The Missing 300 Years
by Birney Dibble
Christians and Jewish people alike share ignorance in common about what happened in Palestine in the 300 years between Joel – chronologically the last of the biblical prophets – and the birth of Jesus. Is it safe to say not much worth noting happened during that time? Hardly.
In the recorded history of that time, we run into many familiar names: Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, Seleucus, the Maccabees, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Herod the Great, and many others.
The story of those “missing years” begins in Greece in the year 336 bc. While the ancestors of the Jewish people were reestablishing their place in Palestine – and putting the final touches to the Second Temple – 20-year-old Alexander III ascended to the throne. Alexander’s tutor was Aristotle, who in turn had been a student of Plato.
In 333 he led his troops to easily conquer Persia (modern-day Iran), which had been declining under the uninspired leadership of Darius III. Alexander followed this up with the conquest of Palestine and Egypt. Then he marched east into Babylon, Parthia (modern Afghanistan), and India, and conquered them all. On his return trip to Macedonia, he fell ill and died.
This is important to our understanding of the three century “gap” because of what followed Alexander’s death. Four of his generals fought for mastery for 20 years and none succeeded. In 301 bc Alexander’s empire was divided into four parts: Macedonia, given to Cassander; Thrace and Asia Minor to Lysimachus; Syria and Babylon to Seleucus; Egypt to Ptolemy.
In Egypt, the descendants of the original General Ptolemy ruled for almost 300 years, with each successive ruler called Ptolemy and their wives, Cleopatra. During the reign of Ptolemy II (282-246), 70 Greek-Hebrew scholars in Alexandria translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek so that the ancestors of the Jewish people, who now spoke Greek as their native tongue, could read the scriptures in their own language. This translation was called the Septuagint and was used for centuries as the definitive Bible.
In Western Asia, the descendants of General Seleucus continued a more or less benign rule. Similar to Egypt, the descendents of the rulers were all called either Seleucus or Antiochus. In 232 bc, Antiochus III began a vicious campaign to restore all of the original empire of Alexander the Great to Seleucid control. By 187, he had conquered Egypt and Palestine. In 170, Antiochus IV invaded the temple in Jerusalem and stripped it of everything made of gold or silver. Two years later, he took captive the women and children. He built strong towers and a massive wall, transforming the Temple Mount into a conquerors’ citadel.
The final desecration – predicted by Daniel (9:27) – was the invasion of the holy sanctuary again. This time, Antiochus erected the “horrible abomination” which was, according to legend, swine offered as a sacrifice on the holy altar. He also erected a statue of Zeus – with a likeness of his own face portraying Zeus.
This outrage triggered the Maccabean Revolt, led by Mattathias. At first the revolt began as a guerilla force, striking from ambush in small parties, tearing down pagan altars, and harshly punishing any Jewish person found obeying the orders of Antiochus. But when Mattathias died in 166, his five sons under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus organized a formal army and began to systematically attack the Syrians. One of the first places they headed for was the citadel in Jerusalem. After two years, they finally captured it.
They were now able to purify the temple – predicted in Daniel 7:25. Judas Maccabeus ordered eight days of celebration and sacrifice, still celebrated by Jewish people as Hanukkah.
But the war was not over. In fact, it had barely begun and would go on for another 22 years. Three of the five sons died in battle, leaving just two brothers: Jonathan Apphus and Simon Thassi. In 152, Jonathan was made high priest. War and peace alternated until 142 bc. In 141, the temple was again consecrated and rededicated, the first permanent occupation by the descendants of the Jewish people since 345 years earlier.
The Seleucid Empire effectively died in 135 bc when Antiochus VII was killed during an invasion of Persia. Palestine now entered a half century of prosperity and glory.
It was a short half century. In 63 bc, Pompey invaded Palestine and ended the Maccabean monarchy. Pompey died in a civil war with Julius Caesar; Caesar himself was assassinated in 44 bc. Herod Antipater, Rome’s puppet ruler in Palestine, was assassinated in 43 bc. Five years later, Antipater, son Herod Antipas (later to be called “The Great”) persuaded Mark Antony to make him king of Palestine. With Roman help, he took Jerusalem, executing the remaining male Maccabeans.
In 6 bc, when Jesus was born, we come full circle with both the Greeks and the Seleucids out of Palestine. The Romans are the world power, ruling over much of the known world including Palestine. The rest, as they say, is history.
J. Birney Dibble lives in Wisconsin. See more of his writing at www.dibblebooks.com