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Background to Apocalypticism: The Maccabean Revolt

OK, I’m back to my discussion of where Jewish apocalypticism came from.  So far I have laid out the understandings of the Jewish prophets, focusing on Amos (from the 8th century BCE).  Now I need to explain why the “prophetic” views came to change.  To make sense of the change I have to sketch a set of historical events that the people of Israel had to live through.   Some people find these kinds of historical sketches fascinating; others find them dull as dirt.  But in either event, you really have to know what happened among ancient Jews in order to make sense of what their theological beliefs were, since these beliefs were molded by and informed by nothing so much as the historical context out of which they emerged.

And so here is a very brief sketch of the history of Judea over the four hundred years from approximately 540 BCE, when the Persians were in control, up to 63 BCE, when the Romans came in and took over.  I’ve taken the sketch from my textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.


The Later History of Judea

In the Persian period (starting in the late 6th century BCE), the land of Judah came be a province called Judea.  This will be its name in the time of the New Testament.  So too, as we have seen, inhabitants of this land, and descendants of former inhabitants who maintained their ancestral religious and cultural traditions, were called Judeans, or Jews.

The Persian empire was to last for about two hundred years.  In the mid- to late-fourth century Greece,  to the west, rose to prominence, especially under the leadership of Alexander of Macedonia, otherwise known to history as Alexander the Great.  We will learn more about Alexander in chapter 9, as, somewhat ironically, his conquests proved to be more important for early Christianity than they were for the Hebrew Bible.  Here suffice it to say that Alexander and his armies went on a massive campaign to the east, conquering Egypt and the Levant, and eventually the entire Persian empire, by 330 CE.  Eventually they got as far east as modern day India, before turning back.

Because Alexander was himself, culturally, Greek – he actually had the great Greek philosopher Aristotle (disciple of Plato, disciple of Socrates) as his private tutor when he was young – he considered Greek culture to be superior to all others.  One of his goals was not simply…

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The Rise of Apocalypticism
Are the Prophecies Being Fulfilled?



  1. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 15, 2016

    The breadth of your writing is truly amazing. I have been reading “Zealot” which presents a lot of material about Jewish rebellion against various rulers during the time just before and after Jesus.

  2. Avatar
    itsmoses  January 15, 2016

    You mentioned that after Alexander the great died, the empire was broken up, Ptolemy in Egypt, Seleucids in Syria, where do the Romans come in? Are they just the Italian part of the broken Greek empire? during these times of occupation did beliefs of Ptolemians and Seleucids trickle their way into Jewish theology and perceptions about God?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2016

      Yes, Rome was on the rise at the time — after Alexander it was deeply involved in Punic Wars trying to establish control of the Mediterranean. It eventually took over the Seleucid, and then the Ptolemy (think Cleopatra) empires.

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 15, 2016

    The High Priest was always supposed to be a Levite, right? Were Jason, and the descendants of Zadok, at least Levites?

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 15, 2016

    Another question, about the “redaction” you mentioned re the writings of Amos. Did that sort of “added happy ending,” in itself, prefigure and influence the later apocalyptic ideas?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2016

      I don’t think so, not so much. The apocalypticists do not appear to have been much influenced by such literary sources.

  5. Avatar
    jhague  January 15, 2016

    I find this historical information fascinating. I know this a very small piece of your article but why did the men exercise in the nude in the gymnasiums? Why were the athletes nude for the Olympics? This makes no sense to me but I’m sure there is some sort of reason.

    Also, in the Bible, there seems to be an ability for circumcised Jewish men to know that another man is not circumcised just by looking at him. Were there assumptions made that a man who was not Jewish was also not circumcised? What if a Gentile converted and was circumcised? Did he have to expose himself each time he was called uncircumcised in order to prove that he was circumcised? What if a Jewish baby was not circumcised? How would anyone know when he became a man (aside from his wife perhaps) that he wasn’t circumcised?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2016

      I’m not sure why! Maybe so an opponent couldn’t get an advantage by grabbing a garment?

      My sense is that nudity was seen a lot more in antiquity than now; not as much of an emphasis on privacy. But yes, if a male was uncircumcised, they were known not to be Jewish.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  January 15, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, there’s a tradition amongst the Talmudists that the Torah (and, presumably, the Deuteronomic history) were lost in written form from the time of the Babylonian Exile until Ezra (conveniently) came to rewrite the entire text down again (from memory!) in the 5th century BCE. This tradition is, presumably, meant to answer two questions that nagged the Rabbis. 1) Why were their extant versions of the Torah (and Deuteronomic history) written in the Aramaic script as to opposed the Hebrew (Phoenician) script, which was still in use in Judea well up until the Hasmonean period? And 2) why were there no extant versions of scripture in the Hebrew script?

    Now, for us, both of these questions are easily resolved by the same answer: Because the scriptures (at least in their redacted form) didn’t exist before the Babylonian Exile, and, in fact, were probably written either while in exile or by those scribes who returned from exile, which would explain why they wrote in the Aramaic script of the Assyrian/Babylonian empire as opposed to the Hebrew/Canaanite script of Judah.

    So I’m curious what you would make of this. How much of our modern Judaism do you think pre-dates the Exile and how much post-dates the Exile?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2016

      I don’t think what we call Judaism today was around until after the Persian period; but that’s obviously a long story. Still, scholars of antiquity tend to speak of pre-exilics as Israelites and not refer to “Jews” until much later (people from Judea). I suppose there are differences concerning how *much* later….

  7. Garrett20
    Garrett20  January 15, 2016

    Thanks for the post; nice history lesson and very well written. I need to purchase your book.

  8. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  January 16, 2016

    I normally have to search forever to find these kinds of historical details and piece them together. It’s tempting to buy the textbook, (for pleasure reading of all things) but it would compete with the ten other textbooks (NOT for pleasure reading) I’m required to read. I’ll have to settle for what you’re willing to share on the blog. 🙂

    • Avatar
      cmdenton47  January 16, 2016

      The textbook is well worth the expense!

  9. Avatar
    Kent  January 18, 2016

    I’m 1/2 of the way through the textbook. Not only is it vaccinating, but it is also a pleasure to read and can easily be comprehended and digested by the average layperson whom would find this topic of interest.

  10. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  February 4, 2016


    Is it surprising that despite almost 100 years of Jewish sovereignty (from the rededication of the temple in 164 BCE to Pompey’s conquest in 63 BCE) the apocalyptic movement managed to still thrive? Maybe John the Baptist and Jesus were neo-apocalypticists!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 5, 2016

      Ha! Right!

    • Avatar
      rburos  July 15, 2016

      I would imagine the Hasmonean dynasty would have been considered at best a half victory as they were weak and were forced to accommodate more powerful neighbors and internal Hellenists. Add to that they didn’t pull a high priest from the Zadok line. To me that would have been an impetus to strengthen the apocalypticists to continue their fight on to final victory–much as the TEA Party and the Trump movement today (it’s a weak metaphor I know, but I believe it to have some merit).

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