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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

Chapter 14: ROMAN RULE

For 200 years after the return from Babylonian captivity, the Jewish people lived under the non-intrusive authority of Persian rule. Then, in 333 B.C., Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire and the land of Palestine became subject to Greek rule. During that time the people were increasingly influenced by Greek culture and there was a growing hostility between those who were eager to adapt themselves to this new culture and those who considered Hellenized Jews to be apostates.

In spite of resistance, Greek manners and customs flourished among the upper classes and although Hellenism had an enormous effect on Jewish men, it produced little change in the lives of women.  The Greeks, like the Hebrews, restricted the rights and activities of females so for Jewish women this new way of life, so enthusiastically embraced by men, was simply a continuation of the status quo.

But male infatuation with all things Greek underwent a drastic change when Antiochus Epiphanes revoked the decree that had granted religious freedom to the Jews. He took over the Jerusalem Temple, dedicated it to Zeus, and demanded that the people take part in the worship of the Olympian God. That worship included the sacrifice and ritual consumption of pig’s flesh.

The drastic punishments inflicted on those who would not worship Zeus provoked a Jewish uprising. In 164 B.C., under the leadership of Judas Maccabee, the Temple was retaken. It was purged of all traces of pagan worship and rededicated to the Lord, an event still celebrated as the Feast of Lights (Hanukkah). It was a major victory.

But it took twenty-two more years for the Jewish people to completely overthrow their conquerors. This was accomplished in 142. B. C.,  when for the first time in more that 400 years, there was once again an independent Jewish nation under the leadership of a Jewish king. And as soon as the gains of that victory were consoli-dated, the descendants of Sarah and Abraham once again set out to extend the boundaries of their nation by the conquest of neighboring territories.

Under the leadership of a succession of Maccabean Kings, the Jewish army annexed territories from south of the Dead Sea into the upper Galilee, and as for north as Mount Hebmon. The area of Palestine they conquered was almost as extensive as that which had been captured during the reign of Kind David. And although the Jewish people had fought to the death for their right to religious freedom, they did not allow any such freedom in the territories they now annexed. If the conquered people did not repudiate their own religion and convert to Judaism, they were executed. The violence of this policy of forced conversions was a reflection of the internal violence that characterized the domestic rule of the Maccabees.

Under Maccabean rule, the secular office of king and the religious authority of the High Priest had been combined in one man and the corruption inherent in that kind of power manifested itself in the rule of Aristobulus I. He was the grandson of Simon Maccabee and insured his claim to the throne by killing one of his brothers and permanently jailing three others. He also had his mother confined to prison and ordered that she be starved to death.[1]  When Aristobulus died he was succeeded by his brother, Alexander Janneus, who also gained the throne by killing a rival brother. And the violence this man employed in his pursuit of the throne was also manifested in his vicious treatment of Jewish dissenters.

Janneus assumed the throne at a time when various Jewish factions had already formed the groups known as the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The king favored the Sadducees and had 6000 Pharisees killed after they took exception to the way he performed a religious ritual.[2]  That slaughter incited the Pharisees to civil war but they were defeated by the king’s troops. After their defeat, Janneus took steps to crush any chance of future opposition by making an example of the dissenters.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, he had 800 Pharisees crucified and while they were hanging on their crosses he ordered that their wives and children be murdered in front of them.[3]  This mass crucifixion did crush the opposition to Janneus, but after he died the Pharisees were restored to favor by his successor. Now it was their turn to take revenge on their enemies. The fight for control between the Pharisees and Sadducees continued as the balance of power seesawed between them. And during this time, they murdered and tortured each other with the kind of vindictiveness usually reserved for foreign enemies.

Then, in 67 B.C., each faction found a champion in two Maccabean brothers who were rival claimants to the throne. Aristobulus II supported the Sadducees and Hyranus II favored the Pharisees. Each brother managed to ascend the throne for a while and each looked to foreign powers to aid them militarily. And at one point, both men looked to Rome for help in securing the throne.

Pompey, the Roman General, had been successfully campaigning in the East for the Roman Empire and after hearing about the power struggle that was going on in Jerusalem, he sent his legate to investigate the matter. Both brothers offered large bribes in order to secure Roman support and ultimately Pompey decided to back the claims of Hyranus II and the Pharisees.

