In the year 537 B.C., a small remnant of the Kingdom of Judah wended its way southward through the hill country leading up to Jerusalem. Though numbering fewer than 50,000, these Jews were filled with high anticipation as they approached the Holy City at the end of their 900-mile journey out of Babylon, the land of their captivity. Just a year before, the Persian king Cyrus had decreed the return of the exiles of Judah and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. The majority of the captives elected to remain in Babylon; but this party, representing the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, Simeon, and Levi, had set out for their homeland as soon as preparations could be made.
What they found must surely have called forth a flood of tears: the Holy City in ruins, its walls pulled down, the temple site a waste of rubble since Nebuchadnezzar’s armies “overthrew the city to the very foundations” a generation before. (Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, bk. 10, 8:5.)
Under the wary eyes of hostile and interfering neighbors, some of the returning people remained in Jerusalem and others settled into other cities they had formerly possessed.
The following year they set about to rebuild the temple, which was completed in 515 B.C. When they first began, Samaria offered to help. But the Samaritans were of mixed ancestry (partly of Israel and partly of other lineage, notably Cuthaean), and certain pagan rites had crept into their religion. The Jews rejected their offer, and the Samaritans thereafter built their own sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim near Shechem.
Despite the generosity of the Persian emperor, the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem fell far short of the glory of the former structure that Solomon had erected—so much so, in fact, that at the dedication the “elder part of the families,” who remembered the former temple, “considered with themselves how much their happy state was sunk below what it had been of old, as well as their temple. Hereupon they were disconsolate, and not able to contain their grief … [and] the wailing of the old men, and of the priests, on account of the deficiency of this temple … overcame the sounds of the trumpets and the rejoicing of the people.” (Josephus, Antiquities, bk. 11, 4:2; see also Ezra 3:12–13.)
Thus began a new chapter in the history of Judah, now a much chastened people. From the time of their bondage with their fellow Israelites in Egypt a thousand years before, one sin had been paramount in Israel’s history: idolatry. They had intermarried with the people of Canaan and joined them in the worship of Baal and other false gods; for centuries they denied, dishonored, persecuted, rebelled against, and even killed the prophets. But the Babylonian captivity shocked Judah into the realization that God would not tolerate idolatry, that they must become a righteous people serving the true God.
They received a further reminder of this fact when the famous priest and scribe Ezra led a second migration from Babylon to Jerusalem fifty-seven years after the temple was completed. To his dismay, Ezra found that the people had again begun to intermarry with the Canaanites and others, once again “doing according to their abominations.” (Ezra 8:1.)
Ezra recorded: “And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonied”—amazed that backsliding could possibly have occurred during the “little space grace hath been shewed from the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, … and give us a little reviving in our bondage.” (Ezra 9:3, 8.)
At that point, a “very great congregation of men and women and children” gathered around him and likewise “wept very sore” (Ezra 10:1), and afterward made a covenant to put away the wives they had married of the people of the land, lest the temptation of idolatry come upon them again.
Ezra then brought out the book containing the Law of Moses and read it before the congregation. When they had understood the Law, they “assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them” (Neh. 9:1) and made a covenant to obey the Lord and again organized themselves under the priestly order (see Neh. 8–12).
In these acts of repentance, Judah rejected the worship of graven images and false gods and for a time became very zealous for God and his word.
In retrospect, the reading of the Law before the congregation by Ezra, the “ready scribe in the law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6), was a very important event in Jewish history. This event and the attitudes that grew out of it are considered the beginning of a new and stronger affinity for the Law of Moses and the establishment of a strong scribal tradition among the Jews. Although there is little information about this period, from either secular or scriptural sources, historians believe that the scribal tradition, in turn, brought to the Holy Land a synagogue form of worship that had its roots in the Babylonian captivity.
It appears that before the captivity, the people of Judah had been careless in keeping track of their holy writings. At times the scriptures were even lost from public knowledge, as in the days preceding King Josiah. (See 2 Kgs. 22–24.) But in the years of the captivity, the Jews engaged in a kind of “operation salvage” as their scribes began to gather, preserve, and proliferate the works of the dead prophets. The Torah (the first five books of the Bible, containing the Law of Moses) was felt to be the key to reestablishing Israel’s special relationship with the Lord; and in bringing about a reformation in the hearts of the people of Israel, Ezra and other leaders resolved that never again would the people be ignorant of the Law.
The scribes were originally educated men who made their livelihood as copyists of the scriptures. They studied the holy writings diligently—not only as a way to detect copyists’ errors, but also to understand the meaning of the scriptures. Thus, in the Holy Land the role of the scribes expanded. They became teachers of the Law, explaining its meaning and offering advice on how the details of the Law could be faithfully carried out. The titles these men took upon themselves reflected their growing prominence: lawyers, doctors, elders, and rabbis.
