Survey of The Life and Teachings of Jesus
© L.D. Underwood 2010
The Political World in Which Jesus Lived
What do we mean by political history? We mean the intertestamental period, which consists of approximately four hundred years transpiring between the closing of the Old Testament canon, and the beginning of the New Testament history. To be more precise than estimating about four hundred years, we can say it goes from 424 BC to about 5 BC when our Lord was born. There is no record made in the Bible of the experiences of the Jewish people during this gap—this hiatus during the Old and New Testament. Yet during this gap between Malachi and Matthew, or between Nehemiah and the coming of the Nazarene, this gap of time, many important changes evolved. This is virtually the “dark ages” of Jewish history. That is, during this time, there is no prophet or inspired writer during this period of time. We can see something of the attitude of the people expressed in Psalms 74:9 where it reads, “We do not see our sign, there is no longer any prophet, there is none among us who knows how long.” In this “Dark Age” of Jewish history, it is impossible to understand the life of Christ, or other New Testament events without at least a cursory acquaintance with the happenings during this intertestamental period.
There are at least three reasons for studying this historical period. One is historical, that is we will find that this period of time links the events of the Old Testament with the Events of the New Testament. Not only is it important historically, but also culturally, for this will provide an understanding of the origin and the development of customs and institutions and sects which are found in the New Testament. And a third reason for studying this is messianic. That is, we will find this demonstrates the manner in which God made the world prepared for the advent of our Lord, when he came the first time.
Anyone who has studied Old Testament knows that the rise of the Jewish nation is the first major event in the Old Testament. In the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah, or the Law, it describes the rise of Jewish nation, for deliverance from bondage in Egypt, here movement with Moses toward the Promise Land. At the end of that series of books, we have the book of Joshua, and we find how he, as the leader of the people takes over and leads them into the land of Canaan.
Then there is the development of a theocracy—rule by God. And the nation was under God’s leadership and rule. During this time, as described in the book of Judges, there is a series or repeated habit of cycles of apostasy, where the people serve God for a period of time; they went away from God; God sent a foreign power against them, they cried out for mercy; God raised up a Judge to deliver them, they came back to a place of ascendancy again; they served God for a time; and the whole cycle kept going over and over again something like seven times described in the book of Judges. The time came when the people cried out for a monarchy, that is rule by an earthly king, in contrast to that blessed experience of a theocracy where God Himself was their invisible King. And God granted their request and there came into being the United Kingdom, this was a period where three Kings, ruled over all of the Hebrew people, for a period of one hundred twenty years. Each king reigning for forty years. That is starting with Saul, the first King, continuing with David, and then Solomon—forty years each reigning over the United Kingdom.
At the death of Solomon, we have Rehaboam’s great lack of good judgment, and this resulted in a split, and so now we have the divided Kingdom, we have Israel, which consists of the Ten tribes in the North, that seceded from the Union; and Judah, along with the tribe of Benjamin that Remained loyal in the South. That became known as Judah. So, we have Israel in the North, the ten tribes, and Judah in the South, consisting of two tribes. This was a time when the prophets were calling God’s people back to God. And much of the Old Testament story is really a disclosure of a sorrowing father; grieving over his wayward and disobedient children. We have a prophet like Jeremiah, the weeping prophet who is a picture of this divine sorrow. We have Hosea for example in a moving way experiencing the grief of God, as a grief of a husband over a unfaithful wife. And the Jews seemed to spurn these acts of love, and tenderness on the part of God. They disregarded the covenant of God, the contract agreements of God, in his love and his grace. And because of a constant refusal to submit to God, God threatened judgment to these arrogant and prosperous people. And when the cup of iniquity was full, to overflowing, God’s wrath came upon them.
So the next major event in the Old Testament is the captivities. First of all, the captivities of the Northern kingdom, Israel, as Assyria overruns that area. The Northern kingdom ran for a period of 212 years. There were nineteen kings in nine different dynasties, and of the nineteen kings, at least eight met very violent deaths. The scripture records all of those kings in the North were evil in the sight of God. Therefore, God directed the Land of Assyria under Sargon, the king of the Assyrians to conquer the Northern tribes.
