Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Countdown to Destruction: 0—The Fall and Rise of the High Priesthood

The Prophet Isaiah prophesied almost two hundred years before that a foreigner by the name of Cyrus would rebuild the Temple of God and the walls of His city. By the year 538 B.C., the words spoken by the prophet started jumping out of the Scriptures like popcorn. The Israelites of Judah, now called the Jews, started coming back home with the blessing of a victorious emperor whom the Persians called Cyrus the Great. Historically, however, we know that it was not really out of the abounding kindness of the Persian monarch’s heart or a heartfelt understanding of Zionism. If Babylonia stood by a policy of cultivating imperial strength out of people disenfranchised of their nation, Persia believed that people worked best in an environment which they considerably controlled. If Babylon gave the Jews the opportunity to be themselves and the right to self-government except repossess their country, the Persia granted them continuation of what they had in Babylon and their restoration to their country, except national independence. And in this new development we find a link to the new role of the high priest—his new political role.

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The next wave of prophesies were about to take place. Now to get things straight, the Jews were allowed to return to Palestine under the probation of being granted self-rule, not political independence. The Persian government recognized the potential financial gain they could generate for the kingdom if the Jews were granted the favor of running their own lives with less bureaucratic control. Once the repatriates had settled, the very first thing that had to be set up was the leadership. Cyrus the Great himself appointed as governor of Judah a man named Sheshbazzar (Ezra 5:14), said to be a prince of the royal house of David. From Babylon he came with the first batch of returnees bearing “the gold and silver articles” (Ibid.) which Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from the Temple of God. As soon as the Jews had settled in Palestine, Sheshbazzar immediately set to work in laying the foundations of the Temple (verse 16). But for some reason, the Temple construction ceased and Sheshbazzar mysteriously disappears from the pages of the Bible and in history.

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The first batch of Jewish returnees arrived at Jerusalem, among which was a Zadokite priest named Jeshua and a direct descendant of the King David named Zerubbabel (Haggai 2:23).

Taking Sheshbazzar’s place, much to the Jews’ jubilation, was another Davidic prince by the name of Zerubbabel. To the reader of the Bible’s minor prophets, even the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, the name of Zerubbabel is not unfamiliar. As a matter of fact, when the name is mentioned, there seems to follow reverberating strains of God’s favor upon this individual—as if the Messiah Himself had arrived. In Haggai 2:23, the book’s last verse, the Prophet assured the prince with the words of God—

“’I will take you, my servant Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will make you like my signet ring, for I have chosen you,’ declares the Lord Almighty.”

In 1:14, it was noted that “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah” along with his high priest and all the Jews living in the land to resume the rebuilding of the Temple of the Lord. And as confirmed in history, on the “in the second year of King Darius” (verse 1), around 520 B.C., the restoration carried on. In the “sixth year of the reign of Darius” (Ezra 6:15), the Temple was completed, under the leadership of Zerubbabel. But it did not look good for Zerubbabel after accomplishing the Temple restoration for even he vanishes from the Bible as did his relative Sheshbazzar before him.

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A puzzle it may remain but there are speculations exist to provide implications of their fate. One was allegedly based on the intention of the Jews to make them king. Purportedly the Jews in Palestine during that time examined the trend in their lives as a nation and made a troubled supposition of their situation when in case the immediate successor of Cyrus the Great would not possess his tolerance but instead have the disposition to mistreat them once again, as what happened during their ancient days in Egypt. Moving against the Persian ordinance of insurrection, the Jews declared Sheshbazzar king of the Jews, prompting the Persians, as soon as it was uncovered, to contain the situation by summarily beheading the Jewish prince. Appointing in his place Zerubbabel, and now wary of his leadership potential to spark another seditious act, the Persians kept close watch over the situation but without stressing normal conditions. Some time after the Temple restoration was done, Zerubbabel was nonetheless seized away and executed to avoid the eventuality of high treason. Replacing him as governor of Judah, the Persians chose a distinguished individual from the family of Zadok named Jeshua (or Joshua), Zerubbabel’s high priest. The Persians were comfortable with Jeshua, having no objections to a priest being in charge. With this, the prophecy spoken by the Prophet Zechariah came true:

“Take the silver and gold and make a crown, and set it on the head of the high priest, Joshua son of Jehozadak. It is he who will build the temple of the Lord, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two” (Zechariah 6:11,13).

