Welcome to the Mountjoy Ministries Blog

This blog was authored by Bryan W. Sheldon, author and Bible teacher. His books are listed below. The studies in the blog are offered in the desire that they may be helpful in directing readers to the truths contained in the Bible.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Messiah and the Ritual of Israel (Continued)

The Degradation of the Office of High Priest

While the Maccabean leaders and those that followed them had the spirit of Jonathan (son of Saul), they were successful. Jonathan had said,  it may be that the Lord will work for us. For nothing restrains the Lord from saving by many or by few.” (1 Samuel 14:6) When they expressed similar faith and trusted the Lord for strength and wisdom they were victorious, but somehow once they had success they felt they had to maintain security by other means. They made alliances with some of the stronger nations around them to maintain power. This resulted in their hold on the land being weakened and ultimately broken.

Their change in policy was also reflected in the way the office of High Priest was treated. Under the Mosaic covenant it was designed to be hereditary and only change on the decease of the holder,  but because of its inherent power, both politically and culturally, it was coveted by those with ambitions to rule. It was forcibly taken by some who had no right to hold it. Different ones obtained it be various means, sometimes by offering money, sometimes through military power, sometimes by political astuteness. From 163 BC to 159 BC Alcimus was High Priest. In May 160 BC he gave great offence to those who adhered to the Torah. He threw down the walls of the inner court of the Temple and in so doing was said to have destroyed the works of the prophets. His death soon after was considered a judgement of God.

A mixture of diplomacy and military acumen was needed to obtain and then retain power in the region. Some accomplished it by obtaining the post of ruler/prince/king as well as the office of High Priest. For more than one hundred years one family dominated the political and religious landscape – it was the family that led the rebellion against Syria, the Maccabees. Jonathan, brother of Judas, was invested as High Priest in 153 BC. Simon, his brother, subsequently became High Priest in 141 BC. This was the founding of the Hasmonean High Priesthood. He then was succeeded by his son John Hyrcanus I, who was himself succeeded by his son, Aristobulus I. Aristobulus only held the office of High Priest for a short time (105 BC – 104 BC)! Alexander Jannaeus, his brother, then held the post. Alexander was not only High Priest but also king and held this position from 104 BC to 78 BC. His widow Salome became Queen on his decease, before his son Aristobulus II became ruler and his brother Hyrcanus II, High Priest. He held office until 40 BC. Antigonus, son of Aristobulos II, was High Priest from 40 BC to 37 BC and was succeeded by Aristobulus III (36 BC) He was the last of the Hasmoneans, paternal grandson of Aristobulus II and brother of Herod's wife Mariamne (second wife of Herod). There were 14 further High Priests prior to the accession of Caiaphas, the High Priest in office at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. This list is offered to demonstrate that the requirements of the Law, (that the High Priest was to be of the family of Aaron and hold the office for life), was no longer taken seriously.

The power of Rome in the region waxed and waned - Pompey entered Jerusalem in 63 BC –but then the Roman civil wars brought a temporary respite to Hebrew nation. However, in 37 BC Israel became a client state of Rome when Herod the Great, who had allied himself to the Roman cause, was installed as king. Herod was an Idumean, that is, from the region of Edom. This region had been forced to embrace the Jewish religion by John Hyrcanus in 123 BC. This is why Herod felt he could be considered Jewish. His rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple was designed to place him in the same bracket as Solomon who built the first Temple.

This history delivers much information to illuminate any consideration of the life and times of Jesus, delivering as it does a catalogue of the many varied influences that impacted on His ministry.

(1)   That Rome was the supreme power at the time of His birth, life and death caused Him to be born in Bethlehem and die by crucifixion.

(2)   That Rome installed Herod, an ambitious, vicious, blood thirsty, power seeking individual      as king, produced the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, the settling of the family in Nazareth and the beheading of John the Baptist.

(3)   It was the actions of Antiochus Epiphanes and the reaction of the ‘pious’ that also gave shape to the political landscape at the time of Christ, for there are many that would suggest that the Chasidim (the ‘pious’), who led the revolt against Syria, morphed into the Pharisees who took upon themselves the responsibility of defending rigorously the traditions of the nation.

(4)   The buying (or acquiring by force) the position of High Priest explains why the office had been so greatly corrupted and in such disrepute, when it was held by the ‘Sons of Annas’, a group which includes Caiaphas who presided over the trial and condemnation of Christ.

More Next Time

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Messiah and the Ritual of Israel (Continued)

Events Leading to the Establishment of the Feast of Dedication

Then on the 15th Chisleu, that is, in December of 168 BC there took place an incident that has been burned into the racial memory of the Jewish people - a pagan altar was built at the great altar in the Jerusalem Temple. Then on the 25th Chisleu, for the first time, a sacrifice was offered on it. This was the first fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy –they shall defile the sanctuary fortress; then they shall take away the daily sacrifices, and place there the abomination of desolation. (Daniel 11:31)

The Jews first showed passive resistance but this was soon replaced by open revolt. Revolution broke out in the town of Modein at the call of a priest of the order of Joarib, named Mattathias, and his five sons, John, Simon, Judas, Eleasar and Jonathan. When the king’s officer came to Modein in order to insist that the inhabitants offer a heathen sacrifice, Mattathias refused to obey and stepping forward said, “Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers and give consent to his commandments, yet will I and my sons and my brothers walk in the covenant of our fathers. God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances”. When Mattathias saw another from the town approaching the altar to offer the sacrifice and appease the king’s officer he rushed forward and slew him there. He and his sons also killed the king’s commissioner and leveled the altar to the ground. Mattathias and his sons fled to the mountains and were joined by others of the Chasidim (the pious) and began a campaign of guerrilla warfare.

