Last update: Friday, December 14, 2012 03:51:46 PM



Although the Jews were ruled by Rome in the time of Jesus, many features of the Jewish way of life were the result of political events in the pre-Roman period. The Persians, who had conquered Babylon in 539 BC and helped the Jews to rebuild their ancient homeland, remained the Jews’ overlord for the next two hundred years. But rapid changes occurred with the dramatic conquests of Alexander the Great and the establishment of the Greek Empire.

Greek rule and influence

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The Greek Empire

Alexander was from Macedonia, the northern part of present-day Greece. In little more than a year he overran Asia Minor and took control of much of the eastern Mediterranean region (333 BC). His conquests spread rapidly through parts of northern Africa and western Asia, then continued over what remained of the Persian Empire till they reached India.
Wherever they went the Greeks planted Greek culture. The Greek language became commonly spoken throughout the region, and remained so into the New Testament era in spite of the rise of Roman power. People in local regions continued to speak their own languages (the Jews of Palestine spoke Aramaic, a language related to Hebrew), but they usually spoke Greek as well . The New Testament was written in Greek.
Greek architecture spread through the building of magnificent new cities, and Greek philosophy changed the thinking of people everywhere . The Greeks brought some help to the people they governed, by providing a standard of education, sport, entertainment and social welfare that most people had never known before. Those who absorbed this Greek culture were regarded as civilized; all others were regarded as barbarians .
Alexander died while at the height of his power (323 BC) and his vast empire was divided among his generals. In the early days after the break-up there were four dominant leaders, but power struggles among them (and others) continued for many years. By 301 BC there were three main sectors in the divided empire: one in the west centred on Macedonia, and two in the east centred respectively on Egypt to the south and Syria to the north.
At first Palestine was within the Egyptian sector, where each of the Greek rulers took the name Ptolemy. Under the Ptolemies the Jews had a reasonably peaceful existence. During this time, in the recently built city of Alexandria in Egypt, a group of about seventy Jewish scholars translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek. This translation is known as the Septuagint (meaning ‘seventy’ and usually abbreviated as LXX). In New Testament times both Jews and Christians used the Septuagint as well as the Hebrew Old Testament. When the New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament, they usually used the Septuagint rather than make their own translation from the Hebrew.

Changes in Israel
Some of the later Ptolemies became hostile to the Jews, but conditions worsened when the Syrian sector conquered the Egyptian sector and so brought Palestine under its control (198 BC). The Greek kings who ruled Syria were known as the Seleucids, after the king who founded the dynasty. Most of the kings gave themselves the name Antiochus, after Antioch, the capital of the Seleucid kingdom that the founder of the dynasty built in 300 BC .
Israel had now been under Greek rule for more than a hundred years, and Greek customs and ideas were having an influence on the Jews’ religion and way of life. Divisions began to appear among the Jewish people. Some Jews not only tolerated this Greek influence but actively encouraged it. In doing so they won favors from the Greek rulers and had themselves appointed to important positions in the Jewish system. Others firmly opposed all Greek influence, particularly the influence of Greek rulers in Jewish religious affairs.
When fighting broke out in Jerusalem between rival Jewish factions, the Seleucid king of the time, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, mistakenly thought that the people were rebelling against him. He invaded Jerusalem, killed Jews in thousands, made others slaves, burnt the Jewish Scriptures, forced Jews to eat forbidden food and compelled them to work on the Sabbath day. He set up a Greek altar in the Jewish temple, then, using animals that the Jews considered unclean, offered sacrifices to the Greek gods. To the Jews this was ‘the awful horror’ (GNB), ‘the abomination that makes desolate’ (RSV) (Dan 11:31). But Antiochus failed to realize that the Jews were zealous for their religion and would not stand idly by and allow him to destroy it.

Jewish resistance led by the Maccabees
The Jews’ fight for religious freedom began through a priest named Mattathias. He and his five sons (known as the Maccabees, after Judas Maccabeus, his son and the leader of the group) escaped from Jerusalem, put together a small army and began to carry out surprise attacks against the forces of Antiochus. The attacks were so successful that after about three years the Maccabees had overthrown the pro-Greek party of Jewish priests in Jerusalem and cleansed and rededicated the temple (165 BC). From that time on, the Jewish people celebrated the great event in the annual Feast of Dedication .
Encouraged by their remarkable victory, the Maccabees (also known as the Hasmoneans, after their old family name) decided to keep fighting till they had won political freedom as well. But the religiously strict Jews, who had previously opposed Greek political interference in their religion, also opposed the Maccabees’ drive for political power. They believed that the Maccabees had done their job by restoring the temple and regaining religious freedom for the Jews. They should not have any part in politics.
These opposing viewpoints eventually produced the two main parties that divided the Jewish people, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees wanted political power, whereas the Pharisees were content to have religious freedom. The Maccabees carried on the war in spite of the Jewish opposition, and after twenty years won political independence (143 BC).

