The Setting of the New Testament
July 1983

“The Setting of the New Testament,” Ensign, July 1983, 69

The Setting of the New Testament

A look at political, social, religious, and historical influences.

As the New Testament drama was taking place, Rome ruled much of Europe and many of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. Located in Rome’s vast empire was the entire land where New Testament history was written. It included Judea and Galilee, where Jesus walked and talked—as well as Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome, where Paul traveled and preached. New Testament writers called their emperor “Caesar Augustus” (see Luke 2:1) or “King” (see 1 Pet. 2:17).

Although the New Testament has its roots in the same soil as the Old Testament, the worlds of the two biblical records are vastly different. As one author has stated, “The land we call Palestine, which has in Old Testament times been the western end of an eastern world, was now the eastern end of a western world.” (Donald J. Selby, Introduction to the New Testament: “The Word Became Flesh,” New York: Macmillan Co., 1971, p. 1.)

What brought about this great cultural change? As we read the closing chapters of Malachi, we see the writings of the Old Testament coming to an end at approximately 420 B.C. During the four centuries between this time and the visit of the angel Gabriel to the aged Zacharias (see Luke 1), events transpired which had a great effect upon the entire New Testament narrative. For example, the Herods, Pharisees, Sadducees, Romans, and the Septuagint (the Old Testament translation in Greek) are all important aspects of the New Testament. But they do not appear in the Old Testament. Let us then take a glance at some events during this interim period that set the stage for the New Testament drama.

In only ten years, Alexander the Great completely conquered the world in which the Jews lived, causing the Jewish world to face west rather than east. After his death, there was a grand scramble for control. This struggle continued for several generations as Alexander’s empire splintered into rival powers. Thus, the land of the New Testament, often referred to as a “land bridge,” became the unhappy frontier between the two kingdoms of Egypt and Syria. These kingdoms were ruled by Macedonians, who were educated in Greek ideas and were always considered foreign tyrants by the peoples over whom they ruled.

The city of Jerusalem, located between the two forces, watched the land pass from the control of one to the other. In 223 B.C., a hundred years after Alexander’s death, Antiochus III, called the Great, assumed the Syrian throne. This warrior conquered Palestine in 218 B.C., lost it in 217 B.C., and won it again in 198 B.C.

Alexander’s primary object had been to subdue and destroy the power of Persia. However, he also came to regard himself as endowed with the mission of enlightening this area of the world with Greek civilization. The culture of Greece that was planted beyond its boundaries is referred to as Hellenism and had an important influence on Palestine.

Greek civilization was a product of a city environment and thrived best in cities. Alexander, therefore, founded cities everywhere he conquered. These cities were peopled wholly or in part by his veterans. Within twenty years from the time Alexander set out to conquer the world, his conquests were studded with fortresses of Greek culture. Greek cities were typically free, and many magistrates were elected annually by all the citizens. The main business of a typical Greek man was to become involved in public affairs, follow intellectual pursuits, and let the slaves do the common tasks.

In every Greek city the gymnasium was the important gathering place for all young men. Here they developed their bodies, practiced games, and associated with friends. However, this life-style was in great contrast to that of the Jews, which was centered on serving and glorifying God. To the Greek, life was to be enjoyed at all times; but among the Jews, prior to Greek influence, we read of few sports or physical or temporal interests.

The Greeks also had definite architectural forms. A typical city must have an assembly building, a courthouse, a theater, a marketplace for trade and discussion, a gymnasium for training, a stadium for athletic contests, and a hippodrome for chariot racing. These buildings were adorned with statues of the gods, of great citizens, of athletes, and of other contributors to Greek life. A city without art was unthinkable to a Greek. Jerusalem, by contrast, was a city void of sculptured ornament, pursuant to the command, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing.” (Ex. 20:4.)

With the spread of Hellenism came the Greek language. The Jews were not insulated from this movement either, for during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (250 B.C.) the Greek translations of the sacred Jewish books began at Alexandria. By the time of Jesus the Old Testament was translated and the Septuagint, as it is now called, became the scripture of the Jewish world. When the New Testament eventually came into being it was also written mainly in Greek.

The months of the year were all renamed after the Greek, and personal names were often changed. Young Jews appeared in the Greek mantle and broad-brimmed hat, joined the Greek organization for young men, and adopted other Greek customs. (See 1 Maccabees 1:12–16.) Hellenism seemed to be very attractive to young, worldly-minded Jews and eventually led to the greatest struggle the Jews had ever experienced in their attempts to preserve their religion.

