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The Genuine Jerusalem and the ‘trump of God’: Part three – Struggles for Independence.   Leave a comment

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From the top: Caesarea, The Wilderness of Judaea, Miriam’s Gate, Jerusalem

The Resurgence of Jewish Nationalism: The Maccabees

It seems that, in the interests of peace and unity in his Syro-Hellenic empire, Antiochus was trying to eradicate Jewish nationalism, if not the Jewish nation itself, in what would have been an act of genocide of unprecedented proportions. He both underestimated the strength of Jewish national feeling, supposing that their attitude towards religion was much the same as that of the Greeks, and over-estimated Jewish support for his attempt to introduce Hellenistic culture. Not all among the upper classes opposed it, certainly, and there were even those among the priests who supported Antiochus’ general policy, though perhaps more from weak-mindedness than on principle. Opposed to them were the Hasidim, the ‘pious’, who in contrast to those who had abandoned the holy covenant for a covenant with the Gentiles. The Hasidim saw themselves as mighty warriors of Israel who chose to die rather than profane the holy covenant. They first took part in passive resistance, but many then joined the more militant Maccabees to help them to restore the Temple and to regain their right to the observance of their religion.  Mattathias, the leader of this rebel group, was the head of a priestly family who lived near Jerusalem. He had five sons, but it was Judas ‘Maccabeus’, a nickname deriving from a Hebrew word for ‘hammer’, who emerged as their military leader.

One of the first signs of revolt against Antiochus was an incident in the Temple itself. Mattathias saw one of his own people, a Jew, preparing to take part in a service of sacrifice to the heathen god. Mattathias struck him down and, turning to the Syrian guard, killed him. For their immediate safety, he and his sons fled to the hills where they gathered around them a strong resistance movement. From the hills, Judas laid raid after raid against the Syrians, making their occupation of Judaea more and more dangerous and hazardous. They organised themselves into guerilla army, destroying altars and forcibly circumcising babies. They campaigned both against Hellenising Jews and persecuting Gentiles (1 Macc. 2. 1-48). In the midst of all the fighting, Judas regularly assembled his followers to observe the Jewish religious ceremonies, to watch and pray, and to read the Divine Law, the Torah.

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It was therefore hardly surprising that the fiercest reaction to Antiochus’ policy came from the Maccabees under Judas’ leadership. Their first aim was the regaining of freedom to obey the Jewish law and the recovery and purification of the temple. This was achieved after two years of fighting in 166-165 (1 Macc. 3. 10-4, 35), In December of 164 BC, Judas and his followers recaptured the temple and the priests reconsecrated the Holy Place, erecting new altars to the true God. It was also now protected by external fortifications, which were complemented by a permanent guard provided by the Maccabees. The colourful Jewish festival of Hannuka, also known as the Feast of Lights, commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem in 165 BC.  It is said that when the perpetual lamp of the Temple had to be re-lit, only one day’s supply of non-desecrated oil could be found but miraculously this oil lasted eight days until a fresh supply could be brought. This is why the festival lasts for eight days and is commonly known as The Feast of Lights. The day which sees the start of the festival is the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the ninth month, which can fall on any day in December. The central part of the ceremony is the lighting of a candle on the eight-branched candelabra on the first day, with an additional candle lit on each of the seven successive days recalling the eight days of light provided by the miraculous oil when the Temple was re-dedicated. In 163 BC Judas’ campaign of resistance was extended to the defence of Jews resident among the surrounding Gentiles (I Macc. 5). The Syrians counter-attacked successfully, but the death of Antiochus forced them into offering terms to the Jews, allowing to live by their laws as they did before (I Macc. 6. 59).

The Pharisees also began to develop in this post-exilic period, fostering a lay spirituality for the whole nation, thus ensuring Israel’s continuity after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70. The Essenes, a group referred to by Philo, Josephus and Pliny the Elder, and the related Qumran community broke away from the official orthodoxy of the temple and priesthood in the belief that the future lay with the ‘elect’, separated from the pollutions of the world. The movement of which the community at Qumran formed a part may be seen as an extreme form of Pharisaism, taking the principle of separation to new heights. It probably originated during the Maccabean period. Details of the community are provided by the site itself and two documents containing regulations, found in what came to be known as the Dead Sea scrolls. These documents are known as ‘the Community rule’, formerly called the Manual of Discipline, and ‘the Damascus Rule’, so-called because it describes a group which migrated to Damascus and entered into a new covenant. The latter document was found in the Cairo synagogue, but fragments have also turned up at Qumran; it probably represents a different stage in the development of the community. A third document, ‘The War Rule’, describes the final battle between the spirits of light and darkness, which would be paralleled on earth by a similar battle before a final victory was won.

