|A short history of the bible lands|
This guide is intended for visitors who want to learn more about the Bible. It is written by a non-expert for the ordinary reader. I have tried to compress a long period of history into a manageable summary or outline.
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The Patriarchal period
Patriarchs (from the Latin term for a father) are rulers of clans or families, who hold their position (usually) by priority of birth. In reference to the Old Testament, the term normally points to four people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. The last two were not the first-born sons in their families, but achieved some kind of ascendancy by their wits. As the narratives also include important details about their spouses, they should perhaps be called "ancestors".
The stories of these ancestors are not the first thing in the Bible. It opens with creation narratives from immemorial oral tradition but written down later. There is a clear genealogy from Adam to Noah, in whose time a great flood devastated the world. The hyperbole of Genesis tells us: "every living thing died human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air " (7.22-23) Noah took his sons and their wives into the great ark in which he escaped the flood. Nevertheless his grandchildren found spouses, and their descendants' names reflect what we now know of political groupings. The idea of human sin and God's purpose runs powerfully through these narratives:
In these narratives God repeatedly chooses or elects one man to show others His purposes. He makes promises, which are renewed or repeated.
The names we meet first in Genesis are barely recognizable as those of real people, though they show touches of human character. With Abraham, this changes. He lives in a place and culture that we can identify the Euphrates valley, some time between 2,000 and 1,700 B.C. The first mention of Abraham (Genesis 11.31) tells how his father, Terah, took him from Ur to Haran. This is a journey of some seven hundred miles, which cannot have been managed very quickly, as the men took their families and pasture animals. Ur was a great city, which archaeologists have extensively excavated since the 1920s. It was built a thousand years before the time of Abraham, and was the site of the great ziggurat, a stepped pyramid-like temple that, we believe, was the centre of the cult of the Moon God, Sin. But we learn later (24.10) that Haran was near where Abraham was born Aram-naharaim, for this is where his servant goes when he is sent to the place of Abraham's birth.
God tells Abraham to leave his family and go southwest to the land of Canaan. Here he settles with his wife, Sarah, and his household. Nowadays this journey is often depicted as a great step of faith. But perhaps it was not a journey into the unknown so much as an indication of the direction for a journey Abraham would make anyway, in order to sustain his pasture animals. The notion that Abraham was making a great wrench is perhaps an anachronism arising from modern western notions of home and property. God promises Abraham that his descendants will be a "great nation" and will possess the land. At this time, he has no child, and his wife appears barren. He has a son by his slave, Hagar, but is told that this boy, Ishmael, is not to be his heir. When at last he has a son by Sarah, he is told to sacrifice the child, Isaac. He sets out to do so, but is prevented at the last moment. Abraham later makes arrangements for Isaac's marriage to his kinswoman, Rebekah.
Isaac hardly appears as a character, save in linking narratives about his father and his sons. When Isaac is old, Rebekah deceives him as she helps her younger son Jacob to cheat the elder, Esau, of his deathbed blessing. Earlier Jacob has persuaded him to exchange his birthright for a meal so in one tradition, Esau despises his birthright (leadership of the family and a double share of the inheritance), while in the other he loses it through the treachery of his mother and brother. Both stories may help account for a historic loss of prestige by the people supposedly descended from Esau (the Edomites) in relation to those descended from Jacob (Israel).
The writers of these stories were also aware that over time the Hebrews had changed from being mostly pastoral nomads to people with more permanent homes. Where land is not very productive a small population can gain a living by moving from place to place. This is still common in many parts of the world today. Where people have learned to use natural resources more productively, they are able to settle in one place. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all lived as nomads, herding sheep, which would move from one place to another, as they used up the available food.
The book of Exodus tells of how the Hebrews left Egypt for the Land of Promise. But how did they come to Egypt in the first place? In the time of Jacob evidently there were clans and family groups throughout Canaan. When Isaac sends Jacob in search of a wife, he insists that he go to his uncle Laban, and ask for the hand of one of his daughters. In fact, Jacob marries both of Laban's daughters, Leah and Rachel. But relations between Laban and Jacob are always strained by the fear of Laban's sons, that Jacob will take away their inheritance.
The later chapters of Genesis record how Jacob settled in Canaan. His many sons have the job of managing the herds from which they gain their livelihood, while Jacob lives in the "city" a small community by modern standards with perhaps some permanent buildings and walls for security.
Their way of life was always precarious, as there was no easy way to store food against future shortages. It is easier to feed sheep by grazing them. But saving a crop of grain allows the farmer to feed the animals where the grazing fails, as in a drought. In Egypt, with its very different geography, the food supply was more secure, and the transient peoples of Canaan were always likely to settle there, if the Egyptians allowed them, in times of famine. Egypt receives little rainfall, yet in ancient times was famous for its agriculture. (When the legions proclaimed Vespasian as Roman emperor in A.D. 69, his first move was to go, not to Rome, but to Alexandria in Egypt, to secure the grain supply.) This is made possible by the Nile, the world's longest river, which floods annually, though it was only in modern times that the cause of the flooding was discovered. The river rises thousands of miles to the south of Egypt in central Africa, where heavy rain falls regularly. In Egypt the river would overflow its banks, spreading fertile silt (river mud) on the surrounding land. The Egyptian people had learned how to make canals and ditches for irrigation, using the river as an almost inexhaustible water supply.
Egypt was ruled by great families, which held power for many generations. We know these as "dynasties" they are a little like the royal houses of Europe in early modern times. Some of these were more open than others to using talented foreigners to serve the state. The story of Joseph tells a strange story of how Jacob's favourite son was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, but found success in Egypt, and became an overseer of agricultural production. The story tells of how Joseph predicted a coming famine and prepared for this by saving grain in the years of plenty before it. In a way, this is simple common sense. Where there is a surplus (more than is needed for people to live) and a way to keep it, then it is prudent to be ready for any shortage. It is not surprising that the people in Canaan heard that there was food in Egypt. And it is not surprising that the Egyptians were able to ration their supply, and be able to exchange it for money, labour and even bondage into slavery.
Genesis ends with an account of how Jacob's whole family moved into Egypt, where they found security and food. The Pharaoh even invites Jacob to nominate any capable stockbreeders to tend the royal livestock.
Exodus, election and covenant
The book of Exodus records how the Hebrews left Egypt for the Land of Promise. A short linking narrative indicates the passage of some time. A new king (probably a new dynasty some scholars think it was the 19th) assumed power, whose attitude to the Hebrews was very different from that in the traditions recorded in Genesis. Seeing the Hebrews as a potential danger in their midst, the Egyptian authorities tried to reduce the risk by organizing them into gangs for forced labour, and even attempting to kill male infants (a policy frustrated by the midwives' resistance). Moses (according to Numbers 26.59) was a grandson of Levi, brought up as a foster child of the daughter of Pharaoh. After some time in voluntary exile from Egypt he returned to organize the Hebrew tribes with the support of his elder siblings, Miriam and Aaron.
At first Moses asked permission to take the Hebrews out of Egypt to worship God in the wilderness. It is not clear why this worship could not be held in Egypt perhaps simply because it would offend the Egyptians, so that Pharaoh would not allow it so close to home. Pharaoh suspected (perhaps reasonably enough) that the Hebrews would not return. As their labour had become important to the economy of Egypt, this was a risk he wished to avoid, so he refused permission.
What happened next has been dramatized into a series of episodes in which Moses and Aaron (with miraculous support) competed with Pharaoh and his priests. A natural catastrophe forced some kind of concession which was withdrawn as soon as each successive threat was lifted, culminating in a horrific plague which killed huge numbers of the Egyptians' children. Pharaoh allowed the Hebrews to leave, but pursued them with his army. At a site usually identified as the Sea of Reeds, the Hebrews crossed safely while the Egyptian forces were caught by a returning tide.
