The world that Jesus entered was intensely religious. The beliefs, practices, and institutions of the Jewish people were solidly rooted in the biblical traditions--after all, the Jews were the people of God! But over the years Israel had to adjust to persecution, invasion, exile, and foreign rule. And as they applied the Scriptures to the various crises and situations that they faced, disagreements arose that led to serious divisions among the people. Such divisions were not foreign to Israel--the Old Testament records numerous examples; but what was new was that by the first century distinct and competing religious groups or schools of thought parties had been formed. So when Jesus taught the people, he was often compelled to address the teachings and traditions of these different factions.
To understand the teachings of Jesus, then, we need to know more about His world--who the religious leaders were, how the different groups arose, what they believed, and why they collided with Jesus as they did. We shall begin with a survey of the major events that led to this religious diversity, and then survey the different groups that are prominent in the Gospel narratives.
The historical background of this period is, of course, the entire history of Israel in general; but for the immediate conditions of the first century we need only go back a couple of centuries before Jesus.
When the empire of Alexander the Great was divided up, Palestine was first ruled by the Ptolemies of Egypt but then was taken by the Seleucids, who ruled from Syria. And although the Jews welcomed this change at first, the Hellenizing influence and religious persecution that these Seleucid rulers brought led to the wars that eventually won the Jews their independence. The account of the events leading up to and following these Jewish revolts are significant for our understanding of the religious life and leadership in Israel in the time of Jesus. It was a time of conflict and chaos, both on the political and religious scene. It was a time when foreign rulers influenced Jewish religion, even taking the authority to appoint the High Priests in Jerusalem; and subsequently, it was a time when the Jews' political leaders took that office to themselves. Out of these and other religious issues came the major Jewish sects.
At first, the Syrians exhibited tolerance for the Jews, especially with the rule of Seleuchus IVin187 B.C. But Seleuchus sent his son Demetrius to Rome to ransom his brother who was being held there as a hostage. Unfortunately, when Seleuchus was murdered in 175 B.C. this brother, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, took the throne and began the persecution of the Jews over their religion.
As part of an internal power play, and with the temple treasury as part of the prize, Antiochus replaced the High Priest Onias III with his [Onias'] brother Jason. This practice of a new ruler replacing a priest was fairly common in the ancient world; but it was new to the Jews whose Law stipulated a lifelong tenure for the High Priest. But Jason was more liberal; he began instituting many Hellenizing changes in society, even accommodating the Jewish faith to Greek ways. By changing the status of Jerusalem to a Greek city he increased its wealth, as well as his own and that of the other Hellenizers. His opponents could not accept these changes because to them the culture and the faith were inseparable. In their mind he was to be condemned for these changes (2 Macc. 4:11).
Apparently Jason outlived his usefulness for the Hellenizers eventually sought to be rid of him. And so around 170, Antiochus awarded Menelaus, a Benjamite, the High Priesthood in exchange for a bribe (2 Macc. 4:32-50). But when Antiochus was off fighting in Egypt, renewing the old rivalry with the Ptolemies, riots broke out in Jerusalem over the appointment (2 Macc. 4:25-26). When Antiochus returned from Egypt he was determined to subdue the Jews. His departure from Egypt was humiliating. He was forced to withdraw by a decision of the Roman Senate that upheld the stipulations of an earlier treaty. Brought down by the Romans, he was in no mood to be troubled by the Jews. When he came to Jerusalem he put down the rebellion and solidified the position of Menelaus (2 Macc. 5:11-21); he also stationed Gentile troops in Jerusalem who set up Syrian (Greek) gods in the Temple and defiled Jewish worship (1 Macc. 1:39). All of this divided the Jews between the Hellenizers, who cared little about religion, and the faithful (Hasidim as they were called), who were outraged. The Hellenizers won out and their opponents, mostly conservative priests and scribes, were forced out; but with this affront to Jewish worship the opposition took on a religious theme and fervor--they were now defending the Jewish faith, the Law of Moses, against pagans.
