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HISTORY of Christian Theology
Jesus was born into a Jewish world swirling with conflict from the tensions created by the Greek Occupation, the Maccabean Revolt, the Diaspora, the Rise of Rabbinical Judaism with its diverse sects, and Roman oppression.

The Greek Occupation

Many Jews returned to Jerusalem and Palestine after the Persian emperor Cyrus the Great gave permission in 538 BC for the Jews to return from Babylonia. The Jewish nation remained a quasi-independent vasal state of Persia until Alexander the Great conquered Persia in 334 BC, and took over control of Palestine. Life was never the same afterwards.

Alexander and the Greek elite believed that their civilized culture offered the solution to all of the world’s problems and orchestrated a concerted effort to get the people they conquered to adopt classical Greek ideology and culture. They did this by establishing an active education system to indoctrinate the youth, encouraging soldiers to inter-marry with the local female population and granting them land. The Hellenization of the Mediterranean and near-middle east area was generally quite successful. Greek became the common language of trade and of the upper strata of society throughout the empire. Greek philosophy and material benefits seduced many of the young and upper-class to adopt Hellenic culture.

Alexander and the Greek elite believed that their civilized culture offered the solution to all of the world’s problems and orchestrated a concerted effort to get the people they conquered to adopt classical Greek ideology and culture.

Alexander the Great
To a lesser extent, the Jewish nation was no exception. The ruling class, consisting mainly of Sadducees, welcomed the economic advantages of compromise and adoption, while the general populous, led by the Pharisees, strove to hold onto their older customs and religious beliefs in spite of their leaders’ heady Hellenic view that they were primitive and barbaric. Regardless, if they paid their taxes, there was little trouble for the stubborn Jews while they were ruled by the Greek Ptolemies of Egypt. However, Palestine was a strategic location that was contested by the Greek Seleucids who ruled from Syria.

The Maccabean Revolt

Antiochus IV, took over. He feared that the rebellious Jewish nation created a vulnerability that the rising Roman power could exploit, so he set out to obliterate Judaism by force.

In 175 BC, the new Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV, took over. He feared that the rebellious Jewish nation created a vulnerability that the rising Roman power could exploit, so he set out to obliterate Judaism by force. In addition, Antiochus IV increased efforts to assimilate the region through Greek education, drama, and social benefits. He built a gymnasium and other public buildings in Jerusalem. The word gymnasium comes from the Greek word “naked” and reflected the practice of athletes participating in sporting events in the nude, which did not sit well with the conservative Jewish population. Antiochus outlawed the Jewish religion, including circumcision, built a fortress close to the temple and offered pigs on the temple’s alter to Pagan gods. This infuriated and united the Jews instead of demoralizing them.

They would immediately kill any circumcised child they found and hang it around the neck of his or her mother. These unfortunate women were paraded around town …

MacabeesAntiochus doubled down, and sent troops throughout the land to surround villages and conduct house-to-house searches to find any infant who was circumcised. They would immediately kill any circumcised child they found and hang it around the neck of his or her mother. These unfortunate women were paraded around town as the soldiers continued their search. Once their task was completed, the mothers were taken and throw over a cliff outside of town or otherwise executed.

Stattler Machabeusze

sacrifice priest killedEverything came to a head in 167 BC when Greek soldiers gathered the people of the small town Modin and demanded that their old priest, Mattathias offer sacrifice to a pagan god. He refused, and when another priest agreed to do it, Mattathias grabbed a sword and killed the priest and the senior officer before he and his five sons fled to the mountains, where they called on the rest of Judea to join them. They were not disappointed. Even though they were heavily outnumbered, they succeeded in defeating the Greek military, battle after battle, winning their independence from Greece. This revolt, instigated and led by the Hasmonean family, is known as the Maccabean Revolt, meaning “the Hammer” in honor of Mattathias’s son, Judah, a military genius who led the revolt after his father’s death.

