Creative Biblical content at the intersection of life and faith.

The History of Herod

Sermon Title:  The History of Herod
Sermon Title:  The Last Days of B.C.
Sermon Text:  Matthew 2:1-18
Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity 3rd. ed.
Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah 1993 ed.
Holman Bible Atlas
Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary
We have probably read Matthew 2:1-18 countless times at Christmas and simply glossed over the question of the wise men, "Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?"  The Bible says that Herod was troubled by their inquiry, and all of Jerusalem with him?  Why so much trouble?

When Judas Maccabee rededicated the Temple in 164 BC he found only enough ceremonially clean oil to light the lamps for one day.  One version of the story is that one lamp miraculously burned for 8 days, thus giving us the 8 days of Hanukah.  Yet, as the priests procured more oil the number of torches they lit each night increased.  Against the darkness of the Jerusalem winter the ever increasing light that emanated from the Temple mount gave hope that in the Hasmoneans a new day of sovereign independence was dawning for Israel.  This hope was only briefly realized.  The corruption of the Hasmoneans was only magnified when they successfully united the offices of priest and king in John Hyrcanus.  In a very real sense their absolute power corrupted them absolutely.  After John Hyrcanus (134-104 B.C.) the dynasty declined considerably.  Alexander Janneus (103-76 B.C.)  was the worst of them.  He became an enemy of his own people exacting revenge upon his opponents by hanging 800 of them on crosses and butchering their wives and children at their feet.  After Alexander’s death his wife Salome Alexandra (76-67 B.C.) ruled.  Because she was female she appointed her son Hyrcanus II as high priest thus preserving her influence as essentially the priestess/queen.  Upon her death her younger son Aristobulus II (67-63 B.C.) allied himself with the Sadducees and defeated his brother Hyrcanus II.  Civil war soon broke out between the brothers.  The flames of strife were flamed by competing interests in surrounding states, each ultimately hoping to control Israel in time.  The strife was finally settled by Pompey who was sent by Rome to intervene.  Each of the brothers were given a chance to present their case.  Pompey quickly sided with Hyrcanus II.  Israel was once again under Roman control.
The years that follow are full of strife, shifts of power, and brokering for power.  It is during these confusing times that the Herodian dynasty is born.  Under Pompey, Hyrcanus II’s control was severely limited and delegated mostly to Antipater of Idumaea.  Idumaea was an Edomite settlement conquered by Hyrcanus I and forced to adopt Judaism.  Under Hasmonean rule, Antipater became a chief official.  When Antipater helped Caesar to defeat Pompey in Egypt (48 B.C.), Caesar in turn appointed Antipater as Procurator of Judaea.  Antipater’s two sons, Phasaelus of Jerusalem and Herod of Galilee, were appointed governors.  At the time Herod was 25 years old.  Though young, Herod was a proven leader and promoted quickly by Caesar. 
Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.  Antipater, Herod’s father, was poisoned by a rival in 43 B.C.  In the meantime Herod and Phasaelus, as they had done throughout their careers, easily aligned themselves with the new powers, Antony and Octavius (soon to be Augustus Caesar).  Upon their father’s death, Antony appointed Herod and Phasaelus joint tetrarchs of Judea.  Hyrcanus II subsequently lost all real power and was named ethnarch, a much inferior position. 
In 40 B.C. Antigonus, son of Aristobulus II returned to Judea taking advantage of the Parthian invasion.  Phasaelus was killed.  Hyrcanus II was imprisoned and Josephus tells us that Antigonus bit off his uncle’s ears thus disqualifying him from serving as high priest “since according to the Old Testament the high priest must be without physical defect (Ferguson, 412).”  Antigonus thus ruled Judea for about 4 years.
Herod responded by fleeing to Rome.  There he gained the consent of Antony and Octavius and was proclaimed by the Roman Senate as King of Judea.  After making sacrifice and holding a banquet at the capitol Antony celebrated Herod as the “new successor of David (Edersheim, 88).”
Though he had the Senate’s blessing, it was not until 37 B.C. that Herod succeeded at the hard work of securing control of his kingdom over Antigonus.  Herod convinced Antony to have Antigonus bound to a cross, flogged, and killed.  This left Herod alone as client king of Judea.  It was then his duty to carry out the will of Rome in Jerusalem.  The Herodian dynasty was officially underway.
As part of his final play to secure Jerusalem, Herod married the teenage Mariamne.  Though he was lauded in Rome as the Davidic king of Jerusalem, Herod could not escape his ancestry.  He was Edomite and as such closer by blood to the throne of Esau than that of Jacob.  Mariamne had an interesting lineage being the granddaughter of both Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II.  In her the rivals of the Maccabean family were united.  Herod had not only defeated the last of the Maccabees in Antigonus, but he also became the heir of the ancestral pool in marrying Mariamne.  Herod had great affection for Mariamne, but she despised him.  Initially she despised Herod not only because of the execution of her uncle, but also because at the time of their marriage Herod was already married to Doris.  Herod’s madness began to first manifest itself when Herod ordered Mariamne to be executed should he die so that she would not marry another.  Yet her disdain for him grew as he attempted feverishly to destroy any distant remnant of the Maccabees that remained after Antigonus.      
The carnage that ensued resulted in the extermination of the rest of the Maccabees including Aristobulus, brother of Mariamne whom Herod had appointed as high priest at age 17 so that he may gain some favor with his wife.  Herod later ordered Aristobulus killed and he was drown while bathing.  Herod also executed Mariamne’s mother Alexandra who conspired against Herod with Cleopatra of Egypt, who also hated him.  But Herod did not kill Alexandra before he had fallen so mad with paranoia over his rivals that he had Mariamne executed as the penalty for being found guilty in a highly questionable trial.