The cruelties of the Assyrian people have almost become proverbial. They would skin their captives alive for example; they would cut off their limbs, their noses, their ears; they would pull out their tongue; they would make mounds of human skulls. When they came in to capture the North, this is one of the great dates of the Old Testament, 721 BC. In 721 BC, marks the end of Israel in the North, as far as being a united people. And many of the Jews were deported, or else assimilated into other nationalities; with intermarriage and shifting of population; so that Israel in the North was weakened beyond recovery.
The first of the foreign powers to rule over Palestine was the Persians from the 500’s to the 300’s. Then the Greeks under Alexander for approximately a ten-year period. His successors the Diadochoi, involved a number of Generals. There were two, namely Ptolemy and Seleucus. After which was the Egyptian period under the Ptolemies, followed by the Syrian period known as the Seleucids. One of the chief characteristics of this period was the forced Hellenization policy by the Syrian Rulers.
Without getting too complicated the most important ruler of the Syrians, was Antiochus the IV; sometimes referred to as Antiochus Epiphanes. He ruled from about 175 to 164 BC and assumed the title Epiphanes which means “The Illustrious One” or “God Manifest.” A real picture of his humility. But he was an egocentric maniac; a madman who brought in a reign of terror and was renamed by some of the people living at that time as Epimanes, meaning, “The Madman” because of his sadistic policies. He was an ardent Hellenist, and was determined he would unify his realm, by compelling his subjects to adopt Greek culture. He plundered Jerusalem, tore the walls down, many were massacred, women and children were sold into slavery. He carried away about ten thousand captives. He insisted that the sacrifices in the Temple would be abolished. The Holy of Holies was rifled and the costly furniture was carried away; the Jewish religion was banned. Circumcision was prohibited on pain of death. A foreign governor was appointed a traitor was made the High Priest. And so paganism was forcibly being imposed upon the people. All the copies of the law were burned or defaced with idolatrous pictures. The owners of those copies of the law would be executed. They even erected a Greek gymnasium right below the temple where young Jews and Priests were to participate. In many ways, Antiochus Epiphanies the Syrian ruler, is an illustration or a forerunner of antichrist in many ways. We know that he made several expeditions into Egypt without a great deal of success and during his second expedition into Egypt a rumor of his death was circulated around Palestine whereupon all of the Jews rejoiced. And on hearing of that reaction, the story not being true, Antiochus Epiphanies massacred 40,000 Jews in one day and sold many others into slavery.
On his next campaign into Egypt Antiochus was forced by the Romans to return home. And he was enraged by that kind of humiliation and so he returned to pour out his wrath on Jerusalem and the city was looted and set on fire. Many were slaughtered and the day he hit was the Sabbath day, because he knew the Jews would not resist on that day.
Probably the greatest outrage of all was the conversion of the temple into a shrine in honor of Zeus. An alter of Zeus was built on the top of the alter of burnt offerings, and on December 15, 168 BC, this outrageous act occurred. It was called the abomination of desolation. Ten days later on December 25, 168 BC a hog was sacrificed; and its blood was sprinkled on the holy things within the temple. And for that act of sacrilege the Jews never forgive Antiochus. Now there were some Jews that apostatized, some even joined in the persecution of their fellow Jews. But without question Palestinian Jewry was in the valley of the Shadow of Death. In response to that kind of policy by the Syrians, there was a resistance movement that became established called the Maccabean revolt about 168, 167 BC down until about the time the Romans took control. It all started by the revolt by a man named Mattathias who was priest living in the city of Modem a few miles northwest of Jerusalem. Apparently a foreign commissioner had come to enforce the public sacrifice to the pagan gods, and when one of the local citizens stepped to the alter to comply, this aged priest Mattathias, in a burst of passionate zeal, killed both the commissioner and this local citizen, and broke down the pagan alter. And then with five of his sons, they fled into the Judean wilderness, and holy war now that starts with this resistance movement of nationalists under the leadership of this aged priest and his five sons. They become known as the Hasidim which means “pious ones”—Jewish nationalists or loyalists that follow the Maccabees. And they become gorilla freedom fighters waging this offensive warfare on the Syrians. Maccabees is probably the most historically accurate of the non-biblical apocryphal books and it describes this kind of resistance movement in a lot of detail and makes for very fascinating reading. The word ‘Maccabees’ means “hammerer.” And apparently the war went for a time in the Maccabees favor, and later the temple was rededicated in the month of December of 165 BC. That is only three years after it was profaned by that sacrifice of a sow. This hollowing, this rededication was therefore commemorated, and since that time has come to be known as Hanukkah—the feast of dedication, the feast of lights, referred to in First Maccabees as well as the writings of Josephus, and even certain portions of the New Testament. So the Jews celebrate Hanukah around the same time we celebrate Christmas—it’s a honor of the rededication and reinstitution of the temple back from Syrian control after three years of being profaned.