During his time of exile, Moses had lived in the wilderness (probably the Sinai peninsula). He had married a local woman, and learned the ways of the desert. To the Jews of later times, it might seem miraculous that a large group of people could survive in this environment, especially for a period of many years. But what impresses them can be seen not so much as divine interventions, as Moses' awareness of how to exploit the environment by locating water beneath a thin layer of rock, catching exhausted migrating birds or gathering the sugary secretions of scale insects to make wafers of "manna". Many of the Hebrews apparently became nostalgic for their settled life in Egypt.
The story is often seen as that of a journey from Egypt to Canaan, but this would take much less time than the account in the Mosaic books suggests weeks, or months perhaps. The traditions record a period of nomadic life in Sinai, where the Hebrews established their covenant with God, and received the law. Later, the Jewish law was written in great detail. Some accounts of the formulation of the law suggest that God gave it to Moses in this degree of detail a natural enough way for a later age to claim divine authority for later developments of the earlier tradition. Other accounts suggest, convincingly, that the law began as a brief series of commandments, which were later glossed and extended.
Where do laws come from and from where do they get their authority? In modern societies, governments sometimes state briefly a set of principles (like the US Bill of Rights) according to which they frame their laws. Sometimes they are explained by the idea of a social contract individual human beings give their assent to the laws of the state, and take part in its institutions, in return for the goods and protection it gives them. The Covenant in Exodus is essentially a set of laws, which are presented as part of a promise or "deal" between God and the people. If they keep these individual laws generally or broadly keep the whole law (seen as a collective singular entity), then they will receive certain benefits.
The tradition also tells that Moses lived to see the Promised Land, but not to enter it. This was the task of Joshua, who led the Hebrews on Moses' death.
The Israelite settlement
The settlement of Canaan is recorded in the books of Joshua and Judges. Archaeology today suggests that the Israelite settlement of the land took place in the Iron Age (1200-900 B.C.) While other historical sources suggest that this settlement took place slowly, the biblical record, composed much later than the events it describes, is of a rapid military conquest. Scholars do not all agree on how the land was settled, but three models have been suggested:
This last theory suggests that Israel developed from people already living in Canaan around 1200 B.C.
The book of Judges is a plausible account of an anarchic land, ruled in places by loose alliances, but without any central government. It shows the Israelites as those tribes that shared the covenant, whereas other peoples are distinguished by their foreign religious beliefs and practices. The title of this book is misleading the word "judge" appears in it once only, in reference to God. The characters who feature in this book are a variety of leaders and champions, including individual warriors, heads of clans and prophets perhaps what they have most in common is not being kings. Their religious attitudes vary enormously for some, like Jephthah and Samson it is little more than a sectarian loyalty to their own side. Others, like Deborah and Samson's father, Manoah, seem to have been more inspired by religious sentiments, as we might understand these today.
The narratives refer to "cities". This name indicates their status and importance to clan groups, but may mislead the modern reader about their size. Their emergence tells us about the movement of peoples into Canaan, and the possibility of settling once hostile areas, thanks to the new technology of watertight cisterns, some of which have been discovered by archaeologists.
The accounts of the departure from Egypt and the settlement of Canaan repeatedly contrast the worship of the Lord, with the worship of "strange" or foreign gods which appears as a temptation to the wandering people. Joshua's last speech warns the people how hard it is to serve a "jealous God", but they insist that they will do so. Over a very long period of time, the religion of the Hebrews, the worship of the Lord, replaced the worship of the local gods of Canaan but even in later times, some individuals reverted to the worship of these gods or idols.
Some of the details of the Canaanite religion are recorded in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings we read, for example, of gods called Baal and Dagon. We also find that Baal is an element in some personal names, but in many cases the biblical account changes the form of the name to conceal this. The cult of the Lord taught that God was different from nature, and that it was wrong to make any image of him this is one of the great commandments that Moses delivered. But the Canaanites believed in a family or clan of gods, sons of the great but remote El, often pictured as a bull. Baal was the god who controlled the weather; Yam controlled the sources of water (seas, rivers and springs), while Mot controlled the underworld of the dead. The worship of these gods was in some way very like that described in the books of Moses, and practised later in Israel and Judah. But over time the ritual became restricted to the Jerusalem priests. In Canaanite religion the sacrifices were associated with sacred prostitution and fertility myths.
When the books of the Old Testament were written down, the worship of the Lord had more or less ousted the old Canaanite practices in Israel, though they survived among neighbouring peoples and were perhaps practised unofficially. The narratives present the Canaanite religion ambiguously: in places it is an object of ridicule, but at others it remains an ever-present threat to the integrity of the faith of Israel.
The united kingdom
In studying the institutions of the past, we must beware of seeing them as essentially the same as modern day institutions in different dress and with more basic technology. In modern societies kings and queens are usually titular but not effective heads of state, while in some earlier societies monarchs had more extensive powers. The different traditions in the Bible show contrasting ideas of what kings are and whether they are good or bad for a country.
One obvious problem for the writers of the history of the kings of Israel and Judah is the commonly held belief that God rewards virtue and punishes wickedness. This can lead to two kinds of distortion. If they think of a ruler as unfaithful to God, they may represent him as less successful in his rule. If they believe that a ruler came to a bad end, they may represent him as unfaithful to God.
What is a king? In a way Saul, the first king, becomes a pattern for all subsequent monarchs. The monarchy is not (as in many states of modern Europe) hereditary but elective (though it usually stays in the family). When Saul is chosen there is no royal family. Saul is from the tribe of Benjamin, descended supposedly from Jacob's youngest son. Saul's son, Ish-bosheth or Ish-baal, briefly rules after him, but is succeeded by David. David's heir is not his eldest surviving son, but Solomon, a younger child of a favourite wife. The choice comes from God, and is revealed through his prophet, perhaps by the casting of lots.
When the prophet Samuel told Saul that he was to be the king, he also poured on his head olive oil. This action came to be an essential part of the ritual of making the king (and remains to this day in modern monarchies). "Anointed" became an epithet for a king - and this (Hebrew "Messiah" or Greek "Christos") came to be used as the title of a future ideal ruler, appointed by God.
The king combined legal or judicial and religious functions with military leadership. Saul's first task was to muster an army from the tribes of Israel and Judah, which he led against the Ammonites. In doing this, he rescued the threatened city of Jabesh-gilead. Next Saul began a struggle with the Philistines, who occupied the coastal plain. After a long period of indecisive warfare, the Philistines gathered a large army and killed Saul and his son Jonathan on Mount Gilboa. When the victors hung Saul's and his sons' bodies on the walls of their city of Beth-shan, the men of Jabesh repaid their debt to Saul, by bringing the bodies back to Israel for burial.
Samuel was a prophet. The writers of scriptural history assume that the reader knows what a prophet is. The modern reader is likely to think of someone with a special power of foreseeing and perhaps predicting the future, but this is misleading. In later biblical times, prophets would be associated with books in which their teaching was recorded. One mark of the prophet is being called by God, to exercise some special function. Moses is often described as a prophet, as is his sister, Miriam. In the books of Samuel and Kings we find a new tradition emerging. This shows how the king is the ruler, but he is bound by loyalty to the Lord, whose will is generally revealed to the prophet.
There is a clear account of how Samuel was called by God. He appoints Saul as king, and later denounces him when he acts independently of the prophet's guidance. Saul disobeys Samuel in refusing to wait for him beyond an agreed time, and offering sacrifice. Later, Saul keeps alive the Amalekite King and other prisoners whom he should have killed, according to Samuel's instructions. In due course Samuel identifies David as Saul's successor. The rest of Saul's life is presented with a sense of doom - he knows God has rejected him, he becomes the enemy of David, his one-time favourite, and he is unable to save his people from the Philistine threat. His death in battle is depicted with dignity, and is the occasion of a great lyric poem, which tradition identifies as written by David.