Herod’s execution of his love Mariamne seemed to push him over the brink of insanity.  He so desired to secure his role as king that he placed spies throughout the land of Judea, he hemmed in the Jews by placing mercenary outposts in various fortresses around her border, and he immediately executed anyone perceived to be a rival.  The bloodshed is endless and includes the deaths of all the sons of the first two of his eventual ten wives, Doris and Mariamne.  Herod’s rule was so notorious that  Augustus said that it is better to be Herod’s pig than his son (Ferguson, 414). 
This being the case it is not difficult to believe the account of Matthew of Herod’s murder of the innocents.  Because the account is recorded only in Matthew and not in Josephus or any other historical source of the period, many historians doubt the validity of Matthew’s account.  However, the story does appear in some early historical documents in the 3rd and 4th centuries and many historians argue for its validity based on the Herod’s profile.  At the very least, no one can deny, based on history, that Herod was fully capable of such cruelty.
Herod not only tried to secure Judea by intimidation and brute force, but he also tried to do so through building.  If Herod is notorious as a bloodthirsty madman, he is even more so as an architect.  He was seemingly addicted both to blood and brick.
(Copied from Holman Bible Atlas, Logos electronic ed.)
Herod ranks as one of the greatest builders in the ancient world, second only to Tiberius. He embarked on a grand building program during the middle years of his reign. As a Roman client-king, Herod was expected to act as a benefactor within his own kingdom and beyond. Several projects honored his patron, Augustus. Samaria was rebuilt and renamed Sebaste, the Greek equivalent of Augustus. A massive temple dedicated to the emperor reflected the new city’s pagan character. Herod’s most ambitious project outside of Jerusalem was a new port at Caesarea Maritima (see below). Herod’s engineers created a large protected harbor by utilizing quarried stone and hydraulic cement to build a massive mole. Caesarea became Herod’s “window to the world,” a cosmopolitan city that linked Palestine commercially and culturally to the Roman Empire.
Herod transformed Jerusalem during his reign. He built a new palace on the western side of the city protected by three towers on the north named after friends and relatives: Mariamne, Hippicus, and Phasael. His architects constructed the Antonia fortress with its four distinctive towers on the north side of the temple complex. According to Josephus, Herod added a theater, hippodrome, and stadium to the city, but their locations have not been confirmed by archaeology. Herod increased Jerusalem’s water supply by erecting aqueducts that brought water from the Bethlehem region into Jerusalem. Herod’s crowning achievement was the building of a new temple to replace the unimpressive structure dedicated by Zerubbabel in 515 b.c. Begun in 19 b.c., the project was not completed until a.d. 64. The size of the temple complex was doubled by massive earthfills and retaining walls. The temple building was expanded, its marble facade overlaid with gold trim. Herod accomplished the task with scrupulous attention to Jewish law, including the use of priests trained as stonemasons (see further “Jerusalem in the Days of Herod and Jesus” pp. 228–33).  (End Copy)
If any building project aptly represented the personality of Herod it was the fortress of Herodium.  The site chosen for Herodium was the site of his final victory over the Hasmoneans when he defeated Antigonus in 40 B.C.  Herodium was built 4 miles southeast of Bethlehem (7 miles south of Jerusalem), took 9 years to construct (24-15 B.C. and featured seven buildings that stood atop a man made mountain that’s height reached 2,500 ft above sea level. 
Though Herod so desired to be the King of the Jews the people despised him as nothing more than an Edomite King, a pawn of the Romans, and a man associated with taxation (as a means to fund his massive building projects) and with blood.  It is in this context that the birth narratives of Christ are written.  Knowing Herod in context we now realize just what Matthew meant when he said Herod was troubled (Matt. 2:3); for the wise men had asked a poignant question of such a paranoid, pompous King, “Where is he who has been BORN king of the Jews?”  Herod had bought, built, and bloodied his way to the throne, but he would never be the king of the Jews, for he could not erase his birth.  A rightful King, a true son of David was born.  The announcement the birth of the heir to the throne nullified all Herod had tried to accomplish by brick and by blood.  Matthew notes his trouble.  If Herod is troubled all of the land would suffer with him.  
Herod’s legacy is merely history and archeological ruins.  His kingdom, immediately carried on by his sons Herod Antipas and Philip, would end under Agrippa II, who brought Paul to trial in 59 AD (Acts 25-26).  It is said that Agrippa II was so twisted that he celebrated the destruction of his own people when Jerusalem was sacked in 70 A.D.  There are not many who would not consider each of the Herod’s to be madmen.  Egos larger than life they destroyed lives trying desperately to be kings when in reality, kings they never were.  They were pawns of Rome, client kings of the state, nothing more than glorified tax collectors.
If a history were written of us, would it excuse us of our own insanity?  We think of ourselves more civilized and sane than Herod, but how can we ignore the holocaust of America’s infants taking place by abortion?  The last 100 years of world history have been the bloodiest by far of any historical era.  Are we any better than they?
We desperately try to build our own kingdoms when in reality we have never been given the sovereignty to do so.  In Christmas we observe the birth of a King.  In Christmas we are also called to come to grips with what we are not, born kings.  We do not have the ability to save ourselves.  If anything we have proven it is that we are sovereigns only of the mess we have created in sin.  Thus Christmas calls us to salvation.  But there will be no salvation without surrender.
If we are to be saved from our own insanity we must surrender to King Jesus by repentance and faith.  By birth we are sinners.  The good news is that He was born the savior.  In Him we have new life.  In Him we are born again (John 3).  If we are to experience the glory of His Kingdom, we must come into it by the new birth (John 3:3). 
The birth of Christ marked the end of an era, the last days of B.C.  If we will repent of sin and surrender to Christ a new era begins in us.  2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV), “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”  May this Christmas represent for us a new beginning in Christ.
Continue reading
388 Hits

