A Historical Introduction to the New Testament by Robert M. Grant
Robert M. Grant is professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago, A formost scholar in the field, his books include Gnosticism, The Earliest Lives of Jesus, and The Secret Sayings of Jesus. Copyright 1963 by Robert M. Grant. Originally published by Harper and Row in 1963.
Chapter 18: Palestine In Graeco-Roman Times
Palestine, situated at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, has always been a buffer area in relation to the powers to the north, the east and the south. After Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC.) had tried to create a Graeco-Oriental empire, the generals who succeeded him and divided up his empire, and their successors, struggled for generations to control Palestine, since it lay south of the Asia Minor of the Antigonids, south and west of the Syria and Mesopotamia of the Seleucids, and north-east of the Egypt of the Ptolemies. Throughout the third and second centuries BC., as the kings exhausted themselves and their peoples with incessant warfare, Palestine was a principal arena for their military operations. Only the rise of a new and greater power could have brought peace to the region. Such a power was Rome, and its interventions in the East produced significant changes in the life of Palestine.
A crisis in the second century BC. was especially important. It began in 168 when the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes was on his way to attack Egypt. Near Pelusium, by the Mediterranean on the Egyptian frontier, he was met by a Roman legate who in the name of the Senate ordered him to withdraw. The king asked for time to consider. ‘Decide here’, said the Roman, drawing a circle in the sand about him. Doubtless remembering that the Romans had 100,000 men in Asia Minor and Greece, the king withdrew. On his way back to Antioch he decided to make effective a plan which he had formulated for unifying his kingdom. For some time the leaders of the Jewish people had been advocating and implementing the cultural integration of their nation with the Graeco-Oriental monarchy. They had built a Greek gymnasium in Jerusalem; they had worn Greek hats; and some of them had undergone an operation to efface the effect of their circumcision. The high priest and others had assumed Greek names (Jason, Menelaus) in addition to their ordinary Jewish ones.
These Jewish officials were startled, however, by the intensity with which the king planned to Hellenize. In the temple at Jerusalem another altar was placed over the altar of sacrifice, and on it a pig -- unclean in Jewish eyes -- was offered to the one god of Greek and Jew alike: Zeus. The response of the Jewish people was instantaneous. Led by a group of brothers known as the Maccabees (probably a nickname from the word for ‘hammer’), the people revolted and, after a series of bloody battles, finally recaptured Jerusalem, where in 65 BC. the temple was cleansed and rededicated. The festival of Hanukkah, observed on the 25th of Kislev (November-December) with the lighting of lamps, still celebrates the memory of this event. It is one of the five great feasts of the Jewish year.
Our information about Maccabean times comes to us from three important documents, in addition to the histories of Josephus and of Graeco-Roman writers.
The oldest of these writings is the Old Testament book of Daniel, an apocalypse intended to show that all empires are made to rise and fall by God; it also predicts the destruction of Antiochus Epiphanes. The author did not favour the active revolt of the Maccabees, for in his view God intervenes without human assistance.
He tells how the Persian empire was overcome by Alexander, how his kingdom was then divided among his successors, and how Antiochus Epiphanes persecuted the Jews (8:1-12, cf. 20 -6). He predicts that the persecution will last 1,150 days, or nearly three and a half years (8:14) -- the years from 168 to 165 BC. Finally he goes on to predict that after conquering Egypt, Libya and Ethiopia the king will die in his camp between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean (11:40-5). After this event the general resurrection will come (12:1-3).
Since the king actually died early in 164 while fighting the Parthians to the north-east of Palestine, Daniel must have written in 165. The importance of the book lies not in its detailed predictions, which were clearly wrong, but in the theological ideas which it reflects and advocates. It sets forth the apocalyptic hope of Judaism, speaking of ‘one like a son of man’ who is to come on the clouds of heaven (7:13) and of the bodily resurrection of the dead. Like the prophetic writings it interprets history in relation to the activity of God. God’s reign is everlasting, but at various times his intervention in history becomes more clearly manifest. Because of these emphases, and also because later situations seemed to resemble that in which Daniel wrote, his book was influential both among apocalyptic-minded Jews (e.g., Enoch and Sibylline Oracles 3, 388-400) and among many early Christians. It gave hope to those Jews who did not join the Maccabees (and perhaps to those who did) just as in the first Christian century II Esdras and the book of Revelation encouraged Jews and Christians to look for the fall of Rome. Very soon God would take power away from those who had it and would give it to his chosen people. This transfer would mark the inauguration or restoration of God’s reign on earth.
Not all Jewish writers shared Daniel’s apocalyptic enthusiasm, and in the first book of Maccabees we find a history (originally in Hebrew, now in Greek) written by a more politically-minded author. This writer did not discuss miracles; as far as we can tell, he did not look forward to the resurrection. He expresses his faith in God as the one who helps those who help themselves. His history, based on documents and personal reminiscences, describes events up to the accession of Hyrcanus, high priest in 135.
On the other hand, when a certain Jason of Cyrene wrote five books describing the events up to 161 (our II Maccabees is an abridgement of his work), he emphasized the transcendent power of God. God created the universe out of the non-existent (7:28) and he will bring about the resurrection of the dead (7; 12:43-4). Therefore we are not surprised to find his history full of miracles, even though he may hint that he has put these stories in so that readers will find his work attractive (15:39). In Jason’s view the action of God anticipated in Daniel has been realized in Maccabean history.
These three works reflect (1) the significance of the Maccabean crisis and (2) the diversity of theological response to it. Not all Jews were enthusiastic about apocalypses; not all believed that God had intervened in various battles between Antiochus and the Maccabees. All agreed that God ultimately governs the course of events; they disagreed on specific details.
The Rise of Sectarian Groups
Because of the divergent attitudes present within Judaism, various parties or sects came into existence soon after the Maccabees assumed control of the state.
