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JERUSALEM: AN ETERNAL CITY IN CONFLICT
Very few things happen at the right time, and the rest do not happen at all: the conscientious historian will correct these defects.
—MARK TWAIN, ON HERODOTUS, THE FIRST HISTORIAN
Let others praise ancient times; I'm glad I was born in these.
—OVID, FIRST CENTURY A.D.
By local reckoning, the year was that of Roman consuls Antonius and Cicero, during the 179th olympiad cycle. Only later would we date the events to 63 years before the birth of Christ, or to the 3,697th year of Creation.
It was three months into the siege.
In Jerusalem, the hot summer sun had yet to give way to the relative cool of winter—Jerusalem's weather fits nicely into three seasons, not four—and the sacrificial rites of the first millennium B.C. had yet to mutate into more modern forms of worship. So following a thousand years of tradition, Jewish priests in the great temple oversaw the slaughter of animals for God twice each day, in the morning and again around the ninth hour.
The menu for sacrifice was varied. A wealthy man, thankful for a particular stroke of good fortune, brought a bull. Another arrived with a lamb for the same reason. For a third denizen of Jerusalem, a lamb was to atone for a wrongdoing. The poor brought doves when they couldn't afford mammals.
The cacophony of so many animals in one place—bulls, lambs, goats, and even pigeons—combined with the general hubbub of the masses: bellows and bleats, merchants and middlemen, sacrificial incantations and everyday conversations. It was a spectacle, part circus, part sacrament, and part barbecue.
The stench of animals both living and dead mixed with the smoky aroma of burnt flesh and blood. The blood from the sacrificial animals was considered particularly important, for in it was the sacred power of life. The priests collected the blood from the slain animals, saving it to be sprinkled by hand on the altar.
This particular day, the priests' job was made incomparably harder by the onslaught of an invading Roman army as part of the siege. The world's mightiest fighting force had set its sights on the holy city of Jerusalem, leaving human blood running alongside that of the animals.
That same year, some 1,400 miles to the northwest, a Roman woman named Atia gave birth to a sickly son whom she called Gaius Octavius. Though his poor health would work against him, his grandmother was Julia, sister to Julius Caesar. This family connection would later help Gaius Octavius earn the title Augustus and become Rome's first emperor.
In the same year that Gaius Octavius was born, Caesar himself—Gaius Octavius's great uncle—was elected pontifex maximus, high priest of the Roman College of Pontiffs. Later he would be called a god. Though in retrospect the signs of Rome's decline are clear, Caesar was apparently unaware of the violent upheavals just around the corner, and equally unaware that he would be assassinated within two decades.
Similarly, the Jewish priests' power in Jerusalem was dimming, and, like Caesar, they did not know it. The siege in Jerusalem was only part of the problem. The more significant threat to the priests' power was internal Jewish turmoil. Sacrifice had been the binding force behind Judaism for nearly a millennium. Now that approach to serving God was being called into question. Maybe, some said, God didn't want sacrifices after all. And maybe the priests weren't as holy as they claimed.
A few decades earlier, the Roman Republic's greatest times were waning as that world power struggled through military defeat, political upheaval, and civil war.
In 82 B.C., a dictator named Sulla ruthlessly took power. (In one particularly gruesome gesture, he publicly posted the names of his political opponents, signifying that anyone who was able should kill them.) Sulla had a protégé named Pompey, who began his own military career at the young age of seventeen. By the time Pompey was in his twenties, his mentor was ruling Rome. This is how Pompey came to command an army, which he took to Damascus—part of modern-day Syria—in 64 B.C.
Pompey had been sent to conquer the region. And with so few armies able to stand up to the fighting force that he had at his disposal, currying favor with the Roman general was seen as a hugely important diplomatic task among the soon-to-be-conquered. Ambassadors from Syria, Egypt, and the Jewish province of Judea (which contained Jerusalem) came to greet Pompey.
In fact, two Jewish kings arrived in Damascus. The first was Hyrcanus II, who claimed to be ruler of Jerusalem and king of Judea. The second was his younger brother Aristobulus II, who also claimed to be ruler of Jerusalem and king of Judea.
In a not atypical situation for Jerusalem at the time, even as both brothers claimed the holy city as their own, they were utterly despised by the Jews they presumed to rule. Though Hyrcanus and Aristobulus hailed from a priestly family, and though they were descendants of the great Hasmonean Maccabees who revolted against the Syrian Greeks a century earlier to establish an independent Judea, they had both become increasingly Roman in their ways, adopting the lifestyle of pagan monarchs instead of comporting themselves in the familiar Jewish fashion. The Jewish population saw them as representing too sharp a break with tradition. The Jews served priests, who in turn served God. Kings were for other nations.
Unable to achieve a popular victory at home, both brothers tried to enlist the help of Pompey. Hyrcanus explained that, as the older brother, he was the rightful king. The younger Aristobulus countered that Hyrcanus was too placid a ruler. Aristobulus explained that he was forced to overthrow his older brother in order to prevent other, nonpriestly forces from wresting control of Jerusalem and pulling it completely out of Jewish hands. It was sibling rivalry playing out on a world stage.
In the end, Pompey condemned Aristobulus's behavior as a coup d'état but urged both men to exercise restraint. Pompey promised to come to Jerusalem at a later date to settle things. But, bypassing his brother, Aristobulus ignored Pompey and rallied an army. He marched it into Judea, a provocation that infuriated the Roman general with whom he and his brother had just met.
In response, Pompey marshaled his legions and set out for Judea himself. Along the way, he took command of a fortress in a place called Corem. Atop a mountain named Alexandrium, due east of Jerusalem and just a dozen miles north of Jericho, Corem was an ideal staging point for an assault on the Jewish capital. From there, Pompey offered Aristobulus one last chance for peace. But Aristobulus, worried that Pompey would give Judea back to his older brother Hyrcanus, refused the peace offer and, instead, prepared for war.
So Pompey pitched camp in Jericho and from there marched two dozen miles west into Jerusalem. Seeing the Roman troops, Aristobulus pleaded for peace, surrendering Jerusalem and offering Pompey money. Pompey called off his attack. But Aristobulus reneged. Enraged, Pompey imprisoned Aristobulus and ordered a full assault on Jerusalem.
