Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin

Chapter 1
The Early Years

[p.3]When Jesus was born in Palestine, Herod the Great was ending his long reign as king of the Jews and Caesar Augustus was the first emperor of Rome. Following a century of independence under the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty, the conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BCE by the pro-consul Gnaeus Pompey had made Palestine a part of the Roman Empire.

Jesus was born at least 1,250 years after Moses led the Hebrew tribes from Egypt to Canaan, 1,000 years after the coronation of King David, 700 years after the Prophet Isaiah, and almost 600 years after the destruction of Solomon’s temple by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. For over seven centuries Israel had been under the yoke successively of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, the Greek empires of Alexander the Great and Egypt and Syria, and finally, after a century of precarious independence, the overwhelming power of Rome.

The center of Jewish religious and cultural life was Jerusalem. The Temple, which had been rebuilt in the sixth century BCE as a modest structure after the return of the Jews from Babylon, had been enlarged by Herod to become one of the most impressive monuments in the entire Roman world. There, in the presence of Palestinian Jews and Jewish pilgrims from the numerous lands of the Diaspora, the priests daily performed the elaborate sacrificial rites required by the already ancient ceremonial law.

However, where there were adequate concentrations of Jews outside of Jerusalem, the local synagogues were the centers of religious worship and education. In the synagogues they learned the teaching of the prophets and the traditions of the Law, which had been handed down with meticulous care over many generations. The prophetic religious and moral precepts and the require-[p.4]ments of the Law had been kept alive through the centuries by a continued study of the sacred books, which were the foundations of Jewish religion and culture, the Law (Torah) and the Prophets.1

The Accounts of Jesus’s Birth

Bethlehem, in the hills of Judea a few miles south of Jerusalem, has traditionally been considered the birthplace of Jesus. It is an ancient place, celebrated in the Old Testament as the city of David the King. According to Hebrew tradition, Rachel, the mother of Joseph, was buried on the way to Bethlehem (Gn. 35:19f). Ruth, the ancestress of David and Jesus, came to Bethlehem from Moab (Ru. 1:19). And David, who became Israel’s most illustrious king, was reared in Bethlehem (1 Sm 17:12, 15) over a thousand years before the birth of Jesus.

According to Matthew 2:19, Jesus was born before the death of Herod the Great.2 Since Herod died ca. 4 BCE, many historians accept that year as the date of Jesus’s birth. Luke, on the other hand, suggests that the birth occurred the year of the Syrian governor Quirinius’s census, which is believed by some to have been 6 CE. According to Luke 2:1f., the emperor Augustus decreed that a census be taken throughout the Roman world. Because he was of the “house and lineage of David,” Joseph, who presumably lived in Nazareth, returned with Mary to his native city of Bethlehem to register for the census.

Early Christian tradition identified a cave or grotto in Bethlehem as the place where Jesus was born, and in the fourth century the Roman emperor Constantine built the Church of the Nativity [p.5]over this grotto. In the sixth century, the emperor Justinian rebuilt the church, and a good portion of the structure has survived. It is believed by many to be the oldest Christian church.

Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, which for centuries has been the heart of Christian lore and tradition, expressed the expectancy that prevailed among the common Jewish people of Palestine whose longing for their nation’s redemption increased as their lives became more difficult under Roman rule. The hope that God would deliver Israel from bondage was already generations old, and the expectation of the coming of the day of redemption became even more intense with every disappointment and failure. That expectation, found especially in the later prophets and expressed with increasing strength in the apocalyptic and pseudepigraphic literature produced after the close of the Old Testament, reached its intensity in the period from Jesus’s birth through the first century. The Jewish hope was for the redemption of the nation, of human history, and the world. This hope was to become in Christianity a faith in the redemption of the individual human soul.

The gospel stories of the nativity are far more than simply narratives of Jesus’s birth or even expressions of the Jewish messianic expectations. Although their authors may have had access to earlier written accounts and certainly were acquainted with the existing oral traditions, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, where the nativity stories appear, were not written until many years after the crucifixion of Jesus. By then the Christian communities, which came into existence following the crucifixion and the events of Pentecost, were in the process of formulating the foundations of their religious faith.

It is justifiable to believe that the faith of the church communities from which the Gospels of Luke and Matthew came was incorporated into the accounts of the nativity as well as into what are sometimes called the prologues of Matthew and Luke. The prologues include the annunciation of the births of John and Jesus, the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple, the visit of the Magi, and the flight to Egypt. These accounts are early [p.6]Christian reflections upon Jesus which proclaim him to be the source and heart of the new Christian faith.

The story of Jesus’s birth is well known—the crowded inn, the stable and manger, the visit of the shepherds, and the appearance of the angel. Quite apart from the question of their literal truth, the account of these events has a permanent place in Christian tradition, poetry, and worship. As E. Titus has written:

Whatever weight may be given them as historical documents, the stories [of Jesus’s birth] are impressive monuments to the faith of the church. The person of Jesus had so impressed men that they could not account for his origin in ordinary terms. We must remember that the stories were written in the light of a knowledge of his magnificent life.3

Luke’s prologue details the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist. John’s father, Zechariah, was a priest, and his mother, Elizabeth, was a kinswoman of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Zechariah and Elizabeth were old and childless. According to Luke, an angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah in the Temple while he was burning incense on the altar and foretold the birth of his son, to be called John (Lk 1:5-25).

Luke records that six months after the visit to Zechariah, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. In contrast to the impressive surroundings in the Temple before the Holy Sanctuary where he appeared to Zechariah, the angel appeared to Mary in Nazareth, a small town in the hills of Galilee. It was here that Mary received the angel’s salutation: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Lk 1:28). 4

According to both Luke and Matthew, Mary was betrothed to Joseph at the time of the angel’s appearance to her. (Mt 1:18; Lk 1:27.) Betrothal was in Jewish practice as solemn as marriage itself, requiring a divorce for separation.5 Joseph considered dissolving his betrothal, [p.7]which could be done by public trial or by private agreement attested by a written document signed in the presence of witnesses. But according to Matthew, an angel appeared in a dream and counseled that he should not fear to take Mary as a wife for she would bear a son who would “save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:19-21).