Much of our information about the Pharisees comes from Josephus, in whose narrative we first encounter them in relation to the reign of Queen Alexandria (c. 100 BC.). If we try to go farther back, it is possible that we find forerunners of the Pharisees in the ‘Chasidim’, or ‘pious’, who in the time of Antiochus practised partial pacifism. They observed the Sabbath so scrupulously that they would not defend themselves on that day and were easily overcome by the king’s troops. Some survivors were able to join the Maccabees and to reinterpret the Sabbath legislation (I Macc. 2:29-44). But as a party the Pharisees arose later. Their name was probably derived from a word meaning ‘separate’. Josephus describes them as ‘a party of Jews which seems to be more religious than the others and to explain the laws with more minute care’ (War I, 110). In another place he contrasts them with the conservative priestly group known as the Sadducees.
The Pharisees handed down certain legislation to the people from the tradition of the fathers, legislation which has not been recorded in the laws of Moses; for this reason the party of the Sadducees rejects it, saying that what is written must be considered legislation, but that what comes from the tradition of the fathers need not be observed (Antiq. 13, 297).
Certain sociological implications can be drawn from other points which Josephus mentions. The Pharisees were rather urbane and friendly to strangers (War 2, 166); they were followed by the masses (Antiq. 13, 298); they insisted upon the value of tradition but interpreted the law more freely than the Sadducees did (18, 12). They believed in God’s governing of human affairs and believed in life after death; the righteous would rise again, but the souls of the wicked would be punished eternally (18, 2-6). These points suggest that the Pharisees belonged to what we should call a kind of middle class, living chiefly in, the cities. They recognized the necessity for making modifications in the law and they used tradition to provide precedents.
With their relatively liberal views, it is not surprising to find various schools existing within Pharisaism itself. For example, at the end of the first century BC. we meet the famous rabbis Shammai and Hillel, the one representing a more conservative attitude, the other a more liberal view. Thus it was said that a gentile came to Shammai and said to him, ‘You may accept me as a proselyte on the condition that you teach me the whole law while I stand on one foot.’ Shammai drove him away with a measuring rod. Then he went to Hillel, who received him as a proselyte and said to him, ‘What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow: that is the whole law; all the rest is its explanation; go and learn.’ (The parallel with Jesus’ ‘great commandment’ is obvious.) Again there was the question of the words to be used at a wedding when dancing before the bride. The school of Hillel said that the formula ‘O bride, beautiful and gracious’ should be used. The school of Shammai, more scrupulous, disagreed. ‘If she is lame or blind, is one to say, "O bride, beautiful and gracious"? Does it not say in the Torah (Exod. 23.7), "Keep thee far from lying"?’ The followers of Hillel answered with an analogy from human experience. ‘Then, if someone makes a bad purchase in the market, is one to commend it or to run it down? Surely one should commend it.’ The schools also disagreed over the question of the grounds for divorce. In Shammai’s view the only ground was adultery; Hillel held that there were other grounds resembling the modern ‘incompatibility’. Here the teaching of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew, at any rate, sides with Shammai against Hillel.
We should not exaggerate the importance of these divisions. Both Shammai and Hillel stood within the one congregation of Israel. As later tradition relates, ‘Israel will be redeemed only when it forms one single band: when all are united, they will receive the presence of the Shekinah. Therefore Hillel said (Aboth 2, 5), "Separate not thyself from the community."’ And both believed in the importance of the living oral tradition, though it would appear that Hillel had to learn to do so. Before a group of rabbis he once gave learned arguments for the precedence of the Passover over the Sabbath when Passover fell on a Sabbath day. His audience remained unimpressed until he said, ‘Thus I heard it from Shemaiah and Abtalion,’ his teachers. Then they recognized him as a true Pharisee.
As a group the Pharisees were concerned with modifying the stringencies of the old law so that it could be applied in modern circumstances. Indeed, it was a Pharisaic formula which Jesus expressed when he said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). We can see these modifications in the criticisms of Matthew 23:16. For instance, the Pharisees said, ‘Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is bound [by his oath].’ The purpose of this distinction was to prevent casual oaths from being enforced. Only a deliberate, intentional oath, carefully formulated, was to have binding force. Again, the Pharisees tithed mint and anise and cummin (Matt. 23:23). Here the question involved is that of just what is to be tithed. Surely, if tithing is a matter of law rather than of personal inclination, it is necessary to know what is to be included as taxable. ‘Tithe not much by estimation,’ said Paul’s teacher Gamaliel (Aboth 1, 17). In the Gospel of Matthew the Pharisees are criticized not for tithing but for concentrating upon it as the essence of religion. Concentration on minor points is a temptation to be found in every religion.
The Pharisees recognized the positive value of law, which deters men from wrong actions by prescribing penalties and brings them to acknowledge their shortcomings. ‘I should never have known sin but for the law’ (Rom. 7:7). Since, in their view, the law had been revealed by God, they had to obey its implications as well as its plain statements. They regarded the spirit as binding along with the letter. In order to work out the implications, they developed what we call rabbinic exegesis. G. F. Moore has described it thus (Judaism 1 [Cambridge, Mass., 1927], 319)
To discover, elucidate, and apply what God … teaches and enjoins is the task of the scholar as interpreter of scripture. Together with the principle that in God’s revelation no word is without significance this conception of scripture leads to an atomistic exegesis, which interprets sentences, clauses, phrases, and even single words, independently of the context of the historical occasion, as divine oracles; combines them with other similarly detached utterances; and makes large use of analogy of expressions, often by purely verbal association.
Moore’s criticisms are valid as far as they go. What he himself seems to neglect is the necessity of legal exegesis rather than historical interpretation in dealing with a legal code; and the historical exegesis he admires was practically non-existent in antiquity.