Antiochus proceeded to outlaw Jewish observances like circumcision, Sabbath-day observance, and temple ritual--in an effort to obliterate Yahwism. In December, 167, he offered pigs (a Greek custom) on the altar in Jerusalem (1Macc.1: 41-50); he also sacrificed to Zeus (1Macc.1: 54-59; 2 Macc. 6:2-5). Moreover, his governing policies brought cruelty to those who practiced Judaism.
The revolt came about 167 B.C. when the Jews had enough of the pagan worship of Antiochus. It actually began when an old priest and elder named Mattathias refused to make pagan sacrifices; he killed a fellow Israelite who (perhaps out of fear) tried to make the sacrifice, as well as the official who demanded it. Mattathias and his followers fled for safety. Their decision to fight to defend the faith was triggered by a Syrian slaughter of Jews over a conflict about work on the Sabbath (1 Macc. 2:31-38). Because of this the rebels decided that they would fight even on the Sabbath to save Judaism.
When Mattathias died in 166, his sons took up the fight, tearing down pagan altars and killing defecting Jews. Judas, his third son, took over the leadership, fought guerilla warfare against the Syrians, and was finally able to beat back the Syrian army, at least to the point of being able to take Jerusalem and force Syria to withdraw its rulings against Jewish religion (2 Macc. 9:19-27). The Temple was purified in 164 (an event commemorated by the Jewish feast of Hanukkah).
While Judas was able to gain religious freedom in that struggle, he was not able to attain the political freedom he sought in the subsequent years. In 162 when he tried to take the Akra, the citadel in Jerusalem (1 Macc. 6:18ff.), the Hellenizers appealed to the new Syrian king, Antiochus V, for military help. The conflict that followed led to a siege of Jerusalem at a time when food was already scarce because it was a Sabbatical year. But the siege ended suddenly when the Syrian throne was threatened by another individual claiming to be the rightful king. According to the settlement that was quickly reached Menelaus was executed, conditions were restored to what they were before the persecution of Antiochus IV, Judas became the head of the Jewish state, but Syria retained dominion and kept the citadel. With this change the Hellenizing party of Jews all but disappeared.
Demetrius, the legitimate heir to the Syrian throne, did overthrow Antiochus V. He attempted to appease the Jews by appointing a legitimate priest, Alcimus, to the office of High Priest (1 Macc. 7). But Alcimus, although popular with most of the Jews, had enemies. He was accused of having offered pagan sacrifices in the Temple. And in the squabble that ensued he made the mistake of executing sixty Hasidim who opposed him. Judas, one of those opposed to this priest, led a renewed rebellion against Syria and the Jewish apostates. But because these rebels were now only a minority, Judas had to obtain support from Rome through a treaty. It was a treaty that would benefit the Jews later but proved costly to Judas now, for by getting involved with Rome against Syria, he found himself in a bigger war, a war from which most his men fled, and in which he, courageous to the end, died in battle.
His brother Jonathan took over the leadership of the rebellion in 161; but because the Jews had their religion back he found that they were not that interested in continuing a political fight against Syria. Jonathan settled for peace with Syria in 156 and retired to his home.
But conflict soon arose over another appointment to the priesthood. Alexander Balas arrived in Syria in 152 to contend for the throne. He found in Jonathan an eager ally against the ruling power. So after his victory he rewarded Jonathan by appointing him High Priest in place of Alcimus, who had died. Gowan underscores this surprising turn of affairs: Jonathan, an anti-Syrian rebel and a conservative, had now accepted the appointment to the priesthood by a foreign king.1 Jonathan, of course, was not a Zadokite priest; and it is possible that this appointment, or one of the several like it, was the occasion for the departure of many of the faithful for the desert. As we shall see, the Dead Sea scrolls refer to a "wicked priest," a non-Zadokite priest, as the reason for the community's withdrawing from temple worship.2
With the Syrian throne in turmoil, the Jews and other states seized the opportunity to set up their little kingdoms. But Jonathan was caught and treacherously killed in 143 (1 Macc. 12).
