Wednesday, October 01, 2003

Between the Testaments

This is an effort to give a little more understanding to the context of the New Testament, which will make the text more rich as we read and study it. I have tried to be careful with the complexity of names and events and have tried to eliminate the typos. Please forgive my fallibility if anything is misprinted or misunderstood. The text of Brisco, Ferguson and Metzger were of unbelievable help.
Note: Please do not post, edit or publish this elsewhere without prior written permission.If you quote or if you use this material please give reference to the source.

An Introduction to the Backgrounds of Early Christianity
Brisco, Thomas. The Holman Bible Atlas. Broadman and Holman: Nashville. 1998.
Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, second edition. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids. 1993.
Metzger, Bruce. The New Testament: its background, growth and content. Abingdon: Nashville. 1965.


In Galatians chapter 4 (verses 3-5) Paul writes: “So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental (rudimentary teachings or principles) things of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that he might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” Those words run deep and tell us that the appearance of Jesus on this earth, at that certain moment was something more that ordinary, that those happenings had a distinctive goal. Therefore, those words teach us that history itself is more than ordinary. Time is no longer just a social, political or ethnic history but that it is salvation history. Paul, the author of Galatians, along with the writers of the gospels and the other epistles agree that God is at work not to keep things broken and fragmented, but that He has come to redeem and reconcile, to fix what is broken. Paul assumes that knowledge of and participation in God’s work will mature us and break the bondage of the elemental teachings we have been duped (willingly or unwillingly) into believing.

It is our duty as believers to not give ourselves to the false superstitions of manmade teachings. We are all theologians because we are believers. We, therefore, must study not only the text but the context so that we might be able to avoid pretext (Brad Sargent). It is crucial for us to understand what Paul meant when he said, “when the fullness of the time came.” What is the historical background? What were the puzzle pieces that were used to create this picture? How can we better appreciate the Bible in light of its historical, political and philosophical background? That is our task.

Between the Testaments
The Old Testament ends its history books telling us that the Persian Empire has a firm grip on Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. The New Testament begins and ends with Rome being the dominating force. However, if you read 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel you will see that there were other kingdoms involved in the shaping of the Jewish people.

Solomon died in 922 B.C. and with his death he ended an era in which one king exercised authority over all the tribes of Israel. Two kingdoms emerged. One kingdom was lead by Rehoboam II (Judah, the southern kingdom) and the other kingdom was lead by Jeroboam I (Israel, the northern kingdom). As we read the prophets we understand the kingdoms both declined. Amos attacked the social sins of oppression for fiscal gain. Hosea, through his marriage to an unfaithful woman, gave a living illustration of how Israel had so treated God, “the despicable rejection of Yahweh by Israel for Baal
(Holman Bible Atlas, pp 140). Micah was interested in inward religion and echoed Amos’ message of justice, kindness and humility. Isaiah stressed the social sins of his nation, the nature of true religion and the coming of a Davidic king (Holman Bible Atlas, pp 141). In 588-586 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar army besieged Jerusalem for two years. The Babylonian forces destroyed the city, broke down the fortifications and burned the temple (2 Kings 25:8-21).

This was an unprecedented crisis for the Jews. The lost independence, significant segments of the population were deported, and the Davidic throne was left empty. Jewish life continued though. Some stayed in Judah. Some were forced into exile and others escaped Judah, these were called The Diaspora Jews. Those who remained in Judah had it tough. Those in Babylon were urged by Jeremiah to build houses, plant gardens and establish life in their new land. The community in Egypt took with them their heritage and set up a temple and a military colony in Egypt (however, their syncretism diluted their impact).

