A Quick History Lesson

Home Moravian Church
Adult Bible Class
Sunday February 1, 2009

Hello, and welcome to the adult Bible class at Home Moravian Church. I’m Megan Moore. I know the people in the room know me, and perhaps you in the radio audience remember me from previous engagements here, too. As Craig mentioned last week, he’s at a conference with a bunch of Presbyterians today. In turn, I, a Presbyterian, am hanging with the Moravians this week.

By Craig’s request, and apparent demand, I am going to talk about my favorite topic and academic specialty: history, and especially its relationship to the Bible. My main focus will be Roman times in the area in which the New Testament is set—Judea and the Galilee. But since I can’t cover anything close to a comprehensive history in 22 minutes, I am going to range broadly about the Mediterranean and through the ages to give a sense of how Roman Judea came to be what it was, and what significance knowledge of history can have for understanding the New Testament.

The so-called lands of the Bible, often called Ancient Israel or Ancient Palestine, are located in an area that is maximally 120 miles north to south and 60 miles wide. However, despite the Bible’s claims about the size of the area that God’s chosen people inhabited, the vast majority of Old and New Testament stories take place in an area that is maximally 45 miles north to south and maybe 25 miles wide. More narrowly, a great deal of the stories take place in and around Jerusalem. Even Bethlehem is only 6 miles from Jerusalem (and would be as close as 3-4 miles in places today, but transit between the two towns is now interrupted by the wall or fence that separates Israel from the Palestinian territories).

This small piece of land that we call ancient Israel is located, as you know, on the eastern Mediterranean seaboard. It, like Lebanon, lay on the route between northern Africa, namely Egypt, and Anatolia (which is modern-day Turkey), and Mesopotamia. If you look at a map, you will notice that once you cross out of Africa, the most direct way to Mesopotamia would be across the desert. Except people did not travel that way in antiquity. They followed the fertile crescent, which hugs the Mediterranean coastline and then turns southeast toward Mesopotamia by following the Euphrates River, which starts in northern modern-day Syria.

In any case, all three places—Anatolia, Egypt, and Mesopotamia—were the seat of great empires at different times prior to the emergence of Israel, which came on the scene around 1200 BC at the earliest and is not well-attested in historical records until about 850 BC. During Old Testament times, Mesopotamia especially gave the world impressive regimes, namely Assyria and Babylon. Thus, when Assyria or Babylon wanted to fight Egypt, or at least contain it, or vice-versa, they attempted first to secure the territory of ancient Israel. In fact, a particular area in Israel became the scene of so many big battles that it has been immortalized in apocalyptic scenarios. I am talking about the plain of Jezreel, which begins on the west at the ancient town of Megiddo. Over many centuries, Megiddo’s occupation levels were successively destroyed or they decayed, and new versions of the town were built on top of the old ones. This resulted in Megiddo sitting atop a Tel, which is the Hebrew and Arabic word for this kind of artificial hill that contained the occupation levels of past cities. It can look like a small mountain. Now, the word for mountain in Hebrew is har. Thus, the har Megiddo, the artificial mountain which overlooked the plain where great battles took place, was translated into Greek as Armageddon and became, in the imagination of the Apocalypticist, the place where the great final battle between good and evil will take place.

But, we digress a bit. What I want to point out here is that the area of ancient Israel was overrun by empires for much of its existence, and, importantly, that in Old Testament times, these empires were Mesopotamian. Their people were Semites, like the Israelites, and we know that their languages were related, as were their worldviews including ideas about cosmology—the arrangement and order of the cosmos—anthropology—their ideas about humans and how they came to be and how they function in the world—and even theology—the depiction of the god of the Bible is in many places comparable to more ancient depictions of the Babylonian god Marduk, for instance. Of course, the cultures were different: American and German cultures are closely related in many ways but obviously different. But they were all still ancient Near Eastern. Furthermore, the ancient Near Eastern empires’ policies of governance may be called provinciliaztion at times, but never were colonization. For important periods of time, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were left to govern themselves, as long as they paid the proper tribute to, say, the Assyrian king. Assyria may also have expected other concessions from Israel and Judah, but they never expected either kingdom to be turned into a little Assyria.

