the political history of the jewish people
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L. Michael White

Tell me the story about how the Jews and the Israelites ended up being defeated and enslaved by the Babylonians.

White is Professor of Classics and Christian Origins at the University of Texas at Austin, and acted as historical consultant for "Apocalypse!"
It's important if we're going to understand apocalyptic thinking to realize that the political history of the Jewish people is central to the story. And it really begins in the year 586 B.C when the Babylonians, under the famous King Nebuchadnezzar, conquer the city of Jerusalem itself and in the process destroy Solomon's Temple. This particular event really is what separates the period of ancient Israel's freedom and national identity from what will become Judaism. And in the process also sets in motion this thinking about what will be the future of this city, Jerusalem, in the plan of God for the people of Israel. ...

After Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Israelite armies and Jerusalem was destroyed, quite a large proportion of the Israelite people were deported to Babylon itself. And the estimates vary significantly. Some say as few as ten percent. Some of the numbers that we get from the ancient history say almost all the people were taken away. No matter how many were actually taken, it is a significant experience that the people had to go away and live in a foreign land. And we have quite a number of poignant scenes from the Hebrew scriptures which reflect the trauma of this event of being separated from Jerusalem, and how we will worship our lord in a foreign land.

What kind of a place was Babylon in those days?

imagery from babylon

imagery from babylon
... Babylon was a magnificent city for its day. It's perched right on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in an extremely important strategic location. And it's a massive city with huge stone walls, great wooden gates, studded with gold and bronze and decorated with these enormous gorgeous pictures of winged beasts and powerful images of the kings of the Babylonian empire. If you think about the imagery of demons and dragons and winged beasts that we find so commonly in apocalyptic literature, some of it comes from this very experience of seeing the powerful images of the enemy of Babylon.

And then when the Jewish people found themselves subject to this all-powerful Babylon and these great images of power did this lead to a sort of agonizing reappraisal about what their own God was worth or meant or how powerful he must be?

The destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar had a profound effect on Jewish thinking and theology. For one thing, the promises that had been given to David now had to be questioned. What did God mean by saying the throne of David would last forever, when obviously it had just been toppled? So the Babylonian exile is really an important watershed in the development of Jewish theology as they began to think, what went wrong? Has God abandoned us? Is [the Babylonian god] more powerful than our God? Or is there some other reason why this fate has befallen us? Maybe it's not God's fault. Maybe it's our fault. Maybe it's our sins that have caused this. And in the process of this thinking they start to take the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and turn it inward as theological reflection. There's a profound effect on all later Jewish and Christian theology.

Babylon and Jerusalem now stand for two polar opposites in terms of good and bad. Tell us what Jerusalem and Babylon came to symbolize since then.

So if we think about the political struggle that has just taken place with the defeat of the Israelites' Jerusalem, the city of God has been conquered by Babylon, the city of the enemy of God's people. Jerusalem and Babylon then forever thereafter will stand as the symbols of this opposition. The forces locked in a battle of good and evil for all eternity. ... If we imagine the experience of the exiles living in Babylon, the idea of Babylon itself comes to symbolize enslavement. Oppression. The notion of exile or alienation. In contrast to Jerusalem which is home. So these two symbols, really--Jerusalem home; Babylon exile, enslavement, oppression--will always be at the center of a lot of the trauma of apocalyptic experience. And the hope that it also provides for that idea of release, triumph and going home. ...

As a result of the defeat by the Babylonians, Jewish tradition both during and after the exile really has to rethink its history. And this rethinking of history of the story of the people from times past is carried out by actually writing or in some cases rewriting parts of the biblical text itself. And so in fact much of what we think of as the Hebrew scriptures or the Old Testament as it is called by Christians is really a product of the re-thinking that occurs after the Babylonian exile. ...

The process of re-writing the scriptures is somewhat easy to understand if you think about it. Here is a story that starts with God choosing Abraham and leading the people out of exodus and into a land of promise, and selecting a king, David. But after the fall of Jerusalem that story now obviously continues. At the same time though that they continue writing the history they go back and reflect on how the earlier story must be understood. So whereas earlier it's a story of God's promise to Abraham and David, after the exile the new theology tends to emphasize, well, that promise is conditional. If we don't live up to our end of the bargain, if we don't remain faithful to God, God will allow us to be punished. And this new way of thinking about the theology--what we call the covenant theology--is an important new dimension of Jewish thinking. And it's filtered through all of the biblical books that are put together in this period after the exile. ...


