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23. Judaism During The Greek Period--330-64 B.C.

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The Historical Outline

Alexander the Great (336-323)

The Conquest of Persia

334 Battle of Granicus

334-3 Conquest of Lycia, Pamphylia and Western Pisidia

333 Conquest of Cilicia, Battle of Issus

332 Siege and capture of Tyre; conquest of Egypt

331 Foundation of Alexandria; submission of Cyrene; settlement of Syria; Battle of Gaugamela; occupation of Babylon, Susa and Persepolis

330 At Ecbatana (Darius dies)

328 Conquest of Bactria and Sogdiana

327 Invasion of India

324 Returns to Susa

323 Alexander dies at Babylon


Greek culture is divided into two phases: Hellenic (c. 750-338 B.C.) and Hellenistic (338-31 B.C.). The internecine strife of the Greek city states weakened them so that a Macedonian could conquer them. The Macedonians were considered to be barbarians (but they were Greek and Greek speaking). Philip of Macedon was taught at Thebes. Philip in 338 B.C. defeated the Athenians and Thebans.

Alexander the Great inherited a great mind and militarism. He was tutored by Aristotle. Contrary to his tutor, Alexander believed that there was nobility to be found in the “barbarians.” Consequently, he determined not to rule Persia as a Macedonian king, but as a king he would rule Macedonia and Persia. He believed in mixing the races and promoted intermarriage. He held to a Greek ideal. He took over at age 21. He then marched east with battles at Isus, Tyre, Egypt, Persia, and India. He returned to Babylon where he died. His armies covered 11,000 miles in twelve years, fighting all the way. The spread of the Greek culture paved the way for Christianity.1

The Successors

Alexander had no heir. Roxanne, a Bactrian princess, was pregnant at the time of his death. Her son, Alexander IV, was kept alive as the possible next king and became a pawn in the power struggle that was to last for thirty years. He was murdered by Cassander in 310. Names that figure prominently (among others) are Lysimachus (Thrace), Antigonus (Greece), Cassander, Ptolemy, Seleucid. The two dynasties with which the Bible is concerned are Ptolemy (Egypt) and Seleucid (Syria and east). These successors were never able to unite and were constantly fighting. They finally crumbled before Rome.

Commercial situation

Uniform coinage was established and trade routes made more expanded commercial activity possible. As a result there was a wide extension of trade.


Alexandria was the commercial and Hellenistic capital of the Mediterranean world. It was the melting pot of people. She boasted the greatest library in the world. From Alexandria came the Septuagint, Philo, Origen and the subsequent extensive influence on Christianity.

Philosophy within Hellenism.

Epicureanism. At first their stress on pleasure was primarily intellectual. Later they promoted pleasure for its own sake. This is known as hedonism.

Stoicism. The stoics strove for freedom from desires of life. Some pursued it through asceticism: others through debauchery.

Skeptics. They believed that nothing was knowable for certain.

The Hasmonean Era--167-4 B.C.

Josephus’ material for the period prior to the Hasmonean era is very thin. He includes the long story about the translation of the Septuagint, most of which is considered spurious by scholars who work in this area. However, he has considerable detail once he comes to the Maccabean period. (The following notes are based on the 1973 edition of Schürer’s, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ.)2

Palestine was tossed back and forth by the Ptolemies and Seleucids until Antiochus III was able to gain permanent control at the beginning of the second century. The government of Judah under the Persians and Greeks was in the hands of the high priest who was not only in charge of religious affairs, but also ruled the political arena with the assistance of elders. This situation prevailed so long as the taxes were paid.

There were two distinct movements within Judaism: the Hellenistic party, more cooperative with the ruling culture; and the “devout” or Hasidim. During most of this period, the Hellenists appear to have had the upper hand. Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.) set in motion a movement that was to change the political landscape as well as the religious situation for decades to come. By virtue of his efforts to impose Hellenism on the general Jewish population, he opened a Pandora’s Box of conservative rebellion.

The high priest at the beginning of Antiochus IV’s rule was Onias III who was apparently from the conservative party. His brother Jason (Jesus) was a Hellenist. Jason bribed Antiochus to make him high priest (174-171?). However, he was outbid by another Hellenist, Menelaus (perhaps a Benjamite), who probably caused the murder of Onias III when he was enticed from his refuge in Daphne.

