The Rule of John Hyrcanus - 134 BC to 104 BC
The struggles with Syria continued for several more years, but Israel continued with basic self determination. John Hyrcanus became the Jewish ruler in 134 BC and this was the beginning of a new era. Syria's power declined and Hyrcanus pushed to establish Israel as a regional power. He led troops against and defeated Samaria in 128 BC, destroying their Temple. Hyrcanus extended the borders of Israel and forced the conquered peoples to observe Jewish law. Around 107 BC the Jews returned again to Samaria and demolished whatever the Samaritans had rebuilt - this was seen as punishment for having been allied with the Seleucid Empire. After John's death his son Aristobulus added more regions to Israel's kingdom including Galilee. At this point the region called "Palestine" by the Romans came under the rule of Judea.
Now internal struggles developed again between the Sadduccees who had been in favor of Hellenization and the Pharisees who had opposed it. Civil strife was now an issue to be reckoned with and Rome came into the picture. Judas Maccabeus had sent an embassy to Rome and established some kind of agreement in 161 BC. John Hyrcanus had also sent ambassadors to Rome to renew relations. In 67 BC the power succession was disputed between two brothers and Roman general Pompey, taking advantage of the internal struggles, laid seige to Jerusalem and forced a settlement. Rome reduced the territory of Judea, freed Samaria from Judean control and turned both Samaria and Judea into client states. Judea was allowed to continue self determination and Temple worship.
In 49 BC Pompey and Julius Caesar entered into a civil war fighting for control of Rome. Caesar wins and Hyrcanus II, ruler of Judea, agrees to support Rome. In return Rome gave Israel religious freedom and rebuilt the Temple walls. In 43 BC Herod Antipater was named governor of Galilee. Herod was a savy politician and had gained some important friends in Rome. Some militant Jews revolted against his rise to power, Herod put down the revolt and was rewarded by Rome and named the governor of Syria. Then in 40 BC the Senate in Rome named Herod king of Judea which also gave him authority over Samaria.
Many of the Jews in Judea despised Herod - he was from some Jewish heritage, but he also came from Greek heritage and he was a proponent of Hellenization. The general attitude of the Jews is captured by Josephus:
Herod, the son of Antipater, who was of no more than a vulgar family, and of no eminent extraction, but one that was subject to other kings...And since Herod had now the government of all Judea put into his hands, he promoted such of the private men in the city as had been of his party, but never left off avenging and punishing every day those that had chosen to be of the party of his enemies....[he] carried off all the royal ornaments, and spoiled the wealthy men of what they had gotten; and when, by these means, he had heaped together a great quantity of silver and gold, he gave it all to...his friends. - Antiquities 14.491-15.5
In 20 BC Herod begins a grand project of rebuilding the Temple. This gave Jerusalem added prestige to both the city and the ruling class, the Sadduccees. Somehow Herod was also able to stay on decent terms with the Pharisees. Other than the Temple, however, Herod pushed Hellenization: he had many Greek building projects all around his kingdom in Galilee, Samaria and in Jerusalem. Herod ruled until 4 BC and towards the end of his reign he became more and more willing to act rashly, punish and kill anyone who stood in his way and was perfectly willing to sacrifice family as well. All of this only inflamed the Jewish hatred for this Jewish pretender who ruled Judea.
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The Jewish Sects During the Time of Jesus
We read about two of these sects in the New Testament. Josephus (Wars of the Jews II.8) also tells us about these groups, including the Essenes not mentioned in the NT.
The Sadduccees were the ruling, upper-class of Jerusalem. They had a huge influence in the political wrangling, although they despised both Herod and the Romans along with other Jews, but they were willing to work with those they disliked in running the government. Probably due to their upper-class status they were not well-liked by the average Jew in the first century. The Sadduccees also were not fond of the growing scribal interpretations that came from the Pharisees, viewing these as traditions rather than scripturally based dogma.
The Pharisees appear to be more from the common populace, applying themselves diligently and sometimes with great zeal to the understanding and keeping of the law. They were from the common people and thus many Jews respected Pharisees even though they possibly did not like them. The Pharisees held many spiritual beliefs not clearly found in the Law of Moses: a clear teaching of a resurrection, the belief in supernatural entities both good (angels) and bad (demons), and many interpretations of the Law that seemed to become pedantic to some, legalistic to others. Where their strict observance of the Law might have irritated some, their attention to social concerns (feeding the poor and giving alms to the poor) made them tolerable to the general public.
The scribes were separate from the Pharisees, but may have actually grown out of that subset. The scribes were typically the best educated, tended to serve as lawyers and teachers in their main mission of making sure the common people knew the Law and followed it. They took it upon themselves to listen to lessons given in synogogues or by street preachers to make sure the Law was being properly represented. If not, they were ready to stir up a crowd or to press legal charges against anyone failing in their estimation.
The Essenes was a monastic-type sect that lived in community fashion around the Dea Sea. Prior to the discovery of the Dea Sea Scrolls (DSS) the main literary witnesses we had was Josephus and Philo (Philo also describes a very similar community, the Therapeutai, that lived in the Egyptian desert). The DSS are now our primary literary source for this group and many scholars believe that John the Baptist came from the Essenes' community when he started his public ministry. Some see similar themes in Jesus.
The Essenes separated themselves from the rest of Judah believing Israel had turned her back on God - it is likely they saw Hellenization as part of this decline. They saw themselves as the remnant that would survive until the final war of God against the ungodly. They were like "Elijah" giving testimony to the coming of the Messiah. Members had to go through a testing period to prove themselves. Their group lived spartan lives, shared prayer and meals together, and practiced water baptisms for cleansing. The worship of the Therapeutai described by Philo sounds like it could be an early Christian movement (or even a pentecostal charismatic revival in a modern century):
...applause arises from them all as of men rejoicing together at what they have seen and heard; and then some one rising up sings a hymn which has been made in honour of God, either such as he has composed himself...and in psalms of thanksgiving and in hymns...then the young men bring in the table which was mentioned a little while ago, on which was placed that most holy food, the leavened bread...And after the feast they celebrate the sacred festival during the whole night...they all stand up together, and in...two choruses...the one of men and the other of women...they sing hymns which have been composed in honour of God...at one time all singing together, and at another moving their hands and dancing in corresponding harmony, and uttering in an inspired manner songs of thanksgiving... (I have used extensive ellipses to keep this citation from being quite lengthy) - On the Contemplative Life 10.79-81, 11.83-84
Although the Essenes shared many common points with early Christianity, the Essenes had a collection of writings known as the War Scrolls which describe the coming end of the era conflict with evil which would be violent. Fragments similar to these scrolls were found in the remains of Masada when the Zealots stood against, and all died, resisting the Romans after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
The Essenes were separatists - Christians believed they were called to reach out to ALL. The Essenes seemed to be preparing for war - Christians did not use war or politics. The Essenes stood against the government - Christians were urged to support their government.