The Greeks, Seleucids and Romans

Historical Background - 300BC - 4BC

First Christian Century Links:
- Greeks, Seleucids and Romans
- The Early Jesus Movement
- Outreach to Gentiles
- The Apostle Paul

Alexander the Great
In 332 BC Alexander the Great defeated the Persian Empire and basically took control of the territory from the west of India to cover Egypt and Asia Minor. This territory obviously included Palestine (a region which included Syria, Galilee and Judea).

The Jewish historian Josephus (cir. 37-100 AD) includes an interesting section on Alexander the Great and his arrival in Judea (Antiquities XI.8.4-5; This story is discounted by many historians as exaggerated, yet is likely to have some credibility even though it is not repeated in any other historical source).

The High Priest, Jaddua received news that the Macedonian general had conquered other regions and was coming through Judea. Jaddua committed himself to prayer and in a dream had been encouraged by God to have his priests dressed in white linens and actually go out to meet Alexander in formation.
What follows comes from this source:

...for Alexander, when he saw the multitude at a distance, in white garments, while the priests stood clothed with fine linen, and the high priest in purple and scarlet clothing, with his mitre on his head...he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first saluted the high priest. The Jews also did all together, with one voice, salute Alexander, and encompass him about; whereupon the kings of Syria and the rest were surprised at what Alexander had done, and supposed him disordered in his mind.

Results of Hellenization

"Palestine" in the Ancient World
I have been challenged by several readers regarding my use of the term "Palestine." Here is a quote found on another web site:

It is clear, then, that the Bible never uses the term Palestine to refer to the Holy Land as a whole, and that Bible maps that refer to Palestine in the Old or New Testament are, at best, inaccurate, and, at worst, are a conscious denial of the biblical name of Israel.

"Palestine" is not a biblical term, but was a Greek term used by Aristotle, Plutarch, Herodotus, and Philo to refer to the region that included Judea. See my response to this criticism, Palestine in Ancient History.

The Septuagint and the Apocrypha
Many Protestants are not familiar with The Apocrypha, a collection of documents, mainly written during the three centuries prior to the time of Jesus. These documents are a good historical source for the period of Jewish History after the end of what we call the Old Testament period including the violent revolt against the growing Hellenization of the Seleucid Empire - The Maccabean Revolt.
Is the Apocrypha Inspired?

Alexander had been given a dream and saw this man in white linens with a mitre hat, the priest of a god. This god had urged Alexander to come to Asia and conquer which he had done. Alexander was taken to the Temple and allowed to make a sacrifice to the God of the Jews. He was shown the book of Daniel in which it was proclaimed that a Greek would defeat the Persians. He also asked what he could do for them and was asked for several concessions including that they be allowed to manage themselves and continue their system of worship. Alexander granted all they asked for.

While the details of this story might not be completely accurate, somehow the Jews were granted self-rule and allowed to keep their religious system intact. The Jews were happy to see Alexander the Great because he delivered them from the Persians and granted them self-rule. Most scholars think Alexander was keenly interested to see many of the things Aristotle had written about (he had served as Alexander's tutor). Aristotle had written about the Dead Sea. It is quite believable that Alexander would want to see this amazing natural phenomenon.

Greek Culture - Hellenization

Alexander was a well-educated man. He grew up reading Homer and was tutored by Aristotle. As he conquered land he wanted to spread his culture, thus he encouraged (and sometimes forced) Greeks to move into newly created cities in the conquered lands. "Greek" (pronounced "hel-lān") was slowly accepted as the official language. But this change was also the adaptation of Greek culture: literature, philosophy, government, etc. So the acceptance of "Greek" culture is now described as "Hellenized."

Alexander established the new city Alexandria in northern Egypt as his prime example for a "Greek" city. Alexandria quickly became a great city with museums and what became a famous library, one of the largest cities in the world. Egypt was critical for the production of grain - this grain would be shipped throughout the empire. It also had the largest population of Jews outside Palestine. Sometime between 250-230 BC a Greek translation of the Old Testament was started in Alexandria by some of the best educated Jewish scholars. This translation, now known as the Septuagint (LXX) gets it's name from a legend that the translation was done by a group of 70 Jewish scholars. The LXX version is important in Christian history because it is the version of the OT quoted by the NT writers AND it includes The Apocrypha, a group of writings not found in the Hebrew OT, but now included in the official canon of scripture for the Catholic, Orthodox and Ethiopian Churches (semi-canonical for Anglicans).