Jason in turn overthrew Menelaus and so prompted Antiochus to attack Jerusalem as a rebellious city when he returned from Egypt in 169. He looted the temple treasures, caused a bloodbath, and left the city to Menelaus and a Phrygian named Philip.

The next year (168) Antiochus conducted another campaign against Egypt but was stopped by Popillius Laenas (a Roman general). Antiochus sent a tax collector to Jerusalem in 167 (Apollonius?). There was a massacre, pillaging, destruction and many Jews were sold into slavery. The Acra was built in the old city of David (not the Antonia) and occupied by pagan forces. In 167 a heathen altar was built in Jerusalem and on 25 Kislev the first offering was made to Zeus.

Mattathias (d. 166)

Mattathias, a priest from Modin, led the resistance against Antiochus’ efforts to Hellenize the Jews. He killed apostate Jews, circumcised boys, etc. He died in 166.

Judas (d. 161)

His son Judas (the hammer = Maccabee) led the movement after his father’s death. He won the first battle against Apollonius, and a second at Beth-Horon. Lysias, the Syrian general, sent three generals with a large force to Judea in 165. In spite of the uneven odds, Judas defeated them. In 164 Lysias himself led an army. Judas apparently defeated this army as well. He was then able to take Jerusalem and restore and purify the altar, but he was unable to take the Akra (Kislev 164). Judas then attacked and conquered many of the small territories round about. Meanwhile, Antiochus IV died while campaigning in the east. Lysias seized power through Antiochus’s son, Antiochus V (164-162).

Jews who had escaped from the Akra fled to Antiochus V and pled for intervention against the conservatives. Lysias returned to attack Judas. Although he won, trouble in Syria forced him to make concessions to the Jews that gave them religious freedom. Those concessions were not removed by subsequent rulers. Henceforth, the struggle was not over religious freedom, but over whether orthodox or Hellenists would control the leadership.

Alcimus (Yakim), a Hellenist, appealed to the new king Demetrius I Soter (162-150) who installed him as high priest. Many people, including some of the orthodox, accepted him, but Judas did not. Alcimus executed sixty of the “devout,” and thus exacerbated the situation. Judas began to gain the upper hand, and Alcimus sent to Demetrius for help. Demetrius sent General Nicanor, but he was soundly defeated by Judas. Schürer questions whether Judas ever became high priest, but says he was for all practical purposes, the ruler of the Jewish community (1:171). Judas appealed to Rome for help. The senate made a treaty with him and ordered Demetrius to let the Jews alone. However, Demetrius had already attacked. Judas’ army was defeated, and he was killed (161).

Jonathan (161-143)

The Maccabean party was no longer effective. General Bacchides fortified various cities, reinforced the Acra, and took prominent Jewish hostages. The Hellenists were in power again under Alcimus. Jonathan was not able to assert much influence until later, and the Syrians made peace with him. The subsequent squabbles of the Syrians led their factions to cater to the Maccabees for support and thus assured the continuing position of Jonathan.

Alexander Balas challenged Demetrius for the throne of Syria and offered Jonathan the high priesthood, which he accepted. Alexander became king and honored his promises to Jonathan, but he was deposed by Demetrius II. Because of Seleucid weakness, Jonathan demanded and received concessions from Demetrius. Samaria was ceded and taxation was lifted. Jonathan continued to exploit the internal struggles of the Syrians and thus expand his power and his borders. Demetrius’ son Antiochus V arose against his father under Tryphon. Tryphon enticed Jonathan to Ptolemais where he arrested him and eventually murdered him.

Simon (143-135)

Under Simon the movement that began simply to give the Jews religious freedom provided the independence of the Jewish people politically (Simon actually was more politically than spiritually motivated). Tryphon assassinated Antiochus V and took the crown. Simon turned to Demetrius II who was continuing to carry on the struggle. Demetrius granted a remission of back taxes and dropped the requirement for any future tribute. Judah thus gained her independence. Simon defeated Gazera (Gezer) and expelled the Gentiles. He was able also to defeat the Akra and thus released Jerusalem from Gentile domination.

