Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Historical Background of the New Testament (Part 2): to the 2nd Century BC

The Greek Incursion 

By 338 BC Philip II of Macedon had successfully unified the city-states of mainland Greece, and his son Alexander III (a.k.a. “the Great”) succeeded him as ruler in 336 BC. Most of Alexander’s reign involved a military campaign eastward, absorbing the entire Persian Empire as he conquered territories from Greece to India, including Syria, Judea, and Egypt. He established one of the largest empires of the ancient world, resulting in Greek language, culture, literature, philosophy, and science saturating the conquered lands.

After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, the Empire was ultimately divided into four smaller Hellenistic kingdoms (cf. Dan. 8:21-22; 11:3-4): (1) the Macedonian kingdom of Greece was controlled by the dynasty of General Antigonus I; (2) the Pergamon kingdom of Asia Minor was founded by General Lysimachus and his lieutenant Philetaerus; (3) the Seleucid kingdom of Syria and other near-eastern territories was founded by Seleucus I Nicator (“conqueror”); and (4) the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt was founded by Ptolemy I Soter (“savior”).The latter two are most relevant to the background of the New Testament (cf. Dan. 11:5-28).

Judea – the home base of nationalistic Judaism, having surrendered to Alexander’s forces in 332 BC – was subjected to the rule of the Ptolemies to the south until 198 BC; then the Seleucids to the north gained control and dominated the Jews for another half century. During these Hellenistic regimes the Jews were generally allowed to maintain their customs and practice their religion. Judea was regarded as a temple-state, with the Jewish high priest of the family of Zadokserving as the local authority answerable to the ruling power. But in 175 BC Onias III was deposed from the high-priesthood and replaced by his brother Jason,who had offered Seleucid king Antiochus IVa bribe and promised to intensify the Hellenization of Judea. Then in 171 BC Jason was supplanted by Menelaus (not of the Zadok family),who had offered a larger bribe to Antiochus with assurance of an even greater push for Hellenization. Meanwhile to the west the power of Rome was increasing and expanding. 

The more orthodox Jews, called Hasidim (“pious ones”), resisted the Hellenizing advances. An attempt was made to remove Menelaus from the high-priesthood and reinstate Jason, which the Seleucids regarded as insurrection. Antiochus led his troops against Jerusalem around 167 BC, reportedly pillaging the city and the temple, slaughtering 40,000 women, children, and men (including Jason), and selling another 40,000 into slavery. He banned the practice of the Jewish religion and set up an image of Zeus in his own likeness, to whom he dedicated the temple. He outlawed the scriptures and circumcision and ordered that pigs be sacrificed on the temple’s altar (Josephus, War 1.1.1-2; 2 Macc. 5:11-14). This fulfilled the prophecy of Dan. 8:9-13; 11:21-39 involving “the abomination of desolation,” which would be repeated by the Romans a couple of centuries later (Dan. 9:24-27; 12:11; cf. Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14; Luke 21:20). Antiochus held control of the temple for about three years (167-164 BC). This sparked the Maccabean revolt, although some historians characterize it as a civil war between conservative Jews and Hellenizing Jews, with Antiochus siding with the latter.

The Maccabean Revolt

Armed resistance against the Seleucid oppressors was instigated by Mattathias, a priest of the Hasmonean family,with his five sons: Johanan [John], Simeon [Simon], Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah [Judas]. When Mattathias died about 166 BC, Judas took his place as leader and became known as Judas Maccabeus (the “Hammer”). He proved to be a formidable leader in guerrila warfare and gained victories in successive clashes with Seleucid troops. Antiochus was preoccupied elsewhere, so he decided to appease the Judeans and lift the ban on Jewish religion. The temple was then restored and reconsecrated in 164 BC, the commemoration of which has been celebrated annually as the feast of Hanukkah, the Hebrew word for “dedication” (cf. John 10:22), a.k.a. “Festival of Lights” (see Josephus, Ant. 12.7.7; 1 Macc. 4:36-59; 2 Macc. 1:18-36; 10:1-8). The fight for independence was seemingly bolstered by a treaty formed with the Romans in 161 BC (secured by Judas’ brother Jonathan), but the stage was set for future oppression and subjugation.

The Hasmoneans were not satisfied with Antiochus’ limited concession and continued the fight for more than two decades until Seleucid control was completely broken and Jewish sovereignty restored in 142 BC under the leadership of Simon, the last surviving son of Mattathias. For the first time in over four centuries the Jews now enjoyed political independence. With no suitable candidate of the Zadok family available,Simon was appointed high priest “until a trustworthy prophet should arise” (1 Macc. 13:14; 14:41), and his descendants occupied this position for over a hundred years.