It may be added that to attempt to understand the Pharisees by comparing them with other groups in later times is not an especially rewarding pursuit. Historical understanding must be based on direct contact, not on analogies. Simply to list some of the groups compared with them -- Franciscans, New England Puritans, Pietists, Methodists, high churchmen in Anglicanism, and Democrats -- is enough to suggest that, in spite of some resemblances, the comparisons add nothing.
We know much less about the Sadducees than about their rivals. Judaism became largely Pharisaic after the destruction of the temple in AD. 70, and the traditions of the Sadducees were not preserved. From the way in which Josephus contrasts them with the Pharisees it is obvious that they represented a priestly aristocracy with rural ties. They were rich and conservative, and they insisted upon a rigid interpretation of the law. According to Josephus they believed that providence was not operative in human affairs, though his statement may mean no more than that they were successful politicians. They did not believe in life after death; according to the book of Acts (23:8) they held that ‘there is no resurrection nor angel nor spirit’. If this statement is correct, it would appear that the Sadducees accepted as scripture only the Pentateuch, not the prophets or the other writings. According to Mark 12:18-27 they argued against the possibility of resurrection on the grounds provided by Deuteronomy 25:5-6. The law said that if a man died without offspring his brother was to take the widow and beget children so that the dead man’s name might not ‘be blotted out in Israel’. Suppose seven brothers in succession had the same wife, the Sadducees suggested; whose wife would she be if there were to be a resurrection?
Before the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, we already knew something about an ascetic sect which flourished in Palestine before the Jewish War of 66-70. This was the sect of the Essenes, described by three ancient authors: the naturalist Pliny the Elder and the Jewish Hellenists Philo and Josephus. Their accounts have to be taken with a few grains of salt, since they were not members of the Essene community, and since they admired it and wanted to describe it in terms which would make their readers admire it too. Probably this explains why they insist that there was no marriage among the Essenes. Asceticism of this kind was popular in the Graeco-Roman world. But the rest of what they say corresponds rather closely with what we know about the Dead Sea community and its satellites.
First of all, Pliny tells us just where most of the Essenes were to be found. He says (N. H. 5,15,4) that they lived west of the Dead Sea at a point where there is nothing to fear from the sea s exhalations. Surely this suggests a point where the sea would be purified by the fresh water flowing in from the Jordan River -- and this is just where Qumran is. Then he tells us what lies to the south of the community. First comes En Geddi (which is actually about sixteen miles south of Qumran); then comes Masada (and this is about ten miles farther on). It seems obvious, and certain, that Pliny is aware that the Essenes were located just where the Qumran community was located; and therefore the Dead Sea people were Essenes.
The places where the Essenes lived are described differently by Philo and Josephus. Philo says once that they lived not in cities but in villages and once that they lived in cities and in villages. Josephus says they lived in various cities. This confusing situation is cleared up by the Zadokite document, which gives one set of rules for those who live in cities, another for those who live in camps. The document’s camps are presumably the villages of Philo. The centre of Essene life, then, was at Qumran, but there were other Essenes who observed special rules and lived in cities elsewhere. This variety corresponds in part with what Josephus tells us about two kinds of Essenes. There were those who did not marry but brought up the children of others -- thus probably maintaining a kind of orphan asylum as in some mediaeval monasteries. Others did marry and have children. It is not quite clear what the situation at Qumran itself was, since in its burying ground the remains of a few women have been found.
In order to become a member of the community, Josephus says, a ‘postulant’ had to undergo a year’s probation. He was given a shovel for sanitary purposes, a girdle, and a white garment which he wore at meetings of the group. He could not, however, take part in the daily baths of the community or in its noonday meal. Since strangers were admitted to the evening meal, he could participate in this.
At the end of the year he could become a ‘candidate’. For two years more he took part in the daily baths, wearing the white garment and entering the water at eleven in the morning. Before sunrise and after sunset he shared in the common prayers; mornings and afternoons were spent in field work or animal husbandry or bee-keeping or work at a craft. He owed strict obedience to the elders of the community and had already turned over his property to the overseer (epimelitis), though presumably he could recover it if he was finally not approved.
After these three years he was ready for initiation. He took solemn oaths that he would observe reverence towards God and justice towards men. He would hate the wicked and help the righteous. He would continue to obey the authorities of the group. If he should become one of the authorities, he would not use his authority for self-aggrandizement. He would love the truth and rebuke liars. He would not conceal his property or his actions. Finally, he would never reveal the teachings of the group to others. He would keep sacred the books of the sect and the secret names of the angels.
All this is to be found almost exactly paralleled in the Dead Sea Manual of Discipline. ‘Everyone who wishes to join the community must pledge himself to respect God and man; to live according to the communal rule; . . . to love all that God has chosen and to hate all that he has rejected; . . . to act truthfully and righteously; . . . to love all the children of light . . . and to hate all the children of darkness.’ Such persons must bring their property into the community of God. They are to take oaths to obey their superiors and to observe the law as the community interprets it. They are to spend a year before being admitted to the state of purity, that is before admission to the baths. Then they are to spend another year of apprenticeship while they work for the community, and only after that year can they be admitted to the common meal. According to Josephus the second period lasted two years; no doubt it was found that one year was not quite long enough a time. We do not know so much about the baths and the common meals from documents, but the remains of the monastery make it plain that the Qumran community did have a common dining hall and an elaborate water supply for purifications. Finally, we know that its members valued the holy books so much that they hid them away in jars, and that in these books there was a great concern for the names of the angels (especially in Enoch).
We must therefore regard the Dead Sea community as an Essene community. It was one of the most important forces in the religious life of Palestine in the first centuries BC. and AD. Josephus treats the Essenes as being just as significant as either Pharisees or Sadducees. We get some light on their numerical importance from a couple of ancient statistics. Josephus tells us that there were 6,000 Pharisees in all, and Philo tells us that there were 4,000 Essenes. Of course not all these Essenes lived at Qumran. As far as archaeologists can tell, there was room for not more than two hundred of them there. But there were other Essenes, a third order, so to speak, who lived in the cities and villages of Palestine.