The Song of Mary, recorded in Luke 1:46-55, has been known since the third century CE as “The Magnificat,” the first word in the Latin translation. This song of praise is included in the ritual of several Christian churches. The words of Mary, similar in expression and thought to several passages in the Old Testament,6 begin, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, … For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”

When the son of Elizabeth was born and given the name John, Zechariah, according to Luke (Lk 1:68-79), uttered a song-prophecy, recited in the ritual of the Christian church from the early centuries. Known as “The Benedictus,” from the first word in the Latin translation, the language and thought of this song are also tied to Old Testament scripture and express the hopes of the Jewish nation for a Messiah: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Lk. 1:68f). 7

The Genealogies of Jesus

In both Luke and Matthew, the genealogy of Jesus is traced through Joseph back to David and Abraham.8 However, the two [p.8]genealogies are quite different in detail. Matthew’s gospel introduces “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1). and begins with Abraham, the traditional common ancestor of the Hebrews who received the promise made in Genesis 12:3, “By you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

In the Gospel of Luke the genealogy is written in reverse order, beginning with Jesus and going back to Adam (Lk 3:23-38). The genealogy also appears later in Luke where it is appended to the story of Jesus’ baptism. Another difference is that Matthew traces the ancestry of Jesus through Solomon (Mt 1:6f), a son of David, and Luke traces it through Nathan, another son of David (Lk 3:31). 9

Some scholars have held that Matthew’s genealogy is that of Joseph, Luke’s that of Mary. It is more probable that the difference depends upon the point of view of the two evangelists. Apparently Matthew wrote his Gospel for Judean Jewish Christians and desired to show Jesus as a descendant of David, the one through whom the promise was to be fulfilled. This supported his claim that Jesus was the Messiah. Luke, on the other hand, apparently wrote especially for gentile Christians. His concern was to describe Jesus’s relationship to man as universal, and therefore he traced the genealogy back to Adam, the biblical first man and father of the human race.

The story in Matthew of the wise men from the east visiting Mary, bringing gifts, and worshipping her child (Mt 2:1-12) has inspired much fiction, poetry, and painting. It is a story of great charm which, by virtue of its brevity, lack of detail, and legendary character, leaves much to the imagination. Matthew’s account makes no attempt to identify the wise men who followed the star, who they were, how many, or where they came from. The description “from the east” suggests Mesopotamia or Persia, and the term “wise men” suggests they were astrologers or priests.10 Astrology, [p.9]a very ancient art in the east, was closely involved with both religion and science. There were then as now different interpretations of the star motif—that the stars determine the course of history or that every human being has a star in heaven which holds the secret of his destiny and watches over him wherever he goes.11

Matthew’s tale of the adoration of the wise men with their costly gifts is in marked contrast to Luke’s account of the shepherds coming from the nearby hills. The gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh, which followed the eastern custom of giving impressive gifts on the occasion of audiences with a prince or monarch, point up Matthew’s apparent interest in stressing the royalty of Jesus’s birth and his messianic calling.12

The story of Herod’s massacre of the infants which appears only in the Gospel of Matthew demonstrates Matthew’s consistent effort to reinforce the belief among Jewish Christians that Jesus fulfilled biblical prophecy (Mt 2:13-23). According to Matthew’s account, an angel instructed Joseph to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape Herod’s anger. They remained there until Herod died. “This,” says Matthew, “was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son'” (Mt 2:15). The prophet of the passage is Hosea, but Hosea, it seems, did not intend the passage as a prophecy. There the “son” refers to the children of Israel, and the alleged prophecy reminds Israel of her [p.10]deliverance from Egyptian bondage: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos 11:1).

It is a common view that Matthew’s Gospel was written especially for Jewish Christians. Certainly it is strongly oriented to readers of Jewish background. The story of the flight to Egypt is typical of the general theme of the book, which is that much Old Testament prophecy finds fulfillment in Jesus and his gospel. The authenticity of the story about the massacre of the young male children in the region of Bethlehem, which appears only in Matthew, is also questionable. However, Matthew’s report is not inconsistent with the known character and crimes of Herod.13 Herod was a highly competent but excessively cruel and amoral administrator who was committed to any course of action that promised to enhance and preserve his power.

Luke’s account, which makes no mention of a journey to Egypt, follows the presentation in the Temple with these words: “And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth” (Lk 2:39). Matthew reports, however, that Joseph intended returning to Judea, but when he learned that following Herod’s death his son Archelaus reigned in Judea, “he withdrew to the district of Galilee.” And Matthew continues, Jesus “dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene'” (Mt 2:22f).14

Jesus was born and reared in a Jewish family. Apparently, his parents were believing, practicing Jews, and there is every evidence that throughout his own life Jesus also was a devout Jew in both belief and practice. The name “Jesus,” not uncommon in that day, is a shortened Greek form of the Hebrew name Jeshua or Joshua, which means “the Lord saves.” In this instance the [p.11]name had uncommon significance, for according to Luke’s account here was one who had come to save his people.

All the rituals and ceremonies that were customary with Jewish children were no doubt a part of the infancy and childhood of Jesus. Luke indicates that when Jesus was eight days old he was circumcised, the custom among the Hebrews from earliest times. Forty days later came the ceremonial purification, a ritual related to the belief that the firstborn male child belonged to God and must be redeemed by offering a sacrifice in the Temple (Lk 2:21-40).15 Leviticus 12:8 decreed that mothers who could not afford to sacrifice a lamb might substitute a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. The fact that Mary brought for the sacrifice only “a pair of turtle doves” indicates that Joseph and Mary were probably of modest means. In his account of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Luke introduced Simeon and the prophetess Anna, described as devout Jews looking for the consolation and redemption of the children of Israel.” These two, according to Luke, believed that the infant Jesus was to be the instrument of that redemption.

The Early Years of Jesus

Aside from its association with the youth and early manhood of Jesus, Nazareth is of little importance in Jewish literature. But for Christians, Nazareth has always been a celebrated place. Here, according to Luke, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary; here also Joseph and his family made their home. Most important of all, apparently this was the home of Jesus during most of his life.

Perhaps Nazareth rather than Bethlehem was the place of Jesus’ birth. Some scholars argue that to strengthen Jesus’ connections with royalty in the Davidic line and thereby support their claim that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the early Christian writers placed his birth in Bethlehem, because an ancient tradition [p.12]decreed that the Messiah would come from the City of David. Crucial to this argument is the claim of some historians that the account of the Roman census given in Luke 2:1-3, which occasioned the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, has no historical base and that the census of the Syrian governor Quirinius in 6 CE should be discounted. The Cambridge historian Michael Grant has argued, largely based on passages in the Gospel of John, especially 1:46 and 7:41-42, that Jesus was born in Galilee, probably in Nazareth.16

A traveler approaching Nazareth from almost any direction will come upon it very suddenly, for it is situated in a basin of hills. An observer standing today on the west rim of the highest hill just south of Nazareth confronts a spectacular view. To the east is the Jordan Valley with the plateau of Transjordan (Jordan) beyond. To the south is the Plain of Esdraelon and the mounds of Beth-Shean, Tabor, Gilboa, and Meggido. To the west in the distance, paralleling the plain all the way to the Mediterranean, runs the Mount Carmel mountain ridge.