The population of Jerusalem, now left completely without leadership, split into two camps. Some people, fearing Rome's might in the form of Pompey's army, were glad that Aristobulus was out of the picture. This way, they thought, a peaceful settlement with Pompey could be negotiated. Other people feared Rome's rule more than its wrath and hoped to forcibly keep Pompey out of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem at the time was fortified on the east, south, and west by walls—the north side was more vulnerable—and encompassed by a defensive ditch. The Temple itself was also surrounded by walls.
Amid the power vacuum and confusion in Jerusalem, Pompey was let into the city from the north, but soon afterward the bridge he had used to enter was destroyed. Even though Pompey was near the Temple, his all-important battering rams and catapults were stuck beyond the ditch, outside Jerusalem. Pompey couldn't yet take the Temple—the Jewish seat of religious and political power. But the siege had begun.
Pompey's army had to slowly raise a bank, gathering rocks and whatever else they might find to fill in the massive ditch and gain access to Jerusalem from the north. In the meantime, the Jews had not only a tactical problem but a religious one as well. Jewish law at the time prohibited work on the Sabbath. An exception was made for active defense, but not for more general meddling in the enemy's preparations—for war or for anything else.
The Romans used this to their advantage. While they attacked Jerusalem for six days a week during the siege, on the seventh they ceased all active hostilities, devoting their energies instead only to bridging the ditch. And the Jews, in religious observance, did nothing to interfere. So even though it is usually easier to knock down a hastily built bank than to build one up, the Romans had one day each week during which their progress was essentially unimpeded.
Eventually Jerusalem fell. Pompey took the city, brought Aristobulus back to Rome as his captive, and restored the older Hyrcanus to power. Pompey once again made Judea part of the province of Syria (basically the same political power from which the Hasmonean Maccabees had fought for freedom less than a hundred years earlier but now under Roman control). The tax revenue formerly earmarked for the priests was now paid to Rome.
Jerusalem had become a pagan city.
It was the beginning of the end. The Temple itself—the very core of over a thousand years of Jewish service to God—would soon be destroyed by Roman forces, never to be rebuilt (to date). The Jews would be exiled. The practice of sacrifice would end.
It was also the start of a new beginning. Scripture, already a focus from the first exile of 586 B.C., would take on new importance as the only remnant of pre-exilic Judaism: a sacred souvenir, as it were.
Other seeds had been planted in Roman Jerusalem, perhaps most important the precursors of Christianity and of rabbinic Judaism.
In short, the thousand-year tradition of Temple-based Judaism was about to end, simply because Hyrcanus and Aristobulus couldn't get past their petty sibling rivalry, prompting Rome to invade.
This story of the people and events leading up to the fall of the Temple is well known, even if it seems in some ways unsatisfactory. Of all of the problems presented by this narrative—and, certainly, there are many—the biggest is this: We don't know how much of it is true.
Our fundamental issue is that most of our knowledge about these events comes from a man named Joseph ben Mattityahu, better known simply as Josephus, and his evidence, as we discuss in chapter 4, is suspect for a variety of reasons. He sometimes made things up, for example. So even though we have a compelling and detailed narrative, we also have reason to doubt almost all of it.
We do know the broad strokes, though, not just starting in 63 B.C., but even going back to about 1000 B.C., when King David reigned over the fledging nation of the Hebrews in Jerusalem. The short version is that over the next thousand years, Jerusalem would be ruled by Jewish kings; Babylonians, who would exile the Jewish people; Persians; various Greeks based in Greece, Egypt, and Syria; the Jews themselves, in the form of the spectacularly incompetent Maccabees; Romans; Persians again, very briefly; and finally Romans again, who would exile the Jews for the second time.
We also know a lot of the particulars.
We start around the year 1000 B.C., because we have very little reliable historical evidence for anything earlier, but we have good reason to believe that King David established the Israelite capital right around the start of the first millennium B.C. We also essentially skip over the first four hundred years of his kingdom. They are fascinating in their own right, exhibiting intricate power balances among kings, prophets, and priests, for example, and admitting no small degree of palace intrigue. But ultimately these years have little to do with what Jerusalem looked like at the end of the millennium.
So we skip to the year 605 B.C., about four hundred years into the reign of King David and his descendants; the Israelite King Jehoiakim was on the throne, and the great prophet Jeremiah walked the streets of Jerusalem. And we jump to a city on the Euphrates River called Carchemish, by the modern-day Syria-Turkey border, not far from the modern Turkish city of Kargamis.
For several hundred years, the major force in the region had been the Assyrian Empire, ruling from their capital of Nineveh, across the Tigris River from modern-day Mosul. Around 705 B.C., the Assyrian king Sargon II had established Carchemish as an Assyrian province.
The Babylonians, to the south of the Assyrians, had their own empire, which dated back at least to the days of Hammurabi from the first half of the second millennium B.C. He had established Babylon as the capital of southern Mesopotamia. While the Babylonians had once been the primary power, their power had waned in comparison with the Assyrians.
Around 612 B.C., a group of Babylonians joined forces with other local armies in an alliance against the ruling Assyrians. They sacked the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, pushing the Assyrians westward to Harran (in modern-day Turkey), then finally to Carchemish.
In 605 the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar II (whose name is also spelled Nebuchadrezzar, with an r instead of an n) set out to defeat the Assyrians in Carchemish. Unfortunately for Jerusalem, Egypt had been allied with the Assyrians. Egypt lies to Jerusalem's south, and Carchemish roughly to its east. Or to look at things differently, Jerusalem lies between Egypt and Carchemish. So when Pharaoh Necho II of Egypt set out to help the Assyrians in Carchemish, he had to pass by Jerusalem.
When Pharaoh Necho, along with the Assyrians, lost the famous battle of Carchemish, Nebuchadnezzar II reestablished the primacy of the Babylonian Empire, in what is commonly called the Neo-Babylonian Empire, to distinguish it from the original Babylonian Empire of the second millennium B.C.
Having emerged victorious, Nebuchadnezzar set out to annex all of Egypt to his growing Babylonian Empire. Again unfortunately for Jerusalem, the path from Babylonia back to Egypt, obviously, also runs almost directly through the holy city. This is how David's descendants got caught in the middle of a struggle to rule the world, establishing a pattern that would repeat itself many times.
