When the Old Testament ends, Israel is under control of the Persian empire. When the New Testament begins, Israel is under Roman control. The switch occurred because of Alexander the Great. This historical background helps explain the political situation at the time of the New Testament.
Alexander the Great
Alexander led the Macedonians and Greeks into Asia and conquered the Persian empire, including Palestine and Egypt.
Alexander’s conquests spread: Greek language, Greek colonists and Greek culture (Hellenism).
Jewish life under Alexander:
Religious life centered on the temple in Jerusalem.
They had internal autonomy.
The High Priest was head of both religious and political affairs.
The High Priest was advised by the Sanhedrin.
The High Priest was drawn from the family of Zadok.
Zadok was chosen high priest at the time of David (2Sam 8:17).
Alexander dies and his empire splits
Alexander the Great died in 323 BC and left no successor, plunging the empire into a bloody civil war which eventually settled into 4 main kingdoms ruled by: Seleucus (Asia), Ptolemy (Egypt), Lysimachus (Thrace), and Antipater’s son Cassander (Macedonia, including Greece).
Ptolemy I, a general of Alexander, founded a dynasty based in Egypt with their capital in Alexandria. His reign ends with Cleopatra. He did not push Greek culture on Israel.
Seleucus I, a general of Alexander, founded a dynasty in Syria and the eastern region with their capital in Antioch.
301 BC – Judea is established as part of the Ptolemaic Empire.
However, Palestine became the battleground for these two powers who both wanted to tax it and use it as a buffer zone between them.
188 BC – Seleucids fight with Rome, eventually settling in the “Treaty of Apamea.”
174 BC – Antiochus IV Epiphanes rules the Seleucids. Antiochus IV considers himself the divine manifestion of Zeus on earth.
Anticochus replaces the High Priest Onias III with Jason (Onias’s brother), who is willing to push Greek culture.
171 BC – Antiochus replaces High Priest Jason with Menelaus who is not a Zadokite nor from a priestly family.
169-167 BC – Antiochus goes to attack Egypt but finds the Romans there first, so abandons the fight. Jason thinking Antiochus has died, launches a fight to regain the priesthood. In retaliation, Antiochus desecrates and plunders the temple. Antiochus bans practice of Judiasm and converts the temple to the worship of Zeus.
See: Maccabean Revolt
166 BC Mattathius (whose family name is Hasmonean) refuses to offer unclean sacrifices to Zeus. He flees to the hills and starts a revolt with his sons Judas Maccabeus, Simon Thassi, Jonathan Apphus, Eleazar Avaran and John Gaddi.
Two factions join the revolt: the Hasidim who were mostly concerned with the purity of Judaism; and the Maccabees (followers of Judah Maccabee) who mostly want political independence.
164 BC – Judas Maccabeus and his army regain Jerusalem and restore temple worship
164-142 BC – the fight continues for political independence.
The Hasmonean dynasty lasted about 80 years from about 140 to 63 BC.
Eventually sons of Mattathius gain independence from the Seleucids. Israel is a sovereign nation for the first time since the Babylonian captivity.
Onias IV flees to Egypt, ending of the Zadokite priesthood in Israel.
The popular assembly declares Simon Thassi “leader and high priest forever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise.” Simon is the first leader to have both political and high priestly power.
Simon (brother of Judah Maccabee and son of Mattathias) is the first Hasmonean ruler of an autonomous Jewish state.
134-104 BC – John Hyrcanus expands the kingdom by force and aligns himself with the Sadducees, the more secular and wealthy class. The Pharisees come from the Hasidim.
103-76 BC – Alexander Jannaeus expands the kingdom to the size it was under David. A rift develops between the Sadducees and Pharisees that threatens to become a civil war. Alexander Jannaeus executes 800 Pharisees.
67 BC – Hyrcanus II takes the throne after his mother dies, but Salome’s other son, Aristobulus II (a Sadducee) seizes the throne and high priesthood with help form Rome.
This puts Judea under Roman rule.
Judea under Rome
63 BC – Pompey besieges Jerusalem, ousts Aristobulus, installs Hyrcanaus as high priest and Antipater as ruler.
41 BC – Rome appoints Phaseal and Herod as joint Tetrarchs of Judea to support Hyrcanaus II.
40 BC – Antigones (son of Aristobulus II) takes the throne with help of the Parthians. Herod flees to Rome and pleads his case where he is declared “King of Judea”.
37 BC – Herod completes the recapture of Judea with the help of Roman troops.
Herod’s offenses from a Jewish perspective
He is Idumean. He is not religious but is forced to become Jewish.
He is not Hasmonean.
He upholds the interests of Rome.
He builds pagan temples outside Judea.
He puts a golden eagle over the temple.
Herod’s concessions to Jewishness
He marries a Hasmonean princess, Mariamne (but he eventually executes everyone from the Hasmonean line).
He does some reconstruction of the temple.
He respects Pharisaic scruples.
Herod ends up killing:
- Aristobulus III, his brother in law
- Joseph, his brother in law
- Hyrcanus II, his wife’s grandfather
- Mariamne, his wife
- Alexandra, his mother-in-law
- Alexander, his son
- Aristobulus, his son
- Antipater, his son
- The innocent children of Bethlehem
Division of Herod’s kingdom
Herod dies in 4 BC and his kingdom is divided:
Philip becomes Tetrarch of the mostly gentile area east/northeast of the Sea of Galilee.
Herod Antipas becomes Tetrarch of Galilee, Perea; Builds Tiberias on a graveyard; To settle a dispute with the Nabateans, he married a Nabatean princess. Later he fell in love with this niece, Herodias, who was also his brother’s wife and marries her.
Archelaus becomes Ethnarch of Juda, Idumea and Samaria. Archelaus is so oppressive, Rome fears the people will revolt and Augustus removes him.
6AD Judea becomes a Roman province overseen by the Roman Prefect/Procurater Pilate. Internal affairs are once again administered by the high priest and council.
Rome orders a census so they can figure out the taxes the Jews owe.
Jews are outraged by the the idea of paying taxes to Gentiles and the organized Zealot movement begins.
Return of the Herods
37-44 AD – Herod Agrippa I becomes ruler over the whole region in bits and pieces. He persecuted the Christians and imprisoned the Apostle Peter.
44-66 AD – Herod Agrippa II is said to have heard Paul preach.
66-70 – Titus leads the Romans in a war against the Jews which ends with the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.
Flavius Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews
Book XI — From the First Year of Cyrus to the Death of Alexander the Great
Book XII — From the Death of Alexander the Great to the Death of Judas Maccabeus
Book XIII — From the Death of Judas Maccabeus to the Death of Queen Alexandra
Book XIV — From the Death of Queen Alexandra to the Death of Antigonus
Book XV — From the Death of Antigonus to the Finishing of the Temple by Herod
Book XVI — From the Finishing of the Temple by Herod to the Death of Alexander and Aristobulus
Book XVII — From the Death of Alexander and Aristobulus to the Banishment of Archelaus
Book XVIII — From the Banishment of Archelaus to the Departure of the Jews from Babylon
Book XIX — From the Departure of the Jews from Babylon to FAdus the Roman Procurator