In 63 B.C., with the help of Roman troops, Hyranus and his Jewish followers breached the walls at Jerusalem and killed twelve thousand of their own countrymen in the battle that followed. But when it was all over, Hyranus did not become king. Pompey allowed him only the title and function of High Priest and Rome annexed all the territories that the Maccabees had conquered in their hundred years of war.

The Maccabees had begun their reign as the great heroes of Hanukkah and no dynasty began more propitiously - - nor came to a worse end. The former kingdom of the Maccabees became part of the Roman Province of Syria and in 40 B.C. the Roman Senate installed Herod, son of a court advisor to the Maccabees, as king of Judea.

In the years that followed, Herod became the focus of Jewish hatred.[4]  He was a cruel ruler, but not more so than many of his predecessors had been. The reasons for the hatred were religious as well as political. It is an historic irony that this man, so hated by the Jews, could never have been king if his father had not been forcibly converted to Judaism. Herod’s father was a native of Idumea, and when that country was conquered by the Maccabees; its inhabitants could avoid death only by converting to Judaism.

The overthrow of Jewish rule by Rome in 63 B.C. continues to influence both Jewish and Christian apologists. Both groups mourn that defeat and there has been much soul-searching and speculation about what could have led to such a catastrophe. Religious spokesmen speculate that God may have inflicted the suffering of defeat on His people in order to purify them. Others attribute the Roman takeover to the fact that because many Jews had embraced all things Greek, the nation was punished for that. Some attribute the takeover to a widespread neglect of religious rituals and still others insist that the requirements associated with animal sacrifices at the Temple were not being correctly observed.

Both ancient and contemporary commentators, who blame the loss of Jewish autonomy on the neglect of ritual and cultic regulations, ignore the violence and internecine mayhem that led to the Roman takeover. They ignore the fact that it was the request of the warring Pharisees and Sadducees for military aid and their willingness to kill their own countrymen in a civil war that led to the Roman occupation of their country. These religious spokesmen also disregard the warnings of the prophets.

Centuries before the Maccabean conquest of Palestine, the prophet Micah had told his people that God did not want nations to take up the sword against other nations and neither were they to “train for war anymore.”[5]  But this proscription against war, echoed by Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea had been ignored. And after the Roman takeover, instead of considering the violence of internal conflicts and wars of conquest as possible causes of their defeat, the people redoubled their efforts to fulfill every jot and title of their religious regulations.

By the time that Christ was born, the Jewish world of Roman occupation and Herodian rule was a world whose inhabitants had come to identify themselves as the people of the Law. Religious leaders taught that ritual observances, both sacrificial and personal, were the only ways to please God. Mainstream Judaism had become a religion in which ritual laws had expanded to comer every possible facet of daily life to the point that only those who devoted their lives to studying the minutiae of the Law could interpret its requirements.

Jesus denounced this kind of man-made religion and quoted an oracle of the prophet Isaiah. “How right Isaiah was when he prophesied about you! You are hypocrites. Just as he wrote: ‘These people, says God, honor me with their words, but their heart is really far away from me. It is no use for them to worship me, because they teach human rules as though they were my laws!’  “You put aside God’s command and obey human teachings . . . You have a clever way of rejecting God’s law in order to uphold your own teaching.”[6]

But in spite of the warnings of Christ and the prophets and in spite of the historical record available to them, contemporary religious spokesmen continue to blame cultic and ritualistic abuses for the Jewish defeat of 63 B.C.  And like their ancient counterparts, these modern men ignore the biblical warnings against the violence that always breeds retaliation and the wars that never bring peace.

But the horror of human suffering is not diminished by accepting that much of it is self-inflicted. Tragedies are not resolved by insisting that human beings are helpless pawns of fate or of God. Ultimately, it is only the acceptance of responsibility for what comes about as a result of human folly that can lessen human suffering.


[1]  Josephus, WAR S OF THE JEWS.  13:11.1, page 12, Whitlocke Book.

[2]  The dispute took place during the Feast of Tabernacles, when, in his role as high-priest, Alexander violated Pharisaic ritual during a Temple ceremony by not pouring the water libation on the altar.

[3]  Josephus, Flavius, Wars of the Jews.  (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1978).  1:4 - 6 (personal: see IBSE Janneus)

[4]  Yet it was the Temple that Herod began building in 20 B.C. who’s western wall still stands today and to which Jewish people from all over the world make their pilgrimage.

[5]  Micah 4:3  NIV

[6]  Mark 7:6-9  TEV

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