The narratives in the books that lead up to 1 Samuel reflect ancient traditions and contain valuable historical information, especially if we read them in the light of other historical and archaeological evidence. But in the books of Samuel we find a narrative source that appears to be an accurate eyewitness account of recent events. Marvellous and improbable occurrences give way to highly detailed psychological realism. Though David is depicted as the hero, it is a warts-and-all portrayal. It does not attempt to conceal the failings of his rule. (To see just how accurate a portrait it gives, we should compare it with that in Chronicles. Here, rulers are depicted in ideal terms. Any negative features of their reigns are edited out - with the result that the account of David's reign is far shorter than that in the two books of Samuel.)
Once David came to power his reign was well documented but the period before this is less clear. Anointed by Samuel, David gives little indication at first that he expects eventually to rule. He is a shepherd and farmer whom the king employs because of his skill as a musician. He is also credited with the killing of a Philistine champion, the giant Goliath. But 2 Samuel 21.19 states that Elhanan killed Goliath. (It is possible that Goliath was a nickname for any Philistine champion.) David served in Saul's army, becoming the close friend of the king's son, Jonathan, and marrying Saul's daughter, Michal. Later, David left Saul's service and lived as an outlaw, whom Saul pursued from time to time, without success.
Why did this happen? The account in 1 Samuel describes Saul's condition as a kind of mental illness resembling what today we call paranoia. Saul at one point says that he knows David will take the kingdom from him. He is prone to sudden acts of violence, yet is often remorseful.
As an enemy of Saul, David became an ally of the Philistine King of Gath. He was licensed to make raids on nearby Hebrew settlements, but went further afield to avoid harming his one-time friends. Though David would later fight against the Philistines to secure his territory, he saw the value of befriending them and employing many of them as advisers and soldiers.
When Saul died in battle, his son Ishbaal succeeded him in Israel, but in Judah the people anointed David as their ruler, with his capital at Hebron. Ishbaal's power really came from his general, Abner, who eventually transferred his loyalty to David, only to be murdered by David's commander, Joab (either because of a family feud or because he saw Abner as a rival for his command). Ishbaal was assassinated soon after this, and David became ruler of Israel. This brought him into conflict with the Philistines. It also meant that he needed to find a new capital as Hebron was too closely identified with Judah, and Ishbaal's capital, Gilead, was identified with Israel. Jerusalem had no such ties. It was supposedly impregnable, but Joab made a daring assault via the water shaft, and the city fell.
David established friendly relations with the neighbouring kingdom of Tyre, but subdued the states of Moab and Ammon. The Philistines now saw David as an enemy. Where they had invaded Israel under Saul, David drive them back to their own territory in the coastal plain. A second campaign against Ammon led to the start of domestic troubles that followed David to his grave.
These began when David saw a woman, Bathsheba, bathing, and brought her to his house, where he seduced her. When she became pregnant, he arranged first for her husband, Uriah, who was fighting against Ammon, to return home, hoping he would sleep with her (so he would not suspect anything was amiss with her pregnancy). But Uriah refused to go to his house while other soldiers remained in the field, so David arranged with Joab for him to be killed in battle. When this happened, David married Bathsheba (he already had several wives). Their first child lived only a few hours but Bathsheba later became the mother of Solomon.
Amnon, David's eldest son, raped his half-sister, Tamar. Her full brother, Absalom, waited two years, then avenged Tamar, by killing Amnon. Absalom went into temporary exile, but was brought back to the court through the mediation of Joab. When Absalom later rebelled, David was forced to leave the city for his own safety. With the help of David's Philistine mercenaries, Joab, with his brother Abishai and Ittai of Gath, faced Absalom's forces in the forest of Ephraim. The rebels were routed and Absalom killed.
As the kingdom seemed unsettled, David sought the approval of Judah by promoting a new commander, Amasa, over Joab's head. But when a fresh revolt broke out, led by Sheba, Amasa proved unequal to the crisis - so Joab killed him, before killing Sheba and quelling the revolt.
In his old age, David took steps to secure the succession. At some point he had promised that Solomon should succeed him, or so Bathsheba claimed. Solomon had the support of Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet and a young commander called Benaiah. David gave instructions for Solomon to be proclaimed king.
On the death of his father, the first thing Solomon did was to secure his position. Other sons of David might have some claim to the throne. But the three eldest (Amnon, Chileab and Absalom) all were dead, leaving only Adonijah as a serious rival to Solomon. Abiathar, a priest who had supported Adonijah, was exiled outside Jerusalem (some scholars think Abiathar may have written the books of Samuel at this time). But Adonijah and his supporter Joab were killed.
The account of Solomon's reign is less detailed than that of David. Instead of a continuous narrative we have a series of episodes and anecdotes. David was idealized as a model king by later generations. Solomon could not match this but his reputation for wisdom was exaggerated into an ideal. Just as David was reputed to be the composer of all great music, so Solomon was seen as the source of all wise sayings, like those in the book of Proverbs. 1 Kings contains an account of Solomon's asking God for great wisdom rather than riches, and it supports this with stories designed to show that God granted the request. The most celebrated explains how Solomon identified the true mother of a disputed child from two claimants.
David had expanded the territory of Israel and Judah, but Solomon increased it further. How did he do this? He did so partly by marriage alliances, partly by trade and partly by military power. Solomon built up a large army and equipped it with horses and chariots. He also had a large fleet of ships built for foreign trade. He even presided over the development of industrial methods for refining copper.
Solomon's military strength and his extensive trade made neighbouring countries keener to do business with him than fight. The visit of the Queen of the South (popularly known as the Queen of Sheba) may have been typical of other contacts. David organized a system of forced labour, which was unpopular, even though some of the things he used it for may have been commendable. Apart from his wisdom he was celebrated later as the builder of the first temple. 1 Kings records its exact dimensions. To modern readers it may seem a quite modest size, but it would have seemed impressive to people who knew only small houses or tents. (Later, in the first century B.C. Herod the Great would build the second temple on a far larger scale; the terrace where this stood remains to the present day.)
The divided state
David's uniting of Judah and Israel may have been popular, but the narratives in the books of Samuel show how David was alert to the dangers of favouritism and tried to appoint able men from all areas of his domains as well as neighbouring territory. In Solomon's time, the service of the state became more highly organized and bureaucratic. Solomon's many foreign alliances led him to take wives from the surrounding nations, under whose influence he promoted the worship of their gods. One of the most able officials whom Solomon employed in this service was Jeroboam, son of Nebat, who was put in charge of all the forced labour. The prophet Ahijah told Jeroboam that because of Solomon's faithlessness God would leave only Judah and Benjamin for Solomon and his heirs, but would make Jeroboam leader of the ten tribes of Israel in the north. Evidently Solomon heard of this, as he tried to have Jeroboam killed.
Jeroboam stayed in exile in Egypt until Solomon's death, and the accession of his son, Rehoboam. Now Jeroboam returned, to lead a delegation of Israelites who asked for the work to be made lighter. (As the former head of the forced labour, Jeroboam would have a good understanding of what was involved.) Apparently Rehoboam had retained his father's counsellors, but appointed younger advisers of his own. The first group suggested conciliation, but the young men advised Rehoboam to threaten even more severe treatment than in Solomon's time. The Israelite delegation replied with defiance, and when Rehoboam sent his taskmaster, Adoram, to discipline them, they stoned him to death. Jeroboam seized power in Israel, and Rehoboam was left with Judah and its capital Jerusalem. But his position was weakened, and when Shisak, the Egyptian ruler besieged Jerusalem, Rehoboam had to buy him off with some of the treasures his father had put in the temple.
Jeroboam set up his capital in Shechem. In order to give his people an alternative place of worship to Jerusalem, he created two royal sanctuaries at Dan (in the north) and Shechem (in the south) of his kingdom. In each he set up a golden calf. His intention was to represent the Lord, but these images resembled the symbol of Baal. And the Law forbade all images. The prophets had supported Jeroboam, but now turned against him. On his death, his son Nadab succeeded him.
On the death of Rehoboam of Judah, his son Abijam came to the throne. His reign was unremarkable, and he was succeeded by Asa. Nadab reigned for a year in Israel but was killed by a rebel, Baasha who seized the throne, which he passed on to his son Elah. In due course, Elah fell to another rebellion led by Zimri. Zimri held power for a mere seven days before he was defeated in battle by Omri. Omri contested the throne with Tibni, eventually gaining supremacy.
