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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Historical Background.

1. Political Events In the Hellenistic World

The political event of most significance in the shaping of the Apocrypha was the conquest of the Levant by Alexander the Great of Macedon in 331 BCE. For nearly two centuries before the arrival of Alexander, the Land of Israel lay under Persian rule. The Persian state was on the whole content to interfere little with the lives of its subjects, and the small province of Judah was allowed to develop its own distinctive culture around the temple city of Jerusalem. This quiet, parochial existence was shattered by Alexander, who brought Greek culture in all its forms to the Jews.


Alexander inherited the throne of Macedon from his father Philip at the age of 20 in 336 BCE and almost immediately embarked on an ambitious campaign to conquer the Persian empire. Astonishing success in a series of battles brought him by the time of his death in 323 BCE control of the whole of the Near East up to the borders of India. Within his new empire lay not just the Jewish homeland and temple but also the great centre of Jewish exile in Mesopotamia. For the next 200 years Jewish history was continually affected by the intrigues and ambitions of Alexander's Macedonian successors. After a period of turmoil following Alexander's death, his generals eventually parcelled out his huge conquests among themselves. Of the great dynastic empires that thus came into existence by 301 BCE, the two most to affect the Jews were the dynasty founded by Ptolemy I Soter, with its base in Egypt, and the rival dynasty of Seleucus I Nicator, which had essentially two main bases, one in Mesopotamia and the other in northern Syria.


From 301 to 198 BCE Jerusalem lay under the rule of the Ptolemys, lying at the northern fringes of the Ptolemaic state, but the territory of the Land of Israel was disputed by the Seleucids in six wars in the course of the third century, and eventually the Seleucid king Antiochus III in 198 BCE wrested control of the southern Levant into his own hands as part of a general expansion of his kingdom. The result was a change in the method of state control of Judea. In essence the Ptolemaic dynasty ruled through a large bureaucracy, in part a necessity because of the reliance of Egyptian agriculture on irrigation which depended on state regulation; in contrast the much more diffuse empire of the Seleucids relied heavily on co-operation by local élites, who were given incentives to administer their regions on behalf of the state. Hence in the Seleucid empire there were more (or more openly recognized) routes to advancement for non-Greeks than in the Ptolemaic state, but with the proviso that non-Greek élites were expected to behave in Greek fashion if they were to be granted such control over their own communities. In Jerusalem the Jewish ruling élite was essentially the high priest and his associates. During the course of the first quarter of the second century BCE some members of this élite proved sufficiently attracted to the prospect of power to adopt Greek names and some Greek customs. It is possible (although it is hard to tell whether this was actually their intention) that the gradual adoption of this alien culture would have led in time to the end of a distinctively Jewish culture and religion. In any case the process was abruptly halted by the Maccabean revolt.

4. The Maccabean Revolt

In 168 BCE the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes ordered the abolition of the ancient cult in the temple in Jerusalem and the conversion of the shrine to pagan worship. Neither the new divinity to whom the temple was dedicated nor the precise causes of this highly unusual attack by a Hellenistic king on an ancestral religion can be stated with certainty; the main sources of evidence are the books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, which provide as explanation the internal divisions within the Jewish ruling class, and in particular the desire of some high priests to embrace Hellenism as a route to political power, but the wider policy of Antiochus, who first expanded his power through a dramatic campaign south into Egypt and was then compelled to withdraw by the threat of Roman intervention, may have been equally or even more responsible. At any rate this attack provoked an uprising led by Mattathias, a priest from Modiin, north-west of Jerusalem, and his five sons, of whom Judas Maccabee emerged in the course of the struggle as supreme leader. By 164 BCE guerrilla warfare had succeeded and the temple was purified and rededicated.