Matters changed somewhat with the rise of Persia and its conquering of the Babylonian empire in 539 BC, but today I want to emphasize the drastic change that the exploits of Alexander the Great and the ensuing Hellenistic empires brought to the area. Alexander left Macedonia around 333 BC and campaigned until his death in 323 BC. He destroyed the Persian empire, centered in modern-day Iran, made it as far as the Indus River valley, and died under mysterious circumstances in Babylon. Along the way, everything in his path, including Egypt and Syria-Palestine, had come under his control. Alexander’s conquests were the beginning of the Hellenistic period (Hellas being Greek for Greece), and brought about a sea-change in life in the lands that experienced it. New, western, and very different modes of thought, including rationalism and a spirit of internationalism, and a very palpable idea that Greek culture was superior followed Alexander and his successors. Thus, inhabitants of cities such as Jerusalem started to have access to Greek educations for their children and to entertainment. They were also expected to accommodate Greek religion, which often included a cult of the Emperor.

Jews in Palestine apparently had mixed reactions to Hellenism, with some deciding that this new western, modern way of life was the way to go and others resisting, sometimes violently. The intertestamental books of the Bible take the side of the resistors, and no doubt in Jesus’s time, old time heroes, such as the Maccabees who captured the temple from the Greeks, rededicated it after the slaughter of a pig on the altar, and thus observed the first Hanukkah, were hailed as heroes among some of the Jews.

In 64 BC, the Roman general Pompey annexed Syria, taking it from the Greek descendants of one of Alexander’s generals who had controlled the area. In 31 BC, the Romans defeated the Greeks who held Egypt, ruled by Cleopatra, a descendant of one of Alexander’s generals who had taken over Egypt and reinstated the pharonic line, making themselves the Pharaohs. Thus, Rome ruled the area of ancient Israel and its surroundings. For Rome this was a big deal, but I think it would be fair to say that for the Jews it must have seemed like “same stuff, different day.” Roman culture was a direct heir of Hellenistic culture, and its attitude toward native cultures was not remarkably different. For instance, whereas Jerusalem for a few centuries had been built under the model of a Greek city, the Romans made it a Roman city. The point is not that Greek and Roman were so different. The point is that Greek OR Roman, these were western ideas and models.

Rome was immensely successful in building up the area of ancient Palestine, and a large part of the Mediterranean world and northward, and in making a large swath of its known world Roman. It’s amazing—you can see Roman ruins in Palestine, Jordan, and then of course Italy, then France, then England, and the similarities are unbelievable. A theater here, a columned market street, called a cardo, over there, probably a hippodrome and other common features to be found, too. It must have been a bummer for the ancient traveler—you mean I spent all this money to get to Paris and I’m still eating at McDonalds’ and shopping at the Gap?

Now, the big story in Roman Palestine was Herod. And this sets us up nicely to talk about the New Testament—I promise, I have been getting there this whole time. Now you see that in Jesus’ time, the Jews of Palestine were in a very familiar situation, that is, ruled, colonized, whatever you want to call it by a western power with a very different thought system from the traditional one, and while some of the Jews were cool with that, others had resisted. The tension between resisters and accommodators in Jewish society had been going strong for well over one hundred and fifty years (and probably much longer) when Jesus appeared, and no doubt there was tension in individuals’ minds as well. But then in walks Herod, who was sent to unify and get control over the area. Herod did accomplish greater unity among Jews than may have been in existence before, but this unity came out of a strong dislike of him. There’s nothing like a common enemy!

Herod was an interesting character, to say the least. He was of Idumean ancestry. Idumea was the old Edom, southeast of Judea and intertwined with Israel in history and culture. At one point many Idumeans converted to Judaism, and Herod’s ancestors were among these. Thus, Jews didn’t consider him a real, pure Jew at all. To the Romans he looked close enough. He was sent to Galilee as a ruler in the late 40s BC and eventually was named by the Romans as—brace yourself—king of the Jews. You can imagine how this was received. Nevertheless, Herod reigned, in some fashion, for approximately 40 years—a good biblical number, don’t you think?