The world in which Jesus lived was peopled not only with peasants but with religious leaders and scholars, traders, travelers, and Roman soldiers. Not far from Nazareth the major trade routes connected the sea coast with the interior of Syria and the vast trans-Jordan country. Greek culture had spread throughout Palestine, especially in the cities, and impressive Greek temples and Roman theatres and stadia were conspicuous in many large cities.

Only four miles northwest of Nazareth was Sepphoris, a city of some importance.17 Here, when Jesus was about ten years old, Judas the Galilean led a desperate revolt against Roman control. For decades Galilee, whose people had a fierce love of indepen-[p.13]dence, had been a major center of sedition against the Romans. To crush Judas’s rebellion, the Romans burned the city, sold the inhabitants into slavery, and crucified two thousand men who were suspected of participating in the uprising.18 Jesus may have viewed this terrible scene. In any event, it is unlikely that his boyhood in Nazareth was entirely peaceful. The atmosphere of Galilee was charged with revolt against the hated yoke of the Romans. Nazareth was off the main routes of travel and commerce, but Palestine as a whole was busy and sustained a large population. It was the crossroads for major segments of the ancient world, alive with commercial, intellectual, military, and political activities.

The Gospels indicate that Jesus was one of a family of five brothers and at least two sisters. However, only his brothers’ names are given: James, Joses (or Joseph), Judas, and Simon (Mk 6:3).19 It is usually assumed that Joseph, their father, belonged to the working class of the community. A typical Jewish home in Jesus’ time followed a careful schedule of religious law and custom. Prayer would have been offered at meal times. A boy was taught to observe the Sabbath and give thanks at the first glimpse of the rising sun. A metal box containing the opening words of the Shema was placed above or at the upper side of the door of the house, to be touched on coming in or going out. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (Dt 6:4f).

In the Sabbath service at the synagogue, a boy would attend to the reading of the Law and listen to the interpretation of excerpts from the Law and the Prophets by an elder of the congregation. Aramaic Semitic, a dialect closely related to Hebrew, was the commonly spoken language of Palestine and the surrounding region and was undoubtedly the language Jesus spoke. The home and the synagogue school provided education in the foundations of [p.14]Jewish religion, including some knowledge of language and an acquaintance with the sacred texts of the scriptures.

During his ministry Jesus often alluded to the world of his youth. He knew what it was to come home hungry and ask for bread (Mt 7:9) and eggs and fish (Mt 7:10; Lk 11:11f). He saw his mother grinding at the mill” and putting leaven in the meal (MT 13:33). Like his brothers, he gave his clothes hard wear and learned what happened when patches were sewn on clothes already worn (Mk 2:21). In his parables he told of lost coins, of candles, bushels, beds, moths, rust, and the typical things a boy would experience in a rural community.

At six years of age Jesus was probably sent to school in the synagogue. Here he was taught to read and write. In the beginning concentration was on learning to read and write Hebrew, the language of the sacred literature. Sitting cross-legged on the floor in a circle about the teacher, the class learned their letters and memorized long passages from the Five Books of the Torah, the Pentateuch. Jesus would also have learned the history and traditions of his people. The stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Elijah, and the prophets, and especially the heroism of the Maccabees were no doubt familiar to every Jewish boy of his day.

Luke recorded the only incident concerning Jesus’s youth reported in the canonical Gospels. At the time of the Passover, faithful Jews made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, many from cities far beyond the borders of Palestine.20 All male Jews were expected to attend the major religious festivals. The visit to Jerusalem reported by Luke probably had a special significance for Jesus and his parents, for at age thirteen a Jewish boy became Bar Mitzvah, “a son of the commandment.”21 Jesus was twelve years old and thus was nearing the time for accepting the obligations of the Law and being received into the religious community.

The incident of being lost on perhaps his first visit to a large city was the occasion for Luke to point up the uniqueness of [p.15]Jesus—his early sense of his destiny. Jesus’s parents “found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” For Luke, Jesus was an exceptional child for “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”22 Here in Luke appear the earliest words of Jesus: “How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:46f, 49).

Luke’s account is brief, yet his words eloquently describe his commitment to Jesus as the Son of God. However, these verses also indicate that Jesus lived a normal life, that he “gained” or “increased” in wisdom and in stature. For approximately eighteen years following the incident in the Temple, Jesus may have worked as a wood craftsman in Nazareth. No incident from these years is recorded. That there is no further mention of Joseph in the Gospels has suggested to some that he may have died before Jesus began his ministry.23 If this were the case, it might explain why Jesus remained so long in Nazareth. As eldest son, he may have assumed responsibility for the care of his mother and brothers and sisters. Although we have no record of a single incident from the important adolescent and early adult years of Jesus’s life, still we can be reasonably certain that they had a powerful impact upon his thought and character.

In Nazareth people probably knew one another rather intimately: the joys of a wedding, the welcome of a newborn babe, the sorrows of a funeral, the problems of the poor and oppressed. Jesus would have known those engaged in farming, fishing, building, carpentry, household work, and commerce. In the nearby city of Sepphoris were political officials, religious sects, teachers, and [p.16]Roman soldiers. Jesus no doubt experienced the common problems generated by the demands of morality and ceremonial law—proper observance of the Sabbath and proper relations with family and neighbors. He probably heard and perhaps engaged in discussions on such subjects as marriage, divorce, poverty, war, and debt. People close to him suffered anxiety, injustice, fear, pain, death, and mourning. He learned by experience the virtue of mercy and love, developed a respect for women, and no doubt found pleasure in the company of children. His experiences in the marketplace in Sepphoris, in his home at Nazareth, in the shop, and in the hills as well as in the synagogue increased his knowledge and matured his judgment and brought him an understanding of his people, the vicissitudes of their past, and their current anxieties, hopes, and expectations.