As for the government of the community, Josephus tells us that the most important disciplinary questions had to be settled by a court of at least one hundred members; this is the general council of the Manual of Discipline. According to the Manual, the most severe penalties involved removal from the common meal or expulsion from the community; similarly Josephus says that bad Essenes had no food but had to eat grass. Less important offences resulted in cutting down rations. He also tells us that blasphemy was punished by death, and while in the Manual of Discipline the penalty is excommunication, in the Zadokite Document it is also death.
Some of the literature found in the caves of Qumran deals with the organization and operation of the community. Here should be included the Manual of Discipline, the Zadokite or ‘Damascus’ Document, and a Formulary of Blessings. Further books contain liturgical materials such as a hymn of initiants found at the end of a copy of the Manual and the hymns or psalms (hodayoth) of thanksgiving for redemption. Others contain paraphrases and commentaries related to the Old Testament, such as fragments of the apocryphal books of Enoch and Jubilees and of commentaries on Genesis, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, and various psalms. (No fragment of Enoch thus far found contains the Similitudes, cc. 37-71, which speak of the coming of a heavenly Son of Man.) In addition, there are military and apocalyptic documents which include the War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, a manual of discipline for the time after the war, and fragments on the new covenant and the coming doom.
Other fragments seem to come from highly secret books. These include a Hebrew ‘Book of Mysteries’, a description of the heavenly Jerusalem, a ‘Liturgy of the Three Tongues of Fire’, and a treatise with the title ‘The Words of the Book that Michael spoke to the Angels’.
The Manual of Discipline begins with the promise which is to be made by those who wish to join the community. They must respect God and man; they must avoid evil and adhere to good; they must love the children of light and hate the children of darkness. They must turn their property over to the community of God, and they must observe the calendar in force at Qumran, i.e. a year of 364 days. Then they take an oath, confess their sins, and receive a blessing from the priests. The levites pronounce a curse on the children of darkness, and both priests and levites pronounce a curse on hypocrites who join the community. The Manual then goes on to describe an annual review of the children of light. The theological purpose of this review is explained in relation to redemption through knowledge of God’s truth and a description of God’s having given man the spirits of truth and of perversity. Truth comes from the fountain of light, and the true are ruled by the Prince of Lights; perversity comes from the wellspring of darkness, and the perverse are ruled by the Angel of Darkness. The true will be helped by the God of Israel and the Angel of his truth, and will receive everlasting life, a crown of glory, a robe of honour, and perpetual light. The perverse will be eternally damned, at the time of the final judgement. After this introduction there follow the detailed rules for the life of the community, a community of separation, virtue, holiness and mutual sharing. There is an account of how initiates are to be admitted and how disobedient members are to be punished. There is a description of the government of the community by fifteen ‘men of perfect holiness’, twelve laymen and three priests. This community is to be the true temple of God, and a true synagogue.
The Zadokite Document contains similar materials but lays more emphasis on the history of Israel as an expression of the principles of the community. It contains two different codes, one for Essenes who live in urban communities, the other for those who live in camps. Finally, there is a supplementary code, most of which deals with oaths and their binding nature.
The Hymns of Thanksgiving are personal in nature but reflect the basic doctrines of Qumran, salvation by knowledge and by membership in the community. Bardtke has suggested that they were not used in formal worship but were intended for private use by members of the group, so that their thoughts would always be directed towards the greatness of the redemption they had received.
Now I am as one
The history of creation and redemption, and the hope of eternal security, are blended together in these hymns.
The commentaries are especially interesting because they interpret Old Testament prophecy and psalmody in relation to the history of the community. In the commentary on Micah we read that the prophet’s condemnation of Samaria really refers to the wicked priests of Jerusalem, the enemies of God, whom he will punish. Similarly on Nahum we read that ‘the abode of the lions’ (2, 11) means Jerusalem, where wicked men of the heathen dwell; it will eventually be trodden under. The lion of Nahum 2, 12 is Demetrius Eucerus, king of Syria, who about 88 BC. crucified eight hundred Jews. In the Habakkuk commentary it is harder to identify the wicked priest who persecuted the Teacher of Righteousness and eventually was punished himself. Gaster may be right when he argues that the case is supposed to be typical; it could be any anti-Essene priest. The significant thing about these commentaries is the evidence they give for the community’s interpretation of prophecy in relation to itself. In this way the Essenes were forerunners of the Christian exegetes of the Old Testament.
The War of the Sons of Light with the Sons of Darkness is a plan for the conquest of the world by the Sons of Light; it is the Mein Kampf of the Dead Sea generalissimo, who describes the future in a way faintly reminiscent of the entrance of Israel into Canaan but more clearly based on Roman military organization, procedure and strategy. At the end, a form of prayer of thanksgiving for victory is provided.
Finally we have a manual of discipline for the future congregation of Israel, when the war has been won and when a king has been restored to the throne. At that time all Israel will live in the manner of the sons of Zadok. We should note that this common life is to be reserved for those who are Israelites by birth. No gentile mission is contemplated. The gentiles will be dead. And in the fragment which Gaster calls ‘The Coming Doom’ we read that outsiders do not know what is going to happen, and there is no nation which really hates wrongdoing. Only we know what will take place; only we are going to be saved; for only we truly obey God’s will.
The message of the Dead Sea gospel is thus directed to Israelites who wish to know the truth about God, about history, and about themselves. The truth is that God is on their side and is directing history towards a final battle which will involve the triumph of his elect. Who are his elect? We are his elect, and we shall eventually rule the world and kill the sons of darkness, who are all men except ourselves. The religion of the Qumran people was characterized by some of the most exclusive sectarianism the world has ever seen, an apocalyptic-eschatological sectarianism which looked for triumph in this world, and soon. This triumph was not achieved.
