Every work, account, and story has a context. There are certain things that transpire which set the stage for what will occur in the future. When we better understand what caused a thing, the better we can understand that thing. The New Testament is no different. The New Testament was not written in a vacuum, nor does it consist of made up lands and made up people. The New Testament is about a real God, real people, in real places who have real baggage and pain. The entire geo-political landscape of the New Testament is intriguing. Between the mentioning of Herod, Pilate, Caesar, governors, Sadducees, and Pharisees, the New Testament world was a product of ongoing political struggle that had been the norm for centuries.
Babylon – Alexander the Great
We’ll start in 586 BC when the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar laid waste to Jerusalem and deported most Jews to Babylon. The Chaldean power over the Jews ended nearly half a century later when the Medo-Persian Empire overthrew Babylonian rule and allowed the Jews to return to their native Jerusalem in 537 BC. Like the Babylonian Empire, the Persians too would find their end at the sword of another power. This time, the infamous Alexander the Great would take control of the Palestinian land mass by overthrowing the Persian monarch Darius after founding the city of Alexandria in 331 BC. Alexander continued to conquer the known world, extending his Hellenistic kingdom all the way to northern India. Then, in 323 BC, Alexander died of a fever after marching to Babylon to make it the capital of his expansive empire. Alexander, in his early 30s, had never named a successor. What pursued was pure political chaos.
Diadochi – Antiochus
After his death, Alexander’s seven generals (the Diadochi) began to grapple for power. Following the initial conflict, four survived. The four generals laid the foundations for four impressive empires taking up quadrants of what was once all Alexander’s. The most important for our study is the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt, and the Seleucid Dynasty in Syria. If someone looks at a map, they will see that bridging these two domains of Egypt and Syria is one unique stretch of land: Palestine. This land which was home to the Jews and their temple became the battleground for the Syrian wars between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires. While the country was ruled by Ptolemy I Soter and his successors, the Jews enjoyed mild over-lording from the Egyptian side while having their High Priest as a domestic figurehead. However, in 198 BC, Palestine (with its gold-filled temple) was annexed to Syrian control by the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus III.
To a much greater extent than the Ptolemaic Dynasty, the Seleucids viewed themselves as champions of Hellenism (Metzger 23). They encouraged the adoption of Greek culture, customs, and language in their territory; and Judea was no exception. During this period of Hellenization in Israel, a party state grew where many influential and wealthy Jewish leaders began abandoning ancient rituals for the more modern, sophisticated, and distinctively Greek practices (Metzger 23). However, not every Jew abandoned their practices for the new, Greek ones. The Hasideans rejected this cultural upheaval and instead chose to maintain the conservative practices of what they viewed as orthodox Judaism. The situation grew progressively worse for the Jews when Antiochus Epiphanes became ruler of the Seleucid Dynasty in 175 BC. Though Antiochus bore the name “Epiphanes” (meaning “the manifest god”), his victims preferred to refer to him as “Epimanes” (meaning “the insane”), and for obvious reasons (Metzger 23). After a failed attempt to conquer Egypt in 169 BC, Antiochus Epiphanes returned through Palestine with recklessness. Treating Jerusalem with bitterness, Antiochus sacked it, burned it, plundered its temple, and murdered its citizens. Seemingly believing that obedience to the Law of Moses equated disloyalty to Syria, Antiochus made the observance of the Sabbath, the rite of circumcision, and the possession of the Hebrew Scriptures punishable by death (Metzger 24). During this time Jewish worship was outlawed, pagan altars were erected in Judea, and as a climax to persecution, in December of 167 BC Antiochus the Insane sacrificed a female pig on the great altar within the temple in Jerusalem.
The Hasideans suffered without resistance, even preferring to observe the Sabbath than defend themselves (Metzger 24). Then, an elderly priest had enough. Mattathias, a priest from northwest of Jerusalem began fighting back. He and his five sons led an armed resistance joined by radical supporters. Toward the end of his life, he gave the reigns of the revolt to his third son, Judas nicknamed Maccabeus (meaning something along the lines of “the Hammerer”). The Maccabees saw victory after victory, until finally, in 165 BC Antiochus died. The temple in Jerusalem was purified and rededicated in December of 164 BC, three years after it had been defiled. An annual festival still exists to celebrate this time, Hanukkah (Cf. Jn. 10:22). The Maccabees continued a quest for independence for the Jewish people, until in 142 BC Demetrius II of Syria granted the Jews complete political independence (Metzger 25). Soon after this recognized independence, the Jewish power separated into two main parties: The Maccabean priest-princes (later evolving into the Sadducees we read of in the NT) and the remaining Hasideans who grouped together to form what would be known as the Pharisees (Metzger 26). The Sadducees naturally retained political power. In 134 BC, John Hycranus (grandson of Mattathias) rose to power and expanded his territory to east of the Jordan, Idumea, Samaria, and Shechem. After John’s natural death, his son Aristobulus took power. Unfortunately, the tension between the Sadducees and Pharisees rose and the kingdom devolved into a civil war. Rome, who had already had her eye on the politically profound region of Palestine took this civil unrest as an opportunity to occupy Jerusalem in 63 BC, and their presence wouldn’t leave for centuries (Metzger 27). Before long, Roman rulers Antony and Octavius placed the ambitious Herod over the Palestinian region, he would subjugate the people and become king de facto in AD 37 (Metzger 27). As they say, the rest is history, and the house of Herod receives numerous mentions in the NT.
Overall, the history of political struggle in Jewish Palestine is intriguing and paints a necessary backdrop for New Testament study. The result of centuries of unfair rule and struggle resulted in a people desperate for deliverance—a people desperate for a Messiah: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5 ESV).
Metzger, Bruce M. The New Testament Its Background, Growth, and Content. Abingdon Press, 2003.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Standard Bible Society, 2016.