Things changed for the people of God after Judah fell to Babylon in 586 B.C. The years they spent in Babylon transitioned them into an age of religious complexity and social turmoil especially when the mantle of Alexander the Great’s world Hellenization was spread over them. Yet another aspect of Israelite spirituality was finally awakened, almost newly born for it was not particularly underscored, although hinted, during the years before the Fall of Jerusalem. When Babylon crumbled in the hands of the Medo-Persians, the Messianic consciousness had spiked in the heart of the remnant Israelite; and it was Cyrus the Great who provided the Jewish generation of that time of what the Promised One might be like. Although the Great Persian monarch would be finally held as not the Messiah of the Lord, he was nonetheless honored for being a prototype thereof and the nation he belonged to tendered with handsome and wholehearted tribute.

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But what is it about those whom the Jews at that time hailed as their kings later losing their heads? Cyrus the Great, who became a model of the Messiah for the first batch of Israelites to be called Jews, was said to have been decapitated by the Massagetae Queen Tomyris, plunging his head into a sack of blood to “have his fill and satiate himself.” Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel suffered the same fate of getting their heads lopped off by the Persians to keep them from sparking an insurrection among the Jews. Jesus, on the other hand, not only being hailed but even confirming the question by Pilate whether He was the King of the Jews (Matthew 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3, John 18:33–37), got his head coiled with a crown of thorns. All “King of the Jews,” but only One got to keep His head. The implication of Jesus keeping the integrity of His remains is partly explained by the prophecy regarding no bone in His body would be broken (John 19:36, Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12, Psalm 34:20); but the best explanation was the one provided by St. Paul regarding our Lord Jesus being the Head of the Church (Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:18), the Head of every man (1 Corinthians 11:3), the Head of all principality and power (Colossians 2:10), and ultimately the Head of Christ being God (1 Corinthians 11:3). The last statement Jesus supported in His statement in John 15:10:

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“If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.”

Jesus—as He said yet again in John 10:30 and 17:22—and the Father are inseparably indivisibly “one,” and never will He, be it symbolically or literally, be severed from the Father.

A high priest as king became the shape of things to come, for even in the days when the Greeks came Hellenizing the world after the Persians, the high priest was allowed to maintain governorship over Judah. The Temple of Judaism had returned in the form of a sect, however, since sharing in its influence over the Jews was the Rabbinic, or Pharisaic, denomination. But in the early years of existing side by side, the Babylon-born party was never a source of division or confusion for the Jewish faithful. As a matter of fact, its Sanhedrin maintained an outstanding check-and-balance in the land’s general religious leadership. Any abuse of power by invoking “Divine will” was controlled by the Sanhedrin’s expertise on the Mosaic Law. The Pharisees were not a threat during this stage, though a threat did truly lurk around, a threat that shortly emerged within the Temple leadership.

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In cross-reference with Nehemiah 12:11, some scholars, among who was the Jewish historian Josephus, note of a story that involved Jonathan, the son of Joiada, in what may have been one of the early scandals that marred the Temple sect. As believed, Jonathan was to inherit the High Priesthood by order of succession; the conflict was that a brother of his named Jeshua was promised the same position by a certain General Bagosus, a family friend in the Persian military. One day Jeshua stormed into the Temple and killed Jonathan in the middle of his rites. It was a story that never passed the pages of the Bible; nonetheless, it was the outline of things to come for the Jewish post-exilic Priesthood.