Despite this victory, however, Judaism was divided into three disputing factions: (1) the Hasmoneans (later known as Sadduceees, Matt. 22:23; Acts 4:1), who controlled the high-priesthood and temple and held the power in Jerusalem; (2) the Hasidim (later known as Pharisees, Matt. 5:20; 9:11), who campaigned for religious purity; and (3) the Hellenized Jews (later known as Hellenists, Acts 6:1; 9:29), who embraced Greek culture. 

The Hasmonean dynasty continued to increase in power, wealth, and territory. Judas Maccabeus had conquered Idumea to the south in 163 BC, and it was reclaimed in 125 BC by Simon’s son John Hyrcanus (high priest from 134 to 104 BC), who forced the Idumeans to convert to Judaism. John Hyrcanus’ son Judah Aristobulus was the first to be recognized as “king” (Josephus, Ant. 13.11.1; War 1.3.1). Also secured and subjugated were Greek cities like Damascus to the northeast and other Decapolis communities to the east.8

--Kevin L. Moore

     Cleopatra VII Philopator (ca. 69-30 BC) was a descendent of Ptolomy I and the last monarch of the Ptolemaic kingdom. After her death, Egypt became a province of Rome.
     1 Kings 1:34-45; 2:35; 1 Chron. 6:8; 16:39; 24:3, 6; 27:17; 29:22; 2 Chron. 31:10; Neh. 11:11; Ezek. 40:46; 43:19; 44:15; 48:11.
     Before adopting the Greek name Jason, he was known by the Jewish name Yeshua (Josephus, Ant. 12.5).
     Mathradates assumed the name Antiochus, after his father Antiochus III the Great, when he became ruler of the Seleucid kingdom; one of the titles he adopted was Epiphanes, i.e., theòs epiphanies, meaning “god manifest.” Antiochus IV Epiphanes ruled the Seleucids from 175 BC until his death in 164 BC.
    According to 2 Maccabees Menelaus was of the tribe of Benjamin, but Josephus gives conflicting information.
    A descendent of Asamoneus through Joiarib, Simeon, and John (Josephus, Ant. 6.6.1); possibly traced back to Phinehas, Israel’s third high priest (1 Macc. 2:26; cf. Num. 25:7-13; Judg. 20:28; Ezra 7:1-5)?
     After Onias III was deposed from the high-priesthood (and later murdered on the order of Antiochus-appointee Menelaus), his son Onias IV moved to Egypt and founded a new temple at Leontopolis, which functioned until Vespasian forced its discontinuance in AD 70 in conjunction with the Jerusalem temple’s destruction.
     The Decapolis (League of Ten Cities) was comprised of Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippos, Dion, Pella, Raphana, Canatha, Damascus, Philadelphia, and Galasa (Pliny, Natural History 5.16). On the ministry of Jesus in this region, see Matt. 4:25; 8:28-34; Mark 5:1-20; 7:31-37; Luke 8:26-39. Jews from Arabia (the Nabataean Kingdom), which at times incorporated some or all of the Decapolis, were present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:11). Later Saul of Tarsus was converted in Damascus and then spent three years in the general vicinity (Acts 9:1-25; Gal. 1:17-18).

Image credit:


  1. Hello Bro. Kevin. I am a Pastor from Mumbai, India. I am glad to stop by your profile on the blogger and the blog post. I am also blessed and feel privileged and honoured to get connected with you as well as know you and about you being Bible Teacher and a former missionary. While in the Seminary we did study about the Historical Background of New Testament and going through your blog post was was a good revision of biblical history. I love getting connected with the people of God around the globe to be encouraged, strengthened and praying for one another. I have been in the Pastoral ministry for last 39 yrs in this great city of Mumbai a city with a great contrast where richest of rich and the poorest of poor live. We reach out to the poorest of poor with the love of Christ to bring healing to the brokenhearted. We also encourage young and the adults from the west to come to Mumbai to work with us during their vacation time. We would love to have young people from your university who are interested in missions to come to Mumbai to work with us during their vacation time. I am sure they will have a life changing experience. God willing I will be coming to the United States and will be so glad to stop by your place and meet you. Looking forward to hear from you very soon. My email id is: dhwankhede(at)gmail(dot)com and my name is Diwakar Wankhede.

  2. Thank you for checking in Diwakar. I'll send you an email.