Political events during the Hellenistic era
The politics of Judea, Samaria, Egypt, Syria, Rome, and surrounding kingdoms set the stage for the events of the First Century CE.
The so-called Oniad dynasty began with the ascension to the high priesthood at Jerusalem of Onias I ben Jaddua in 320 BCE, just over after Alexander’s conquest. Onias was, in fact, the son of his predecessor, who was the scion of a ling unbroken since Joshua ben Jehozadak, who became high priest about 515 BCE. But Onias I opened up the door to Hellenizing ideas and practices which later factions used as wedge issues.
In 242 BCE, Joseph ben Tobiah was appointed tax collector for the entire region of Palestina and founded the Tobiad dynasty, which became rivals to the Oniads for political control.
Political divisions in Iudeia, as the province was known to the Diadochi successors of Alexander, revolved around pro- versus anti- camps on the subject of Hellenism and over being pro-Ptolemaic versus pro-Seleucid. While Samareia shared the latter dispute amongst themselves, as a whole they embraced Hellenism and its cosmopolitan culture with open arms, its land and people being traditionally more liberal, with the Jews were generally more conservative.
The Great Sanhedrin, the deliberative body of Iudeia, separated the post of its head, called the Nasi (literally, Prince) from that of the high priesthood in 191 BCE.
After the First Judean Civil War, 159-153 BCE, the Hasmoneans came to power as nativists and anti-Hellenists, but they ended up even more Hellenist than their Oniad predecessors or even their Samaritan cousins.
By 116 BCE, Seleucid power in the region had weakened to the point where the current high priest, John Hyrcanus, was able to proclaim himself Basileus (King).
Just to review, Hyrcanus conquered Idumea in 110 BCE and Samaria in 108 BCE. Aristobolus I what became Galilee in 104 BCE. Alexander Janneus conquered Perea in 90 BCE and formally annexed Galilee in 81 BCE.
Ethnic groups in Palestine in the first century CE
Jews and Samaritans had a rough parity in at the time of Isho the Nazarene, alias Jesus Christ of Nazareth. There were about 2 million of each. Each of the two major groups also had a rough parity in Palestine, at around half a million each.
The half million Jews in Palestine were divided into three ethnic subgroups: Jews proper, Idumeans, and Galileans. In first century Palestine, the term “Jews” had two meanings: first, it meant the followers of the Israelite religion who were not Samaritans; second, it meant the “racially pure” Jews who were neither converts nor descendants of converts.
Jews proper were the second group, the “racially pure” descendants of those who had always lived in Yehud/Iudeia or who returned from exile in the east. Idumeans were descendants of those in Idumea conquered in 110 BCE. Galileans descended from Itureans and exiles from Judea. Pereans descended from Nabateans. To everyone outside Palestine, or in Palestine but outside the Jewish community, all four of these groups were simply Jews.
The Samaritans, the descendants of those who had always lived in or were originally from Samerina/Samareia, either had no such subgroups or they have gone unrecorded. They also descended to some small degree from central Mesopotamians and Macedonians who had been imported as colonists by one imperial power or another.
In the Diaspora, Jews had no such divisions, or if they did their common links were more important outside Palestine. And while some disparity between Jews and Samaritans was noted in Alexandria, elsewhere in the Diaspora the two seem to have been intertwined.
The largest Diaspora community of Jews was in Egypt, where the number of Israelites was equal to that in Palestine, one million, centered on Alexandria, its population allotted two of the city’s five sections. Those one million almost certainly included a number of Samaritans. The second largest expat community was in Syria, with the two biggest centers in Antioch and Damascus.
To the east, there were large groups in Babylonia and in Iran, particularly in Hyrcania, the northern satrapy made up of modern Gilan, Mazandaran, and part of northern Khorasan. There were communities in every major city across Anatolia, in Cyprus, Cyrenaica, Greece, Italy, and the coastal regions of France and Spain.
Both Jews and Samaritans had substantial presences in Rome, and later Constantinople, the population in Rome estimated at 10% of the total. At the time of Octavius Augustus, the population of the city was about 1,250,000, of which 10% would be 125,000.
