The outside limits of the period with which we are concerned may be roughly
dated from about 300BC to AD100.
The history of this period undoubtedly influenced its literature, and is not infrequently reflected, or directly referred to, in it.
Hence the need of taking a historical bird's-eye view of these centuries, and, without going into details, to lay emphasis on those more outstanding events which affected the destiny of the Jewish people.
Since the literature with which we shall be concerned is Jewish, the historical background is, in the present connexion, of interest and importance mainly in so far as the Jewish nation was concerned.
These centuries fall, mainly, within the Greek period that may be roughly
reckoned as beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great;
for the intensive propagation of Greek culture was due to him
[Greek culture was, of course, being spread abroad to a varying extent long before the fourth century BC; fragments of Greek pottery have been discovered in Ras Shamra belonging to the fourteenth and thirteenth century BC; and Greek influence continued beyond our period.]
For his love of Greek culture Alexander, as is well known, was indebted to Aristotle, who made him wholly Greek in intellect.
With his brilliant achievements, both as general and statesman, we are not here concerned;
suffice it to quote the words of his most recent biographer:
We see the greatness of Alexander as a whole, only when we contemplate the effects of his life work in successive periods of history.
In the few years of his reign he actually put the ancient world on a new basis.
The subsequent course of history, the political, economic, and cultural life of after times, cannot be understood apart from the career of Alexander.
[Wilken, Alexander der Grose, Eng. Transl, p.265 (1932).]
What Josephus says about his dealings with the
Jews cannot all be regarded as reliable history;
but it affords, at any rate, an illustration of Alexander's ideal of spreading peace and goodwill among peoples, so far as this lay in his power.
His attitude towards them was undoubtedly friendly. [Antiq.xi.313-338.]
When Alexander died, in 323BC, not yet thirty-three years old, the problem
arose as to what was to become of his worldwide empire.
For, in the nature of things, the rulers of the many lands, which he had subdued, saw in the disappearance of their conqueror the opportunity of regaining independence.
His empire was "an artificial creation of a purely military kind,
in which the disruptive forces were stronger than those which made for unity.
But his personality was indispensable to its continuance"; and here was the Macedonian army by means of which the mastermind had been able to carry out its will.
[Rostevtzeff: A History of the Ancient World, I. The Orient & Greece, p.353 (1926).]
To the minds of Alexander's generals it seemed clear that to him who could
obtain command of this invincible army the prospect of becoming world-ruler
was no idle dream.
But among these generals there was not one of sufficiently outstanding character and individuality to play this leading role;
instead, they fought among themselves, the ambition of each seeking to gain the unattainable.
After many years of conflict a settlement was reached, when, at the battle of Ipsus, in Asia Minor, Antigonus was defeated by two of the allied armies of other generals who were rulers of provinces, namely Lysimachus of Thrace, Seleucus of Babylonia, and Cassander of Macedonia.
This occurred in 301BC.
The undivided empire of Alexander was thus a thing of the past; it became split up into several kingdoms.
We are concerned with only two of these: that of Ptolemy of Egypt, which was the first to be established,
and that of Seleucus, with Antioch in Syria as one of the royal residences.
As between these two, of central importance for present purposes was their struggle for the possession of Palestine.
After the battle of Ipsus this land was annexed by Ptolemy I Soter, not
without protest from Seleucus, who regarded it as belonging to his share
of the division of provinces.
His protest did not go beyond words;
nevertheless, the seed of future dissension was thus already sown.
With the details of the struggle, lasting for a century, between the Seleucids and the Ptolemys for the possession of Palestine it is unnecessary to deal;
but what is of prime importance from the present point of view is the final phase of that struggle.
This can be described in a few words.
Antiochus III, the Great, in 217BC, took the first step when he invaded
but in the battle of Raphia, which followed, Sosibius, the Egyptian commander-in-chief, defeated him.
In consequence, Antiochus gave up, for the present, his design of conquering Palestine, especially as revolts in the eastern parts of his empire demanded his attention elsewhere;
these occupied him for a number of years.
His second attempt was made in 202BC;
this time he was partially successful, for he pushed down to the south of Palestine as far as Gaza;
but in the following year he was driven northwards again by the Egyptian army, now under Scopas.
