The Historical-Political Background of the New Testament

By Russell H. Dunaway Jr.

Beginning in 606 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon launched the first of three successive attacks upon the city of Jerusalem and the people of Judah. During the second attack (597 B.C.) Ezekiel, Daniel, and about 10,000 other inhabitants of Jerusalem were carried into captivity. During the third attack (587-586 B.C.) Jerusalem was completely destroyed. Her walls were broken down. The gates were burned. The temple was destroyed. The city was left desolate in shambles.

While in captivity Daniel foretold that the Babylonian Empire would be overtaken by the Medes and the Persians, the Medes and the Persians would be conquered by the Greeks, and the Greeks would be conquered by the Romans. He further foretold that the establishment of the kingdom of God would take place during the days of the Roman kings (Dan. 2:41-44).

Under the leadership of Cyrus, the Medes took control of Babylon (539 B.C.). It was during the reign of Cyrus that the first remnant of the Jews, under the leadership of Zerubbabel, returned to Jerusalem with instructions to rebuild the temple (536 B.C.). They began to rebuild the temple, but due to apathy and opposition the work soon stalled (Ezra 4:4-5). For a period of nearly twenty years, nothing was accomplished, until the prophets Zechariah and Haggai, during the reign of Darius I (522-486 B.C.), motivated the people to finish the task. The Temple was rebuilt in 516 B.C.

During the reign of Artaxerxes I (464-423 B.C.) a second remnant of Jews returned under the leadership of Ezra to restore the worship (458 B.C.). A third remnant returned under Nehemiah in order to rebuild the walls of the city (445 B.C.).

The Medo-Persian dominion continued until 334 B.C. Alexander the Great, one of the greatest military leaders in history, became the king of Macedonia (Greece) when his father, Philip of Macedonia, was killed (336 B.C.). He immediately made plans to lay siege against Persia and expand the borders of his kingdom. In 334 B.C. he led his troops into Asia Minor where they won a series of victories over the Persians. He continued his victorious military march into Syria and Egypt. From victories there, he led his troops into Persia, Media, and as far east as northern India. He returned to Babylon, where he died in 323 B.C. at the age of thirty-three.

Upon the death of Alexander the Great chaos resulted in his empire. Five of his prominent generals established themselves over different parts of his empire. Ptolemy chose the land of Egypt, Cyrenaica, Palestine, Phoenicia, Cyprus and some parts of western Asia Minor and the Aegean Sea. Seleucus took control of Babylonia. Antigonus became ruler of Asia Minor and northern Syria. The other two ruled in Europe and did not have direct influence over events in Palestine. From the beginning, however, Ptolemy and Seleucus struggled over the control of Palestine.

Ptolemy treated Judea as a Temple state, given over by the king, in trust, to the high priest at Jerusalem. Authority in religious and most civil matters was granted the high priest in lieu of a yearly tax. The Jews fared well under the Ptolemies. They enjoyed a great degree of liberty and self-rule. Their religious practices were not hampered. Greek customs gradually became more common among the people. The translation of the Old Testament into Greek (the Septuagent) began during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, 285-246 B.C.

During the reign of Ptolemy II, the first of five wars with the Seleucids over possession of Palestine broke out. Egypt successfully resisted the Seleucid challenge under the first three Ptolemaic rulers. However, Ptolemaic power began to wane under Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-204 B.C.). In 200 B.C., Antiochus III defeated the Egyptian army at Banyas (Caesarea Philippi) and seized control of Palestine.

Antiochus was succeeded by his son Seleucus IV (187-175 B.C.). When he was murdered, his younger brother, Antiochus IV, became ruler (175-163 B.C.). Antiochus IV is often referred to as Antiochus Epiphanes (“manifest” or “splendid”), though some called him Epimenes (“mad”). During the early years of his reign, the situation of the Jews became worse. Part of it was due to their being divided, especially over the priesthood. The office of high priest had been hereditary and held for life. However, Jason, the brother of the high priest, offered the king a large sum of money to be appointed high priest. Antiochus needed the money and made the appointment. Within a few years, Menelaus, a priest not of the high priestly line, offered the king more money to be named high priest in place of Jason. At this point, the office of high priest became a political office awarded to various individuals not according to Zadok lineage but according to political favor. Menelaus stole vessels from the Temple in order to pay what he had promised.