But Hellenism was not so readily accepted by all Jews, even though it had great appeal to the aristocracy. The middle and lower classes did all in their power to resist the new movement. With greater vigor than ever before they clung to the law and customs of their fathers. This resistance eventually led to the formation of a new party who called themselves the Godly or the Pious. This party strongly opposed the Hellenizers. Most support for the Pious was recruited from the poorer classes in the villages and towns apart from Jerusalem.

In 175 B.C. Antiochus IV, called Epiphanes, was placed on the Syrian throne. His influence was felt immediately at Jerusalem through his strengthening of the Hellenist party. Among the Hellenists none was more active than Joshua, the brother of the high priest, who assumed the Grecian name of Jason. Jason bribed the king and secured the removal of his elder brother, Onias III, and his own appointment as high priest. Although his appointment wasn’t recognized by many of the Jews, he was able, by securing permission through another bribe, to remodel the city along Greek lines. He immediately established at Jerusalem a gymnasium for athletic exercises—and even priests began to leave the temple and to neglect the sacrifices to take part in the games. (See 2 Maccabees 4:14.) An academy was created to train Jewish youths in the Grecian way of life.

Menelaus, a higher bidder for power in Jerusalem, soon entered the scene and replaced Jason as high priest through bribes to Antiochus. Menelaus then seized the popular Onias III, the high priest Jason had deposed, and put him to death. (See 2 Maccabees 4:27.) Jerusalem was ablaze with anger. At this critical moment (172 B.C.) war broke out between Antiochus and Egypt. Antiochus immediately went into Egypt; while he was there, rumor spread that he had been killed in battle. The opponents of Menelaus immediately rose in rebellion. The report about Antiochus, however, was false, and upon hearing of the rebellion he quickly made preparation to march upon Jerusalem. The city was taken by storm, many of the Pious were slaughtered, the temple was looted of its treasure, and a sow was sacrificed on the altar of burnt offering. Antiochus then returned the administration to Menelaus.

Antiochus’s desire was to stamp out forever the Jewish religion. He issued a proclamation that all Jewish religious customs should stop. There would be no more Sabbath day. Circumcision was to stop. All dietary laws were to be eliminated. There would be no further sacrifices to Jehovah. Furthermore, anyone in possession of a book of the law would be put to death. To add further insult, the temple was “consecrated” in honor of the Olympian god Zeus. To be sure the edicts were carried out, an army of twenty-two thousand was moved into the area. All who refused to bow to the orders of Antiochus were severely punished.

Never did the future of the Jews appear more dark, nor was their religion so close to extermination. But at this time, as one author states, “God interposed in behalf of His people, and through the genius, bravery, and heroic devotion of one noble-minded family, raised them from their prostrate misery to a height of power, which recalled the glory and the splendor of the reign of David.” (G. F. Maclear, A Class-Book of New Testament History, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956, p. 28.)

At Modin, a village on the road between Jerusalem and Joppa, lived an aged priest named Mattathias with his five sons, John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan. (See chart 1.) The ruthless Antiochus sent one of his commissioners to this village to force the people to offer sacrifices to the heathen gods. The aged priest refused, and when an apostate Jew approached the altar, the priest flew upon him in a rage and killed him. With the aid of his sons and the men of the town he rushed upon the commissioner himself, slew him, and tore down the heathen altar. Mattathias then fled with his sons and followers into the rugged mountains of Judea. For a time they hid, but soon they rushed down upon the towns, destroyed the heathen altars, punished apostates, recovered copies of the law from their enemies, and reestablished public worship. Before Mattathias died, he appointed his son Simon as chief counselor and his son Judas as captain.

Judas, a born leader, soon won for himself the name Maccabaeus (“the Hammerer”). In fact, there are few in the annals of military history who can surpass the feats of Judas. He organized his men and taught them how to fight and conquer.

The king of Syria did not intend to be humiliated by a band of guerrillas. He sent his great general, Appolonius, with an army to annihilate them. But Judas defeated and slew Appolonius. A larger army was sent forth, but the Syrians were again defeated at the valley of the Beth-horons.

Antiochus next launched an army of nearly fifty thousand men under the command of three accomplished generals. The Syrians camped at Emmaus while Judas assembled his little army of six thousand devoted followers at Mizpeh, the Watchtower. The Syrians were so confident of victory that they had brought with them large numbers of slave merchants to sell the captured Jews abroad. The price of slaves had been posted in many neighboring cities. As on previous occasions, the Syrians attacked on the Sabbath. Judas, however, slipped away through a parallel valley, and flinging aside tradition, surprised his enemy by turning on him. The Syrians were routed, losing upwards of nine thousand men. The numerous slave dealers who had followed the Syrians for the purpose of buying up Jewish captives were themselves sold into bondage.