Greek and Egyptian Kingdoms

Ptolemaic Kingdom
After Alexander died at the age of 33 with no secure heir to his empire, his sons were murdered. Through a series of power struggles Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals took control of Egypt. The Egyptians accepted his rule and lineage as the successors to the pharaohs. The Ptolemy family ruled Egypt for 300 years. For most of this period Judea became a client-state to Egypt and was basically left alone.

Seleucid Empire
Seleucus, who had also served as a commander in Alexander's forces established power in Babylon in 312 BC. This date is used as the beginning of the Seleucid Empire whose capital was Antioch in Syria, thus part of Palestine. [This is another reason why we refer to "Palestine." You cannot call the region "Judea" or "Israel" at this point because the Seleucid Empire rules in Syria.]

In 223 BC Antiochus III the Great came to power. One of the greatest Seleucid kings, Antiochus III, took advantage of Ptolemy IV's death and expanded the empire, but then found himself fighting against a new foe, the Roman Empire. He failed in this battle, was forced to retreat, give up land to Roman allies and pay a large sum of money to Rome for his mistake. Over the 100 years of Seleucid power the influence of Hellenization in this region of the world had been fairly aggressive and welcomed by most people. In Judea the Hellenization had been widely accepted as well, but not by everyone.

Jewish History Prior to Jesus:

Hellenized Jews - War of Maccabees

The history of Israel leading up to the time of Jesus is quite important for understanding historical context.
What led to the Roman occupation of Judea?
How did the recent history of growing Greek influence lead to the War of the Maccabees? What did the first century Jews think of the Maccabean era? We will try to give a summary of these events with hyperlinks into later periods affected by what we learn.

The Maccabean Revolt
In 175 BC Antiochus Epiphanes came to power as the Seleucid Ruler with an agenda to expand the empire. He attacked and overthrew the Ptolmaic Empire in Egypt, thus Judea came under Seleucid control. Antiochus Epiphanes was also determined to push Hellenization. We learn from 1 Maccabees what the Jews faced and what they thought about being "Hellenized."

In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, "Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us." This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant....
After subduing Egypt, Antiochus returned...He went up against Israel and came to Jerusalem with a strong force. He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took...the silver and the gold, and the costly vessels; he took also the hidden treasures which he found. Taking them all, he departed to his own land. He committed deeds of murder, and spoke with great arrogance.   -   1 Macc 1:11-15, 20-24

This marks the beginning of The Maccabean Revolt, a period of Jewish rebellion provoked by a Gentile ruler denying religious freedom and persecuting the Jewish nation. It was brutal on the part of the Seleucids, heroic on Israel's part, and the emotional/nationalistic effects of this conflict were felt into the time of Jesus and even the early Christians as they endured similar Roman persecution.

The details of the entire history are somewhat uncertain. Our best sources are Maccabees and Josephus Antiquities. Josephus used Maccabees extensively, but neither can be trusted completely - both had political/religious agendas. It is clear that some of the ruling families in Jerusalem welcomed Antiochus and the changes he wanted. This "liberal" Jewish ruling class forms an agreement with the Gentile king starting an internal conflict that would eventually lead to an independent Israel.

Antiochus went further than what he orginally presented: he appears to have passed laws making the Jewish religion illegal. Circumcision was not allowed; sacrifices to Zeus were encouraged; Jews were made to eat pork to prove their allegiance. Many refused and were tortured. Mothers with their infant children were murdered together. Reading 2 Maccabees 6 and 7 helps to give the reader the emotional impact of this period.
Not long after this the king sent an Athenian senator to force the Jews to abandon the laws of their ancestors and live no longer by the laws of God, also to profane the temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus...The Gentiles filled the temple with debauchery and revelry; they amused themselves with prostitutes and had intercourse with women even in the sacred courts. They also brought forbidden things into the temple...No one could keep the sabbath or celebrate the traditional feasts...and putting to death those who would not consent to adopt the customs of the Greeks ["Hellenika"]....two women who were arrested for having circumcised their children were publicly paraded about the city with their babies hanging at their breasts and then thrown down from the top of the city wall.   -   2 Macc 6:1-10

Chapter 7 gives us a gruesome story of a woman with seven sons who are brought before the king for refusing to eat pig meat in disobedience to the Law of Moses. One by one, the king had each son tortured to death in front of their mother. Finally, she was killed as well. This and other stories from Maccabees read very much like the reports of what the Romans did to the Christians in the second and third centuries AD.

