Catholic Encyclopedia
Church Fathers
Classics Library
Church Documents
Prayer Requests
Ray of Hope
Social Doctrine

Outlines Of Jewish History -Rev. Francis E. Gigot D.D.



              1. Outward Relations:

              1. Friendly intercourse with Rome carefully kept up.


                            2. Samaritan hatred increased by the destruction of the Temple on Mount Garizim.


                            3. Wars with Syria and surrounding nations.




              2. Inner Condition:

              1. Literary activity of the period (Psalms; historical writings; the Book of Enoch).




                            2. Jewish sects




              Origin and manifold importance.




                            3. Political and judicial organization (the Sanhedrim).






              A. How brought about:

              Lengthened strife between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II.


                            Their appeals to Scaurus.


                            The policy of Pompey.




              B. Action of Pompey in Jerusalem:

              Conduct of Aristobulus at this juncture.


                            Siege and profanation of the Temple.


                            Judæa tributary to Rome.






              1. Origin and Rapid Fortune of the Herodian Family.




              2. Early Relations of Herod with

              the Romans.


                            the Asmoneans.




              3. Herod, King of Judæa: End of the Asmonean dynasty (B. C. 37).


FOR the interval between the death of Simon Machabeus and the time of Herod the Great the authentic records of events hitherto found in the Bible fail us altogether, for the last fact mentioned in the books of Machabees is the accession of John, surnamed Hyrcanus, the sole surviving son of Simon Machabeus (1 Mach. 16:18–24). Our main, not to say our exclusive, source of information about this important period of Jewish history consists in the extant writings of Josephus, which betray too often a lack of discrimination between mere legend and actual fact. From his writings, however, and from traditions preserved elsewhere, it is possible to draw a sufficiently reliable sketch of the principal events of the period which preceded immediately the coming of Our Lord.

§ 1. Judæa before the Advent of Pompey

1. Outward Relations. The successors of Simon Machabeus who ruled over Judæa before the intervention of Pompey in Jewish affairs were (1) his son John Hyrcanus, whose rule lasted thirty years (135–105 B. C.); (2) Aristobulus I (whose Hebrew name was Judas), who was the first Machabean ruler who assumed the royal title and who reigned but one year; (3) Alexander Jannæus (Hebrew name, Jonathan), the brother of Aristobulus I (104–78 B. C.); and (4) Alexandra (Hebrew name, Salome), the widow of the late king (78–69 B. C).

These various princes, whatever their differences of character, seem to have followed the same line of policy in their outward relations. In Rome, they saw a powerful ally whose friendship was to be carefully kept up and skilfully made use of. It appears, for instance, that after a very disadvantageous treaty between John Hyrcanus and Antiochus VII, Sidetes, the Jewish high priest, “was desirous to renew that league of friendship which the Jews had with the Romans” and that through his ambassadors, he asked from the Senate a declaration to the effect that the treaty was null and void, as a violation of the freedom guaranteed by Rome to the Jewish nation (JOSEPHUS, Antiq. of the Jews, book xiii. chaps. viii, ix). It is under the same Machabean prince that Samaria was invaded by Jewish forces, Sichem captured and the temple on Mount Garizim levelled to the ground (128 B. C.), an event which was, of course, very gratifying to his nation, but which intensified the long standing hatred of the Samaritans against the Jews. Twenty years later, Samaria itself was taken and entirely demolished (JOSEPHUS, book xiii, chap. x, §§ 2, 3).

The most powerful, if not the most hateful, enemy of Judæa was Syria, which in the early part of the rule of Hyrcanus succeeded in obtaining a tribute from him for the fortresses he held outside Judæa, and in having the walls of Jerusalem demolished. It is true that a little later the Syrian armies which came to the rescue of Samaria were twice defeated by the Jews, but it is most likely that if they had not feared the armed intervention of Rome and had not been hampered by the distracted state of their affairs at home, the Syrian monarchs would have easily recovered their supremacy over the Jewish people. Be this as it may, it is certain that the princes of Juda took advantage of the disordered condition of Syria to turn their arms against their neighboring enemies: Moab, Galaad, Ammon, Arabia Petræa, etc. Prominent among these expeditions was that of John Hyrcanus against the Idumeans, who for more than four centuries had been masters of the southern part of Juda. He defeated them and ordered them either to become Jews or to be driven out of their country. They chose the former alternative, received circumcision and submitted so thoroughly to the Jewish laws that they became completely identified with their conquerors and never after reappeared as an independent nation (JOSEPHUS, Antiq. of the Jews, book xiii, chap. ix, § 1).

