Valdemir Mota de Menezes
What is the succession of empires within which Paul's letters fit?
We see that the succession of empires was on people's minds as they told
stories of the past, whether in the form of Polybius's Histories or in the
form of Daniel's dream-narratives and apocalyptic visions.
The easiest way maybe to summarize briefly the larger context of the
letters of Paul is to trace a succession of empires in four phases.
We need to keep in mind that Paul was a Jew writing in the context of the
Roman Empire, that he writes to Jews and to Gentiles--
that is, non-Jews--
who are interested in participating in Judaism.
So our focus in these four short stories will be on Jews and on the
area of Jerusalem in particular.
The first story is out of Babylonia and Persia.
In 587, Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, a king of the
Many of the elites of Judah-- that is, Jews-- were taken
into exile by Babylonia.
The story of Daniel and his companions takes place in this setting of the
exile of elite young men in the Babylonian Empire.
As we just discussed, that text was written later in the second century
BCE in order to think about another time of oppression, this one under
People use stories from the distant past to think about things that are
happening at the present.
We can ask: What narratives drive how a community defines itself?
By 539 the Babylonian Empire was taken over by the Persian king, Cyrus.
The Persian Empire sustained one centralized government and then
multiple satrapies or vassal, regional administrations.
The Persians thus allowed the return of Jews from exile in Babylonia.
Although many Jews stayed in Babylonia, finding a homeland there
and founding a center for knowledge of the Torah, many others returned to the
area of Judah or Judea.
Persians allowed Jewish self-administration and a "national"
identity, to some extent, and they allowed the rebuilding of the temple
In the 530s, Jews returned to Judah and reconstituted their political and
religious power there, even under Persian domination.
And they became a typical client temple state.
In 520 to 515, the temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt.
The second phase of history we'll think about is that of the Macedonian
Empire and the Diadochoi, or successors, of it.
In 338 BCE, Philip II, the king of Macedonia, conquered Athens and its
allies at Chaironeia in Greece.
Macedonia had long been culturally allied to Greece, and as an empire
considered itself a disseminator of Greek culture.
You can imagine that Greek city states with their long traditions of
self-rule probably has a different interpretation of things.
Alexander the Great was born in the mid-fourth century, and he was well
educated in Greek culture.
Aristotle was famously one of his teachers.
Moving both westward briefly into Greece and then penetrating farther
east, he conquered the Persian Empire.
At 333 in the Battle of Issus he gained control of the area of
Palestine and Jerusalem.
In 327 he reached India, but turned back.
And the 323 he died in Babylon, which he had chosen to be the
capital of his empire.
With Alexander, of course, came his retinue of geographers, measurers of
the earth, studiers of foliage of different lands.
Knowledge of Greek culture diffused east, and knowledge of Persian culture
Writers of this time are self-conscious about this hybridity.
At the same time, architecture often borrows mixed elements of various
cultures to create new forms.
This is a time of cultural mixing, but also, I want to emphasize, of the
spread of Hellenism.
That is Greek language, traditions, and culture mixed with local
traditions to the east and vice versa.
Alexander died young.
His empire was divided up among his generals, sometimes called the
Diadochoi, or successors.
Alexander's generals spent much of their time warring against each other,
trying to reunite the empire and then ripping it apart again.
In the generation after the Diadochoi, things became slightly more stable.
For our purposes, it's important to know about two of the dynasties that
emerged from the successors of Alexander.
The empires of the Seleucids and the Ptolemies would, for part of the
second century BCE, rush up and down the coast from Syria to Egypt,
conquering and contesting this eastern section of the Mediterranean basin.
And so we come to the third phase of our story, the second century BCE.
The Ptolemies and the Seleucids compete for the area of Palestine at
this time period.
The Jewish high priest Jason is allied to the Seleucids.
With the support and knowledge of the new king, Antiochus IV, from whom
Jason had perhaps bought his high priestly office, he receives
permission to constitute Jerusalem as a Greek city, to be named Antioch,
after the king.
This is the time of Hellenization in this region, including the association
of the Jewish God with Zeus.
As you can imagine, this offended many Jews, and Jason was ousted, and more
conflict over the position of high priest ensued.
Between 169 and 168, Antiochus IV conducted campaigns against Egypt,
trying to conquer that area from the Ptolemies.
And in 168, he returned from his first campaign to Egypt and plundered the
Jerusalem temple on the way back home in order to pay his soldiers.
Temples were kind of banking centers at the time and are areas of
In reaction, the conservative party of Jews took possession of Jerusalem over
and against Antiochus.
Antiochus was angered by his recent humiliation in Egypt, and he chose to
capture Jerusalem at that time period, murdering Jewish residents and making
Jerusalem a katoikia: a city inhabited by soldiers, veterans, and colonists.
He, or his forces, brought the sacred rock of Zeus Baal Shamayin into the
temple of the Jews.
That is, he was trying to assimilate the highest god of the Jews to the
highest god of other religions in the area, including the god Zeus Olympios,
the highest god of the Greeks.
Antiochus annulled the laws of the fathers, that is the Jewish laws, and
persecuted some Jews at this time, a story that's
retold in Second Maccabees.
A local movement of Jews arises in order to unsettle
Antiochus and retake Jerusalem.
In 164, the Maccabees, or the "Hammerers," also known as the
Hasmoneans, reconquer and purify the Jerusalem temple.