So religious freedom had been won back, but there was still a military stalemate, which required the war to continue. And so you come to what we call the Hasmonaean rule, the era of the Hasmonaeans, which is simply another way of saying the Maccabean dynasty. Hasmonaean simply the family name of the Mattathias. Hasmon, and thus his dynasty includes the various brothers who worked with Mattathias in routing the Syrians. We have seen so fare that there is Persia, followed by Greece, then Egypt then Syria, these are foreign powers, controlling Palestine. The Maccabees were a resistance movement, not a foreign power, but a resistance movement on the part of Jews themselves. But the next foreign power to take control, was of course Rome. We date the Roman period at roughly 63 BC, and its difficult to know how far to go into AD as far as the closing date for Rome, because no one really knows for sure when Rome fell, there are so many different dates that are given, I have simply given AD 70 when Jerusalem was sacked by the Roman generals.
This an extremely complex period of history, with all many different elements of that transpired between Pompei and the Julius Caesar and numerous other individuals who were fighting for placement so that they could come into rule. But just to have a thumbnail sketch, we can say that Rome was founded sometime in the eight century. There is a theory of Romulus and Remus that puts the dating of Rome somewhere around 753 BC. So roughly the eighth century before Christ was the founding of Rome.
Rome had a republican form of government, dating from the fifth century BC. It had warfare with Carthage in North Africa for about two centuries ending about 146 BC. In the process, they conquered a lot of territory all those areas around the Mediterranean basin were conquered by Pompei and Gaul, which is Modern day France and Spain. That particular area was conquered by Julius Caesar. This begins the power struggle between these very forceful charismatic individuals. Rome brought into being then, control and organization, and we call this period of time when Rome is in control, the Pox Romana—that word means, the Roman Peace, and for approximately two hundred years, they had enforced peace by the Romans. They were very skillful in that regard.
Augustus Caesar of course is very important to our study. He is formally known as Octavian, and became the first Roman Emperor reigning from 27 BC to AD 14, so he was the Roman Emperor when Christ was born. Then Tiberius his successor was from 14 to 37, which would mean he was in control during most of the public ministry of our Lord through his death and resurrection. I have simply listed the other ones, so we could take it down through that first century to show certain individuals. Some for example under number six we have three emperors in a period of a year or year and a half. Others had this rather long tenure involved. In other courses studies we will deal with events that are under the time when Nero was reigning when for example the Apostle Paul, the apostle Peter, suffered Martyrdom. Domitian, the last of these Emperors in the first century when, for example, John was perhaps penning his gospel as well as on the isle of Patmos receiving the Revelation there on that island. Without going further into the details of their lives, suffice it to say, they are a pretty seamy group. The vast majority of emperors were homosexual and rather cruel and sadistic in their policies and this is very fascinating reading if you are interested in that background. I am much more concerned with the Herodian line because here were a group of rulers that ruled over Palestine which of courses is our main emphasis now. We can start by looking at Herod the Great whose reign is from 37 BC to 4 BC. And he was the ruler of Palestine when Jesus was born. Now he was the son of Antipater, the grandson of Antipas the first. He was an Idumean. Idumea applies to the territory south of Judea. And during the time of the Babylonian captivity for example, what were known as the Nabataean Arabs, pushed into the country of Edom, south of the Dead Sea, and therefore the Edomites moved Northwest into the southern regions right below Judea.