Herod, as I said, is THE story of Roman Palestine. At the top of the list of his achievements was the restoration of the temple in Jerusalem. Now the first temple is said to have been built by Solomon in the mid 900s BC, and was definitely destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The second temple may have had its start sometime in the late 500s or early 400s BC. I think if you had encountered this temple you would have thought it was pretty unimpressive. Herod appears to have thought so, too. So he had it enlarged, beautified, and its foundation built up, using the latest architectural and engineering techniques. Under his rule, the Jerusalem temple became something he, and the Jews, could really be proud of, and show off to the rest of the world. This is the temple where Jesus worshipped.

Since Herod was a real personality, historians have had fun trying to figure out his motivation for the aggrandizement of the temple. Was it to show himself off? Or was it to entice the Jews to love him—many have psychoanalyzed Herod as feeling unloved and unappreciated and craving the approval of the Jews. Something, whether it be lack of love or psychosis or some disease, caused him to be paranoid, depressive, and even murderous. He had members of his own family killed and attempted to have many more of them executed. Various stories and legends surround his paranoia and rage.

And thus, finally you see, we come to the New Testament itself. Herod’s massacre of the innocents is one of the first events reported, after the birth of Jesus. You can surely understand why such a story would have had currency in the ancient world. It was probably written down over 75 years after the events would have happened, but no doubt stories of the horrible Herod were circulated far and wide for a long time. Matthew’s story of his activities would probably have just been another one of those stories about the terrible king.

Herod also provides one of the important anchors for dating Jesus’s life. Herod died in 4 BC, apparently in the spring. So, if Herod was alive when Jesus was born, Jesus must have been born before 4 BC. Combining these with the reference to a particular census in Luke puts Jesus’s birth maybe sometime between 6 and 8 BC. This, of course, assumes that Matthew and Luke, writing at least 80 years after these events, were historically correct—that Herod the great was alive when Jesus was born, and that Jesus was born during the census of Quirinius.

Since we’re on the topic of dating, let me discuss a few more examples. Roman history can help us get a time range, but not an exact date, for the crucifixion. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea from 26 to 36 AD. Estimates of the year of crucifixion range all over those years. Some look at when Passover could have been on a Friday, which is when Mark, Matthew, and Luke report that Jesus died. However, John disagrees and places Jesus’s death on the day before Passover, meaning that if the third day was Sunday, Passover would have started on a Saturday. Various vague traditions and references in early Christian documents, as well as notes in the gospels about Jesus’s age when he began his ministry (about 30, according to Luke) and who was emperor of Rome complicate the picture. But thanks to Roman interest in recording the present and the past, we can have a general idea for when the crucifixion occurred.

Paul’s ministry is another important New Testament event that Roman history can help us date. In Acts 18, it is reported that Paul encounters trouble at Corinth and ends up being brought before Gallio, governor of Achaia. This seemingly arcane reference didn’t seem to be of much significance until fragments were discovered at Delphi that conclusively put Gallio as governor of the area during the years 51-53 AD. Thus, if Luke, the author of Acts, is right, Paul would have been in Corinth sometime between 51 and 53. From this anchor, and using chronologies in Acts and hints in the Pauline letters, scholars can construct a tentative timeline of Paul’s activities. Well, not A tentative timeline—as many timelines as there are scholars, perhaps even more. In any case, we can put Paul in a general ballpark thanks to the Romans’ fondness for memorializing things in stone. We can also thank the excellent communication and transportation systems that the Romans set up for Paul’s ability to travel all over the Mediterranean and to pass letters through travelling disciples, as well. Also, Paul’s final journey to Rome, where tradition has it he was executed, is possible in Acts because Paul, as a Roman citizen, appeals his sentence all the way up to the Emperor.

Finally—one last date. We know that Jewish resistors of Roman rule finally got enough support to stage a full revolt in Judea starting in 66 AD. This culminated in the temple being destroyed in 70. The importance of Jesus’ prediction of the temple’s destruction in the gospels is one of the many reasons scholars date them to after 70 AD.