Asa reigned for forty-one years in Judah, and did much to suppress the Canaanite religion. He carried on a long-running war with Baasha of Israel. Using gold from the Jerusalem temple, he bribed Ben-Hadad, king of Syria to support him against Israel, which lost territory in the war.
Omri was a far more able ruler than his immediate predecessors, and he is the first of whom we can find records outside the biblical tradition. Some time between Jeroboam and Baasha, the capital had moved to Tirzah. Omri built a new capital and called it Samaria. He encouraged trade, reformed the army and reconquered lost territory. Omri made peace with Judah, and arranged for his son, Ahab, to marry Jezebel. She was a Phoenician princess, the daughter of Ethbaal, king of Tyre. This triple alliance helped Omri secure Israel against the threat of Syria.
Omri is condemned in the Bible because he did not suppress idolatry. Ahab is condemned even more harshly for encouraging it. Ahab erected great buildings in Samaria. For much of his reign he made war on Aram-Damascus (Syria), but later allied himself with Syria against Assyria. Eventually he fell in battle against the Arameans, at Ramoth-Gilead.
The reign of Ahab coincides with the activity of one of the greatest of Israel's prophets, Elijah. The Bible account dramatizes this into an intense personal conflict between the prophet and Ahab's consort, Jezebel. (It is hard to recover a clear account of this episode because Jezebel has become almost a byword for wickedness.) Ahab appears in these narratives as a rather weak character, more or less dominated by his scheming wife. Jezebel's greatest crime is her worship of Baal, but she is also depicted as murderous and blasphemous.
One narrative tells how she secured the vineyard of Naboth for Ahab. The king tried to buy this, but Naboth would not sell his ancestral possession. Jezebel's response was to have Naboth falsely accused of blasphemy (cursing God) and stoned to death, leaving the way open for Ahab to take possession of Naboth's inheritance.
Earlier, in a contest on Mount Carmel, Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal, whom his followers slaughtered. At once Elijah was forced to flee from Jezebel's avenging forces. Elijah avoided capture and later appointed Elisha as his follower. There is a strange narrative in 2 Kings, according to which Elijah did not die but was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.
In the stories associated with Elijah, we see a powerful and uncompromising solitary figure. He follows what he believes to be God's instructions with complete obedience, yet he frequently despairs of his own situation. Elisha, who follows him, is a very different kind of prophet, evidently the leader of a community. Elijah performs few miracles, and those recorded may be spectacular, but are never for show alone. The miracles recorded of Elisha are far more numerous. They seem much more like demonstrations of power, and some of them seem trivial (making a lost axe head float) or unedifying (cursing children so that a she-bear attacks them). In many of these stories, Elisha is in the company of the king and the army.
In Judah, the long reign (25 years) of Asa's successor Jehoshaphat was followed by that of Jehoram. His wife, Athaliah, was Ahab's daughter. On Jehoram's death, his son, Ahaziah ruled. When Ahaziah died, the Queen Mother, Athaliah, seized power and had all claimants to the throne executed. But one child, Jehoash (also known as Joash), youngest son of Ahaziah escaped this purge. He was secretly brought up by the priests, and became king, when Athaliah was killed in a rebellion.
In Israel, when Ahab died, his son Ahaziah (not the same person as Ahaziah of Judah) came to the throne. His short reign ended with an accident (he fell through a lattice) and his son, Jehoram, succeeded him. (Confusingly Jehoram of Judah and Jehoram of Israel ruled at the same time.)
Elijah had foretold that Ahab's dynasty would be wiped out (he predicted a bloody end for Jezebel). His successor, Elisha, anointed Jehu as king. Jehu killed Jehoram and Jezebel, and proceeded to kill all of the descendants of Ahab. By pretending to be a sympathiser, he gathered all the prophets of Baal into their temple, where his guards slaughtered them.
Jehu's dynasty lasted for more than ninety years. He paid tribute to the powerful Assyrian ruler, Shalmaneser III (858-824 B.C.) for support against the Arameans. He ruled for 28 years and was succeeded by Jehoahaz. Jehoahaz is condemned for tolerating idolatry, as was his son, Jehoash, who ruled after him.
After Jehoash came his son, Jeroboam II (786-746 B.C.). He expanded the boundaries of his kingdom so they were almost as they had been under David. At the same time, his long and prosperous reign saw the development of a society in which a small wealthy elite oppressed and exploited the poor majority. For this the prophets Amos and Hosea condemned their country.
Jehoash of Judah was largely guided by the priests, led by Jehoiada, who had brought him up. He set up a fund for repairs to the temple. But his reign was ended by a conspiracy headed by his officials, who installed his son, Amaziah, on the throne. Once his position was secure, Amaziah had his father's killers put to death. But he, too, fell to a conspiracy, leaving the throne to his son, Azariah (783-742 B.C.), who is better known by his other name of Uzziah.
Uzziah's long reign was stable and prosperous. Israel and Judah enjoyed peaceful relations, and external threats were less than they had been or would be for years. Uzziah strengthened the walls of Jerusalem and its other fortifications, while expanding Judah's territory. In the latter part of his reign, his son Jotham became regent, as Uzziah suffered from leprosy, and was forced to live in quarantine.
The stability Jeroboam brought to Israel did not survive him. His son, Zechariah, lasted only six months before falling to a coup, led by Shallum. The usurper did not prosper, but was killed, within a month, by Menahem, who ruled for ten years, and was succeeded by his son, Pekahiah. Within two years he had fallen to the similarly named Pekah, a commander in Pekahiah's army. Pekah ruled for a little longer (though probably not for the twenty years recorded in 2 Kings 15.27) before falling to yet another plot, led by Hoshea, who was to be the last king of Israel.
In the reign of Jotham, Judah was attacked by Syria and Israel. On Jotham's death, his son, Ahaz, became king. Ahaz is condemned for idolatry and possibly child sacrifice.
Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 B.C.) was a king of Assyria, also known as Pul in 2 Kings. He set out to conquer the lands around Assyria. Pekah of Israel joined forces with the Syrian king of Damascus, Rezin, to oppose Pul. When they tried to force Judah into their coalition, Ahaz appealed to the Assyrians for help, paying tribute to Pul. Assyria conquered Syria and reduced Israel to vassalage. Under the later rulers Shalmaneser V and Sargon II, Samaria was besieged, taken and its people deported. Samaria became an Assyrian province.
Hezekiah and his age
The accounts in the Bible of the reigns of particular kings vary greatly in length and detail. There is a framework which sets the chronology of each reign into a context, relating Judah to Israel and vice versa, and identifying official books of records, now lost to us. But at many points there are collections of narratives, and sometimes accounts that read like first-hand testimony. The reign of Hezekiah is one about which we possess quite a lot of information. The account in 2 Kings is supplemented by lots of information in the book of the prophet Isaiah.
Hezekiah was the son of Ahaz, but very different in his conduct. The writers of the biblical account praise him, for his faithfulness to the cult of the Lord. He abolished the "high places" - the local places of worship, and made the Jerusalem temple the exclusive centre for the worship of the Lord. He also purified the temple.
During the reign of Sargon II, Hezekiah continued to accept Judah's vassal status. But when Sargon died, he revolted against Assyria. To defend the city more effectively, he had a tunnel dug for some 1,750 feet, to bring the water supply from the Gihon spring into the city. (Tradition told how Joab had used the old water shaft, in David's time, to capture Jerusalem.) Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.), Sargon's successor, invaded. Capturing city after city, he eventually surrounded Jerusalem. Hezekiah surrendered, and paid a large tribute to buy the city's safety.
Hezekiah's son, Manasseh (687-642 B.C.), whose long reign began when he was twelve, succeeded him on the throne of Judah. Manasseh reversed the reforms his father had made, re-establishing the high places, making altars for Baal and images of other gods. Assyria reached the peak of its power at this time, with Judah as a vassal state. After Manasseh came his son, Amon, who continued his father's idol-worship, and fell victim to a plot.
