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“The Story”
Week Twenty-One Supplementary Handout
From Nehemiah’s Restoration to Herod’s Transformation
A Quick History of Israel 722 BC – 4 AD
722 - 720
586 BCE
Israel crushed by Assyrians; 10 tribes exiled (Ten Lost Tribes).
Judah conquered by Babylonia; Jerusalem and First Temple destroyed; most
Jews exiled to Babylonia.
536-142 BCE
• Many Jews return from Babylonia
a decree by the Persian King Cyrus, conqueror of the Babylonian empire
538-515 BCE
(538 BCE), some 50,000 Jews set out on the First Return to the Land of Israel, led by
Zerubabel, a descendant of the House of David.
• Jerusalem’s Walls and Temple Rebuilt
The repatriation of the Jews under Nehemiah and Ezra's inspired leadership,
440 – 400 construction of the Second Temple on the site of the First Temple, refortification of
Jerusalem's walls and establishment of the Knesset Hagedolah (Great Assembly) as the
supreme religious and judicial body of the Jewish people marked the beginning of the
Second Jewish Commonwealth (Second Temple period).
• Land conquered by Alexander the Great; Hellenistic rule.
332 BCE As part of the ancient world conquered by Alexander the Great of Greece (332 BCE),
the Land remained a Jewish theocracy under Syrian-based Seleucid rulers.
• Maccabean (Hasmonean) revolt against restrictions on practice of Judaism
and desecration of the Temple
166-160 BCE
When the Jews were prohibited from practicing Judaism and their Temple was
desecrated as part of an effort to impose Greek-oriented culture and customs on the
entire population, the Jews rose in revolt (166 BCE). First led by Mattathias of the
priestly Hasmonean family and then by his son Judah the Maccabee, the Jews
subsequently entered Jerusalem and purified the Temple (164 BCE).
• Jewish autonomy under Hasmoneans.
142-129 BCE Following further Hasmonean victories (147 BCE), the Seleucids restored autonomy to
Judea, as the Land of Israel was now called, and, with the collapse of the Seleucid
kingdom (129 BCE), Jewish independence was again achieved.
• Jewish independence under Hasmonean monarchy.
129-63 BCE Under the Hasmonean dynasty, which lasted about 80 years, the kingdom regained
boundaries not far short of Solomon's realm, political consolidation under Jewish rule
was attained and Jewish life flourished.
• Jerusalem captured by Roman general, Pompey.
63 BCE
63 BCE-313
37 BCE – 4
Herod, Roman vassal king, rules the Land of Israel;
Temple in Jerusalem refurbished
Jesus born @ 4 BC
The “Intertestamental Period” – From 300 BC to the Birth of Jesus
Alexander the Great
When Alexander the Great swept through Persia, the Greeks conquered and extended their
empire into the East and into northern Africa. Initially the Jews were treated well. Although all of the
new empire was encouraged to adopt the Greek language, culture, and philosophy, no one was forced.
Palestinian Jews adhered rigidly to their ancient customs. The Jews who had emigrated to the new city
of Alexandria, Egypt, however, accepted many Greek customs, and flourished economically. It was
during this time that great Alexandrian libraries were built and the Old Testament was translated into
Greek -- called the Septuagint. This released the great truths preserved in the Hebrews' scriptures to the
Graeco-Roman world in the common language of the day.
Nevertheless, tolerance for the Jew’s culture did not continue. By 167 B.C. Hellenization
(adopting Greek customs) was required of the Jews. Some resisted, but others complied. The pressure
was great as the Jews watched the Greek authorities desecrate the temple and offer sacrifices to idols.
It is vital to understand the effects of Hellenization of the Jews. Their whole way of life
revolved around the one, true God. To destroy their way of life would nullify their very reason to exist
as a nation. The descendants of Abraham were a covenant people out of which the Messiah would
come to redeem a lost and dying world -- Jew and gentile. If the Jews were absorbed into the Greek
culture, forsaking their way of life, the Messiah would no longer have a people through which He
could come. In addition, the Jews’ witness to the world of the one, true God would also be lost.
Understanding the seriousness of this threat to the Jews as a covenant people, aged priest
Mattahias and his five sons successfully led a revolt (The Maccabean Uprising) against the Greeks. By
165 B.C. the temple was cleansed and rededicated. The celebration of Hanukkah is a commemoration
of the temple rededication.
Pharisees and Sadducees
This threat to their identity as a nation gave rise to the two great parties of Judaism -- Pharisees
and Sadducees. During Ezra’s time, the priests and scribes were united in teaching and leading the
Jews. Hellenization affected the priests and rulers of the Jews, however, and they developed an
increasing indifference to the Law. Because of this, the scribes united to influence the nation in the
keeping of the Torah (scriptures). By the Maccabeaen revolt, the priests and the scribes had become so
different in their beliefs and practices that they formed separate sects: the Sadducees came from the
ranks of the priests and aristocracy while the Pharisees were comprised of the scribes.