The Rise and Fall of the Persian Empire
Cyrus (538-529) was king of Anshan and vassal of Media from about 550 B.C. After a successful rebellion he gained control of the Median Empire and founded the Achamenid dynasty. In 539 he took Babylon and from 538 B.C. dated his years as “king of Babylon and the king of countries.” He reversed the policy of earlier conquerors in the near east. The explanation of this in 2 Chronicles 36: 19-23 and Ezra 1:1-4 is that God stirred in his heart to allow the conquered peoples to maintain not only their culture but also their own homelands. Accordingly, Cyrus allowed the Jews in Babylon to return to Judea to rebuild their city and the temple. Those who returned first from the Babylonian captivity under the leadership of Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the priest, were not themselves wealthy but they had the support of their countrymen and of the treasury. They were zealous for worship but were discouraged in their efforts to rebuild the temple. With the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah the temple was completed and dedicated in 515 B.C. Thus began what is called the period of the second temple.

A second group of exiled returned under the leadership of Ezra. Ezra is called “a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” (7:6). With this we are introduced to a new class of religious leaders who were to assume great importance. Previously religious leaders were the priests, prophets and wise men, but prophecy was soon to cease, and while there were still priests, they were only concerned with the temple rituals and affairs. A different kind of wise man arose: scholars in the sacred writings. These were called scribes. They replaced priests as the interpreters of the law and in the absence of prophetic revelation, scribal interpretation became the authority.

The two great accomplishments of the returned exiles were the rebuilding of the Temple and the collecting and studying of the Law with a view to regulating the life of the people by it. Also, the exiles who returned from Babylonia felt a social superiority to the “people of the land” who remained around Jerusalem (Jer 24; 2 Kings 24:14; 25:12) and a religious and racial superiority to their neighbors to the north around the old capital of the northern kingdom, Samaria (2 Kings 17:24ff; Ezra 4:1).
The Rise and Fall of the Hellenistic Empire
Greek Period (332-167 B.C.). Alexander the Great of Macedon expanded the Greek culture throughout the Mediterranean by military conquest. He envisioned a single, unifying culture based on Greek ideals. We often hear the word Hellenization in this historical context. Hellas is the Greek word for Greece. One of the major consequences of Hellenization was the growth and usage of the language of the Greek common people: koine. This would become the trade language between the conquered territories. But to put it all into perspective let’s look at the political context of this period.

Alexander’s father, Philip II, died in 336 B.C. he assumed the title of “King of Macedon” at the age of twenty-two. He shared his father’s vision of leading a military conquest over the Persian Empire, a long-standing enemy of the Greek city-states. He finally met the ruler of the Persian Empire after three years of fighting and trying to liberate several former Greek city-states that had been taken by Persia. Alexander met Darius III at the Battle of Issus and won. Alexander subsequently took coastal regions of Syria, Tyre, Gaza, Jerusalem, Samaria and Egypt. In 322 B.C. he assumed the title of Pharaoh. He died nine years later unexpectedly.

Alexander’s sudden death left the Greek Empire without an heir to the throne. The Ptolemies came to power and ruled from 301-198 B.C. They ruled quite easily and comfortably. The Seleucids ruled after this from 198-167 B.C. In 198 B.C. Antiochus III, managed to wrest Palestine from Egyptian control and annexed it to Syria. Life changed drastically. The Seleucids felt themselves called to be apostle of Greek culture (Hellenism). So throughout their dominions they encouraged the use of the Greek language and the adoption of Greek customs. Of course, Judea was no exception and the process of hellenization started there too. There soon grew up a party in the nation, including many prominent and wealthy Jews, who abandoned the ancient practices in favor of the new sophistication. The priests at Jerusalem seem to have taken a leading part in the spread of Hellenism. The high priests became very powerful because Jerusalem had an absence of any native secular head over the Jewish community.