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.
Continue reading
337 Hits

Caesar Augustus, The Roman Context of the Birth of Christ

Sermon Title:  Caesar Augustus, The Roman Context of the Birth of Christ
Sermon Title:  The Last Days of B.C.
Sermon Text:  Luke 2:1
Resources:  Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity 3rd. ed.
The birth of Jesus Christ is the event on the Gregorian calendar that split time.  In an increasingly secular society the calendar is divided between BCE (before common era) and CE (current or “christian” era).  Yet until recently the eras of the calendar were counted in relation to Christ, Before Christ or B.C. and A.D. or Anno Domini, the Year of our Lord. 
For the next three weeks we will be looking at the Christmas story from a different perspective, a historical one.  Most people are familiar with the Gospel narratives, found in Matthew and Luke, of the birth of Christ, but relatively few have heard the story of what the world was like when Jesus was born.  We read Luke 2:1, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus . . .”  What were “those days” like?  Who was Caesar Augustus?  Luke’s early readers would not and could not have read the Christmas narratives without its historical context.  Many of us, for generations, have read the Christmas story with no historical context.  By doing so we are missing a great deal of the impact of the message that Luke and Matthew were trying to convey.  As a result we have adopted a vanilla form of Christianity that is disconnected from its historical and textual roots.  In the end what we preach, I fear, is no gospel at all.