Antiochus IV sought to add Egypt to his territory. He was proclaimed king of Egypt; but when he went to Egypt to take control of the land, the Romans confronted him and told him to leave. Knowing the power of Rome, he returned to Jerusalem (167 B.C.), only to discover that Jason had driven Menelaus out of the city. He saw this as full revolt. He allowed his troops to kill many of the Jews and determined to put an end to the Jewish religion. He sacrificed a pig on the altar of the Temple. Parents were forbidden to circumcise their children. The Sabbath was no longer to be observed. All copies of the law were to be burned, and it was, in fact, made a capital offense to have a copy of the law. The zeal of Antiochus to destroy Judaism was a major factor in its salvation.

When the Seleucids sent officers throughout the land to compel leading citizens to offer sacrifice to Zeus, open conflict flared. In the village of Modein, about halfway between Jerusalem and Joppa, an aged priest named Mattathias was chosen to offer the sacrifice. He refused to do so, but a young Jew volunteered to do it. Angered by this display of infidelity to Jehovah, Mattathias killed both the Jew and the officer. He then fled to the hills with his five sons and others who supported his action. The Maccabean revolt had begun.

Leadership fell to Judas, the third son of Mattathias. Nicknamed Maccabeus, the hammerer, probably because of his success in battle, Judas was the ideal rebel leader. He fought successful battles against much larger forces. Under his leadership, the office of high priest was combined with that of military leader. A group called the Hasidim (later giving rise to the sect known as the Pharisees) made up the major part of his army. These men were devoutly committed to religious freedom. They were dedicated to obedience to the law and to the worship of God. Judas was able to gain control of Jerusalem within three years. The Temple was cleansed and rededicated exactly three years after it had been polluted by the king (164 B.C.). The Hasidim were satisfied with this conquest and left the army. Judas, however, wanted complete political freedom for the Jews. In 160 B.C., with a force of 800 men, Judas Maccabeus engaged a vastly superior Seleucid army and was killed in battle at Elasa.

Four years later (160 B.C.), Jonathan Maccabeus was awarded the position of High Priest. Jonathan too was a brilliant military leader, but was seized through treachery and later murdered (143 B.C.). His brother, Simon, was chosen by the people to be their new high priest and governor. Simon ruled as high priest and governor until he was murdered by his son-in-law (134 B.C.). With Simon, however, the office of high priest was restored to a hereditary office. His son, John Hyrcanus, became the high priest and civil ruler (134-104 B.C.). Under the leadership of Hyrcanus the Jews broke free from the control of the Seleucids. Hyrcanus began to expand the territory of the Jews. In the  north he destroyed the temple of the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim. He moved southeast and conquered the land of the Idumeans, the ancient kingdom of Edom. The residents were forced to either emigrate or convert to Judaism.

The oldest son of Hyrcanus, Aristobulus I (104-103 B.C.), succeeded him. He had his mother and three brothers put in prison. One brother was allowed to remain free, but he was later murdered. He allowed his mother to starve to death in prison. He extended his rule to include part of the territory of Iturea, north of Galilee. He was the first to take the title of king.

When Hyrcanus died, his wife, Alexandra, released his brothers from prison and married the oldest of them, Alexander Jannaeus. He became high priest and king (103-76 B.C.). He made many enemies by marrying the widow of his brother. The Old Testament stated that a high priest must marry a virgin (Lev. 21:14). Alexander was an ambitious warrior and conducted campaigns by which he enlarged his kingdom. He used foreign soldiers because he could not trust Jews in his army. As high priest, he did not always follow prescribed ritual. On one occasion, when the people reacted to his improper actions by throwing citrons at him, he allowed his soldiers to kill six thousand of them. At another time he had eight hundred of his enemies crucified. As they hung on the crosses, he had their wives and children brought out and slain before their eyes.

Alexandra succeeded her husband as ruler (76-67 B.C.). Being a woman, she could not serve as high priest, so the two functions were separated. Her oldest son, Hyrcanus II, became high priest. He was not ambitious. Her younger son, Aristobulus II, was just the opposite. He was waiting for his mother to die so he could become king and high priest. When Salome died, civil war broke out and lasted until 63 B.C. Aristobulus easily defeated Hyrcanus, who was content to retire. This might have been the end of the story were it not for Antipater, an Idumean. He persuaded Hyrcanus to seek the help of the king of Nabatea to regain his position. Aristobulus was driven back to Jerusalem.