Simon, the last of the sons of Mattathias, assumed the leadership in 143. According to 1 Maccabees13: 41-42, he was able to achieve political freedom for the Jews, freedom from tribute to Syria as well as and control of the citadel of Jerusalem. With him the Hasmonean Rule actually began (143-63 B.C.).3 But Jewish life under this regime was not much better than under Syria; it was fraught with corruption and intrigue.
Simon enjoyed peace in Judea because Syria was occupied elsewhere. In 140 he was proclaimed High Priest and Prince, thus joining the political and religious offices. He took the title Prince of the People. Since many followed a strict observance of the Torah, there was controversy. No doubt, some opposed the idea of a non-Davidic king, and others objected to a non-Zadokite priest; but one person being both King and High Priest--by self-proclamation--was also problematic. Then, to complicate matters, when Antiochus VII decided that he wanted his lands back war broke out again. His military effort against the Jews was feeble and failing--until someone murdered Simon and two of his sons in 134 (1 Macc. 16).
John Hyrcanus, the one son who was left alive, sought a treaty with Syria in order to stay in power. By the treaty Hyrcanus lost the Jewish independence and the nation became a vassal of Syria once again. But he was allowed to keep his kingdom, now limited to Judea, with the provision that the walls of Jerusalem be pulled down. The Jews were permitted to keep their religious feasts and observances. And John Hyrcanus was the High Priest. Since the Pharisees objected to this High Priest having temporal power, Hyrcanus allied himself with the Sadducees. In this event we find some of the earliest information about the disagreements between these two parties that were vying for power.
In 128 when the Seleucid Empire was disintegrating Hyrcanus used his military strength, largely made up of mercenaries, to capture Samaria and Idumea. He destroyed the Samaritan temple in a crushing blow that enflamed Samaritan bitterness toward the Jews, and he forced the Idumeans to convert to Judaism. Ironically, this Idumean policy would open the door later for Herod to claim to be a "Jew."
When Hyrcanus died in104, his will made his wife the ruler and his son Aristobulus the High Priest. But Aristobulus imprisoned her as well as his brothers and proclaimed himself king. He conquered Galilee, and continued the policy there of forced conversions to the Jewish faith. As a result, the Jews in Jerusalem held Galilean "Jews" in contempt (Jn. 1:46; 7:52). The reign of Aristobulus lasted only about a year.
Salome Alexandra, his widow, released the three brothers from prison. One of them, Alexander Janneus, assumed the office of High Priest. He then married Salome by the levirate marriage, which was unlawful for a High Priest to do, and through it he became king. He reigned from 103-76, extending the Jewish kingdom to its limits.
But Alexander Janneus had great contempt for ritual law; his participation was often half-hearted, and certainly offensive. On one occasion (ca. 90 B.C.) in contempt for the Pharisees he poured the libations of the Temple on his feet and was pelted with citrons by the people. In retaliation he ordered an attack on the people, and many were killed.
The "faithful" Jews tried even harder to get rid of him; in 88 they appealed to and allied themselves with Demetrius III of Syria. Alexander was soundly defeated; but the Jews, perhaps having second thoughts, decided that on the whole they preferred Hasmonean rule to Seleucid rule. So Alexander was retained as king. He immediately suppressed the insurrection by the conservatives, and to celebrate his victory he crucified 800 Jews, Pharisees probably, after having their wives and children butchered. Thousands fled the land (Ant 13, 14, 2; BJ 1, 93-98).
It is important to note that this early conservative opposition to the Hasmoneans was led by the Pharisees, both during the reigns of Hyrcanus and Janneus. It was the Sadducees who were allowed to determine policies, even though they were the minority. Nevertheless, on his deathbed Alexander reversed himself: he instructed his wife to align herself with the Pharisees because they were backed by the people.
His wife Salome Alexandra had married and outlived two kings; she was not now about to relinquish the throne to one of the sons, Aristobulus or Hyrcanus. As the new political ruler she made Hyrcanus the High Priest, obviously not being able to assume that office herself. She also made peace with the Pharisees as her husband had advised and allowed them to dominate government. Not surprisingly, they took the opportunity to get rid of their old enemies.