Demetrius was captured by the Parthians and Antiochus VII carried on the struggle with Antiochus V. He at first supported the Jews, but later demanded their submission to him. When Simon refused, he sent an army which Simon’s two sons routed. Simon was assassinated along with two of his sons by an ambitious son-in-law named Ptolemy. The last of the Maccabee brothers was dead. From Mattathias’ death in 166 to Simon’s death in 135, the Jews had moved from an oppressed minority within the Seleucid Empire to an independent state with expanded borders. The Hellenistic party had been shoved aside and the conservatives were in the position of leadership. All this happened in thirty years.

The Hasmonean Dynasty

John Hyrcanus (134-104 B.C.)

Simon had the titles Prince and High Priest declared hereditary, and so his son John Hyrcanus became the next ruler of the Jewish community. Antiochus VII laid siege to John in Jerusalem and forced his capitulation and the return of Gezer and Joppa. So John lost what Simon had gained.

However, Antiochus VII was killed by the Parthians who released Demetrius II, and he again became involved in the politics of Syria (129-126 B.C.). Because of his preoccupation, he was unable to attend to the Jews, and John began to press for control of more territory. He forced the Idumeans to become circumcised. Antiochus VIII defeated and killed Alexander Zebinas and became undisputed ruler of Syria (123-113). Antiochus did not become involved in Judea, and so John Hyrcanus was left to his own. He expanded the territory further, defeating and razing the town of Samaria.

We learn for the first time the names Pharisee and Sadducees. John broke with the Pharisees and sided with the Sadducees. The Pharisees probably were nothing more than the “devout” or Hasidim. The sons of Zadok (Zadokites and Sadducees) were Hellenistic. They cooperated with Antiochus IV, accepted only the Pentateuch (not oral law) (but see p. 208), and were oriented to this life. The Maccabees were originally more in line with the Pharisees. They were the preservers of the law. The later Maccabees were more willing to cooperate with the Sadducees and John actually broke with the Pharisees, because he became increasingly more interested in the political over the spiritual.

Aristobulus I (104-103 B.C.)

Aristobulus reigned only one year. Josephus says that he incarcerated or killed his mother and all his brothers. Schürer wonders if this cruelty might have been invented by his Pharisee enemies.3 He forced the Itureans (living in Lebanon) to be circumcised as his father had the Edomites. He apparently should be credited with Judaizing Galilee which was predominantly Gentile.

Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.)

Aristobulus’ widow, Salome Alexandra, released the three brothers from prison, elevated Alexander Jannaeus (Heb = Jonathan) to the leadership position, and married him. Jannaeus loved war and kept the country embroiled in it. He almost lost the country at one time to a Ptolemy who had left Egypt. This Ptolemy’s mother Cleopatra kept her son at bay and so preserved Judea for Alexander.

He had a running war with the Pharisees who even fought battles against him. They invited the Syrian army in and Alexander was defeated and had to sue for peace. At one point he is said to have crucified eight hundred Pharisees. Some identify him with the “wicked priest” of Qumran, although Schürer believes the founding of Qumran is too early for this. He does believe that he is represented in the Nahum Pesher as a wicked person.

Salome Alexandra (76-67 B.C.)

Alexander’s widow became the queen at age 70 and nominated her son Hyrcanus II to be high priest. Salome (Schürer: Shalomzion) Alexandra was quite different from her husband. She sided fully with the Pharisees and reinstituted the Pharisees’ laws rescinded by her husband. She ruled well and was highly respected by all the people. The Pharisees were the de facto rulers and were reined in only under pressure from the Sadducees who were joined by Alexandra’s son Aristobulus II. Hyrcanus II was expected to succeed to the throne, but Aristobulus II was preparing to resist him. Alexandra died with the issue unresolved.

Aristobulus II (67-63 B.C.)

Aristobulus began to fight Hyrcanus upon the death of their mother. Hyrcanus was defeated and allowed to “go into retirement” to live off his stipends. Enter the Edomite (Idumean) Antipater. Antipater’s father, also Antipater, had been appointed governor of Idumaea by Alexander Jannaeus (remember that Hyrcanus I had subjugated the Idumeans and forced them to become circumcised). Antipater convinced Hyrcanus that he should try to regain his throne. Antipater also talked the Nabataean king, Aretas, into supporting the effort by promising asylum to Hyrcanus. Consequently, the Nabataeans and the Idumeans began to arbitrate the fate of the Jews. Aretas came after Aristobulus with an army and besieged him in the temple mount.

