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The Context of Christianity (4 of 7)

From the Maccabees to the Manger

The temple in Jerusalem had been rebuilt with Persian funds starting in 520. But Judah remained a subjugated state.

The Persians were entrenched for nearly two hundred years, until the rise of the Greek Alexander the Great. He began a campaign against Persia in 334 B.C.E. and by 330 ruled an empire that stretched from modern Iran to Egypt. On a political level, the Judean world did not change much. But culturally, the Greeks had a huge impact as Greek language, philosophy, and lifestyle pressed in on the tradition of the Hebrews -- some welcoming it, others opposing it.

Alexander died in 323, and his empire was divided. The Syrian Seleucids inherited the land of Judah, and they ruled until 167, when Antiochus Epiphanes came to power. Antiochus was the world's first documented anti-Semite. He hated Judaism, period. He tried to outlaw circumcision, the Sabbath, the speaking of Hebrew, he erected images of himself in the Temple courtyard -- and finally, he tried to sacrifice a pig on the Temple altar. A priest named Mattathias and his five sons (known as the Maccabees) began a guerrilla war against the Seleucid Empire -- and in 164 they won. the land of Judah had once again attained autonomy.

That autonomy would last only 100 years, and it was a rocky autonomy. From the outset there was a dispute over whether the rebellion should stop at religious freedom, or whether it should continue in the effort to "reconquer" the ancient Davidic kingdom. The reconquest won out, and the Maccabees gained a series of victories that brought the north into the fold. The north, however, did not welcome the claims of the Judeans, and the Galileans harassed the Judeans into withdrawing. In 140 the last of the Maccabee brothers was declared king of a new Hasmonean kingdom. 10 The three well-known groups of the first century (Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes) emerged in response to the new king's handling of the temple high priesthood. And then, after 103 B.C.E. under the rule of Alexander Jannaeus, there was a bloody civil war in Judea that left 50,000 or more dead.

By the mid-60s, in a dispute over the throne, Simon's great-grandsons both sought help from the Romans. In 63 B.C.E., the Roman Pompey marched into Jerusalem, and from that point on, the Jewish nation was under the Roman government. But things did not immediately settle down. Around 40 B.C.E., Antigonus, one of the surviving Hasmoneans, initiated a rebellion against the Romans. Herod (who already held a Roman-sanctioned authority in the Galilee) bargained with Rome, offering to restore the region to Roman authority in exchange for the title "King of the Jews." In 37 B.C.E., he succeeded.

Having tasted freedom, the Jews hated the Romans even more -- although the Romans were not at all opposed to the Jews practicing their own religious tradition freely, and governing their own daily lives under a Great Council of Jewish leaders (called "the Sanhedrin" in the New Testament). Many also hated Herod. He had a reputation for cruelty in suppressing the rebellions, and his own Jewish heritage was shaky at best. At the same time, he had a vision of restoring the Jewish nation to a place of international repute. He renovated and expanded the Temple, making it magnificent by all accounts. He built highways and aqueducts, and whole new cities. His kingdom was clearly prospering.

When he died in 4 B.C.E., his kingdom was divided among his three sons, and from there the various regions of the Levant once again functioned independently from one another. The Galilee was bundled together with Perea, the area on the eastern side of the Jordan River, and given to Antipas. Samaria and Judah went to Archelaus, but within 10 years Rome removed him amid charges of excessive cruelty, and implemented direct rule.

Epilogue. In 66 C.E., Jewish Zealots started an uprising in the spirit of the Maccabees. The outcome was quite different, however. The Romans laid siege to the city of Jerusalem, and in 70 C.E. they breached the walls. The city's walls were destroyed, and the Temple flattened. A second uprising in 133-135 ended equally disastrously -- and the Jews were banished from the city of Jerusalem (which the Romans renamed Aelia Capitolina) and their nation was renamed Palestine (after the Philistines who had lived there a millenium earlier).

The History Jesus Knew

The events of history -- the history that scholars are trying to describe -- are the stage on which people make their choices and undertake their actions. A person might pretend that the First Crusade or the Holocaust or the moon landing never happened, but they did, and everything after is different as a result. But whatever history makes possible, how we subjectively perceive history is an equally major factor in the decisions we make. History as scholars know it presented the first century Levant with a world subjected to a vast empire, in which most of the people were scraping to get by, their subsistence gains taxed by both empire and Temple. A scholar's history notes the end of the Davidic line with Zerubbabel, and acknowledges the very different political and religious identities of Judeans, Samaritans, and Galileans. History as the Judeans perceived it, however, assumes a biblical account of a Davidic kingdom, a land promised in its entirety to the Jews. The promises of the prophets waited to be realized, but the assumption was that they would be realized. The Judeans awaited a messiah, one anointed by Yahweh to deliver them out of the rule of foreign lands.

To understand Christianity, though, we need a third take on histroy: Jesus's understanding. He was not, after all, a Judean, but rather a Galilean. We know from the scholar's history that the Galileans had a different inheritance. Theirs was not a Davidic kingdom, a kingdom of the Jews (remembering that "Jew" -- yehudi -- is a term that refers to a person of Judea -- yehudah). They had been "Israel", the true Israel. All of the story the Judean's told of a united kingdom of David was their story, written long after the Assyrian invasion. To the Galileans, the Judeans were interlopers, trying to assert a false claim. While the Galileans shared with the Judeans an attitude toward Rome, they also deeply resented having to pay for the Judeans' temple (a policy that Herod had allowed for the priests). Theirs was never, after all, a religion focused on worship in the Jerusalem temple.

And the Law of Moses -- what did the Galileans think of that? The north was conquered in 722 B.C.E. Scholars now recognize that much of the Torah's legal code was written long after that. In other words, the entire book of Deuteronomy, the Purity Code and the Holiness Code of Leviticus did not exist until after the Assyrian exile. (Go here for details.) This raises the question of why the north would have embraced a series of legal codes that made Judea the central focus of religious practice. On the other hand, the decalogue (="the Ten Commandments") and the Covenant Code (Exodus 20-23) date long before the Assyrian invasion. It is reasonable to assume that it was a piece of a shared Hebrew Yahweh-tradition. It may also be reaonable to assume that it had made its way through history to Jesus.

Next: Judaisms of the First Century


10 The origin of the name "Hasmonean" is unclear. There is, however, nothing to indicate that they ever saw themselves as descendants of David, and there does not seem to have been any objection from others in the country that they weren't.