When the Risen Jesus appears to the apostles, they have a vital question for him: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Given the thrust of the gospels as we have them, that seems a bizarre emphasis: could his followers really have got Jesus’s message so totally wrong? But the events of the next few decades make clear that many Jews in this era were deeply committed to see the kingdom restored, even at the cost of a full scale armed revolution. The means might be military or miraculous, but the goal was the same: the kingdom.
But which kingdom?
The three centuries or so before the time of Christ supply the essential political and cultural context to understanding that era. It is in that period that we must find the idealized era of independence which so inspired nationalists in Jesus’s time and after. And the better we understand that lost kingdom, the more clearly we see what an impossible dream it was in Jesus’s time and afterwards – at least through any political or revolutionary efforts.
In various ways, Israel had been an independent kingdom at many points over the previous millennium, and often for long periods. After the sixth century BC exile to Babylon, though, the region remained under a succession of foreign regimes, first the Persians, from the mid-sixth through the late fourth century, and then the Hellenistic empires. The Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires battled for control over the region, which changed hands several times. (These were the Kings of the South and the North, whose dynastic doings are so ornately retold in Daniel 11). The Ptolemies ruled Palestine for most of the third century. The Seleucids then dominated from 201 until the 160s, when their power was shaken by the Maccabean revolt.
A Jewish kingdom was de facto independent by the 140s, and thereafter broke free of outside control. The Hasmonean dynasty produced such active and powerful leaders as John Hyrcanus (134-104) and his son Alexander Jannaeus (103-76), who conquered substantial lands east of the Jordan and even enforced conversions to Judaism. Its rulers took the title of king, basileus. This Hasmonean realm survived until the Romans established control in 63 BC. By the time of Jesus’s young manhood in the 20s AD, that flourishing independent kingdom was just passing beyond the distant horizon of memory, but it remained a potent dream.
The problem was that this independent kingdom represented an unnatural and unsustainable historical freak. The geography of Palestine meant that the land was at the pivot of major empires elsewhere in the region. It could escape their rule only when those empires found their attention distracted elsewhere, or else when rival empires faced a delicate balance of power, making it convenient to permit an independent Jewish kingdom, however temporarily. Looked at in isolation, the fall of the Jewish kingdom in 63 BC looks like a reversible mishap, which theologians could account for in different ways. Placed in a broader context, though, the outcome seems inevitable.
In order to understand the power vacuum in which the Jewish kingdom arose, some wider history is necessary.
In the third century BC, the Seleucid Empire was a transnational superpower. The Empire was still a mighty force under Antiochus III, also termed the Great, who ruled from 222 to 187. Antiochus reasserted his family’s rule over Parthia and Bactria, and used war elephants to stage a new invasion of India. He mounted an invasion of Greece, and won historic victories against Ptolemaic Egypt. At first sight, his realm looks much like that of Alexander a century previously.
Unfortunately for Antiochus, by 200 the Romans were deeply interested in affairs in Greece and Asia Minor, and they resoundingly defeated him in a war that lasted from 192 through 188. The great battle of Magnesia (190) proved decisive. The Romans expelled the Seleucids from western Asia Minor. More critically, they imposed on him a vast war indemnity of fifteen thousand talents of silver, a fact that would have far-reaching consequences for later Jewish history. Severely weakened, Antiochus’s successors struggled both to pay the indemnity, and to reassert family prestige. Both strategies demanded finding easy and profitable wars to win, which was increasingly difficult in a Roman-dominated world.
That was the situation inherited by his son Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164). In 168, the new Antiochus received a potent object lesson in the new realities of power when he tried to invade Egypt. An elderly Roman ambassador confronted Antiochus and demanded his immediate withdrawal, or else he would face a new war with Rome. Worse, the ambassador drew a circle in the sand around the god-king, and ordered him to make his decision before he stepped beyond it. Antiochus capitulated.That weakness supplies the essential background to the Maccabean revolt, which erupted the following year. According to 1 Maccabees 8.6-7, Judah the Maccabee was inspired to hear of Roman successes against the Seleucids:
How also Antiochus the Great, king of Asia, that came against them in battle, having an hundred and twenty elephants, with horsemen, and chariots, and a very great army, was discomfited by them; and how they took him alive, and covenanted that he and such as reigned after him should pay a great tribute, and give hostages, and that which was agreed upon.
Or as the Bible tells the story of Antiochus IV,
“In the latter part of their reign, when rebels have become completely wicked, a fierce-looking king, a master of intrigue, will arise. 2He will become very strong, but not by his own power. He will cause astounding devastation and will succeed in whatever he does. He will destroy those who are mighty, the holy people. He will cause deceit to prosper, and he will consider himself superior. When they feel secure, he will destroy many and take his stand against the Prince of princes. Yet he will be destroyed, but not by human power.” (Daniel 8: 23-25)
In fact, the Jewish revolution succeeded because the Seleucids were massively over-committed, financially stressed to the point of ruin, and faced multiple challenges from ambitious local rulers and rival states. The Maccabees succeeded in a way they could not possibly have done against the empire as it existed a few decades previously.
During these years, the Seleucid empire fragmented as new powers arose, creating a multipolar, multi-player, political scene, of which the Jewish state was one among several. The implosion of that older empire was astonishingly swift. By around 100 BC, in fact, the Seleucid realm was largely confined to Syria, mainly the regions immediately around Antioch.
By far the strongest of these upstarts was Parthia, which became a powerful rival of Rome itself over the following centuries. The first great Parthian ruler to operate largely free of Seleucid interference was Phraates I, in the 170s. Over the next thirty years, his brother Mithridates conquered much of the lands that had made up the old Persian empire, ranging from Afghanistan into Mesopotamia. Infuriatingly, the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon absorbed the older Greek city known as Seleucia.
But several other states also grew and flourished, seeking to reclaim something of the lost glories of the Hellenistic realm. Briefly triumphant was Pontus, which under its king Mithridates (120-63 BC) ruled most of Asia Minor, and became a lethally dangerous enemy of Rome. (This Mithridates was no relation to the Parthian contemporary of the same name). A reunited Armenia also became a forceful regional player.
It is against the context of these insurgent new states that we should see Jewish rulers like John Hyrcanus and his dynasty from the 140s onwards. They were powerful and staunchly independent – and they could remain so for precisely as long as no great power arose to fill the vacuum left by the Seleucids. Of course, even at the peak of Hasmonean power, Rome had always been in the background, and tolerated Jewish independence as long as it suited the interests of the rising empire. In the 60s BC, fierce internal divisions within the Jewish kingdom ended that tolerance, and the Romans established their power more directly.
In retrospect, we know that the Jewish Revolt of the 60s AD was doomed, and was bound to destroy the land and its society. Even at the time though, a little history should have taught the rebels just how far-fetched their cause really was. They could indeed have challenged Rome, provided that its empire and army was fatally divided and failing, or if they had the support of some mighty external power. For a brief period, Roman divisions seemed very promising, but they were never severe enough to provide the conditions for a Jewish victory.
Rome had not gone the way of the Seleucids, and would not do so for many centuries yet to come.
Excellent general books on the Hellenistic world include Graham Shipley’s The Greek World after Alexander (2000); and an old favorite of mine, Peter Green’s Alexander to Actium (1990). Michael M. Austin, The Hellenistic World from Alexander to the Roman Conquest gives a selection of documents in translation (2nd. ed, 2006).
For the Seleucids, see now Paul J. Kosmin The Land of the Elephant Kings (2014).