Rise of the Messiah (The Jewish historical context of the birth of Jesus, The Last Days of B.C.)

Sermon Title:  What is Messiah?  The Jewish Context of the Birth of Christ
Sermon Title:  The Last Days of B.C.
Sermon Text:  Matthew 1:1, John 6
Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity 3rd. ed.
Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (Glo Bible version).
R. A. Horsley, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs:  Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus.
F.F. Bruce and David F. Payne, Israel and the Nations:  The History of Israel From the Exodus to the Fall of the Second Temple.
Last week we explored the Roman context in the last days of B.C.  The Roman story is one of cultural expansion, or Hellenization.  The story of the Jews is one of preservation.  How can a distinctly monotheistic people defined by dietary laws, festivals, and a unique relationship with God retain their identity and not be lost through cultural assimilation?  In the last days of B.C. the salient guardians of Jewish culture were the Maccabees, the Pharisees, and the Essenes of Qumran.  Each of these groups not only helped Israel survive Hellenism, but they fanned the flames of a critical revival that was taking place in the days of the birth of Jesus; the revival of Messianic expectation.  Who is the Messiah?  How do the Biblical writers build a case for Jesus as the Jewish Messiah?  What were the Jews looking for and why didn’t Jesus fit the mold?  We will seek to answer these questions as we explore the Jewish historical context in the last days of B.C. 
By 322 B.C. Alexander controlled Palestine.  As a result Hellenism began to infiltrate the Hebrew world.  Greco/Roman cultural also spread to Israel as Hellenized Jews began to return from the Diaspora, their scattering throughout the empire.  Because many Jews had been educated in and had become wealthy due to Hellenism they were sympathetic to its cause.
After Alexander’s death his successors struggled for control of Palestine.  In time the territory changed hands between Antigonus and Ptolemy until finally Ptolemy took control upon Antignous’ defeat at Ipsus in 301 B.C.  Though Ptolemy had the land legally, his troops were late to occupy so the Seleucids moved into the region.  Though the Seleucids eventually complied to Ptolemaic control the stage was set for a great deal of tension.  The Jews would also be caught in the struggle as culturally the people were now divided between Hellenistic sympathizers and hard line traditionalists.
Under Ptolemaic rule Israel enjoyed some measure of prosperity.  Many Jews moved to Alexandria and were involved in developing policy and economy.  Of Biblical significance is that during this time the Hebrew Old Testament Scriptures were translated into Greek.  Though the Jews enjoyed Ptolemaic prosperity, when the Seleucids wrestled control of Palestine away from the Ptolemies, under Antiochus the Great in 219, many Jews were sympathetic as they saw a new opportunity for personal advancement in the new regime.  Under the Ptolemies the Jews gained wealth.  The Seleucids were in desperate need of cash as they were under heavy taxation from Rome.  Under the Seleucids power in Israel would be sold to the highest bidder.
At the time of the Seleucids the high priesthood of Israel still rested with the Zadokites.  The Zadokites were descendents of Eleazar, son of Aaron (Exo. 6:23, 25).  The ancestral namesake, Zadok, was noted for his loyalty to David, helping David restore control of Jerusalem after Absalom’s rebellion (2 Sam. 19:11-14).  Zadok solidified his place as high priest when he supported and crowned Solomon as King over Adonijah (1 Kings 1).  The Zadokite descendents of the priesthood when the Seleucids gained control were the Oniads.  Their rivals, the house of Tobiad, once collected taxes for the Ptolemies and were trying to now to desperately gain the favor of the now ruling Seleucids. 
The appointment to high priest was eventually secured by a large bribe offered to Antiochus IV from Jason.  Jason’s appointment, for a time, secured the high priesthood for the Zadokite Oniads, but in doing so Jason did usurp the rightful appointment which remained in the lineage of his brother Onias III.  Under Jason Hellenization of Jerusalem accelerated as he changed the government in Israel from a Temple based system to a Greek style city-state.  For a time the city was even renamed Antioch.  Like the Greeks, young Jews were now found to be in gymnasiums, participating in games, and trying to hide their Hebrew heritage.   Traditional Jews saw the turn of events as scandalous as the ruling high priest was little more than a Seleucid government official. 