The resemblances between the life and thought of the Essenes and the life and thought of early Christians are so striking that it may be well to say something about the differences at this point. (1) In spite of resemblances between the ‘teacher of righteousness’ and Jesus, there seem to be at least two basic differences. (a) The Qumran people taught and, indeed, demanded, hatred of enemies. The gospel of Jesus was quite different (Matt. 5:43-7; Luke 6:27-35). (b) The Qumran people were greatly concerned with ritual purity; Jesus was not. (2) The mission of Qumran was essentially to itself; the mission of the early Church was to outsiders -- first to all Jews, then to gentiles as well. The Church, like Jesus himself proclaimed the forgiveness of sins. (3) The teacher of righteousness, like Jesus, suffered persecution from his opponents. Jesus was put to death and rose from the dead.
Within a generation after the Maccabean revolt had become a successful revolution, the Jewish state was recognized by the Roman Senate and Rome refused to give sanctuary to political exiles hostile to the leadership of Simon Maccabaeus. By co-operating with various Seleucid kings, the Jewish rulers were able to maintain a relative independence which persisted even after Antiochus Sidetes besieged Jerusalem in 134; the new Jewish king John Hyrcanus (135-105) was able to bring about mutual disarmament. Assuming the office of high priest as well as that of king, he was opposed by the Pharisees -- in vain. After a brief interval, his son Alexander Jannaeus ruled from 104 until 78, in spite of popular hostility which resulted in his being pelted with lemons at one feast of Tabernacles, and in turn Alexander’s wife Alexandra was queen from 78 to 69, while their son Hyrcanus became high priest. She favoured the Pharisees; the Sadducees sided with her younger son Aristobulus, who led a revolt against his mother and ruled until 63. Hyrcanus retired from office but, with the assistance of Aretas III of Nabataea and his confidant the Idumean Antipater, was able to re-enter Jerusalem in 65. At this point the Roman general Pompey, in the East with his legions, compelled Aretas to evacuate Jerusalem, and two years later various delegates came to Pompey with petitions from Hyrcanus, from Aristobulus, and from ‘the Jewish people’, who insisted that they preferred Roman to royal rule. In response to this invitation, Pompey proceeded against Jerusalem and captured it on a Sabbath when the Jewish soldiers refused to take up arms. Hyrcanus was confirmed as high priest, while in 46 he received the title of ethnarch. Unable to defend Jerusalem against a Parthian raid, he fled to Rome and was replaced in 43 by Herod, son of Antipater. Roman troops drove the Parthians out, while in 39 BC Herod received the title ‘king of the Jews’.
From the time of Pompey come the Pharisaic Psalms of Solomon, which emphasize the wickedness of the kings now dethroned and look forward to the rise of a rightly anointed (‘messiah’) king of Davidic ancestry. This expectation was not fulfilled, for Pompey put Judaea along with the new Roman province of Syria under a governor at Antioch who controlled two legions. Loosely subordinate to him was King Herod.
After Herod’s accession he suppressed Galilean ‘robbers’ (probably revolutionaries) and finally recaptured Jerusalem. During the Roman civil conflicts he first supported Mark Antony, who had momentarily achieved power. At the time of the battle of Actium (31), when Octavian decisively defeated Antony and Cleopatra, Herod had discreetly occupied himself with Arabian affairs; just afterwards, he went to Octavian on the island of Rhodes and explained that he had urged Antony to kill Cleopatra. He also argued that he had always been faithful to whatever friends he had. Since Octavian needed faithful friends, or welcomed political realists, he confirmed Herod’s kingship.
At home, Herod’s long rule was marked by innumerable murders and harsh repression; abroad, he contributed lavishly to the monuments which indicated and supported the success of Octavian’s reign. When he died in 4 BC. a legacy of about £2,000,000 to the emperor ensured the preservation of his treasures, while after long disputes and abortive revolts the. Senate ratified his will and confirmed the powers of his three sons.
The struggles were severe. In Galilee a certain Judas arose; elsewhere two more revolts broke out, only to be suppressed by a Roman general who crucified two thousand Jews. At Rome itself fifty Jewish delegates asked to have Herod’s kingdom placed directly under the governor of Syria. It was decided, however, that half the kingdom, including Judaea, should be ruled by Archelaus; he was to have the title of ethnarch and would later become king if all went well. A quarter, to the north-east, was to go to Herod Philip, and another quarter, consisting of Galilee and Peraea, to Herod Antipas.
All did not go well in Judaea. After ten years of misrule and marital difficulties, Archelaus was removed in AD. 6 and Judaea was ‘temporarily’ placed under a Roman procurator named Coponius. A Roman census was undertaken, since for the first time the Roman tax system was being introduced. In Galilee Judas took up arms again, declaring that the Jews had no king but God and that taxes should be paid to the Romans. This time he was killed. The next year, under P. Sulpicius Quirinius, governor of Syria, the census was completed. He made a certain Annas high priest and confirmed Herod Antipas and Philip in their tetrarchies.
Once introduced, the procuratorial system continued in effect. The procurator who stayed longest in Judaea was Pontius Pilatus, sent out from Rome in AD. 26 at a time when Tiberius’s principal adviser was notoriously hostile towards the Jews. Pilate confirmed the high priesthood of Caiaphas, son-in-law of Annas. He had been in office since the year 18, presumably because of his ability to serve Roman interests. Shortly after Pilate’s arrival he brought Roman troops into Jerusalem bearing their legionary standards on which images of animals or deities were often carved. This action resulted in rioting which Pilate fiercely suppressed. A little later he expropriated the corban trusts held by the temple so that he could build a sixty-mile aqueduct for Jerusalem’s water supply. A mob protested against this action but was scattered by soldiers wearing plain clothes and concealed clubs.