The Egyptian success was, however, short-lived;
and at the battle of Panion Antiochus gained an overwhelming victory over Scopas.
By 198BC the whole of Syria finally incorporated incorporated in the empire
of the Seleucids.
Antiochus' treatment of the Jews was friendly, following herein the example of the Egyptian rulers.
He fell in battle against an enemy in the east, in 187BC, and was succeeded by his son Seleucus IV.
It was during the reign of this king that the episode recorded in II Macc.iii
Heliodorus, his chief minister, attempted to seize the Temple treasure, but was prevented from doing so by what is described as supernatural means.
The kernel of the story, viz. the attempt to appropriate the Temple treasure, is doubtless historical.
Heliodorus murdered Seleucus in 175BC, (Appian, Syr.xlv.)and soon after, with the accession of his brother,
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, in the same year, we enter upon the period of the Maccabaean wars.
Here it is necessary to insist that the initiative in the attempt to stamp out Orthodox Judaism and to hellenize the Jews was not taken by Antiochus, but by the influential body of hellenistic Jews, as is clear enough from what is said in I Macc.i.11-15, 34-40.
The ground was thus well prepared before Antiochus appeared as the protagonist in this attempt.
Into the details of the Maccabaean struggle we cannot enter here;
suffice it to summarize thus:
Judas Maccabaeus, Jonathan, and Simon, the three sons of Mattathias, the priest of Modein, in turn championed the cause of those of their brethren who clung to the faith of their fathers.
The first of these (166-160BC) gained religious freedom for his people.
The second (160-159 to 142-141BC) secured considerable territorial additions for the country.
And the third (142-141 to 135-134BC) succeeded, to all intents and purposes,
in throwing off Syrian suzerainty, though it was not until some few years
later that this was definitely and finally achieved.
Still more important was the fact that Simon was the real founder of the combined High-priestly and princely dynasty of the Hasmonaeans, -
[Asmonmus, or Hashmon according to the Hebrew form, was the ancestor of the Maccabaean family, see Josephus, Antiq. . 265.] -
since he was the first of this house to become the fully recognized High-priest in addition to his being civil ruler of his people. [See I Macc. xiv. 25-49. Jonathan had been appointed. High-priest by Alexander Balas (I Macc. x. 15-17), but he was not recognized as such by the people in the way that Simon was (see I Macc. xiv. 46, 47).]
"The yoke of the heathen",
it is said in I Macc.i.41, 42,
"was taken away from Israel.
And the people began to write in their instruments and contracts.
In the first year of Simon the great High-priest and Captain and Leader of the Jews."
Soon after this the Citadel of Jerusalem, which had for so long been in
the hands of the Syrian soldiery, was evacuated.
And the Jews entered it in triumph
"with praise and palm branches,
and with harps, and with cymbals and with viols,
and with hymns and with songs,
because a great enemy was destroyed out of Israel."
On the death of Simon, who was treacherously murdered, in 134BC,
his son John Hyrcanus I became High-priest. [See I Macc.xvi.16, 17.]
He was the first of the Hasmonaeans to assume the royal title.
[For the justification of this statement see Oesterley & Robinson, A History of Israel, ii.285 f. (1933).]
At the beginning of his reign a great disaster overtook the Jewish people.
A vigorous king, Antiochus VII Sidetes, once more raised the Syrian kingdom from the helpless state into which it had fallen.
He invaded Judaea, and captured Jerusalem after a year's siege.
John Hyrcanus had to submit once more to Syrian suzerainty.
It seemed as though the Jewish State were doomed again to vassalage;
and that may well have been its destiny had Antiochus VII not fallen in battle against the Parthians (129BC).
He had been called to the eastern parts of his empire owing to the menace of this warlike people.
As a result, the Jewish State once more regained its freedom, which it retained for a period of sixty-six years.
The reign of John Hyrcanus was of special importance for several reasons:
He extended very considerably the borders of his dominions;
he conquered Idumaea and forced the inhabitants to become Jews, this was destined to have momentous consequences in later days.
He subdued the Samaritans, and destroyed their temple on Mount Gerizim.
He broke with the Pharisees (the Chasidim of earlier days), with whom he had at first been on friendly terms, and who had for some time previously been the most influential party among the Jews.
Instead, he supported the party of the Sadducees.