Amon's heir, Josiah (639-609 B.C.), came to the throne as a boy of eight. He began a restoration of the Jerusalem temple. While the work was going on, the workmen discovered a scroll identified in 2 Kings as "the book of the Law". It is possible that Hilkiah, the high priest, knew about this book and produced it at this convenient time. Josiah took advice from a prophetess, Huldah, and introduced a series of religious reforms. The book was read in public, the high places were defiled, and the people celebrated a great Passover feast. Josiah was killed while fighting at Megiddo against the Egyptian army of Pharaoh Neco.
By now, Assyrian power was waning in the face of the emerging power of the Medes and Babylonians. In 612 B.C., the Assyrian capital Nineveh fell to the Babylonians. Josiah's son, Jehoahaz, succeeded him briefly, but after three months was deposed by Neco, who placed on the throne his brother, Eliakim, whose name Neco changed to Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.), while Jehoahaz went into exile and died. Jehoiakim reigned for eleven years. At first he paid tribute to Egypt, but in 605 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon defeated Neco at Carcemish and Judah became a vassal of the Babylonians. When Jehoiakim died, his son, Jehoiachin reigned for three months, before Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem. He exiled the king to Babylon, and replaced him with his uncle Mattaniah, another of Josiah's sons, changing his name to Zedekiah (597-587 B.C.). After nine years of vassalage, Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar crushed the rebellion, destroyed much of Jerusalem, and deported many of its inhabitants. Zedekiah was blinded and taken to Babylon, where he died in prison. Jehoiachin, his nephew, was later released from his captivity by Evil-merodach, who reigned in Babylon after Nebuchadnezzar.
Babylon and exile
The exile in Babylon lasted from 586 to 539 B.C. Many of the people of Judah remained in the land, but its leading citizens were in exile, and the institutions of the state suppressed. Neighbouring peoples sacked the land. In Babylon, the exiles prospered, and were granted freedom of religious worship.
The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel had both pronounced menacing judgements on Judah before Jerusalem fell. After this happened, they gave oracles of hope, looking forward to a new exodus. In 539 B.C. Cyrus led the Persian army to victory over Babylon, at Opis on the river Tigris. Cyrus was even more tolerant and enlightened than the Babylonians had been. He gave the Jews in Babylon permission to return to Judah. Many of them, however, were reluctant to go - Judah was largely in ruins, while Babylon had a thriving economy. Cyrus also gave Judah some freedom to run its own affairs.
After the exile
The end of the period of exile did not mean a full restoration of independence or sovereignty (the political right of self-determination). What had once been Israel and Judah were now parts of a larger empire. Over the coming centuries they would find their masters changing, as different empires rose and fell. And the Bible has no continuous record of this history. On the other hand, these later periods are recorded in other historical sources, including some of the books known as Apocrypha. These are books which have been included in some versions of the Bible, but which are now thought not to belong to its official text (although some Christian churches dispute this and still include them).
The main sources for information about this period are the books of the scribes Ezra and Nehemiah. The original narratives have become confused, and it is not clear whether Ezra comes before Nehemiah, in the reign of Artaxerxes I or after him, in the reign of Artaxerxes II.
The first group to return from Babylon came (about 538 B.C.) under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, whom Cyrus had appointed as governor in Judah. This group began to restore the temple. Around 520 B.C. on the accession of the Persian emperor Darius I (521-425 B.C.) Zerubbabel, governor of Judah, and Jeshua, the high priest led another returning group. Encouraged by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, this group completed the restoration about 515 B.C. The people who had been left behind and had settled around Samaria offered to help. These are the forebears of the people we encounter in the New Testament as "Samaritans". Zerubbabel rejected this help - the returning group believed that the Samaritans had somehow compromised their faith. This split was widened when the Samaritans, excluded from worship in Jerusalem, built an alternative temple on Mount Gerizim, near Shechem.
In the time of Artaxerxes I, Ezra led another returning group, which re-established the Mosaic Law and excluded foreigners from Jerusalem. (It is possible that this return happened later, in the reign of Artaxerxes II.) Ezra was opposed to mixed marriages and forced many Jews to separate from gentile partners. Ezra returned from Babylonia, now under Persian rule, but Nehemiah came from Susa, the winter residence of the Persian rulers, where he served as cupbearer (butler or wine-taster) to Artaxerxes. Evidently news travelled freely between Persia and Jerusalem, and Nehemiah had learned that the city was in a bad state. Its walls were broken, its gates had been burned, and the people knew they were in danger. Nehemiah was twice given permission by Artaxerxes to visit Jerusalem and oversee the rebuilding of the city walls. The people were organized into gangs, according to their usual occupations, and the restored walls were dedicated in 443 B.C. Nehemiah later led a returning group in the time of Artaxerxes II.
The Greek period
The Babylonian exile marks the end of Israel and Judah as states that could in any way be thought of as sovereign and independent. The early, Deuteronomic, history is sacred history - the record shows the activity and self-revelation of God. The later history is more of a chronicle, and in parts the record is slight, though for some rulers we have far more evidence. But the exile marks a point where Jews codify and explain their religion, producing, eventually, a kind of canon or set of holy books - the Hebrew Bible, which is similar to the Old Testament, in the Christian canon of scripture.
Once this process of editing and revising is more or less complete, it becomes difficult for new writing to enter the canon - though in some cases, we see this happen because a book is given a setting at a time long before it was written. (This may have happened with the book of Daniel.)
One result of this is that the history of Israel, from the Babylonian exile to New Testament times, cannot be found in a clear and continuous record or narrative in the Bible. On the other hand, there are many parts of scripture that contain valuable historical information. And perhaps fortunately, this is a period, which is well documented in historical records from outside of scripture. Some of the best information comes in a series of books which are found in some, but not most, editions of the Bible - the Apocryphal or disputed books. In spite of all this, we have a gap of some hundreds of years (from 400 to 167 B.C.) in the record of the people living in the Bible lands.
Greece, in the ancient classical world, was not a single unified state or country. It was a collection of more or less independent city-states, which might form short-live alliances or tyrannize over their neighbours and found colonies abroad. What unity is has comes from a shared language and (to a limited extent) culture. The expansion of the Persian Empire changed this. Persian armies and navies attacked mainland Greece in the 5th century B.C. Despite their superior numbers and reputation, the Greeks defeated them on land, at Marathon (490 B.C.) and at sea, at Salamis (480 B.C.)
For another century and a half Greece and Persia fought against each other so that they came to be seen as natural enemies. In 334 B.C., Alexander, king of Macedon (a Greek state), led an expedition against the Persians in Tyre. Victorious here, he pressed on and in battle after battle he defeated the Persians, liberated Egypt and in less than ten years created a vast empire, earning the name Alexander the Great. His relatively small army could not hold down such an empire by force alone - evidently many of his subjects welcomed their new master. But in the conquered territories Alexander would build new cities with Greek architecture, and spread Greek customs and culture. On Alexander's death, when he was just 33, his vast empire soon lost its more remote conquests, which still left a huge area for his heirs to fight over. In the Bible lands, two dynasties fought for supremacy - these were the Seleucids, with their capital, Antioch, in Syria and the Egyptian Ptolemies with their capital in Alexandria (founded by, and named for, Alexander). Their political aims were different from Alexander's perhaps, but they too sustained the use of Greek as a common language, so that this became the universal tongue in the Mediterranean world for many centuries.
The Seleucids and the Hasmoneans
To secular historians, the Ptolemies (named after Alexander's general, Ptolemy I) are very interesting - later their dynasty would produce the notorious Cleopatra (one of many with this name). At first, they claimed control of Palestine. The Seleucids were named for Seleucus, another general of Alexander. In 198 B.C. Seleucus's heir defeated the Ptolemies at Panias. As rulers, the Seleucids tried to spread the customs and culture of Greece. ("Greece" is of course, the English name - the country is called Hellas in its own language, and its people Hellenes; the culture is known as Hellenic, and spreading the culture and language is Hellenizing. These terms are useful as they include peoples, like the later Seleucids, not strictly Greek but sympathetic to their way of life.)