2. Inner Condition. It has been affirmed by several contemporary writers that whilst the rule of the Machabees gave back to the Holy Land peace and security, industry and fertility, new hymns were composed and added to the book of Psalms, the date of which as a final collection of inspired hymns should be brought down to the reign of John Hyrcanus or Alexander Jannæus (cfr. 2 Mach. 2:14; 1 Mach. 13:51). Whilst admitting the possibility of this view, it seems better to appeal to less questionable arguments in favor of Jewish literary activity during the rule of the first Machabean princes. It is beyond doubt, for instance, that public records were then kept of the deeds of the high priests (cfr. 1 Mach. 13:42) and that our first book of Machabees was compiled from them towards or soon after the close of the Pontificate of John Hyrcanus (1 Mach. 16:23, 24). Again, as evidence in favor of the literary activity of that same period, we may appeal to the large historical work written by a certain Jason of Cyrene, and of which our second book of Machabees professes to be an abridgment (2 Mach. 2:24, 27), for both the work of Jason and that of the inspired writer of the second book of Machabees were most likely composed in the first half of the second century before Christ. To the same conclusion points that fragmentary survival of an entire literature which once circulated under the name of the Book of Enoch, and the various parts of which date back to the period between 170 and 95 B. C.

Of much more importance than these literary compositions in the inner history of this period is the definite appearance of two Jewish sects which henceforth played a great part in the political and religious history of their nation. These were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These sects were the slow outcome of the twofold movement noticed several times already, the one against, the other in favor of, Hellenism, and this is why it is impossible now to assign their origin to any particular individual or date in Jewish history. The Pharisees continued, although of course in a modified form, after the triumph of the Machabees, the traditions of the Assideans (1 Mach. 2:42) or strenuous opponents of all leanings towards Greek customs and modes of thought. As their name indicates, the Pharisees were champions of the separateness of the Jewish people from other nations; and, in point of fact, under their influence, as early as the beginning of John Hyrcanus’s rule, popular feeling ran high against “associating with foreigners or conversing with them” (JOSEPHUS, Antiq. of the Jews, book xiii, chap. viii, § 3). As the public inheritors and defenders of traditions which they deemed necessary for the perfect fulfilment of the Mosaic law, they had steadily urged on the Jewish rulers and finally secured the passage and enforcement of several laws. They actually wielded such a power in the State that John Hyrcanus felt it necessary to set himself against them and join their opponents, the Sadducees (JOSEPHUS, ibid, chap. x, § 6). The time soon came, however, when the Machabean princes Alexander and Alexandra realized how far the bulk of the nation was alienated from them through the opposition of the Pharisaic party, and in consequence found it necessary to give them ample share in the government of the country (JOSEPHUS, ibid, chap. xv, § 5; xvi, §1, sq.). After these concessions on the part of the royal power, the Pharisees developed freely the tenets and customs peculiar to their party, and impressed them powerfully upon the nation at large. They contributed greatly to keep alive among the Jews in the century which preceded the coming of Our Lord the distinctive beliefs of the Jewish race, as, for instance, the hope of a great national deliverer in the person of a Messias, the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, of a Divine Providence, of an oral tradition at least equal in authority with the written law. Nor were they less successful in imparting to the Jewish multitudes their zeal in carrying out the external observances of their ancestors, such as fasts, prayers, tithes, washings, sacrifices, etc. Ardent patriots themselves, they made of their followers men ever willing to lay down their lives for the national faith and independence, and as the bulk of the nation adhered zealously to a party so intensely national in politics and orthodox in religion, the Sadducees themselves in their public acts found it necessary “to conform to the notions of the Pharisees” (JOSEPHUS, Antiq. of the Jews, book xviii, chap. i, § 4).