The popular Pharisees threw their support behind the revolt while the ruling Sadducees supported the Greek occupiers. After the Hasmonean family’s victory, the Pharisees initially gained favor. That changed a generation later when Hyrcanus, the Jewish king and Mattathias’s grandson, asked a group of leading Pharisees if he was doing anything improper. Eleasar stood and mentioned that the king should give up his position as high priest and be content with just handling the civil affairs of the nation because there was a rumor that he was the illegitimate son of Antiochus. Incensed, the king asked the gathered Pharisees what punishment Eleasar deserved for sharing this false rumor. He became even more upset when they said “stripes and bonds” when nothing less than death would satisfy him. So, he transferred the power back to the Sadducees, even though the Pharisees remained more influential among the people.

The Diaspora and the Rise of Rabbinical Judaism

Many Jews returned to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, but there always remained more Jews living outside of Palestine than within the Holy Land, with major Jewish communities in Egypt and in large cities throughout the empire. The Jews who returned rebuilt their temple, but not to the level of splendor of Solomon’s temple which was destroyed by the Babylonians. The temple resumed its role in Jewish worship, but a new factor gained major influence in Judaism both in the Holy Land and in the diaspora – rabbis and synagogues.

…scribes who copied and studied the Torah filled this role of instructing the people, and their influence rivaled the authority of the priests after the Jews returned to Jerusalem.

Originally, for Jews, the presence and glory of God was found in the Temple located in Jerusalem. When it was destroyed, the Jewish people turned to the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament purportedly written by Moses) to find the presence and glory of God. This required teachers to explain the Mosaic law to the people, especially because the scriptures were written in old Hebrew and were not easily understood by the populous after their spoken language had evolved into Aramaic.

While in Babylon, scribes who copied and studied the Torah filled this role of instructing the people, and their influence rivaled the authority of the priests after the Jews returned to Jerusalem. The scribes became the rabbis (teachers) of the people.

The Pharisees

Pharisees and HerodiansMost of the rabbis were Pharisees, but not all, and there were various schools of thought even among the Pharisees. After the Jews returned from Babylon, the Pharisees and Sadducees were the two primary rival sects.

Historians believe that the Pharisees grew out of the Hasidim party, whose name means “the holy ones.” Pharisees adopted a figurative understanding of the Law of Moses, which included oral traditions that they claimed were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. They emphasized the study of the Torah and obedience to their interpretation of the law, including this oral law. After the Greeks occupied the Holy Land, the Hasidim party stressed rigid strict obedience to the law in an attempt to maintain themselves and the Jewish people separate from this Hellenizing influence. The people viewed this group as the major force counteracting assimilation by the Greeks and started calling them powrashim from the Hebrew word meaning “to be separated.” The Greek transliteration of this word was Pharisee.

Pharisees instituted and stressed formal instruction and worship in synagogues

Pharisees instituted and stressed formal instruction and worship in synagogues (places of assembly), something that had not been done before. This was partially done to dilute the influence of the priestly class of Sadducees. During the Babylonian captivity, Pharisees advised Jews to practice various ceremonies in their homes that were associated with the destroyed temple. After their return to the Holy Land, the Pharisees continued to advocate this practice to undermine the authority of the priests.

Pharisees believed in the physical resurrection of the dead and in a mixture of free will and predestination. Even though only a very small percentage of the populous became official members of this sect, the general population supported them more than any other group.

The Sadducee, Essene and Other Sects

The Sadducees came from the upper-class, consisting primarily of priests, along with other wealthy aristocrats. Their name was probably derived from Zadok, King David’s high priest, whose family generally controlled the temple thereafter. Sadducees stressed the importance of strictly following the rituals in the temple with little regard for religion in the daily life of ordinary people. They rejected the oral law of the Pharisees and their allegorical interpretation of scripture. They did not believe in spirits or an afterlife. The sole purpose of their religious practice was to gain temporal blessings from God. They controlled the temple and most of the governmental positions, so they had much to gain by supporting their new Greek overlords, and much to lose if they didn’t. Generally, the Sadducees adopted Hellenistic ideas and practices, even replacing part of their simple garment with extravagant gentile apparel.
Other fringe groups also existed such as the Essenes. They felt that the Pharisees did not go far enough in separating themselves from the Hellenistic influences, so they set up their own communal settlements away from the cities. One of these communities was Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Another group was the Zealots, who advocated the violent overthrow of their foreign oppressors. Major conflicts existed between all of these and several other groups at the time of Jesus’s birth.