Roman Involvement

Pompey, a Roman general, interfered and sided with Hyrcanus. Thus Antipater and his sons, Herod and Phasael, were ensconced in Palestine.4


The Religious Outline

There are virtually no details on the organization and structure of the Jewish community in the exile. From Ezekiel, we learn that there were communities of Jews which seemed to have considerable latitude. The elder rule seems to have continued in exile with false prophets and priests continuing to exercise influence.

The community that returned under Zerubbabel (later affected so dramatically by Ezra and Nehemiah) was a spiritually chastened group. They


1Little is known about this Philip except that he was the first husband of Herodias (Matt. 14:3).

2Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea (Luke 3:1; 13:32). He divorced his Nabataean wife to marry Herodias who was married to his brother Philip #1. He was banished by Caligula.

3Herod’s will had to be confirmed by Augustus. Archelaus, called an Ethnarch, was given Judea, Samaria and Idumaea (Matt. 2:22). He was later banished to Gaul, and Judea was ruled by Procurators (6-37 A.D.)

4Philip ruled Batanea, Trachonitis, Auranitis, Gaulanitis, Panias and Iturea (Luke 3).

5Agrippa I, the grandson of Herod the Great, eventually came into control of all the territory of Herod. He received Philip’s4 territory in 37 A.D., Antipas’2 in 39 A.D., and finally Judea and Samaria in 40 A. D. He is mentioned in Acts 12:19. His daughter Drucilla married the Roman governor Felix (Acts 24:24). He died in 44 A.D.

6During the minority of Agrippa II, Judea was again ruled by procurators.

7Agrippa II (Acts 25:13; 26:32) eventually received control of the old territory. He carried on an incestuous relationship with his sister Bernice. His kingdom went down in 70 A.D. He sided with Rome and retired in 70 A.D.5

had for the most part, learned their lesson about idolatry. The community, to which they returned, however, was a different matter. These Jews left in the land (of the poorer sort and probably uneducated) had continued the syncretistic practices so prevalent in the days of Jeremiah. The threat to the returning group was that they would quickly revert to the old practices under the influences of the people who had remained in Palestine. This threat had to be met directly and this is what is going on in the confrontations between them and Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.

Certain practices (some of which may have been instituted during the exile) set in motion by Ezra and Nehemiah became the official norm for Judaism and provided the base for the development during Hellenistic times for issues that are full-blown when the gospels open.

Synagogue Worship

The origin of the synagogue is obscure. Psalm 74:8 may be an early reference to synagogues (mode-el) from the Persian period. It is supposed that the synagogue had its precursor in the spontaneous gatherings of the Jewish people in the lands of the exile on their day of rest and also on special feast days.6

The synagogue became the stronghold of the Pharisees as opposed to the Sadducees who controlled the temple. Acts 15:11 shows that the synagogue was considered an ancient institution. Its primary purpose was one of instruction. Education became very important during Hellenistic times. Academies were begun. The “schools” of Hillel and Shammai were the most famous.

The synagogue became the means for preserving Judaism particularly in the diaspora even in the midst of pagan influence. It formed the nucleus for the Church in the propagation of the Gospel.

Because of the need to maintain the purity of worship and to avoid syncretism, a strong separatism was established. This, in many ways, seems unfair, since many of the Jews who had stayed in the land would have been of pure Jewish descent. However, the deep seated syncretism in the People of the land required that drastic action be taken.7 (I would have to assume that any “non-exiled” Jew would have been allowed to come into the community, had he pronounced himself absolutely and only loyal to Yahweh.) The extent of the separatism is indicated in the divorce decree issued by Ezra and the elders. The logical extension of this separatism is to be seen in the development of separatist sects and their rivals.8

The Sects

The Pharisees

Josephus says that there were three schools of philosophy among the Jews: Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes (Wars, II 118ff). He goes into considerable detail in describing the latter, presumably because of their uniqueness.

Josephus says that the Pharisees are considered the most accurate interpreters of the law and hold the position of the leading sect. They teach a union of providence (fate) and the free will, the immortality of the soul, but only the soul of the good passes into another body (Acts 23:6-9).