The Sadducees were in reality opposed to the Pharisees almost in every thing. They were the inheritors of the Hellenistic tendencies, for which, as we have seen, the high priests were so largely responsible among the Jews. As a party, the Sadducees seem ever to have possessed in the Jewish commonwealth a fair amount of influence, but this was much more because of their wealth or high station in society than because of the number and enthusiasm of their followers. Contact with pagan thought and culture did not excite in them anything like the horror it produced in the Pharisees and their partisans, and whilst they wished to maintain their priestly position on the basis of the Mosaic law, they unhesitatingly rejected customs and traditions that would have interfered materially with the worldly spirit which animated them. Their tenets were chiefly of a negative kind: they denied, among other points of the Pharisaic belief, the existence of angels and the immortality of the soul. In politics, the Sadducees were ever in close alliance with the ruling power.

Besides the two great sects of the Pharisees and the Sadducees, Josephus mentioned a third one, namely, that of the Essenes, whose origin has been connected on more or less plausible grounds with the separatist tendencies of the Pharisees. It is not unlikely that their later organization into small colonies or villages at long distances from the towns was due to their desire of a greater separation from whatever might have interfered with the perfect purity of soul which was the main object of their lives, and it seems well established that the “differences between them and the Pharisees lay mainly in rigor of practice and not in articles of belief” (WESTCOTT, in SMITH, Bible Dictionary, art. Essenes; cfr. also the description of the life of the Essenes by JOSEPHUS, Antiquities of the Jews, book xviii, chap. i, § 5).

A last feature to be noticed in connection with the inner condition of Judæa under the first Machabean (called the Asmonean, from one of the ancestors of Mathathias, named Hasmon) rulers regards the political and judicial organization of the country. It seems that the power of the Machabeans became stronger and more absolute only gradually in the Jewish State, and that at first, whilst recognized as high priests and even princes, they had to reckon considerably with the elders of the nation. In fact, the occasion of the rupture between John Hyrcanus and the Pharisees already mentioned was their well-known opposition to his tendency to concentrate all public powers in his hands. It was only the second successor of Simon Machabeus who ventured to assume the royal title, because he felt strongly upheld by the Sadducees; and even then, it is not unlikely that his conduct was disapproved of by a large part of the nation which spoke of him as “a lover of the Greeks.” Ultimately, however, the royal power got the better of the opposition, “and during the last period of Alexander Jannæus’s reign the eldership ceased as a ruling power, and became transformed into a Sanhedrim, or ecclesiastical authority, although the latter endeavored, with more or less success, to exercise civil jurisdiction, at least in ecclesiastical matters” (EDERSHEIM, Life and Times of Jesus, the Messiah, vol. ii, p. 677).

Such is most likely the origin of the Sanhedrim or highest council of the Jews, made up of chief priests, elders and scribes presided over by the high priest. It counted seventy-one members, perhaps in remembrance of the seventy elders who assisted Moses in the administration of justice and to whom Jewish rabbis delight to trace back the origin of the Sanhedrim. The members were to be of pure Israelite descent and were governed by a president and two vice-presidents; besides, there were secretaries and other officers. Of course, the powers possessed by the Sanhedrim at its origin cannot be defined in the present day; but there is no doubt that it took advantage of the rapid decline of the Machabean dynasty to increase its jurisdiction, and that immediately before Our Lord’s time it superintended the ritual of public worship, regulated the Jewish calendar, enforced the exact fulfilment of the law, punished false prophets and even exercised judicial control over the high priests (cfr. SCHURER, division ii. vol. ii, pp. 165–195).