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These future expectations helped to condition the day-to-day life of the sect and were an important reason for their continued purity. Their negative attitude to the rest of Judaism around them led to a rejection of the traditional calendar and of temple worship. Their own worship centred on the common meal, which probably represented the eschatological feast that would be celebrated in the last days. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls and their contents at first led to some exaggerated ideas about the significance of the Qumran sect in relation to Christianity. In fact, very few direct connections between the two can be demonstrated, and none on matters of central importance. A reading of the scrolls alone will make it quite clear that their main importance is in the light that they shed on the different forms of Judaism to be found at the beginning of the Christian era.

The death of Menelaus, one of the leading Hellenising Jews led to the victory of the Hasidim over the priesthood. The Maccabees, however, continued to resist the Hellenising high priest, Alcimus, who had begun his high priesthood by murdering sixty of the Hasidim. The Maccabees defeated the Syrian Army sent to support him at Adasa in 160 BC. II Maccabees ends with this victory, but two months later the Syrians killed Judas in battle and re-occupied Judaea. The Maccabees fled to the wilderness to regroup under Judas’ brother, Jonathan; Alcimus died and the Syrians departed. For two years there was peace in Jerusalem and in Judah. But now the Maccabees wanted nothing less than political freedom, and the Hellenists did not feel secure while they could be harried from the wilderness. They asked the Syrian general Bacchides to capture Jonathan (157 BC), but Bacchides was defeated and made a final peace with Jonathan, who settled at Michmash, a stronghold north-east of Jerusalem (I Macc. 9. 73; see map above). Like the judges of old, he began to judge the people, and he destroyed the ungodly out of Israel. The Maccabees had won, and until the arrival of the Romans in 63 BC, Judaea was virtually independent. The Seleucid empire was weakening as the Parthians became more powerful to the east. In 142 BC, the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel, and the people began to write in their documents and contracts, “in the first year of Simon the great high priest and commander and leader of the Jews”  (I Macc. 13. 41f.).

However, in 134 BC Simon and two of his sons were killed by Ptolemy. A third son, John, in command of the army near Gezer, heard the news in time to reach Jerusalem before Ptolemy, and John was welcomed as high priest and ruler (I Macc. 16. 11-22). The Seleucid king made a further successful attack on Jerusalem, but in 128 BC was killed by the Parthians, and the internal struggles within the Seleucid empire prevented any further persecution of the Jews. There were a series of civil wars fought for control of the temple between the Sadducean party and the Pharisees. Salome ruled for the Pharisees, appointing Hyrcanus II as her high priest, while his brother Aristobulus led the Sadducees. When Salome died in 67 BC, Aristobulus defeated Hyrcanus, becoming both king and high priest. Then Hyrcanus made fresh alliances, defeated Aristobulus and besieged him in Jerusalem.

Roman Intervention and Imperialism: Herod the Great.

This was the point at which the Roman general Pompey arrived in Syria. Both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus appealed to him to come to their aid. When he reached Jerusalem, some Jews opened the city gates to him, while others barricaded themselves in the temple-fortress. Pompey built a ramp on the north side and brought up his great siege-engines. For three months the strong temple walls stood up to the battering rams before a great tower gave way, and the legionaries poured through the breach. The city surrendered, but no fewer than twelve thousand people were reported to have died in the massacre that followed. Pompey himself broke into the Holy of Holies, where only the High Priest was allowed to go, to find out what Jewish religion was all about, an act which the Jews could not forgive.

After his sacking and desecration of Jerusalem, Pompey removed Aristobulus to Rome, reinstating Hyrcanus as high priest. It was Hyrcanus’ ally Antipater who gained most, however, for the Romans relied on him to establish a stable government and later gave him the title of procurator of Judaea. His son was Herod the Great, and among his grandsons was Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee in the time of Jesus of Galilee. Once again, religious and political authority was separated and it is noteworthy that even in the independent Jewish state the combination of the two was not popular. The Jews seemed to prefer a secular state as, of course, was the case under Roman rule into the first century. Before we get to the Christian New Testament, these issues were reflected in the previous Hebrew literature, especially the book of Daniel, and in those books included in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made at Alexandria, known to Christians as the Apocrypha. 

From the annexation of Palestine by Pompey in 63 BC down to the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-72, the struggles of the Jews against their new masters, the Romans, were accompanied and stimulated by a stream of militant apocalyptic literature. As it was addressed to the common people this propaganda made great play with the fantasy of an eschatological saviour, the Messiah. This fantasy was already very ancient; if for the prophets, the saviour who was to reign at the end of time was usually Yahweh himself, in the popular religion of the post-exilic period, the future Messiah seems to have played a considerable part. Originally imagined as a particularly wise, just and powerful monarch of Davidic descent who would restore the national fortunes, the Messiah became more superhuman as the political situation became more hopeless. In Daniel’s dream, the Son of Man who appears riding on the clouds seems to personify Israel as a whole. Already Daniel may have imagined him as a superhuman hero, and in the Apocalypses of Baruch and Ezra, which belong in the main to the first century AD, the superhuman being is incontestably a man, a warrior-king endowed with unique, miraculous powers.