The Samaritan Diaspora followed much the same pattern as that of the Jews.
In 15 CE, the royal family of Adiabene (Arbil), a client kingdom of the Arsacid (Parthian) Empire of Iran gained full independence, and declared their realm officially Jewish. Adiabene supported the rebels in the Great Jewish Revolt with money and supplies, and even sent an armed contingent to break the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE that arrived too late. The kingdom led the struggle against Trajan when he invaded northern Mesopotamia in 115 CE, which coincided with the Kitos War in which the Jewish populations of Cyrenaica, Cyprus, Egypt, and Mesopotamia (the Roman province in the south) rose against Rome. For Adiabene, the war ended in 117 CE with it as part of the new Roman province of Assyria.
The survivors of the Great Jewish Revolt of 66-73 CE became the founders of the Jewish communities in western North Africa later known as the Maghrebim. The Bar Kokhba War of 132-135 spurred emigration of Jews from Palestine into the Arabian Peninsula, where they begat the Temanim in Yemen, Aden, Habban, Hadramaut, and Oman in southern Arabia as well as the three Jewish tribes of Medina and the ten Jewish tribes in the Hejaz.
Jews and Samaritans
Both Jews and Samaritans worshipped at local synagogues, which in the Diaspora were called proseuches from the third century BCE through the first century CE. Both used the same lunar calendar. Both observed the Sabbath and the three great festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Booths), as well as Yom Kippur.
One of their main differences was how membership in each group was inherited. Jews were mostly matrilineal, while Samaritans were entirely patrilineal. The change for the Jews dates back to a prescription of the Mishna in the second century BCE. Jews also accused Samaritans of not being racially pure enough, while Samaritans accused Jews of corrupting the religion of Yahuweh with innovation.
At the top of Jewish society under the Roman Empire were the Temple and the Great Sanhedrin, the High Priest being top official at the former, the Nasi over the latter. The Temple shared the top of Mount Moriah with the Royal Stoa, where the Great Sanhedrin met and where the banking and law courts were located.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that male Jews, at least in Palestine, wore their tefillin and tzitzit as part of their daily attire.
The Sadducees were the religious faction mostly of the wealthy and powerful. They held sacred only the five books of the Torah, like the Samaritans. They were matrilineal, and either believed there was no afterlife or taught that it was irrelevant to conduct on Earth. Their power base was the Temple in Jerusalem, where they held the high priesthood.
The Boethusians were either a splinter of the Sadducees or the latter’s leading family, because their doctrines were the same, Torah-only, no afterlife, etc.
The Pharisees were by far the largest sect of the Jews in Palestine. In addition to the Torah, they accepted the Prophets and the Writings, though these were not yet codified. In addition, they followed the Mishna, or Oral Torah. They also framed the Jewish doctrine of the Ruach ha-Kodesh, or Holy Spirit. They fasted on Mondays and Thursdays, and they definitely wore their tefillin and tzitzit daily.
Of the main sects, the Pharisees were the ones most eager to convert Gentiles. They had members in several communities of the Diaspora. Two major factions developed in the early first century CE, Bet Hillel (House of Hillel) and Bet Shammai (House of Shammai), that became almost separate sects.
The power base of the Pharisees was in the Great Sanhedrin, where they held the seat of Nasi (its head) exclusively. By maintaining the Great Sanhedrin and the Palestinian Patriachate after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the Pharisees gave birth to modern Rabbinic Judaism.
The Essenes differed from other Jews in Palestine in a number of respects. First, they may have been patrilineal. They also followed a solar rather than lunar calendar. They had a highly developed astrology and an elaborate angelology. They valued celibacy, though they did not require it, and they were mostly vegetarians. They forbade oaths and animal sacrifice. They practiced voluntary poverty and daily immersion. In addition to the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, they had several others works, some unique to their sect, as scriptures, such as Manual of Discipline, the Damascus Document, and the War of the Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness. They lived in common where possible, in cities throughout the Near East, and their most important center was the community at Qumran.