As the Egyptians fought back against the invading Babylonian Empire, they used Jerusalem as a proxy: They urged the Jewish capital to rise up against Babylonia.
A few years later, according to both Babylonian and biblical records, Nebuchadnezzar therefore replaced the ruling king in Jerusalem (who at this point was Jehoiakim's son Jeconiah) with a monarch who would, he hoped, be more friendly to Babylonia. His name was Zedukia. And he was Jehoiakim's younger brother. But, perhaps influenced by Pharaoh Psametichus II, Zedukia sided with Egypt, or, at least, refused to side with Babylonia.
So around 587 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar, no longer content to play the role of puppet master in Jerusalem, conquered the city, put an end to Zedukia's rule and with it the Davidic monarchy, exiled the Jews, and destroyed the Temple that had served as the symbol and center of Jewish life for nearly half a millennium. This is commonly known as the first exile.
One primary destination for the exiled Jews was Babylonia (modern-day Iraq). This is why we have a biblical lament (from Psalm 137), now immortalized in song, about lying down to weep by the waters of Babylon. The weeping was prompted by forced exile from the holy land. This is also why Jews in modern-day Iraq trace their lineage in that country back over 2,500 years.
Less than forty years later, in 549, a man named Cyrus ("the Great" or "Cyrus II") was building his own empire some thousand miles east of Jerusalem. He took over Persia (modern-day Iran) from a people called the Medes and then set his eyes both westward, toward Babylonia and Jerusalem, and eastward, toward what is now Afghanistan. He was successful in the west, and as part of his victory he eventually put an end to Babylonian rule in Jerusalem.
Cyrus's predecessors in Jerusalem had thought that an empire should impose a uniform culture. So Jerusalem under the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar was supposed to be a Babylonian city. Cyrus disagreed with this approach and conceived of an empire in terms of a pluralistic union of different cultures. It was perhaps this mentality that helped Cyrus's Persian Empire grow larger than anything the world had seen before. It was also this mentality that, in 538, led Cyrus to promote the return of the Jews from exile and to encourage the rebuilding of the Temple.
Jerusalem thrived under the Persians. The Second Temple was rededicated in 515. The great leader Ezra, described in the biblical Book of Ezra, starting reading the Bible publicly in the city in 458. Nehemiah, who also has a biblical book, built new city walls in 445.
The next major influence on Jerusalem would come not from the east but from the west.
The Mediterranean Sea that forms Israel's western coastline has two large northern bays. The bigger and westernmost one, farther from Israel, has two parts, the Ionian Sea just north of the Mediterranean, and, north of that, the Adriatic Sea. The Ionian Sea gives southern Italy its Eastern coast, and Greece its western coast. The Adriatic does the same for northern Italy and the Baltics. Closer to Israel, the smaller Aegean Sea to the east lies between modern-day Greece and Turkey. (See map opposite.)
While the Egyptians, Babylonians, and Persians had been fighting over Jerusalem, various groups of people around the Aegean Sea had been building their own form of civilization since at least the middle of the eighth century. They would eventually become the hugely influential Greeks, giving the world Aristotle and Zeus, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Olympic games and the Hippocratic oath, euclidean geometry and platonic love, and even politics and democracy.
As it happens, the Greeks shared the Persian approach of admitting diverse cultures into their empire. But even so, a clash between the two growing powers—Greece to Jerusalem's west and Persia to its east—was inevitable. Greece was expanding eastward from Europe, and the Persians had already annexed land to their west.
The kingdom of Lydia (in modern-day Turkey) proved to be the flash point. As early as the seventh century, a Lydian king named Croesus got the idea that wealth could be represented symbolically in the form of money. So he started what is widely believed to be the first central bank. (Though unrelated to Jerusalem's saga, coinage and central banking were also being invented in China, at almost the same time.)
Until Croesus, commerce was generally only possible between people who trusted each other to repay debts. If I wanted meat from one of your cows so I could feed my family long enough to raise chickens and give you eggs, you had to trust me when you gave me the meat. You could rely only on my personal promise that I would give you eggs later. Or, still before Croesus, I could give you gold, which you would have to carefully weigh and perhaps analyze. Indeed, this is why we find biblical passages like Deuteronomy 25:13–15 that emphasize the importance of fair weights. But in the end, unless you were an expert metallurgist in addition to a farmer, you would have no way of knowing exactly how much gold I was giving you unless you trusted me personally.
But Croesus minted standardized units of precious metal, stamping each coin with a mark that both indicated the value of the metal and, more important, put his kingdom's full faith and credit, as we might now say, behind the value of the money. As controller of the money, Croesus would amass a huge personal fortune. (This is where we get the expression "as rich as Croesus.") And his central government would make it possible for strangers to conduct business. Now, when I bought your meat, you didn't have to know me or know anything about the gold I was giving you. Croesus himself was guaranteeing my bona fides, and the proof was the stamp on the coin I was holding.
As a result of this new system, Lydia became a natural center of commerce. And as a result of its location at the far western part of Asia or, alternatively, the far eastern part of Europe, it was geographically convenient. What better place to put a bank?
Around 540 B.C., the Persians continued their westward march and overthrew Lydia. Then they crossed into Europe, further threatening the Greek Empire. Greece fought back, and hostilities continued in the form of battles and minor skirmishes for some time. The importance of these conflicts is underscored by the way some of them have become part of popular culture. For example, in 490 B.C. the Athenians successfully repelled a Persian invasion at a place called Marathon, whose distance from Athens set the standard marathon length.
By 449 the wars had ended and a peace between Greece and Persia had been established, paving the way for Greece to become the next major influence on Jerusalem, though it would take some time and come only through a double intermediary.
Greece at the time was in fact a coalition of various cultures, among them the famous city-states of Athens and Sparta. Athens proved to be the most successful and influential, though its success would ultimately catalyze its own downfall. As Athens grew, other city-states, feeling threatened, became envious and rebellious. Sparta and Athens, which had always enjoyed an uneasy combination of brotherly cohesion and sibling rivalry, ended up in prolonged conflict, in the famous Peloponnesian War.