The religious impact of Pilate’s rule seems to have been felt almost immediately by a certain John, a member of a priestly family who went out to the desert east of the Dead Sea. It is possible that he had been influenced at one time or another by the teaching of the Essenes. In any event, he now began to proclaim the coming wrath of God, stating the necessity of universal repentance; according to Luke 3:10-14 this involved the sharing of possessions, honest tax-collection, and the avoidance of looting by soldiers. A ‘baptism of repentance’ in the river Jordan was required of all who followed him.
John’s preaching created a crisis in Palestine. Great numbers of Jews went out to the desert to see this prophet of doom. His preaching did not last long, however, for he proceeded to denounce Herod Antipas, tetrarch not only of Galilee but also of Peraea, where John was preaching. Like others of the Herodian family this Herod had marital problems. He had become infatuated with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, and had deserted his own wife to marry her. The situation was dangerous, since his first wife was the daughter of Aretas IV of Nabatea. Therefore when Herod heard that John had denounced the marriage as contrary to Jewish law he suspected the existence of a plot. John was imprisoned in the frontier fortress at Machaerus, near the Dead Sea, and later, at the instigation of Herodias, was beheaded.
It was a time of revolutionary fervour, and when Jesus of Nazareth, once baptized by John, proclaimed in Galilee the imminent reign of God and then came up to Jerusalem, the high priest Caiaphas and a group of Jewish leaders denounced him to Pilate. After a cursory investigation the procurator ordered him crucified along with two ‘thieves’ who were perhaps revolutionists. His execution probably took place on April 6th, AD. 30.
The next year, Pilate’s influence at Rome was sharply diminished when the anti-Jewish adviser of Tiberius was executed for sedition. A further problem soon arose when he erected Roman votive shields in the old palace of Herod I in Jerusalem. Herod’s four sons protested, and Rome sent orders to remove them. Pilate survived in Judaea, however, until the year 36, when a Samaritan prophet gathered a great crowd by promising to show them the authentic sacred vessels which Moses had buried on Mount Gerizim. The procurator hastily sent troops which dispersed the prophet’s followers by killing many of them. Samaritan protests to the imperial legate in Syria resulted in Pilate’s being dismissed from office and sent to Rome. The fact that he arrived there only after the death of Tiberius early in 37 may have been fortunate for him, but we know nothing more about his life.
Meanwhile further disorders had broken out in Palestine. Aretas of Nabatea had finally moved against his sometime son-in-law, and when the army of Herod Antipas was decisively beaten in the year 36, he appealed to Tiberius for help. Some help arrived, but within three years his enemies accused him of having conspired against Tiberius. They informed the new emperor Gaius that Herod was stock-piling arms in order to join the Parthians against Rome. An investigation revealed that he had acquired enough weapons for seventy thousand troops, and he was thereupon banished to Gaul. A year later unrest arose in Judaea. Gaius, believing firmly in his own deity, ordered a colossal statue of himself to be placed in the temple at Jerusalem. A politic governor of Syria was able to delay transport of the statue to Judaea until Gaius could be murdered by those at Rome who knew he was insane. Jewish delegates sent from Alexandria and elsewhere had been able to combine protestations of loyalty with appeals for the emperor’s favour; the assassin’s dagger was more effective.
In an attempt to restore order in Palestine, Claudius made Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great and, on his mother’s side, close to the Roman nobility, king of Judaea in the year 41. Though he was half an Idumean, the grateful Jewish people hailed him as their ‘brother’ and protector. By implication, at least, he seemed to have restored the kingdom of David, though coins of his last two years bore the Greek word ‘Caesar’s friend’.
Unfortunately Agrippa died in 44 and the rule of the procurators began once more. The first of them, Cuspius Fadus, had to deal with a self-styled ‘prophet’ named Theudas, who took his followers to the Jordan, assuring them that like Joshua (4:7) be could make the waters divide. For him, as for some of the Essenes, Jerusalem had become a profane city. The procurator sent a detachment of cavalry which defeated Theudas’s followers and beheaded him. After Fadus, the next procurator was Tiberius Alexander, nephew of the Jewish philosopher Philo. He had to deal with a severe famine caused by the failure of the Egyptian wheat crop. Apparently revolutionary ideas came to the fore again, for he crucified the sons of the earlier rebel Judas of Galilee.
The next procurator, Ventidius Cumanus (48-52), had to deal with riots in Jerusalem which took place when a Roman soldier ridiculed Passover pilgrims. According to Josephus, twenty thousand men lost their lives in the city. On another occasion a Roman soldier in a village near Jerusalem burned up a scroll containing the Jewish law; this time the procurator, more cautious, had the offender executed. Still later, some Galilean Jews were murdered on their way through Samaria to a festival at Jerusalem. Cumanus, who according to Josephus had been bribed by the Samaritans to remain inactive, did nothing about the incident, and when Jewish zealots took vengeance on the criminals he attacked them. The governor of Syria sent the high priest to Rome, but Cumanus was removed from office.
Antonius Felix, his successor, remained as procurator until about 60, largely by means of vigorous suppression of revolutionary activities. The struggle was becoming acute. In response to Felix there arose a resistance group called the Sicarii (cf. Acts 21.38) because they carried short daggers (sicae) in the crowds at festivals and stabbed supporters of the Romans. One victim was the high priest Jonathan. Other Jews, less militant, advocated withdrawal to the desert, where they expected to witness ‘signs from heaven’. A famous prophet of this kind was an Egyptian Jew who gathered either four thousand (Acts 21:38) or thirty thousand (Josephus) followers and proposed to go to the Mount of Olives. At his word the walls of Jerusalem would fall as the walls of Jericho had fallen for Joshua. Roman troops arrived before he spoke the word. Since he escaped from the slaughter which followed, a Roman tribune was able to suppose that Paul might be the Egyptian (Acts 21:38).
The result of these movements was that, in Josephus’s expression, all Judaea was filled with madness. Procurators after Felix stayed in Judaea no more than two years before being recalled, and open war broke out in 66.
