Church History - First Century


History Prior to Jesus
- Greeks, Seleucids and Romans

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 be based on some historical events while 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.

...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.

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.

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?

Greek Culture - Hellenization
Alexander the Great was an 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-lan") 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.

The 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.

Hellenized Jews
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 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.

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.

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.