Generally, however, there was harmony between the political and the religious spheres when the Jews returned from exile. Through the political stability in the Persian Empire, the Temple was finally rebuilt and many of the Jews hungry for the rites that had been lost streamed into the great edifice. Population in Palestine grew and so did Temple adherents, in spite the existence of the synagogue system. And as the adherents grew, so did the Temple offerings. The Jewish prosperity of this period brought stunning vibrancy to the revived Temple treasury: one understandable factor why the post-exilic Priesthood came to be among the aristocracy. It was also a factor that attracted the greed of foreign conquerors and local usurpers.

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The currents of time brought new challenges to the Jews, and as the Persian power over world affair began to wane, so did the cosmetic purity of the Temple sect slowly peel. Evidences of corruption started to show. The Jewish society became more factioned with minor, lesser-known sects that adhered to foreign beliefs, particularly those of Persian origin, and the great prophets who heard from God and spoke His words were being ignored until they finally disappeared, notably after Malachi who lamented over the renascent corruption of the Priesthood. Yet the greatest damage was about to come. In 334 B.C. a young Macedonian general by the name of Alexander crossed the Hellespont with an army of 32,000 and smashed a greater Persian force; he demanded the capitulation of Darius III and the scepter of world rule passed from the east to the west. And so did Palestine.

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The events that occurred after about 430 B.C. was called the “silent years” when no prophet or prophecy from God was heard. The fortunes of the Jews panned from good to very bad to severe, and there was nothing to blame but the threat of spiritual corruption eating at the core of the people’s religious and political leadership. Then in 6 B.C., Jesus came. According to Hebrews 1:1, He is the living prophecy of God’s message in which all the prophecies in the past and for the future are rolled into. 

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Once again, it was said that Alexander marched into Persia without a fight; the same was also said when he came to the thresholds of Palestine. In a popular story the high priest of Jerusalem at that time led a procession to welcome the Macedonian prince. Remember: the new Messianic consciousness which started with Persia was now etched among the Jews, and news about the exploits of this amazing fiery youth leading a handful of soldiers decisively winning wars was inspiring awe among the Jews. This could be the new Cyrus the Great, they anticipated; and true enough, Alexander took a liking of the Persian title and annexed it to his name, thus, Alexander the Great. Note here how the spirit of Persia, though reaching the end of its power, still exerted its influence upon its dominator. Later on in another study, we shall see how the Persian influence actively shored across the Near East and into the west despite the eastward thrust of Hellenization.

Yet whether or not we find validity to the story of Alexander being rolled out the red carpet when he entered Palestine, we are nonetheless introduced to the fact that Hellenization came as rain upon the land, strangely sweet but later gathering a torrent that almost rips apart the Jewish society then deracinates Christianity out of Palestine.

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Greek culture penetrated the thresholds of the Jewish realm like a glass of cool water in a summer’s day. It first came infecting language, manners, and customs; then encroached upon morals, ethics, and religion(1). This is why we find Hellenistic Jews in the Book of Acts, people born in some other part of the Roman Empire and raised in the Grecian ways. Though these foreign-born-and-raised Jews never denied their fundamental identity, it required a great deal of education for them to be integrated with the Hebrew culture. The Greek culture had entrenched itself in the Palestinian society in the last four centuries before the birth of Jesus that its effects persisted among the people until Jerusalem was leveled in 70 A.D. by the Roman General Titus.

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The Jewish people made an impression on the victorious Macedonian prince who, being a barbarian himself by Greek standards, never thought that some distant civilization east of his home would hold a people as equally cultured as the Greeks. For one thing, as pointed out by Jewish historian Max I. Dimont, the Jews carried no visible gods to greet him. During that time, Grecian principles have just emerged from the supernaturalism of belief in gods and into the natural logical possibilities of cause and effect. Capable of higher reason, Alexander must have deduced of the Jews, so he grants them the right to self-government, which was actually a continuance of the privilege they had under the Persians: internal political and religious freedom. If there was such a thing, Alexander was added to their roster of Messianic prototypes, among which stood Cyrus the Great and possibly Sheshbazzar, and Zerubbabel.