To remedy this we will explore the historical context of the Christmas narratives, through this series, The Last Days of B.C., and by doing so gain a greater understanding of the gospel message the Biblical writers were seeking to convey.  My prayer is that by recovering this story we will also recover the gospel of Jesus Christ in its proclamation and in our devotion. 
Christianity emerged out of three historical contexts:
1.       The Greek world which provides the educational and philosophical context.
2.       The Jewish world which provides the religious context.  It is from this context from which Christianity emerges.
3.       The Roman world which provides the political and economic context.  It is in this context that Christianity spreads.
This week we will discuss the Roman context in the last days of B.C.  It is this Roman world that Luke notes in Luke 2:1.  Next week we will discuss the Jewish context in the last days of B.C.
Outside of its Judaic roots in the Old Testament, Christian history covers roughly 330 B.C. (Alexander the Great) to 330 A.D. (Constantine).  The period from 330 B.C. to 30 B.C., Alexander to Augustus, is known as the Hellenistic Age and is the story of how Rome came to be.
Before Alexander we have the very Old Testament landscape with its various empires (Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, etc.).  But with Alexander we have the rise of the Greeks and the unification of the world.  Prior to Alexander, Greece had risen to prominence as it became the cultural elite of the world through philosophy.  But it was not until Alexander began to conquer the world that Greek culture actually began to spread to foreign lands.
This Greek ideal was known as Hellenism.  Because Athens was the center of this new age of thought, dominated by speech and reason, the movement was given the appropriate name Hellenism as educated Greeks were known as Hellenes.  Greeks were no longer simply Greek by birth, but by education.  They were not bound by genealogy but by culture.  In this way, the various nations of the Mediterranean world slowly became “Greek" or Hellenized.  We see this in Paul’s writings as he does not specify ethnicities when he speaks of the power of the gospel to save, he simply states that the gospel is the power of God to save the Jew first and also the Greek (Rom. 1:16). 

When Alexander died three dynasties emerge from three of his prominent generals:
1.       Ptolemaic – Egypt
2.       Seleucid – Persia, Syria, and Asia
3.       Antigonid – Macedonia
Ptolemy I brought Hellenism to Egypt by founding the great library in Alexandria (one of only three cities with Greek names in Egypt at the time).  Unter the Ptolemies Alexandria becomes a cultural, educational, and spiritual epicenter for the Greek world.  Historically and Biblically, Alexandria is important to the church because a vital manuscript family is born there from the meticulous scribes who copy the Scriptures.
Seleucus I (358-280) worked to secure Babylonian regions of the empire.  He had control of the whole region as far as India by 312 BC.  Some notable Seleucid successors, pertinent to the last days of B.C. include: 
·         Antiochus III, or The Great (223-187 BC) - the Seleucids begin to expand and overtake the Ptolemaic/Egyptian territories.
·         Antiochus IV or Epiphanes (175-163) - the fight for Egypt intensifies.  As Epiphanes establishes control of new territories he brings a “Hellenized” version of relgion with him.  Which is why the most notable structure in Ephasus was the Temple of Artemis instead of Diana (an ancient Roman goddess), by which it was formerly known.  Artemis was a nature goddess of the Greeks.  The story of Antiochus Epiphanes will provide a critical backdrop for next week's content as we discuss the Jewish context in the last days of B.C.
It is from this strife between the factions that Rome begins to emerge.  Moving into the final two centuries of B.C. Rome is a loose collection of city states with common law and culture.  The land was conquered by armies.  The people were conquered by culture, but the empire began to emerge when Rome solidified its control as it captured the gods.  Rome absorbed foreign lands by not only taxing and educating them, but by absorbing their dieties.  The final step of Hellinization was to “Romanize” the foreign gods by promising them greater devotion if they would join the Roman pantheon.  Once in the Pantheon Rome not only influenced economies and powers, but also garnered religious devotion. 
Rome is the Greek word for “strength.”  Yet as B.C. drew to a close there was more work to do before Rome would truly be the strong empire that was essentially Alexander’s Hellenistic vision.