Determined that the people would keep the Law, the Pharisees developed oral traditions ("fence
laws") -- laws to help you keep the laws. These oral traditions became so pervasive that they eventually
attained equal status with the written Law given to Moses by God (the Torah). The Pharisees had
decisive influence over public affairs and their sway over the masses was absolute.
The Sadducees, on the other hand, held the priestly and political positions, but had little public
influence. Rejecting the oral traditions, they acknowledged only the Torah and strictly adhered to the
letter of the Law. In contrast, the Pharisees, with their "fence laws," interpreted the written Law
according to the times in which they lived. Most Sadducees were wealthy and worldly-minded and
were mainly concerned with the political status of Israel.
Another sect called the Essenes rejected the temple worship because they considered the
priesthood corrupt. Many lived out in the wilderness like monks; John the Baptist may have been an
Essene. It is possible that the Dead Sea Scrolls originally belonged to this sect. Many other sects also
developed during the intertestamental period.
The Revolt of the Maccabees
The year is 167 BCE and the horrible persecution of Judaism by the Greeks is in full swing.
The Greek troops show up in the town of Modi’in (a site west of Jerusalem which you can visit today
off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway) and demand that the Jews there sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods.
The elder of the town, Mattathias, who is a cohen, that is of the priestly class, refuses. Even if all the
nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his commandments,
departing each one from the religion of his fathers, yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the
covenant of our fathers…We will not obey the king’s word by turning aside from our religion to the
right hand or to the left. (I Maccabees 2:19-22)
But there is a Hellenized Jew in the town who is willing to do what is unspeakable in Jewish
eyes. As he’s about to sacrifice the pig, Mattathias stabs him, also killing the Greek official present. He
then turns to the crowd and announces: “Follow me, all of you who are for God’s law and stand by the
covenant.” (1 Maccabees 2:27)
Those who join Mattathias and his five sons—named Yohanan, Shimon, Judah, Eleazar,
Yonaton—head for the hills, expecting that the Greeks are going to come back and wipe out the whole
village as a reprisal. In the hills, they organize a guerilla army, led primarily by the oldest of the sons
named Judah, nicknamed Maccabee, which means “the Hammer.” We don’t know exactly how large
this Maccabee army was, but even the most optimistic estimates put the number at no more than
12,000 men. This tiny force takes on the fighting Greek army of up to 40,000 men.
It’s not just a numerical superiority the Greeks have. The Greeks are professional soldiers—
they have equipment, they have training, and they have a herd of war elephants, which were the tanks
of the ancient world. The Jews are vastly outnumbered, poorly trained, and poorly equipped (not to
mention, they have no elephants), but what they lack in training and equipment they make up in spirit.
Most of the battles take place in the foothills leading from the coastal plain area (Tel Aviv) to
Jerusalem. The Greeks are trying to march their armies up the natural canyons that lead into the
mountain areas, the stronghold of the Jewish army. There’s only a few places where the Greeks can
ascend and this is where the Maccabees choose to take them on.
Now when we read the story of the Maccabees it seems like it’s something that takes place over
a few weeks—the battles take place, the Jews win, and the Greeks go home. But, in fact, it takes 25
years of fighting and a great many casualties on both sides until the Selucid Greeks finally reach a
peace agreement with the Jews.
The First Hanukkah
After three years, the Jews are able re-conquer Jerusalem. They find the Temple defiled and
turned into a pagan sanctuary, where pigs are sacrificed on the altar. When they re-enter the Temple,
the first thing they do is try to light a make-shift menorah (as the real gold one had been melted down
by the Greeks) but only one vial of pure lamp oil with the special seal is discovered. They use this vial
to light the menorah and miraculously it stays lit for eight days, by which time fresh pure oil has been
pressed and delivered to the Temple.
The Maccabees then purify the Temple and rededicate it on the 25th of Kislev, which is the
date on the Hebrew calendar when Jews begin to celebrate the eight days of Chanukah. (The Hebrew
word Chanukah means “dedication” or “inauguration.”)
Chanukah—one of two holidays added to the Jewish calendar by the rabbis—celebrates two
kinds of miracles: 1) the military victory of the vastly outnumbered Jews against the Greeks; and 2) the
spiritual victory of Jewish values over those of the Greek. It is this spiritual victory which is
symbolized by the lights of Chanukah.