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The season of Hellenization was high upon the Judean scene. Businesswise it opened greater opportunities to get rich and upgrade lives to aristocratic levels. Across the Greek Empire, Hellenization ushered in an aristocratic Golden Age that offered great prospects of commercial wealth.

The ancient Hellenized Jews would have loved this statue portraying one of their greatest kings as a Greek god.

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C., the boy-king’s vast empire splintered into the hands of his four generals. Palestine and Egypt came under the control of Ptolemy Soter. For several centuries, the Ptolemaic Empire became the most prosperous area in the world. The Ptolemaic rulers made it a point not to found any new Greek cities, except for Alexandria, and preferred to exploit the political and economic heritage of ancient Egypt(2). The agricultural system was rehabilitated to prosperity and the standard of living elevated, especially for the upper classes close to the Pharaonic throne. By Pharaonic tradition, which the Ptolemaics found suited for generating and securing their wealth, Egypt belonged to the Pharaoh. The best of the country’s resources belonged to the Egyptian monarch, which by this time were the Ptolemaics. But following the Pharaonic tradition would leave Palestine as a problem since it did not belong to the Egyptian sphere when the Greeks came and took over. The new rulers therefore resorted to a “live and let live” policy by maintaining Palestine to self-rule and peaceably generate taxes. In other words, the Jewish people were left to themselves to run their lives, whether to live as Greeks or as Hebraics, as long as they made their new masters rich. And made them rich they did as the Jewish aristocrats go richer themselves.

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When the Seleucids wrested control of Palestine in 198 B.C., the favor and tolerant policies continued for the Jews. Greater business opportunities came. The Seleucids owned the greatest part of Alexander’s empire with borders stretching from the southern half of Asia Minor in the West to the Indus River in the East. Vast as it was, the territory lacked the central control very much exerted by the Ptolemaics over Egypt and the Jews had to adapt to new principles of commerce and trade. By and large, however, it was a great brave age for business, a converging of skill and ingenuity of Jew, Greek, and the rest of the Near Eastern world. The enormous hoards of Persian gold and silver that were locked in the royal coffers had finally exploded into circulation, the greatest stimulus to world trade. The chronic shortage of precious metals was relieved. For the first time throughout this great region, taxes were paid in coin. Banks sprouted everywhere, credit expanded far beyond expected, and the checks became a usual method of payment. It was the introduction of the money economy in this part of the world. Coupled with the commercial skills of the Jews and their neighbors, plus the ingenuity of the Greek business man, it was a great period for business(3).

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But the days of Greek favor were set to end for within the Jewish society itself was a movement born out of sentiments that called for an unadulteration of the Judaic culture. Not everybody in Palestine was happy about the new age of Hellenization sweeping over the land. In fact, they saw it as a rampaging flood of corrosion eating away the faith in the coming Messiah appointed to once again reign over Israel. It therefore took into an anti-Hellenistic movement called the Hasideans to protect the integrity of the Jewish identity. For decades the Hasideans were unnoticed by the largely Greek-admiring mainstream; but an event would raise them out of obscurity thirty years later and set them on a collision course with the highest figure of Greek rule: Antiochus IV. And it all happened with his fingers in the Priesthood.

