Part Five: Jewish identity in a pagan world.
It had been a long time since God’s people had heard the words of a prophet. Were they still in exile? They were living in the land of their fathers and worshiping in the Temple, but their enemies were still in charge. The pagans had the power to enforce their will and their ways on the Jews. God’s people were forced to compromise their political, cultural, and religious autonomy in order to survive. But how much were they willing to bend?
These words describe the Jewish situation at the time of Jesus for sure, but I didn’t set out to describe the Jews of the first century. Rather, I want to describe the Jews of 200 years before during the time of the Maccabean Revolt. The parallels are striking and were not lost on the people of Jesus’ day, although they usually are to us. In fact, the events of this period had a profound impact on the political and religious atmosphere of Jesus’ time. It’s something we should all know a little more about.
I first heard the name “Maccabees” mentioned as a joke about the Apocrypha. I later heard that it’s a book that has some pretty useful historical information, but I wasn’t told what that information was. In my experience, most Christians are entirely ignorant about the Maccabees or anything else that happened between the Old and New Testaments. After all, we have such a hard time actually teaching what we believe to be the Bible. So for most of us, the Maccabees will remain an obscure piece of history at best, or, even worse, another way to make fun of Catholics. This is unfortunate because the Maccabean Revolt is probably the most significant event in understanding the political and religious tensions of Jesus’ day.
In 167 BC, Jewish ways of life were under attack. The Greeks under Alexander the Great had long since ruled the area and encouraged the Hellenization of all the cultures under their thumb. The new ruler, Antiochus Epiphanies, was more forceful than his predecessors. He called himself Epiphanies because he believed he was the manifestation of Zeus. He hated the Jewish religious practices, their distinct way of life and he demanded conformity. He built a gymnasium by the Temple and commanded Jews to enter. This may seem like no big deal, but the Greeks hit the elliptical machines in the buff and demanded the same of all who entered. The Jews didn’t do public nudity.
As Epiphanies squeezed his grip, Jewish protest grew. Josephus records that he outlawed circumcision and the reading of the Torah. Even worse, he desecrated the Temple by dedicating it over to Zeus himself and sacrificing swine. Conflict came to a head when an old Jewish Priest, Mattathias, refused to sacrifice to a pagan idol. Rather, he plunged a sword into the Greek soldier, tore down the idol and shouted, “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and who stands by the covenant follow me!” He started a revolution. With the help of his sons, particularly Judas, this family successfully led a guerrilla war. Judas became known as Maccabeus (“the hammer”) because he was awesome and “Megatron” was already taken.
Against all odds, the Maccabean Revolt was a success! The Greeks were driven out and Jews celebrated their independence for the first time since Babylonian captivity in 587 BC. The feast of Hanukkah celebrates the victory and the re-dedication of the Jewish Temple. It wasn’t a perfect time—the successors of Mattathias and Judas were much less zealous for the law than they. Still, the Jews enjoyed political and religious autonomy for about one hundred years known as the Hasmonean Era. In 63 BC, the Romans took back Jewish independence. It would not be seen again until 1948.
It is nearly impossible to overvalue the importance of the Maccabean Revolt and subsequent Hasmonean period to the Jews of the first century. The Jews of Jesus’ day all answered the same question: What should Jewish identity be in the midst of a Pagan rule. It’s the question that Judas Maccabeus answered with the sword. It’s the question constantly asked by Jesus’ opponents in an effort to trap him. It’s the kind of question that we still deal with today.
Some conformed. When the Romans conquered they originally made Judea a client kingdom, a sort of dependent state with a ruler who received his power from Rome. Herod the Great was one of these client kings. He used Roman influence to make his name great, quite literally. He improved the reputation of the Temple, but he was greedy, brutal, and ungodly. He had rivals killed (including family members) on more than one occasion. His Jewish lineage was questionable as was his Judaism. A group of Jews known as Herodians supported him and his successors. Their answer to the question of the Pagan assault on Jewish identity was conformity and self-preservation.
On the other end of the spectrum were groups like the Zealots and the Essenes. While not mentioned in Scripture, the Essenes retreated to the wilderness community of Qumran where they could devote their life to the Scriptures. They produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Instead of conformity, they chose isolation. Similarly, the Zealots rejected conformity, but they adopted a much more Maccabean attitude toward the Romans. Their answer was revolution. Eventually, their day would come. About 40 years after Jesus’ ministry, the revolutionaries got the war they hoped for, only to see Jerusalem burned, the Temple destroyed, and the Jews crucified by the hundreds.
During Jesus’ day most people were somewhere in the middle. The Sadducees, while dedicated to the Law, were willing to work with the Romans. In exchange, they controlled the Temple and generally had a good deal of political influence. Their rivals, the Pharisees, were less comfortable with the Romans than the Sadducees, but they were also not revolutionaries. They had the ear of the common people with great influence in the many synagogues of Palestine and a network beyond. Their strict moral habits are one way that they answered the question of Jewish identity. What better way to resist Pagan influence, than by conspicuous gestures of Jewish piety?
It had been a long time since they had heard the words of a true prophet. While they lived in the Promised Land and worshiped in the Temple, the people of God were still living in occupation. They were still exiles. They lived under the constant threat that their way of life, their way of worship would be taken away. They also lived with the hope that the Pagan yoke was possible to break. They lived with a hope of another, an even greater, Judas Maccabeus.
By the time of Jesus messianic fever and expectations were high. Many were hoping for a second Judas Maccabeus. The Romans crucified him because he was and the Jews because he wasn’t. Jesus was not the only first century Jew claiming to be the Messiah, but he was the only one whose followers proclaimed even louder after his execution. His answers to the question of Jewish identity were different. He addressed the root of the problem—sin. He proclaimed an invading kingdom that offered true liberation for the poor and oppressed, freedom from sin. He was no Judas Maccabeus. He established no nation. He bore no sword. His kingdom did not last one hundred years; it lasts forever. What made Him so revolutionary is that he defeated the power behind the powers that we see. He defeated sin.
We live in an increasingly pagan world. We live in an oppressed world. How will God’s people respond? The answer cannot be isolation, political force, or self-preserving conformity. The answer is not conspicuous piety or approval seeking. We must address the power behind the powers that be. We must address sin in our life and celebrate the freedom that comes from the cross. We must teach the destructiveness of sin and highlight the joy of living as citizens of the Kingdom. Let everyone who is zealous for the kingdom and stands under the New Covenant of Christ make war on sin.
Read Part Six here.
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