Now, in a sense the Jewish oppression at the hands of the Babylonians didn't last very long because, what, about fifty years later or so the Persians overran Babylon. In your own words, tell us how the Persians conquered Babylon and what happened to the Jews.

The Babylonian empire that conquered the nation of Israel ... despite its opulence, nonetheless had a rather a short reign thereafter. Within approximately fifty years after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Babylonian empire, itself, had been overthrown by the Persians who had moved into the Mesopotamian region from farther east beyond the Persian Gulf. The Persians overran the city. It's quite an amazing story ... As the story goes, they actually dam up the canals that feed the city and come in through the water channels, invade the city secretly, throw the gates open and a massacre ensues. So this great city of Babylon, the city that conquers everyone else ... all of a sudden is conquered itself. And this reversal, this rapid change, comes to be viewed in a new way even by the Jewish people. God got his revenge at last. ... For example, in Isaiah, chapters 44 and 45--a portion of the book of Isaiah actually written during the exile itself--we hear of Cyrus the great Persian king referred to as God's anointed one. The Lord's Messiah. And it even goes on to say he will be a shepherd for my people. Now this is God speaking. He, Cyrus, will be a shepherd for my people and he will be the one to rebuild Jerusalem. ...

So here's what this text from Isaiah is beginning to show us. A new way of thinking. Now instead of just feeling traumatized over the destruction of Jerusalem, now one can look back and say, "Oh, maybe there was a plan of God all along. Yes, our God, in the final analysis, is in charge of all human history. Look, he even directs foreign kings to do his will for our benefit." ...

The Persians, having overrun Babylon and released the Jews, also made a big impact on Jewish religion. What was the nature of the Persian empire's influence on Jewish religion?

So following the age of Babylonian control in the Middle East, the Persian is really the next great empire. Interestingly enough, part of the story of the Jewish people throughout this ancient period is that, after the Babylonians, the Jews will almost always be under the thumb of one or another of the world's great powers of the ancient history. And that's going to create new influences ... [The Persians], in fact, are a source for a major new component. One of the important features of Persian religion, the religion that we usually refer to as the Zoroastrianism, named after the great prophet of this tradition, Zoroaster--or sometimes called Zarathustra. Zoroastrianism has a much more dualistic way of looking at the world. In the Persian mythological tradition we have Ahriman, the evil god who is at war with Ahura Mazda, the good god, the god of light. ... Good versus evil. Now, on the one hand this has some similarity to the combat myth that we hear of in other ancient near eastern societies. Only now it's the good and evil themselves thought of as abstract entities that dominate the world. That gives a new dimension. ...


After the Persians basically allowed the Jews to go back to Jerusalem and they rebuilt their lives there, another sort of wind swept to the middle east. What happened? How did Alexander the Great change the ancient world and how did he change the ancient world for the Jews, in particular?

... After a century of war between Greece and Persia, finally, Alexander [sweeps] through the Middle East, defeats the last of the Persian kings, Darius III. And instead of stopping, [Alexander the Great] continues to conquer much of the rest of the Middle Eastern world all the way over to the Indes River Valley. Egypt, Syria, Palestine, all fall under Alexander's power. ...

One of Alexander's self-conscious policies is, as far as we can see, to bring Hellenistic culture to these conquered peoples. There's a great deal of emphasis on imparting Greek ideals and Greek culture throughout this new empire of Alexander. ... One good example of the emergence of Greek influences in Jewish tradition, after the conquest of Alexander the Great, is the document that we know as First Enoch. Now First Enoch was written somewhere between around 250 BCE and 200 BCE, in the early phase of Greek control of the Middle East. And First Enoch reflects the tensions that face Jewish tradition as a result of these Greek influences. On the one hand, First Enoch is extremely, intensively Jewish. It is a retelling of the biblical creation story and the early chapters of Genesis with an idea of our God being in control. So in that sense, it's very traditional. On the other hand, the way it tells that story of Genesis clearly has elements of Greek influence within it. ... It's the story of Enoch, one of those characters before the flood. Genesis Chapter 5. And in this story Enoch is taken away to heaven. ... Now what he sees then is something that the biblical story doesn't describe. He sees the rebellion of the angels. This too is based on Genesis, from the story in Genesis 6 where the sons of God rape daughters of men and produce a race of giants. Only now in First Enoch this is the rebellion of the angels under their leader, Azazel, whom we'll later call Satan... .