Sadducees and Pharisees
After four and a half centuries under Babylon, Persia, and then Greece, the Jews were free again. However, they were now clearly divided, under the domination of two major parties. On the one side were the pro-political priests and leaders (the later Sadducees) who were wealthy, powerful and favored by the Hasmonean rulers. On the other side were the anti-political traditionalists (the later Pharisees), who were poor, powerless and favored by the common people. The differences between the two parties increased as each developed its own beliefs and practices.
The Pharisees’ chief aim was to keep the law in all its details; not so much the law of Moses as the countless laws developed and taught by the teachers of the law, the scribes. They were particularly strict in keeping rules relating to religious observances such as fasting  tithing ), Sabbath-keeping ), the taking of oaths and ritual cleanliness . The name ‘Pharisees’ meant ‘the separated ones’, and many were so convinced they were God’s only true people that they kept themselves apart from others.
If the Pharisees were the party of the scribes, the Sadducees were the party of the priests . (Their name possibly comes from Zadok, a priest of Solomon’s time whose descendants were regarded as the only legitimate priests; 1 Kings 1:38-39; Ezek 44:15-16). The Sadducees’ strategy was to use the religious and political structures of Jewish society to gain power for themselves. Since they controlled the priesthood, one of the main channels of power, it suited them to emphasize the temple rituals. However, they had little interest in the traditions of the scribes. The only Jewish law they acknowledged was the written law of Moses.
Sadducees and Pharisees had several other well known differences, chiefly in matters of their beliefs. The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body, the directing will of God in life’s events, or the existence of angelic beings, all of which were important beliefs to the Pharisees. 

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The Roman Empire

End of Jewish independence
The Hasmoneans ruled for almost one hundred years. Under them political, religious and military power joined together, so that the Hasmonean ruler was at the same time governor, high priest and commander-in-chief of the army.
During the period of Hasmonean rule the Pharisees were often the ones who suffered. They welcomed the chance to reverse the situation when a later queen showed herself favourable to them. But when she died, fighting broke out between her two sons, one of whom favoured the Pharisees, the other the Sadducees. At that time Rome’s power was spreading towards Palestine, and as General Pompey had his army nearby in Syria, both sides asked for his help. Pompey settled the dispute by leading his army into Jerusalem and taking control himself. Thus, in 63 BC, Jewish independence came to an end.

Herod the Great

One of the two brothers who sought Rome’s support was appointed by the Roman administration as political head and high priest of Judea. He proved to be a weak leader. He was very much under the influence of an Idumean friend Antipater, who was cunningly planning to gain control himself. (Idumea was a region in the south of Judea that was inhabited by a mixture of Jews, Arabs and the remains of the nation once known as Edom.) In the end Antipater was appointed governor of Judea, with his two sons in the top two positions under him.
At that time Judea, and in fact the whole of the eastern Mediterranean region, was troubled by a succession of power struggles, divisions and wars. Antipater was eventually murdered and his sons overthrown. But one of the sons, who had developed even greater cunning than his father, escaped to Rome, from where he had himself appointed the new governor of Judea and given the title of king. This person we know as Herod the Great.
Through treachery and murder, Herod removed all possible rivals. Then, having made his position safe, he began to develop and expand his kingdom. He ruled Judea for thirty-three years (37-4 BC). He carried out impressive building programs, two of his most notable achievements being the rebuilding of Samaria and the construction of Caesarea as a Mediterranean port. In Jerusalem he built a military fortress, government buildings, a palace for himself and a magnificent temple for the Jews.
In spite of the benefits Herod brought them, the Jews hated him. This was partly because of his mixed blood (though he was Jewish by religion) and partly because of his ruthlessness in murdering any he thought a threat to his position. His butchery was well demonstrated in his massacre of the Bethlehem babies at the time of Jesus’ birth .

Family of Herod

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Palestine in New 
Testament Times

Before he died, Herod divided his kingdom between three of his sons, though they, like their father, could rule only within the authority Rome gave them. The southern and central parts of Palestine (Judea and Samaria) went to Archelaus, a man as cruel as his father but without his father’s ability . The northern part of Palestine (Galilee) and the area east of Jordan (Decapolis and Perea) went to Herod Antipas, the man who later killed John the Baptist and who agreed to the killing of Jesus . The areas north-east of the Sea of Galilee (Iturea and Trachonitis) went to Herod Philip, a man of milder nature than the rest of his family .

Direct Roman rule
Archelaus was so cruel and unjust that in AD 6 the people of Judea and Samaria asked Rome to remove him and govern them directly. From that time on, Judea and Samaria were ruled by Roman governors, or procurators, with headquarters at Caesarea. The procurators of Judea and Samaria mentioned in the Bible are Pilate, Felix and Festus (.
The only exception to this rule by procurators was the brief ‘reign’ of Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great . Through winning favour with Rome, he gained the former territories of Herod Philip (in AD 37) and Herod Antipas (in AD 39). In AD 41 he gained Judea and Samaria, and for three years he ruled almost the entire ‘kingdom’ of Herod the Great. Upon his death in AD 44, Judea and Samaria returned to the rule of Roman governors.
Earlier, when a governor from Rome replaced Archelaus (AD 6), the Jews for the first time had to pay taxes to the Romans direct instead of through the Herodian ruler. When Rome conducted a census to assess this tax, a group of Jews led by a man called Judas the Galilean rebelled, claiming that it was wrong for the people of God to pay tax to a pagan emperor . Because of their zeal in trying to free Israel from pagan influence, they became known as Zealots, or Patriots, and formed a minor political-religious party in Israel .
The zealots were so opposed to Roman rule that they were prepared to fight against it. Rome’s mismanagement of Jewish affairs increased their determination, and in AD 66 they revolted openly by taking control of Jerusalem. There was much turmoil and bloodshed during the next four years, but the Romans gradually reasserted their control, first in Galilee then throughout Judea. Finally, in a series of brutal and devastating attacks, they conquered Jerusalem, massacred the people, burnt the temple and left the city in ruins (AD 70). So far as Rome was concerned, the Jewish nation was finished.


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Israel Under Persia, Greek and Rome

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Part of Herod the Great's Family