Previously, we looked at how the Jews that came out of Exile were determined to never let Exile happen again and dedicated themselves to knowing the way and the text. It is during this time that the concept of synagogue begins to take shape and we spent our last post briefly describing what synagogue was and how we see it show up in the Gospels. To reiterate from last post, the idea of this isn’t to make assertions that are overly specific, but are to give a general idea as to what the general world was like as Jesus comes to earth. In Galatians 4:4, it says that when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth His son. At just the right moment in time, God exacted His eternal purpose in Christ. This then behooves us to try to understand what was so special about this particular time that God chose to bring Jesus to us. This post will be designed to examine more closely the secular world that took shape over the 400 years between Malachi and Matthew.
In 332BC, Alexander the Great begins his worldwide conquest for the Greek Empire. His conquests were far-reaching, as history tells us, yet his conquest was multi-faceted. He didn’t leave large, standing armies in every territory he conquered, but rather left something else that would serve as the standing guard over the people. He left the people with the gospel of Greece: Hellenism. The word ‘gospel’ isn’t unique to the scriptures and it is a word (euaggelion in Greek) that the Greeks created as it referred to the goods news that Greece is here. The good news of Greece (or, Hellenism) was the cultural systematization of centralizing man and decentralizing the gods. Man has always looked to satisfy himself, yet it wasn’t until the Greeks that we see a full-scale celebration and elevation of man as the true north and center of the universal. Protagoras, a Greek philosopher who pre-dated Socrates, remarked that man is the measure of all things. Hellenism thrives on this view point. When you look at the Greek world, there are 4 areas where the Greeks made major strides and indeed these 4 areas become the under-girding of Hellenism: these being Education, Health Care, Athletics and Entertainment. It is through these areas that man is elevated and as long as the Greeks held control of these areas they would thereby hold control of the minds of men and thus would not need to keep a standing army. This was the good news of Greece – it’s all about me.
Greek and eventually Roman gods would start delving into the world of demigods – a god-man. Man was intellectual and wise, but couldn’t perform anything with supernatural strength or abilities. The gods were strong and powerful, but not very smart. The offspring of gods and men (demigods) would provide the best of both – supreme intellect with supreme strength. The gospel of Greece also carried the notion of godmen. When the New Testament writers wrote of “the gospel”, they are often doing so as a polemic – a tactic used to take something and re-purpose it to fight against it. The Gospel of the New Testament is that the Son of God/Son of Man (the true God-man) Jesus Christ has come to restore His creation not by elevating the pride of man, but by dying to resolve it. The New Testament authors are in many ways, by exclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ, fighting against the prevailing idea of the gospel of Hellenism. They are re-purposing what “gospel” is all about – it’s their polemic.
As post-exilic Jews are faced with Hellenism, they will have varying responses – how to be in the world but not of the world. For example, we see a clash between Hellenistic Jews and anti-Hellenistic Jews in Acts 6:
Acts 6:1 And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. (The word Grecians is the Greek word Hellenistes.)
When Alexander the Great dies, the empire is eventually torn apart by civil wars. There are a few of the subsequent kingdoms, however, that are germane to our study.. To the south (i.e. Egypt, North Africa, Palestine, etc.) was ruled by the Ptolemys (330BC to 198BC); to the north (Asia and Asia Minor) was eventually ruled by the Seleucids (198BC to 167BC). The Ptolemys essentially allow Hellenism to thrive, even in Palestine, however, evidence would suggest that they weren’t imposing Hellenism by force. They simply made Hellenism very appetizing and caused people to feel disadvantaged by not embracing it. Later, however, the Seleucids have a much different approach. Their approach is very much embrace Hellenism or else. In 167BC, a Seleucid king known as Antiochus Epiphenes walks into the temple in Jerusalem and sacrifices a pig to Zeus upon the altar. The Seleucids are not interested in simply making it very tempting to embrace their Hellenistic world and culture–they are interested in forcing down your throat. There are some Jews who, when this happens, go nuts. They can’t believe it and they stage a revolt against the Seleucids which becomes known as the Maccabean Revolt which lasts about 7 years. During this revolve, Judah Maccabee (Judah “the Hammer”), for 8 days, fights to regain control of the temple and he finally does. He beats the Seleucids out of the temple and upon entering into the temple, he finds the lamp stand still burning, even though the priests hadn’t been in the temple to attend the lamp stand. I wasn’t there, so can’t confirm if this is true, however, this is where the festival of Hanukkah–the 8 days of light. This group of Jewish rebels against Hellenism eventually will become known as the Zealots.