§ 2. The Advent of Pompey

1. How Brought About? At the death of Queen Alexandra (B. C. 69), the party of the Pharisees, who had been all powerful in the State under her name, immediately placed Hyrcanus II, her elder son, on the Jewish throne, although the late queen had destined the royal dignity for Aristobulus, her younger son. Thereupon, Aristobulus, at the head of the Sadducees and of the army, compelled his brother to resign, and took the title of Aristobulus II.

Here would have ended the strife between the two brothers, had it not been for the ambition of a man who then appeared upon the scene. This man was Antipater (the father of Herod the Great), an Idumean by birth, but a Jew by religion. Antipater, brought up in the court, had contracted a close friendship with Hyrcanus, the heir-apparent to the throne. The withdrawal of the latter to private life defeated his ambitious schemes; he therefore persuaded Hyrcanus that his life was in danger and ultimately prevailed on him to fly to Aretas, King of Arabia Petræa, who, on condition of receiving large grants of territory, undertook to reinstate Hyrcanus. Aristobulus II was first defeated by Aretas and the partisans of Hyrcanus, and next besieged in the Temple-fortress of Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the great Pompey had been pursuing his conquests in Asia, and had just detached his lieutenant Scaurus with instructions to submit Syria. Soon after his arrival at Damascus, Scaurus hastened to Judæa, on the borders of which messengers from both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus offered him sums of money in return for his assistance. The offers of Aristobulus were accepted because he was in possession of the Temple treasury, and Aretas received orders to break up the siege of the Temple-fortress.

Before long, however, Pompey arrived in person at Damascus, where he was met by three ambassies from Judæa, namely, those of the two brothers, and one sent by the Jewish nation. Hyrcanus appealed to his birthright; Aristobulus urged the incompetency of Hyrcanus, and the deputies of the Jewish nation expressed the wish to get rid of the monarchical form of government altogether, and to have their ancient priestly constitution restored. The request of the Jewish deputies found no response, and the examination of the rival claims of the Asmonean princes was postponed by the wary imperator till after he had submitted Aretas and his country to Rome, although he had practically settled the question in his mind in favor of the weak Hyrcanus, who would present fewer obstacles to the prospective annexion of Judæa to the Roman empire (JOSEPHUS, Antiquities of the Jews, book xiv, chaps. i–iii, § 3).

2. Action of Pompey in Jerusalem. Apprehensive of the fate that threatened him, Aristobulus did not wait quietly for Pompey’s decision; whereupon the latter marched at once against him, and laid siege to Jerusalem. Then it was that Aristobulus’s courage failed him altogether, and that having gone to the Roman camp, he agreed to surrender the Jewish capital. The gates of the city were indeed thrown open to the Roman legions, but the Temple-fortress withstood three months the efforts of the troops of Pompey. At length, on a Sabbath-day, the sacred precincts were taken by storm, and a fearful carnage followed. The great conqueror penetrated into every part of the Temple of Jehovah, but through policy, he left untouched the treasures it contained, and even gave orders for the resumption of the Temple services.

With this finished the short era of independence which the Machabees had secured to their country (B. C. 63). Hyrcanus II was appointed high priest and ethnarch, that is ruler of the country; he was not allowed to wear the royal diadem, and his jurisdiction was limited to Judæa, which became tributary to Rome, as a part of the government of Syria. All the surrounding Hellenistic cities and Samaria were withdrawn from Jewish allegiance and the walls of Jerusalem were demolished; after which Pompey proceeded homewards, taking with him to grace his triumphal entry Aristobulus, and his two sons and two daughters, together with numerous Jewish captives. The captives then brought to Rome increased considerably, if indeed they did not begin, the Jewish community in the capital of the Roman empire (JOSEPHUS, Antiquities of the Jews, book xiv, chap. iii, § 4; chap. iv).

§ 3. Herod the Great

1. Origin and Rapid Fortune of the Herodian Family. The Herodian family took its rise in Idumæa, a district, the conquest and conversion of which by John Hyrcanus has already been noticed. The founder of this family was Antipas, who was made governor of Idumæa by Alexander Jannæus, and who was succeeded in this office by his son Antipater, the father of Herod the Great. The ambitious Antipater successfully interfered in the unhappy strife between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, and on the taking of Jerusalem by Pompey and the appointment of Hyrcanus as high priest and ethnarch of Judæa proper, he became the virtual ruler of the land with Hyrcanus as a mere puppet in his hands.