The next year, Lysias, the regent of the kingdom, took to the field with five thousand cavalry and sixty thousand infantry. Judas and his ten thousand again defeated the Syrians, who withdrew.

While Lysias was re-forming his army, Judas moved into Jerusalem. On ascending Mount Moriah and entering the courts of the temple, he beheld a sad scene of destruction. The altar of burnt offering had been replaced with one built to Zeus, the gates were in ashes, the priests’ chambers were in ruins, and the sanctuary itself was empty and exposed to all eyes. Judas immediately reconstructed the altar, replaced the holy vessels, reinstated the priests, rekindled the sacred flame, and celebrated the rededication of the temple. This memorable date, the 25th of the winter month, Chisleu, in the year 165 B.C., became a national holiday ever after, known in Christ’s time as the feast of the dedication. (See John 10:22.) In our day, it is called Hanukkah, the feast of Lights.

Antiochus Epiphanes died in 163 B.C. while hastening from Persia to punish Judas personally. Lysias, regent of the kingdom, after crowning a new young prince as Antiochus Antipater, gathered a huge army and accompanied the new king into Judea. They had one hundred thousand infantry, twenty thousand cavalry, and thirty-two elephants of war. During the battle, Eleazar, a brother of Judas, was killed by the fall of an elephant as he thrust his spear into its heart. The odds were now too great for Judas and his army of ten thousand, and he had to withdraw. But while Lysias was besieging Jerusalem, word came of problems at home which compelled him to return to Antioch with his army. He made a hurried peace with Judas that guaranteed religious freedom to the Jews, although they would still be politically subject to Syria. This freedom of religion was to continue through the period of the New Testament, even though the Jews would continue the struggle for political independence.

The withdrawal of the Syrian army left the two old parties, the Hellenizers and the Pious, again struggling for control of the religious leadership. In further conflicts with the Syrians, who attempted to place a Hellenist on the high priest’s chair, Judas was defeated and killed in 161 B.C. “He was the savior of the Jewish faith and the Jewish race, the last and one of the greatest of that line of saviors that included Deborah and Elijah, Isaiah and Nehemiah.” (Albert E. Bailey and Charles F. Kent, History of the Hebrew Commonwealth, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949, p. 319.)

At the death of Judas, the Hellenizers began an all-out persecution of the Pious. Through a number of political maneuvers, however, Jonathan, Judas’s brother, was able to win both political and religious leadership of Judea. Even part of Samaria was added to his control at this time. Jonathan, however, was soon murdered by a Syrian general who sought control of the area. In return, Jonathan’s brother, Simon, was able to assume power, and all of the agreements made with Jonathan were reconfirmed. This pact commenced a new era of Jewish history—the year 1 (143 B.C.) of Jewish independence.

This was the beginning of great prosperity for the Jews. They developed their lands and lived in peace. Simon commanded the respect of his people, and during his reign the double post of governor and high priest was conferred upon him. Both offices were then made hereditary in his family. This event marked the founding of the dynasty of the Hasmoneans, the family name of Simon’s father, Mattathias (Hasmon).

Simon met an untimely death through a plot set up by his son-in-law, Ptolemy, who coveted his position. But Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus I, escaped the plot and was able to win the support of the people. He succeeded to his father’s titles.

Under the direction of John Hyrcanus I, large portions of Samaria were captured and the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim was destroyed. He also turned south and captured the lands of the Idumeans. He made Antipas, an Idumean, the governor of the area. This Antipas was the grandfather of Herod the Great, who ruled Judea at Christ’s birth.

An Abridged Family Tree of the Maccabees

An Abridged Family Tree of the Maccabees (Hasmoneans)
(Dates refer to years in power.)

By this time, the religious zeal of the Maccabeans had vanished and had been replaced by the desire to conquer and expand. This change led to great protests from those who had sincere religious desires. During the time of Jonathan, a group had developed from the Pious who objected to the religious policies of their leaders. This group of separatists became known as the Pharisees and, during the rule of John Hyrcanus I, prospered as the opponents of his philosophy. (See James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, 3rd ed., Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1916; and Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961, p. 110).

The Pharisees now took a leading role in Jewish life. Being very conservative, they felt that the ancient law must be reinterpreted to apply to new questions and problems. This belief gave rise to scores of regulations to observe every minute detail of the law. The Pharisees also believed in immortality, the resurrection of the body, and the coming of the Messiah. Since the majority of the people believed after this manner, the Pharisees became the religious leaders of the nation.