In 166 BC Jason "the maccabee" [a nickname meaning, "the hammer"] led Jewish fighters against the Seleucids using guerilla tactics of stealth and surprise attacks. They won a series of battles. Next Lysias, the Syrian General personally led his troops against the insurgents. The Maccabean fighters soundly defeated the Syrians; Jason entered the city and purified the Temple, declaring the reign of Antiochus over. [The celebration of Hanakkah as the "Feast of Lights" is to remember this great event in the history of Israel.]

Results of Hellenization - Part 2

The Maccabean Revolt
The period of the Maccabees marks a critical and important movement in the ancient world because of the impact on both Israel's history and ultimately how it affected early Christianity. Firstly, the Maccabean revolt was a reaction to a secular ruler and government trying to force cultural/religious change on a religious people. It also reflected the frustration of a once great nation being occupied by a foreign government. Conservative Jews resented this and the Maccabees gave voice to the opposition.

The Impact of "Hellenization"
From the time of Alexander the Great through the New Testament era we see a major shift happening throughout Asia Minor, Palestine and, for the purposes of Christian history, a major shift in Judea among the Jewish people.

Points of Hellenization:
- Greek became the majority language
- Philosophy and literature spreads
- Alexandria becomes a major city
- Hebrew OT is translated into Greek
- The Maccabean backlash
- Christian movement spreads to Gentiles
- Apostle Paul - Hellenized Jew
- The Romans destroy the Temple
- Christianity: a Gentile movement

The synoptic gospels illustrate that Jesus supported the concept that the Jews needed to reach out beyond the cultural boundaries of Israel. Several passages show Him interacting with Gentiles, showing God's mercy and speaking positively towards them.

Jewish Push Against "Hellenization"
The rule of John Hyrcanus in 134 BC begins a backlash against "Hellenization." Israel sent troops against Samaria in 128 BC, destroying their Temple. In 107 BC the Samaritans were attacked again. This makes it far easier to understand the hatred of the Samaritans towards the Jews - for their part, the Law-abiding Jews of Judea hated the cultural assimilation of the Samaritans. They claimed to have been part of the tribes of Israel, but had married with other races - the Jews no longer viewed them as part of Israel.

The Rule of John Hyrcanus - 134 BC to 104 BC
The struggles with Syria continued for several more years, but Israel continued with basic self determination. John Hyrcanus became the Jewish ruler in 134 BC and this was the beginning of a new era. Syria's power declined and Hyrcanus pushed to establish Israel as a regional power. He led troops against and defeated Samaria in 128 BC, destroying their Temple. Hyrcanus extended the borders of Israel and forced the conquered peoples to observe Jewish law. Around 107 BC the Jews returned again to Samaria and demolished whatever the Samaritans had rebuilt - this was seen as punishment for having been allied with the Seleucid Empire. After John's death his son Aristobulus added more regions to Israel's kingdom including Galilee. At this point the region called "Palestine" by the Romans came under the rule of Judea.

Now internal struggles developed again between the Sadduccees who had been in favor of Hellenization and the Pharisees who had opposed it. Civil strife was now an issue to be reckoned with and Rome came into the picture. Judas Maccabeus had sent an embassy to Rome and established some kind of agreement in 161 BC. John Hyrcanus had also sent ambassadors to Rome to renew relations. In 67 BC the power succession was disputed between two brothers and Roman general Pompey, taking advantage of the internal struggles, laid seige to Jerusalem and forced a settlement. Rome reduced the territory of Judea, freed Samaria from Judean control and turned both Samaria and Judea into client states. Judea was allowed to continue self determination and Temple worship.

In 49 BC Pompey and Julius Caesar entered into a civil war fighting for control of Rome. Caesar wins and Hyrcanus II, ruler of Judea, agrees to support Rome. In return Rome gave Israel religious freedom and rebuilt the Temple walls. In 43 BC Herod Antipater was named governor of Galilee. Herod was a savy politician and had gained some important friends in Rome. Some militant Jews revolted against his rise to power, Herod put down the revolt and was rewarded by Rome and named the governor of Syria. Then in 40 BC the Senate in Rome named Herod king of Judea which also gave him authority over Samaria.