Palestine under Greek Rule

Palestine forms a land-bridge connecting Africa to the continents of Asia and Europe. For thousands of years it has been a route of commerce and conquest for the great civilizations which developed in Asia Minor, Egypt, and Mesopotamia.24 From earliest times this land, known before the Hebrew occupation as Canaan, was an oasis for invading tribes; for the biblical Hebrews, it was a promised land, the land of “milk and honey.”

The invasion of Canaan by Joshua and the Hebrew tribes was accomplished by both conquest and infiltration. Other Semitic peoples, including Amorites, Canaanites, Hurrians or Horites, and Hittites had settled in Canaan long before the coming of the Hebrews. The Amorites (Amurru), for example, were a semi-nomadic people from the west who overran most of Mesopotamia about 1728 BCE and established the First Babylonian dynasty, whose greatest monarch was Hammurabi. The Amorites were the dominant people of the Canaanite population before the Hebrew conquest and settlement.

[p.17]The succession of invasions of Canaan had a profound and lasting impact on its inhabitants. Through the centuries the people were captured, deported, destroyed, and enslaved. The endurance of the Hebrew people on this narrow strip between sea and desert, the survival of their culture and the lasting integrity of their religion in the midst of powerful forces that influenced but failed to assimilate them fully, is one of the wonders of history. The great empires which successively conquered, ruled, and exploited them, Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome, failed to remove them from the stage of history but rather seemed to strengthen them in their resolution, endurance, and hope. The explanation of this remarkable strength must be found in their religion with its powerful moral commitment.

The years following the conquest and settlement of Canaan and the establishment of the Davidic monarchy were crowded with important historical events. In the century following the end of the Old Testament period of Hebrew history—after the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian conquests—the center of power shifted westward. Beginning in 333 BCE, the Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, invaded Asia Minor, Palestine, and Egypt and moved eastward across Mesopotamia as far as India. Conquering the immense Persian Empire, he made himself master of the eastern Mediterranean world and most of the Middle East.

While war was usually for conquest and economic exploitation, Alexander had other purposes as well. He was remarkably successful in his swift military campaigns and in establishing his authority over his conquered territories, but in the view of many historians, his interests were broader than simply conquest and rule. He was committed to extending the “civilizing” influence of Greek culture throughout his conquered domain.

The ancient world was indelibly affected both culturally and politically by the Alexandrian conquests. Palestine was not immune to these influences during its subjection to Greek rule, from 332 to 167 BCE. In general the Greeks were tolerant of the religious beliefs of other peoples, and under their rule the Jews were permitted to practice their religion in accordance with the established forms and traditions. But the eventual use throughout the [p.18]eastern Mediterranean world of the Greek language and spread of hellenic literature and thought had a profound and permanent impact on the ancient world generally. Although the empire created by Alexander endured for a brief time only, the hellenic culture survived and is even today the chief foundation of occidental science, philosophy, and art.

However, at least one segment of Alexander’s empire did not accept Greek culture without severe protest—Judea. While some Jewish groups, motivated by economic and political considerations, favored conformity rather than resistance to foreign ideas and practices, others condemned hellenization as a deadly menace to their religion. They were committed to the belief that only strict observance of the Jewish Law and tradition could ensure the purity of religion and thereby fulfill their covenant with God. The issue of hellenization came to a climax in 168 BCE with the revolt of the Maccabees.

Alexander died in 323 BCE at the early age of thirty-two, but the cultural movement he began did not perish with him. After his death and following a two-decade struggle for power among his surviving generals, his empire was divided among three of the victors. Two of the resulting dynasties would eventually rule Palestine—the Ptolemaic and Seleucid. For a century Palestine was mainly under the rule of the Ptolemies, the Greek rulers of Egypt. The Ptolemies exacted tribute from the Jews but granted them considerable political autonomy and religious freedom. During their reign from at least 301 BCE to the Roman conquest, large numbers of Jews settled in Alexandria in Egypt. Founded by Alexander the Great at the mouth of the Nile, Alexandria was to become the chief cultural center of the Greek world, the Athens of the hellenistic era. Here the Jews were under strong hellenic influences and many of them, while retaining their traditional religion, became prominent and influential among the Egyptian Greeks. It was in Egypt during the reign of the Ptolemies that the sacred Jewish books were translated from the Hebrew into Greek, the so-called Septuagint.25 By this time, around the middle of the [p.19]third century BCE, great numbers of Diaspora Jews scattered throughout the Mediterranean world were unable to speak and read Hebrew, but the Greek language, the Koine, was familiar to them. With the Septuagint they were able to read the sacred texts of their religious tradition.

Following the death of Alexander, Palestine was under constant contention between the Syrian Seleucids and the Egyptian Ptolemies, both of them Greek kingdoms. In 198 BCE Palestine was finally wrested from Egypt by the Seleucids, whose capital was Antioch. The Syrian Greek king, Antiochus III the Great, ruled a vast empire that reached from the Mediterranean across Syria and Persia. His son, Antiochus IV, is of central interest in the history of the Jews because he forced the issues which led to the Maccabean rebellion and Jewish independence.

Antiochus IV, who assumed the epithet “Epiphanes,” “the manifest (God),” attempted a general cultural as well as political unification of his domain, apparently in a desperate effort to save the declining empire from disintegration. In 168 BCE, after the Jews resisted his efforts, he proscribed their religion and forced violations of crucial elements of the Jewish Law. Many influential Jews were already hellenized and favored the adoption of Greek thought, manners, and morals, but Antiochus pushed his demands to the extreme by declaring circumcision and Sabbath observance capital offenses and by commanding that sacrifices be offered to Zeus rather than the Hebrew God. For the Jews submission to these demands was blasphemy, and though some acceded rather freely to the Syrian requirements, many submitted only through fear of the dreadful consequences that would fall upon Judah if they resisted. Antiochus pillaged the Temple of its treasures and desecrated it with pagan altars and the sacrifice of swine.