When Jerusalem fell in AD. 70 the event which most impressed the Jewish people was not the sack of the city but the destruction of the temple by fire. The temple, whose renovation (still incomplete) had been undertaken by Herod in BC. 20, was the focal point of the Jewish religion. Jerusalem was the ‘city of the great king’ (Matt. 5:35) because God’s house was there. In the temple were conducted the daily sacrifices of animals and produce; the most important of these sacrifices were the people’s burnt offering, immolated twice a day. At these ceremonies lamps were lighted and music, both choral and instrumental, was performed. Additional offerings were made on the Sabbath and at the great festivals.
The temple was the centre of the rites of the religious year, which began with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) on the 10th of the month Tishri (September-October). Burnt offerings were sacrificed and the scapegoat was sent away, bearing Israel’s sins upon it (Lev. 16:10). The whole fast which followed expressed God’s forgiveness of his people. They confessed their sins and he forgave them.
The cycle of festivals began with (1) Tabernacles, from the 15th to the 22nd of Tishri. During this autumn harvest-festival male Israelites lived in booths or ‘tabernacles,’ in memory of the booths in which they dwelt after the Exodus (Lev. 23:39-43). Josephus calls it the holiest and greatest of the feasts (Ant. 8, 100). In New Testament times it may have had eschatological overtones; perhaps the coming of God’s reign could be expected at Tabernacles. The feast is mentioned in John 7:2, and the story of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8) seems to be told in relation to it. (2) The next festival was Hannukah, on the 25th of Kislev (November- December), when the Maccabaean rededication of the temple was commemorated by the lighting of lamps. It was also called ‘renewal’ (John 10:22) or ‘lights’ (Josephus, Antiq. 12, 235). Other rites which accompanied it resembled those of Tabernacles (II Macc. 1:9; 10:6). (3) Early in the spring, on the 15th of Adar (February-March), was celebrated the feast of Purim, essentially a sacre du printemps; a fourth-century rabbi held that at Purim a man should drink until he could not distinguish ‘Cursed be Haman’ from ‘Blessed be Mordecai’. These two persons are prominent in the book of Esther, included in the Old Testament because it gave instructions for Purim and described the event which was commemorated. (4) Apart from Tabernacles, the greatest feast of the year was Passover, celebrated in the week beginning with the 5th of Nisan (March-April) to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, God’s act of deliverance for his people. Each Israelite family in Jerusalem consumed a roast lamb, killed by the priests in the temple; then followed a week in which only unleavened bread was eaten (Exod. 12:1-28; 13:3-10; Lev. 23:5-8; Deut. 16:1-8). (5) Seven weeks after Passover came the feast of weeks or, from the Greek word for ‘fifty’, Pentecost (Lev. 23:15-21). In rabbinic times this festival was regarded as commemorating the giving of the law on Sinai.
These festivals, along with the regular sacrifices, cost a great deal of money to maintain. They were supported partly by special gifts from kings and other individuals, partly by an annual tax of half a shekel (about 10s.) from every male Jew over 20 years of age (cf. Matt. 17:24-7), and partly by small free-will offerings (Mark 12:41-4). The funds went to buy animals and other items needed for the sacrifices and to support a community of priests and Levites (temple attendants) perhaps numbering ten thousand.
The temple and its services expressed the faith of Israel in the one God, and the oneness of the temple was often regarded as analogous to the oneness of God himself (for a Christian parallel cf. Eph. 4:4-6). The sacrifices not only expressed the faith but also taught it by means of dramatic action. Further instruction in the content and meaning of the revealed law was necessary, however, and this was provided by means of an institution developed by the Pharisees.
Indeed, the principal institution of Pharisaism was the synagogue. This term (from the Greek word for ‘assembly’, sometimes used in the Septuagint in relation to the ‘congregation’ of Israel) referred both to the group involved, consisting of a minimum of ten adult males, and to the building in which it met. The chief purpose of the synagogue was the Sabbath service, consisting of the Shema (‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one God,’ Deut. 6:4-5), the eighteen benedictions, and the benediction of Numbers 6:23- 6. Individuals recited psalms; then came the reading of a brief portion of the Old Testament in Hebrew, followed by a targum or periphrastic translation into Aramaic or Greek, and a sermon on the lesson for the day. The lesson was apparently fixed by a carefully devised lectionary system. Anyone appointed by the ‘head of the synagogue’ (‘archisynagogos’) could deliver the sermon (cf. Luke 4:16-27; Acts 17:2). The Fourth Book of Maccabees may represent an expansion of such a homily.
During the week the synagogue was used as a school in which scribes instructed young people in scripture and its exegesis. In these circumstances they learned the two principal exegetical methods, halacha and haggada. Halachic exegesis involved the interpretation of the law in relation to practical obligations; haggadic exegesis was used for deriving theological and mythological ideas from the Old Testament.
The Am Ha-Aretz
Most Jews remained outside the circle of the sects we have mentioned. There were very few Sadducees and Essenes. Josephus informs us that there were only six thousand Pharisees. The overwhelming majority of Palestinian Jews belonged to what the Pharisees called the am ha-aretz, ‘the people of the land’. We know nothing of them from any writings they may have produced; we encounter them in the attacks made upon them by the Pharisees and in the stories about ‘tax collectors and sinners in the gospels. They constituted the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ (Matt. 10:6; 15:24).
The Diaspora or Dispersion
Thus far we have considered only the Jews of Palestine. We must not forget, however, that most Jews lived not in Palestine but in the great cities of the Roman empire: Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, Ephesus, and others. There they were the object of considerable hostility from Greeks and Romans who regarded them as superstitious, exclusive, and -- in the words of Tacitus -- hostile to the human race. Their Sabbath-observance and practice of circumcision were especially criticized. From Egypt one papyrus letter reflects fear of their financial acumen. Above all, however, as emperor-worship became more significant, their refusal to accept the divinity of the Roman emperor was attacked, even though treaties with the Jewish nation exempted them from participating in ruler-cult. (At Jerusalem sacrifices were offered for, not to, the emperor; the cessation of these sacrifices in AD. 66 marked the beginning of revolt).