Documents found at the site show that their autonym was Ebionim (“Poor Ones”). They also called themselves followers of the Way, the Holy Ones (“saints”), Children of Light, and a few other monikers. Collectively they called themselves the Yahad (“community”).
Documents found at the site show that their autonym was Ebionim (“Poor Ones”). They also called themselves followers of the Way, the Holy Ones (“saints”), Children of Light, and a few other monikers. Collectively they called themselves the Yahad (“community”).
The Bene Sedeq were a small sect claimed by some Karaites as their forerunners. Many argue that the latter (Karaites) have to have such antecedents as they have remain patrilineal while the rest of Jews have been matrilineal since the second century BCE. The Karaites also do not wear tefillin, though they do wear tzitzit, and do not accept the Mishna.
The Hemerobaptists were a sect that believed daily baptism was necessary to be cleansed of sin, but on the other hand they did not believe in an afterlife.
The Nasareans were forerunners of the Mandeans. This sect, found mostly in Perea, was strictly vegetarian. They followed the same calendar and observed the Sabbath. They believed in all the Patriarchs, but they shunned the Torah. The Mandeans of today reject Jesus the Nazarene for John the Baptist.
The Therapeutae of Philo lived communally in the desert near Alexandria and were widespread across the Mediterranean world, doubtlessly including Palestine. They used the Torah, the Prophets, the Psalms, and some writings unique to themselves. They assembled weekly for worship and sermons in synagogues divided by sex, and every seven weeks held communal meals serving each other.
The Herodians believed Herod the Great was the long-awaited Messiah.
The Hellenistai used Greek instead of Hebrew in their Scriptures and worship. They produced the Septuagint as their Tanakh, and it contains more books than the Hebrew canon. They were more cosmopolitan and syncretistic to varying degrees, and very liberal in their iconography in their synagogues. By far the largest group, they were overwhelmingly in the Diaspora, but there were some in Palestine also. The Diaspora counterpart to the synagogue from the third century BCE thru the first century CE was the proseuche; after that the name synagogue took over.
The additional books to the Hebrew canon contained in the Septuagint include: Tobit, Judith, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (aka Ecclesiasticus or Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira), Baruch, Letter of Jeremiah, I Maccabees, II Maccabees, additions to Esther, and additions to Daniel (Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon). Some copies also include III Maccabees, IV Maccabees, Odes of Solomon, Prayer of Manasseh, and I Enoch.
Converts and followers
Most Jewish sects, but especially the Pharisees, eagerly converted Gentiles. Inside Palestine, a full convert was called a ger tzedek, and in the Diaspora a proselyte. A worshipper of Yahuweh who followed the seven Noahide Laws without fully converting was called a ger toshav in Palestine and a theophobe (God-fearer) in the Diaspora. The latter in modern times are referred to in English as a righteous Gentile.
There were seven of these: 1. Do not commit idolatry; 2. Do not blaspheme; 3. Do not murder; 4. Do not engage in sexual immorality; 5. Do not steal; 6. Do not eat of a live animal; 7. Establish courts/legal system to ensure justice.
Samaritans and their sects
The four important points of the Samaritan version of the Israelite religion were One God (Yahuweh), the Torah, the prophet Moses, and Mount Gerizim as the chosen place for the center of Yahuweh worship. They have the Samaritan Chronicle, much of which corresponds to the Book of Joshua, but they do not consider it sacred.
The Sebuaeans observed Pesach and the Feast of Matzot (Unleavened Bread) in late summer, Shavuot in the fall, and Sukkot in the spring.
The Dositheans, named for their founder, Dositheus, reputed to be the teacher of Simon Magus, believed in the afterlife and practiced asceticism, vegetarianism, and celibacy.
The Gorothenes are given in a couple of sources as a sect, but nothing is said about that which makes them separate.