The formalization of Rome came after about a century of civil war with first indications of unsettledness arising in 133 B.C.  After 100 years of civil war three powers emerge:
1.       Julius Caesar
2.       Crassus
3.       Pompey
This arrangement of power is known as the First Triumvirate, but the balance was quickly upset.  Crassus died unexpectedly leaving Julius and Pompey as rivals.  The Roman senate fueled the rivalry by formally positioning Pompey against Caesar.  Caesar invaded Italy (Pompey’s territory) in 49.  By 48 Caesar was sole ruler of the Roman world.  But with many fearing the end of the republic, Caesar had his rivals and Pompey was not without his allies.  On the Ides of March, 44 B.C., Caesar was attacked by 60 men before the members of the Roman Senate and was stabbed 23 times.  A painting by Jean-Leon Gerome depicts the Roman Senators celebrating as they abandon Caesar’s mutilated body.
The result of the assassination was not as hoped.  The republic would not be restored.  One historian has said, “They had planned the assassination well, but they had planned little else.”  Instead of a new Republic, Rome received the 2nd Triumvirate.  It was led by:
1.       Octavian – nephew and adopted heir of Julius (since Julius had no son)
2.       Mark Antony – Caesar’s chief lieutenant
3.       Lepidus – former governor of Spain
The 2nd Triumvirate dissolved as Lepidus was quickly accused of usurping authority against Octavian.  He was stripped of his power in 36 BC and exiled.  The dismissal of Lepidus left only a rivalry between Mark Antony and Octavian.
Mark Antony had an infamous affair with Cleopatra of Egypt.  He was portrayed by Octavian as one aligning with Egypt against Rome.  Octavian not only won public opinion, but he also won on the battlefield.  Antony and Cleopatra were defeated at Actium in 31 B.C.  Both committed suicide in 30.
The end result was a Rome very tired of strife and desperate for peace.  The other result was that Octavian was left alone with power and with the duty of establishing a new constitution.  Through a crafty campaign of propaganda, Octavian convinced the war weary Romans to centralize power in him.  The result was a power in a man the Romans had yet to see.  By 27 B.C. Octavian had absolute control, money, an army, and extra/super constitutional powers. 
A new name was given to Octavian.  He would no longer be known as Caius Julius Octavius.  Because the name Octavian was associated with bloodshed, he would garner a new name to acknowledge his accomplishments.   From now on he would be Imperator Caesar divi filius Augustus which means roughly, the Emperor (or supreme citizen), son of God, Augustus.
The name Augustus is difficult to define, but in general it is an acknowledgment that Octavian was more than human.  The name Augustus confirms only that there was no sufficient category to appropriately acknowledge him.  In Augustus was the merger of man and god as one.  To obtain real control Octavian knew that he must not only have Rome’s money and army, he must also have her gods.  With his joining of the pantheon, the Caesar would forever be the human incarnation of god ruling over men.
To spread the news of Augustus’ coronation a euangelion, a pronouncement of good news was written.  You and I are most familiar with the English interpretation of the Greek term euangelion, good news, or gospel.  The gospel of Augustus read:
The providence which has ordered the whole of our life showing concern and zeal has ordained the most perfect consummation for human life by giving it to augustus by filling him with virtue for doing the work of a benefactor for men and by sending in him as it were a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war cease, to create order everywhere . . ; the birthday of the god (Augustus) was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him. . .
Approximately 30 years later a new gospel was proclaimed.  Not to the Roman elite, nor to her scholars, but to shepherds,
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that will be for all people.  For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. . . Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
In the gospel of Jesus there is something distinctly Jewish.  He is born in the City of David.  He is called Savior.  He is proclaimed as Christ the Lord.  But in the gospel of Jesus there is a message that is decidedly Hellenistic, Greek, Roman – this is the child through whom true Pax, or peace will come.