In 67 B.C., when the Queen died, Hyrcanus II held both offices of High Priest and King, but it was short-lived, three months to be exact. War broke out between the brothers over the throne. Most of the support, certainly the anti-Pharisaic party, went to Aristobulus who won rather easily and replaced his deposed brother for a short time as both ruler and High Priest. With his succession the Sadducees were once again in power.
Hyrcanus, however, was not through. He sought help from the Nabateans in Idumea. Antipater, the king of Idumea, served as his intermediary. He first persuaded Aretus, the Nabatean leader, to attack Palestine with massive power. Rome intervened and stopped the war and made Syria a Roman province. Moreover, Pompey decided in favor of Hyrcanus, largely through the effective appeal of Antipater. So Hyrcanus, the Pharisee, became the religious and political leaders, although he was stripped of his political power in 57 B.C.
By 63 B.C. Judea was clearly under Roman rule, although the Jews had a certain amount of freedom. Throughout the following years, up until 48, Aristobulus made several futile attempts to regain power. But this came to an end with the Roman civil war. Hyrcanus and Antipater supported Julius Caesar; for this they were rewarded well--Hyrcanus was made ethnarch as well as High Priest, and Antipater was made procurator of Judea. Caesar also made Antigonus, a son of Aristobulus, a governor, and placed Herod over Galilee.
After Julius Caesar was killed in 44 B.C., Palestine suffered under Cassius and then Antony. But in the year 40, when the Parthians invaded Syria and Palestine, Antigonus joined them and with their support captured Jerusalem. He then cut off the ears of Hyrcanus so that he could no longer serve as High Priest in that mutilated condition. Antigonus held control for three years until he was defeated by Herod and then beheaded by Rome.
When Herod destroyed Antigonus he brought the Hasmonean line to an end. It is unlikely that many mourned the end of an era that had non-Davidic kings, non-Zadokite priests, endless wars and much corruption in high places. But through their wars and policies of forced conversions, Idumea and Galilee were now part of the Jewish state along with Judea, with only the area of Samaria left out. Interestingly, with the loss of Judean autonomy, the Pharisees quit their political involvement and became more concerned with devotion to the Law. They no longer concerned themselves with who ruled the country, as long as they were allowed their religion. The Pharisees' retreat left room for the Sadducees in the governing class to exercise more control. Nevertheless, the Pharisees continued to represent essential Judaism. As for the Essenes, it seems that they became less monastic at about this time, possibly due in part to the end of the despised Hasmonean priesthood.
Having failed in their attempt at self-rule, the Jews now were to be subjected to foreign rule once again. Herod was their king, but Rome held the power. And this Herod was the son of Antipater the Idumean, a descendant of Edom--Esau of all people! Antipater had seen to it that Herod was made governor in Galilee; but Herod was a diplomat in his own right. Not only did he gain the favor of Caesar, he also found favor with Cassius and Antony: in 40 B.C. with the help of bribes he was able to obtain the appointment as King of Judea; and with the help of Rome he was able to take control of the kingdom by defeating Antigonus. In the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Herod found himself on the losing side with his support of Antony and Cleopatra. But he managed to convince Octavian (Augustus) that he could be just as loyal to him.
So Herod remained a vassal under Rome; he was limited in making wars and treaties, but he was free from tribute and had the right to levy taxes. He embarked on an enormous building program to make Palestine a prestigious Hellenistic state. Even though he did not live the Jewish faith, he tried to represent himself as a Jew. He tore down the500yearoldTempleandbeganbuildinganewonetomatchhisother building projects. As part ofthisappealtotheJewshewascarefultodoitaccordingtoJewishlaws, using consecrated priests trained to do much of the work. But his pagan ways and his sinful life drew much opposition. He may have found favor with Rome, and he may have sought to appease the Jews, but he still made enemies on every level, including his own family.