The Maccabean Revolt and Hasmonean Dynasty

Those who stood firm against Graeco-Syrian rule and its atrocities perhaps inevitably united in revolt when effective leadership emerged. That leadership and the rebellion came when an old priest, Mattathias, in the village of Modein, refused to sacrifice swine to Zeus and killed a Jew who attempted under Syrian orders [p.20]to make the sacrifice in his stead. He also killed the attending Syrian official. After this dramatic and crucial encounter, Mattathias fled with his sons and a few followers to the mountains. Here his ranks increased from the conservative segments of the population until he had the strength to carry on guerrilla warfare. The war was carried on not only against the Syrian Greeks but also against those Jews who accommodated Syrian demands and refused to join the revolt. Mattathias died in 166 BCE when the rebellion was just beginning, but his son, Judas, called Maccabaeus or the “Hammerer,” and later his other sons Jonathan and Simon, each in turn, led the revolt to eventual success.26 The temple area in Jerusalem was finally taken on the twenty-fifth of Kislev (approximately December) 165 BCE, and the Temple was rededicated.27 By 141 BCE, for the first time since the conquests by Assyria and Babylon in the eighth and sixth centuries, Palestine had the firm status of an independent Jewish state. Its independence was recognized by Rome, which by this time had become an influential power. Descendants of the Maccabees became the hereditary monarchs of Judea and ruled until a generation before the time of Jesus.

Palestine under Rome and the Herods

The Maccabean princes, the Hasmoneans, were for the most part competent rulers, but they were not universally popular. In the beginning of the rebellion, the sons of Mattathias were motivated by religious ideals, and large numbers of the common people supported them. But when their successors in the Hasmonean dynasty became more concerned with satisfying their personal and political ambitions as kings, queens, and high priests, popular support weakened. In 65 BCE the Roman general and pro-consul Pompey, then headquartered in Damascus, brought the Romans directly into Jewish history. Two Hasmonean princes, Hyrcanus II [p.21]and Aristobulus II, were struggling over the throne in Jerusalem. A civil war ensued, and each of the contenders sent a delegation to Pompey seeking Roman support. However, a party of the common people also sent representatives to Damascus to petition Pompey to remove both princes and place the nation under the jurisdiction of a high priest. This conflict provided the occasion for Roman intervention, and Pompey took both princes into custody. Aristobulus later fled to Jerusalem to defend his claim. Pompey then marched on Jerusalem and, after a siege of three months, occupied the city, including the temple area. He then executed thousands of Jerusalem’s inhabitants, exiled Aristobulus and his family to Rome, and appointed Hyrcanus II as high priest and titular ruler under Roman jurisdiction and with the support of a Roman garrison. After a century of precarious independence, Judea had become subject to Rome.

The history of Palestine from the Roman conquest until Herod became king is an account of continual political intrigue and discontent. Following the defeat of Pompey by Julius Caesar, an Idumean, called Antipater, who had been the chief administrator under Hyrcanus, was appointed governor of Judea. In 40 BCE through the intervention of the Roman statesman Marc Antony, Antipater’s younger son Herod, who had demonstrated impressive political ability as governor of Galilee, was appointed by the Roman senate to be king over the Jews. It was three years, however, before Herod actually established control of the land. He reigned over Palestine until his death, probably in 4 BCE. According to the nativity stories in the Gospel of Matthew, it was during the closing years of Herod’s reign that Jesus was born.

Herod the Great was in many respects an exceptionally efficient and successful ruler. He possessed unusual administrative capabilities and was able to please Rome while at the same time keeping the peace in Palestine. When Antony was defeated at Actium by Octavianus, who became the first Roman emperor, Augustus, Herod successfully shifted his allegiance to the victor and received strong support from him. Although only partly Jewish by birth, Herod was Jewish in his religion. However, he lived and ruled like a Roman and brought to Judea, especially through his great [p.22]construction projects, a large element of Roman culture and civilization.28 He had an efficient system of taxation and committed much of the income to his building program which reached beyond Palestine and took the larger part of a century to complete.29 The reconstructed and enlarged temple in Jerusalem was one of the great structures of the Roman empire.30

However, Herod was excessively cruel. He murdered one of his wives and two of his own sons, Alexander and Aristobulus. Despite his public works and maintenance of peace and order, he was generally feared and hated by his Jewish subjects.31 This was especially true during the later years of his life. The Gospel of Matthew exhibits his cruelty in the story of the slaying of the infants of Bethlehem.32

After the death of Herod the Great, ca. 4 BCE, the administration of the kingdom was divided by the Romans among three of his sons, Herod Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Herod Philip. Archelaus was made ethnarch of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. He was a failure as an administrator and after ten years of misrule [p.23]was deposed by the emperor Augustus in 6 CE. Matthew indicated the feeling of the Jews toward Herod Archelaus when he stated that Joseph feared to return from Egypt to Bethlehem because of Archelaus and, therefore, returned to Galilee (Mt 2:22). After the removal of Archelaus, Judea, Samaria, and Idumea were placed directly under Roman rule through a prefect and later a procurator, who was in charge of troops, taxation, and the administration of justice. The procurators were responsible to the Roman governors of the province of Syria, whose capital was Antioch. Pontius Pilate, the best known of the procurators because he was in office at the time of Jesus’ execution, had his headquarters in Caesarea, the Roman city built by Herod the Great. However, he kept a garrison in Jerusalem to maintain the peace and was usually in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover and other important feasts.

Herod Antipas was given jurisdiction over Galilee and Perea, which he ruled under Roman control until 39 CE. Antipas also appears to have been an incompetent ruler and, like Archelaus, was disliked by the Jews. He is mentioned in the Gospels in connection with the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist. He was in Jerusalem at the time of the trial of Jesus, and Jesus was brought before him presumably because Jesus was from Galilee.

According to Josephus, Herod Philip was the most able of the three brothers. He was given control of a large area northeast of Galilee, establishing Caesarea Philippi as his capital.33 The Gospels record that on several occasions Jesus retired to Philip’s territory when he felt unsafe in Judea and Galilee. Philip died in 34 CE.

Jewish Religion in the Time of Jesus

The Jewish religion already had a long and involved history by the time of Jesus, beginning with the early Hebrew patriarchs and particularly with Moses, the Exodus, and with the giving of the Law and the Sinai covenant. These were important features [p.24]of Israel’s heroic age when beliefs about Israel’s God were emerging from the tribal religion. Israel’s moral and religious insights and values and its social and political ideals had their roots in this age, the age when faith in God’s promise of an ultimate, triumphant destiny was born.

