (non-greeks who embraced Greek culture), it also resulted in much resentment from those not a part of this elite class. From their beginning, the Jews had been marked as a people set apart, a Messianic people bound by covenant with God to be distinct, but Antiochus IV was not interested in their history or their God. He began to instate a series of increasingly harsh measures to force the Jews to join the rest of the Seleucid world. The Jews were forced to construct shrines and idols to pagan gods, to sacrifice ritually unclean animals, to break the Sabbath, they were forbidden to sacrifice in the temple, and even to circumcise their sons. Unrest was brewing, but one last outrage would be perpetrated before they came to blows. In B.C. 167B, Antiochus IV ordered a statue of Zeus erected in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Under the leadership of Judas Maccabaeus, the Jews revolted. In 164A.D. the Temple was rededicated to God in an event still celebrated as Hanukah, but it required a quarter of a century of war before the Jews regained a measure of autonomy.

The Hasmonean Priesthood

Although (or perhaps because) the Maccabean kings quickly allowed themselves to succumb to the Hellenizing pressures they had fought so hard against when it was forced upon them, the Maccabean revolt had a major impact on the social structure of the Jews in Palestine. In an attempt to placate the rebellious Maccabees, the Seleucids appointed a member of the Maccabee family as High Priest of Israel, the first of the “Hasmonean Line”. When the Seleucid Empire collapsed at the end of the second century, the Hasmonean Line survived as an autonomous kingdom until the region was annexed into the Roman Empire half a century later in 63B.C..

The Hasmonean Priesthood presented a problem however; under Jewish law, the High Priesthood could only stem from the line of Aaron (The High Priestly line). This Hasmonean Line was merely a ruling family, but they had gained a great deal of power and popularity as defenders of the Jewish nation, and because of this, the strict upholders of the law were increasingly alienated from the ruling elite of Palestine. This began a schism among the Jews which was solidified by the birth of Christ. The upper classes, accepting to some degree of Jewish law but otherwise skeptical and irreligious, were known as the Sadducees, the strict adherents to The Law and the Prophets were relegated to the common people and became known as the Pharisees. This later group, in the face of constant pressures from skeptical Sadducees and Hellenists, sought to find ways to keep the law in every possible aspect of life to the point that many became guilty of sheer legalism, a critique which has since become synonymous with the name of Pharisee.

Roman Occupation

The last Hasmonean king was appointed by Julius Caesar as Ethnarc (ruler of the nation) – a vassal king over the region. He was a weak ruler, however, and his ineffectual governing allowed a cunning social climber by the name of Antipater to assume control as an agent of Rome. Antipater instated his sons as governors in the region, the most notable of whom is Herod I. Herod became a tetrarch ("ruler of a fourth portion" or "ruler of four") and, after a Parthian invasion which overtook the region was repulsed, King of Judea from 37-4B.C., though he had no supporting lineage to claim such a position.

Herod I (The Great_37-4B.C.) improved the temple in Jerusalem and was king of Judea at the birth of Christ. Upon his death the region was appointed to his three sons as tetrarchs – Archelaus over Judea and Samaria, Herod Antipas over Galilee, and Philip over the northeastern quarter of Judea. Phillip’s tetrarchy would be passed down to his nephew, Herod Agrippa I, who was a zealous supporter of the orthodox Jews and persecuted the Jewish Christians, executed James son of Zebedee, and imprisoned the Apostle Peter. In 44A.D., Herod Agrippa hosted spectacular games at Caesarea where he was struck suddenly ill and died.

Upon Herod Agrippa’s death, the region was returned to the status of a Roman province under the rule of Procurators. The Jews attempted once again to revolt against their masters in a conflict known as the Jewish Revolt (66-73A.D.). The rebellion, however, was crushed with brutal force, Jerusalem was devastated, the second temple utterly demolished, and the many Jews dispersed across the Empire. Following the Second Jewish Revolt (c. 132-135A.D.) the Jewish nation vanished from the region.


Steps leading up to the courtyard of the Temple of Jerusalem, excavated by Benjamin Mazar
Steps leading up to the courtyard of the Temple of Jerusalem, excavated by Benjamin Mazar

Takeaways

The Assyrian immigrants to vanquished Israel conformed in time to the worship of God, although it is unclear if the Samaritans ever fully abandoned their ancient gods and those of the Hellenistic world. The Jews of Judah resented the Samaritans and their offerings to God – thus formed a longstanding resentment between the Jewish worshippers of God and the non-Jewish Samaritans.

The Macedonian conquest of the Levant and the resultant Hellenization of the east as far as the Indus valley paved the way for the spread of the Gospel. Even in India, at the far end of the defunct Seleucid Empire, an early Christian church is known to have developed.2 Two major factors involved in facilitating this spread were the Greek language, and Greek philosophy (to be addressed in another article)

Religious Syncretism was a hallmark of ancient religions, particularly in Greece and Rome. The dedication to one God shown by the Jews (and later Christians) was unique and frustrating to the plans of Hellenizing powers. For this reason, Syncretism became the prime motivation for the persecution of Jews and Christians throughout their history.

The establishment of the Maccabean kings as high priests over Israel resulted in the schism between the ruling classes (eventually the Sadducees) and the strict adherents to the law among the people (The Pharisees). The Sadducees approved of the law, but remained religious skeptics, the Pharisees sought to uphold the law in every facet of life to the point that many became legalistic traditionalists.


Dates

10th Century B.C. – Division of Israel and Judah

722B.C. – Assyrian occupation of Israel

c. 597B.C. – Neo-Babylonian Captivity (The first deportation)

559 B.C. – Rise of the Persian Empire under Cyrus

534B.C. – Return of Exiles, construction of the 2nd temple begins

332 B.C. – Macedonian Conquest of the Levant

305-64B.C. – Seleucid Empire

63A.D. – Occupation of Palestine under Pompey

B.C.37-44A.D. – Herodian line

66-73A.D. – Jewish Revolt (destruction of the temple in 70A.D.)




Footnotes

1. 1 Kings, chapter 12

2. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol I.


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