It’s not until 142 BCE, during the reign of Seleucid monarch Demitrius, that the Greeks finally
have enough of the fighting and sign a peace treaty with Simon, the last survivor of the five sons of
Mattathias. Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel is officially restored.
The Reign Of The Hasmoneans
As noted above, Mattathias was a priest, and so it is not surprising that his son, Simon, should
become High Priest. But Simon also takes on himself the title of “nasi” meaning “prince/ president/
leader.” This is a bad choice on the part of Simon because his descendants do not respect this
distinction. They start a new ruling dynasty in Israel—the Hasmonean dynasty—which lasts for 103
years and which is marked by great territorial expansion but also by a terrible moral and religious
Decline Of Jewish Rule
The son of Yochananon Hyracanus, Alexander Yanai, is largely Hellenized and siding with the
Sadducees against the Pharisees. When some of the Pharisees oppose him, he has 800 of them
executed after first forcing them to watch the slaughter of their families.
After Yannai’s death his widow, Queen Shlomzion (Salome) will rule from 76-67 BCE. She is
the only ray of light in this dismal period. Her brother is Shimon ben Shetach, the leading rabbi of his
generation and during her reign there is peace between the leadership and the Rabbis. This will be the
last period of true peace and stability for a very long time.
The last two Hasmonean rulers are the sons of Shlomzion, Hyrcanus and Aristobolus, both of
whom are totally Hellenized. Hyrcanus is the weaker of the two but he has a strong advisor by the
name of Antipater, a descendant of Idumean converts to Judaism (who just happens to have a baby boy
named Herod).
The brothers are fighting with each other as to who should be king. They hit on the idea of
asking Rome to mediate in their dispute. (The relationship between the Jews and the Romans actually
began during the Maccabean Revolt when Judah Maccabee made an alliance with Rome). Inviting the
Romans in is not like inviting a multi-national peace-keeping force or international mediation team.
We’re talking about people with an incredible energy to conquer and gain all the territory they can.
The year is 63 BCE and the great Roman general Pompeii is cleaning up the last of the Greek Empire.
He is more than happy to oblige and move his armies into Israel, beginning the period of Roman rule
existing in Jesus’ day.
The Roman Rule – And Taxation!
By 63 B.C. the Greek Empire had fallen to the Romans. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans were
not interested in converting foreign countries to their way of life. As long as they received the taxes,
and the people adhered to Roman law, the individual nations could maintain their distinctive identities.
Their method of exacting taxes was simple: they sold the collection of taxes to the highest bidder. The
chosen bidder could collect the taxes in any manner, as long as Rome received her percentage. It was
to the Sadducees that Rome sold the collection of Jewish taxes. With two middlemen, the taxes were
high. After the amount was set for Rome, the Sadducees augmented the amount for their profits; then
the tax collectors hired by the Sadducees piled up an additional increase for their own wages. The
average person paid Rome, the Sadducees, and the tax collector with every penny he earned. This was
the atmosphere into which the messiah would come.
The Rise of Herod and Roman Rule
Herod the Great (not to be confused with Herod Antipas who came later) is one of the most
important characters in Jewish history. He was ambitious, cruel and paranoid to be sure, but,
nevertheless, he remains a very significant person in the terms of understanding this period of Roman
domination of the Jewish people.
Herod's first leadership role was as governor of the Galilee, a position granted to him by his
father, Antipater. Early on in his career he demonstrated his brutality by ruthlessly crushing a revolt in
the Galilee.
The background to Herod's rise to power is the Roman civil war that would transform Rome
from a republic into and empire ruled by the Caesars or emperors. In 44 BC Julius Caesar was
murdered by Brutus and Cassius who were in turn defeated by Anthony and Octavian in 42 BC. The
Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, was the final showdown between Octavian and Anthony. Octavian
emerged as the unrivalled victor, changing his name to Augustus and becoming the first Roman
emperor. Herod, friends of Anthony and Cleopatra, had originally sided with Anthony but switched
allegiance at the last minute and backed Octavian. His last minute support for Octavian earned him
Augustus's confirmation as King of Israel. Herod will reign as king of Judea from 37 BCE until his
death in 4 BCE, a very long reign of 33 years, and in many ways a good period in terms of
development of the country and social stability.
Pax Romana – Roman Peace and Stability
Part of the reason for the stability was that during this time, the Romans took a backseat role in
the day-to-day life of the Jews. The general Roman attitude was one of tolerance, meaning Jews were
granted exemptions from the official Roman state religion.
While accepting the state religion was a vital part of Roman identity and loyalty to the state, the
Romans were also pragmatists. They had learned by the Greek experience that Jews could not be
forced to worship idols. And they saw for themselves that the Jews were not like other pagan peoples
― they were not going to conform. So the Romans granted the Jews an official status of being exempt
from Roman state religion.