The connection between these events and Jerusalem begins with a kingdom in northern Greece called Macedon. In 359, the Macedonian ruler Philip II saw three things. The Persian Empire was weakening. Athens was not as strong as she had once been. And Macedon had always had a tradition of military might.
The last quality meant that it wasn't hard for Philip to build and train an impressive fighting force, which he used at first to solidify control of Macedon. Then he turned his army on the injured Athens, and, after his victory over them, he directed Athens to join an attack on Persia.
Philip didn't live long enough to see things through, but he left his son and successor, Alexander III (now almost universally known as Alexander the Great), everything he needed to change the map of the ancient world, including Jerusalem.
Alexander, after first putting down some minor revolts, set out, quite simply, to conquer the world. And he nearly succeeded. He defeated the Persians at the battle of Issus, marched through Syria, and conquered Egypt. (This is why Egypt has a city named Alexandria, though Egypt is, of course, not the only such place. Two thousand miles away, Kandahar, Afghanistan, also bears his name, as do numerous cities in between and elsewhere.) In both a figurative and literal marriage of East and West, Alexander took as a second wife the daughter of the defeated Persian ruler Darius III.
In 332, a year before defeating Darius, Alexander offered an ultimatum to the Persian-aligned leaders of Jerusalem: fight or surrender. Jerusalem chose the latter, and switched from being a Persian city to a Hellenistic one.
But the real story lies not in what Alexander did but rather in what he did not do. He did not plan for his own succession. He can hardly be blamed. The year was 323. Alexander was a young man, only thirty-two years old. In just ten years he had conquered the world, becoming the most powerful person the region had ever seen. And his first wife, Roxana, was seven months pregnant with his first child, a son, they hoped. Everything was looking up for Alexander the Great. How could he know that he wouldn't live to see the birth of his child?
Illness took his life shortly thereafter. And with Alexander's death came enormous instability. By the time his son was born two months later, his first wife, Roxana, had already murdered his second, Persian wife. Roxana and her son with Alexander were soon killed, too, and the newly conquered world was left without any prospect of a recognized leader. So Alexander's generals and other power brokers fought for control.
To understand what happened next we have to know not only the physical layout of the area around the Ancient Near East but also the conceptual geography, which forms a slightly crooked and ill-proportioned capital letter T (see opposite). The long top of the T runs from Greece in the west to Persia (Iran) in the east. Along the way are, from west to east, Turkey, Syria, and Babylonia (Iraq). The shorter vertical line of the T connects Syria in the north to Egypt in the south. A straight line on the map from Jerusalem to Tehran, Iran, runs practically right through Baghdad, Iraq. But it also runs through the inhospitable and largely unnavigable desert that forms the Arabian Peninsula in what is now Saudi Arabia. So in antiquity, Baghdad was not directly between Tehran and Jerusalem but rather between Tehran and Aleppo, Syria, to Jerusalem's north, because a journey from Jerusalem to Tehran had to start to the north to avoid the desert. Similarly, even though Kandahar is actually about half a degree south of Jerusalem, it lay to the northeast for Alexander, because Alexander had to go north, then east, to get there.
Likewise, running north to south along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea are Tripolis (now Tripoli, Lebanon), Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre. But even though it runs north-south, this line also forms part of the conceptual west-to-east path from Greece to Persia.
Jerusalem is just barely farther south of Tyre, not quite on the west-to-east path but very close to the north-to-south journey toward Egypt that naturally runs through Gaza, on the Mediterranean. This put Jerusalem nearly on the path from Greece to Persia, and even closer to the path from either of those places to Egypt, all of which is why Jerusalem ended up being drawn in to almost any conflict in the Ancient Near East.
This conceptual configuration has three natural end points: Greece, at the western end of the top bar of the T; Persia, at the eastern end; and Egypt, at the southern end of the vertical line. It also has a fourth point of unique interest: Syria, where the lines meet. This is why Greece, Egypt, Persia, and Syria keep popping up as power centers, both in antiquity and now.
This is also why, when Alexander the Great died, strongholds were first established in Greece, Egypt, Persia, and Syria. And understanding what happened to Jerusalem after the death of Alexander the Great entails understanding what happened in those four central locations.
We start with Egypt, where a general by the name of Ptolemy Soter immediately grabbed power. He and his descendants, in the form of the Ptolemaic dynasty, would keep Egypt until the death of Cleopatra III in 30 B.C. It was Ptolemy's son (Ptolemy II) who would be credited with commissioning the Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint. Under the Ptolemaic dynasty, Egypt enjoyed a few hundred years of relative stability and power.
The easternmost parts of Alexander's empire were taken over by an Indian ruler, leaving little Greek influence or control in those regions. And off to the west, Athens and Macedon for some time would remain too busy with internal conflict to impact Jerusalem directly.
But the middle region, the vast swath from Persia to Syria, continued to be influential. A general by the name of Antigonus briefly unified that huge stretch of land, including Jerusalem. But one of Alexander's friends, a noble named Seleucus, also wanted the region.
Seleucus's uneven rise to power is complicated. The highlights are that he fled from Babylonia to Ptolemaic Egypt, then conquered first the eastern and then western halves of what Antigonus had just recently claimed.
This complex power struggle was taking place just north of Jerusalem, which thus found herself surrounded by three new and sometimes unstable leaderships: Ptolemy and then the Ptolemaic dynasty was to the south. To the north were the quarrelsome Antigonus and Seleucus.
As Seleucus was battling Antigonus to the north of Jerusalem, Ptolemy of Egypt came from the south and took Jerusalem from Antigonus.
Seleucus eventually prevailed over Antigonus, by the year 300 unifying the region from Syria to Persia. Seleucus established his capital in Antioch, Syria, and, like Ptolemy, became the first ruler in a dynasty.
Antigonus was banished to Europe, where he also established a dynasty, to rule Macedon and Athens. This left three people in charge of three dynasties around Jerusalem: Ptolemy, to the south in Egypt; Seleucus, to the north in Syria; and Antigonus, to the west in Greece.