Once the Seleucids fell, the area of southern Palestine (Judea) was now ruled by the Hasidim or holy ones. History knows this as the Hasmonean Dynasty (167BC to 63BC). They absolutely reject the Hellen-izing of their faith. But, remember, they want to be people of the text so they know that they are not to be ruled by an earthly king, so they hand the rule over to the priests. However, after about a generation of regaining control of Judea, the priests of the Jews essentially completely sell out to Hellenism and become a corrupt ruling family of high priests. This group will be known as the Sadducees. The Hasidim are not happy with this but instead of raising their hands against the priesthood of God, they pack up and leave town. They move to the north to the Galilee and setup shop. They establish cities like Bethsaida, Capernaum, Chorazin, Cana, Nazareth. Some of these Hasidim dedicated themselves to God by the sword (these are the Zealots we’ve spoken of), and some of these Hasidim have dedicated themselves to God through strict obedience to the text. These would become known as the Pharisees. For 3 years, Jesus spends the balance of His ministry in the Pharisaical triangle of Bethsaida, Capernaum and Chorazin there in Galilee. Some Jews remained with the Sadducees in Judea but they weren’t priests, yet, embraced Hellenism, politically. This group becomes known as the Herodians. Yet, there was even a group who completely secluded themselves to eliminate any distractions (Hellenism or otherwise) from knowing the way and the text. They set up camps like Qumran, which is where we discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls. Their banner was Jeremiah 6:16a – Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. This group is known as the Essenes. The Essenes believed that if they dedicated themselves with all seriousness and devotion, that God would honor their commitment because of what Jeremiah 6:16 speaks about – that you would find rest for your souls when you walk in the old paths and in the good way. Curious enough, in very close proximity to an Essene camp, the Jordan River would boast one of the locations where John the Baptist was proclaiming to the people that he is a voice in the wilderness, preparing THE WAY of the Lord. Jesus Christ is baptized – the very one who said, Matthew 11:28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
Eventually the Greek Empire reduces to ashes as a new Empire takes center stage. In 27BC, Augustus declares himself the first Caesar of Rome and the Roman Empire is born. The area of Palestine is largely left autonomous, however, as any Empire does, Rome needed money. And, in the area in/around Palestine was someone who could help them out. This guy owned the spice trade and is arguably the wealthiest man to have ever lived. He was the king of Idumea Nabataea and we know him as Herod the Great. Rome, in exchange for financial support, would recognize Herod as King over Palestine – as King of the Jews. Those Jews who were Hellenistic but not priests were the Herodians, as we mentioned. They held a political loyalty to Herod, hence their name. The Sadducees, although no real fan of Herod, yet see an opportunity to have an alliance. They see the financial opportunity and in exchange, they’ll keep the Jews under Herod from getting out of control. (Herod would certainly have been familiar with the Maccabean Revolt). The layers of corruption in the Sadducees expand. They will eventually establish these corrupt financial practices in the temple that Jesus confronts. In fact, it is this confrontation that will ultimately lead to the death of Christ. The “chief priests” or “high priests” of Israel are the Sadducees and they are not happy in the slightest about what Jesus has just done,
Matthew 21:12 And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, 21:13 And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. 21:14 And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple; and he healed them. 21:15 And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased,
Herod the Great dies and his kingdom is divided among his sons. Herod Phillip rules northeastern Palestine. Herod Antipas (Herod the Tetrarch) rules around the Galilee. It is this Herod who beheads John the Baptist in Matthew 14. This is also the Herod, by the way, that the Pharisees warn Jesus about in Luke 13:31. I wanted to initially do this study because what we know of Pharisees is largely what is portrayed in Easter Cantatas or passion plays and what we see portrayed isn’t always in line with the scripture’s record. In Luke 13:31, the Pharisees are helping Jesus by warning Him about Herod’s quest to kill Him.
To the south, in Judea, it is ruled by Herod Archelaus, (Matthew 2:22). He rules for 2 years and dies and Rome replaces him with a governor, Pontius Pilate.
Hopefully by now, you can start to see the world that Jesus walked into and the worldviews He came to confront. At just the right moment in history, God sent forth His Son. Jesus is going to confront Hellenism as well as the various Jewish responses to Hellenism. His ministry will largely focus on the Pharisees, but He will interact with the others. He will spend 3 years with the Pharisees and confronting their religious worldview, yet spends a week or so with the Sadducees and is crucified.
I’d like to leave this open to a “part 3” where perhaps we examine a few different interactions between Jesus and these groups, but for now, as you read through the gospels and run across synagogue or some of these groups or some of the rulers/kings mentioned, you’ll have a better background from which to color your understanding of what you read.
Sadducees – High/Chief Priests of Israel (think Caiaphas, Annas); Corrupt ruling family, sellouts to the allure of Hellenism; liberals of the south (Judea) (Sadducees mentioned 9x in the New Testament; Chief Priests mentioned 55x in the Gospels; High Priest/Priests mentioned 28x in the Gospels)
Herodians – Jews partial to Hellenism, but were not priests; had political allegiance to Herod (mentioned in Matthew 22:16; Mark 3:6; 12:13)
Essenes – Jews who completely secluded themselves to devote themselves to the way and the text (not overtly mentioned in the Bible, however, some tradition has John the Baptist at a minimum influenced by Essene thought)
Zealots – Jews who separated from the liberals of the south; fought against Hellenism with the sword (Simon the Canaanite is referred to as Zelotes in Luke 6:15; historical evidence that the two thieves who were crucified with Christ were Zealots)
Pharisees – Jews who also separated from the liberals of the south; fought against Hellenism with strict obedience to Torah (mentioned 82x in the Gospels)
Again, as I mentioned in the first post, none of this is intended to be a doctoral dissertation on the smallest detail of historicity of the day. This is intended to give a general flavor of what was going on. The events of the Bible did not happen in a vacuum and understanding the world then, as it happened, only helps us have better appreciation for what is going on in the text.
Our story…may continue 🙂