However, a considerable amount of Jews resisted hellenization. The Jewish nation contained a conservative element that passionately clung to their ancestral traditions. This group was called the Hasideans (the Pious). They resented Greek language, the clothing imported, the building of a race track and gymnasium in Jerusalem. The priest became regular attendants at the races which were opened with invocations to pagan deities. The young priests hastened to finish their rituals so that they could exercise in the gymnasium. Since the Greeks exalted the human body they exercised nude. The Jews who participated became ashamed of their circumcision and took measures to hide it. Of course, this scandalized the orthodox seeing their young seemingly forsake the faith.
Antiochus Epiphanes became ruler of Seleucid dynasty in 175 B.C. He called himself “Epiphanes” (the manifest of God), others punned him, “Epimanes” (Antiochus the insane.” In 169 B.C. he tried to conquer Egypt and on his way back he took his frustration out on Jerusalem. He sacked and burned it, plundered the temple and massacred many. He determined to either convert or exterminate those whose devotion to the laws of Moses seemed to imply disloyalty to Syria. The Hasideans were easy targets. The observance of the Sabbath, the rite of circumcision, and the possession of a copy of the Hebrew Scriptures were made capital offenses. Jewish worship was abolished and pagan altars were erected in many Judean cities. In 167 a pig was sacrifice on the great altar of burnt offering. This was dubbed by some to be the abomination of desecration, a kind of religious slang adopted from Daniel.

This is interesting in its historical context, for when the disciples heard Jesus speak of this in the Olivet Discourse their minds would’ve thought back to this. Some today hold all of the Olivet Discourse to be entirely and solely end times focused. If we take Jesus’ works to be strictly historical then this was accomplished (again) in September 70 A.D. when the veteran military commander Titus besieged Jerusalem. If we think that it is entirely eschatological in nature and solely apocalyptic then Jesus chose a slang word, or a phrase that was very coincidental to its historical context.

The Rise and Fall of the Maccabean Period (167-63 B.C.)
Hellenism had been slower in reaching the rural districts as opposed to the cultural melting pot effect of urban areas like Jerusalem. The Hasidim had fled Jerusalem into the rural communities in order to preserve their culture and their faith. The Apocryphal books 1 and 2 Maccabees gives an account of this period.

Representatives of the Greek government came to the Judean village of Modin and sought to persuade the priest Mattathias (the leading citizen) to set an example by sacrificing to the pagan gods. Mattathias not only refused but also killed a Jew who stepped forward t comply with the royal request. He also killed an officer accompanying the official. He and his followers headed to the hills and gathered around them people interested in the preservation of the Jewish heritage. Mattathias died around 166 B.C. and have leadership to his third son (out of five). His son, now in control of the rebellion, was named Judas. His nickname was “Maccabee” which means “the hammer.”

Their family name was “Hashmon,” thus, this period may also be referred to as the Hasmonean Period. These Hasidim raided villages overthrew pagan altars, killed any Jews who were Hellenistic sympathizers, and circumcised children by force. They eventually won Jerusalem, regained control of the city and took control of the temple. A new altar was built according to the directions in the law. On the 25th day of Kislev (Dec. 14) 164 B.C. the third anniversary of the profanation of the altar by Antiochus, the daily burnt offering was resumed. In commemoration of the event a new festival was added to the Jewish religious calendar, Hanukkah, or “Dedication” as in John 10:22. This is commonly called the Feast of Lights.
Judas, the Hammer, wasn’t satisfied with what they had achieved. He led them to complete independence. In 160 B.C. Judas died in battle and his younger brother Jonathan, who was already a high priest, assumed command of the army. Syria was in internal turmoil with intrigue and civil war. Not only was Judea left in peace but they were now considered valuable allies, making treaties with Rome and even Sparta.

Jonathan was treacherously slain by Trypho, a Syrian general, in 142 B.C. The leadership of the Maccabeans fell to Simon, the last son of Mattathias. In the same year, 142 B.C. Syria, through Demetrius II, granted Judea complete independence. This lasted for almost eighty years (until Rome came in 63 B.C.) and would be the only period of political independence the Jews would know from 586 B.C. until the mid-20th century.