The remarkable strength and integrity of the Jewish community, evidenced throughout history from as early as the Babylonian captivity, are no doubt due in large part to the role religion played in the life of the people. The ancient Hebrew tribes were bound together as a religious, social, and political community by a covenant. This covenant was based upon law, traditionally believed to have been revealed by God, which elicited from the people a remarkably strong religious commitment and a profound sense of moral duty. Israel’s socio-religious life at the time of Jesus centered around this divine-human covenant, the Law (Torah), the Temple and its sacrificial cult, and the synagogue. Within these institutions, constantly strengthened and protected by the priests and sages, the group and individual religious and moral duties were defined and mandated. The great Hebrew prophets of the eighth, seventh, and sixth centuries BCE had been powerful critics, moral and religious teachers, and creators of the Jewish monotheism with its profound ethical commitments. The prophets’ attacks were leveled especially at the idolatry and moral practices of their non-Hebrew enemies, practices that constantly threatened the integrity of Yahweh worship, and against the religious and political leaders of Israel and Judah who were unfaithful to the tenets of that worship. They demanded recognition and adherence to the spirit of the Mosaic covenant and Law. The prophetic religion was, with the Torah, the substance of the ethical-religious heritage of Judaism in Jesus’s day.

From its construction by Solomon in the tenth century and its reconstruction in the sixth century BCE after the Babylonian captivity, the Temple in Jerusalem was the central religious shrine. Jewish worship related especially to the sacrificial rituals was centered there until the Temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 CE. The high priest, who during the Roman period was appointed by the Roman government, exerted considerable control over the [p.25]people. The importance of the Temple in the religious life of Judea gave pre-eminence to Jerusalem and centralized the political and economic life of the Jews, strengthening the power of the priesthood. But in Jesus’s time there was another center of religion in addition to the home and the Temple—the synagogue. While the Temple with its sacrificial ritual dated from the reign of Solomon, the synagogue was a much later development, probably beginning some time after the Babylonian captivity when the exiled Jews were permitted by the Persians to return to Jerusalem.34 It has been said that whatever place is set aside for religious worship, wherever Jews “put up an Ark containing the Torah-scroll, source and symbol of the Tradition, there is a synagogue.”35 In the time of Jesus, as today, the synagogue served three primary functions, all non-sacrificial: as a “house of prayer”; as “a house of study,” a school of Judaism; and as a gathering place of the people, the congregation. The heart of the synagogue service in Jesus’s time was, as it is today, the reading of the Torah. The Gospels mention synagogues in Nazareth and Capernaum. Some historians hold that as early as the Babylonian captivity, when Jews could no longer “go up to the Temple,” the synagogue served as a meeting place, a house of prayer. Originally, the Greek term “synagogue” referred to the congregation or gathering rather than to the place of assembly.36

The Torah as a literary document is traditionally composed of parchment sheets sewn together as a scroll and rolled around two spindles. It is a collection of five books, the pentateuch or the traditional books of Moses, which give a continuous narrative of events from the Creation to the death of Moses. But the substance of the Torah is more than simply the epic story of the Hebrews. Within the framework of the narrative, an impressive code of [p.26]religious and social legislation is set forth in great detail with instruction on such matters as the observance of the holy days, moral conduct, and the ceremonial law. The ethic of the Torah is based upon the Hebrew experience of God—of what he has done for Israel and what he requires of his people.

The Oral Law

Even in ancient times the written Torah was not the whole of the Torah. Prophets, poets, and sages carried it on orally—not as “Torah in letter” but as “Torah in Spirit.”37 The latter is Torah-tradition, the Oral Law, the application of the Teaching. In Jesus’s time, according to Josephus, the Pharisees advocated both the written and oral Torah, while the Sadducees were committed only to the written Torah. The Torah provided the requirements for daily living upon which the promise of blessings was predicated. Rules of proper conduct were sometimes extremely complex and required adaptations to the changing circumstances of personal and social life. Consider, for instance, the regulations governing the observance of the Sabbath. The Law of Moses set forth in Exodus prohibited work on the Sabbath. But the question inevitably arose, what is work? This question led to others, until many and detailed prescriptions and prohibitions governing Sabbath behavior were added. How far can a man walk on the Sabbath and not sin? The commandment was not explicit, but in former days it was permitted to walk a distance of 5,000 feet to the ark and return. In this way one mile became acceptable as a Sabbath’s journey, while going farther was a sin. No fires were to be kindled, and no food cooked or prepared on the Sabbath. The disciples of Jesus were criticized for walking through a cornfield on the Sabbath and eating kernels of corn on the way. The First Book of the Maccabees (1 Mc 2:32-38), a remarkable historical work composed before the time of Jesus, describes the massacre of Jews who refused to defend themselves against the Seleucid Greeks on [p.27]the Sabbath. They sacrificed their lives rather than profane the Sabbath.

Genuinely pious Jews were as conscientious in the observance of the ceremonial and dietary law as in honoring the Sabbath. The Torah-tradition, for instance, prescribed the kinds of food which could and could not be eaten, how the food was to be prepared, and the kinds of dishes from which it could be eaten.38 Pots and kettles were to be washed in a certain fashion before being used, and one’s hands had to be ceremonially cleansed before eating.

The legalism that from ancient times was a prominent feature of Judaism has always interested historians and students of comparative religions. Critics have insisted that a religion so fully grounded in law lacks the higher qualities of morality and spirituality that are found in religions whose foundations are more subjective, with morality judged more by motive and faith and where grace rather than obedience to law is the essential for salvation. This criticism both oversimplifies and distorts Jewish legalism. Certainly the cause and justification of the Hebraic-Judaic legalism are complex and difficult to assess, but the value of rigorous adherence to the Mosaic Law as necessary to the survival of both the Jewish religion and the Jewish community should be entirely obvious to those acquainted with the history of occidental culture.

The critical question for Jewish leaders long before the time of Jesus was: How can we live and survive as a holy people under the religious, political, and cultural pressures that constantly besiege us from every side? Here was a small nation with a distinctive religion and way of life struggling to maintain its integrity and security against the almost insurmountable obstacles generated by its relations with the great empires that successively surrounded and dominated it. The survival of the Jews and Judaism depended on the strength of religious and moral commitment and on an indomitable hope. But without question that survival was contingent upon the imperative of the Law, the insistence on a me-[p.28]ticulous observance of God’s commands. The Law was a “fence” that protected Israel from assimilation to foreign culture.39

The Covenant and the Messianic Hope

While in the time of Jesus the behavior of conscientious practicing Jews was regulated to a marked degree by the Law, the heart of their religion was the promise and hope of the covenant. A powerful factor in that hope was the expectation of the messianic era. This eschatological movement apparently produced a variety of Jewish sects in Palestine, one of which, the Essenes, has been associated in recent years with the “Dead Sea Scrolls” discovered in 1947 near Qumran in the Judean wilderness. Christianity also arose as an eschatological Jewish sect. It was a popular belief that despite the evil in the world, especially the oppression suffered by the Jewish nation, God would eventually establish his kingdom on earth. God would send his agent, a person anointed and appointed to the task of delivering Jerusalem and the nation from the oppressor, a messiah who would overthrow the foes of his people, restore their independence and freedom, and fulfill his covenant.

