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The Graeco-Roman and Second Temple Jewish Contexts

The Hellenistic Empire (Greece was called Hellas and the Greeks Hellenes)

  • Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) conquered the Persians and spread Greek language/culture (i.e. “Hellenism”) throughout his empire.
  • After Alexander’s untimely death at 33 years old, his empire was divided between the diadochoi (“successors”) or rival generals (see “Lecture 20 Decline of Greece; Rise of the Hellenistic World“). Palestine was ruled by the Ptolemies of Egypt (323-200 BCE).
    • The Greek translation of the Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint (LXX), was commenced. The legend is that Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283-246 BCE) asked 72 elders to translate the Pentateuch for the library of Alexandria (cf. The Letter of Aristeas).
  • Seleucids of Syria rule Palestine around 200 BCE under Antiochus III.
  • Antiochus IV “Epiphanies” (god manifest) begins his rule in 175 BCE and enforces Hellenization on the Jews by turning Jerusalem into a Hellenistic city named “Antiochia” with a gymnasium and rededicating the Temple to Zeus Olympius. He attempted to force Jews to abandon their native customs (cf. 2 Maccabees 7) and to defile the temple in 167 BCE by having a pig sacrificed on the altar (cf. Daniel 7-9; 1 Maccabees 1:54).
  • The priest of Modein, Mattathias, kills a Jew who compromised by offering an illicit sacrifice and fled to the hills with his sons Judas, Eleazar, Simon, John, and Jonathan.
  • Judas, nicknamed the Hammerer (Maccabeus), leads a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Syrians and rededicates the temple around 164 BCE, which is celebrated at Hanukkah. The Maccabean revolt is a fight in defense of Ioudaismos (“Judaism”, Jewish customs or way of life) against adopting Hellenistic customs (cf. 2 Macc 2:19-22; 8:1; 14:38; 4 Macc 4:26).

The Hasmonean Period

  • After Judas’s death, the leadership passes over to his brother Jonathan (160-143 BCE) and then his brother Simon (142-134 BCE) who leads a fully autonomous Israel. The next ruler, John Hyrcanus (134-104 BCE), expands the Jewish state into Samaria, Idumea, and the Transjordan.
  • The Hasmoneans rule for over a century as kings and priests, even though they are neither part of the legitimate royal (i.e. Davidic) or priestly (i.e. Zadokite) lines, until Palestine is taken over by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BCE after a period of internal discord.
  • Second Temple sects emerge (e.g., Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes).

The Roman Empire

  • See “Early Roman Civilization, 753-509 BC” and “Republican Rome, 509-31 BC” in The History Guide: Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History by Steven Kreis.
  • Octavian “Augustus” (revered) defeats Marc Antony at the battle of Actium (31 BCE) and transforms the Roman Republic into an empire. An adopted great-nephew of the deified Julius Caesar, he takes the title divi filius or son of god.”
  • The Julio-Claudian dynasty: Octavian (27 BCE-14 CE), Tiberius (14-37 CE), Gaius “Caligula” (37-41), Claudius (41-54), and Nero (54-68). A chaotic year of four emperors follows Nero’s suicide (69 CE), but Vespasian returns to Rome in triumph and establishes the Flavian dynasty ruled by himself (69-79 CE), Titus (79-81 CE), and Domitian (81-96 CE).
  • “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a  savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and  arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving  to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the  god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by  reason of him, which Asia resolved in Smyrna.” (Priene Calendar Inscription, ca 9 BCE; cf. Craig Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel,” pg. 67).
  • Rome ruled through puppet client kings such as the Edomite Herod (“the Great”) who came to power in Palestine (40-4 BCE). While Herod greatly expanded the Jerusalem Temple, he also had family members who he saw as threats to his rule put to death.
  • After Herod’s death, the kingdom was divided between his sons. Herod Antipas was appointed tetrarch, ruling Galilee and Peraea (4 BCE–39 CE). He builds his capital Tiberius over a cemetery (17 CE).
  • Archelaus was appointed ethnarch of Judaea, Samaria, and Idumaea (4 BCE–6 CE), but he was replaced by the direct rule of Roman prefects or procurators. Quirinius, governor of Syria, takes a census for the purposes of taxation and Judas the Galilean leads a small uprising in response.
  • Responses to Roman rule: collaboration and maintenance of the status quo (e.g. aristocracy, Sadducees), enforcing internal group boundaries and purity regulations (e.g. Pharisees), withdrawal from society (e.g. Qumran sectarians), expectations for divine intervention (e.g. apocalyptic writers, sign prophets), minor resistance or banditry, and revolt. The last option happened at the outbreak of the Jewish War in 66 CE, resulting in the siege of Jerusalem and the Temple’s destruction in 70 CE.

Second Temple Judaism

  • Common beliefs included monolatry or exclusive cultic worship of the God of Israel, the belief that Israel was elected as the covenant people and blessed with the land, and obedience to the Torah or Law of Moses as the terms of the covenant relationship.
  • Josephus describes four Jewish haereses or philosophical schools in War 2.119-166 and Antiquities 18.11-25.
  • The name “Sadducee” may allude to the priestly line of Zadok. The Sadducees were mainly the Jewish aristocracy and priesthood who only accepted the Pentateuch or law of Moses as authoritative and denied a future resurrection of the dead. Check out Mark 12:18-27 and Acts 23:1-11.
  • The Pharisees (from perushim or separate ones) were a popular lay group that were concerned to live their ordinary lives in a ritual state of purity and to develop the oral law that further defined how to obey the Torah in every aspect of their lives. The two major schools of thought followed the teachers Hillel or Shammai. Like the early Christians, they accepted a wider scriptural collection, acknowledged the existence of angels, and believed in a future judgment and resurrection of the dead. Check out Matthew 5:20; 23:1-36; Mark 2:15-3:6; 7:1-23; 10:1-12; Luke 7:36-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-6; Acts 5:33-39; 23:1-11.
  • The Essenes are mentioned by Josephus, Philo of Alexandria (Every Good Man is Free 12.75-87), and Pliny the Elder (Natural History 5.73) and some of them are noted for communal ownership of property and celibacy. Scholars often, but not unanimously, identify them with the community behind the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran. Are there any parallels between John the Baptist and the Essenes (see Mark 1:2-8; Matthew 3:7-10; Luke 3:10-14)?
  • The Zealots were active during the Jewish War, although the Jewish historian Josephus anachronistically describes the founding of the “school” of Zealots by Judas the Galilean. A subset of the Zealots, the Sicarii or “dagger-men” precipitated the war by assassinating Jewish collaborators with Rome. Why did Luke-Acts identify Simon as “the Zealot” (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13)?

*Note: see here for an enlarged timeline of the history.

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