5. Hasmonean Rule

Control of the temple did not automatically bring political independence. There continued to be a Seleucid garrison in Jerusalem until probably 129 BCE. Nor did the family of Mattathias and Judas immediately reap in full the fruits of their victory: when the temple cult was restarted by Judas, the new high priest was a certain Alcimus, an associate of the high priest from before the war; Mattathias died during the war and Judas himself was killed in battle in 161 BCE. On the death of Alcimus in 159 BCE there was a hiatus in the high priesthood until 152 BCE, when Judas's brother Jonathan had himself appointed to the post. From that date to 37 BCE all the high priests came from this family. The dynasty was called by the name ‘Hasmonean’, a reference back to an ancestor of Mattathias. At first the Hasmoneans ruled Judea as vassals, in effect, of the Seleucid kings, but they took advantage of the disintegration of the Seleucid state through internal dissension and the machinations of the Romans, whose interest in the eastern Mediterranean increased during the second century BCE. By the 120s BCE the Hasmonean high priest John Hyrcanus was sufficiently independent to commence campaigns to expand the region of Jewish rule outside Judea, and by 112 BCE the whole region of Idumea, to the south of Judea, had been forced by him to convert to Judaism. A similar policy of expansion and incorporation was followed by his son Aristobulus, who in 104–103 BCE compelled the Itureans who lived in Galilee to become Jews.


The brief rule of Aristobulus (104–103 BCE) marked something of a shift in the nature of Hasmonean rule. Aristobulus was still high priest, and his right to power was still justified by the dynasty's role as the leaders of the revolt in the 160s, but he liked to be known as ‘philhellene’ (a lover of Greek culture) and he had himself declared king. In his rule, and that of his successor Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BCE), the Hasmonean dynasty behaved much like other Hellenistic rulers, using mercenary soldiers to establish themselves as a regional superpower. When Jannaeus died, his widow Alexandra Jannaea Salome became queen (76–67 BCE), in a fashion found elsewhere in the Hellenistic world but not previously among Jews. In the process the relationship of the Hasmoneans with their Jewish subjects at times became stormy.


The decline of the Hasmonean dynasty was a direct product of the ambitions of Rome. During the 70s BCE the remnants of the Seleucid state fell into Roman hands and in 63 BCE the Roman general Pompey the Great took advantage of quarrels between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, the two sons of Alexandra Jannaea Salome, to intervene ostensibly on the side of Hyrcanus. Thus Pompey besieged Jerusalem and inaugurated the ensuing history of misunderstandings between Jews and Romans by desecrating the Holy of Holies in the temple simply out of curiosity to know whether it was true that there was no cult image in the shrine. From that date Judea lay in effect within the Roman empire, although for much of the next century Rome preferred to exercise control through proxy Jewish rulers, a procedure common in Rome's administration of her empire elsewhere.

8. Herodian Rule

The transfer of Roman patronage from the Hasmonean dynasty to Herod the Great in 40 BCE was not a result of standard Roman policy, for Rome usually sought client kings from within the ranks of existing native dynasties. Nor was it remotely to be expected on the Jewish side, since Herod was an Idumean, descended on his father's side from the people converted to Judaism less than a century before by John Hyrcanus and on his mother's side from a Nabatean Arab, and thus ineligible for the high priesthood. Herod was proclaimed king of Judea by the Roman senate and consuls out of desperation caused by the internal disintegration of the Roman state.


The period of civil war that had first engulfed the Mediterranean world in 49 BCE with the struggle of Pompey and Julius Caesar did not abate until the victory of Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, in the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. In the meantime the Roman state was in turmoil and in 40 BCE the Parthians, whose empire in this period was based in Mesopotamia, took advantage of Roman disarray to invade the southern Levant. The Hasmonean ruler and high priest Hyrcanus (67–40 BCE) was carried off into exile in Babylonia and replaced by his nephew, the pro-Parthian Antigonus. The Romans, who had no Hasmonean adult male to put forward in opposition, chose Herod instead simply because he had already proved himself an energetic aide to Hyrcanus and a loyal friend to Rome.


