How could a Jewish Messiah be born (and recognised as such) if all Jews had become assimilated and had swapped synagogues for gymnasia and the Torah for Plato? God had to act and He did so through such people as the Maccabees and the many martyrs who died for their faith at that time. The Jewish people had to prevail, the Messianic line of David had to be preserved, as we read in Jeremiah 23:5-6: “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his day Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The Lord Our Righteousness'”.
In 161 BC, Judas Maccabee was killed in battle, two years after his brother Eleazar had met an untimely end crushed by an elephant (after spearing it in the stomach from below!), also in battle. From Judas, a family dynasty was created, the Hasmonean dynasty, the name coming from Hashmon, a distant ancestor. From this time onwards for a hundred years, thanks to a peace treaty forged by another brother, Simon, Judea and Samaria remained more-or-less an independent state, ruled by a convoluted succession of Hasmoneans.
These rulers also generally functioned as High-Priests in an intriguing mixture of the sacred and the secular. Simon was a benevolent ruler, easy on any Jews who had been Hellenised and was held in such high esteem that not only was he the ruler and High Priest, but was also given the role of commander-in-chief of the army! Interestingly he was made hereditary High Priest ‘until such time as God speaks to the contrary‘. As it was then believed that prophecy had ceased in Israel, this was expected to last forever. As history was soon to show, they were wrong on both counts!
Under the Hasmoneans, Jewish territory expanded from the small state of Judea, roughly equivalent to the territory held by the tribe of Judah, to take in territory after territory under subsequent rulers. Eventually the land also included much that was part of the old Solomon empire, back in the days before the exile. On the religious front, there had always been people, notably the Hassids, who opposed the idea of the Hasmonean rulers also functioning as High Priests. This came to a head around 100 BC with the emergence of the Pharisees, a national religious revivalist movement who, despite their later bad press, were actually a breath of fresh air at the time. In many ways they represented the ancient equivalent of the charismatic revival at the end of the 20th Century. The Pharisees opposed the status quo of the hereditary priesthood but they, in turn, were opposed by another new group, the Sadducees, who were in support of the priesthood. Many battles were fought between these factions in the Sanhedrin, the religious ruling body. It seems that the scene is being firmly set for the events to come in the Gospels, but there are a few more glitches to overcome first.
Things started to get fraught through the actions of the third generation of Hasmoneans. The first of this generation, Aristobulus, called himself King, killed his mother and one brother and threw his other brothers in prison. He was succeeded by one of these brothers, Alexander Jannaeus (a name combining Greek elements with Hebrew), who turned out even worse. Under his rule the Pharisees organised an uprising which he put down by crucifying eight hundred souls, after slaughtering their wives and children before their eyes. Although he was responsible for great expansions of the kingdom he was, unsurprisingly, deeply unpopular with his Jewish subjects. His way of life was more Greek than Hebrew and the thought of a High Priest with so much blood on his hands was too much to bear. Something had to give and it did, with the coming of the Romans in 63 BC.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book Outcast Nation)
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