When Pompey was finally defeated by Julius Caesar at Pharsalia (48 B. C.), the prospects of Antipater and Hyrcanus, who naturally enough had held out for the great conqueror of Jerusalem, seemed rather dark. But they quickly changed sides, and timely help in men and personal influence given to Cæsar in Egypt secured to Antipater the title of Procurator of Judæa, which was then restored to its former extent, and to Hyrcanus the permission of rebuilding the walls of the Holy City (B. C. 47, cfr. JOSEPHUS, Antiquities of the Jews, book xiv. chap. viii).

2. Early Relations of Herod with the Romans and the Asmoneans. To be better able to control the whole extent of territory now so immediately and openly intrusted to him by Rome, Antipater appointed his two sons governors: the elder, Phasaelus, of Jerusalem; the younger, Herod, only twenty-five years old, of Galilee. Herod was a man of keen intellect, strong will and ruthless ambition. He was noted as a fearless rider, and no one threw the spear so straight to the mark or shot his arrow so constantly into the centre. It was most likely because of these strong features of Herod’s character, in striking contrast with those of Hyrcanus, that the latter loved the new governor of Galilee “as his own son” (R. W. Moss, From Malachi to Matthew, p. 192).

In Galilee Herod soon displayed the energy which ever characterized him. He crushed a guerilla warfare, put to death its leader and nearly all his associates. This aroused the indignation of the patriots of Jerusalem, and Herod, as professing the Jewish religion, was summoned to appear before the great Sanhedrim, for having arrogated to himself the power of life and death. He appeared, but escaped condemnation through the interference of Hyrcanus, and took refuge near Sextus Cæsar, the president of Syria.

On the murder of Julius Cæsar (B. C. 44), and the possession of Syria by Cassius, Antipater and Herod again changed sides, and in return for substantial services Herod was recognized as governor of Cœle-Syria. When the battle of Philippi (B. C. 41) placed the Roman world in the hands of Antony and Octavius, the former obtained Asia. Once more Herod knew how to gain the new ruler, and he became Tetrarch of Judæa, with the promise of the crown, if all went well (JOSEPHUS, Antiquities of the Jews, book xiv. chaps. ix–xiii, 2).

3. Herod becomes King of Judæa. Forced, the following year (B. C. 40), by an irruption of the Parthians, who had espoused the cause of his rival, Antigonus (the son of Aristobulus II), to abandon Jerusalem, Herod first betook himself to Egypt, and then to Rome. There, owing chiefly to the influence of Antony, he was declared King of Judæa by the Roman Senate, and, preceded by the consuls and the magistrates, he walked in procession between Antony and Octavius to the Capitol, where the usual sacrifices were offered and the decree formally laid up in the archives.

After an absence of barely three months, Herod was again in Palestine, where at the head of an army he soon made himself master of Galilee. He next set himself at work to take the Holy City. But before investing it—which he did in the early spring of B. C. 37—he repaired to Samaria to wed the unfortunate Machabean princess, Marianne, betrothed to him five years before. The uncle of that ill-fated queen was Antigonus, whom Herod now besieged in Jerusalem. After a siege of six months Jerusalem fell, and a fearful scene of carnage ensued. At length Herod, by rich presents, induced the Romans to leave Jerusalem, carrying Antigonus with them (June, 37 B. C. (cfr. JOSEPHUS, ibid., book xiv, chaps. xiv–xvi). Herod, the Idumean, now ascended the throne of Judæa, and thereby put an end to the last Jewish dynasty. As Our Lord was born “in the days of Herod, the King of Judæa” (Luke 1:5), the reign of this prince forms a real part of Our Lord’s time: we will therefore reserve the narrative of its events for our study of the Life of Christ.

Copyright ©1999-2018 e-Catholic2000.com