The covenant went beyond the imperfections of historical kingdoms, promising the realization of God’s ideal kingdom. These two themes merged in prophetic and poetic expressions with notions of a Messiah-agent who should serve and suffer, and of a “Son of man” who should come in the clouds with power at the end of the age. In Jesus’ time there was no single form of messianic expectation commonly held by all Jews. However, hope for liberation from Roman rule gave strong support to the expectation of a political, Davidic messiah. The reign of David was the golden age whose memory was a perpetual inspiration for faith in the future.

Every promising Jewish leader was watched with care, with deep concern by the established authorities, and with anticipation by those who longed for deliverance. Judas Maccabaeus was thought by some to be the promised Messiah and, indeed, he [p.29]proved to be a deliverer. But his later life did not bear out this hope. There were many others who were thought by one faction or another to be the anointed of God.40 One of the most popular was Simon bar Kokhba (Koseba) who led the ill-fated Jewish uprising against the Romans during the reign of Hadrian, from CE 132 to 135. Even the great Rabbi Akiba hailed this military leader as the Messiah and called him the “son of the star,” Bar Kokhba. But the revolt ended in total failure and the death of the leader.41

Several different conceptions of messiah are found in the Old Testament, particularly in the Jewish apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature written shortly before and after the time of Jesus. Probably the oldest was that of king-prophet-priest designated (anointed) by God for a specific task. Other conceptions included a king of the lineage of David and Solomon; a priestly messiah, usually from the tribe of Levi (this conception emerged in the period of the Maccabees, second century BCE); the “Son of man,” a superhuman figure described in Daniel (7:9-12) who would descend in power at the end of the age to carry out the final phases of God’s work; and the servant in Isaiah (Is 43, 39, 50, 52f), who through his suffering would bring the nations to “see” God’s purpose in the world.

Messianic beliefs were current among the typically pious common people of Judea and Galilee when John, who was to be known as the Baptist, began preaching at the River Jordan. With the forthrightness of the Old Testament prophets, John boldly declared his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2). Crowds flocked to the Jordan to learn more of this great preacher from the wilderness. A largely poor and despairing people gathered to hear what hope he could give for the coming of God’s kingdom.[p.30]


1. The title Old Testament was given to the collection of Hebrew-Jewish sacred writings by the early Christians, who regarded them as scripture. The Jewish name for the Old Testament is Tanak, which is derived from three Hebrew consonants T N K. Each letter represents one of the three major divisions of the Hebrew canon: T=Torah (Word or Revelation), N=Nebi’im (Prophets), and K=Kethubim (Writings). In Jesus’ time only Torah and Prophets had been firmly established as sacred scripture.

2. According to Oscar Cullmann, “In the earliest period the Christians not only accepted the fact that the date of the birth of Jesus is unknown; they felt besides no need to celebrate Christ’s coming down to earth at all. The primitive Church was far more interested in Christ’s death and resurrection than in his incarnation.” Oscar Cullmann, The Early Church, Studies in Early Christian History and Theology, ed. A. J. B. Higgins, abridged ed. (Philadelphia, 1966), 23.

3. E. Titus, Essentials of New Testament Study (New York, 1958), 49.

4. Luke provided the only account of these two predictions–the birth of John and the birth of Jesus.

5. The ancient Hebrew law governing the violation of a betrothed virgin was set forth in Deuteronomy 22: 23-27.

6. Compare Luke 1:39-55 with the story of Eli, Hannah’s Prayer, and the birth of Samuel in 1 Samuel 2:1-10; also see Psalms 89, 103, 107; Micah 7:18-20; Isaiah 41:8-13.

7. There are indications in the Gospels that John the Baptist had a substantial following and his disciples proclaimed him to be the Messiah. It has been suggested that Zechariah’s prophecy stated in Luke 1:67-79 was originally part of a messianic tradition about John. A baptist sect may have existed in Ephesus after the death of John. This is suggested in Acts 18:24-19:7 where “about twelve” of John’s disciples were converted to Christianity.

8. Many of the names appearing in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke appear in 1 Chronicles 2-8. For a comparison of the two genealogies, see Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York, 1979), 84-94.

9. Nathan and Solomon are named in 1 Chronicles 3:5 as sons of Bathshua, or Bathsheba.

10. The term magai, formerly interpreted as “wise men,” is now more often understood as “astrologers.” One of the second century church fathers, Ignatius of Antioch, in his letter to the Ephesians, seems to have assumed that Matthew meant “magicians,” those who could interpret the signs in the heavens. The Letter of [p.9]Ignatius to the Ephesians 19:2-3 in Cyril C. Richardson, ed. and trans., Early Christian Fathers, Vol. I of the Library of Christian Classics, ed. John Baillie, et al. (Philadelphia, 1953), 93.

11. Accounts are not uncommon in which the whole universe attends the birth of religious heroes, as in the case of Buddha and Muhammed. In some accounts the miracle is accompanied by a star or brilliant light. “Now at the moment when the future Buddha made himself incarnate in his mother’s womb, … an immeasurable light appeared. The blind received their sight, as if from very longing to hold this his glory. The deaf heard the noise. The dumb spake one with another. The crooked became straight. The lame walked.” C. H. Hamilton, ed., Buddhism, A Religion of Infinite Compassion (New York, 1952), 3.

12. The traditional Christmas story is a synthesis of several elements from Matthew and Luke. The wise men from the east, the star, and the flight into Egypt and return following the death of Herod are features of Matthew’s account. The appearance of angels, the shepherds in the field, and the manger are from Luke.

13. Many scholars regard the entire story of Herod’s threat, the flight to and return from Egypt, and the massacre of the infants as a literary creation by Matthew intended to show Jesus as the Messiah fulfilling Old Testament prophecy.

14. The source of this prophecy is problematic. Some have suggested Isaiah 11:1 as a possibility, but the Hebrew text of Isaiah is not sufficiently clear to establish this point. See Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, 207-13.