And, finally, during his reign arose the pronounced popular hatred of the Hasmonaean rulers, owing mainly to the incongruity of the pursuit of worldly aims on the part of him who held the High-priestly office. [Cp. Josephus, Antiq.i.288.]
This assumed serious dimensions in course of time owing to Pharisaic influence.
John Hyrcanus died in 104BC.
He was succeeded by his son Aristobulus I, who reigned for less than a year;
but one important event during his reign demands attention:
He carried the Jewish frontier farther north by subduing part of what was known as Galilee of the Gentiles, the Region of the Gentiles, the part inhabited by the Ituraeans.
These, like the Edomites, were forced to embrace Judaism, and Aristobulus
was thus the creator of that Galilee which we know in our gospels -
a region whose population was Jewish in belief and practice,
but Gentile to a large degree in descent. [Edwyn Bevan, Jerusalem under the High-priests, pp.115 f. (1904).]
At the death of Aristobulus I, his brother Alexander Jannaeus succeeded him.
He further greatly extended the frontiers of Palestine, and during his reign
the Jews were, for the time being, the most powerful people in the land.
But, probably, a more barbarous ruler never held sway over the Jewish people;
and although he was a successful fighter, the ravages of war left the country in a disastrous condition.
Personally, he was a man of repulsive character, cruel, bloodthirsty, and immoral.
The antipathy of the Pharisees towards the Hasmonaean rulers, which had shown itself during the two preceding reigns, reached a climax during that of Jannaeus.
His utter unfitness for the High priesthood so scandalized them and their great following among the people, that ultimately civil war broke out.
Although Jannaeus conquered here too, and took a most barbarous revenge on the Pharisees, he realized towards the end of his life that their power, owing to their influence over the bulk of the people, made it politic to conciliate them.
And he adjured his wife Alexandra (Salome), as Josephus tells us, who was to succeed him,
"put some of her authority into the hands of the Pharisees ...
for they had power among the Jews,
both to do hurt to such as they hated,
and to bring advantages to those to whom they were friendly disposed".
He went on to say that
"it was by their means that he had incurred the displeasure of the nation. ...
Promise them also,"
"that thou wilt do nothing without them in the affairs of the kingdom."
He died in 76BC, and his advice was followed by his widow, Alexandra, who
To quote Josephus again;
he tells us that
"she restored those practices which the Pharisees had introduced, according to the tradition of their forefathers,
and which her father-in-law, Hyrcanus, had abrogated.
So she had, indeed, the name of Regent, but the Pharisees had the authority."
[See Antiq.i.408,409; Bell, Jud.i.110,111.]
Unfortunately, the Pharisees abused the power thus placed in their hands,
and fell foul of the Sadducaean party who were the aristocratic upholders
of the Hasmonaean High-priesthood.
Alexandra, being a woman, could of course conduct only the civil power, and that, as we have seen, only nominally.
The High priesthood devolved upon her elder son, Hyrcanus II.
But - and here we see the complicated state of affairs -
Hyreanus, a man of weak character, but otherwise a good man, was more in sympathy with the Pharisees than with the Sadducees, who were the supporters of the Hasmonaean High-priesthood;
in consequence, the Sadducees regarded their nominal representative with disfavour.
But further; Hyrcanus' younger brother, Aristobulus, a vigorous but unscrupulous personality, aspired to the kingship, and succeeded in gaining the support of the military element which, under Jannaeus, had been the dominating power.
To complicate matters still farther,
while the enmity between the two brothers was reaching a critical point,
Alexandra died, in 67BC.
A battle was fought between the brothers, in which Aristobulus was victorious.
Thereupon an agreement was reached between them, according to which Aristobulus was to be king and High priest, while Hyrcanus, much to his liking, was to be permitted to retire into private life.
The younger brother thus ruled as Aristobulus Il.
That, one might suppose, would have been a settlement favourable to both parties;
and so it would have been, as far as one can see, had it not been for the appearance of a new character upon the scene.
We have seen that John Hyrcanus had compelled the Idumaeans to accept the
Jewish religion, so that from that time Idumaea had become a province of
The Governor of this province was at this time one Antipater (the father of Herod the Great), an enemy of Aristobulus II, but the friend of Hyrcanus, upon whom he had a profound influence.
He persuaded Hyrcanus not to submit to the terms that had been agreed upon by the two brothers.