The Hypsistarians, “worshippers of God Most High”, were a group of strict monotheists who lived and practiced across Anatolia and the southern shores of the Black Sea from 200 BCE to 400 CE. They called the deity they worshipped Hypsistos, a term found for the Hebrew deity in the Septuagint, and their beliefs may have originated from the conflation of Zeus Sabazios with Yahweh Tzevaot. They did not follow the Torah, much less the Mishna.
Jewish Christian sects
Although these sects are certainly post-Jesus, they originated in Palestine shortly after his departure from the scene, basing themselves on how they perceived his teachings. These are included as a footnote to the description of first century Judaism.
The Ebionites were circumcised, observed the Sabbath, celebrated the three festivals, considered Jerusalem their holy city, and would only accept at their tables Gentiles who had converted to Judaism. Some practiced vegetarianism. They rejected Jesus’ pre-existence, virgin birth (most but not all), divinity, and the atoning nature of his death. Many Ebionite rejected his physical resurrection. They accepted the Torah, the Writings, the Prophets, and the Gospel of the Ebionites in Hebrew, which was very similar to the Gospel of Matthew. They also produced the Recognitions of Clement and the Clementine Homilies.
The Nazarenes were very close to the Ebionites, but they accepted the virgin birth. They had their own gospel, the Gospel of the Nazarenes.
The Hebrews believed in the pre-existence of Jesus, the incarnation, and the virgin birth. They had their own gospel, the Gospel of the Hebrews, written in Greek. It spoke of the Holy Spirit as the Divine Mother and portrayed Jesus as appearing first to James the Just, his brother, after the resurrection. This sect was probably based in Egypt.
The Osseans, or Elchasaites, were from Perea. Among them, celibacy was forbidden, marriage mandated. They reject the writings of Paul, the Apostles, and the Prophets, and followed instead the Book of Elchasai as their primary source.
The Cerintheans were a quasi-Gnostic sect in the Roman province of Asia (formerly Phrygia in western Anatolia) who believed the universe was created by a demiurge who was good (as opposed to the evil demiurge of Valentius), distinguished between Jesus and the Christ (which they said descended on him at the baptism), had their own gospel similar to Matthew, accepted all the Jewish scriptures, worshipped the same god of the Jews from the Tanakh, and instructed his followers to follow the halakha of the Torah.
The Gnostics were extremely diverse, in several sects mostly originating among Jews and Samaritans from the late first century. They are included here because they worshipped in synagogues, even though most of their sects rejected both the Tanakh and the Jewish god. Often the various sects were a blend of Judaism in the negative and of various Hellenistic philosophies, such as Platonism, Stoicism, and Pythagoreanism. Creation of the world by a demiurge was a primary feature, and matter was usually considered evil. The sect called the Simonians are of particular interest since they were supposedly founded by the Samaritan figure in the Acts of the Apostles called Simon Magus.
Apocalyptic and popular Judaism
Palestine and much of Judaism was under the influence of apocalyptic visions of utopian and dystopian futures. Much of this came out in the forms of literature imitating scriptures.
The apocalyptic, of which the Daniel is a prime example, and pseudepigraphic, of which Daniel is also a prime example, literature of this period provides additional insight into the true ideas of the religion of the Jews at the time. Some of the more prominent examples include the Assumption of Moses, the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, 1 Enoch, 2 Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, Jubilees, the Sibylline Oracles, and the Martyrdom of Isaiah. These books were widely popular at the time, some quoted directly or referenced implicitly in the New Testament as well as being found at Qumran.