So First Enoch gives us some of the most important components of what we think of as later Jewish and Christian apocalyptic tradition. We have God and Satan, good and evil. We have angels. The story of Genesis about the sons of God now have become the angels. In fact in the book of First Enoch, these angels are also called the watchers. They're the stars in heaven. At least the ones who don't fall. The others are the demons of hell. And importantly we have a cosmic battle thought of in these very dualistic terms where the forces of God and the forces of Satan will fight for control of the universe. But the stage for this battle, the battleground itself, is earth.


Now, initially, the Greek influence is relatively benign, but things turn ugly, don't they? Tell us about the Maccabean Revolt, what was that about?

The Jewish experience under Greek rule initially seems not to have had a kind of political resistance. There's a strong emphasis on retaining Jewish religion and identity, but they're not talking about the Greeks as oppressors, and certainly not as an evil empire. That perspective will change radically about the beginning of the second century BCE, around the year 200 when the Ptolamaic Greeks, that is the Greeks from Egypt, who had previously been in control of Jerusalem and Judaea, gave way to the Seleucid Greeks in Syria. And under Seleucid rule the experience of Jerusalem and Judaea will be quite different. In part because the program of Hellenization of the Seleucid Greeks is much more oppressive, and it's much less tolerant of Jewish religion and identity and that's where we're [going to] get some really important new tensions that are [going to] shape the political experience of the Jews thereafter.

The key story related to this is of course what we know as the Maccabean Revolt. And here's basically what happened. The Seleucid King Antiochus the Fourth ... comes through Jerusalem, and because the Jewish people are in resistance to some of his oppressive policies he decides to make a show of his power, and to make an example of the Temple. As the story goes, he then marches into the Temple, desecrates the Temple, puts a pig on the altar of sacrifice and generally does everything you shouldn't do in the Temple of Jerusalem. This experience is really one that galvanizes most of the negative reaction that we hear in later Jewish tradition. It also galvanizes a political response. Shortly after his desecration of the Temple, a small band of warriors under Judas the Maccabee--his name literally means Judas the hammer--began a kind of guerrilla war against these Greek armies. And interestingly enough they managed to win a lot of battles, quite surprisingly from the size and strength of the Greek army. The culmination of this story is when in the year 164 a small band under command of Judas himself actually manages to retake the Temple and, while holding off the Greek armies, proceeds then to repurify and rededicate the Temple. That is the event celebrated as the feast of dedication, better known as Hanukkah. ...

For the first time since the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem the Jewish people are facing a power that, as it would seem, wants to destroy them and their religious tradition. ... So the responses that we get in the Maccabean Revolt are extremely influential later on. On the one side we have the response of Judas and his followers. To fight, to defend the land and its traditions. The theology of the Maccabean revolutionaries is, "God helps those who help themselves." But the other response equally caught up in these ideas of the tension between good and evil and of preserving nationhood is the response that says we have to remain faithful and God will deliver us. And that's the response that we get in the Book of Daniel which takes it even more into an apocalyptic vein.


The Maccabean Revolt was largely successful in creating a new independent Jewish state, sometimes referred to as the Second Hebrew Commonwealth, and for roughly the next hundred years the Jewish people were ruled by the descendants of Judas the Maccabee, referred to as the Hasmonean kings ... . But by the latter part of that rule there is a new force coming on the horizon as Rome begins to extend its power into the eastern Mediterranean. This will come to a head in the year 63 BCE when the great Roman general Pompeii is in Damascus, having conquered a number of the provinces of Syria. In Judaea at precisely this time, the last two heirs of the Hasmonean dynasty have entered into a kind of civil war against one another, each one wanting to be the new king. And so, as by a fluke of history, the Jewish people, the city leaders of Jerusalem actually appealed to Pompeii the Roman, "Would you come over here and help settle this war?" The only problem is that they didn't expect Pompeii and the Romans to stay around, and unfortunately they did.