Consequently war broke out again between them, the details of which we cannot enter into now.
The event of prime importance was the intervention of Rome.
Aristobulus withstood the Roman army.
But Hyrcanus, under the influence of Antipater, allied himself with Rome.
Pompey besieged Jerusalem.
In 63BC, the city fell.
Aristobulus II was taken by Pompey a prisoner to Rome, together with some thousands of Jews,
and Hyrcanus was made High-priest with the title of ethnarch.
Judaea was thus no longer a kingdom,
but a division of the Roman province of Syria.
Hyrcanus was, however, only nominal ruler, the real power being wielded
by Antipater, the Idumaean.
Thanks to the crafty statesmanship of Antipater,
Hyrcanus was able to maintain his position in spite of the tumultuous unrest in the outside world.
Not that Judaea was unaffected by the civil war and its consequences which had been ravaging the Roman state;
but the troubles which beset Hyrcanus in his own land were not of his own making, nor yet the fault of Antipater.
They were of three kinds:
Great unrest was caused by several attempts on the part of the Hasmonaean family to oust Hyrcanus from his position.
In the second place, misrule on the part of the proconsuls of Syria brought the whole country into a grave state of anarchy.
An act of injustice and great folly, for example, was the plundering of a large part of the Temple treasury, which naturally inflamed the already burning hatred of the Jews for Rome.
And thirdly, there was the inveterate contempt felt towards Antipater owing to his being an Idumaean;
to be virtually ruled by one who was not a real Jew rankled in their hearts.
During the High-priesthood of Hyrcanus, though neither he nor Antipater
was in any way the cause of this, the proconsul Gabinius deprived the former
of all his civil power, leaving him only religious functions, and divided
his land into five administrative districts.
This latter action was probably undertaken in order to facilitate the collection of tribute.
But in spite of all, and owing to the clever, but not always very laudable action of Antipater, Hyrcanus managed to retain the High priesthood.
In 43BC Antipater was murdered;
but his son Herod, who also upheld Hyrcanus, avenged him.
The friendship between the two latter was cemented by the betrothal of Herod to the granddaughter of Hyrcanus, Mariamne.
In this way Herod became related to the ruling house -
a matter of importance for the subsequent history.
Hyrcanus continued to hold his office until 40BC.
In this year the Parthians, who were the inveterate enemies of Rome in the east, over-ran Syria,
captured Hyrcanus, the friend of Rome,
mutilated his ears so as to incapacitate him from holding the High-priestly office,
and made Antigonus, the son of Aristobulus II, both High-priest and king.
On his coins he described himself as both "king Antigonus" and "Mattathiah the High-priest" (Mattathiah was his Jewish name).
In opposition to him the Romans proclaimed Herod king of the Jews.
It took a few years for Herod to make good his claims;
but in 37BC, supported by a Roman army, he besieged Jerusalem and captured the city.
The Romans beheaded Antigonus.
Into the details of the reign of Herod the Great we cannot enter now.
From the point of view of Jewish history the facts of paramount importance may be briefly summarized:
First, and most ominous, to be noted was the hatred entertained towards him by his Jewish subjects.
There were several reasons for this.
One of his first acts was to put to death a number of influential citizens who had sided with Antigonus.
This served to embitter the feelings of the people who had an initial cause of hatred, for him owing to his being an Idumaean.
Then there was the fact that he had displaced a Hasmonaean prince, for bitterly opposed as the people had been in past days to the Hasmonaeans, they had in course of time come to regard them as their legitimate rulers.
A cause of even deeper hatred was that Herod was the friend and protege of Rome.
Further, owing to Herod's constant need of money, the people were severely taxed, and this caused much bitterness.
There were, therefore, ample reasons for the unhappy relations between Herod and his Jewish subjects, and this lasted throughout his reign.
Of sinister importance for the later history
was the rift between the party of the Zealots, who originated in Galilee,
and the Pharisees.
They had been associated at first,
but the cause of the break was that the Pharisees were content to acquiesce in Roman overlordship,
represented in the person of Herod,
while the Zealots refused to recognize any earthly king.
Ultimately the Zealots, with the direst consequences, gained the bulk of the people to their side.
On the other hand, owing to his friendship with Rome,
Herod's dominions became greatly enlarged,
and his kingdom was of greater extent than that of the Hasmonaeans had ever been.