Many of the Jews in Judea despised Herod - he was from some Jewish heritage, but he also came from Greek heritage and he was a proponent of Hellenization. The general attitude of the Jews is captured by Josephus:
Herod, the son of Antipater, who was of no more than a vulgar family, and of no eminent extraction, but one that was subject to other kings...And since Herod had now the government of all Judea put into his hands, he promoted such of the private men in the city as had been of his party, but never left off avenging and punishing every day those that had chosen to be of the party of his enemies....[he] carried off all the royal ornaments, and spoiled the wealthy men of what they had gotten; and when, by these means, he had heaped together a great quantity of silver and gold, he gave it all to...his friends   - Antiquities 14.491-15.5

In 20 BC Herod begins a grand project of rebuilding the Temple. This gave Jerusalem added prestige to both the city and the ruling class, the Sadduccees. Somehow Herod was also able to stay on decent terms with the Pharisees. Other than the Temple, however, Herod pushed Hellenization: he had many Greek building projects all around his kingdom in Galilee, Samaria and in Jerusalem. Herod ruled until 4 BC and towards the end of his reign he became more and more willing to act rashly, punish and kill anyone who stood in his way and was perfectly willing to sacrifice family as well. All of this only inflamed the Jewish hatred for this Jewish pretender who ruled Judea.

Jewish Sects During the Time of Jesus
We read about two of these sects in the New Testament. Josephus (Wars of the Jews II.8) also tells us about these groups, including the Essenes not mentioned in the NT.
The Sadduccees were the ruling, upper-class of Jerusalem. They had a huge influence in the political wrangling, although they despised both Herod and the Romans along with other Jews, but they were willing to work with those they disliked in running the government. Probably due to their upper-class status they were not well-liked by the average Jew in the first century. The Sadduccees also were not fond of the growing scribal interpretations that came from the Pharisees, viewing these as traditions rather than scripturally based dogma.

The Pharisees appear to be more from the common populace, applying themselves diligently and sometimes with great zeal to the understanding and keeping of the law. They were from the common people and thus many Jews respected Pharisees even though they possibly did not like them. The Pharisees held many spiritual beliefs not clearly found in the Law of Moses: a clear teaching of a resurrection, the belief in supernatural entities both good (angels) and bad (demons), and many interpretations of the Law that seemed to become pedantic to some, legalistic to others. Where their strict observance of the Law might have irritated some, their attention to social concerns (feeding the poor and giving alms to the poor) made them tolerable to the general public.

The scribes were separate from the Pharisees, but may have actually grown out of that subset. The scribes were typically the best educated, tended to serve as lawyers and teachers in their main mission of making sure the common people knew the Law and followed it. They took it upon themselves to listen to lessons given in synogogues or by street preachers to make sure the Law was being properly represented. If not, they were ready to stir up a crowd or to press legal charges against anyone failing in their estimation.

The Essenes was a monastic-type sect that lived in community fashion around the Dea Sea. Prior to the discovery of the Dea Sea Scrolls (DSS) the main literary witnesses we had was Josephus and Philo (Philo also describes a very similar community, the Therapeutai, that lived in the Egyptian desert). The DSS are now our primary literary source for this group and many scholars believe that John the Baptist came from this community when he started his public ministry. Some see similar themes in Jesus.

The Essenes separated themselves from the rest of Judah believing Israel had turned her back on God - it is likely they saw Hellenization as part of this decline. They saw themselves as the remnant that would survive until the final war of God against the ungodly. They were like "Elijah" giving testimony to the coming of the Messiah. Members had to go through a testing period to prove themselves. Their group lived spartan lives, shared prayer and meals together, and practiced water baptisms for cleansing. The worship of the Therapeutai described by Philo sounds like it could be an early Christian movement (or even a pentecostal charismatic revival in a modern century):

...applause arises from them all as of men rejoicing together at what they have seen and heard; and then some one rising up sings a hymn which has been made in honour of God, either such as he has composed himself...and in psalms of thanksgiving and in hymns...then the young men bring in the table which was mentioned a little while ago, on which was placed that most holy food, the leavened bread...And after the feast they celebrate the sacred festival during the whole night...they all stand up together, and in...two choruses...the one of men and the other of women...they sing hymns which have been composed in honour of one time all singing together, and at another moving their hands and dancing in corresponding harmony, and uttering in an inspired manner songs of thanksgiving... (extensive ellipses to keep this citation from being quite lengthy) - On the Contemplative Life 10.79-81, 11.83-84

Although the Essenes shared many common points with early Christianity, the Essenes had a collection of writings known as the War Scrolls which describe the coming end of the era conflict with evil which would be violent. Fragments similar to these scrolls were found in the remains of Masada when the Zealots stood against, and all died, resisting the Romans after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
The Essenes were separatists - Christians believed they were called to reach ALL.
The Essenes seemed to be preparing for war - Christians did not use war or politics.
The Essenes stood against the government - Christians were urged to support their government.