Lesson 1: The Jewish People in the Hellenistic World

We can begin to understand early Christianity by understanding the environment from which it emerged. For us that environment begins in the ancient world of the Jews and the Greeks, a world nearly two and a half millennia ago, set apart from us not only by culture and history, but also by the physical realities of ancient life. This lesson explores life in the ancient world, and it offers rapid overviews of Judaism and Hellenistic history, before turning to a pivotal moment in the history of Judaism… and ultimately Christianity: the Maccabean revolt.




Mattathias, Modin, Maccabees, axial age, Karl Jaspers, Plato, Alexander the Great, Hellenization, Ptolemy/Ptolemaic Egypt, Seleucid, Tanakh = Old Testament, Antiochus IV, Emmaus, Hanukkah



Wikipedia: The Axial Age

Wikipedia: The Maccabean Revolt

Jewish Virtual Library: The Maccabees

PDF: What Really Happened?

PDF: The Revolt: State of the Question



Ancient Life

Christianity originated in an ancient world that was fundamentally different from our own. It was a world where over 90% of the population participated in agriculture. The large result of that lifestyle was neither growth nor prosperity, merely subsistence. It was an existence in which people were always on the edge of starvation. The production of food required labor and time. Cereals and grains were the primary source of calories. If people had any meat at all, it was typically fish and occasionally sheep. Beef was rare and saved for special occasions. Salt, olive oil, and wine were precious.
Mosaic of Fish and Loaves
Consider the influence of this life on Christianity. The kingdom of God is like a sower who casts out the seeds. The believers are like the wheat. Christians are the leaven, the yeast. “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11) Jesus is the “lamb of God,” the “good shepherd” (John 1,36; 10:11). He tells his disciples he will make them “fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). The body of Christ is like bread, and his blood is like wine. The most basic symbols of Christianity are derived from an ancient agricultural life.

Society was organized around the reproduction of human beings and the growth of food. People lived close to the land in small villages or groups. The core of society was the family, and the leader of the family was the patriarch. Women had very little authority, very little choice of whom they would marry or when they would have children. Their identity was linked to their father or husband. Widows and orphans were in a perilous position, requiring the guardianship of a near male relative. In this world of the tightly knit family, Jesus says “anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). He has come to turn “a man against his father, a daughter against her mother” (Matthew 10:35). It is a radical message today, but in the ancient world it was even more radical than we can imagine.


Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great

The history of Christianity, we might say, begins with Alexander the Great. He was a Greek, a Macedonian, born around the year 356 BC. At 20 years old, he inherited his father’s throne and established hegemony over the Greek world. In 334 BC, he began his conquest of the great Persian empire, ultimately uniting east and west. He first subdued Asia Minor and Syria. Then he occupied Egypt, where he founded Alexandria. This city would become a great centers of learning, eventually housing the seat of an early Christian church father. After conquering Egypt, Alexander invaded the Persian heartland and beyond. His empire stretched from Greece to India.

Alexander – whose own religion was traditional Greek polytheism – is crucial to the background of Christianity for two reasons:

Through his conquest, Alexander spread Hellenic (Greek) culture and the Hellenic language of Greek. Alexander settled the lands he conquered, founding cities like Alexandria which became centers of Hellenic culture. In the ensuing centuries, Greek became a common, international language in the eastern Mediterranean, a position it would maintain under the Roman and Byzantine empires.

The process of Hellenization was facilitated by the conquests of Alexander. Hellenization would have dire implications for the holy land, Palestine, which Alexander incorporated into his empire. Although Alexander was a competent general and commander, he was not an administrator. After his death in 323 BC, his empire was immediately split into rival kingdoms ruled by the Diadochi: Alexander’s former generals, administrators, and friends. Two of these successor kingdoms, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, are directly relevant to the history of the Jews in Palestine. At first, Palestine would be ruled by the Ptolemies, but in 198 BC the Seleucid kingdom would conquer Palestine. The Seleucids initiated a program of forced Hellenization that sparked a religious war with the Jews in 166 BC. This conflict was the Maccabean Revolt.


The Uniqueness of Judaism

Who are the Jewish people of Palestine?

The Jews are a people who practice Judaism. They identify themselves by their special relationship with God, the only God. Originating in a time when polytheism was the norm, Judaism was the first truly monotheistic religion. Monotheism is the first unique characteristic of Judaism.

Most of what we know about them comes from their scriptures, which are sacred to Jews and Christians alike. These writings are known as the Tanakh to Jews, and as the Old Testament to Christians. The Jewish Bible is the story of Israel. Beginning with Genesis, the Tanakh gives an account of human history stretching back to the first humans, Adam and Eve. It follows the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, as they wander the land of Palestine and Egypt. It is through Abraham and his descendants that the special relationship with God begins to develop as a covenant: the second unique characteristic of Judaism. The covenant, which provides the framework of the entire religion, was reestablished over the years between God and each of the major Jewish patriarchs.