They even occupied the city of Hebron only twenty miles south of the city of Jerusalem. And this occurred during the Babylonian captivity when finally the Jews were allowed to return from captivity they were not able to reposes that former territory in full, and so they had to allow these Edomites to remain in the Negav, or in the South country below Judea. And that is what eventually became known as Idumea in honor of these Edomites who were there.
So here are descendants of their former enemies, severely hated by Jews, but they simply had no choice but to allow them to coexist in that area. The fact the Herod was Idumea did not add to his popularity. He ruled over Palestine from the year 37 BC – 4 BC beginning his reign at the age of 22. Interestingly his first twelve years were spent fighting his way into power, then the next twelve years were probably the best years of his reign. The last nine years were given over to bitterness and cruelty of every kind.
He was a cruel and ruthless man, dominated by the desire to further his own ends at any cost. He possessed an unusual suspicious and jealous nature. Now he tried to get along with the Jews by at least, on a part-time basis keeping their law, and rebuilding the temple. And by the way that was his greatest talent—architectural design. And he started enlarging the temple of Zerubbabel, remember we have the ancient temple of Solomon and then that had gone into disrepair and so then Zerubbabel when he comes back with the contingent of 50,000 Jews starts again rebuilding the temple that we talked about last time. Now it was becoming dilapidated again and so Herod thought he would be kind to the Jews by rebuilding and enlarging that temple, and so he begins that work about 19 or 20 BC and that work incidentally AD 64, long of course after his death. And notice AD 64, that is only six years away from the time when it was destroyed again by Titus when he comes in and sacks the city in AD 70. Now again, he trying to win the support of the Jews by rebuilding the temple, and yet he has a hard time with the Jews. First because he is an Idumean, he is a half-breed, secondly, he was aligning himself with the Romans for support in the capital. And so, like some of our recent presidents he was play both sides at the same time. Now he had displaced the Hasmodian dynasty, that is the followers of the Maccabees, and so as such, he was looked upon as a usurper, on the throne of David.
And then when you add all of these factors with the fact of this own personal cruelties, they far outweigh his religious acts. Just to give you an idea of how neurotic he was, he ordered the slaughter of 45 Sadducees who were members of the Sanhedrin, the supreme court of the Jews, who had opposed his entrance into the Holy city. He ordered the death of one of his sons by strangling him. He invited another son, who was a potential rival, to the palace for a swim in the pool and obligingly drowned him. He had ten wives, and his favorite wife resisted him, and slowly drove him insane with Jealousy, by way of revenge and that of course drove him to sign her death warrant. Now again, he made very many positive accomplishments, he was rebuilding the temple, he built the sea-port city of Caesarea in honor of Augustus Caesar, the Emperor, he build gymnasiums and temples, and theaters and market places. In fact, his projects were so extensive, that by the year 10 BC, the funds were so low, that they had to once again go into David’s tomb and open it up and ransack it for treasures to pay for the great society that they were now building.
Augustus Caesar, the emperor one time made the statement, “I would rather be Herod’s pig, than to be his son.” And the tragic end of this man was that he was smitten with cancer of the intestines, and dropsy—had a very dreadful kind of disease and death, and just before his death, he had all the leading Jews, of Judea, confined in the circus arena in the city of Jericho where he lay dying. He ordered at his death that all of these unfortunates should be slaughtered. Because this monster was determined that there should be mourning at the time of his death. Even if was not mourning for himself.
To sum his career, is to borrow the words of a Jewish writer, Joseph Klausner who says, “He stole to the throne like a fox, he ruled like a tiger, and died like a dog.” That is Herod the Great.