15. According to Luke, Mary was considered “unclean” for seven days after giving birth and expected to remain in isolation for another thirty-three days–hence, a total of forty days in Bethlehem. The biblical basis for this is found in Leviticus 12:2-4.

16. Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels (New York, 1977), 72f. The Gospel of Mark seems to identify Jesus with Nazareth. See Mk 1:9, 24; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6.

17. Sepphoris, today only an archaeological site, played a rather prominent role in early Jewish history. It was established as a military fortress in the time of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BCE) and continued to serve as a military post during the reign of Herod the Great. It was made the capital of Galilee during the rule of Gabinius, the Roman proconsul of Syria from 57 to 55 BCE, who established it as one of the five administrative centers in Palestine.

18. It has been assumed by some scholars that this is the Judas and the rebellion against Quirinius’s census in ca. 6 CE which is described by Gamaliel to the council in Acts 5:37. See J. W. Packer, Acts of the Apostles (Cambridge, 1966), 47. A more detailed account is provided by Josephus, who traces the origins of the Zealots to this uprising. Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVII, Chap. X, Sec. 10 and Book XVIII, Chap. I, Sec. 6.

19. Compare Mk 6:3 with Mt 13:55f, also with Lk 4:22, and Jn 1:45, 6:42.

20. In the “period of the Second Temple approximately one million pilgrims from all over the country, as well as the Diaspora, made the journey on feast days three times a year.” See Menashe Har-El, “Jerusalem and Judea: Roads and Fortifications” in Biblical Archaeologist Vol. 44 (1981), No. 1:13.

21. See Abraham Cohen, Everyman’s Talmud (New York, 1975), 73n1.

22. In the period from the second to the seventh century CE, several gospels and other Christian documents were written, some available now only in fragments, which are not included in the New Testament canon: the Gospels of James, Nicodemus, the Hebrews, the Ebionites, the Egyptians, and Peter, and probably the most important of all, the Gospel of Thomas. A major concern of some of these gospels was to heighten the miraculous in the early life of Jesus. They say in effect that the power Jesus possessed by virtue of his divinity was clearly evident throughout his life, from infancy to his death and resurrection. In them Jesus was a wonder child.

23. Mark speaks of Jesus’s mother and brothers and sisters but not of his father (Mk 3:31f, 6:3). Joseph nowhere appears in the account of Jesus’ ministry.

24. The term “Palestine” was derived from “Philistine,” the name that designated the invaders of the coastland whose conquests were contemporaneous with the Hebrew conquest of the highlands of Canaan.

25. The Septuagint, the Seventy (LXX), translated from Hebrew into Greek in Egypt ca. 250 BCE, became the bible of the early Greek-speaking Christian church.

26. For a detailed account of the Maccabean war, see 1 Maccabees, 1-10, and 2 Maccabees 5-15, and Josephus, Antiquities, XII, 5-9.

27. The re-dedication of the Temple has been celebrated since by the Feast of Hanukkah. A legend connected with the re-dedication, that fuel for the lamps sufficient for only one day burned for eight days, is responsible for the celebration being called the Feast of Lights.

28. The extent of Herod’s assimilation to Roman culture is clearly evident. His three-tiered palace at Masada and his palace at the Herodium, for example, are Roman in style and architecture. Marble pillars and Roman baths have been discovered in both fortresses. Herod’s greatest feat of construction was the coastal seaport city of Caesarea Maritima, which became the Roman capital of Palestine.

29. In addition to reconstructing the Temple Mount, Herod built a beautiful palace for himself in Jerusalem, and to protect it, he constructed a barracks for his own guard with connecting ramparts and three towers, known today as the Citadel.

30. Herod constructed an earthen and stone platform around the Temple Mount, and in order to contain the platform on the rather steep slope, he built a massive retaining wall on the western, southern, and eastern borders. All that remains today of the Second Temple is a portion of the western retaining wall, which is a place of pilgrimage for Jews from all over the world. The Temple Mount itself is now crowned by two Muslim structures, the Dome of the Rock and the Mosque of al-Aksa, built following the capture of Jerusalem by the caliph Omar in 637 CE.

31. Herod’s fear of revolt from within his own kingdom and his anxiety over the possible usurpation of his power by his chief competitor for Roman favor, Cleopatra, the last of the Greek Ptolemies of Egypt, compelled him to establish and supply several fortresses. Among these were the fortresses at Masada and Machaerus near the Dead Sea, which he reconstructed and garrisoned, and the Herodium located about seven miles southeast of Jerusalem, which he constructed.

32. Josephus recorded that shortly before his death Herod commanded “that one out of every family should be slain,” presumably to guarantee that there would be mourning at the time of his own death. This plot was apparently frustrated by Archelaus, Herod’s son and successor in Judea. Antiquities, XVII, VI, 6.

33. Philip rebuilt the ancient city of Paneas and renamed it Caesarea Philippi. It is mentioned several times in the Gospels.

34. Although precise dating of the origin of the synagogue is obscure, it is generally assumed to have been in the period of the Second Temple. Psalms 74:8, which reports that “they burned all the meeting places of God in the land,” may be the earliest extant literary reference to the synagogue.

35. M. Steinberg, Basic Judaism (New York, 1975), 150.

36. For a historical account of the Temple and synagogue and the Messianic movement, see Leo Baeck, “The Pharisees,” in The Pharisees and Other Essays (New York, 1966).

37. According to Steinberg, “everything which has its roots in the Torah-Book, which is consistent with its outlook, which draws forth its implications, and which realizes its potentialities,” is Torah. Steinberg, Basic Judaism, 22.

38. In Book II of Against Apion, Josephus gave an account of the Mosaic law and its meaning for the Jewish people of his time.

39. Leo Baeck’s The Essence of Judaism (New York, 1948) eloquently expounds the importance of the Law. Baeck’s Christianity and Judaism (New York, 1958) is a study of the basic differences between Judaism and Christianity.

40. Joseph Klausner has pointed out that not all types of messiah were personal and that the Jewish expectation “was never pictured as ‘a kingdom not of this world.'” J. Klausner, The Messianic Idea in Israel, trans. W. F. Stinespring (London, 1956), 10. Also, according to the Jewish historian Robert Seltzer, “Despite the rabbinic reformation of the turn of the century, messianic agitation in Judea and the diaspora led to further Jewish revolts.” R. M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought (New York, 1980), 247-49.

41. For an account of recent archaeological “digs” relating to the Bar Kokhba revolt, see Yigael Yadin, Bar Kokhba (New York, 1971).