Herod tried to link himself to the Hasmoneans by marrying Mariamme, the daughter of Hyrcanus II and the niece of his enemy Antigonus. He still needed to replace the mutilated priest, and so he used this chance to appease the pious Jews who thought he was a half-Jew, an Idumean, and a friend of the Romans. He chose Hananeel, a Zadokite of Babylon. But after great opposition to this selection, he yielded and made the popular Aristobulus the High Priest—whom he subsequently drowned while swimming. Claiming to be innocent and displaying great sadness, he was able to gain acquittal from Rome for this crime, probably through a bribe.
By eliminating the Hasmoneans Herod brought to an end the line of royal priests. He appointed seven high priests during his tenure; consequently, there were a number of ex-high priests around in the days of Jesus. Annas served from 6-15, and his son-in-law, Caiaphas, who tried Jesus, served from 18-36. Herod and his successors, Archaelaus and the procurators, controlled the High Priests by retaining all their garments and implements until needed.
Herod's reign was contemptible in the eyes of the righteous. He interfered with the High Priesthood, appointing priests and deposing them at will. He was accommodating to pagan ways, making temples and athletic arenas in the Roman mode. And even though he was a powerful and effective ruler, he was also ruthless and cruel. He was responsible for the death of his wife Mariamme, as well as several of his own sons and relatives. It is not hard to imagine how such a man could command the killing of the innocent children when he heard of the birth of a king (Mt. 2).
But even though Herod ruled as a tyrant and levied heavy taxes, he did create a kingdom with magnificent buildings, garrisons, and a harbor at Caesarea. But probably most significantly, he gave the people a generation of peace, something they had not had for ages. After what the Jews had been through for decades before, this time was most welcome.
Herod died in 4 B.C. (thus the birth of Jesus would have occurredinlate5 B.C. or early 4 B.C.). His will made his son Archelaus king, and his other sons tetrarchs, Antipas in Galilee and Perea, and Philip in the northeast. Augustus ratified the will, but reduced Archelaus to ethnarch of Judea, Samaria and Idumea. Archaelaus had a cruel reign of about ten years, 4 B.C. to 6 A.D. He angered the Jews by marrying his brother's widow and deposing High Priests; he was subsequently banished by Rome.
From 6 to 66 A.D. Judea was under the authority of prefects or procurators who ruled from Caesarea Maritima ("by the sea"). Most of them were powerful military governors, but were not very wise or capable men in other respects. Some of the policies at the very beginning prompted the formation of the zealot movement. And later, Pontius Pilate had nothing but trouble during his ten years in Palestine (from 26-36). In fact, he was removed by Rome for cruelty (murder, rape, bribery, oppression and the like), which must have been excessive because Rome itself was not known for softness.
The other brothers lasted longer. Philip had a long reign in the northeast territories (from 4 B.C. to 34 A.D.). Herod Antipas also held on to his territory for a number of years (until about 40 A.D.). Antipas is known in the Bible for his deposing of his wife and marrying his brother's wife, Herodias. John the Baptist preached against his evil practices and was beheaded (Mt. 14:1-12). Jesus referred to Herod Antipas as "that fox" (Lk. 13:32). But his only encounter with the king was at his trial: Herod was in Jerusalem as part of his pilgrimage, and Pilate, who had the jurisdiction, sent Jesus to him, perhaps trying to avoid the decision, or perhaps out of professional courtesy (Lk. 23:6-12). Herod took no action.
When Philip died, Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great, replaced him. Agrippa was a good friend of Caligula in Rome; and when he became emperor he gave Agrippa the tetrarchy as well as the title of king (34 A.D.). This made Agrippa's sister Herodias jealous; she persuaded her husband, Antipas, to seek royal status also. But Agrippa persuaded Caligula of the evils of Antipas and got him banished to Gaul. By 41 A.D. Agrippa had been given all the territory of Antipas as well as Samaria, Judea and Idumea. While this king seems to have been the least offensive of the lot, he did persecute the Christians, putting James to death (Acts 12:l-3). But then in the height of his pride he was struck down by God and suffered a horrible death himself (Acts 12:20-23; also discussed by Josephus).
Claudius made the kingdom a province under procurators. And with Jewish zeal for independence rising once again, these governors did little to appease the people. Two of them, Felix and Festus, mentioned in the Book of Acts, were basically despots who paved the way for the war that marked the end of the Jewish state.