At this point Rome arrived on the scene. Both Aristobulus and Hyrcanus appealed to Scaurus, the Roman general charged with the administration of Palestine. He sided with Aristobulus. When Pompey, the Roman commander, arrived, both brothers appealed to him. Aristobulus tried to fight the Romans. He was defeated and taken to Rome as a prisoner. The Romans, took control over Palestine in 63 B.C.

Under the Romans, the Jews paid heavy taxes; but their religious practices were not changed. Several Roman Emperors touch the New Testament narrative, especially these: Augustus (27 B.C.-A.D. 14), during whose reign the birth of Jesus occurred (Luke 2:1), and the census connected with his birth, as well as the beginning of emperor-worship; Tiberius (A.D. 14-37), under whose reign the preaching of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-2) and Jesus Christ, as well as the crucifixion, burial, resurrection and ascension took place; Caligula (A.D. 37-41), who demanded worship of himself and ordered his statue placed in the temple at Jerusalem, but who died before the order was carried out; Claudius (A.D. 41-54), who reigned during much of Paul’s preaching journeys, and who, due to civil disturbance, expelled Jewish residents from Rome, Aquila and Priscilla being among those thus expelled (Acts 18:2); Vespasian (A.D. 69-79), who as a general began to crush a Jewish revolt, returned to Rome to become emperor, and left completion of the military task to his son Titus, whose army destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70; Nero (A.D. 54-68), the Caesar to whom Paul appealed (Acts 25); and Domitian (A.D. 81-96), whose persecution of the church probably provides the background for Revelation, written to encourage oppressed Christians.

Beginning in 63 B.C., Roman power was exercised in Judea through Antipater, who was named governor of Palestine. Antipater had one of his sons, Phasael, named governor of Judea, and another, Herod, made governor of Galilee.

Antipater was murdered in 43 B.C. In 40 B.C. the Parthians invaded Palestine and made Antigonus, the last surviving son of Aristobulus, king of Palestine. Hyrcanus was mutilated by having his ears cut or bitten off so that he could not serve as high priest again. Phasael was captured and while in prison committed suicide. Herod barely escaped with his family. He went to Rome to have his future brother-in-law, Aristobulus, made king, hoping to rule through him as his father had ruled through Antipater. However, the Roman Senate, at the urging of Antony and Octavian (Augustus), made Herod king (40 B.C.). It took him three years to drive the Parthians out of the country and establish his rule. He was king until his death in 4 B.C.

The years of Herod’s rule were a time of turmoil for the Jewish people. He was an Idumean. His ancestors had been forced to convert to Judaism, but the Jews never accepted Herod. In fact, they resented him. He was the representative of a foreign power. Scheming, jealous, and cruel, he killed two of his own wives and at least three of his own sons. Just five days before his own death, Herod had his oldest son, Antipater, put to death. Augustus once said that it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son (a wordplay, since the Greek words for pig, hus, and for son, huios, sound very much alike). His relations with Rome were sometimes troubled due to the unsettled conditions in the empire. Herod was a strong supporter of Antony, though he could not tolerate Cleopatra with whom Antony had become enamored. When Antony was defeated by Octavian (31 B.C.), Herod pledged his full support to Octavian.

Herod proved himself an efficient administrator on behalf of Rome. He kept the peace among a people who were hard to rule. He was a cruel and merciless man. Yet, during a time of great famine, he used his own funds to feed the people. Among his many building projects in Jerusalem, his greatest contribution to the Jews was the beautification of the temple in Jerusalem. This beautification seems to have largely been an attempt to conciliate his subjects. The temple, decorated with white marble, gold, and jewels, became proverbial for its splendor: “Whoever has not seen the temple of Herod has seen nothing beautiful.”

It was during the reign of Herod that Jesus was born (Matt. 2:1-18; Luke 1:5). Herod was the king who ordered the execution of the male babies in Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-18).