The son of Mattathias, Judas came to be the military leader of the movement and he and the force under him felt that they had the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob on their side. They marched against Jerusalem, which was under Syrian control, and won a brilliant victory. They restored the worship of YHWH in Zion. This gave further impetus to the rebellion and other victories followed, although in the flow of the conflict Jerusalem changed hands and had to be re-taken. After two decisive victories, Judas took possession of Jerusalem once again although he could not dislodge the Syrian forces from the citadel. Nevertheless, he was able to keep them in check while cleansing the Temple ready for a resumption of divine worship. Everything impure was carried out of the Temple and the altar of burnt offering which had been polluted was dismantled and wholly replaced. New sacred garments and furniture were provided, and when everything was in order the Temple was re-consecrated by the celebration of a great feast. This was on the 25th Chisleu , that is, in December 165 BC on exactly the same day as the altar had been desecrated three years earlier, when heathen sacrifices had been offered in the court of priests. The festivities lasted for eight days. The recovery of the Temple was so momentous that it was resolved to celebrate it annually (it came to be known as the Feast of Dedication (see John 10:22).

Next Time How the office of High Priest was degraded.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Messiah and the Ritual of Israel (Continued)

Influences that affect the Office of High Priest during the Inter-Testamental Period

The Hellenising of the Jewish Nation

Alongside the legalistic tendencies that were permeating the nation, another influence of an entirely different kind arose at the time of Alexander the Great. It was the ambition of Alexander to found an empire which would be held together, not merely by the unity of government but also the unity of language and customs. All the nations under his dominion were to be saturated with Hellenic culture – thus Greek became the universal language of business and government and he took care that Greek colonists should always follow in the wake of his army. This is why Paul and the apostles spoke and wrote in Greek and why the original language of the New Testament is Greek.

Greek culture and language was successful in infiltrating the land of Israel. Nevertheless, it had an unforeseen consequence - it triggered a revival of Torah observance and gave impetus to the strengthening of the Jewishness of the Hebrew people. It happened at the time of the Syrian domination of Israel. The population had gravitated towards two parties – the party friendly to the Greeks (those who wished to live and act like Greeks) and those who were antagonistic to these tendencies – those of the party of the ‘pious’, the Chasidim, who wished to be observers of the Mosaic code. Everything seemed to be flowing toward the Hellenists – the secularization of the country was gaining momentum – but then a powerful reaction set in. It was brought about by the actions of the despot that had the rule over them (Antiochus Epiphanes). 

This king (Antiochus IV) held the Syrian throne from 175 BC to 164 BC. This meant that he also had authority over Israel which was treated as one of their provinces. The leadership of Israel at the beginning of his reign rested with the High Priest, Onias III. But this office, the highest and most powerful in the land, was political as well as religious, and other leaders who had no qualifications, either by birth or training, squabbled over who was to have the position. Consequently, Onias III was driven out by one named Jesus, who became better known under his Greek name Jason. Jason promised their Syrian ruler a great sum of money in return for the office of High Priest, and was given not only the leadership of the Jewish people (under Antiochus) but also the responsibility of continuing the programme of Hellenising the Hebrew people. A gymnasium was erected below the castle in Jerusalem and young men exercised themselves in the gymnastic arts of the Greeks. Even the priests forsook their service at the altar and took part in the games. However, Jason was overthrown by another, one Menelaus, who offered even more money to the king in return for the position of High Priest. This did not quench the claim of Jason and much in-fighting took place before Antiochus decided to march against Jerusalem. A cruel man, he massacred much of the population and then plundered the treasures of the Temple including the golden Menorah, the golden altar and the table of showbread. Still the cup of despair of the Jewish people was not yet full – there were more desecrations yet to come.

Greek gods who are no gods at all.
Antiochus had military ambitions in other areas of the region as well – but when he marched against Egypt he was defeated. Rome, aiming to be the greatest power in the Middle East, entered the conflict. The forces of Antiochus were routed and he had to retreat. Having been humiliated in battle he decided to take it out on the Jewish people. He began a war of extermination against the Jewish religion. He sent out representatives to ensure that no-one of Jewish extraction was permitted to follow the religion of their fathers. Those that disobeyed were to be punished – the men killed and women and children sold into slavery. It was to begin at Jerusalem which was to become a Greek city populated by colonists. The Jewish population of Jerusalem was destroyed – but it was only the first step of the programme to de-Judais Israel. Throughout the whole land the Jewish religion was to be rooted out, and the worship of Greek gods imposed. The observance of all Jewish rites, especially those of circumcision and Sabbath rest, were forbidden on pain of death. Officers were sent out into the nation to ensure the emperor’s wishes were carried out. Once a month a rigorous search took place – if a copy of the book of the Law was found in the possession of any man – or if anyone had his child circumcised - then he was put to death.

Next Time: the events that led to the establishment of the Feast of Dedication