How many of us find it weird when certain patterns in our lives seem to loop at particular periods before our very eyes? It was the same with the post-exilic Priesthood that after the Temple conflict between the brothers Jeshua and Jonathan, a similar scandal emerges in the same stage only this time on a grander scale. Could this be a principle to what Jesus expressed as “the beginning of birth pains” (Mark 13:8)? With the Greek foot in Palestine, the Seleucid kings gained the authority to appoint as governor the High Priest chosen by the Jews, in this case Onias III. Through intrigue and bribery, however, pro-Hellenistic Jewish aristocrats prevailed upon Antiochus to change his mind and replace Onias III by his brother Jason, a leading Hellenizer in Palestine. Jason promised Antiochus that the moment he steps into power, he would institute Greek customs among the Jews and generate large sums into the royal treasury(4). To the shock of the Jews, Jason opened the Temple to pagan rites, with statues of Grecian gods studding the sanctuary. Almost under the shadow of the Temple, a gymnasium was built where Jewish boys were trained in Greek games to compete naked in tournaments frequently held in the Temple courts. The priests left the service for these “Temple games.” Even Jason himself actually disrobed and shared in the games in honor of the Tyrian god Melkarth(4). Furthermore, Jewish envoys were sent to pagan festivals abroad to represent Jerusalem(5).

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Outraged Jews from all walks of life sought something to hold on to amidst this storm of pagan invasion battering their Jehovic conscience. They flocked to the ranks of the Hasideans. At that instant, the Hasideans turned into a smoldering political party waiting for the right time to strike back. Their chance came in 168 when Antiochus marched out against the Ptolemies on a bid to capture Egypt.

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Antiochus IV called himself “Epiphanes” or “the manifest god”; Jewish history would, however, stand him in the roster of “madmen” who tried to exterminate them in their 6,000-year history. Antiochus, like the rest of his predecessors, was a military adventurist, meaning he was one of those Seleucid kings who vowed upon ascending to power to restore the former glory of Alexander’s empire, only that it would not be called “Alexander’s empire” anymore. It was, in fact, this vision that haphazardly contributed to the Seleucid Empire’s lack of central control. Another thing they had to contend with was the rising power of Rome. In 168 B.C., Antiochus, with the vision of a reunified Greek empire under him, mustered his troops to invade Egypt. Unfortunately, he runs into the greater might of the Roman armies, sending him out reeling with the remainder of his troops with their tails caught between their legs. 

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By this time, news reaches Palestine that Antiochus was dead, killed by the Romans. The Hasideans determined that this was the time to strike. Party leaders charged at the Jewish Hellenizers and every individual appointed by Antiochus, executing them by hurling them from the top of the Temple then followed by the statues installed by Jason in the Temple. The Hasideans went on rapidly after that to seize control of the nation.

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News about this revolution, however, reached a humiliated and vengeful Antiochus who instantly blazed back to Palestine with every intention of venting out his sore ego upon the Jews. Mindlessly crashing into Palestine, he slaughters 10,000 inhabitants(6) and exterminates the Hasidean party leaders. He goes on to install a new set of statues in the Temple with a new set of High Priests—note the plurality—to tend to them. He takes full martial control of Jerusalem and invites the pagans to settle in the city and dilute the Jewish population6. Yet after all of this, Antiochus was not yet done but went ahead to outlaw the Jewish Sabbath and the practice of circumcision. At this, the Hasideans regrouped with a new stronger leadership: the Maccabees. In 164 B.C., the Maccabean army recaptured Jerusalem, purged the Temple of idols and rededicated it to God. The feast of Hanukkah was instituted in celebration of the miracles that happened in the war. According to historians, the war waged by the Maccabees was the first known religious war in history(6).

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The Jews groaned under the atrocities of the Seleucids from 168 B.C., and the Book of Maccabees is among the best reference to this. The first chapter of the First Book documents the policies instituted by Antiochus IV Epiphanes for every citizen of Judea to adhere to with corresponding measures of brutality applied to anyone who violated. According to the prohibition of circumcision, for example, mothers who had gone ahead with this holy rite were put to death along with their families, their babies were particularly hanged (verse 60 to 61, Good News Bible, Today's English Version). “Innocent people,” says the thirty-seventh verse, “were murdered around the altar [in the Temple]” and “the Holy Place was defiled by murderers.” Also in the book was a detailed account of how the Greek ruler ransacked the Temple of God, brought an army from Mysia against the towns of Judea and plundering the city Jerusalem, razing it. After this, Antiochus sets up a fort north of the Temple where he installs himself and his “group of traitorous Jews” (verse 34). Yet this post-exilic violence did not come without the warning signs. 