In the period of Persian rule, what had been Israel and Judah were in what was called the Province beyond the River. Under the Seleucids this area passed from Egypt to Syria - in effect shifting the border between these great rival states.
History sometimes simplifies an account of conquest, so that it appears that the conquered people all share a common attitude (acceptance, resistance, sabotage) to the victor. It was not so with the Seleucids in Palestine. Like the Persians before them and the Romans later, the Seleucids promoted religious tolerance. They revived the old idol worship, in order to identify the Baals with the gods of the Greek pantheon. They built new cities, with new names, on old sites, and introduced sports in the gymnasium and hippodrome. They taught philosophy and spoke in the Greek language. Not without reason, the Seleucids saw themselves as "benefactors" of Palestine.
These policies divided the people into two opposing camps, with a small and detached group between them. Many people, especially among the priestly and ruling families, welcomed the modernizing tendencies of their rulers. Another group was more conservative and rejected the new styles of dress and tolerance of idols.
Antiochus IV went further than his predecessors in attempting to Hellenize the Jews. He desecrated the temple by setting up an altar to Zeus, king of the Greek gods. Later he commanded Jews to offer pagan sacrifices. Matthias, son of Asamonaeus, was a priest who in 167 B.C. revolted against Antiochus, killing his commander, Bacchides. When Matthias died, the third of his five sons, Judas, took over the leadership of the rebellion. Judas is known by his nickname of Maccabeus, which probably means "hammer", but his family came to be known, after his grandfather, as the Hasmonaeans. In 164 B.C. Judas liberated Jerusalem, purified and rededicated it, establishing the festival known today as Hanukkah. Judas was killed in battle against Antiochus's son, and succeeded by his brother, Jonathan (160-143 B.C.) who in 152 B.C. usurped the high priesthood. Another of Matthias's sons followed Jonathan. This was Simon (143-134 B.C.) who eventually defeated the Seleucid ruler, and liberated Judaea from foreign rule.
Simon was assassinated by his son-in-law, Ptolemy, and succeeded by his son, John Hyrcanus (134-104 B.C.) both as ruler and high priest. Hyrcanus extended the territory of Jewish rule, and was succeeded by his son, Aristobulus I (104-103 B.C.) who took the title of king, and whose short reign ended in illness. Next to rule was his brother, Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.) who campaigned against the Arabians and Syrians.
The origins of the groups known as Pharisees and Sadducees lie in this period. The Pharisees (whose name may mean "separated") were a lay group (not related to the priesthood). They believed both in the written law, and in the oral traditions that had grown up around it - such as belief in a resurrection, angels and a coming Messiah. The Sadducees may be named after the priest, Zadok, who lived in the time of David and Solomon. They were descendants of the ruling priestly party, conservatives and aristocrats. They supported the Hasmonaeans but were also sympathetic to Hellenic culture. They did not share the Pharisees' belief in the oral traditions.
Alexander reigned for a long time and expanded his kingdom so that it more or less matched the territory over which David ruled. He disliked the Pharisees, and persecuted them. On his death, his widow Salome Alexandra (76-69 B.C.) became ruler, making her son, Hyrcanus II, high priest. Alexandra favoured the Pharisees. When her younger son, Aristobulus (69-63 B.C.) seized power, forcing Hyrcanus to abdicate in his favour, Alexandra attempted retaliation, but died in the same year.
Aristobulus and his two sons, Antigonus and Alexander, made the mistake of opposing the Roman general Pompey, who sent them to Rome, though Alexander soon escaped. His father and brother soon followed, but Pompey and his followers had Aristobulus and Alexander put to death, leaving Antigonus and his uncle, Hyrcanus, as rivals for power.
In 63 B.C. Pompey captured Jerusalem, destroying the city's walls, and establishing Hyrcanus as high priest. Pompey made Judaea (the former Judah) part of the Roman province of Syria (named for, but more extensive than the former state of this name, or the modern Syria).
Herod the Great and his age
Among the most powerful of Hyrcanus's allies was Antipater, an Idumaean (loosely synonymous with the ancient Edomite people). After Pompey's death, Antipater became a loyal supporter of Julius Caesar. In 47 B.C. Caesar made Antipater procurator of Judaea (a rank below that of the legate who ruled the whole province of Syria), while his son, Herod, became governor of Galilee. Antipater's eldest son, Phasael, became governor of Jerusalem.
An enemy, Malichus, killed Antipater, and in 40 B.C. Herod was appointed king of the Jews by the Roman senate, though effectively left to conquer his own kingdom. Though Herod had supported Cassius and Brutus, the enemies of Julius Caesar, he soon reconciled himself to the victors in the civil war that followed Caesar's death - Octavian who took the title "Augustus" and Mark Antony.
Antigonus still tried to unseat Hyrcanus, whom Herod supported. But this was an uneasy relationship, and at one point Hyrcanus had Herod tried for excessive exercise of power. With support from the Parthian kingdom, Antigonus captured Hyrcanus and mutilated him (biting his ears) so that he could not resume the priesthood, which demanded that holders of the office be physically perfect. Over several years, Herod defeated Antigonus's forces, though Herod's brother, Phasael, took his own life to avoid torture when he faced capture by Antigonus.
In 37 B.C. Herod defeated Pappus, Antigonus's general, at Samaria, and captured Jerusalem. Augustus rewarded Herod by establishing him as king and extending his territory. Antigonus was sent to Rome, where he was beheaded. Herod, known to history as Herod the Great, ruled from 37 to 4 B.C. Technically he was a Jew. But his subjects, many of whom despised him, regarded him as a foreigner. He was a loyal supporter of Rome, an enthusiast for the Hellenic culture and a very able leader both in the political and military senses. His reign was a prosperous one, and he enriched his domains through an ambitious programme of what we now call property development, from individual buildings to new towns or civil engineering projects. The most celebrated of these was the new temple in Jerusalem, begun in 20 B.C. and dedicated ten years later. The terrace where the temple stood survives to this day, and shows the massive scale of the construction, compared to the modest dimensions of Solomon's first temple.
Elsewhere in Jerusalem, Herod built a palace, and three towers, named for his brother, Phasael, his wife, Mariamme, and his friend, Hippicus. Recognizing their value for internal security, he built fortresses throughout his domains, including the Alexandrium (north of Jericho), the Machaerus and Masada, east and west of the Dead Sea, respectively, and the Herodion, southeast of Jerusalem, which is believed to be his burial place.
Once Herod was established on the throne, he soon made himself secure. His polygamy and the number of his children complicated his family life. As in Solomon's reign, the would-be heirs tried to secure their inheritance while their father lived, with help from other relations.
Herod's first wife was Doris, a commoner, by whom he had his first son, Antipater. When he became king, he married Mariamme, Alexander's daughter, and separated from Doris. As Hyrcanus's granddaughter, Mariamme gave her husband some claim to legitimate rule.
By Mariamme, Herod had two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus. His sister Salome told Herod that her husband, Joseph, had committed adultery with Mariamme. Herod had both executed. Slander of Mariamme's sons led Herod to make Antipater his heir. Alexander was accused of trying to poison his father, and tried before Caesar, who acquitted him and ordered Herod to be reconciled to his sons. Antipater instigated a conspiracy against his half-brothers, who were found guilty of plotting against Herod, by whose orders they were strangled. Subsequently, Antipater, too, was found guilty of treason. Herod fell ill, and rumours of his imminent death led the followers of two nationalist rabbis (Judas and Matthias) to try to remove a golden statue from the temple, where Herod, in defiance of the Jewish law, had had it placed. The ringleaders were arrested and burnt alive. Herod ordered Antipater's execution, and five days later he died (March, 4 B.C.). Herod had changed his will many times. The final version named as heir Archelaus and Antipas (Herod's sons by Malthace) and Philip (one of his sons by Cleopatra).
