Notes: Ehrman’s Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Chapter 7
The aim of the chapter is to provide sufficient historical context of 1st century Palestine to help interpret the words and deeds of Jesus. This, in turn, will help us apply the criterion of contextual credibility discussed in ch. 6.
I. Political Crises in Palestine and Their Consequences
-The Israelites believed that God delivered them from the Egyptians and gave them their land. Yahweh was their God, and he was taken to have made a covenant with them: to protect and defend them, in the land that he had given them, in exchange for their devotion.
-Problem: Israel was subsequently dominated by foreign rulers for 800 years.
- The Northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE.
- The Southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians in 587-586 BCE. Jerusalem was leveled, the Temple was destroyed, and the leaders were taken into exile.
- About 50 years later, the Babylonians were overthrown by the Persians. The Persians ended the forced exile and allowed the leaders of Judea to return home. The Temple was then rebuilt, and the High Priest was given jurisdiction as a local ruler. Still, the Persian king had final authority. The Persians ruled over the kingdom of Judah for about 200 years.
- Then, Alexander the Great, ruler of Macedonia, overthrew the Persians and took control of the land, and much of the surrounding area. He spread the Greek language, religion, and culture throughout his new empire, including Israel.
- Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE. His generals then divided up his realm, and Palestine came to be ruled by Ptolemy, the general in charge of Egypt.
- In 198 CE, the ruler of Syria wrested control of Palestine from Ptolemy.
- A subsequent Persian ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes, sought to bring a stronger unity to his empire. Part of his plan involved requiring his subjects to adopt many aspects of Greek culture. While many Jews embraced this move for Hellenization, many Jews found this to be a deep offense to their religious life. In response, Antiochus imposed strict enforcement of his plan, banning the practice of circumcision (a crucial component of Jewish identity). He also had the Jewish temple converted into a pagan sanctuary, and required Jews to sacrifice to the pagan gods.
- This led to a Jewish revolt and armed rebellion, which started in 167 BCE. The rebellion was led by a family of Jewish priests – the Maccabeans (aka the Hasmoneans). The campaign was successful. They drove out the Syrian army and resumed full control of the land, reestablishing the Jewish state for the first time in 400 years. They rededicated the Temple to Yahweh, and appointed a high priest as ruler of the land. (Some pious Jews didn’t recognize the new priest’s legitimacy, as was not a descendant of the priest Zadok. This will prove an important point in a moment.) The Hasmoneans ruled the land for about 80 years – up until 63 BCE.
- They were conquered by Roman general Pompey. The Romans allowed the high priest to remain in office, and he acted as mediator between the Jews and the Romans. However, the Romans had ultimate authority.
- In 40 BCE, Rome appointed Herod the Great to rule Palestine. Herod was from a family from the neighboring land of Idumea. They were forced to convert to Judaism. Because of this, native Israelites considered Herod as half-Jewish at best.
- After Herod the Great’s death, his son, Herod Antipas, became the ruler of Galilee (the northern region of the land). He ruled this region during Jesus’ lifetime. (30s CE)
- The southern region was ruled by Roman prefects (administrators). Pontius Pilate was prefect during Jesus lifetime. (30s CE)
-This brief historical sketch of the 800 years of nearly unbroken foreign domination of the Jews -- in the land they believed was given to them by their god, Yahweh -- provides the contextual framework for understanding the historical background of the social, political, and religious tensions and crises in Palestine during the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, and his own response to them.
II. A Consequence of the Unorthodox Hasmonean Rule: The Formation of Jewish Sects
-Various sects emerged in reaction to the rule of Hasmoneans:
The Pharisees: To preserve their faith and culture and to prevent corruption from
Hellenization, these devout Jews were intent to follow the will of God through obeying the Law of Moses. Unfortunately, the Law of Moses is ambiguous in many places. Because of this, they developed the Mishnah, a set of rules that aimed to clarify the Law of Moses, and thereby to help ensure that they obeyed it. The Pharisees are important for understanding the historical Jesus in part because it helps us understand his own teaching: He opposed theirs. He didn’t think adherence to the Law was the most important aspect worshipping God. He also disagreed with their way of following the Law by following the Mishnah.