This period of Roman expansion is one that will lead up to what we think of as the beginning of the Roman Empire. It starts with conquest, with the expansion of empire under these late republican generals like Julius Caesar and Pompeii. They acquire land, provinces. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, however, in the forties, there will be a new turn that is taken in Roman political history when Julius Caesar's adopted son, Octavian, assumes the title of Augustus and proclaims himself emperor of the Roman Empire. After his famous conflict with Anthony and Cleopatra, he will now not only control Rome but its vast empires all the way from Spain and Britain in the west to the Persian Gulf in the East, and the prize in part is Egypt itself. But one of the gateways to the East is the land of Judaea on the eastern Mediterranean shores, which becomes one of his points of entry into this political realm. So here, once again, is, and we see throughout this period of history, little Judaea is central to the story of politics and power throughout the Mediterranean world ... .

Now because of the sense of building the empire and the glory that's created under Augustus, the Romans start to have what we might call an ideology of empires, sometimes referred to as the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. But there is a sense of what we might think of as manifest destiny. ... It was the will of the gods that this should happen. It was our role in history because of our virtue and our strength and our nobility. ... Now we have to put this way of thinking along side of Jewish sense of destiny, a destiny often reflected as a plan of God worked out through a revealed sense of history, in apocalyptic tradition. But now we're watching that Jewish sense of destiny run into conflict with the Roman sense of destiny. ...


It's precisely in this period under Roman rule that the Temple itself was being rebuilt once again. On the one hand, this was a lavish building program under the infamous Herod the Great. It was to be really kind of a hallmark of Jewish identity that we would have this great temple. On the other hand, the rebuilding and Herod, himself, was a symbol for many of corruption and perversion. And thus, the Temple at Jerusalem becomes a symbol. A symbol of national identity, a symbol of hope, a symbol of all that is good and true and divinely ordained in God's will. On the other hand, for some, it's a symbol of corruption and evil and the seat of a coming battle between good and evil.

So what did some of them do?

Some people then left Jerusalem entirely. This is what the Essene [group] seems to have done. They moved off to the to the Dead Sea to form a pure priestly community until such time that the Messiahs would come, recapture the Temple and restore it to its purity. So they're really looking forward to a time when the forces of God will take Jerusalem once again.

essene caves

essene caves by the dead sea
The Essenes themselves think they are a prophetic community, operating under the plan that God has set in motion from ages past. Quite literally, they think they are fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah by going out into the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. And when we go to the Dead Sea and we look at the Essene community we can see the wilderness that they have entered. Because as you leave Jerusalem you go off to the east, within only about thirteen miles you drop off from the mountain tops into the rugged prairies, and the land is desolate and harsh. And then as we get to the banks of the Dead Sea itself, the bottom drops out from in front of you and we have this lake that sits nearly fourteen hundred feet below sea level. It's all those cliffs of the Dead Sea and this extremely harsh wilderness environment that the Essenes, following the plan of Isaiah, sought to build the pure community where they would await for the coming of the Messiahs.

What were the Dead Sea Scrolls?

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in 1947 in caves along the banks of the Dead Sea near where the Essene community was founded, contained a number of different documents. Many thousands of fragments have actually been discovered. But basically, [there are] three key types ... . First, copies of all of the biblical texts from the Hebrew scriptures, including text of First Enoch and other apocalyptic literature of this period. In most cases, these manuscripts are our oldest known copies of all the ancient biblical literature. Secondly, it contains commentaries on these texts. And a particular type of commentary, the Essene style of commentary called [pesharim]. It's from the word which mean, "this is interpreted." The pesher is a way of doing commentary where they take passages from older scriptures and say how they are to be interpreted for the present day. ... The third type of literature that we have among the Dead Sea scrolls is what is usually referred to as their sectarian writings. These are scrolls that refer to the community themselves and how they live and how they think. One of these is called the Rule of the Community and explains the very difficult procedure of getting in and how you have to go through several stages of initiation and rigorous kind of examination and it sounds somewhat like a monastic community. Another document out of this group is what's called the War Scroll. And it is quite literally their battle plan for the battle at the end of the ages. It starts off this is the war of the sons of light against the sons of darkness. And they think of it quite literally as the way the final battle will be carried out.