One important reason for the expanded role of the scribes was the shift of the language from Hebrew to Aramaic (the language of Babylon). As a result of the captivity, the Jews now spoke Aramaic, which, though a sister tongue, Aramaic was sufficiently different that it made the Hebrew of the scriptures hard to understand. Thus, Aramaic became the everyday language of the people, and Hebrew became the language of the synagogue. The scriptures came to belong to the synagogue and the scholars, not the home; and the people, who for the most part could not read the scriptures, increasingly relied upon the scholars for information and understanding.
Out of these circumstances grew the “oral tradition.” Ezra and many early scribes who followed him acknowledged certain interpretations of the Law that had come down in oral form. After Ezra’s day there arose a group of men called the Jarmain, or mishnical doctors, who made it their business to study the oral traditions. To these they added their own interpretations, and those who succeeded them in turn added more. By the time of the Lord, the major portion of the Jews had come to revere the oral tradition as highly as the written Law itself.
Over the centuries spanning the intertestamental period, much Jewish devotion was transferred from God to the Law of Moses itself. Obedience to the Law—and then to men’s interpretation of the Law became all-important, for obedience was the method by which one could bind God. Thus, the Law and its interpretations became the savior of the people.
In fact, as the importance of the Law increased, Judah’s perception of it began to change. In some scholarly writings the Law became personified, so that God could actually take counsel with it. Thus, when God said, “Let us make man …” in Genesis 1 [Gen. 1], the doctors maintained that he was in fact talking with the Law. At times the Law was seen as the daughter of God which pleaded for Israel before Jehovah’s throne—that is, it was seen to be a mediator between man and God. There were even those who said that the Torah itself, in its true primordial essence, was God. (See Encyclopedia Judaica, ed. Cecil Roth, 16 vols., Jerusalem: Cater Publishing House, Jerusalem Ltd., 1972, 5:1239–41.)
Thus, the transferal of devotion from God to the Law and its interpretations became a new kind of idolatry. Through this process, God was reduced to an impersonal abstraction and man became the center of the universe, with power to save himself through conformity to the Law. Consequently, it would be inaccurate to say that Judah wholly gave up idolatry in the Babylonian captivity. What she did abandon was image worship. But the heart and soul of Judah continued, after one brief lapse, to remain as it always was—unclear about the true nature of God, his purposes, plans, and relationship with man.
To make matters worse, in the closing years of the fourth century B.C., a new power forced itself to the forefront of world history. In 334 B.C., Alexander the Great began a war of conquest against the Persian empire that swept as far as the banks of the Indus River. Though in a few short years Alexander would be dead, the Hellenic (Greek) influence was to be felt for centuries.
With Alexander’s conquest of the little Judean state, the Jewish world pivoted westward toward the influences of the civilizations of Europe. Greek became the new language of the empire, and Hellenic culture became an almost irresistible influence in Greece’s conquered territories. Many Jews, especially in Egypt and elsewhere, but also in Palestine, accepted the Greek culture as their own. Thus, new pagan influences and challenges faced the Jewish people on a greater level than ever before.
The influence of Greek philosophy and materialism soon penetrated the upper strata of Jewish society. Even the prestigious Zadok family, which had dominated the high priest’s office, and thus controlled both temple worship and the more political Council of the Elders since the days of King David, succumbed to this pressure and abandoned part of the simple cloak of the Torah for the more elaborate garb of the Gentiles. A number of the Hellenized Jewish elite entered the very profitable ranks of Greek tax collectors. These would later be taken over by the Romans and become the Publicanii or Publicans of the New Testament. Their obvious concessions to the way of the pagan caused many of the more pious to lump them with sinners in general—an association that would endure to the time of Christ.
Wars swept over the entire East after the death of Alexander as his generals fought to gain control of his empire. In 301 B.C., Judea fell to the Ptolemies of Egypt, who governed it for a hundred years. Palestine was of major strategic importance for Egypt, serving as a buffer zone in the defense of Egypt—and as an advance base for Egyptian offensive forays. In addition, it had great economic value because of the trade routes which crossed it. Nevertheless, the rulership by the Ptolemies was one of relative stability for Judea (as long as taxes were paid), and during this period the population of Judea greatly increased.
The Seleucids, the other great Macedonian dynasty, who had firmly established themselves in Syria, were far more than indifferent to having the Ptolemies rule a country so close to their heartland. Thus, Judea remained a bone of contention between the two rival factions until 200 B.C., when the Seleucids were able to capture and hold it.