With the exception of Ascalon,
it included the whole coastline of Palestine, to the east,
Batanea, Trachonitis, and the Hauran, extending up to the source of the Jordan.
Again, Herod's love of architecture, of which the rebuilding of the Temple
was the outstanding feature, conferred great benefit on his people, and was
much to his credit.
He rebuilt the city of Samaria, which had been destroyed by Hyrcanus I, and to which he gave the name of Sebaste.
He also built a city on the site of Strato's Tower,
which he named Caesarea,
where great harbour works were constructed jutting out into the sea,
so that the city became for some time the chief port of Palestine.
In addition, he built temples in various cities:
in the two just mentioned,
in Panium and Rhodes, besides less important buildings in other cities.
Of his deplorable family quarrels we need not speak, as these affected the history of his times but indirectly.
Herod died in 4BC.
His dominions were divided among his sons as follows:
Archelaus received Judaea and Samaria, as well as Idumaea, with the title of ethnarch -
the evidence of the coins is against his ever having received the royal title.
Antipas was appointed tetrarch of Galilee, Peraea on the east of Jordan,
together with such other districts on the east of Jordan, which were inhabited by Jews.
Philip was made tetrarch of the more northerly parts on the east of Jordan, Batanaea, Trachonitis, and Auranitis.
We are concerned mainly with Judaea.
Unfortunately, Archelaus was the least fitted of Herod's sons to be a ruler.
We have but little information regarding his reign of ten years.
The outstanding fact about him was the estrangement between him and his people.
His tactless and tyrannical behaviour resulted in an appeal by the Jews to Caesar to displace him.
He was banished to Gaul.
Henceforth a Roman procurator who ruled to a large extent independently of the Syrian legate governed Judaea.
The history of Judaea under the procurators during the next thirty years
is a deplorable record of misgovernment, with the inevitable consequence
of ever-growing resentment on the part of the Jews, together with increasing
resistance to constituted authority.
For the brief space of seven years (AD 37-44.) the rule of procurators ceased.
During these years, owing to his friendship with the emperor Caligula,
Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great, reigned as the king of Judaea,
the last to hold that office.
On his death, in AD44, he was to have been succeeded by his son, also named
But he did not receive the title of king of Judaea.
He was only a lad of seventeen years,
and continued to live at the court of the emperor Claudius, where he had been brought up.
Judaea was again placed under the rule of procurators.
But Agrippa was given the little kingdom of his uncle Herod of Chalcis, a small domain bordering on the Libanus.
This occurred in AD50.
On the death of his father he was, further, permitted to have the oversight of the Temple, and to appoint the High priest.
Agrippa was a faithful upholder of the Roman power;
at the same time, he tried to conciliate his Jewish subjects, though with but small success.
In the meantime, the tension between Rome and the bulk of the people continued
At last, in AD66, the Jews openly rebelled,
and the actual beginning of the Great War with Rome took place.
This war lasted from the spring of AD66, until the late summer of AD70,
and even after the fall of Jerusalem sporadic fighting went on for nearly three years more in the country districts.
The last stronghold of the Jews, Masada, fell in the spring of AD73.
[See Schulten, Masada , pp.172 ff. (1933), where details are given.]
The war may be roughly divided into four periods:
In looking back upon the history of these centuries it would not, at first
sight, suggest itself as a period during which literary activity would be
likely to flourish.
It was a time of great unrest,
for, as we have seen, there was the continual internal discord among the Jews themselves;
the bitter opposition between the orthodox and the hellenistic parties was not restricted to the strife of tongues,
but issued not infrequently in violence and bloodshed.
Then there came the terrible upheaval of the Maccabaean wars, the land being constantly overrun by foreign soldiery, with insecurity for life and property, incessant turmoil, anxiety for what the next day might bring forth.
A little later there were further internal dissensions among the Jews, this time between the Pharisees, followed by the great mass of the people, and the Hasmonaean rulers.
Then came the ceaseless fighting during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus;
particularly ominous was his use of mercenary troops who would care little what damage they might do to Jewish homesteads;
to have had this foreign soldiery constantly spreading itself over the countryside must indeed have been a cruel hardship.