Herod Agrippa II, the son of Agrippa I, was made the king of Philip's tetrarchy and the guardian of the temple with the right to appoint the High Priest. Even though this was meant by Rome to appease the Jews, it did not work. He was as bad as the others; and in the war of 66-70 he sided with Rome. It was this Agrippa who heard Paul's speech (Acts 26).
There were two major wars with Rome that brought an end to the Jewish state. The first war came in 66 A.D. It was over in 70 with the capture of Jerusalem; but the Zealots dragged it on until 73. The political situation leading up to the war was about the same as it had been, but the excesses of the governors and the temper of the zealots were sufficient to ignite the conflict. When the temple treasury was diverted into Roman hands, the people reacted strongly and were met with retaliation. The governor of Syria could not quell the rebellion, and so in 67 Vespasian came and subdued Galilee. In Jerusalem the Zealots took complete charge of the war effort, but while they were doing this Vespasian gained control of all the surrounding area. In the middle of69 Vespasian returned to Rome and left the siege of Jerusalem to his son Titus. Five months later the city was taken, the temple burned, the people killed or imprisoned, and most of the city leveled. The war was over except for the strongholds still in Jewish hands, Masada being the last to fall in 73.
The land was devastated by this war. Judaism survived, of course, but without the temple, the priests, or the sacrifices. The pious were left to develop the new form of the religion, making use of the Synagogue for the study of the Scriptures and the keeping of the Law. A new Council was organized in Jamnia, near Joppa. And the leaders now were known as rabbis, since the political parties and their controversies ceased with the destruction of Jerusalem.
The second war, the great war of Rome and the Jews, came in the days of Hadrian. Under Trajan there were many conflicts between Jews and Greeks that were met by harsh punishment from Rome. Old issues from the first war were still unresolved, and Zealot refugees stirred up the hatred. Moreover, Jewish Messianic enthusiasm was growing. When Hadrian replaced Trajan it appeared that better times lay ahead; but those hopes were quickly dashed. Hadrain soundly defeated all the Jewish groups, with hundreds of thousands of Jews killed in the slaughter. Hadrian prohibited Jewish customs, especially circumcision, and made plans to build a temple to Jupiter on the temple mount. The unrest broke into war all over the land in 131 and continued until 135 when the final blow came. It was finally over. The land would now be known as Palestine—Hadrian named it that in view of the connection to Troy via the Philistines. Jerusalem was rebuilt as a Roman colony and Jews were prohibited from entering it. And rabbinic religious activity that stayed in the land moved to Tiberias in Galilee.
For two hundred years before and one hundred years after the birth of Christ, the Jewish people saw very little peace and even less autonomy. They were forced to live as the people of God under the domination of foreign powers with all their pagan activities and contempt for the Jews. They never gave up the dream or the fight for Jewish independence, even though they could not possibly have achieved it by their own sword.
Among the Jews themselves there was a constant struggle for the political and religious power. The Jewish religious parties had a long history of conflict in these arenas, and many of their distinctive ideas were formulated as a result of the struggle. The office of the High Priest seems to have been at the heart of the conflict. It achieved extensive powers beyond what the Law had prescribed; but it was continually occupied by people totally unqualified for the position of the religious leader of the nation. No doubt there were many good and righteous leaders in the land, but the ones that come to the fore knew nothing apparently of the genuine piety and humility and integrity that God had required in leaders. Even the efforts by the righteous Jews to bring about compliance with the Law were so complicated, improperly focused, or unbalanced, that the people were unable to follow them successfully. With the religious leadership in such disarray and the spiritual needs of the people being largely unmet, the work of the Messiah would have to be spiritual before it could be political. But then that had always been the divine plan.
1 Donald E. Gowan, Bridge Between the Testaments (Pittsburgh: The Pickwick Press, 1980), p. 105).
2 Ibid., p. 105.
3 The name for this dynasty comes from the ancestral name Hasmon. The name Maccabee is a nickname, meaning "the hammer." So the title "Hasmoneans" is preferred.