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General Jewish Setting to the Emergence of Christianity

  1. After Israel's deportation to Babylonia by Nebuchdrezzar (586BC), a portion of the people returned to Judea under Ezra with the blessing of the new Achaemenid (Persian) monarchy. This tolerant policy of the Persians was continued by Judea's Hellenistic rulers, the Ptolemies of Egypt, and then, after 200 BC, the Seleucids with their power base in Syria and Mesopotamia. Thus Judea in the Hellenistc era had the status of an "ethnarchy" ruled in domestic affairs by a hereditary high priest and his advisers.

  2. The great crisis of Jewish life in the Hellenistic age arose in the middle of the second century BC out of a religious and economic conflict within the Judean community itself. One party in the community, drawn from the land-owning aristocracy in Jerusalem, sought and gained from the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes, permission to alter the constitutional basis of Jewish life by making Jerusalme a greek-style city, with the new name of Antioch. In accord with this policy, Greek education; institutions, a gymnasium and ephebeion, were established to train new citizens.

    But above all, the Mosaic Law, under this arrangement, lost its status as the constitution of the community, since legislative power was now lodged in the newly created citizen body. When the reforming people made the mistake of replacing the high priest, the people arose. Their successful rebellion, however, compelled intervention by Antiochus IV, who to assure the safety of his realm took the strongest possible line by way of punishment. He abolished the practice of Judaism and installed the worship of Zeus Olympios in the Jerusalem temple.

  3. Antiochus' abolition of the Jewish worship provoked the revolt of the Maccabees (167bc), whose guerrilla tactics ultimately compelled Antiochus and his successors to compromise with the Jewish leaders. The results were threefold: First, worship of the Lord was restored in a cleansed and rededicated temple, with a restoration of the traditional constitution of the Jewish ethnarchy. Second, the Hasmoneans, that is the family of Judah the Maccabee, became after 140 BC the hereditary rulers of Judea. Third, the Jewish state, which in 142 BC had become effectively independent, grew in military power until, under John Hyrcanus (135-105 BC) it came to control the whole of Palestine.

  4. The Advent of the Romans in 63 BC under Pompey the Great changed the situation only by rendering the internal conflicts between Antiochus and the Hasmoneans more acute. Rome began intervening to settle a struggle over succession in the Hasmonean house. It solved the problem by putting most of the Jewish kingdom under the propraetor in Syria, but Jerusalme itself was constituted a temple-state, its domestic affairs governed by the Hasmonean high priest.

    This system might have worked had Rome not changed its mind and violated Jewish sensibilities by installing Herod, called "Great" as a vassal king (37-4B C) over the former territories of the Hasmoneans. An Idumaean whose people had been forcibly converted to Judaism in the days of Hasmonean power, Herod was almost universally hated, in spite of his magnificent reconstruction of the Jerusalem temple, his contributions to the material wealth of the land, and his occasional interventions at Rome to protect Jewish interests. His taxation, however, impoversihed the peasantry, drove more land into the possession of the great landowners, and forced many common folk into beggary and thievery.

  5. Against this backdrop one may undertsand the division which rose in Hasmonean times between an aristocratic priestly party, and a popular devout and religiously more exclusive party, the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

    The Sadducees were the group with which the Hasmoneans gradually became associated. This was an entirely worldly party whose attitudes were determined more by interest in political and commercial exapnsion than strong religious conviction. Most of the religious principles it stood for were simply conservative. The Sadducees were loyal to the Law, but would not accept the oral tradition of the scribes. They denied recently popularized doctrines of resurrection or immortality, and they rejected the notion of good and evil spirits. Though very influentially politically, they were unpopular with the mass of the people, who saw them as representing economic oppression, as open to foreign influences, and as lax in their attitude toward the Law.

    The Pharisees, or "Separated" stood in the tradition of the ancient scribes and of the Hasidim who had originally rallied to the support of the Maccabean revolt. Its primary concern was with the sanctification of life through a minute and joyous observance of the Law. It envinced no great interest in political action (though the Zealots who advocated rebellion against the power of Rome seems to have sprung out of the Pharasaic movement), yet did take stands on issues affecting political life. The Pharisees were influential and widely admired, so much so that the Hasmoneans were eventually forced to give them representation on the Sanhedrin, the high priest's council of advisors. They held strongly to the doctrine of good and evil spirits and to a doctrine about angels and Satan which was partly the product of Persian influence. They taught belief in the resurrection of the body and in future rewards and punishments - eschatological beliefs which, together with messianic hopes, flourished in the intense and troubled era of the two centuries before the birth of Christ.

  6. Connected to the Pharisaic party in opposition to the Hasmoneans were the Essenes, who are known to us chiefly through the Qumran scrolls, found in the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. The origins of the movement are obscure. It was previously known only from reports of Philo, Josephus, and Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD. The community of Qumran, whose buildings possibly date back to 135 BC, seems to have assembled as a result of a conflict over the high priest. Its members looked back to a "Righteous Teacher" as their founder and set him in opposition to a "Wicked Priest", perhaps an illegitinmate high priest. Some historians have sought to identify Simon the Macabee's recognition as hereditary high priest (140 BC) as the offense which generated the sect. Its members esteemed the Law and claimed, by following the Righteous Teacher, to preserve the Law's correct meaning.

    They observed periodic lustrations, an annual rite of entering and renewing the Covenant, and a sacred meal of bread and wine. They lived under a strict discipline, which is preserved for us in The Maual of Discipline, a work which also reflects the careful organiziation of the community, with its overseers, priests of Zadok, elders and others. Above all, they looked fervently to the future redemption of Israel and expected the appearance of a messianic figure or figures who would arise to gather the scattered hosts of Israel together to defaet her enemies and to inaugurate the age of God's rule.

    Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  7. Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  8. Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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