They, themselves, are getting ready to fight this battle?

war scroll

the war scroll
They take this quite literally, they're planning to fight this battle and indeed, in the war of 66-70, the first revolt against Rome, the Essenes themselves, following this battle plan, literally marched out to war against the Roman soldiers and were annihilated. As we see in the War Scroll, the Essenes expected a final battle led by the forces of God to bring a triumph very soon. This is what we see in the apocalyptic tradition known as eschatology, that is, thinking about the last things or the end of the ages. ... It's very important to recognize that this eschatology that they're talking about is not the end of the world, even though they use a lot of last things or end of the ages language. What they're referring to in traditional Jewish apocalyptic is the break that occurs between the present evil age and the coming golden kingdom. It's a kind of dualism of the ages; the eschaton, the end is the break between the two ... .

More on the Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Were John the Baptist and Jesus in the same traditions as the Essenes?

The Essenes weren't the only such new voices of protest and expectation at this time. We hear of quite a number of others ... some of them calling for different kinds of religious reform and different kinds of ways of looking at the hope of Israel. And two of the best known figures of this period are John the Baptist and Jesus, both of whom come out of this early very Jewish apocalyptic tradition, both calling for an expectation of a new kingdom. The classic formulation of John the Baptist is, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Let's return to a pure nation of Israel." And in the case of Jesus it's also, "The kingdom is at hand." But the classic statement of Jesus, more profound and in some ways more problematic later on, is the one that looks down the road for the kingdom to come. In several passages we hear it something like this. "For some of you standing here," and he's talking to his own group of disciples around him ... "will not taste death until you see the kingdom come with power." But they expect something to happen soon. Even a full generation after the death of Jesus ... they still think that the second coming of Jesus and the arrival of the kingdom would be something that's just around the corner ... .


Now in what way did apocalyptic expectations like these lead to the Jewish revolt, and how did that end?

Diverse as their religious outlooks may have been, these different streams of apocalyptic expectation all came together in about the year 66 when there was an outbreak of war against the Romans. This war would last for four years, and it would result in a devastating destruction of Jerusalem once again. But it [had] more clearly been fought as a war against Roman oppression, where the Romans are viewed as the evil empire, the forces of Satan, and the Jewish armies then see themselves as the forces of God trying to expel them ... . The Jewish War began ... with a great deal of hope and expectation. This was to be the messianic war. This was to be the triumph of Israel. The war ended on a very different note. After successive losses and some devastating battles with massive loss of life, eventually the Roman armies bottled up the remaining revolutionaries in the city of Jerusalem itself. Then there was a long and protracted siege which had the result of greater loss of life and starvation and horrendous stories of death. And in the end a final siege where the Romans broke through the city walls, burned and destroyed the city and worst of all destroyed the Temple itself once again. So from the perspective of the Jewish mind, and for very many people in this period, the hope of triumph and victory is has now been dashed with the very thing they thought could never happen again. Namely the Temple destroyed. And the trauma of that experience, then the trauma of rethinking what it means for our understanding of what God has in store for us had to be tremendous. For some it was another moment where they had to say, "We've done something wrong, we must have sinned ... . " For others maybe it's only the beginning of a new stage of history where the final victory is just about to come.

Does this lead to yet another phase of reinterpretation of their own history? Another burst of apocalyptic writing or something?

The destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. leads to yet another stage of apocalyptic reinterpretation. They have to retell their story. They have to rethink their own past. ... In the period between roughly 75 and 100 CE we have a proliferation of new Jewish apocalypses, documents like Fourth Israel, or Second Baruch, or the Apocalypse of Abraham. All figures from ancient Jewish history now are the sources for a new understanding of the future.

Does the New Testament itself reflect this period of re-evaluation?

In a similar way the early Christians, who at this point in time are largely still within the larger framework or Judaism, also have to reinterpret their understanding of history. Some of their expectations for the war did not come to pass. Many of them apparently thought that this was going to be the return of Jesus, and that Jesus was at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel. So it is in the period, between roughly 70 and 100, on the Christian side that we find a new conceptualization of apocalyptic tradition, a new sense of what will be God's plan for the future, and for the eschaton. Among the writings that we have in this period are the gospels. And in all of the gospels of this generation, we hear of attempts to explain what Jesus really intended for the eschaton, and what was misunderstood by people of an earlier generation. We get new writings attributed to Paul or Peter to explain eschatology. Some of these also are in the New Testament. And then we get the Book of Revelation. ...

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