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In the Days of King Herod

19 September 2008

This weekend our Sunday evening families’ Bible study begins a textual study of Luke 1.  I was intrigued by Luke’s attention to the historical details (1:5), which carefully set the story of Jesus “in the days of King Herod.”  Maybe Luke didn’t have any agenda in mind in pointing that out; it would become clear later in the story that Herod is a character of some importance.

But what if the Herodian setting of the story is more than just a passing observation to Luke?  What if he is tipping his hand to the reader?

So intriguing was that question this morning that I decided to spend some time researching “the days of King Herod.”  


Somehow the Gospels seem, unfortunately, to emerge from a cultural nothingness, out of nowhere, without any historical context.

Suddenly, amidst a world minding its own business, the angel appears to Mary…

…but that’s not the way it happened.  The angel appeared to Mary, a daughter in the lineage of Abraham, a resident of Nazareth in Galilee, a rural district of the Roman empire, a Hebrew in exile in her own homeland.  She was a particular girl, with a particular boyfriend, and a particular cousin downcountry.

And she lived in the days of King Herod.


The Old Testament ends sort of abruptly, wouldn’t you agree?  In 444 B. C. E., Persia controls Judea, Artaxerxes has issued his decree that sends Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and Ezra and the priests have re-established worship, sacrifices, and feasts and have dedicated the walls.  In Nehemiah 13, we find the Jews jealously returning to the idea that no foreigner is to be admitted into the assembly of YHWH.  Nehemiah rebukes the laissez-faire Levites who are allowing the Sabbath to be defiled by aliens.

Strange, isn’t it?  Even Malachi brings us a tale of Judah’s defilement by foreigners.  But that’s precisely where it gets really interesting, so file that tidbit away for future reference.  The history really helps us, I think, to make sense of some of the oddities of the story of Jesus.


While all of that intrigue is going on in Persian-controlled Jerusalem, across the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea the rival city-states of Athens and Sparta are preparing for war, which begins around 431 B. C. E. and lasts about 25 years.

Incidentally, Socrates is alive around this time, too.  He later dies a dissident’s death at the hands of the establishment, drinking the hemlock in 399 B. C. E.  His protege, Plato, emerges during Socrates’ later years, with Aristotle to follow.


Alexander the Great was a Macedonian, the son of Philip, and ascended to the throne in 336 when his father was murdered.  He spent the next two years or so getting his legs under him, and then he swept east to finish what his father had started:  the conquest of Persia.  By about 331 B. C. E., he had Persia (and a lot more) under his thumb.  It was the last hurrah of the Golden Age.

Eight years later, Alexander was dead.  The year was 323 B. C. E.


Alexander knew he was dying, so he summoned his most trusted marshals and aides.  Here, the accounts diverge a bit.  Some say that instead of bequeathing a single throne to a single person – a son of one of his concubines?  his still-to-be-born son Alexander IV? – he divided the empire among his marshals.  Others say that when the marshals demanded to know who would succeed him, he didn’t speak clearly enough, his words garbled and his intent ultimately misunderstood.  But the historical result was clear enough, for by 312 B. C. E., the empire had been thoroughly carved up.  The two main pieces of interest to us, as the apocryphal book of I Maccabees documents, were the Ptolemies of the south (Egypt) and the Seleucids of the north (Syria and Babylon).  Yep, Judea is squeezed among Egyptians, Syrians, and Babylonians…again.  For a time, Ptolemy has the upper hand in Jerusalem.


The Seleucid dynasty beginning with Seleucus I established a secondary, western capital city on the Orontes River delta around 300 B. C. E.  We know that city as Syrian Antioch, just around the corner of the Great Sea from the little village of Tarsus and the base of the apostle Paul’s later missionary operations.


By the time we get to about 200 B. C. E., there’s a new sheriff in Seleucia by the name of Antiochus III.  (He’s the Seleucid king that got routed by the Romans at Thermopylae in 191 B. C. E. and was forced to retreat eastward from Greece.)  He has a son, Antiochus IV, whose name later features the appendage “Epiphanes,” a suffix that makes the name sound more god-like.  In 170 B. C. E., Antiochus IV Epiphanes begins a campaign against Ptolemaic Egypt, and in the process he takes control of Palestine.

For the Jews in Palestine, this dude is trouble; he’s responsible for the “abomination that desolates” (Daniel 9:27), which takes place in Jerusalem in 167 B. C. E.  Not everybody agrees that Daniel 9:27 refers to this historical incident.  But Josephus, the most prominent historian of the Jewish nation during his time, tells that Antiochus IV Epiphanes, on returning from his campaign against Alexandria (Egypt), took Jerusalem “in the hundered and forty-third year of the kingdom of the Seleucidae,” and then returned two years later and plundered the Temple.  (Doing the math, 312 – 145 = 167.)  Josephus says,

…he left the temple bare, and took away the golden candlesticks, and the golden altar, and table, and the altar; and did not abstain from even the veils, which were made of fine linen and scarlet.  He also emptied it of its secret treasures, and left nothing at all remaining; and by this means cast the Jews into great lamentation, for he forbade them to offer those daily sacrifices which they used to offer to God, according to the law…and when the king had built an idol altar upon God’s Altar, he slew swine upon it, and so offered a sacrifice neither according to the law, nor the Jewish religious worship in that country.  (Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 12.5.4)

Epiphanes didn’t miss many details in humiliating the Judeans and desecrating their sacred symbols.  Josephus goes on to write that Epiphanes outlawed circumcision on penalty of death; installed his own version of the Gestapo to enforce the new regime; and destroyed any sacred books of the law whenever they were found.

Some, including Eugene Peterson, view Josephus as a bit of a scamp, a cynical opportunist and a manipulative propagandist.  (See Peterson’s The Jesus Way for his explanation.)  So it’s possible, I guess, that Josephus’ account is trumped up propaganda.  If I wanted to stir up a Jewish people against another group, telling a story of how that other group had sacrificed unclean animals on the Temple altar would be a good way to do it.

In any event, whether Daniel 9:27 refers to that incident or not, Epiphanes has drawn a big, heavy line in the sand.  As a result, Josephus says (12.5.5), the Samaritan people decided to disavow any remaining association with the Judeans.  They wrote to Epiphanes a disgusting letter, referring to the Egyptian plagues as “certain frequent plagues” (thus trivializing the plagues and denying YHWH’s involvement) and to the Sabbath as a “certain ancient superstition.”  The Jews, according to the Samaritans’ letter, were “wicked.”  The Samaritans thus appealed to Epiphanes to treat the Samaritans differently, as the ethnic Sidonians they had originally been, rather than as near-Jews.  They also declared that the “unnamed” temple at Shechem should be called the “Temple of Jupiter Hellenius.”

This casts new light on the Samaritans, doesn’t it?  It’s not just that they were half-breeds, as we often think.  They were traitors, full and willing participants in the abominations that Epiphanes had brought upon the Jews.  So when we get to Jesus’ parables, we probably ought to keep in mind that there was more to this little ethnic snit than meets the eye.


At this point in the story, 167 B. C. E., the Maccabeans appear, intent on resisting the Seleucid king and preserving the distinctiveness of Jewish culture and religion, by violence when necessary.  Apparently, it was necessary a lot.  

As the Greek empires fade and Rome evolves from a republic into an empire, the Maccabeans continue their rebellion through several generations, lashing out against every nearby foe and asserting their independence, with varying degrees of success.  A number of different sects emerge from the revolutionary fervor of the time, including the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots.


More to come.


One Comment leave one →
  1. 3 October 2008 10:02 am

    Tears flow – brilliant – loved it – want more! – wallet wide open – glory!

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