With the time left, I’m going to pull back again to more general ways that knowledge of life in Roman Palestine can help us understand, or, probably I should say, lead us to questions about the New Testament. I already mentioned the good Roman cities that sprang up in Palestine. One, called Sepphoris or Zippori, was an impressive hilltop Galilean city just a few miles from Nazareth. I excavated there twice in the 1990s. Scholars who try to understand the historical Jesus debate whether Jesus would have spent significant time in Sepphoris, and whether the knowledge he could have acquired there of Greek and Roman culture is reflected in his teaching. Would he have worked there as a carpenter with Joseph? Would he have seen plays? Would he have spoken or understood any Greek or Latin, or at least have been familiar with the way Romans, and probably assimilated Jews, lived?

Another topic that comes up frequently when talking about Roman Palestine is Jewish religion at that time. This is a topic for another complete talk, but I can mention a few things here.

There were several varieties of Judaism out there at Jesus’ time. One was Sadducean Judaism. The Sadducees appear in the New Testament. From what we can tell, they seem to have been influential in the temple and to have often had good relationships with the Romans. Of course, this led some to call them collaborators, but I choose to imagine them as pragmatists, keeping the temple going for their fellow Jews while keeping the Romans happy, as well.

Also at that time we have the Pharisees. They are the really bad guys of the gospel of Matthew. The early Pharisees apparently promoted separation from the dominant culture. This means that they would have kept distinctive dress and kept kosher strictly, kept their kids from going to Roman schools and watching Roman TV, and so forth. In trying to follow God’s law so strictly, the Pharisees produced a corpus of oral law that was eventually codified as the Talmud. These rules were carefully thought out, and usually rather strict, interpretations of the laws found in the first five books of the Bible. One of the most important things to recognize about the Pharisees is that this type of strict observance of the law offered Jews a way to be obedient and faithful in their everyday lives. Thus, when the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD, and Jews no longer had a place they could go to meet God, and make atonement for their sins, the Pharisees had a system that allowed Jews the possibility to be religious without the Temple. Thus, Pharisaic Judaism became Rabbinic Judaism, and Rabbinic Judaism is the basis of all forms of Judaism we know today. This knowledge of the importance of the Pharisees after 70 AD also tells us something about the gospel of Matthew. When Matthew was writing, after the destruction of the temple, the Pharisees were becoming the dominant Jewish group. They were not at the time of Jesus. So, to most scholars, Jesus’s clashes with the Pharisees are highlighted in Matthew because Matthew needed to emphasize how Jesus was different from this type of Judaism.

A third type of Judaism known from the time of Jesus were fully separatist movements. The most famous are the Essenes, who appear to have produced the Dead Sea Scrolls around this time. They lived in the desert and lived very strictly ascetic lives, bound by all sorts of rules and practices. To us they might look a bit like a cult—besides living in a marginal area and being a fully religious community, they had a very developed sense of the apocalypse, the end of the world as we know it, when good and evil would clash at that final great battle. We could talk at length about Jesus’s or Paul’s ideas about the apocalypse, but now I want you just to think of John the Baptist. He was likely not an Essene, but he was not entirely unique, either, that is, he was not the only Jew dressing kind of oddly and living in the desert, preaching about the repentance of sins and the coming of God.

The final specific type of Judaism around at the time of Jesus is one that, not surprisingly, supported violent resistance to the Romans. These people especially would have admired the rebels who took down Hellenistic rule of Jerusalem, which I mentioned earlier. There is much speculation that Judas Iscariot may have had leanings toward this kind of philosophy, and that some of Jesus’s other followers hoped to sway him in this way, as well. For instance, when Jesus is praying and the Romans come to arrest him, one of the people with him cuts off the ear of a Roman soldier. Was he trying to start a revolt, right there? In any case, the notion of violent resistance to western colonization was surely alive and well at the time of Jesus.

Thanks for listening, I hope this adds to your knowledge of the concrete world in which these stories were set and written, and in which the people involved lived. Remind

I should have mentioned on the air that the majority of Jews in Jesus’ time, including apparently Jesus himself, did not think of themselves as any type of sub-group of Jews: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, or Zealots.

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