The Sadducees: Among the four groups listed here, they had the most power in Palestine in Jesus’ day. They were mainly members of the Jewish aristocracy in Jerusalem, and were closely connected to the Jewish priesthood (who, in turn was in charge of the Temple cult). Indeed, many Sadducees were themselves priests. They were given some political power from the Romans, although they had to defer to them. They were part of the local council (the Sanhedrin), which was called upon to settle local matters. The Sadducees seemed to seek peaceful relations with the Romans, and were thus very accommodating to the Roman governor. As priests of the Temple who only accepted the Torah (the five books of Moses), their religious mode of life emphasized proper involvement in the worship of God as prescribed by the Torah. Although popular beliefs among the Jews of Jesus’ day, the Sadducees denied the existence of angels and the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees are important for understanding the historical Jesus in part because Jesus’ roused their anger by proclaiming that their Temple – the focal point of their status and political power -- would be destroyed in an imminent act of divine judgment.
The Essenes: The one Jewish sect from Jesus’ time not mentioned in the New Testament. We know of them through the writings of Josephus, and from the fact that they seemed to have been the ones who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. They lived as an isolated community in the wilderness area east of Jerusalem, near the western shore of the Dead Sea (the area is now known as Qumran). Their sect appears to have been formed around 150 BCE, during the Maccabean period. Their sect seemed to have originated as a reaction to their belief that their authority was usurped by the appointment of a non-Zadokite priest during that period. They were apocalypticists, as they were convinced that the end of time was imminent. They believed this would be accomplished by a final battle between the children of light and the children of darkness, in which God would triumph and his children would enter into his kingdom. Some believed the apocalypse would involve two messiahs – a king and a priest. The kingly messiah would rule the kingdom in righteousness, and the priestly messiah would lead God’s people in worship in the purified Temple. In the meantime, as preparation for the apocalypse, they isolated themselves in their community and devoted themselves to ritual purity and the keeping of the Law of Moses. Entrance into the community required giving up all of one’s worldly possessions to the benefit of the community, and sharing in a common meal with all the other members. The Essenes are important for understanding the historical Jesus in part because he seemed to have shared many of their views: belief in an imminent apocalypse, the need to prepare for the coming kingdom of God, giving up all one’s possessions, and sharing a common meal with the separated community.
The Fourth Philosophy: Several different sects adhered to a basic set of beliefs of the Fourth Philosophy. The core beliefs among them were that: (i) since God gave them their land, all foreign rule of it was illegitimate; (ii) the appropriate response to foreign rule of their God-given land is resistance, including violent resistance if necessary. Two of these groups were (i) the “Sicarii” (Latin for “dagger”), and the “Zealots”. The Sicarii assassinated and kidnapped many high- ranking Jewish officials because they were thought to have been on the side of the Romans. The Zealots were Galilean Jews who engaged in armed rebellion to take back their God-given land. In 67 CE, They overthrew the priestly aristocracy in a bloody coup, and encouraged violent opposition to the Roman army, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE. The Fourth Philosophy is important for understanding the historical Jesus in part because he likewise thought Romans should be kicked out of Israel. However, he didn’t think it was to be achieved by violent revolt, but by God’s work in the events of the apocalypse.
III. Popular Modes of Resistance to Oppression
-Many Jews resented Roman rule:
- They believed their god Yahweh gave them their land, in which they could live autonomously and worship him according to their laws and customs.
- They resented paying a tax that left many Jews at a subsistence level of living.
- In fact, many saw it as blasphemous to have to be forced to support an empire that dominated the very land that God had given them.
-Many Jews therefore expressed their resentment, although not all in the same way:
- Some expressed it in silent protest through their celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem. Through celebration of this religious holiday, they were not merely celebrating their ancestor’s deliverance from Egypt many centuries in the past, but were also looking forward to their deliverance from their current Roman oppressors. The Romans were well aware of this symbolic form of protest, and thus stationed guards throughout Jerusalem during the Passover to prevent violent uprisings.