Jason had control until Menelaus offered a higher sum of money for the priesthood.  Menelaus had no ancestral grounds for the office but he did garner Tobiad support.  Menelaus was even more radically Hellenistic than Jason.  If it were not enough that the priest was Seleucid, under Menelaus the priest was not even Zadokite.  The move to Menalaus fueled extreme division in Israel and set the stage for the revolt soon to come.
Because Antiochus IV needed funds for a campaign against Egypt, he plundered the Temple in Jerusalem at the consent of Menelaus.  In 168 Antiochus was indeed on the verge of taking Egypt when Rome ordered his withdrawal.  The rumor in Jerusalem was that Antiochus had been killed.  Taking advantage of the apparent situation Jason led a rebellion against Menelaus hoping to regain control of the priesthood.  Menelaus fled and gained the support of a very much alive and angry Antiochus.  Antiochus returned to Jerusalem with vengeance and crushed the rebellion.  He destroyed the walls of Jerusalem, built a citadel on the Temple mount and turned Jerusalem into a police state by installing a garrison of his soldiers.  Yet this was not the worst of it all.
Antiochus issued a decree forbidding the practice of Judaism.  The Scriptures were to be destroyed and Sabbath law, worship, dietary law, the festival calendar, and circumcision were all forbidden.  To cap the desecration, Antiochus had an altar constructed over the altar for burnt offering at the Temple and sacrificed a pig on it.  The act was welcomed by Hellenistic sympathizers but ignited the ire of Israel’s traditionalists.
Many traditionalists fled Jerusalem into the countryside where Seleucid control progressed much more slowly.  Eventually Seleucid officials made their way to the Judean village of Modin and sought out the leading priest Mattathias to set an example for the people by sacrificing a pig to the pagan gods.  Mattathias refused.  Upon his refusal, a consenting Jew stepped up to make sacrifice.  Overcome with zeal Mattathias rushed the altar and killed not only the Jew who stepped up but the Seleucid official that ordered the sacrifice.  The Maccabean revolt was underway.
The term Maccabee comes not from the family name of Mattathias as they were Hasmonean.  Maccabee means “hammerer.  It was a name given to Mattathias’ son Judas who shaped the revolt as a guerilla campaign.  The sons of Mattathias led a powerful revolt throughout the Jewish countryside “overthrowing pagan altars, killing Jews who were Hellenist sympathizers, and circumcising children by force.”[i]  Final victory was secured on the third anniversary of the desecration of the altar in Jerusalem on the 25th of Kislev.  Holding the Seleucids at bay the idol altar was removed from the Temple mount, the area cleansed, the burnt offering rebuilt, and the sacred furniture restored.  To commemorate the day a new festival was added to the calendar, a feast of dedication or Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights.
The deliverance gained by the Maccabean revolt was miraculous.  If the apocryphal book, 1 Maccabees provides the historical commentary of the revolt, 2 Maccabees offers the theological interpretation.  The success of Judas and his brothers was nothing short of divine favor.  This new hope served to revive Messianic expectation in Israel.  Were the Hasmoneans the promised ones who would restore the Kingdom to Israel?  By the time of John Hyrcanus (134 – 104 BC), the son of the last surviving Hasmonean brother Simon, the key offices of Israel, prophet, priest and king seemed united.  Josephus says of him, “He was accounted by God worthy of three of the greatest privileges – the rule of the nation, the offices of high priest, and of the gift of prophecy.”[ii] 
After Hyrcanus the Hasmonean dynasty fell from Messianic favor to disrepute.  The successors were increasingly Hellenistic and extremely bloody.  In time the once deliverers of Israel became her greatest enemy.  As the Hasmoneans fall from favor, their illegitimacy to be priest/kings becomes a focal point for dissent.  They were not righteous.  Nor were they Davidic, nor Zadokite.  The usurping of the High Priesthood that began in Jason only continued with the Hasmoneans.  In the last 100 years of B.C. several Messianic type leaders would arise, mostly from Galilee, and incite rebellion.  Each of them were easily crushed leaving the people once again longing for a legitimate, lasting Messiah to restore the Kingdom to Israel.