The Hellenizers produced an opposing religious party called the Sadducees. They were considerably fewer in number and represented both the old priestly aristocracy and the new nobility that had gathered around the Maccabean leaders. They depended greatly upon wealth and prestige for their authority and favored any policy that might further their own advantage. They had no interest in the endless discussions of doctrine that occupied the Pharisees’ time and would accept for doctrine only those items that could be supported by the written law.

John Hyrcanus I died just as the contest between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was becoming acute. His son, Aristobulus I, came to power. During his brief reign of one year, he conquered Galilee and colonized it with Jews. Among these colonists were probably the forefathers of Joseph and Mary.

The remaining history of the house of Hasmon is a power struggle between family members who went to any end to humiliate their rivals. It was during this time that the Roman eagle was planted upon Judea by General Pompey, and the political independence of the Jews became nothing but a memory of the past.

In the year 63 B.C. each of the feuding factions of the Hasmoneans approached Pompey for his support. As a result of these requests, he made a trip to inspect conditions. Having been offended by Aristobulus II, Pompey chose to support his brother, Hyrcanus II, and attacked Jerusalem. He was held back by the fortifications of the citadel for some three months. By taking advantage of the Pharisaic scruples about fighting on the Sabbath, however, Pompey made his entry into the sacred city in a massacre wherein twelve thousand Jews were slain. Rome now had control over Jerusalem—and maintained it for the next seven centuries, until A.D. 635.

Antipater, the father of Herod the Great, was aware that no one could rule in Judea without the help of Rome. He therefore supported whatever Roman was on top at the moment. When Pompey was defeated in 48 B.C., and Caesar, who followed him to Egypt, was in serious trouble, Antipater sent forces to help him. Caesar never forgot this action, raising Antipater to the rank of Roman citizen and making him procurator of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee under Hyrcanus II. At this time Antipater sent his twenty-five-year-old son, Herod (later the Great) to restore order in Galilee. (See chart 2.) When Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C., Antipater supported Brutus and Cassius, leaders of the conspiracy. Antipater died at this time, and the assassins of Caesar were defeated at Philippi in 42 B.C. by Mark Antony and Octavius. Herod now put his support with Antony. Later, Antony made him and his brother tetrarchs under the rule of Hyrcanus II.

When Antony went into Egypt to carry on his flirtations with Cleopatra, the Parthians took advantage of the situation and invaded Palestine (40 B.C.). The opponents of Hyrcanus II came out of hiding, won the support of the Parthians, and had Hyrcanus II deported. Herod escaped and eventually found his way to Rome. While he was there, the Romans decided that he was the man they wanted as king of Judea, and the Senate confirmed his appointment in 39 B.C. The Jews hated Herod, but when he appeared at Jerusalem with one hundred thousand Roman soldiers at his back they had little choice. This event ended the rule of the Hasmoneans (37 B.C.), one hundred and thirty years after the first victory by Judas Maccabaeus. Herod the Idumean was now king of the Jewish nation.

Herodian Family Members

Herodian Family Members Mentioned in the New Testament

Herod married Mariamne, the Hasmonean princess, and had her younger brother Aristobulus III appointed high priest. The latter appointment proved so popular, however, that Herod had him drowned in a pool at his palace at Jericho (35 B.C.). Then, fearful that Mariamne was plotting against him, Herod had her murdered at Samaria (29 B.C.). He even brought back Hyrcanus II from Babylon and had him killed. Later, two sons by Mariamne, the last two members of the house of the Maccabees, were also strangled, which resulted in the saying, “Better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” One quickly sees that the plot to kill all the infants in Bethlehem in order to kill off all possible rivals (see Matt. 2:16–18) was typical of Herod.

Under Herod, Hellenism came into its own among the Jews. He brought in Greek scholars and even endowed the Olympic games in Greece and was made their perpetual president. He had a passion for building Greek cities. In Jerusalem he built a theater and amphitheater and remodeled the fortress of John Hyrcanus northwest of the temple (later the residence of Pontius Pilate).

Herod despised the Jews and hated their religion. But as their king he seemed to feel the necessity of paying some attention to religious matters. He never assumed the role of high priest, but put into that office individuals who were subject to his demands—and he removed them as he pleased. He respected Jewish traditions by not putting the likenesses of living things onto buildings or coins. No statues were erected in Jerusalem. And his daughters were married to none but Jews. Antipas, the grandfather of Herod, had been forced by John Hyrcanus I to be circumcised and to adopt Judaism, although none of the Herods were Jews by blood.