The Gospel period
Jesus was born in the reign of Herod the Great, probably about 6 B.C. (There is a simple explanation of the apparent impossibility of this date. It was not until modern times that a single system of dates became accepted in the developed world. It would have been possible, in theory, to reset the calendar so that the first year of the Christian era was identified as that in which Jesus was born. But this would have meant discarding many already familiar dates, and there was no consensus anyway of the exact year of Jesus' birth. So the more pragmatic solution was to accept a dating system which gave the best fit to existing historical records, while allowing the possibility that Jesus birth would be identified as happening before or after the start of the era - and modern scholarship places it some 5 or 6 years before. Of course there are other systems of dating, so Jews and followers of Islam have their own starting points, which correspond to dates in the A.D.-B.C. system. Because this system is used as the global standard for all sorts of purposes it is often designated, not in terms of B.C. ("before Christ") and A.D. (Anno Domini - "year of the lord") but as B.C.E. ("before Common Era") and C.E. ("Common Era").
The New Testament gives plenty of information about the government of Palestine, in terms of the various administrative districts within the Roman imperial province of Syria. While most writers tell their story within a local perspective, Luke is more aware of the wider concerns of Rome.
Herod's heirs shared their father's kingdom, but their territory changed over time, until the later Jewish War led to direct Roman rule. Their titles are basically descriptive, in Greek, of their status.
Archelaus (4 B.C.-A.D. 6) was designated ethnarch ("ruler of a people") over Judaea, Idumaea and Samaria (the southern part of Herod's kingdom). He was deposed for brutality and his domains came under direct Roman rule by a procurator. The first of these (A.D. 6-8) was Coponius, and the most celebrated, Pontius Pilate (A.D. 26-36).
Many of the sons of Herod the Great were also called Herod. Historians use their other names to distinguish them (as they do elsewhere by numbering and/or naming kings and queens). In the gospels the writer does not always make this distinction. The name "Herod" most commonly refers to Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee (north of Archelaus's territory) and Perea (to the northeast of it). He ruled as tetrarch ("ruler of a fourth part" - but this is very approximate: boundaries and calculations of land area were not exact, though population and revenue could be measured more closely). John the Baptist criticized Herod for his marriage to Herodias, a blood relation, and was put to death at Herodias's request and by Herod's orders.
Philip (4 B.C.-A.D. 34) was tetrarch of Batanea, Trachonitis and Auranitis, east of Galilee. But this tetrarchy covered a smaller territory than that of Herod Antipas. Philip was more stable than his half brothers and reigned for longer. He rebuilt the old city of Paneas and named it Caesarea Philippi (honouring the emperor and himself). This city is mentioned several times in the gospels and is not to be confused with the coastal town of Caesarea.
On the death of Herod the Great, Jerusalem became a Roman province, administered by procurators, including Pontius Pilate.
The gospels give much broadly accurate historical information, but are not to be read as historical biographies in the modern sense - they concentrate on what their authors thought important. So it is possible to identify the locations of Jesus' activity, but perhaps not to reconstruct an exact record of his movements. Some of the narratives tell us about Jesus' birth and boyhood - they may record ancient traditions but have a legendary character that is not found in the rest of the gospels. Even where these record miracles, the accounts are sober, dignified and understated.
Jesus' public activity began around A.D. 26, in Lower Galilee. Some time in the next three years (perhaps he had visited the city already) he moved to Jerusalem in the south, where he was crucified about A.D. 30. At the insistence of the ruling Priestly class of Sadducees, Pontius Pilate reluctantly authorized the execution.
After the Resurrection
The gospels tell a story which takes place in Palestine. There are passages that show the writers' awareness of the wider world, in references to Rome or to the Magi (wise men or astrologer kings) who attended Jesus' birth in Matthew's account. The rest of the books of the New Testament look more clearly at this wider perspective, both in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles, and in the letters written by St. Paul and other leaders of the infant church.
Christianity began as a sect within Judaism. Some (not all) Jews, especially among the Pharisees, had for long cherished the hope that a special priest king, anointed by God, would come to rule them. In modern usage the name "Messiah" is ambiguous, but even in the early days of the church it carried different shades of meaning. The name "Christ" is a literal Greek translation of the Hebrew "Messiah" - both mean "anointed (with oil)". In the narratives of Samuel and Kings, the anointing (usually by a prophet) with oil is the way a new king is appointed.
To a subject people the hope that such a Messiah would appear was bound up with their hopes for political and religious autonomy, and the coming of a new golden age. For some, this would be like the former reign of David. In the 6th century B.C. the prophets Haggai and Zechariah had looked to Zerubbabel to fulfil expectations of a Messianic age. In his own lifetime Jesus had been identified with the Messiah of popular expectation. He had partly accepted the designation, but radically corrected it. He would not be a political Messiah, overthrowing Rome, but would bring in a different kind of kingdom. Those in this kingdom would have to be changed inwardly, in their relation to God and to their fellow men. After the Resurrection Jesus' followers began to create such a society, but did so within the existing traditions of Judaism. Over time, they came to see that the new society was to be a universal one, for all people in the known world. So the New Testament books which present this process, Acts and the various letters, tell a story which moves from Palestine to the limits of the known world.
In his lifetime Jesus had met opposition, so bitter that his enemies contrived his death. They might have supposed that in doing this they had suppressed the dangerous heresy that Jesus promoted. Immediately after the crucifixion, Jesus' tomb was discovered to be empty, while his followers became convinced that he had appeared to them. After a period of several weeks, these appearances came to an end with the event that is now known as the Ascension.
Shortly afterwards the disciples began to preach their story of Jesus' death and resurrection. At first this was an oral account, but in time it would be preserved in the four written records of the gospels. The Jewish establishment responded with threats, which led, in time, to an organized persecution. One of the leaders of this was Saul (later Paul) a Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, a province of Asia Minor. One consequence, certainly not intended by the persecutors, was that the adherents of the new sect were scattered throughout Palestine and neighbouring territories, where they spread the gospel more widely. The Acts of the Apostles is a detailed account of the origins and growth of what would soon be the Christian Church. Its author was Luke, a doctor and follower of Paul who was present in many of the situations the book depicts. (As author he signals this by switching to a first-person narrative voice, using the pronoun "we".)
Saul was a devout Jew, who saw the Christian or Nazarene movement as a threat to the central truths of Judaism. It might also bring trouble with the ruling Roman power, so it must be suppressed with as much vigour as possible. Among the first victims of the persecution was Stephen, one of the seven leaders or "deacons" of the Jerusalem church. Having been a witness of Stephen's execution, Saul set out for Damascus, in Syria to the north, with letters from the Jerusalem priests to the synagogue leaders, to authorize the arrest of any followers of Jesus. On the journey he experienced a vision of Jesus, which persuaded him that the supposed heresy was a true revelation from God.
It was common among the fledgling Christian communities for members to take a new name. This might have been to signal the start of a new life, for reasons of secrecy, or both. Saul adopted the name "Paul" or "Paulus" (which was perhaps one of the names he would already have as a Roman citizen). Paul performed two great tasks without which the church might never have survived. These were his missionary journeys and his drafting of the first systematic account of the new faith.
The account in Acts does not give dates for events, but does where possible refer to people or events whom we can now date, such as the death (A.D. 44) of Herod Agrippa I. From this we can infer that some years passed between Paul's conversion, and the start of his missionary journeys. In this time he learned the teachings of the sect, but also may have been instrumental in showing how it made sense of and fulfilled the existing Jewish traditions. In this time also, the Christians made a momentous decision at a council in Jerusalem - this was to admit to their membership people from outside the Jewish faith, without requiring them to meet the ritual obligations that had hitherto applied to proselytes (as converts to Judaism were called).
Paul made three journeys to spread the new teaching. He travelled each time with one principal companion (Barnabas on the first journey, Silas or Silvanus on the other two), as well as attracting a small retinue of followers at various points, one of whom was Luke.