The term Pax is a Latin term that implies peace that comes through a dominant ruler.  When the birth of Christ was announced it was not the proclamation of a new holiday, it was the good news that the Messiah had begun his quest to take over the world.  Herod, whom we will discuss later, knew this.  Pilate knew this.  As Christianity incubated and grew during the Pax Romana and proclaimed that Jesus is Lord, all of Rome’s emperors from Tiberius to Constantine would understand the ramifications of this new gospel proclamation.  We read Luke 2 as if it were simply a “season’s greetings”, but Luke knew what he was writing.  God has sent us His Christ and in Him Pax, world dominating peace, will come.
As we proclaim the gospel of Christ in 2011 the world is in turmoil.  It is difficult to find peace.  As economies crumble world rulers are seeking ways to strengthen the nations.  We have lost all sense of Pax, peace and prosperity.  Ironically as governments fail, it seems that people grow more trusting of political solutions to the chaos.  We seek Pax in the very governments and political parties that have failed us.  Over the last decade in America we have experienced the loss of the republic through the greatest movements toward centralized government in our nation’s 200+ year history.  We are war weary.  We are not good students of history and thus we are ignorant of the parallels that seek to teach us.  We swallow the propaganda and seek another Augustus.
It is in this context that the message of the gospel must become radical again.  2000 years ago, Luke 2 was radical, treasonous, and tremendous.  For the last 100 years the Church has grown vanilla and we have lost the meaning of our proclamation.  We are not saying Happy Holidays, although these days the 'verbage' seems to be our chiefest of concerns.  Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, do we really understand what it means that the Christ is born.  In the gospel we are not merely greeting the season.  The gospel is not a poem on a Hallmark card.  The gospel is a call to devotion in one centralized power, the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  For those who repent of sin and call upon His name the reign of peace begins in them, now.  While the world descends into the chaos from which it came in Genesis 1, the followers of Christ do not lose heart, they do not lose focus, instead they proclaim that Pax is found in Christ alone and they wait faithfully for His return and the culmination of His Kingdom.  In Christ world peace will come.  The message of Christmas is not focused on a manger, but on a throne.  The path to that throne is through the cross.  Christ has invited the sinner to come with Him and die so that we may live, like Him, with Him, in Him, in Pax.  The Christian life is not Pax Romana, but Pax Animae – a soul brought to peace through the dominant rule of Christ over their life.
Christmas is a call to decide.  Who rules, now?  Do we seek only Pax Romana, a peace that is destined to decay?  Do we need another Augustus?   Or do we seek Pax Animae, the peace of a soul that is brought about by a life dominated by the rule of Christ?  This is the message of Luke to us.  Peace is not found in men and we are deceived to believe that lasting peace is possible Rome.  In Christ a true ruler who brings everlasting peace is found.  Follow Him. 

Continue reading
627 Hits

The Last Days of B.C.

I am beginning a new series of sermons tonight at Ridgecrest, The Last Days of B.C. This series will tell the story behind the Christmas narrative. What was the world like when Jesus was born? Who is Augustus Caesar (Luke 2:1)? What is a Messiah? When Jesus became an adult, why did he have so many disputes with the Pharisees? Where did the Pharisees come from? Surprisingly it is all in the back story of Christmas.

I offer you a teaser. Here is a quote from the gospel, “by sending in him a savior for us and those who come after us, to make war cease, to create order everywhere . . .; the birthday of god was the beginning of the world of the glad tidings that have come to men though him.” Doesn’t that sound Christmassy, sort of Handel’s Messiah-ish? Well, it is a gospel quote, but it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not from the Bible and it has nothing to do with Christmas. Where did it come from? You may be surprised to find out – but I promise you that if you know the back story of Christmas it will make the true narrative of the Biblical Gospel’s come alive for you like never before. Join us at Ridgecrest (www.rbconline.net) tonight (6:30) as we explore The Last Days of B.C.
Continue reading
467 Hits