The Book of Esther, written during Persian times around 470 B.C., shows how Haman, who in his time became “the most powerful official in the empire” (3:1, New Living Translation), expressed his intention to “destroy” (verse 9) the Jews. Contrary to what may have been an impression forming in our minds regarding the Jews in Persian times, the specter of Persian abuse did hover over the remnant of God’s chosen generation; and as we can see in the accounts in Esther, racial hate and all the capabilities that could be waged against the Jews was alive and well, lurking very close to them.

In a book written earlier than Esther, that of Daniel shows how the top Persian officials of the Empire conspired to take out the man of God because he “so distinguished himself among the administrators and satraps by his exceptional qualities that the king planned to set him over the whole kingdom” (6:3). There was no grounds to charge Daniel and disqualify him from the king’s favor (verse 4), until he was found out praying to a God other than the king (verse 7 to 12). We all know how the story went: Daniel, for his spiritual loyalty to Jehovah, got thrown into a den of lions where he miraculously survives unscathed because “God sent his angel, and he shut the mouths of the lions” (verse 20). But what could be noticed here was the contempt they had for a Jew who historically began life in the “big empire” as a captive of war and later risen opportunistically to dominate the master race. Going back to the Book of Esther, it is very interesting to notice that the word “race” (verse 8, New Living Translation) had been used to single out the Jews by, of all people, an Indo-Aryan man.

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The period of the Maccabees was grim and bloody and dragged on until 143 B.C. when the Seleucids, finally admitting defeat, retreated from Palestine, to grant the Jews the independent nation of Judea. But as history would prove, not even the gift of total independence could encourage reforms in an apparently corrupt and morally corroded post-exilic Priesthood. What was implicated of everything corrupt and irreversibly meant for destruction now doomed what God had purely intended to represent His Messiah to His chosen and to those seeking hope and deliverance.

Since Persian days, the High Priesthood contained in its role both religious and political leadership in Palestine. No wonder everyone closely related to the chosen High Priest was liable to develop the most depraved inclination to usurp the appointment. For the few years Simon Maccabeus ruled the Second Kingdom of Judah, however, the impression of religious reform prevailed over the land, until 135 B.C. Simon and his two sons Judah and Jonathan were slain by his treacherous son-in-law Ptolemy. John Hyrcanus, the son of Simon who survived the assassination, acted immediately to secure Jerusalem before Ptolemy could capture the city. But in Hyrcanus’ bid to pin the assassin, Ptolemy somehow finds a way to slip through the siege formed around his castle and safely escape to Egypt.

With Ptolemy gone all Judah went ahead to crown Hyrcanus King of the Jews and anoint him High Priest of Jerusalem. Like his father until the last year of his reign, Hyrcanus was uncontested in his absolute power over the land for he ruled with the calloused heart of a backslidden zealot. North of his kingdom was the Greek-ruled Syria from where he believed could one day pour an avalanche of renewed Greek offensive, a fear contemplated even by his father Simon. What Judah needed was a buffer zone about the thickness held by the country of Samaria, plus a southern fall-back line about the distance from his kingdom coincidentally enjoyed by Idumea. It would become John Hyrcanus’ most successful campaign much to the grief and resentment of the Jews. To carry his plan out, he needed money to hire foreign armies. That was easy. He then proceeds to ransack the tomb of King David, shocking all Judah, and scraping some 3,000 talents of silver.