When the Seleucid, Antiochus IV, came to power in 175 B.C., the semi-tranquility of the Jews came to an abrupt end. Not only did Antiochus build a gymnasium in Jerusalem to introduce Greek philosophy, drama, and other customs, he also made an immediate attempt to destroy the religion of the Jews and impose the worship of Greek deities upon them. In 169 B.C. the temple was plundered by his order.
Two years later, in 167 B.C., Antiochus sent his troops into the Holy City on the sabbath day. Thousands of Jews were killed. Idols were set up around Jersualem and in the temple, and the people were forced to worship them. Temple worship was suspended, and sabbath observance, celebrations, and circumcision were forbidden. Finally, to the horror of the Jews, an altar to Zeus was erected in the temple courtyard, and a pig was sacrificed thereon.
These events touched off the Maccabean revolt. Instead of quietly submitting to the outrage committed against them, the people of Judea, led by the Hasmonean family, broke out in a rebellion that won them a hundred-year period of self-rule until the Roman conquest of 63 B.C.
It was at this point in history that two very important groups came to the fore: the Pharisees and the Sadducees.
The party from which the Pharisees evolved was most likely the Hasidim, a sect that promoted the observance of rituals and the study of the Torah during the time of Ezra. Many of the early Hasidim took a vow to separate themselves from the impurities of those living around them (both heathens and less zealous Jews) and to follow a more strict interpretation of the Law. Consequently, theirs was the sect most active in maintaining and enlarging the oral law in addition to the Torah as the source of their religion. In adapting the old codes to new conditions, they adopted a more figurative interpretation of the Law. They believed in a combination of free will and predestination, in angels, in spirits, in the resurrection of the dead, and in a judgment in the life to come. Their basic concern was for a person’s daily conduct, which they considered more important than temple rites. (See Encylopedia Judaica, 13:363.)
The meaning of the word Pharisee (a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Perushim) is uncertain but probably comes from the Hebrew stem parash, meaning “to be separated.” The Hasidim, who were deeply dissatisfied with the Hellenizing tendencies of the Judean leadership under the Seleucids, were already “separatists” at the time of the Maccabean revolt. But the term Pharisees was first applied to the sect under the rule of John Hyrcanus (ca. 110 B.C.) when they were expelled from the Sanhedrin. However, by the time of the Savior, the beliefs, practices, and attitudes of the Pharisees came to represent those of the vast majority of the people of Judea, who wanted to hold to what they thought were orthodox views at a time of cultural change.
While the Pharisees were primarily from the common people, the Sadducees were from the upper classes: priests, merchants, and aristocrats. The name of the sect, Zedukim in Hebrew, is most probably derived from Zadok, the high priest in the days of King David. Hence the name Sadducees refers to those who were sympathetic with the Zadokites. (See Encyclopedia Judaica, 14:622.)
The Zadokite family controlled the temple hierarchy down to the time of the Maccabean revolt. Under the Seleucids, the Zadokites were notorious Hellenizers. Therefore, they were cast aside by the Hasmonean leaders, who were determined to restore purity to Jewish culture and religious practice.
The Sadducees also thought they were holding to orthodox views. But unlike the Pharisees, the Sadducees rejected the oral law as binding except for that portion which was based strictly on the Torah. For them, the purpose of keeping the Law was for divine guidance in mortality. God’s law was to be strictly obeyed, but it was not interpreted—and enlarged—in such minute detail for them as it was for the Pharisees. No symbolic or allegorical interpretation, a favorite of the Pharisees, was allowed. Therefore, they also rejected what they felt were supernatural beliefs of the Pharisees, including the existence of angels, spirits, and the afterlife and, therefore, the resurrection. Their theology tended to bring God down to man. The worship they offered God was not unlike the homage paid to a human ruler. They also held in high esteem the sacrificial rituals of the temple.
It was in the power struggle between these two sects that the widespread adoption of formal synagogue worship can be traced. The Pharisees sought to undermine the religious authority of the Sadducees, which was based on their exclusive priestly domination of the temple. To accomplish this, the Pharisees advocated taking certain ceremonies, previously associated exclusively with the temple, and practicing them in the home. In addition, formal institutions of worship, the synagogues, were established as places for learning the Pharisaic version of doctrine. It was in this way that learned men of nonpriestly descent began to play a role in national religious affairs.
It was through the synagogue that the Pharisees strove to keep the people separate from the heathen and to bring them to the Torah and God. There they were taught exactly what they must do. In the home, on the street, in the shop and market, every movement of the pious was regulated. (See Elias Beckerman, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees, Chicago: Schocken Books Inc., 1962 pp. 160–66.) The reasoning was simple: If one is saved by obedience to the Law, then one must obey the Law perfectly in order to be perfect before God. In order to be obeyed perfectly, the Law must be defined in great detail so that there are no ambiguities. Hence the close regulation of so many details of everyday life.