Amid these rapid power shifts that reshaped the future of the Middle East and the world, Jerusalem in one generation went from being a Persian city ruled by Darius to a Macedonian city ruled by Alexander to a vaguely Greek city ruled by Antigonus to a vaguely Greek city ruled by Seleucus to an Egyptian city ruled by the vaguely Greek Ptolemy.
The phrase "vaguely Greek" reflects the complicated combination of a Macedonian conqueror, Macedonian successors, Greek language, and Greek thought. The term "Hellenistic" is often used to express this kind of Greek influence, and it is in this sense that Jerusalem became Hellenistic, a flavor she would retain solidly until the year 63 B.C.
This rapid succession also leads to other potentially confusing terms. The inhabits of Antioch, Syria—the capital of Seleucus's new empire—are known as Syrian Greeks, but also, more briefly, sometimes just as Syrians and sometimes just as Greeks. (This is why the Jews' foes in the Maccabean revolt are to this day variously called either the Syrians or the Greeks. They were Syrian Greeks.) Similarly, back in Europe, the Greeks and Macedonians were at war. But the "Greek" Syrians had more in common with the Macedonians than they did with the Greeks. And for that matter, the Ptolemies in Egypt declared themselves pharaoh in most of the land, so the Egyptian pharaoh for a long while was a Macedonian Greek. This is also why it was in Egypt, not Greece, that the Bible was first translated into Greek.
At any rate, Greek or "vaguely Greek" or Hellenistic influence was firmly entrenched in and around Jerusalem, with the Ptolemies in Egypt to the south and the Seleucids to the north.
The families of Ptolemy, Seleucus, and Antigonus—originally all part of Alexander the Great's fighting force from Macedon—remained in touch, even as they built their own fiefdoms. Over the next few hundred years, they would fight, join forces, conspire, and betray one another. This was bad news for Jerusalem's stability.
Jerusalem remained under Egyptian Ptolemaic rule for about a hundred years.
Then, around 200 B.C., a conspiracy of sorts shook things up yet again. The descendants of Seleucus and the descendants of Antigonus ganged up on the descendants of Ptolemy. Antiochus III (Antiochus the Great), the sixth king of the Seleucid dynasty in Syria, plotted secretly with Philip V of the Antigonid dynasty back in Macedon to attack Ptolemy V in Egypt—which is essentially a detailed way of saying that Syria and Greece waged war on Egypt. Antiochus III of Syria won Jerusalem, making the holy city a (Greek) Syrian province.
At some point around this time, a group of people from the region of Jerusalem set up a society in the desert, northwest of the Dead Sea. We don't know exactly when, we don't know exactly why, and we don't know exactly who the people were. What we do know is that they would live in the desert for just over two centuries, creating a society of Jews similar to the one developing in Jerusalem, though sometimes also at odds with it. For many years details about this curious group of people were completely unavailable. Then, starting in 1947, their writings started to surface, as I describe in chapter 2.
Elsewhere, Philip V (of the Antigonid dynasty in Macedon) was also trying to enlarge his territory. But he didn't fare as well at battle as his Syrian coconspirator Antiochus III, and, facing defeat, he turned to his secret partner in Syria for support. But Antiochus had other plans and refused to help. Philip V was left on his own, a turn of events that, as we'll see, may have indirectly led to the downfall of Jerusalem a few centuries later.
Philip's next move was to turn to a group of people whose background is, to this day, unclear. We know that they came to Europe sometime in the first half of the first millennium B.C., but we don't know exactly when, and we don't know for sure from where. We do know that early in the first millennium they had writing, sophisticated art, considerable societal organization, skilled traders, and, notably, an advanced military. It also appears that women enjoyed an unparalleled degree of equality with men.
To understand them better we turn to twin springs high up in the Apennines in the Italian Peninsula. Water from those springs forms the river Tiber that meanders down to the Tyrrhenian Sea, which in turn connects to the northwest portion of the Mediterranean Sea. Either through foresight or luck, some of these talented people of unknown origin chose to dwell on this particular river's southern bank, not far from the sea. In addition to its obvious maritime qualities, the spot would soon be home to the world's most influential force. The people were the Etruscans.
The Etruscans had clearly had some early contact with the Greeks, though details remain obscure. After settling in and around the Tiber River, they continued to interact with Greece, at first as trading partners, when Greece established its first colonies in the section of the Tyrrhenian Sea known as the Bay of Naples, some 150 miles south of the Tiber. Then, as both the Greeks and the Etruscans grew in power, the two became rivals and, eventually, military adversaries. By the end of the sixth century, the Greeks and the Etruscans had battled more than once, and the Etruscans had lost.
Weakened, the Etruscans also lost their influence even in their own town on the Tiber River, and the place reverted to local control by the then-indigenous Latins. Though these locals managed to expel the Etruscans, they held on to much of the Etruscan culture, including their system of writing, their religion, and their military prowess. These Etruscan innovations gave this Latin city a huge advantage over nearby, and otherwise similar, settlements. The city is Rome, and in 509 B.C. its inhabitants combined their local culture with what they had learned from the Etruscans to form a republic that would last until 31 B.C., and that would continue to exert influence far beyond that.
At the dawn of the second century B.C., Rome was nearing the height of its power, exactly when Philip V of Macedon needed help because his secret partner, Antiochus of Syria, had abandoned him. So Philip turned to the mighty western power. Unfortunately for Philip, Rome intervened not with him but rather against him, defeating him decisively and conquering much of Greece in 197.
This was just one step in Rome's ultimate involvement in Jerusalem.
The next came in a roundabout way through a northern African city known in Phoenician as Kart-Hadasht ("new village") or, in English, as Carthage. It was established in an ideal spot for a military power: Situated in the Gulf of Tunis (in modern-day Tunisia), it was easily defensible; and as the northernmost spot in Africa, it was ideal for projecting might into Europe.
Carthage and Rome had fought a major war in the middle 200s over control of the islands of Corsica and Sicily. Located off Europe's southern shore, and therefore off Africa's northern shore, these islands were a natural focus of dispute between the northern African power and the southern European one. Not surprisingly, the Iberian Peninsula (Spain), lying even closer to Africa, was also a source of contention during the war.
Rome won the war, and as part of the peace treaty between the two powers, Carthage agreed to limit its influence to the southern shore of the Erbo River in northern Spain, which is to say, Carthage could have most of the Iberian Peninsula but couldn't cross the Pyrenees to encroach any further on Europe.