Others found or mentioned by Church Fathers include: 3 Enoch, 2 Baruch, 3 Baruch, 4 Baruch, 3 Esdras, 4 Esdras, 5 Ezra, 6 Ezra, 5 Maccabees, 6 Maccabees, 7 Maccabees, 8 Maccabees, 1 Meqabyan, 2 Meqabyan, 3 Meqabyan, Adam Octipartite, Apocalypse of Abraham, Apocalypse of Adam, Apocalypse of Elijah, Apocalypse of Sedrach, Apocalypse of the Seven Heavens, Apocalypse of Zephaniah, Apochryphon of Jacob and Joseph, Apocryphon of Melchizedek, Apocryphon of the Ten Tribes, Ascension of Moses, Book of Asaf, Book of Noah, Cave of Treasures, Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan, Apocyphon of Jeremiah, Eldad and Modad, Enochic book of Giants, Epistle of Rehoboam, Apocalypse of Daniel, Apocalypse of Ezra, History of Joseph, History of the Rechabites, Jannes and Jambres, Joseph and Aseneth, Ladder of Jacob, Letter of Aristeas, Life of Adam and Eve, Lives of the Prophets, Prayer of Jacob, Prayer of Joseph, Psalms of Solomon, Questions of Ezra, Revelation of Ezra, Rule of the Congregation, Rule of the Blessing, Signs of the Judgment, Sword of Moses, Testament of Abraham, Testament of Isaac, Testament of Jacob, Testament of Job, Testament of Solomon, Treatise of Shem, Vision of Ezra, Visions of Heaven and Hell, and Words of Gad the Seer.
The point of sharing all these names is to demonstrate just how much first century Judaism was nothing like the picture we get from the New Testament or from the Talmud.
Paganism in first century Palestine
Palestine in the first century was not the haven of heaven as it is often portrayed in movies, theology courses, sermons, popular religion, etc. According to Josephus, the “haven of heaven” was anything but; he coining of the word “theocracy” to describe the state under which he lived (and suffered) until 70 CE was not a compliment.
There was very much paganism, some syncretistic, some purely pagan, even at the heart of Judea in Jerusalem.
For example, Plutarch and Tacitus describe Jews engaging in Dionysus worship as portrayed in II Maccabees.
As in the past, Tammuz was worshipped in widely in Palestine, mostly in the syncretistic form of Adonis. In fact, the cave in Bethlehem now celebrated as the birthplace of Jesus served that function for Adonis-Tammuz in the first century, and later for Mithras.
In the city of Sebaste (Samaria), there was a temple dedicated to Serapis and Isis from the second century BCE; keep in mind that the Samaritans holy site was Mount Gerizim. In the early second century, it was rededicated to Demeter and Persephone. It also hosted an Augustaeum, a temple to the divine Augustus, and a temple to Kore, the maiden form of Persephone.
The capital city of Iudaea province, Caesarea Maritimi, sported a Mithraeum, a temple complex to the god Mithras. Mithras was a Mediterranean mystery deity, only partially based on the Iranian god Mitra.
The five-sided pool of Bethesda depicted the Gospel of John was actually an Asclepieion, a healing pool dedicated to the god of healing, Asclepius. It was adjacent to the Fortress Antonia, which abutted the Temple Mount. Asclepius, as the healer, was often given the title “Soter”, or Savior. Herod Agrippa I, King of the Jews 41-44 CE, constructed a shrine to Asclepius there.
After the Bar Kokhba War, Hadrian constructed a full scale Temple of Asclepius and Serapis at the site, which included the small healing pools of the Asclepieion, a large pool dedicated to Serapis and another to Fortuna.
This Serapeum was included in his new, entirely pagan, city of Aelia Capitolina. He also rebuilt the former Temple Mount, but with temples to Jupiter on one hand and to Juno and Minerva on the other on its top. There was a temple to Venus above a grotto that also served for Asclepius worship, and a temple to Mercury in the Upper City.
At the visit of the empress mother Helena in the fourth century, these became, respectively, the sites of the Jewish Temple, the Royal Stoa, the Holy Sepulchre, and the Upper Room. In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Mithras became the birthplace of Jesus.
In the fifteenth century, the Ari (Isaac Luria) declared that the western wall the Hadrian built for the compound of the temples of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva was the western wall of the Jewish temple compound, even though that had been entirely dismantled. According to Josephus, who was there and saw it happen, the only structures left standing, besides Fortress Antonia, were the western wall OF THE CITY (the former temple was in the east of the city) and three towers.
