Light Ends an Age of Darkness
THE world of Jesus Christ and his apostles was very different from that of Hebrew Scripture times. Bible readers unaware of this may imagine social and religious continuity from the prophet Malachi to the Gospel writer Matthew, only vaguely sensing what occurred during the 400 years between them.
Malachi, the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures in most present-day Bibles, closes with the remnant of Israel resettled in their homeland after being released from captivity in Babylon. (Jeremiah 23:3) Devoted Jews were encouraged to wait for God’s day of judgment to rid the world of evil and introduce the Messianic Age. (Malachi 4:1, 2) Meanwhile, Persia ruled. Persian troops quartered in Judah kept the peace and upheld royal edicts by force of arms.—Compare Ezra 4:23.
However, Bible lands did not remain stable throughout the following four centuries. Spiritual darkness and confusion began to intrude. The Near East was convulsed with violence, terrorism, oppression, radical religious thinking, speculative philosophy, and culture shock.
Matthew, the first book of the Christian Greek Scriptures, was written in a different era. Rome’s legions enforced the Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. Reverent people keenly awaited the Messiah’s coming to abolish suffering, tyranny, and poverty, and to shed light on life, prosperity, and tranquillity. (Compare Luke 1:67-79; 24:21; 2 Timothy 1:10.) Let us take a closer look at the dynamic forces that reshaped Jewish society in the centuries preceding the birth of Jesus Christ.
Jewish Life in Persian Times
Following Cyrus’ proclamation that released the Jews from Babylonian captivity, in 537 B.C.E. a band of Jews and non-Jewish associates departed from Babylonia. This spiritually responsive remnant returned to a territory of destroyed cities and desolated land. Edomites, Phoenicians, Samaritans, Arabian tribes, and others had eaten up Israel’s once spacious territory. What remained of Judah and Benjamin became the province of Judah in the Persian satrapy called Abar Nahara (Beyond the River).—Ezra 1:1-4; 2:64, 65.
Under Persian rule, Judah began to experience “a period of expansion and population growth,” says The Cambridge History of Judaism. It further says concerning Jerusalem: “Peasants and pilgrims brought gifts, Temple and city became rich, and their wealth attracted foreign merchants and craftsmen.” Although the Persians were very tolerant of local government and religion, taxation was severe and could be paid only in precious metals.—Compare Nehemiah 5:1-5, 15; 9:36, 37; 13:15, 16, 20.
The final years of the Persian Empire were very turbulent times, marked by revolts of the satraps. Many Jews got involved in an uprising along the Mediterranean Coast and were deported far to the north, to Hyrcania on the Caspian Sea. However, most of Judah does not appear to have been affected by Persia’s punitive response.
The Grecian Period
Alexander the Great sprang leopardlike upon the Middle East in 332 B.C.E., but a taste for Greek imports had already preceded him. (Daniel 7:6) Realizing that Greek culture had political value, he deliberately set out to Hellenize his expanding empire. Greek became an international language. Alexander’s brief reign fostered a love for sophistries, an enthusiasm for sports, and an appreciation for aesthetics. Gradually, even the Jewish heritage gave way to Hellenism.
Following Alexander’s death in 323 B.C.E., his successors in Syria and Egypt were the first to fill the roles that the prophet Daniel called “the king of the north” and “the king of the south.” (Daniel 11:1-19) During the reign of the Egyptian “king of the south,” Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 B.C.E.), the Hebrew Scriptures began to be translated into Koine, common Greek. This version came to be called the Septuagint. Many verses of this work were quoted in the Christian Greek Scriptures. The Greek language proved to be excellent for conveying enlightening shades of meaning to a spiritually confused and bedarkened world.
After Antiochus IV Epiphanes became king of Syria and ruler of Palestine (175-164 B.C.E.), Judaism was nearly wiped out by government-sponsored persecution. Jews were forced, under threat of death, to renounce Jehovah God and to sacrifice only to Greek deities. In December 168 B.C.E., a pagan altar was built over the great altar of Jehovah at Jerusalem’s temple, and sacrifices were offered on it to the Olympian Zeus. Shocked but courageous men of the countryside banded together under the leadership of Judas Maccabaeus and waged bitter warfare until they gained possession of Jerusalem. The temple was rededicated to God, and three years to the day after its desecration, the daily sacrifices were renewed.
In the course of the remaining Greek period, those of the Judean community aggressively sought to enlarge their territory to its ancient boundaries. Their newfound military prowess was used in an ungodly way to force their pagan neighbors to convert at sword point. Still, Greek political theory continued to govern cities and towns.
During this time, contenders for the high priesthood were often corrupt. Schemes, assassinations, and political intrigues tainted their office. The more ungodly the spirit among the Jews, the more popular Greek sports became. How astonishing it was to see young priests neglecting their duties in order to participate in the games! Jewish athletes even submitted to painful surgery to become “uncircumcised” so as to avoid embarrassment when they competed naked with Gentiles.—Compare 1 Corinthians 7:18.