One source of difficulty was the existence of Jews who participated in the benefits of Graeco-Roman culture and were citizens of their cities, as well as of the empire, while claiming allegiance to Judaism at the same time. Philo of Alexandria belonged to a wealthy and politically influential family; he was well educated in Greek rhetoric and philosophy; but he stated that as a Jew his native city (patris) was Jerusalem. Similarly the apostle Paul was a Jew, a citizen of Tarsus in Cilicia, and a Roman citizen (Acts 21:39; 22:27 -8). Roman policy favoured cosmopolitanism; but it had its limits, and turbulence in Palestine did not improve the position of Jews elsewhere.
From the career and the writings of Philo we can see how eager some Jews were to bridge the gap between Judaism and Hellenism. Philo took part in a movement to replace an anti-Jewish governor of Alexandria (Against Flaccus) and in an attempt to modify the anti-Jewish attitude of the emperor Gaius (Embassy to Gaius). He wrote innumerable volumes containing exegesis of the Jewish law intended to show that it expressed the universal law of nature as well as special laws binding only upon the Jewish people.
The Source of Palestinian Conflict
The writings of Philo can be viewed as apologetic for Judaism, indicating the hope that mankind would gradually come to recognize the universal aspects of the Jewish law. Philo’s attitude was not universally shared, as we have already seen not only in the Dead Sea Scrolls but also in the record of events in first-century Palestine.
In what we may call non-apologetic Judaism there was a long tradition of faith in God’s imminent action to take up his power and reign. Israel would be vindicated and restored to power; foreign domination would come to an end. This hope was made up of political and religious motifs which were inextricably combined. The great prophets of exilic times had always concerned themselves with politics. The author of Daniel had stated that ‘the kingdom and the dominion, and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High’ (7:27). In the time of Pompey the Psalms of Solomon had looked forward to the coming of a Messianic king (17:23). More recently, the Assumption of Moses, written in the time of Archelaus, had anticipated the inauguration of God’s reign. No doubt there were many Jews who did not share these hopes, but Palestinian leaders kept them alive among the people.
Scholars have often pointed out that in first-century Judaism there was no one ‘doctrine of the Messiah’, but this fact means only that Jews differed as to details. Those who were concerned with the coming reign of God could unite on one dogma: foreign oppressors would be driven out and God alone would rule Israel.
This dogma was acutely embarrassing to the pro-Roman aristocracy of priests and Sadducees who governed Palestine in collaboration with the procurators. Their attitude is well expressed in John 19:15: ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ Indeed, their appeal to Pilate as ‘Caesar’s friend’ (John 19:12) makes use of a term found on coins of Agrippa I. From the official point of view, Jesus was crucified as ‘the king of the Jews’ (Mark 15:26). One of the principal difficulties in New Testament study, as we shall see in the next chapter, is that of determining the relation of Jesus’ mission to the various revolutionary movements.
Why were these movements so strong in first-century Palestine? First of all, we must recall that the Roman empire had only recently come into existence. The peoples subject to it were able to remember times when their own kings had ruled them, and with the passage of time, past misrule tended to be forgotten. Official inscriptions found throughout the empire speak of the glories of Roman rule, but those who erected them did not necessarily speak for all classes of society. Especially towards the borders of the empire there was a great deal of unrest. Second, the burden of Roman taxation was oppressive. It has been calculated that in first-century Palestine the total of Jewish and Roman taxes may have reached a rate of twenty-five per cent; and while in modern times progressive taxation reaches levels far beyond this point, taxation in antiquity was not progressive. Taxes on sales and produce, along with customs and poll taxes, fell evenly, and thus inequitably, on rich and poor alike. Third, the economic situation in Palestine, as elsewhere in the empire, was characterized by extreme inequality.
While this situation was not determinative of the gospel message or its reception, it undoubtedly had something to do with the form in which the gospel was cast.
Appendix: The Eighteen Benedictions
From the Authorized Daily Prayer Book, tr. S. Singer (1890; 8th ed. 1915), pp. 44-54.
The following prayer (Amidah) is to be said standing.
O Lord, open thou my lips,
Blessed art thou, 0 Lord our God and God of our fathers,
Thou, O Lord, art mighty for ever,
Thou art holy,
Thou favourest man with knowledge,
Cause us to return, O our Father, unto thy law;
Forgive us, O our Father, for we have sinned;
Look upon our affliction and plead our cause,
Heal us, 0 Lord, and we shall be healed;
Bless this year unto us, 0 Lord our God,
Sound the great horn for our freedom;
Restore our judges as at the first,
Blessed art thou, 0 Lord, the King who lovest righteousness and judgement.
And for slanderers let there be no hope,
Towards the righteous and the pious,
And to Jerusalem, thy city, return in mercy,
Speedily cause the offspring of David, thy servant, to flourish,
Hear our voice, O Lord our God;
Accept, O Lord our God, thy people Israel and their prayer;
We give thanks unto thee,
Grant peace, welfare, blessing, grace, lovingkindness and mercy unto us and unto all Israel, thy people.
Shortened form of the Amidak:
First three Benedictions, followed by:
Give us understanding, 0 Lord our God, to know thy ways; circumcise our hearts to fear thee, and forgive us so that we may be redeemed. Keep us far from sorrow; satiate us on the pastures of thy land, and gather our scattered ones from the four corners of the earth. Let them that go astray be judged according to thy will, and wave thy hand over the wicked. Let the righteous rejoice in the rebuilding of thy city, and in the establishment of thy temple, and in the flourishing of the horn of David thy servant, and in the clear-shining light of the son of Jesse, thine anointed. Even before we call, do thou answer. Blessed art thou, 0 Lord, who hearkenest unto prayer.
Last three Benedictions, and concluding prayers.