In 221, a twenty-six-year-old Carthaginian living in Spain became the Carthaginian commander in chief. His name was Hannibal. He attacked an independent Iberian city called Saguntum, which was geographically south of the Erbo—so Hannibal wasn't technically in violation of the peace treaty with Rome—but the Romans nonetheless saw this as an act of war, perhaps because of their cultural ties to Saguntum. In response, Rome declared open war on Carthage.
This is how Hannibal ended up taking a force of infantry, cavalry, and elephants across the Pyrenees, through what is now France, and then over the Alps toward Rome. The journey exhausted his troops, though, and in the end his campaign against Rome ended in defeat in 195.
These two wars, and a third one after it, are generally called the Punic Wars, because the Romans called the Carthaginians "Poeni," reflecting the city's founding by the Phoenicians.
None of this would matter for our story except that in the midst of this Second Punic War, Hannibal, in 215, joined forces with Philip V of Macedon. Then once he had lost the war, Hannibal fled to Syria to advise Antiochus III, where, it would seem, he convinced Antiochus to take up arms against Rome.
Not surprisingly, Antiochus lost. In the year 190, as part of his surrender, the Romans demanded hostages, including Hannibal and Antiochus III's own son, Antiochus IV. Hannibal managed to escape, but Antiochus IV wasn't so lucky. He ended up a Roman prisoner.
So the next leader of the waning but still powerful Syrian Greek Empire was not Antiochus IV, who was in Roman captivity, but rather his brother Seleucus IV. He took power in 187.
Then in 175, in an odd choice of family loyalty, Seleucus IV traded his own son Demetrius to secure the return of his brother, Antiochus IV. Antiochus IV was thus back in Syria when a man named Heliodorus, Seleucus IV's chief minister, staged a coup d'état and killed Seleucus IV. Antiochus IV in turn took power from Heliodorus and found himself in charge of Syria.
While Antiochus III was nicknamed "the Great," his son and eventual successor, Antiochus IV, was called "the Mad." Not surprisingly, this would not bode well for Jerusalem, still under Syrian control.
Whereas Antiochus III had adopted a charitable posture toward Jerusalem, granting it special rights, Antiochus the Mad saw it largely as a source of revenue. Also, probably because of his close contact with the Romans, he seems to have abandoned the Greek mentality that encouraged different cultures to thrive within an empire. Rather, in keeping with Roman doctrine, the younger Antiochus wanted everyone to adhere to a common culture and religion, though in this case the common culture was not Roman but his own Greek ways of life.
Details are unclear as to who first got the idea to turn Jerusalem into a Greek city like any other. It may have been Antiochus the Mad, or it may even have been Jason, the Jewish high priest from 175 to 172, who may have hoped to curry favor with Antiochus. Either way, in what was tantamount to a civil war, Jason in Jerusalem was replaced by an even more ardent Hellenist, Menalaus, who was closely aligned with Antiochus. (In 169, Jason would successfully mount a bloody counterattack.)
Around 170 B.C., on his way back from a failed attempt to take over Egypt, Antiochus and his army stopped by the great Temple in Jerusalem and despoiled it of all its wealth. Two years later, after his failure in Egypt became clear to him, Antiochus stepped up his oppression of the Jews in Jerusalem, exacting taxes and forbidding even the most central aspects of local religious practice, among them circumcision and celebration of the Sabbath.
In 168 B.C., he rededicated the great Jewish Temple to the Greek god Zeus.
At this point a Jewish priest named Mattathias from the city of Modein comes into the picture. Unlike the priests Jason and Menalaus, Mattathias and his family were firmly opposed to hellenization, and the sacking of the holy Temple pushed them into outright rebellion. Mattathias and his sons—most notably, Judah—fled to the hills, from where they mounted a guerrilla offensive against Antiochus the Mad.
In 165, Judah "the Maccabee" (his father, Mattathias, had died in 166) succeeded in recapturing the Temple and rededicating it to the Jewish God. This triumph is still celebrated in the form of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
The disorganized state of the Seleucid empire and leadership make it hard to determine exactly when the Maccabean victory was complete. Antiochus the Mad died in 164. His son Antiochus V took the reins, but not for long, partly because he was just a boy when he took the throne, but mostly because Demetrius (the son of the recently deposed Seleucus IV, who had been sent to Rome as a prisoner in order to secure the return of Antiochus IV) managed to escape in 162. He, too, wanted the throne. And he managed to get it by force, giving Syria, and therefore Jerusalem, the dubious distinction of having twice been ruled by escaped Roman prisoners.
In the meantime, a local Seleucid leader had granted the Jews the right to worship as they wished, but simultaneously, pagan practices were encouraged even among the Jews. Judah took to battle again, eventually losing his life in a confrontation with one of Demetrius's generals and depriving Jerusalem of her last hope for unification. The city was left with no coherent policy of government, and she was subject both to ruthless leadership from afar and violent rebellion from within.
In an example of the complex interplay between the power struggles in Syria and the chaos in Jerusalem, it was an attempted coup in Syria that ended up giving the Maccabees official recognition in Jerusalem. More specifically, a man named Alexander Balas, who in 153 wanted to wrest control of Syria from Demetrius, gave Judah's younger brother Jonathan the office and title of high priest. After Jonathan's death, Simon—the next brother in line—took over, establishing the precedent of a Hasmonean dynasty. (The name "Hasmonean" comes from Josephus, who reports that Mattathias had an ancestor named Hasmoneus. Josephus also reports that he himself was descended on his mother's side from these same Hasmoneans.) Simon convinced Syria to let him mint coins and secured an exemption from paying taxes to the Seleucids in Syria.
It seemed like good news. The anti-Hellenistic revolt was a success. The Syrian Greeks had been repelled. The Temple was Jewish again. And local Jewish high priests ran Jerusalem.
However, the Maccabees, though priests, were not descended from Zadok, who had established the original high-priest dynasty hundreds of years earlier. Accordingly, some people saw the rise of the Maccabees as a coup against the real high priests. Even worse, the Hasmoneans proved to have as little governing skill as the Seleucids. So Jerusalem's apparent victory was in fact only a shift from one inept ruling family to another and, worse, served to exacerbate internal strife among the Jews.
