Brief Overview of Palestine in the First Milena B.C.

By | February 9, 2012

In my bible reading I have come to the intertestamental period. It was a good time to try and gain a better understanding of the context into which Jesus was born and did his ministry. I don’t guarantee that this is completely accurate, but the following is my best understanding gained from a couple of different reference materials.

Political Setting
For several centuries around 1200-900 B.C. there were no major empires in the Middle-East. Relatively small states continually battled each other for control. The united kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon could be thought of as a mini-empire since they ruled over typically independent areas. Even the division between Judah (including Benjamin) and Israel went back to tribal loyalties from before the first king of Israel, Saul.

At this time and for centuries later, most people throughout this part of the world were polytheistic. Besides having gods over various things (such as fertility, death, the sun, etc.), most recognized gods of various areas and people groups. This explains why various non-Jews recognized the “God of Israel”, while not being monotheistic and not thinking of God in the way we do. It seems that most Israelites must have been this way as well, which would explain how they often continued to make sacrifices to Yahweh at the same time that they were practicing idolatry. One has the impression that they thought that Yahweh was just one of many other gods.

Assyrian Empire
Around 900 B.C. the Assyrians began expanding to form an empire. They took Israel into exile in 722 B.C. and exercised control over Judah. At their height in the early 600s, they controlled virtually all of the “fertile crescent”, including Egypt.

Babylonian Empire
At the end of the 600s, the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians and created an even further reaching empire. Judah was taken into exile and Jerusalem destroyed in 586 B.C.

Medo-Persian Empire
The Medes already controlled the area north and west of the Babylonian Empire. During the mid-500s, the Medo-Persian king conquered Babylon. The Medo-Persian Empire was several times larger than the Babylonian Empire. It covered from north-west Africa and Greece to the border of India. The Medo-Persian kings supported Judean exiles returning to rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and resettle Judah.

Synagogues and Rabbis
With the temple gone and the Jews in exile, many of rituals in the Law cannot be carried out. Faithful Jews gather for singing, prayer, and discussion of the Law. These develop into permanent meeting places known as synagogues in which Jews meet regularly on the Sabbath. In light of all this, the role of the priest in religious life is diminished, and those who demonstrate a proficiency in the law gain respect. The men become known as rabbis. Different schools of thought and interpretation of the Law develop. Oral teachings on the Law are passed along and are viewed by some as on par with the Law itself. (These are later compiled into different collections, including the Midrash and Talmud.)

Greek Empire
In the late 300s Alexander the Great conquered virtually all of the Medo-Persian empire. In effort to help stabilize this vast region, in contrast to previous empires, he supported the spread of Greek culture among the area under his control. Many Jews in Palestine and elsewhere assimilated Greek culture with Judaism to various degrees.

Ptolemaic Kingdom
Upon Alexander’s death, the empire was divided among four generals. The most significant became the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms. The area of Palestine came under the control of the Ptolemies, who ruled from Egypt, though it was an area of continuous conflict between the two kingdoms. At this time the office of high priest was viewed as a high political as well as religious office.

The Septuagint
A translation of important Jewish religious books from the original Hebrew to Greek was commissioned. These translations are collectively known as the Septuagint, and were the primary scriptures in use by the first century A.D. The Septuagint generally included what we think of as the Old Testament (though scripture wasn’t canonized at this point, which is why it is referred to by such phrases as “the Law and the prophets” in the Gospels).

Seleucid Kingdom
In 200, the Seleucids gained control of Palestine. The position of high priest was sold as a political office to people who weren’t of Aaronic lineage. The Seleucids, specifically Antiochus IV, attempted to force Greek culture on Jews. He set up an altar to Zeus in the temple and required sacrifices including those of pigs. This is commonly believed to be the “abomination of desolation” mentioned in Daniel’s vision.

The Maccabees and Hasmonean Dynasty
In the early-mid 100s, more conservative Jews (Hasidim or “Pious Ones”) fought against the Seleucid powers forcing profane worship of Greek gods. They managed to secure religious freedom and eventually gained political independence.

The Pharisees likely developed from Hasidim during this period. The Pharisees were very concerned about following the Torah (or the Law; that is, the first five books of the Old Testament). They followed the complex oral tradition regarding how to follow the Law handed down by rabbis and held these teachings to be just as important as the Law. At the same time, they were open to accepting new theological ideas, such as resurrection of the dead.

The Sadducees also appear during this time. They were the religious party of the powerful, wealthy aristocrats and other socially prominent families around Jerusalem. Many Sadducees were from wealthy priestly families. The Sadducean stronghold was the temple, and they dominated the Sanhedrin, the religious governing body. The Sadducees generally reject the oral traditions of the rabbis and other progressive theological ideas such as resurrection, yet they are also more Hellenized (incorporating Greek culture). The common people greatly favored the Pharisees however, who were admired for their piety. Other sects later include the Zealots, Essenes, Herodians and Samaritans.

The Roman Empire
In the early 100s, the Seleucids invaded Greece, which was by then controlled by the growing western power, Rome. The Romans defeated the Seleucids and began exercising greater influence over the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Julius Caesar rose to power and was later succeeded by his grand-nephew, who became know as Caesar Augustus. By this time Rome controlled virtually all the shores of the Mediterranean including western and southern Europe, north Africa, Asia minor, and the western parts of the former Greek Empire.

Political Control of Palestine
In 63 B.C. Roman general Pompey invaded Palestine in order to intervene in power struggle between two Hasmonean rulers. The one favored by Pompey was appointed high priest, but an Idumean governor, Antipater, who was loyal to Rome was given control of Jewish territories. (Idumea was a region south of Judea whose population was descended from Edom (Esau).) Antipater’s son, Herod the Great, was later made king over the area of Palestine. He was king when Jesus was born. Herod greatly expanded the temple over the course of 8? years.

After Herod’s death, his son Herod Antipas was given control of Galilee (west of the Sea of Galilee) and Perea (east of the Jordan). Another son, Philip, controlled the area north-east of the Sea of Galilee. The areas of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea were governed by a Roman prefect/procurator. The best known of these was Pontius Pilate.

This was the context for Jesus’ ministry.

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