Their name in Hebrew refers to separation. They are also apparently referred to as Hasidim (the pious ones).

The Pharisees had a number of commendable attitudes. They were avid students of the Scripture, and many sought true holiness. Their problem as a group was the stress on oral tradition and their legalistic concern with minutiae. They were the implacable foes of the Sadducees. Pharisaism continued at Jabneh (Jamnia) after the destruction of the temple.

The Sadducees.

The name Sadducee is probably related to Hebrew sedeq or righteous, but it is also the name of a famous priestly family, Sadok.9

The Sadducees are priests, but not all priests are Sadducees. They form an aristocracy among the Jews, and Josephus says the common people had no use for them.

Some argue that they accept only the Pentateuch, but Josephus does not mention this. They deny providence and argue that man determines his own life. They deny the resurrection of the body, but not necessarily the immortality of the soul, although Josephus says, “They hold the soul perishes along with the body.”10

They were strictly conservative, denying any oral law and cooperating with whoever was in power. They appear only occasionally in the Gospels disputing with Jesus about the resurrection. The high priest, of course, was a Sadducee.

The Sadducees disappeared with the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70.

The Essenes.

Thackeray says that the name is probably from Aramaic asa, pious. Philo connects it with Greek hosios, pious.11 Josephus presents them as a strict, celibate people who must pass through four stages of initiation to be fully admitted to membership. He says that another group practiced marriage.

The relation of these Essenes to the Qumran community is generally accepted, but it seems to me that Josephus’ statement, “They occupy no one city, but settle in large numbers in every town,”12 is still puzzling.13 They held to strict providence.14

The Zealots.

Josephus speaks of a fourth philosophy which is similar to that of the Pharisees but has a passion for liberty that is almost unconquerable (cf. Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13).15 Thackeray denies the equation of this group with the Zealots (note the above citation). Josephus does not call them Zealots.

The Herodians

They are mentioned in the New Testament twice (Matt. 22:16; Mark 12:13, 3:6). Nothing is known about them. Riesner argues that they are Essenes.16 Apparently they supported Herod and hence Rome.

The Scriptures

The returning community put great emphasis upon the law. The section in Nehemiah 8 illustrates several things and raises a number of questions. First is the place of the public reading of the Law (note the pulpit or dais). Secondly, the law was explained (interpreted?). Does this latter indicate the beginning of the Targums?17 In any event, Ezra the “Ready Scribe’’ was very much involved in the text of the OT.

The Scribes.

The scribes were a class of learned men who made the systematic study of the law and its exposition their profession. They were similar to the Pharisees but they are not to be equated. Ezra was the first scribe in the New Testament sense. The Hebrew word is sopherim. They bitterly opposed Jesus.

1A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, pp. 51-54, says Attic koine preceded koine which in turn was influenced by other dialects. Alexander’s army was made up of diverse dialects. Thus the koine probably developed on its own rather than by official decree.

2See also Daniel 11 for a rather cryptic presentation of these events.

3Schürer, The History of the Jewish People, p. 218.

4See also, C. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments, Guardian of Truth Foundation, 1959.

5See chart in S. Perowne, The Life and Times of Herod the Great, p. 6.

6See G. F. Moore, Judaism, Vol. I, pp. 281-301.

7P. R. Ackroyd, Israel under Babylon and Persia, p. 278.

8N. H. Snaith, The Jews from Cyrus to Herod, pp. 71ff.

9Josephus Antiquities XVIII, pp. 1-4.

10Ibid., p. 4.

11Josephus, Wars II, p. 119 note. See also Cross, Ancient Library of Qumran (ALQ), p. 51N.

12Wars II, p. 124.

13Cross, however (ALQ), argues extensively and cogently for a general identification. See also Todd S. Beall, Josephus Description of the Essenes Illustrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls.

14See for more identifying marks, Beall, Josephus Description of the Essenes Illustrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls.

15Antiquities, XVIII, p. 23.

16R. Riesner, “Jesus, the Primitive Community, and the Essene Quarter of Jerusalem,” in J. H. Charlesworth, ed., Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

17Targums are Aramaic paraphrases of the Scripture.

Related Topics: Archaeology, History