The book of Exodus tells the story of Moses and the Mosaic covenant. Exodus begins with the Jews enslaved in Egypt. God liberates them by sending Moses, who is effectively the founder of Judaism. The rescue of the Jews from slavery was God’s special intervention on their behalf. In return for delivering the people, God expected the Jews to live according to his law, the Torah. In other words, the covenant became formalized in terms of law, the third unique characteristic of Judaism. The Law, known as the Mosaic Law because it was delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai, is central to Judaism. It is a guide for living rightly and maintaining a favorable relationship with the one God. The Law includes the Ten Commandments, but it also has an elaborate system of ethical, social, and sacred rules. The Law was a highly unique aspect of Judaism; through it, the religion became ethical. Ancient religions were not ethical systems, but the God of Judaism had intense moral expectations of his people. Therefore, the Jewish religious system is sometimes called ethical monotheism. The sacred aspects of the Law governed the relationship between man and God, demanding worship of the one God alone, providing rules for religious purity, and establishing mechanisms. Above all, the Law instituted sacrifice for the atonement of sin. Ancient Judaism shared this aspect with polytheistic religions. Animal sacrifice, in which the throat of an animal is slit in a ritual dedicated to God or the gods, is the essential act of ancient religions; it is a fact of central importance for understanding Judaism and Christianity alike. Ancient religions, including Judaism, were not essentially about belief or “faith.” They were about practice, about actions that maintain the right relationship between God and man.

Around 1,000 BC, the Jews established a monarchy under their first king, Saul. The monarchical period was the golden age of Jewish history. Under the leadership of men such as David and Solomon, the Jews became an independent power in the Near East. In the city of Jerusalem, Solomon built a temple that became the ritual focus of the Jewish people. What we call the First Temple became the holiest place of Judaism. Here, the Jewish priests were in charge of a public cult of sacrificial rituals to maintain the covenant between the Jews and their God. This phase of royal history would last until the end of the monarchy and the destruction of the first temple in 587 BC, when the ascendant Babylonian empire overthrew the Jewish kingdom, razed the city of Jerusalem, and sent the Jews into exile. This period, the “Babylonian captivity,” lasted only fifty years. However, it was an important rift in Jewish history, particularly because it destroyed the line of kings that had ruled over the Jewish people.

The fall of creation. The covenant with Abraham. The Law of Moses. The anointed King. The exile of Israel… All of these are central to an understanding of Christianity.

The Maccabean Revolt

In 538 BC, the Persians, who had conquered the Babylonians under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, allowed the Jews to return to Palestine. Cyrus gave the Jews permission to rebuild the temple, inaugurating what is called the Second Temple period. This phase of Jewish history stretches from the completion of the Second Temple around 515 BC to its destruction by the Romans in 70 AD. Judaism in this period was like pre-exilic Judaism: monotheistic, covenantal, and Law-based.

However, Second Temple Judaism differed from pre-exilic Judaism in several crucial respects:

There was no temporal king; instead, high priests were the most significant public figures.

Charismatic religious figures like judges and prophets were replaced with a larger, hereditary priesthood that controlled ritual practice at the temple in Jerusalem.

Philosophical concern increased on the subject of God’s justice – a more rational, individualistic justice. Since justice is not always visible in this world, there was a new belief in and emphasis on afterlife and the resurrection of the dead.

There was a new focus on modes of individual piety: prayer, study of the Torah, and the maintenance of ritual purity, especially the Sabbath and table purity. These were not perceived as cumbersome or vacuous rules. Rather, these methods made life a way of serving God and bringing the ordinary believer into contact with the Holy.

At the beginning of the Second Temple period, the Jews were under Persian rule. They were allowed to practice their religion freely under the leadership of their priests, but Persians did not reestablish the Jewish monarchy. For the next two centuries, the Persians ruled the Near East, including the subject territory of Palestine, until Alexander the Great defeated the Persians in 331 BC and became the master of the region. After Alexander’s death, his general Ptolemy became king of Egypt. Ptolemy exercised control over Palestine in the same manner as the Persians. He did not interfere with the religious structure of the Jewish people, and he did not allow an independent monarchy.

It was an age of peace and prosperity for the Jews. Indeed, this period saw the growth and migration of Judaism beyond the borders of Palestine, creating a Jewish diaspora. Jewish communities took hold around the eastern Mediterranean, in Asia Minor, and the Egypt of the Ptolemies. The Ptolemies ruled the region until the Seleucids, another of the successor kingdoms, took control around 198 BC. This conquest set the stage for the conflict between the Seleucids and the Jews: the Maccabean revolt.

Bust of Antiochus IV

The Seleucids charted a new strategy of rule, one of aggressive Hellenization. In a sense, it is surprising that the Seleucids
decided to interfere with religious practice in Palestine. The Seleucids, like all the Greeks and Persians, were polytheists; they believed in many gods. Polytheistic religions tend to be syncretic, incorporating and adapting new deities into the pantheon rather than competing with them. Episodes of persecution were rare in ancient pagan states. However, the Seleucids embarked on a policy of aggressive Hellenization, pushing Greek culture onto their subjects, including the Jews. This policy sparked a war of rebellion and, eventually, secession in Judea.