In the Book of Ezra the Messiah is depicted as the Lion of Judah at whose roar the last and worst beast – now the Roman eagle – bursts into flame and is consumed; and again as the Son of Man who first annihilates the multitudes of the heathen with the fire and storm of his breath and then, gathering together the lost ten tribes out of alien lands, establishes in Palestine a kingdom in which a reunited Israel can flourish in peace and glory. According to Baruch, there must come a time of terrible hardship and injustice, which is the time of the last and worst empire, the Roman. Then, just when evil has reached its greatest pitch, the Messiah will appear. A mighty warrior, he will rout and destroy the armies of the enemy; he will take captive the leader of the Romans and bring him to chains to Mount Zion, where he will put him to death; he will establish a kingdom which shall last to the end of the world. All the nations which have ever ruled over Israel will be put to the sword, and some members of the remaining nations will be subjected to the Chosen People. An age of bliss will begin in which pain, disease, untimely death, violence and strife, want and hunger will be unknown and in which the earth will yield its fruits ten-thousand-fold. Such a Kingdom was worth fighting for, and these apocalypses had at least established that in the course of bringing the Saints into their Kingdom the Messiah would show himself invincible in war.

Under the procurators, the conflict with Rome became more and more bitter. In 40 BC, the Parthians invaded Syria with the son of Aristobulus and pretender to the throne of Judah. He attracted strong support from the Judaeans, and within a short time, Judaea was in revolt. High priest Hyrcanus was captured and Herod was forced to leave Jerusalem secretly. He and his brother Phasael, who committed suicide, had been made tetrarchs of Judaea by Mark Antony following the murder of Caesar and defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in 42 BC.  Herod was now forced to leave his family in the strong fortress of Masada and then fled to Petra, eventually making his way via Egypt and Rhodes to Rome, where he appealed for Antony’s support. The latter, …

… recalling Antipater’s hospitality and filled with admiration for the heroic character before him, decided on the spot that the man he had once made tetrarch should now be king of the Jews.

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However, it was not until 37 BC that Herod was able to enter Jerusalem, escorted to his capital by a force of Roman legionaries. He continued to be popular with the Roman rulers, including the Emperor Octavian (now Augustus) and Agrippa, Augustus’ junior partner in ruling the Empire. He was able to secure the latter’s support for the Jews of the Dispersion in Asia Minor, who were being persecuted in the Greek cities where they now lived. Herod never enjoyed the same success in his relations with the Jews in Judaea. He was an Edomite and therefore could not combine the offices of king and high priest. The separation of the two offices served as a permanent reminder to his subjects that he was a usurper and the nominee of a foreign power. It was also a lasting contradiction of what the historian Josephus called the theocratic tradition of the Jews. Nevertheless, his achievements on the material level were far from negligible. He developed the economic resources of his kingdom, rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, and founded two new cities – the port of Caesarea, which took twelve years to complete, and a city in Samaria which he also named after Augustus. When severe famine struck Judaea in 25 BC, he acted promptly and vigorously, selling the gold and silver furnishings from his palace to buy corn from the Roman governor of Egypt. Notable among the concessions made by the Romans towards the Jews of the Dispersion was the right to contribute to the temple in Jerusalem. Herod’s reign seemed to characterise the desire for ‘good government’ which the Jews had longed for since the days of Saul, David and Solomon.

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It is difficult to reconcile this vital and capable ruler with the tyrannical monster who, in the story told in Matt. 2. 16f. ordered the massacre of the innocents. This appears to have been a local incident, which the gospel-writer seems to have used to demonstrate the fulfilment of a prophecy and to emphasise the significance of the infant king Jesus as a very different ‘King of the Jews’ to Herod. The story is not recorded anywhere apart from the gospel, and a more historical view of Herod derives from the way in which he had to deal, on his death-bed, with a feud within his extended family. In 5-4 BC he was seriously ill when his son Antipater began plotting against him and his half-brothers, Archelaus and Philip, over the succession. Among the symptoms of Herod’s terminal illness were rapid swings in mood and delusions of persecution. In 4 BC, amid mounting pressures from the Pharisees and only a few days before his death, Herod had Antipater executed, and ordered the execution of a number of other leading nobles, either in order to prevent civil war after his death and/or so that the Romans would mistake the mourning of their families for mourning for him, demonstrating his popularity among his own people. He then issued his fourth and final will, under the terms of which the kingdom was to be divided between three of his remaining sons. Archelaus, only eighteen, was to be king of Judaea, Edom and Samaria; his brother Antipas became tetrarch of Galilee and Transjordan; their half-brother, Philip, tetrarch of the north-eastern territories of the kingdom. The kingdom remained divided into these tetrarchies, with a succession of Roman governors as ‘procurators’ of Judaea (see below), the fifth and most infamous of which was, of course, Pontius Pilate, responsible, together with the Judaean Sanhedrin, for the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

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(to be continued)

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