Roman army

Roman Oppression

Antiochus IV was correct in his assessment that the rebellious Jewish nation posed a problem that the emerging Roman power would exploit. Rome reached an agreement with the Maccabean rebels and helped them defeat Greece. Later, when the Roman General Pompey took over control of Palestine, he appointed a puppet king from the ruling Hasmonean family. One of the king’s advisors was an ambitious man from Idumea, south of the Holy Land, who quickly ingratiated himself with Rome and gained control of Judea. He then cemented his relationship with Rome by helping them in their struggle with the Parthians. His son, Herod the Great, became the king of Judea. Herod established strong relationships with various influential Romans, including its future emperor.

Herod used the standard Roman model to govern a defiant province – force.

Herod used the standard Roman model to govern a defiant province – force. The Jews hated him, but Rome was pleased because he maintained control through his brutal tactics. His viciousness was not reserved only for his subjects; he also executed his wife and several of his children. Even though he claimed to have converted to Judaism and embarked on an enormous project to rebuild the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, these efforts were primarily to appease the populace and to enhance his personal glory. He also built pagan temples, a fortress, and other public facilities. To fund this massive building program, Herod imposed heavy taxes in addition to those of Rome. This became a major irritant to the Jews throughout the Holy Land and exacerbated their yearning for a military messiah to save them from the oppression of Roman rule.

After Herod died, the government of Palestine was divided between his three surviving sons. Rome quickly realized that his son Herod Archelaus, who governed Jerusalem, was worse than incompetent and had him banned to Gaul. Rome replaced him with a series of five low-ranking governors under the supervision of the Syria district’s legate. Pontius Pilate was the governor at the time of Jesus’s ministry and crucifixion, and was greatly disliked by the Jews. Philo of Alexandria wrote that Pilate’s tenure was full of “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, and wanton injuries, executions without trial constantly repeated, ceaseless and extremely grievous cruelty.”

Jesus and Pilate

Pilate, realizing that Jesus was innocent and that these officials had simply accused him out of envy, attempted various ways to free him.

The Jewish governing council, the Sanhedrin, wanted to execute Jesus for blasphemy, but lacked the legal authority to impose capital punishment. Consequently, they took Jesus to the Roman governor and falsely accused him of insurrection. Pilate, realizing that Jesus was innocent and that these officials had simply accused him out of envy, attempted various ways to free him. The conniving Jewish leaders then threatened to tell Caesar that Pilate was disloyal, causing him to wash his hands of the matter and order Jesus to be crucified.

Pilate was eventually dismissed by Rome’s regional legate after he blocked a procession of Samaritan pilgrims, which led to a battle, after which he executed the group’s leader and a number of high-ranking Samaritans.

Jesus was born into a world full of conflict. His egalitarian spiritual message of peace was a beacon of light in this dark world.

His egalitarian spiritual message of peace was a beacon of light in this dark world.
 

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Christianity’s Jewish Roots

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The Messiah

IMAGES:

Roman Soldiers …, by Aniello Falcone, c. 1640, Museo del Prado [PD].

Alexander the Great Founding Alexandria, oil on canvas by Placido Costanzi, c. 1736–1737, Walters Art Museum, Rome, Italy [PD].

Les sept Maccabées, by Gustave Lassalle-Bordes, Eglise Saint-Ramond d’Audierne. [PD].

Maccabees, oil on canvas by Wojciech Stattler, c. 1842, National Museum in Krakow, Poland [PD].

The story of the greatest nations; a comprehensive history, extending from the earliest times to the present, founded on the most modern authorities, and including chronological summaries and pronouncing vocabularies for each nation; and the world’s famous events, told in a series of brief sketches forming a single continuous story of history and illumined by a complete series of notable illustrations from the great historic paintings of all lands, book illustration, author Edward Sylvester Ellis, 1913, University of California Libraries [PD].

The Pharisees and the Herodians Conspire Against Jesus, gouache over graphite on gray woe paper by James Tissot, c. 1886–1894, Brooklyn Museum [PD].

Battle Scene with a Roman Army Besieging a Large City, oil on canvas by Juan de la Corte, c. first half of 17th century, Private collection [PD].

Behold the Man!, oil on canvas by Antonio Ciseri, c. 1860–1880, Museo Cantonale d’Arte, Lugano Switzerland [PD].

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