Of Simon's three sons, John Hyrcanus I was the next in line, ruling from about 135 to 104. The reason that Hyrcanus was next, rather than one of Simon's other two sons, is that Simon's son-in-law had murdered them, along with Simon himself. Even in the face of invasions from the Syrian empire, now on its last legs, Hyrcanus managed to successfully defend Jerusalem and shore up his own power. He also redoubled the military expansion that his father and uncles had begun, forcefully and forcibly insisting that the entire region was part of the Jewish heritage. Jerusalem had become both a military target and a military provocateur.
Among the places Hyrcanus occupied was Idumaea, the site of the biblical Edom, southeast of the Dead Sea. There, as was his practice, Hyrcanus forced Judaism on the locals. He had no way of knowing that, in doing so, he was paving the way for one of Jerusalem's most viciously tyrannical rulers.
Hyrcanus had intended for his wife to succeed him, and she did, very briefly. But his son, Aristobulus, seized power from her in 104 and ruled briefly until 103. Coins from the day indicate that he called himself the high priest, but some reports put his title not as "high priest" but rather as "king." This was a matter of some importance, because the high priests were considered Jewish, and kings, Greek. The point of the Maccabean revolution had been to keep Jerusalem Jewish, and any ruler calling himself king could have been seen as betraying the original cause.
Next in line in the dynasty was Hyrcanus's brother, Alexander Jannaeus, who reigned viciously from 103 to 76, a period marked primarily by even more war and tension. On some coins from his reign he is clearly called King Alexander. In just two generations, the same Hasmoneans who had thrown off the yoke of Greek rule had themselves become Greek in character—and Greek aggressors, at that.
Alexander Jannaeus's widow, Salome Alexandra, succeeded him upon his death in 76. She tried to reverse some of her husband's disastrous decisions, but she didn't live long enough, and, at any rate, the turmoil and internal strife in Jerusalem made the city virtually ungovernable at this point.
When the widow died in 67, both of her sons aspired to the throne. They are Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II, who, as we saw at the outset, went to Syria to meet Pompey in the year 63, and whose inability to get along with each other prodded Pompey to lay siege to Jerusalem.
So it wasn't just that two brothers were fighting. Jerusalem, once the peaceful, prosperous center of Jewish worship and practice, had fallen steadily, suffering blows at the hands of warring Greeks from both the south and the north, enduring religious oppression, and succumbing to forced hellenization at the hands of a Greek ruler. In response, a revolution had been mounted, the success of which only intensified the hellenization and increased the bloodshed. Jerusalem had become a chaotic city marked by internal strife and violence, and even her original mission as the capital of the Jewish people was in doubt.
And things were about to get much worse, because the Romans were on the way.
In 63, Pompey conquered Syria, and, with it, Syrian-ruled Jerusalem. Syria became a Roman province. Even though Jerusalem, as part of the region of Judea, retained some autonomy, Jerusalem's power was greatly diminished, and she lost the independence that the Hasmoneans had fought for. Hyrcanus II defeated his brother, Aristobulus II, but he was not the king. Jerusalem no longer had a local monarch. Hyrcanus was just the high priest. And though this might seem like a victory against hellenization, it was not, because in place of a local king were Roman rulers.
Before long it would be clear that Jerusalem had been taken over by a world power that wasn't just mighty but also unstable. Fifteen years later, Rome was engulfed in a civil war that primarily pitted Pompey against Julius Caesar, and the future of Jerusalem was less certain than ever. Julius Caesar emerged victorious as he put a violent end to the centuries-old Roman Republic, replacing it with a dictatorship. Jerusalem, therefore, was now in the hands of a dictator.
At this point we return to Idumaea, near the Dead Sea. This was one of the places that Hyrcanus I had annexed to his Judean empire during his campaign of forced conversion. As it happens, a power broker by the name of Antipater lived there. He had helped Hyrcanus II, the older of the widow Salome Alexandra's two sons, regain the throne from his younger brother Aristobulus before Pompey came in and took over.
With Pompey now out of the picture (thanks to Julius Caesar), the government of Jerusalem was again up for grabs. Hyrcanus II and his patron, Antipater, sided with the victorious Julius Caesar in order to secure their own political future.
In return, Caesar named Hyrcanus the high priest and "ethnarc"—that is, ruler of the local ethnicity—of Jerusalem, a position that turned out to be largely symbolic and devoid of actual power. More important, one of the rewards Caesar bestowed on Antipater was to give powerful posts to Antipater's two children. His older son, Phasael, was put in charge of Jerusalem, and his younger son, Herod (the tyrant we discuss later in the context of his importance for understanding the New Testament), was given Galilee. Antipater, Phasael, and Herod were technically Jewish, but only because Hyrcanus I had forced the Idumaeans to convert.
Rome declined into further chaos with the events of 44–42, including Caesar's assassination, violent internal strife, and Mark Antony's ascension to power. Jerusalem followed Rome down its vortex of deepening chaos.
Amid the turmoil in the West, an eastern empire known as Parthia managed to take Jerusalem. Based in what is now Iran, the Parthians had had considerable success reaching eastward toward China and conquering much of what is now Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but they'd done less well moving westward. They had never liked Alexander the Great or his successors the Seleucids, and they certainly had not liked Rome. In the year 40, they mounted a successful, if short-lived, occupation of Jerusalem.
With Hyrcanus and his family firmly aligned with Rome, Aristobulus's son Antigonus Mattathias saw an opportunity to regain control of Jerusalem. He sided with the Parthians, who appointed him high priest and king. Because he was a descendant of the famous Hasmoneans, he had immediate legitimacy and even popular support.
Antipater, on the other hand, had been aligned with the now-ousted Romans, which was bad news for him and his sons Herod and Phasael. Phasael is reported to have killed himself, which had the long-lasting effect of creating an eventual power vacuum in Jerusalem. Herod fled to Rome, where he set his sights on the holy city.