The first of the journeys began in Antioch, from where Paul sailed to Barnabas' home of Cyprus, then on to southern Asia Minor (Pamphylia, Galatia and Cappadocia). The second journey was far more ambitious, taking Paul overland through Asia Minor, then by sea across the Aegean to Macedonia and Greece, back across the Aegean to Ephesus, where Paul stayed for some time, and then by sea to Caesarea and back on foot to Antioch. The route for the third journey was very close to that for the second, but did not go so far into the interior of Asia Minor, heading for Ephesus before turning north and crossing the Aegean, and coming back by the same route, before sailing from Miletus to Tyre, and then going south to Jerusalem. We do not know if Paul intended to return to Antioch, as on the previous journeys, because he was arrested in Jerusalem.
The accounts in Acts give examples of Paul's teaching. Speaking, in the public meeting place, to those who would gather out of interest in foreign visitors, he explained the messianic hope of the Jews and how this had now been fulfilled in Jesus. The message was more successful in some places than in others - least of all in Athens, where the sophisticated audience ridiculed Paul's teaching. In Lystra, deep in Asia Minor, Paul healed a disabled man by invoking Jesus' name - at once the people hailed him and Barnabas as gods in human likeness, and prepared to offer a sacrifice. But after hearing from Paul's Jewish enemies, the same crowd later attacked their visitors, stoning Paul and leaving him for dead. The journeys were a mixture of success (measured by conversions to the faith) and opposition (measured in stonings and beatings). The narrative also shows a growing awareness that one visit was not enough - Paul saw the need to appoint people to be leaders once he had left, tried to revisit the places where his message had been successful and wrote letters of encouragement.
Paul's letters are the earliest documents in the New Testament, and some of them take us back to the time of his missionary journeys. We also have letters from other church leaders as well as letters written later, but which set out the teachings of various apostles.
Herod Agrippa I was a friend of the Roman emperor Gaius (A.D. 37-41; nicknamed Caligula or "little boots") by whom he was made king over the territory, more or less, of his grandfather, Herod the Great. He persecuted the Christians and executed the apostle James, son of Zebedee. Next he imprisoned Peter, who escaped from captivity. This Herod may also have been the builder of a new wall in Jerusalem, which had grown beyond the limits of the existing walls.
Herod Agrippa II was his son, who governed the former tetrarchy of Philip. With his sister, Bernice, Agrippa (as he was known) listened to Paul's defence of the Christian faith. He was reputed to be knowledgeable about Jewish law and customs, but when war broke out with Rome, Agrippa took Rome's side against the Jews.
The Jewish War
The Jewish War began at a time when much but not all of the New Testament had been written down. Some of the books, notably the book known as Revelation, reflect the writer's awareness of political realities and the power of Rome. This war and subsequent events marked the end of Israel or any kind of Jewish state in Palestine.
The gospels depict Palestine under Roman rule, with hints at both the benefits and the problems this brought to a subject people. Rome established a universal peace, the Pax Romana, by placing armies of occupation in subject territory. The scale of the empire meant that most of these were auxiliary troops from the various conquered countries - but they were not allowed to serve in their home area. With the armies came roads and other benefits of civil engineering, like water supplies. When Rome moved from Republican to imperial government under Augustus, it introduced a cult of loyalty to the emperor. But otherwise the conquered peoples were allowed to practise their local forms of religion unhindered.
Palestine was unusual in a number of ways. Although Rome had given Herod the Great nominal powers, he had had to secure his position largely by his own efforts. Also, Rome was well aware of the peculiar seriousness of the Jews in their religion. The empire accommodated this both by giving special dispensations to the Jews and by not enforcing the imperial cult too rigorously.
Nevertheless, the gospels and Acts contain hints about the sources of Jewish unrest. The belief in the coming Messiah meant that some of what we would now call "nationalists" were ready to defy Rome in the hope that God would intervene to save them. (Perhaps they hoped to force God to act!) One of the most unpopular features of Roman rule was the high level of taxation. Not everyone was able to see that the tax paid for things they enjoyed, and it was set at a high level because it was inefficient. In each Roman province the collection of taxes was farmed out, as a speculation - the right to collect the taxes going to the highest bidder. The successful collector (usually a group) paid Rome directly, then collected the taxes and pocketed the proceeds. This was an incentive to over-charging and the collectors were hated. Mostly they came from among the Jews but were seen almost as unclean, for their job, which meant that they worked so closely with Rome. The Roman soldiers, so far as possible, protected them from violence.
Rome marked its occupation of territory by displaying various symbols of empire - the eagles of the legions, for example and other insignia. The Jews had an objection to any images that might be seen as a representation of anything in the natural world. This objection was reinforced by the second commandment. Under orders from the emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14-37), Pontius Pilate displayed imperial images in Jerusalem, but withdrew them in the face of Jewish protests. Gaius was determined to have his own image displayed on statues erected for the purpose. Petronius (legate of Syria A.D. 39-42) foresaw the likely reaction but could not directly disobey Caligula. His solution was to delay carrying out the order, and to advise the emperor against it - Caligula was dead before he could insist.
The Jewish tradition of "Corban" was one that Jesus criticised as contrary to the commandment to honour parents. It allowed a son to give directly to the temple any money he might have used to look after dependent parents. This produced a substantial income for the temple, which the priests could use for its upkeep. Pilate, seeing that Jerusalem lacked a reliable water supply, had an aqueduct constructed, using the Corban fund to pay for this. The protest of the Jews led to a massacre.
In A.D. 60 Porcius Festus became procurator. (He appears in Acts, as the official who sent Paul to Rome.) Festus was efficient in suppressing the bandits who had become active in Judaea. In A.D. 62, Clodius Albinus, who was far more lax, followed him. Under the next procurator, Gessius Florus (A.D. 64-66) things went from bad to worse. Florus abused his position, provoking malcontents into rebellion against Rome.
In A.D. 66 Jewish insurgents rebelled openly, seizing various towns and fortifying them. In A.D. 68 Nero (emperor A.D. 54-68) sent three legions under the command of Vespasian, to put down the rebellion. Vespasian captured all of the rebel strongholds and moved against Jerusalem in A.D. 69. In June 68, Nero took his own life, and was succeeded by Galba, who ruled for seven months. A.D. 69 is known as the Year of the Four Emperors. In January Galba was assassinated in the Forum, and Otho took the throne, only to be ousted by Vitellius. In Palestine Vespasian was proclaimed emperor. He travelled to Alexandria to secure the grain supply, before going to Rome. His supporters, led by Mucianus, travelled overland to Rome, as it was too late in the year for sailing, but in the mean time another of his supporters, Antonius Primus, gained a crushing victory over Vitellius, and guaranteed Vespasian's accession to the imperial throne. His son, Titus, now conducted the siege of Jerusalem.
The defenders of the city split into factions and fought each other, while the food supply soon ran out. After several months the Romans captured Jerusalem in September A.D. 70, and destroyed its walls. The temple was burned and its treasures taken to Rome by Titus for his triumphal procession. Some of the rebels held out in fortresses like Masada, but the Romans soon mopped up this last resistance.
In A.D. 129-130, the emperor Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) rebuilt the city as a Roman camp, and named it Aelia Capitolina, setting up a temple to Jupiter, king of the Roman gods. A second Jewish revolt, led by Simon bar Kosibah (Bar Cochba, or "son of a star") flared up between A.D. 132 and 135. The Jews briefly reoccupied Jerusalem, but were crushed by Sextus Julius Severus. Hadrian passed a law excluding Jews from living in Jerusalem, or even entering the city. This effectively marks the end of the history of the Jewish nation in their ancestral lands.
Chronological tables of rulers
The tables here have been adapted from those in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1973).
The united monarchy
The divided monarchies of Judah and Israel
These tables use two systems of chronology, one devised by W.F. Albright, the other by Edwin R. Thiele. Albright's dates appear first, while Thiele's are given in parenthesis.
Rulers during New Testament times
Procurators of Judea
Procurators of Palestine
© Andrew Moore, 2004; Contact me