At his death (4 B.C.), Herod left his kingdom to three of his sons. Antipas became tetrarch (“ruler of a fourth”) of Galilee and Perea (4 B.C.—A.D. 39). Philip became tetrarch of the Gentile regions to the northeast of the Sea of Galilee (4 B.C.—A.D. 34). Archelaus was to be king of Judea and Samaria, but Rome refused to give him the title of king. He was ethnarch (“ruler of the people”) of these two territories. He proved to be a poor ruler and was deposed (6 A.D.). His territories were placed under the direct rule of Roman procurators under the control of the governor of Syria.

John the Baptist rebuked Antipas for divorcing his wife in order to marry Herodias, the wife of Philip, his half brother. In retaliation, Herodias induced her dancing daughter to demand the head of John the Baptist. Antipas yielded to the grisly request (Mark 6:17-29; Matt. 14:3-12). Jesus once referred to Antipas as “that fox” (Luke 13:32). Later Jesus stood trial before him (Luke 23:7-12).

Except for brief periods, Roman governors ruled Archelaus’s former territory. The fifth procurator appointed to rule over Judea was Pontius Pilate, before whom Jesus stood trial prior to his crucifixion. Interesting, three times Pilate pronounced Jesus innocent, yet he lacked the courage to set him free (John 18).

Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great, executed James, the Apostle and son of Zebedee, and imprisoned Peter (Acts 12:1-5). He was smitten of God when he accepted the praise of the people, “It is the voice of a god, and not of a man.” Luke tells us that because “he gave not God the glory,” “the angel of the Lord smote him . . . and he was eaten of worms and died” (Acts 12:21-23).

The governor Felix heard the Apostle Paul preach the gospel and trembled at the word, yet postponed obeying the gospel (Acts 24-25). He hoped that Paul would bribe him with money, but Paul never did and remained a prisoner for two years under the governor Felix.

Festus, who took the place of Felix, also heard Paul’s case (Acts 25). Willing to do the Jews a favor, Festus suggested that Paul return to Jerusalem to stand trial. Being a Roman citizen, and knowing that the Jews intended to kill him, Paul appealed his case to Caesar.

This presented a problem for Festus. He had no choice but to send Paul to Rome. The problem was that he did not have any charges to write in the papers to accompany Paul to Rome. Thus, he asked Herod Agrippa II, great-grandson of Herod the Great, to listen to Paul’s self-defense and see if he could determine what charges should be written against Paul before sending his case to Rome. Agrippa heard Paul’s self-defense and was “almost” persuaded to become a Christian himself (Acts 26:28).

Upon the death of Festus, Albinis and then Florus were appointed governors of Judea. It was the raiding of the temple treasury by Florus that ignited the Jewish revolt of A.D. 66-70 which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in A.D. 70. The clean-up operations of this revolt lasted till the capture of Masada, a fortress on the west side of the Dead Sea, where the last rebels and their families, numbering more than nine hundred, committed mass suicide just before the Romans entered. The Jews suffered even greater loss of life at the destruction of Jerusalem. Both the destruction of Jerusalem and the capture of Masada were preceded by long sieges. Apart from such events, and in spite of the Herods and the Roman governors, however, Jewish priests and Jewish courts controlled most local matters of daily life.

Worship at the temple and its sacrificial system ceased with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Jewish rabbis established a school in the Mediterranean coastal town of Jamnia (or Yavneh) to expound the Torah, the Old Testament law, more intensively. Unsettled conditions continued in Palestine until Emperor Hadrian erected a temple to the Roman god Jupiter on the site where the Jewish temple had stood. Hadrian also prohibited the rite of circumcision. The Jews revolted again, this time under the leadership of Bar Cochba, proclaimed by many Jews to be the Messiah (A.D. 132). The Romans crushed this uprising in A.D. 135, rebuilt Jerusalem as a Roman city, and banned Jews from entering the city. Thus the Jewish state ceased to exist until its revival in 1948.

(For a more detailed discussion of the history of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity through the intertestamental period, I highly recommend Old Testament History by Charles Pfieffer, as well as Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Books 10-20, which cover the history of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity on into the New Testament Period, to the governorship of Florus. For a detailed discussion of the destruction of the Jerusalem, see Josephus.

Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 9 p14  May 4, 2000