Herod's first act once proclaimed king was to join his Roman patrons in a sacrifice to Jupiter on the Capitol, and when he eventually captured his capital in 37 BCE it was through the efforts of Roman legionaries commanded by a Roman general. It is not surprising that, after this inauspicious start, Herod's relationship with his subjects was never easy. He ruled until 4 BCE through repression, constantly fearful of plots, not least by members of his own family. His grandiose building plans, which included the massive reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple, did not succeed in endearing him to his people. His success in ruling through fear was demonstrated by the eruption of widespread revolts when he died. His son Archelaus, appointed ethnarch of Judea by the Roman emperor Augustus, proved incapable of imposing control in the same way, and in 6 CE he was sent by Augustus into exile in the south of France. Judea came under the direct rule of a Roman governor.


Roman Rule Judea was controlled directly by Rome for many centuries from 6 CE, with the exception of the glorious three-year rule from 41 to 44 CE of Agrippa I, Herod's grandson, who owed his throne to his machinations in Roman politics and his role in bringing to power the new emperor Claudius, and the periods of Jewish revolt in 66–70 and 132–5 CE.


There was a revolt in 6 CE when a census was imposed as part of the organization of the new province, but this phenomenon can also be observed in other provinces in this period. Despite a mass protest in 40 CE when the emperor Gaius Caligula attempted to have a statue of himself erected in the temple, and occasional disturbances in Jerusalem at the times of mass pilgrimage on the festivals, the Romans left Judea lightly garrisoned down to 66 CE and evidently did not consider the Jews a particular threat. The revolt in 66–70 CE may thus have come as something of a surprise. At any rate it appears that Roman war aims changed during its course: a war which began as an attempt to make the Jews give sacrifices in their temple on behalf of the emperor ended with the total destruction of the temple. It is probable that the exceptional ferocity of the final Roman assault on the temple owed much to the need of the Roman commander Titus to win rapid prestige in Rome for himself and his father Vespasian, since Vespasian had seized power in a bloody civil war the previous year and, lacking any other qualifications for supreme office, used the victory over the Jews as evidence of his beneficence to the empire. Hence the superfluity of monuments in Rome to commemorate the defeat of the Jews, and the impossibility of an immediate rebuilding of the temple.


The destruction in 70 was a terrible disaster for all Jews, but the temple had been destroyed before and eventually rebuilt, so it is wrong to imagine universal Jewish despair. The institution of national Jewish leadership, the high priesthood, was now gone, and the Roman state probably saw no need for any new Jewish spokesman. Most Jews probably continued in their old beliefs and hoped for the temple to be restored. Eventually the rabbis evolved a new type of Judaism which could flourish without a temple, and the Roman state formally recognized the rabbinic patriarch as the political leader of the Jews, but, so far as is known, neither of these processes took place until long after the temple's destruction.

14. Jewish Settlement

Judea was the homeland of the Jews throughout this period, and by its end Jerusalem was one of the greatest cities of the eastern Mediterranean, but there was also a large Jewish population in the diaspora. Some of these Jews had been carried into captivity in Babylonia at the time of the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian community remained considerable throughout the Second Temple period, although little is known of its history. The diaspora in the eastern Mediterranean world outside Israel grew rapidly from the third century BCE to the first century CE, partly because of the settlement of descendants of slaves taken captive in the numerous wars which affected the region, partly because of the use of Jews by Hellenistic monarchs as mercenaries settled in Asia Minor and in Egypt, partly through economic migration in the face of overpopulation in the homeland, and partly (but to an unknown degree) through the accretion to Jewish communities of Gentile proselytes. By the early first century CE Jewish communities were to be found in all the coastal areas in the eastern Mediterranean from Greece round to Cyrene in Libya as well as in the city of Rome, in the interior of western Asia Minor on the Anatolian plateau, and in large numbers in the countryside in Syria and in Egypt, while the largest diaspora communities were in the great Hellenistic capital cities of Alexandria and Antioch. After the defeat of 70 CE Jews were ever more dispersed, but the emergence of a diaspora in the western Mediterranean cannot be attested until late-Roman times.