In the early postexilic years, faithful Jews resisted the blending of pagan concepts and philosophies with the true religion revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. The book of Esther, written after more than 60 years of close association with Persia, contains not one trace of Zoroastrianism. Furthermore, no influence of this Persian religion is found in the Bible books of Ezra, Nehemiah, or Malachi, all written during the early part of the Persian period (537-443 B.C.E.).
However, scholars believe that during the latter part of the Persian period, many Jews began to adopt some of the views of the worshipers of Ahura Mazda, the chief Persian deity. This shows up in popular superstitions and the beliefs of the Essenes. Common Hebrew words for jackals, other desert creatures, and nocturnal birds became associated in Jewish minds with the evil spirits and night monsters of Babylonian and Persian folklore.
Jews began to look at pagan ideas in a different light. Concepts of heaven, hell, the soul, the Word (Logos), and wisdom all took on new meanings. And if, as was then taught, God was so remote that he no longer communicated with men, he needed intermediaries. The Greeks called these mediating and guardian spirits daimones. Having adopted the idea that daimones (demons) could be good or evil, the Jews became ready prey to demonic control.
A constructive change involved local worship. Synagogues sprang up as the places where neighborhood congregations of Jews met for religious education and services. Exactly when, where, and how Jewish synagogues got started is not known. Since they filled the needs of Jews in distant lands for worship when they could not go to the temple, it is generally believed that synagogues were established in exilic or postexilic times. Significantly, they turned out to be fine forums for Jesus and his disciples to ‘declare abroad the excellencies of God, the one calling people out of darkness into his wonderful light.’—1 Peter 2:9.
Judaism Embraced Various Schools of Thought
In the second century B.C.E., various schools of thought began to emerge. They were not separate religious organizations. Rather, they were small associations of Jewish clergy, philosophers, and political activists who sought to influence the people and control the nation, all under the umbrella of Judaism.
The politicized Sadducees were chiefly wealthy aristocrats, known for their adroit diplomacy ever since the Hasmonaean uprising in the mid-second century B.C.E. Most of them were priests, though some were businessmen and landowners. By the time Jesus was born, most Sadducees favored Roman rule of Palestine because they thought it was more stable and was likely to maintain the status quo. (Compare John 11:47, 48.) A minority (Herodians) believed that rule by the family of Herod would better suit national sentiment. At any rate, the Sadducees did not want the nation to be in the hands of Jewish fanatics or to have anyone other than priests in control of the temple. Sadducean beliefs were conservative, mainly based on their interpretation of Moses’ writings, and reflected their opposition to the powerful sect of the Pharisees. (Acts 23:6-8) The Sadducees rejected the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures as speculations. They taught that the Bible’s historical, poetical, and proverbial books were uninspired and nonessential.
The Pharisees originated during the Grecian period as a vigorous reaction to anti-Jewish Hellenism. By Jesus’ day, however, they were rigid, tradition-bound, legalistic, proud, self-righteous proselytizers and teachers who sought to control the nation through synagogue instruction. They came mainly from the middle class and disdained the common people. Jesus viewed most Pharisees as self-seeking, merciless money lovers who oozed hypocrisy. (Matthew, chapter 23) They accepted the entire Hebrew Scriptures in the light of their own explanations but attached equal or greater weight to their oral traditions. They said that their traditions were “a fence around the Law.” Far from being a fence, however, their traditions invalidated the Word of God and perplexed the public.—Matthew 23:2-4; Mark 7:1, 9-13.
The Essenes were mystics who apparently lived in a few isolated communities. They regarded themselves as the true remnant of Israel, waiting in purity to receive the promised Messiah. The Essenes led a contemplative life of pious austerity, and many of their beliefs mirrored Persian and Greek concepts.
Several varieties of religiously motivated, fanatically patriotic Zealots murderously viewed as enemies everyone who got in the way of independent Jewish statehood. They have been likened to the Hasmonaeans and primarily appealed to idealistic, adventurous young men. Perceived as bandit-assassins or as resistance fighters, they employed guerrilla tactics that made country roads and public squares dangerous and added to the tensions of the day.
In Egypt, Greek philosophy flourished among Alexandrian Jews. From there it spread to Palestine and to the widely scattered Jews of the Diaspora. Jewish theorists who wrote the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha interpreted Moses’ writings as vague, bland allegories.
By the time the Roman era had arrived, Hellenization had permanently transformed Palestine socially, politically, and philosophically. The Jews’ Biblical religion had been replaced by Judaism, a blend of Babylonian, Persian, and Grecian concepts entwined with a certain amount of Scriptural truth. All together, however, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes constituted less than 7 percent of the nation. Caught in the vortex of these conflicting forces were the masses of the Jewish people, “skinned and thrown about like sheep without a shepherd.”—Matthew 9:36.
Into that dark world stepped Jesus Christ. Comforting was his reassuring invitation: “Come to me, all you who are toiling and loaded down, and I will refresh you.” (Matthew 11:28) How thrilling to hear him say: “I am the light of the world”! (John 8:12) And delightful, indeed, was his heartcheering promise: “He that follows me will by no means walk in darkness, but will possess the light of life.”—John 8:12.
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Jesus showed that Jewish religious leaders were in spiritual darkness
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Coin bearing the likeness of Antiochus IV (Epiphanes)
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.