Though the Maccabean revolt was ultimately a failure to restore the Messianic Kingdom, it was important in the shaping of Messianic expectation.  Because of the Hasmoneans important profiles of Messiah began to emerge:
1.       He must be Davidic.
2.       He must be righteous and bring righteousness to all people.
These profiles emerge due to the contributions of two traditionalist groups who had separated themselves from the increasingly unrighteous Hasmoneans, the Essenes of Qumran and the Pharisees.  The Essenes were a separatist group of Hasmonean dissenters that had fled Jerusalem and established a righteous community in the wilderness. Biblically this is an important place as it is in the caves of Qumran that the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.  From the righteous community the Essenes hoped that the true Messiah would emerge.  They are critical to the story of the Jews as they produced a great deal of Messianic/apocalyptic literature that helped shaped the Messianic ideal.  For the Essenes the Messiah must be Davidic and he must be righteous.
The other notable group that emerges during the last days of B.C. is the Pharisees.  The Pharisees are first mentioned during the rule of John Hyrcanus.  After Hyrcanus the Pharisees slowly gain more religious and political influence over Israel.  Being ironically, and subtly influenced by the Hellenistic ideal of revolution through education, the Pharisees sought to restore the Kingdom of Israel though education and adherence to the Mosaic law.  They believed that when the people returned to the law the Kingdom would be restored.  This explains why Jesus was under a great deal of scrutiny by the Pharisees as to his dedication to the law and his version of righteousness.  The Pharisees sought righteousness through obedience.  Jesus called for repentance.
A third Messianic profile is important to mention.  While the Essenes and the Pharisees were concerned about Davidic descent and righteousness, the populace had other concerns.  The Hasmoneans had taught them that Messiah must be a guerilla.  Messiah would not bring about rule by righteousness but by force.  It is these historical concerns that form the backdrop the gospel narratives and explain a great deal about why Jesus was greatly misunderstood in Israel and eventually rejected.
When Matthew opens his gospel he is concerned to show that Jesus is indeed Davidic (Matt. 1:1).  As the story unfolds it is well established that Jesus is righteous, but for Him righteousness is not established by the law, but by grace.  While it is nearly impossible and sometimes dangerous to draw historical conjectures based on unrecorded thoughts or motives, as the thoughts and motives of Palestine’s peasantry are undocumented, it may be that Jesus was rejected by the populace because He was not militant. 
Given this historical backdrop, a narrative account like John 6 may find a much fuller meaning.  After Jesus performs very prophetic signs and offers a Messianic explanation there was but one step that remained before the Kingdom would come to Israel, make Jesus King (John 6:14-15).  Learning from the example of the Hasmoneans, there was but one path to the throne.  It must be taken by force (John 6:15). 
When Jesus refused to be the guerilla king the disappointment of the people was apparent.  They left Him.  Even some of his closest disciples turned away (John 6:66).  Only twelve remained and He asked them pointedly, “Do you want to go away as well (John 6:67)?”
We may share some degree of disappointment in Jesus when He does not share our romantic ideal of Him as King at Christmas.  We sing of Him as Messiah, but are we ready to do His will?  Come and die?  Hunger and thirst for righteousness?  Be brokenhearted?  We want Him to be King, but we do not want the Kingdom to come in the way that He has ordained, through repentance and faith.  We want the benefits of His conquering evil and oppression, but we do not want to surrender the sovereignty of our souls to Him.  So we, like they, after our romantic ideals of Him are shattered, we find that our devotion to Him is seasonal.  By December 26 we have all but forgotten the central issue of His coming, that He has come to rule in righteousness over those who come to Him by repentance and faith.  Like they did in John 6, we return to life as if He never came at all.
Do you want to go away as well?

[i] Ferguson, 407.
[ii] Ferguson, 410.


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