15. Cultural Developments

Jews in this period were profoundly affected both in the Land of Israel and in the Mediterranean diaspora by the Greek culture spread and promoted by Alexander the Great and his successors. In this respect Jews were part of a much wider phenomenon in which native cultures throughout the Near East fused to a greater or lesser extent with the culture of the Graeco-Macedonian dynasties which ruled over them; the amalgamated cultures which resulted have been termed ‘Hellenistic’ by scholars since the nineteenth century. Thus the use of the Greek language was widespread in the Land of Israel by the first century CE, although it was probably in more common use in towns and in cities. Jews also adopted Greek architecture, political forms, literary genres, and, to a limited extent, philosophical ideas. Much of this adoption was apparently both gradual and un-selfconscious: Hellenistic culture was simply the milieu in which Jews from the time of Alexander found themselves living. Only with regard to the events preceding and during the Maccabean revolt did the adoption of Greek culture and opposition to it acquire wider significance because of the preference of the Seleucids to give greater political power to natives who Hellenized (see above G.4). It is thus only in the books of the Maccabees that Judaism is explicitly contrasted to Hellenism. The Hasmonean rulers themselves, despite their dynasty's founding myth based on their opposition to Hellenism, adopted much of Greek culture. It is probable that the degree of Hellenization varied among Jews of different places of origin and different classes of society. Richer Jews, and those from big cities, especially Jerusalem, were more likely to speak Greek and operate easily within Greek cultures. In most diaspora communities, apart from Babylonia, Greek was probably the main language of religious as well as secular discourse, and there was little knowledge of Hebrew or Aramaic. In the Land of Israel, both Hebrew and Aramaic were in general use down to the end of the Second Temple period, but the native Jerusalemite Josephus proved capable at the end of the first century CE of writing complex literary works in Greek, albeit in a style for which he felt it necessary to apologize (Jos. Ant. 20. 263–4).

16. Religious Developments

By the time the books of the Apocrypha were composed there had emerged many different varieties of Judaism, but Jews did have a common core to their religion. All pious Jews had in common their devotion to the one God who was worshipped in Jerusalem, and the belief that God had both chosen his people for care and (all too often) chastisement, and that God's instructions for the correct way for a Jew to live were contained within the Torah, which was itself encapsulated within the Pentateuch. Judaism had become a religion of the book, and there was a general (but not universal) consensus that real prophetic inspiration was no longer possible. The main grounds for disagreement lay in differing interpretations of what precisely the Pentateuch requires, and religious leaders, whether priestly or lay, tended to gain their authority from their expertise in such interpretation.


Many of the disputes attested in writings of this period concerned the conduct of the temple cult in Jerusalem. Since Jews held that there should be only one such temple (although in fact a second temple existed in Leontopolis in Egypt down to 72 CE), the correct performance by the priests of the sacrifices and other offerings made in the temple was of immense importance to all. There was widespread interest in, and disagreement about, the notion of physical purity both as a requirement for worship in the temple and as a metaphor for spiritual purity. Among some Jews this led to high value being placed on an ascetic lifestyle. Jews debated also more philosophical and theological questions such as whether there is life after death (a tenet in which most but not all Jews came to believe from around the mid-second century BCE); the nature of the events to precede the end of the world towards which history was generally agreed to be leading; the nature and role of a messianic figure in those events; the relationship between human free will and divine intervention; the role of angels as intermediaries between man and God; the extent to which customary interpretation of the Pentateuchal laws could itself be taken to reflect the divine will. These debates were sometimes acrimonious but by no means always so, since the areas of agreement among Jews far outweighed the areas in dispute: thus Josephus (Ag. Ap. 2.179–81) could state that, in contrast to Greeks, a characteristic of Jews was their ‘admirable harmony … Unity and identity of religious belief, perfect uniformity in habits and customs, produce a very beautiful concord in human character. Among us alone will be heard no contradictory statements about God … Among us alone will be seen no difference in the conduct of our lives.’