The synagogue in the capital of Galilaea province, Autocratis (formerly Sepphoris, later—post Bar Kokhba War—Diocaesarea), displayed the zodiac on its floor. Scores of synagogues around Galilee, in fact, picked up that design for their own floors. These may be signs of the survival of the Essenes, or other Jews and Samaritans may have picked it up from them.
Medusa and winged cherubim are depicted in the synagogue of Capernaum, the very one in which Jesus visited so often. As is the Seal of Solomon (now called the Star of David).
The Samaritan synagogue at Scythopolis (Beth Shean) includes a depiction of Leda and the Swan who raped her (Zeus metamorphosized).
The second century synagogue at a the border city of Dura Europos in far eastern Syria had frescoes showing fifty-eight scenes from the Tanakh, including Moses as the Lawgiver, the sacrifice of Isaac, Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, the visions of Ezekial, and many others. There were also depictions of Moses with three nymphs, Ares supervising the Exodus, Aphrodite, and Victory bringing laurel wreaths.
Orpheus is depicted in synagogues not only around the Mediterranean, but in Palestine itself, in Judea as well as Galilee. In some of these depictions, he is portrayed as King David. Later, Christians borrowed the motif for Jesus.
In several synagogues both in Palestine and around the Mediterranean, God is depicted as Helios in his chariot, apparently at that time considered the ultimate motif for that.
Other motifs in synagogues of the first through seventh centuries included the Ark of the Covenant, menorahs, horns, vines (symbol of Dionysus), palm branches, peacocks, centaurs, griffins, the Four Seasons, Ares, Fortuna, a gorgon head, Pegasus, Amazons, Queen Penthesilea, King Lycomedes, Odysseus, Achilles, Atalanta, and Meleagros. Not just in the Diaspora, not just in Palestine, but wherever Jews and Samaritans lived.
From Josephus, we learn that atop the gate to the Temple courtyard itself stood a Roman eagle, which first century Jews no doubt despised as a pagan symbol. We have graphic evidence of that being the case, in fact. In 4 BCE, but before the death of Herod the Great, two religious teachers, Judas son of Sepphoraeus and Matthias son of Margalus, were crucified after their students, inspired by their exhortations, cut down the eagle and burned it. After it was replaced, there were no more attempts at redecoration.
As can be seen from the list of pagan sites above, the Hellenistic mystery cults of the ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world were well-represented in Palestine. In some cases, there was even a past connection to former local religious practices. Most pagan worship in first century Palestine was, in fact, of the mystery cults: Orpheus, Mithras, Demeter and Persephone, Dionysus, Kore, Venus-Astarte and Adonis-Tammuz, and Serapis and Isis and Harpocrates.
Tammuz, of course, had a long history in Palestine, and among Israelites. He was identified with Adonis, which was the Greek version of him. In some places, Adonis-Tammuz was equated with Asclepius, who was equated in the southern Levant, including Palestine, with Eshmun, the ancient Canaanite-Phoenician god of healing.
The Serapian mysteries were quite ancient, dating back to very old Egypt, where they began as the mysteries of Osiris. Osiris, in turn, was the foundation for Serapis, a syncretistic deity introduced by Ptolemy after he took control of Egypt in the late fourth century BCE. The name Serapis derives from Aser-Apis, the merging of Osiris (Aser) with Apis, god of grains, herds, and the dead. By the first centuries BCE/CE, Serapis was further merged with Asclepius. Isis was such a popular figure already that her name didn’t change, but Horus became Harpocrates.
The mystical themes which gave birth to the full Qabbalah began in the first century BCE, with the Merkabah school. The basis of the Merkabah was the Vision of the Chariot (merkabah literally means “chariot”) in Ezekial 1:4-26. Two other passages in Ezekial, 3:12-15 and all of chapter 10, are of particular interest, but so is the entire book. The vision in Daniel 7 and the Vision of the Throne in Isaiah 6:1-8 also played a role. A passage in the noncanonical, but widely popular in the first century, 1 Enoch 14, also influenced Merkabah mysticism. Traces of it in the New Testament include the “third heaven” vision of Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2-5; much of the Epistle to the Hebrews; and the entire Revelation of John the Divine.