Herod’s greatest bribe to the Jews was the temple he built at Jerusalem. The Jews were concerned that the sacred edifice would be desecrated. He, however, had large numbers of the priests trained as masons and carpenters so that they, rather than unsanctified workmen, might perform the sacred task of building the temple.

The life of Herod came to an end at Jericho shortly after the birth of Christ. His final order, left with his sister, Salome, was to have all notable Jews butchered so that people might mourn at his burial. Salome wisely ignored his command.

Herod had considerable effect upon the New Testament period. He gave peace to Palestine. He was the first ruler since Simon Maccabaeus who was strong enough to keep order. He brought an end to the fighting between the Pharisees and Sadducees. When he refused to allow the Pharisees to participate in politics, they were able to develop their religious beliefs and practices and gain a hold on the minds and lives of the Jews that the Sadducees never attained. It was this influence that made the Jews of Jesus’ day so strongly religious. (See Bailey and Kent, History of the Hebrew Commonwealth, p. 343.) The great temple also gave the Jews from all parts of the world a gathering place in which they could feel the pride of their heritage.

Herod’s kingdom was divided among his three surviving sons. Archelaus was named king of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. Herod Antipas was established as tetrarch (governor) of Galilee and Perea. The third son, Philip, was made tetrarch of the northeast territory. Later, the territory over which Archelaus had ruled was placed under a Roman procurator (knight) subject to the legate of Syria. This was the role of Pontius Pilate during the time of Christ (A.D. 26–36) and of Felix and Festus during the time of Paul. Herod Antipas reigned from 4 B.C. to A.D. 34 and was the tyrant who put John the Baptist to death and whose men mocked Jesus when Pilate sent him to be tried at his Jerusalem palace.

From A.D. 41 to 44, the rule of the procurators in Judea was broken by the three-year reign of King Herod Agrippa I (grandson of Herod the Great and son of Aristobulus). For the last time in history a king ruled all of Palestine. It was this Herod (Agrippa I) who had the Apostle James put to death. (See Acts 12:1–2.)

The last Agrippa mentioned in the book of Acts is Herod Agrippa II, who was a son of Agrippa I and tetrarch of Philip’s former territory. When Festus became the procurator of Judea and Samaria, Agrippa II paid him a visit at Caesarea. (See Acts 26.) Paul bore witness of his conversion and the mission of Christ to him, and it is this Agrippa to whom Joseph Smith refers in his personal story. (JS—H 1:24).

The Jews themselves had no voice in the government of their lands. But under Rome’s strong hold they never lost their desire for freedom, and in the year A.D. 66 they broke into open rebellion. The Jews first won some victories over the Roman legions; however, the emperor Nero, seeing the seriousness of the revolt, sent his best generals to handle the situation. Beginning in the north, they conquered Galilee, then took the territory west and south of Jerusalem, and finally closed in on the city itself. After months of siege, on 17 July A.D. 70, the deathless flame in the temple was extinguished and the daily sacrifice in the temple failed for the first time since the temple had been rebuilt. On 9 August the entire temple was destroyed by the soldiers of General Titus, and all the multitude of Jews who were in the sacred enclosure perished either by fire or sword. In all, an estimated six hundred thousand to two million were put to death. The end result was as Christ himself had predicted. (See Luke 19:41–44.)

The four centuries between the Old and the New Testaments held many important events. It was from this period that the Jews obtained the freedom of religion enjoyed in New Testament times. Through the Maccabeans, Judaism and the “Jewish State became a force to be reckoned with, even by the Romans” (Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962, 2:535). The opposing parties of the Pharisees and Sadducees came into power. The dynasty of the Herods was inaugurated. The Greek influence was imposed upon the culture of the Jews. Galilee, the home country of Jesus, was colonized by the Jews. And the mighty Roman Empire took control of the Jews’ political and economic lives.

One writer concludes: “It would not be wide of the mark to suggest that all the foundation stones of modern Jewry were well and truly laid during the period of the Hasmonean (Maccabean) rule.” (Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, 2:535.) This segment of history prior to A.D. 30 indeed laid the foundation for the setting of the New Testament.

  • Paul E. Dahl, father of five, is director of the Tucson, Arizona, Institute of Religion.

Names of reigning kings of New Testament note are in capitals; names of wives and relatives by marriage are in italics. Names of other members of the house are in small letters. (Adapted from Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Survey, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972, p. 429.)

Engravings by Gustave Dore

Antiochus Epiphanes

A coin bearing the image of a menorah, minted by Antigonus, a great-grandson of Mattathias the priest

A coin imprinted with the image of a star over an altar, minted by Herod the Great, who shortly after Christ’s birth ordered all infants in Bethlehem killed.