18. The Emergence of Sects

It is all the more surprising that this same author, Josephus, provides the best evidence that a characteristic of Judaism in this period which distinguished it from the biblical age was the emergence within the religion of groups or parties that defined themselves by their distinctive theologies. In many passages he referred to the three, or sometimes four, haireseis (lit. choices) among the Jews, which he defined as the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Fourth Philosophy (about which Josephus is the sole witness). These groups were not strictly sectarian, since they all appear to have participated in mainstream Jewish life, but they all had special doctrines of their own; at least in the case of the Essenes they had a strong communal organization; and in each case they defined themselves as different from other Jews. More clearly sectarian in the sense that they viewed themselves as legitimate in contrast to the rest of Israel were the group which produced the communal writings among the Dead Sea scrolls found at Qumran. It is possible that these Dead Sea sectarians are to be identified with one or other of the groups known from the classical sources, but it is no less possible that this group was a separate sect unknown until the chance discovery of the scrolls in 1947. These groups are first attested in the Hasmonean period. This may be through chance, and the groups may have existed before this time since the narrative in Josephus' histories becomes so much more detailed from precisely this period, but it is also possible that the development of sectarianism was a product of the complexities of Jewish life in the land of Israel during the second century BCE.

19. Literary Developments

The new kinds of literature produced by Jews in this period were, like the religious innovations of the time, mostly the product of an intense attachment to the biblical text on the one hand, and the influence of the wider Hellenistic world on the other. The books contained within the Apocrypha comprise only a very small portion of the total literary output of Jews in this period. Many other Jewish writings were preserved by Christians for religious edification and instruction independently from the biblical corpus; such texts included the writings of Josephus and Philo as well as the heterogeneous collection of other works known to modern scholars (rather misleadingly, since not all are pseudepigraphic) as the ‘Pseudepigrapha’. A quite different body of writings in Hebrew and Aramaic were handed down through the Jewish rabbinic tradition; although none of the extant rabbinic texts, including the Mishnah, the foundation document of rabbinic Judaism, originated in its present from before c.200 CE, they incorporate much earlier literary material. Since the writings preserved by Christians and those preserved by Jews overlap to such a small extent, it is a reasonable assumption that both traditions selected the material they found valuable from a much larger pool. That this is so was confirmed by the discovery at Qumran of the Dead Sea scrolls which included many religious texts about whose existence there had previously been no trace. This highly fluid literary tradition provides the background for understanding the literary and religious aims of the authors of the Apocrypha.


Some at least of the works composed in the late Second Temple period continued within the genres to be found in the HB; thus there was religious poetry in the style of the Psalms, wisdom literature comparable to Proverbs, and so on. But there were also new kinds of writing The main literary innovations in the post-biblical period were the development of different types of commentary on the Bible, including rewritten versions such as the book of Jubilees, systematic expansions of biblical lemmata, as in some rabbinic midrashim, and many other forms of bible interpretation; the genre of apocalyptic, in which a story is told of the revelation of a divine message to a sage; philosophical treatises, most notably in the writings of Philo of Alexandria; the composition of tragedies in the Greek style but on Jewish themes, of which only one, a play on the Exodus by a certain Ezekiel, is partially extant; the development of communal rules, as at Qumran; and, perhaps most importantly, the adoption of Greek genres of historiography to describe the past. In all these cases it is probable that the literary form had some connection to the ideas expressed in the text—so, for instance, it is not accidental that eschatological speculation is to be found quite frequently, although by no means always, in apocalyptic writings. Similarly, the transmission of many quasi-prophetic texts in this period either under a pseudonym (‘pseudepigrapha’) or anonymously must be connected to the belief that genuine prophecy belonged to an earlier age.

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