The Political And Social Background Of Palestinian Judaism (1)

The Political And Social Background Of Palestinian Judaism (1)

The first followers of Jesus were Jews of Palestine. All NT writers were Jews except Luke. It, therefore, becomes necessary to know the Political and Social Background of Palestinian Judaism.


It is a small country of about 10,000 sq. miles and 150 miles long. The Palestine land has a perfect climate, beautiful site, rich in fertility, capable of producing fruits of all climates at every season. It is also isolated from other Countries by deserts, mountains, and sea. It is situated at the hub of three Continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Palestine is the home of Judaism and Christianity. Palestine, though small, is an important one that every power wants to control. Powers like Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Rome wanted to have firm control of Palestine.

Whatever Political or any conflict in those years, Palestine will be affected. In 586 BC, Israel was taken into captivity – the walls of Jerusalem fell. Babylon, at this time, was the ruler of the world but was later conquered by Persia. Persia ran a system of Assimilation. Half a century later, the exiled Jews were allowed to return to Judah and began building the temple in ruins. Initial zeal became lowered, the prophets came to spur them on, and they finally finished building the temple in 515 BC. In 445 BC, the walls of Jerusalem were also completed under the supervision of Nehemiah. Greece overran the kingdom of Persia under the Phillip of Macedon. When Phillip died, his son Alexander took over from him. In 334 BC, Alexander conquered the Persia Satraps and finally defeated the Persia Empire.

Alexander crossed over Jerusalem and moved to Egypt, where he founded the city of Alexandria in 331 BC after his name. Alexander returned from Palestine to Asia, where he overthrew Cyrus. After further conquests as far as Punjab in India, his career ended suddenly in 320 BC. In any place Alexander conquered, he established Greek life and Culture. He built a Greek City that served as a model for local people. The city included a gymnasium, open air-theatre, and Greek architectural design buildings, so the local people were encouraged to learn Greek, take on Greek Culture and even take Greek names; this process was called Hellenisation. Alexander aimed at having one world Government. Hellenism was attractive to so many people, especially the material aspects of it. Trade and Commerce brought wealth to the new merchants.

Alexander built libraries and Schools; the people welcomed this; better buildings and food brought about a better standard of living, so many people in Israel, like in other places, were glad to receive Greek Culture. Someone said, “if Idolism was the greatest temptation during the exilic period, Hellenism was the greatest during the post-exilic period.” Many Jews took Greek names and accepted Greek Philosophy, combining it with their fathers’ faith, leading to Syncretism. When Alexander died, he had not mentioned a successor, so seven of his generals began to fight for leadership of the empire. Four of them, namely Ptolemy, Antigonus, Cassandra, and Lysamachus, finally divided the kingdoms between themselves. Ptolemy, Cassandra, and Lysamachus combined and wrestled Antigonus and gave his kingdom to Seluccus. Ptolemy had Egypt, Cassandra had Macedonia, and Lysamachus had Thrace and Asia.

Ptolemies (323 – 198 BC)

The Seleucid and Ptomaid dynasties were fighting over who would take over Egypt. Ptolemies won the war. The founder of Ptolemies was called Ptolemy 1. He was known as Sotor (Deliverer). He captured Jerusalem in 321 BC, and as a general rule, he was kind towards the Jews, so he permitted the Jews to practice their religion as they chose. He even invited some of them to Egypt. When he died, Ptolemy II, known as Philadephus, succeeded him. Under Ptolemy II, the Jews in Egypt translated the Hebrew OT into Greek, called Septuagint. During the period of the Ptolemies, the most crucial person in Israel was the High Priest known as Simon the Just; the Jews were allowed to run their affairs independently but were to pay taxes to their Egyptian overlord. Simon the Just rebuilt the wall of Jerusalem destroyed by Ptolemy1. He also supervised the building of the water Reservoir.

Two crucial families in Judah at the time of Ptolemies were the Tobias and Onias. The house of Tobias represented the upper class of Jews, particularly the wealthy. They tended to be pro-Egyptian; this family might have descended from Tobia, who made trouble for Nehemia. It is also thought that the extended family of Tobias were the Tax collectors for the Ptolemy dynasty; this might explain why they were pro-Egyptians and so many Jews did not like them.

The family of Onias was an enemy of the Tobias to the extent that Onias II refused to pay the tribute demanded by the Ptolemies. A man named Joseph from Tobias went to Egypt and canvassed to be a tax collector in Egypt, which he won, and he was the tax collector for twenty years.

The Seleucid Dynasty (198 – 168 BC)

The founder is Seleucus I, also known as Nicator. Whoever succeeded or became the king took the title Seleucus or Antiochus. The capital of the kingdom was Syria. There was always tension between the Seleucid dynasty and Ptolemy dynasty for the first 100 years. The Ptolemies won Egypt and ruled Egypt for 122 years. In 198 BC Antiochus III defeated Egypt and gained control of Palestine (Judah). It is said that this was the beginning of a new era for the Jews. As soon as Antiochus got control of Palestine, he began to enforce Hellenism. After about 150 years of Greek influence, many Jews have been greatly influenced by Greek thoughts and CultureCulture. The Hellenisation of Judah reached its peak under Antiochus IV, known as Antiochus Epiphanes (The manifest god). This man totally disliked anything Jewish, and as a result, he insisted Judah must be Hellenised, and he went out to do just this.

The High Priest in Judah then (Onias III) was an orthodox Jew who would not give in to the process of Hellenisation. Still, by this time, the priesthood has become a political office. As a result, a man known as Jason promised to pay more money to Antiochus, who was looking for money to finance his war, so Jason paid Antiochus to get himself installed as the High Priest to replace Onias III. Jason encouraged the Hellenists in what they were doing. As a result, a gymnasium was built in Jerusalem, and he encouraged the Jews to take Greek names.

Hebrew orthodoxy was considered ‘obscurantist (obsolete). A friend of Jason, also a Hellenist known as Menelaus from the tribe of Benjamin, had no claim to the office of the High Priest. Still, because the office has been politicized, Menelaus went behind Jason, offered higher money to Antiochus, and installed the High Priest instead of Jason. The Jews were greatly disturbed, so Jason raised an army to fight Menelaus to regain his position. Menelaus sought the cooperation of Antiochus, who was at war with Egypt then, so he cut short his war and came back to help Menelaus as an opportunity to control the whole of Palestine. Antiochus attacked Jerusalem on a Sabbath day when orthodox Jews would not fight anyone, slew many Jews, destroyed the wall of Jerusalem, and then built an ‘Akra.’

Jason was subdued. Antiochus was determined to remove all traces of the orthodox Jewish faith. He identified Jewish Almighty God with Jupiter, then made an image of the pagan god and erected it on the Altar of sacrifice and sacrificed swine (pig), something detestable to the Jews. Circumcision was proscribed with the death penalty, and observance of the Sabbath was forbidden. The Scriptures were torn and destroyed. An old priest Eliazah was flogged to death because he refused to eat swine’s flesh.

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