Simon and two of his sons were killed in 134 B.C. by Simon’s son-in-law. The only son who escaped was John Hyrcanus. He was skilled and led conquest of territory east of the Jordan and compelled the conquered to accept Judaism as their religion. They overran Samaria to the north, captured the city of Shechem and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim. He ruled 134-104 B.C. He died a natural death and was succeeded by his son Aristobulus, a cruel and unprincipled man who killed his brother and mother. He changed the theocracy into a kingdom, calling himself king, yet retained the high priesthood for himself. He reigned one year and conquered Galilee to the north and the Galileans, mostly Gentiles, were forcibly converted to Judaism. Because of his stupidity and lack of leadership dissensions broke out and then civil war. Judea became an easy prey.

The Rise of the Roman Empire (63 B.C. -- )
At the same time Rome was planning to spread its tent pegs. For several years the Romans under the able leadership of Pompey and been closing in upon Syria and neighboring kingdoms. In 63 B.C., after attempting to negotiate with both Jewish factions, Pompey, armed with unprecedented forces, took possession of Jerusalem. The Jewish kingship was abolished, and Judea became a formal subject to Rome. It was required to pay tribute. Thus almost exactly one hundred years after the triumphs of Judas Maccabeus, Judea once more, and finally, fell into the control of a foreign power until the mid 21st century.

The Roman Period and the Herodian Dynasty were the new stage where the drama of Jewish history began. Antony and Octavius placed the Jews under the rule of a powerful Idumean chieftain named Herod. It took Herod three year to subjugate the unwilling inhabitants of Judea (40-37). According to a letter written by Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel and others to King Artaxerxes the people of Judah were a very rebellious and obstinate people (Ezra 4: 6-24). The Idumeans were conquered by John Hyrcanus during the previous century and had been compelled to adopt a semblance of Judaism. Thus Herod’s ancestors lived having to adopt Judaism. Thus, Herod probably had a bone to pick and was cruel. In his life he killed two of his ten wives, at least three sons, a brother-in-law, and a wife’s grandfather. When he was about to die he realized that the people would not mourn for him but cheer, so in order to have mourning on his day of death he arranged to have a host of Jews put to death in the arena. When he died (4 B.C.) these prisoners were actually set free. Herod was jealous when he heard of a child being called, “The King of the Jews,” and thus showed his cruelty by having all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and under be killed (Mt 2:16).

Herod’s kingdom wad divided among three of his sons after his death: Archelaus, Philip, and Herod Antipas. Herod was not the top man on the totem pole. He was a king under another man, the Emperor Augustus. Archelaus inherited the southern portion of Palestine (Samaria, Judea, and Idumea). After his father’s death a rebellion broke out in Jerusalem and he had to quell the rioters. With his armed forces he killed around 3,000, some who were pilgrims visiting the holy land for Passover. He gained a quick reputation. So Joseph, Mary’s husband was hearing this at this time, “When he heard that Archelaus reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee”(Mt 2:22). In the ninth year of his reign the people complained long enough to the Emperor at Rome and he was deposed and stripped of his wealth. Rome decided that Judea, Samaria and Idumea should be under the jurisdiction of Roman governors, and this set up Pontius Pilate to rule.

Philip inherited the northern and northeastern parts of Palestine. He rebuilt the ancient city of Panias and named it Caesarea in honor of Caesar Augustus. In order to differentiate this city from others of the same name it was usually called Caesarea Philippi (Caesar of Philip). The Gospels narrate that on one occasion Jesus went north from Galilee into the district of Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16:13).