On the one hand, it was a very smart and very tolerant policy. On the other hand, with that
policy also went a punitive tax specifically for the Jews called fiscus Judaicus. You want to be exempt
from the state religion? Okay, so long as you pay for the privilege!
Trade, Devlopment and Contruction
Herod's rule was characterized by a period of unprecedented growth and construction, thanks in
large part to Herod's amiable relationship with Rome and his obsession with massive and elaborate
construction projects. Herod had Rome's complete support in administering a very important territory
which included several major trade routes. Everything moved through Judea, which was sort of like the
great way-station for the incense trade coming from Yemen up the Arabian Peninsula and going out to
the Mediterranean.
Additionally, this was one of the most agriculturally productive pieces of land in the Middle
East famous for its olive oil (which was used as a main source of light, and not just for cooking), for its
dates (the chief sweetener in the times before sugar), for its fish and the production of fish sauce (the
Roman era ketchup), and for its wine.
Herod used the huge profits from trade and money acquired through the crushing taxes he
placed upon his subjects to undertake a series of mammoth building projects ― some of the most
magnificent in the world. He built relentlessly ― cities, palaces and fortresses, some of which still
• the fortresses at Masada, Antonia and Herodion
• the port city of Caesarea
• the huge edifice at the top of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron
• the massive fortifications around Jerusalem as well as three towers at the entrance to the city
(the remains of which are today erroneously named the Tower of David) and much more
The port city of Caesarea deserves special mention ― not only because it was a center of trade and
the Roman administrative capitol of Judea and one of the largest ports in the Empire, but because it
became a symbol in Jewish eyes of everything that was pagan, Roman, and antithetical to Judaism.
Here Herod created an amazing artificial port (one of the two largest in the Empire), put in a beautiful
theater, a hippodrome for chariot races (like in the movie Ben Hur), bath houses, and a huge temple
dedicated to the Roman god-emperor, Augustus Caesar.
Herod's Temple
The most ambitious of Herod's projects was the re-building of the Temple, which was almost
certainly an attempt to gain popularity among his subjects who, he knew, held him in contempt and
also to make amends for his cruelty toward the rabbis.
It took 10,000 men ten years just to build the retaining walls around the Temple Mount (on top
of which the Muslim shrine, the Dome of the Rock, stands today). The Western Wall (formerly known
as the Wailing Wall) is merely part of that 500-meter-long retaining wall that was designed to hold a
huge man-made platform that could accommodate twenty-four football fields. When it was completed,
it was the world's largest functioning religious site and until today it remains the largest man-made
platform in the world.
Why did he make the Temple Mount so large? There's no question that Herod had a huge ego
and liked to impress people with grandiose building projects. But there is also another more practical
reason. Historians estimate that there were about 6-7 million Jews living in the Roman Empire (plus
another 1 million in Persia), many of whom would come to Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage
festivals: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. So you had to have a huge space to accommodate such a huge
number of people. Hence the size of the platform.
When it came to building the Temple itself on top of this platform, Herod truly outdid himself,
and even the Talmud acknowledges that the end-result was spectacular. "He who has not seen Herod's
building, has never in his life seen a truly grand building." (Talmud-Bava Basra 4a)
The Holy of Holies was covered in gold; the walls and columns of the other buildings were of
white marble; the floors were of carrara marble, its blue tinge giving the impression of a moving sea of
water; the curtains were tapestries of blue, white, scarlet and purple thread, depicting, according to
Josephus, "the whole vista of the heavens." Josephus describes how incredible it looked: Viewed from
without, the Sanctuary had everything that could amaze either mind or eyes. Overlaid all round with
stout plates of gold, the first rays of the sun it reflected so fierce a blaze of fire that those who
endeavored to look at it were forced to turn away as if they had looked straight at the sun. To
strangers as they approached it seemed in the distance like a mountain covered with snow; for any
part not covered with gold was dazzling white...
Herod saw fit however, to place at the main entrance a huge Roman eagle, which the pious
Jews saw as a sacrilege. A group of Torah students promptly smashed this emblem of idolatry and
oppression, but Herod had them hunted down, dragged in chains to his residence in Jericho, where they
were burned alive. Having built the Temple, Herod took pains to make sure it would be run without
future problems of this kind. He appointed his own High Priest, having by then put to death forty-six
leading members of the Sanhedrin, the rabbinical court.
Herod's paranoia, his interference with the Temple hierarchy, and his dedication to the
Hellenization of the Jewish people all contributed to the growing discontent that would erupt in a
revolt against Rome some 70 years after his death.
It is into the midst of this chaotic time that Jesus, the Messiah, was born.