They are or are often depicted as a movement that arose in the countryside
that came up to take back the temple from the compromised Jerusalem Jewish
elite, as well as from Antiochus.
The Hasmoneans are rural rebels taking back their national
and religious identity.
Things get more complicated as they gain power.
They began a systematic conquest of all of Palestine, and they forced
circumcisions and conversion on many of the inhabitants there.
At this moment in the second century BCE, with the rise of the Maccabees to
power, we first begin to see some of the fissures in Jewish political and
religious life that will exist through the first century CE.
It was probably at this time that a community of Jews-- or more than one
community of Jews-- retreated to the Judean desert to areas like Qumran.
We know of the Essenes at Qumran who disagreed with what they saw as the
corruption and improper rule of the temple cult of the Jews in Jerusalem.
Some of these Essenes seemed to await a day when two messiahs, a warrior and
a priest, will help them to retake and purify that temple.
As I mentioned earlier, in the context of talking about the Achaian
Polybius's capture and transport to Rome in the second century, Rome was
in a way an empire before it was an empire.
In the area of Judea, internal struggles in the Hasmonean dynasty led
both sides in the conflict to appeal to Rome for a solution even before
Rome was an empire.
In 63 BCE, the Romans entered Jerusalem.
This is the end of the Hasmonean rule over Palestine, and Rome established a
new dynasty there, a dynasty established by Rome and
thus loyal to Rome.
This dynasty included Herod the Great, who reigned from 37 to 4 BCE, whose
Jewish identity could be contested.
Some would say he isn't purely Jewish.
He tried to be king over all and not just Jews.
He built pagan cities, temples, as well as Jewish cities, and rebuilt
parts of the Jerusalem temple.
It was a time of heavy taxation and unrest.
Shortly after the period of Herod the Great, Romans slowly moved from rule
through vassal kings to rule through Roman administrators.
These Roman administrators were even less sensitive to the
needs of the populace.
We read in Josephus, for example, of brutality under the procurator Pontius
Pilate, under whom Jesus was killed.
By 66 of the Common Era, Jews were revolting against the Roman power, but
they weren't that well-organized.
At the same time, there was chaos at the head of the Roman Empire.
In 68, Nero committed suicide.
The general Vespasian was biding his time.
He sent his son Titus to take over Palestine and destroy the temple.
And Titus destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE as his father
Vespasian came to take power at the head of the Roman Empire.
This isn't the end of Jewish conflict with Rome.
We know of revolts in 115 to 117 in Cyrenaica in Northern
Africa and in Cyprus.
And in 132 to 135, a Jewish figure named Bar Kokhba, or "Son of a Star,"
rose up and took back Jerusalem, minting his own coins.
Hadrian put him down violently, and Jerusalem came to be called Aelia
Capitolina by the Romans.
The larger region was no longer called Judea, but Palestina, and became part
of a larger province of Syria.
This coin sums up the relationship between Rome and Judea--
although not all Rome and all Jews--
Minted first in 71, after the destruction of the temple, it
celebrates and publishes the news of the Roman victory over Judea.
On one side we find the emperor Vespasian, beefy and satisfied,
wearing a laurel crown.
On the other side we find a small sculpture that
summarizes Roman triumph.
The palm tree divides the image.
On its left is a soldier, arms tied behind his back and his weapons piled
uselessly behind, a trophy now for the Romans.
On the palm tree's right is a seated woman, seated in a posture of grief,
with a veiled head in sorrow, and her head is low and held up by her hand.
Provinces in Greek and Latin are grammatically feminine: Judea, or
perhaps Jerusalem the city, is here depicted personified
as a mourning woman.
Various forms of the Judea capta--
Judea conquered-- coins were minted for twenty-five years.
Let's take a breath and think about that again, with Jerusalem as our
focus, that powerful site for Jews and Christians and Muslims, that holy city
on earth and for some a holy city in the heavens, a New Jerusalem.
Another way to put the history that we just reviewed is to call it the Second
Temple Period, from 587 to 70 CE.
Remember that Paul's existing letters take up only about a decade of that
time in the mid-first century before the destruction of the second temple.
We recall the fall of Jerusalem in 587 to the Babylonian Empire, the
restoration of Jerusalem in 539 by the Persian Empire, and shortly thereafter
the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.
The area of Palestine was conquered in 333 by Alexander the Great, who spread
Greek culture, Hellenism, in the area.
We learned about the forced Hellenization of Jerusalem in 168 by
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid king, who entered the temple and
violated the ancestral laws of the Jews.
And we learned about how, in 164 BCE, the Maccabees reconquered and purified
the temple, part of the beginnings of a longstanding pattern of Jewish
warfare against empire.
We learned about how the Maccabees or the Hasmoneans began to assimilate to
the powers of the time, eventually inviting the Romans in to adjudicate
their internal conflict.
And we saw how in 63 BCE the Roman general Pompey entered Jerusalem,
setting up a vassal kingdom, that of Herod the Great, for example, from 37
to 4 BCE, who renovated the temple in Jerusalem and built pagan cities and
We learned how in 70 CE, the second Jewish temple in Jerusalem was
destroyed, and how even after that in 132 to 135, someone like Bar Kokhba, a
Jew, could arise and try to retake Jerusalem back.
But then the Roman Empire, under the emperor Hadrian, struck and made
Jerusalem into Aelia Capitolina.