In the third and second centuries BC, the Jewish world changed very rapidly, and we see the development of many themes and debates that would shape both Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism – the Last Judgment and eschatology, angels and demons, afterlife and apocalypse. In that process, one very short period of thirty or so years demands our attention, as the centerpiece of a wide-ranging spiritual revolution.
The critical date in the politics of this era is 167, which marked the outbreak of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire. The revolt had succeeded by 160, and by 140, a potent Judean kingdom achieved independence. For a century, Jewish politics were dominated by one family. (Affairs between 170BC and the 130s are described in 1 Maccabees.)
Bear with me if I offer some very basic history here. Mattathias was a Jewish priest who attacked a Greek official who ordered sacrifice to pagan gods. He had five sons, most famously Judah, “Judas Maccabeus,” the warlord leader of the ensuing revolt, who declared himself high priest in 165. The same office was later held by two of his brothers, namely Jonathan Apphus (high priest 153-43) and Simon (142-35). Jonathan’s accession was critical because it marked the overthrow of the older high priestly establishment, a change that echoed through the religion and its writings for decades to come.
In turn, Simon’s son was John Hyrcanus, who ruled as king from 134 through 104. Although the family owed its power to a revolt against Hellenization, it’s interesting that John’s princely sons bore the names Alexander, Aristoboulos and Antigonus!
This Hasmonean dynasty ruled until the Roman takeover in 63 BC. To quote James L. Kugel, “The Hasmoneans had just taken over the management of the Jerusalem Temple – and for all practical purposes, all political power in Judea as well.” Despite its patriotic credentials, the family had many enemies, and Jonathan’s accession to power made him deeply controversial. Most damning was the creation of a kingdom without Davidic roots.
But apart from narrow political history, look at what was happening in the religious and cultural life of that period, roughly 170-140 BC – no more than a single generation.
It was around 150 that we first hear three very famous names among the Jews. In the Antiquities (13.5.9), Josephus introduces us to “three sects among the Jews, who had different opinions concerning human actions.” These are the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, of whom he would have far more to say in the Jewish War. That does not of course mean that they began at that time, but this is when the historian first notes their impact. Josephus frames his description in terms of the groups’ varying attitudes to fate, determinism and free will, but they had many other divisions, about theology, about the afterlife, about angels and the spiritual hierarchy. The three acted as factions in the religious/political conflicts of the next two centuries.
The other astonishing novelty in this period was the sect associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which probably broke away from the mainstream society of Jerusalem and its Temple somewhere in the 150s. Some historians think that the sect’s venerated but anonymous founder, the Teacher of Righteousness, was displaced and succeeded by Jonathan Apphus. Scholars still debate the group’s exact relationship to the Essenes (or conceivably, the Sadducees).
This period generated a remarkable number of scriptures and other writings. The prophetic sections in the Book of Daniel were written in the mid-160s as a direct response to the revolutionary crisis, and a commentary on it. That book proved enormously influential in creating the Jewish and Christian tradition of apocalyptic, which produced so many exemplars over the following centuries.
I know that some fundamentalists reject that dating, and see Daniel’s words as authentic prophecy from the fifth century or before. To illustrate why I don’t believe that, imagine this analogy. Suppose that I am reading a pseudo-prophecy notionally written in 1850, which describes the future course of US history. It forecasts that there will be a President called Bush, then one called Bill, and then another Bush, who will be the son of the first! And this second Bush would not live to serve out his first term, before the world ends in blood and fire. Obviously that’s not a genuine inspired prophecy, because the world did not end in 2004. On the other hand, the so-called prophet knew enough authentic history to show that the work must have been composed between 2000 and 2004 or so. Daniel, likewise, offers impeccable descriptions of events up to the mid-160s, but not beyond.
Other cases are less clear, but modern scholars have associated a number of texts with that same era, because of what they feel to be connections with the events of the time (and often, those datings are quite subjective). For the record, though, some of the works so attributed include the Deuterocanonical Books of Tobit and Judith, the Prayer of Azariah, and possibly parts of Baruch; as well as the Book of Jubilees. Other experts put Jesus ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) around this time, but it is more likely from the start of the second century. As I say, those dates are not set in stone, nor are they universally held, but they are suggestive. 1 Maccabees, which describes the history of those violent years, was probably written around 100 BC or a little later.
Besides those texts, others sought to justify the Hasmonean hold on power, usually by placing appropriate sentiments in the mouths of long-dead patriarchs or prophets. We see this for instance in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a work with a very long history in Judaism, and even more so in Christianity.
This era also marks the emergence of some critical ideas in Jewish and Christian thought. If they were not entirely new, then they became much more widespread and influential.
I’ll discuss these in my next post.
By the way, any number of books describe the issues that I am describing here. A couple that are both valuable and easily accessible include Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, second edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006); David A. DeSilva, The Jewish Teachers of Jesus, James, and Jude (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Lester L. Grabbe, An Introduction to Second Temple Judaism (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2010).