Herod Antipas, simply called Herod in the New Testament, was ruler of Galilee and Perea. Since most of the life of Jesus was spent within the area ruled by Herod Antipas, this member of the Herodian dynasty figures most prominently in the Gospels. This Herod Antipas married a daughter of Aretas, king of the Nabatean Arabs, but afterward, while visiting with a half-brother, Philip (not the ruler); he became enamored of his host’s wife, Herodias, a daughter of Aristobulus. Antipas divorced the daughter of Aretas and Aretas declared war against Antipas and eventually defeated his army in 36. John the Baptist had been fearless in rebuking Herod for his unlawful and immoral marriage (Mark 6:17-29). On one occasion Jesus warned his disciples against the leaven of Herod (Mk 8:15); on another the Pharisees, manifesting an unexpected interest in Jesus’ safety, brought him word that Herod was planning his death (Luke 13:31). Jesus’ comment on the latter occasion (Go tell that fox) shows that he saw through the cunning of Herod to rid him, for Herod’s uneasy conscience made him fear that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead (Mt. 14:1-2). Antipas happened to be present at Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Because Jesus was from Galilee, and under Herod’s jurisdiction, Pilate sent him to Herod for adjudication. Herod was glad, for he thought that now he would have an opportunity of seeing Jesus perform a miracle, but he wad disappointed, and with his men of war treated Jesus with contempt and mocked him (Luke 23: 6-12).

Herod was banished to Lyons in Gaul in A.D. 39 for asking to be advanced to king. This was done by the Emperor Caligula. Antipas’s dominion was given to Herod Agrippa I. Agrippa was son of Aristobulus, who had been executed in B.C. 7 by Herod the Great (so he was returning the favor by getting Herod removed, for he sent letters to Rome accusing Antipas of being in league with the Parthians). Agrippa gained control of all of Palestine. He laid violent hands upon leaders of the early church. It was by his hands that James the brother of John was killed and he arrested Peter also (Acts 12:1-3). His death was in A.D. 44 and was seen as punishment for his pride (Acts 12:21-23). After his death Agrippa’s son, Agrippa II, was seventeen years old. He did not gain all of Palestine, but only the northeastern part of Palestine. Nero, the Emperor at that time, added Galilee and Perea to his kingdom. It was before Herod Agrippa II and his sister Bernice, while they were visiting the governor Festus at Caesarea, that the apostle Paul pled his cause 9Acts 25: 13 – 26:32).

The History of the Jews during the remaining years until the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 can be told relatively quickly. The Jewish people were tired of being ruled by barbarians, Gentiles. They were frayed by the many and varied indignities which the Roman overlords committed against them. In A.D. 66 the governor Gessius Florus demanded seventeen talents from the temple treasury. As governor he was probably within his rights, however small the sum was. The Jews assessed this as sacrilegious robbery that had to be resisted. After being refused, Florus came to Jerusalem with a military contingent to enforce payment. Herod Agrippa II, seeing the danger of revolt, attempted mediation but it was to no avail. The people were too passionate and Glorus’s troops were insufficient to quell the Jewish mob; this earned him early retirement in Caesarea.

In other parts of Palestine fighting broke out between Jews and Gentiles. In A.D. 66 the Jews put to flight a considerable force, a circumstance which convinced the more fanatical that the Almighty was fighting for them. Rome had had enough and in 67 Galilee was subdued by Vespasian. Nero died so Vespasian had to take care of those matters and left the job undone. Three years later in 70 A.D, in the spring, the time when kings go to war, Titus arrived outside of Jerusalem and set siege to the city for five months. It finally fell and the Romans looted the temple and took it to the ground (September 70).

The country was now made an imperial province, governed by a legate who renamed it Caesarea and had at his command a legion that was stationed at Jerusalem. The name of the land was changed from Judea to Palaestinia (land of the Philistines), to symbolize the utter extinction of the Jewish nation. A rethinking of Judaism (and to some extent Christianity) was necessitated by the cessation of the temple worship. Greater importance came to belong to the Jews of the Dispersion, and predominantly Gentile character of the Christian church became increasingly more pronounced. After another attempted rebellion in 117-138, and the complete decimation of Jerusalem, and after the rebuilding of the city according to the Roman plan, Jews were forbidden under pain of death to set foot within Jerusalem.