By the time of the Lord, a feeling of unity between the Pharisees and the people had, for the most part, been achieved. Though they had no constitutional power, they possessed such an influence that the people supported them even against the king or the high priest. In this way, their beliefs had political force. All acts of worship, including temple sacrifices, were carried out according to their interpretation of the ordinances. Even the Sadducees, whenever they obtained office, were obliged to keep the Pharisaic codes, no matter how irksome, or else find themselves in disfavor with the people. (See Josephus, Antiquities, bk. 11, 10:6.)
In fact, all religious law was administered by a court of seventy elders presided over by a high priest and called the Sanhedrin. The majority of this court had traditionally been Pharisees. The high priest, however, being a descendent of Zadok, was a Sadducee. After the Roman conquest of Judea, the position of high priest became a political appointment. As such, the high priest had his own private court to administer civil law.
Relations with Rome date to 160 B.C., when the Roman Senate, responding to a delegation sent by the Maccabees, acknowledged that the kingdom of Judah should be independent of Syrian domination. However, it was not until after Pompey’s invasion in 63 B.C. that Rome took over administration of Judea. Hyrcanus II, of the Jewish Hasmonean family, was made high priest. A few years later, Antipater was appointed procurator of Judea. An Idumean by descent, Antipater was a Jew by religion and a Roman by citizenship.
The rule of Hyrcanus II under the grace of Rome was short-lived. Antipater was soon successful in bringing about the deposition of Hyrcanus and his house. His own son, Herod, called “the Great,” was appointed by Rome as king.
Herod was hated for many reasons, not the least of which was that he was not a Jew. As the people hated him, he in turn hated them. However, fear of an appeal to Rome kept him from being even more brutal than he was. Although his family had been converts to Judaism, he did what he could to disrupt certain aspects of the religion of the Jews. He was a great supporter of Hellenistic culture and reinstated it in Judea. In conjunction with this Hellenization, he undertook great building programs, all of which the people paid for through heavy taxes. Thus the people of Judea saw their money erect fortresses, gymnasiums, and pagan temples. To placate them, as well as to give more power and prestige to the Sadducees, who were generally his supporters, he began an elaborate expansion program on the temple mount. This building activity was still in progress in Christ’s day.
When Herod died, the Romans divided the kingdom between his three living sons. Philip ruled north and east of Galilee, Herod Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea, and Archelaus ruled Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Because of his extreme and suppressive measures, the people of Judea were successful in having Archelaus removed in A.D. 6. This area was then given to Herod Antipas to rule. In A.D. 26, Pontius Pilate was appointed Prefect of Judea with headquarters at Caesarea.
One group of Judeans favored the advent of Herod Antipas and urged the people to support his sovereignty. For this reason they were called “Herodians.” They saw his rise to power as fulfillment of certain messianic ideas then current. They preached these ideas and opposed any whom they felt might unbalance the status quo. It was this political party that joined forces with the Pharisees to oppose the Lord.
In opposition to the Herodians stood the Zealots. This party was formed in Galilee in response to heavy Roman taxation. These rebels took as a prototype Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, who was commended for his zeal in the service of the Lord. (See Num. 25:7–13.) Therefore, the Zealots, though politically motivated, were grounded in theology—the supremacy of God and the Torah over the institutions of man. They had some of the spirit of the Maccabees in their opposition to Hellenization and their desire to keep Judea free, and they were ready to resort to violence to defend their beliefs. Their initial rebellion was successfully suppressed by the Romans, after which the survivors took to the deserts where they continued to put pressure on the Romans through guerrilla tactics during the time of the Lord.
Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, Romans, Herodians, Publicans, priests, Zealots—all these factions, major and minor, were in place by the end of the intertestamental period. Though services had been interrupted, the temple rites had continued during most of that time. Priests had made the proper sacrifices on the great altar, and once a year a priest had offered incense upon the altar in the Holy Place. All had gone like clockwork—until one day a high priest tarried in the Holy Place much longer than expected. The people began to marvel and conjecture. And well they should have, for once again the veil had been lifted and heaven’s word was proclaimed. The aged Zacharias stood in the presence of an angel, who said: “Thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son. … [He] shall make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:13, 17.)
This long-desired child was to be a messenger who would go forth in the spirit and power of Elias to declare that the kingdom of God was at hand. Once more Judah would be extended the covenant and the promise. Once more the keys and power were to be proffered to her. Once more she could become the nation of Jehovah. He who came to prepare the way for the Messiah was John, Johanan—“Gift of God.”