Later there arose a renewed cause of unrest owing to opposition of the Hasmonaean party to Hyrcanus II;
thus, again, internal dissension, with its baneful excitement, affecting everybody in the land.
Added to this there was the misrule of the Roman procurators,
the grinding down by unconscionable taxation of all who had anything to be robbed of,
with the consequent reaction on the poorer classes which would take various forms -
less trade, less charity, less food -
all this aroused fierce anger.
As though these internal troubles were not enough,
there occurred presently the Parthian incursions into Palestine.
Thus, foreign troops again overran the country.
Troops, too, of a particularly fierce nature.
It is true that no details are recorded of their doings during these incursions.
But it does not require much imagination to picture the kind of thing that would go on when armies of a powerful, semi-civilized people were let loose upon a centre of a more advanced civilization, with but little to restrain lawless passions and the lust of plunder.
Once more, there was the struggle between Herod and Antigonus, and the bitter hatred on the part of the Jews for Herod, which caused continual unrest.
Nor must it be forgotten that the detestation of the Roman power resulted in ever-increasing mutual distrust and antagonism;
it was, as it were, the ground swell presaging the advent of tempest.
there was, largely in consequence of Roman misrule,
the rise of the Zealots which brought such appalling disasters on the whole Jewish nation.
Such a condition of affairs, then, extending over nearly three centuries,
would not seem to have been conducive to literary activity.
And yet during this period, as we have seen, a considerable amount of literature was produced.
There is a two-fold explanation of this.
Although the period, as a whole, was one of great unrest, there were, nevertheless, times of respite, sometimes of an appreciable number of years;
this offered opportunities for those who felt impelled by the events of the times to put forth messages to the people to undertake their task.
Thus, e.g., after the battle of Panion (198BC), as a result of which Antiochus III brought Palestine under Syrian suzerainty, there were fully ten years of comparative quietude for the Jews.
This was followed, moreover, by a period of peace for them during most of the reign of Seleucus IV (187-175BC).
Again, even during the Maccabaean wars the fighting was not incessant.
For example, after the victory of Judas Maccabaeus over the Syrian forces in 164BC, there were nearly two years of peace.
Under Jonathan's leadership, when the Syrian general Bacchides withdrew, thinking that his task of subduing the Maccabaeans was accomplished, we read that for two years again "the land of Judah had rest" (I Macc.ix.59).
And still later, during approximately five years (152-147BC), there was peace in Palestine owing to the struggle for the Syrian throne of two aspirants.
Similarly during Simon's leadership times of peace intervened.
Tumultuous as this period was, then, opportunities for literary activities
were not wanting.
But apart from this, it must be recognized that these wars and internal dissensions were in themselves incentives to many to produce writings.
This applies more especially to the apocalyptic writers, following herein the prophets of old [Either they or their disciples], who wrote particularly during troublous times.
The paramount need of the people during those times of stress was to be strengthened and heartened by encouragement and hope - encouragement to trust in their God, and hope that He would help them.
This is one of the main themes of the Apocalyptic Literature, of which the Ezra-Apocalypse (II Esdras) is an important part.
The historical conditions prompted others, such as the attitude of pessimism adopted by the writers owing to the chaotic state, religiously, ethically, and materially, of the world (this applies especially to the Ezra-Apocalypse, towards the end of our period).
The conviction of the near approach of the end of the present world-order, described in lurid colouring largely borrowed from extraneous sources.
Added to these were traditional expectations, both indigenous and foreign, regarding the advent of the Messiah, influenced now by present political conditions.
(See further Chap.VI on the Apocalyptic Literature.)
Thus, the literature of our period owed its existence, certainly to a large extent, to the very causes that normally might have been supposed to stand in the way of it.
[It is not forgotten that a certain number of the canonical
books, or portions. of them, belong to the Greek period, to which a large
part of the times with which we are concerned belongs.
Thus, to the years 300BC onwards belong:
Chronicles, Esther, Job, many of the Psalms;
The latest parts of Proverbs;
Some sections incorporated in Isaiah;
Joel, and Jonah, as well as the latest parts of the Pentateuch P Document.
In addition, a certain number of the Psalms, the book of Daniel, and the second part of Zechariah (ix-xiv) belong to the Maccabaean era.
See on this, Oesterley and Robinson, An Introduction to the Books of the Old Testament (1934).]