Now he had a number of Sons. First of all, Archelaus rules from the death of his father in 4 BC until AD 6. Archelaus had been named in his father’s will as the recipient of the largest piece of territory, including Judea, Samaria, as well as Idumea to the South. That whole, large section was given to Archelaus to rule. He was the eldest son and therefore got the largest piece of territory. Now in order to make sure of his title, which by the way was Ethnarch. Ethnarch is a little lesser title than King. It simply means ruler of the nation, a leader of the people. To make sure of his title as Ethnarch, he decided to go to Rome and to present his claims to the Emperor. Unfortunately, before he left for Rome, a riot occurred around the Passover season. With typical Herodian heartlessness, Archelaus subdued the riot with military force. The fact that 3000 Jews were killed, didn’t exactly add to his popularity as the new ruler. Therefore, an embassy carried a complaint to Rome, and the Emperor, nevertheless, confirmed Archelaus as the Ruler. However, he was not allowed that title of king, and so was given the title “Ethnarch” instead. It is very possible that Jesus may have been referring to this trip that he took to Rome, when he speaks in Luke chapter 19 about a certain nobleman, who went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then to return. It may be that he has reference here to Archelaus.
By the way Matthew tells us how Joseph and Mary did not stop in Judea, when they heard Archelaus was ruling as a successor to his father. Instead of going to this region of Judea, they went instead to Galilee, where one of the other sons was more positive in his rulership. They probably heard of the cruel way in which he had quelled this riot, they knew he was a chip off the old block, and so because of his cruelty, Jews sent further embassy’s to Rome constantly complaining of his leadership and finally they succeeded, and he was deposed and banished to some place in Gaul. So he was the most controversial, I suppose, of Herod’s sons. And later, when he was deposed in the year 6, both Judea and Samaria were annexed to the Empire. And both become governed, no longer by Kings, but now by what came to be known as procurators, and the fifth of those procurators at the time of the crucifixion of our Lord was Pontius Pilot, who reigned from 26 to 37 AD.
Herod Antipas was another one of the sons who reigned form 4 BC into AD 39. Remember that when Mary and Joseph arrived in Galilee after having had that short time in Egypt, and they went North to Galilee, they settled in the town of Nazareth. And a brother of Archelaus, this man named Antipas, was ruler over Galilee and Perea. That is over the Northwest and parts of the Northeast in that area of Perea or Transjordan. This is the one who is called Herod the tetrarch in Matthew 14. Tetrarch simply means ruler over a fourth part.
This son of Herod was the most prominent Herod in the Gospels, and probably the most able of the sons of Herod the Great. He was the one who put John the Baptist to death for example. And he was the one before whom Christ was tried. A very weak, but wicked man who was, for at least part of his life dominated by Herodias his wife. Interestingly, Jesus never spoke a word to Herod as he stood before him. He did make reference to Herod Antipas by calling him, “that Fox” in Luke 13:32.
Then there is Philip the tetrarch, 4 BC to AD 34. He was the ruler in charge of the Northeastern corner of Palestine. That remote area where we have Trachonitus and other areas of the Northeast. Phillip the tetrarch was a happy exception to the Harrods in general, that is he was much fairer and just in his dealings with the people. As far as we know he is only mentioned once in the New Testament and that is in Luke 3:1 in the where we are told he is was tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitus. After his death, his lands were given to Agrippa.
Just to carry this further beyond the Gospels, we have Herod Agrippa I, 40-44 who was the son of Aristobulus. We have not mentioned Aristobulus because he was not given a large piece of territory to rule over. But his son, Herod Agrippa was and he ruled from 40-44. He is mentioned in the Acts 12 as the one who executed James; the one who put Peter in prison; the one who died a terrible death as described in that twelfth chapter of Acts. And then he was followed by Herod Agrippa II who reigns from 44 to 70, he was the Grandson of Aristobulus. And he is the one who is mentioned in Acts chapter 26 before whom Paul stood. Apparently, he remained a pagan but he did show a much better attitude towards Jews than most of the Harrods did. Then after the fall of Jerusalem, he simply retired in the city of Rome.
The Procuratorship of Judea that following the leave of Archelaus, that that whole area in the South was governed not by tetrarchs, or ethnarchs, but by procurators.