Herod worked out a deal with the Romans. If they would support him in his bid for power in Jerusalem, he would support them against the Parthians. Herod was an unlikely choice for this task. He had no army. Unlike the reigning Antigonus (who was descended from the Hasmoneans), he had no legitimate claim to the throne. And his family had only recently adopted Judaism. However, Herod was a skilled politician, and he managed to win over the Romans, who, for their part, saw in him an ally against the Parthians. Though Jerusalem was still in the hands of those Eastern rulers, Rome declared Herod king of Judea.
Herod tried to take Jerusalem back and failed. Then, as the Parthians' local power waned, he tried again, this time enlisting the help of Roman legions. Success came in the year 37, putting Jerusalem in the charge of the Roman crony Herod, who was not a high priest and was only nominally Jewish. In a poignant symbol of where Herod stood, a Roman legion was tasked with guarding Herod in Jerusalem, primarily to protect him from the Hasmoneans, who were popular folk heroes with legitimate claims to the throne.
As it happened, this was the same year that Octavius declared war on the newly married Mark Antony and Cleopatra in Egypt. Octavius eventually beat Mark Antony and reconquered Egypt, putting an end to hundreds of years of Ptolemaic rule there. Rome's civil war was over, and the imperial power emerged stronger than she had ever been. Octavius was the man in charge. Within a few years he would earn the title Augustus ("great" or even "sacred"), then Pontif Maximus ("high priest"). With such a power firmly behind him, Herod could do as he wished in Jerusalem.
Herod ruled with an iron fist, oppressing the population and doling out favors only to keep himself on the throne. He was a builder, largely for his own glory, and he built huge edifices and even whole cities in the Roman style, physical reminders of his power, but also of his self-styled image as a Roman citizen. He paid for his massive projects by taxing the people. Life in Jerusalem was not demonstrably worse than in many other Roman regions, but the inhabitants of Jerusalem were unaccustomed to this oppressive and heavily taxed style of life. To this day Herod is remembered as a vicious and cruel outsider, both in such mainstream works as the Talmud (e.g., Baba Batra 3b) and in more obscure material (e.g., Testament of Moses 6) and is used as a symbol of misery in the New Testament.
When Herod died in the year 4 B.C., he left a population of Jerusalem that was overtaxed, underserved, oppressed, and alienated. This was the Jewish world into which a man named Jesus would be born and, not long after, crucified.
With Herod's death, the population of Jerusalem demanded changes in the form of lower taxes and better government. Herod had bequeathed Jerusalem to his son Archelaus, who was unable to maintain order amid the growing uprisings, and before long the streets of Jerusalem were filled with riots and other violence. The Syrian leader Varus, representing Rome, had to step in with his own army to restore order.
Then Augustus himself, even as he recognized the legitimacy of Archelaus's rule, restricted his power, stripping him of the title "king." Archelaus, who seems to have learned his father's cruelty but not his skill at governing, served as ethnarc for about a decade, until unchecked growing opposition made his rule untenable.
In A.D. 6, Augustus removed Archelaus from power and reorganized the region of Jerusalem into a Roman province like any other, calling it the Latin "Iudaea." Herod, who was a local in name only, had begun the process by which Jerusalem came to be part of the Roman Empire. In deposing the local ruler, Augustus had finished it.
Jerusalem, though still standing, was a walking corpse. Augustus and his family would rule Rome until the death of Nero in A.D. 68. Two years after that, Roman troops would sack Jerusalem and raze the great Temple that had stood, in one form or another, for a thousand years.
Not surprisingly, the denizens of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas in this hugely turbulent time reacted in various ways. Some yearned impotently for a return to the past, while others worked actively to restore what had once been. Some embraced the Roman variety of Hellenism; others eschewed anything modern. Some awaited an otherworldly influence that would bring back some sense of sanity; others taught that sanity would come only to those who left this world. Some people strove to understand the past; others planned for a better future.
Two groups in particular emerged from these chaotic days and their aftermath.
Most obviously we have Christianity. Jesus walked the earth during this time period, as did the writers of the Gospels, the apostle Paul, John the Baptist, and the other people who shaped the emerging new religion. The story of Christianity is the story of Jerusalem.
Less widely appreciated are the changes that took place within Judaism. The Jews were about to abandon a thousand years of sacrifice in favor of prayer services, for example. They would soon compose the Midrash and the Talmud, the great guiding compilations that continue to define Judaism to this day. In fact, most of what people now think of as Judaism comes from changes that began around two thousand years ago and that are recorded in the Talmud: the details of prayer services, keeping kosher, Sabbath customs and so on. This time period saw the relegation of the priesthood to largely ceremonial functions and the rise of a new class of leaders: rabbis. It was these rabbis who wrote the Talmud. (They were no longer in Jerusalem but were still living very much in the spirit of a movement that had begun there.) For this reason, it is helpful to refer to "biblical Judaism" and the "rabbinic Judaism" that replaced it. The story of rabbinic Judaism is the story of Jerusalem.
In this sense, both the Christianity of today and the (rabbinic) Judaism of today were born at roughly the same time in roughly the same place and in response to roughly the same conditions. Both traditions asked the same questions, even as they recorded and lived by different answers.
But there were in fact a great variety of groups asking these questions and grappling with the same issues. It is only in retrospect that we divide them into "Christians," "Jews," and "everyone else." A more accurate demographic accounting recognizes diverse and sometimes vague associations with a complex array of partially overlapping writings, opinions, and beliefs.
Certain themes recur with various nuances and interpretations among the disparate factions: the value of the past and the end of times, the battle between good and evil, a savior and his nemesis, and the ways in which human behavior might interact with all of these. In other words, the population of Jerusalem focused on the human condition: What is the nature of the universe and what is our role in it? What are we supposed to do with our lives? Is there an absolute right and wrong? Where did we come from? And what happens next?
Our great fortune is that so much of the brilliantly penetrating writing from the waning days of Jerusalem's glory has survived: The Bible is the most well-known collection, but there are myriad others. Some were well known at the time, having faded into relative obscurity over the years. Others, as we see next, remained obscure until they were rediscovered only recently.
Like the Bible, the lesser-known writings explore the nature of good and evil, ask why people suffer, debate the role of God, and offer advice about how to live our lives.
We now turn to buried textual treasure as we begin our exploration of these remarkable gifts from the past.
Copyright © 2014 by Joel M. Hoffman