- Others expressed it in nonviolent uprisings. Occasionally, Roman political officials would do something that the Jews found offensive. Example. Pilate had Roman standards erected throughout Jerusalem that bore the image of Caesar. They voiced their disapproval by asking them to be removed. Pilate refused, and in response, many Jews a sit-in at his residence in Caesarea.
- Yet others expressed it in prophetic proclamations of God’s imminent intervention against the Romans on behalf of his people. Examples: Theudas, the Egyptian, etc.
- Finally, some expressed it in terms of violent insurrections. These were premeditated armed revolts. Example 1: Judas the son of Hezekiah (circa 6 CE). Example 2: The Zealot uprising in the 60s CE, which led to their defeat and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 CE.
IV. An Ideology of Resistance
-A very popular worldview among 1st century Palestinian Jews was apocalypticism. Those who held this view believed that God revealed to them the near future, according to which God would soon intervene in history and overthrow the forces of evil (esp. their foreign oppressors) and establish his kingdom on earth.
-Written apocalyptic sources include the Old Testament book of Daniel (probably written around the time of the Maccabean revolt), many writings of the Essene community (preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls), and “apocalypses” that were written in the inter-testamental period.
-The apocalyptic worldview originated around the time of the Maccabbean Revolt. It was developed as a new explanation as to why God’s chosen people were not able to enjoy an autonomous existence, without foreign domination, in the Land their God had promised to them.
-Prior to apocalypticism, the explanation was that the Jews had sinned, or otherwise were unfaithful to their God Yahweh, and that foreign oppression was a punishment for this. This explanation can be found in many books of the Old Testament (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea).
-However, many Jews became dissatisfied with this answer because it didn’t explain the Jewish experience very well.
- The righteous, obedient Jews suffered as well.
- The Jews remained oppressed by foreign domination even after collectively repenting and recommitting themselves to Yahweh.
-As a result, a new explanation for these facts arose: apocalypticism. Apocalypticism includes the following defining features:
(i) Cosmic dualism:
- There are two cosmic forces at work in the universe: the forces of good and the forces of evil.
- The forces of good were headed by Yahweh, and the forces of evil were headed by God’s enemy, Satan.
- On God’s side were the good angels and life, and on Satan’s side where the demons and death. There is no middle ground: everyone is either with God or with Satan. You had to be aligned with one or the other.
- World history is split into two ages: the present age and the age to come. The present age is the age of sin and the devil. All in the present age are destined to suffer under the forces of evil.
- For some reason, God has allowed the forces of evil to reign during this age, but in the age to come, God will overcome the forces of darkness and the forces of good will rule forever. During this time, God will eliminate the forces of evil. This will include God overthrowing the foreign occupiers of the land of the Jews, and establishing the Kingdom of God on earth forever.
(ii) Historical pessimism:
- All creation has become corrupt from human sin and from Satan’s activity.
- Until the new age arrives, things will not improve.
- In fact, things will only get worse. This will be so even if God’s people are obedient and faithful to him.
(iii) Ultimate vindication:
- At the end, in the age to come, God will intervene on behalf of his people and vindicate his name.
- This victory is certain, as God is the creator and ruler of the universe, and even Satan and his minions are his creation.
- The universal corruption of God’s creation will be overcome with God’s universal redemption of his creation.
- God will permanently destroy the forces of evil and establish an everlasting kingdom of righteousness.
- The destruction of the forces of evil will involve a final judgment from which no one can escape. He will even raise from the dead those who died without punishment during their earthly lives.
- Those who look for God’s victory should hold on and stay faithful to him,
- for the age to come is going to happen very soon.
- People should repent and prepare for this imminent event.
Key quote: “Some of the earliest traditions about Jesus portray him as a Jewish apocalypticist who responded to the political and social crises of his day, including the domination of his nation by a foreign power, by proclaiming that his generation was living at the end of the age, that God would soon intervene on behalf of his people, sending a cosmic judge from heaven, the Son of Man who would destroy the forces of evil and set up God’s kingdom. In preparation for his coming, the people of Israel needed to turn to God, trusting him as a kindly parent and loving one another as his special children. Those who refused to accept his message would be liable to the judgment of God, soon to arrive with the coming Son of Man.” (p. 123)