The Book of First Maccabees

Our knowledge of the Maccabean Revolt comes primarily from two separate histories of the rebellion known as First and Second Maccabees. The book of First Maccabees has enjoyed an interesting history. It was originally written in Hebrew around the year 100 BC. However, the book has had more fame and significance among Christians than Jews. First Maccabees is not in the Hebrew canon. It was translated into Greek with the rest of the Jewish scriptures in a collection that became known as the Septuagint, the ancient Greek version of the Hebrew scriptures. (Significantly, early Christians used the Septuagint as their version of the Jewish holy writings). First Maccabees was initially part of the Christian scriptures, and it remains so in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons. However, in the Protestant canon, Martin Luther moved the book to an appendix, and it has remained in a sort of twilight zone for most Protestant denominations. The translators of the King James Bible translated it into English; to this day, some English Bibles have it, and others do not.

The Book of First Maccabees recounts the history of the Jewish rebel Mattathias and his five sons, including the great military leader Judas the Maccabee, or “the Hammer,” from which the book derives its name.

The Revolt of the Maccabees broke out when the Seleucid king Antiochus IV began to interfere aggressively with the Jewish religion. In particular, he prohibited study of the Law (the Torah), he prohibited observance of the Sabbath, and he prohibited the practice of circumcision. Worst of all, Antiochus IV erected an altar to Zeus in the Holy of Holies of the temple of Jerusalem, desecrating the holiest site of Judaism. This desecration was part of a broader policy to enforce Hellenism and create cultural unity throughout his kingdom. It is clear from the book of the Maccabees that the Jews had diverse reactions to this offense. Some of them, the Hellenizers, collaborated with the Seleucids and argued that the Jews should adopt Greek culture. Others resorted to armed resistance.

This resistance erupted in 166 BC. In that year, an agent of Antiochus IV named Modin came into the village where the priest Mattathias and his family lived. Modin attempted to force the villagers to practice pagan rituals. Mattathias slew the official, marking the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt.

Not long after the revolt broke out, Mattathias died and his son Judas took leadership of the rebels. The rebellion, which originally resembled a guerrilla war, gained support among the Jews. The conflict became an outright revolution against Antiochus IV, who was forced to send an army to face the rebels.

Judas was a natural military commander. He earned his nickname “the Hammer” and, to the surprise of Antiochus IV, quickly defeated two Seleucid armies in the open field of battle. The guerrillas took advantage of the terrain to maneuver against the larger army, which was unfamiliar with the landscape. The Seleucids subsequently came down the coast and established a military camp at Emmaus, a city at the foothills of the Judean highlands (some twenty miles to the west of Jerusalem). The Seleucids intended to set up a base from which they could send smaller, more mobile forces into the hills to chase down the rebels.

This was not bad military strategy, but Judas once again showed himself a superior commander. When the Seleucids sent a part of their force after the rebels, Judas pretended to retreat into the hills. Then he outflanked the invading column and circled behind them undetected. But Judas did not attack the advance contingent. Instead, he led his troops through the night and launched a dawn surprise attack against the Seleucids’ main camp at Emmaus. Surprised by the arrival of rebel troops, and forced to fight while facing the rising sun, the Seleucid army was routed. Judas had scored a major victory. He had proven to the Jews that victory was possible, and he himself had become the hero and leader of his people.

Of course, the war was not over. The Seleucids invaded again, but Judas’ army became stronger with each victory. The rebels gradually gained control of Judea, the heartland of Palestine. Soon, Judas seized Jerusalem itself and expelled the Greeks and Hellenizers who had been in the city. He rededicated the temple to purify it and reestablish the rituals of the temple cult. It was later said that there was only one small container of holy oil left in the temple, enough to burn the flame for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days, during which the temple was reconsecrated. Here are the origins of the holiday Hanukkah, a word which means “consecration” or “dedication.” The Maccabeans instituted Hanukkah as an annual celebration to remember the rededication of the temple.

In 160 BC, with the rebellion firmly in control of Judea, Judas died. His brother Jonathan, who had already been made high priest, became the leader of the Jewish people. Mattathias and his sons, a family from a small village, became not only leaders of a great rebellion, but leaders of the Jewish people. Their line would rule Judea for over a hundred years until the Romans displaced the Greeks as the dominant power of the eastern Mediterranean.

The Maccabean Revolt was seminal in the origins of Christianity for at least three distinct reasons:

It established a Jewish kingdom in which a pious Jew sat on the throne of David and ruled from Jerusalem according to Jewish law. The interlude between Greek and Roman dominance turned the notion of a Jewish kingdom into a reality.

The revolt established the idea of the Jewish rebel. The Romans would find that the notion of a rebel-hero, driven by God to resist tyrannical imperial rule, was a dangerous one.

The Maccabean Revolt restored a Jew to the kingdom and a pious family to the high priesthood. However, in the eyes of some, it restored the wrong Jew to both positions. The King of the Jews was supposed to be a descendant of David. The priest was supposed to be a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses, and Zadok, the high priest during the reign of David. The Maccabeans were descended from neither of these lineages. In the eyes of many Jews, the Maccabeans were unfit to be on the throne. This underlying dissent would manifest itself in the splintering of Judaism into many factions, some of which rejected the rule of the Maccabeans.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Comments