The desecration and sacrilege outraged the Pharisees, Hyrcanus’ party affiliation, immediately calling for the king’s abdication of his role as High Priest. Hyrcanus, however, responds by switching allegiance to the Sadducees, a decision which this time sends him facing off with his Essene adviser, none other than the ascetic sect’s holiest cleric, the Teacher of Righteousness. The Teacher reacts with a stern rebuke; Hyrcanus retaliates by ordering hostilities against the Teacher, forcing the latter to seek asylum in Syria.

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John Hyrcanus before his death had accomplished securing Judah with Samaria in the north and Idumea in the south. As a bonus, he conquered as well Medeba and the neighboring cities on the east of the Jordan7, and all this he did on his first year, in the year 135 B.C. When he was done, his Jewish kingdom encompassed a territory about the size of King David’s Israel in the tenth century B.C. But the years to come would justify the anger felt by his subjects the day their king annexed these territories and converted their pagan inhabitants into Judaism. From Idumea would emerge the unsavory Herods, the last of the pagans to don the title King of the Jews; and from Galilee, Jesus Christ.

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The decay of the High Priesthood continued to boil after John Hyrcanus. Selfish ambition ripped brother against brother and the office that was supposed to represent God Himself to the people became as dissolute as ever.

Before his death, Hyrcanus, realizing the risk of ruling as both king and High Priest, arranged to split the roles between his wife and his firstborn, where the first one would hold the political function and the religious for the latter. His wife thought it a great idea; the son, Aristobulus I, had other plans. When John Hyrcanus died, Judah’s newly proclaimed High Priest Aristobulus I seized his mother, his other brothers, and imprisoned them. Other accounts have it slightly different with Aristobulus I murdering his mother and one brother then hurling others in prison. He was a Sadducean advocate and his policies of Hellenization were carried out to unbearable extremes. His rule merely lasted a year but his successor, Alexander Jannaeus, was no less different in that he even plunged the country into civil war. In fact, things got so bad during Jannaeus’ regime that it brought together an unholy alliance against him.

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As seen before, territorial annexation was carried out by John Hyrcanus to protect Judah from a reprised attack of the Seleucids coming from Syria. Jannaeus perceptibly understood this that he continued to carry out expeditions to expand his kingdom. But the danger he was supposed to fear this time was primarily not anywhere from the outside but from the inside for he knew nothing of the conspiracy arranged by his opponents, the Pharisees, with the Seleucids of Syria. It was entirely unexpected. The Greeks responded with an invading army. The Pharisees, however, realizing their folly of partnering with the sworn enemy switched over to Jannaeus and cooperated to repel the northern offensive. But after averting the danger, the Jewish King-Priest expresses his gratitude by dealing vengeance against the Pharisees in a bloodbath as horrific as can be described of Judah’s brutal history. Jannaeus ruled twenty-seven years, ending in 78 B.C. More than half-a-century of successively vicious political and religious leadership must have robbed the Jews of any expectation of good from their Hasmonean kings, but the next heir was nothing like their last three; more like Simon Maccabeus instead.

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If a woman held the High Priesthood at any time, then that would make the last three kings more religiously sensible than the nine-year regime of Queen Salome Alexandra, widow of Jannaeus. Historians refer to her reign as a benign Golden Age when she prioritized on free and compulsory primary education among the young of her kingdom whose generation was rendered illiterate by almost sixty years of internal and external conflict. On this program she was mainly assisted by her brother who was a rabbi so her being a pro-Pharisee would have come as no surprise. But instead of easing the religious tension between her party and the Sadducees, her reign was marked with atrocities against the latter, a glaring failing score in her proverbial report card.

Since she could never hold the office of High Priest, Queen Alexandra appointed instead her son Hyrcanus II into the position who wore its white mantle throughout her reign. Except for the vengeance she continued to extract against the Sadducees, there was generally peace and stability throughout her kingdom. But the chaos that she kept at bay was bound to return upon her death when her sons Aristobulus II and the presiding High Priest battled for the absolute control of Judah. The younger Aristobulus, a Sadducean supporter, removes the older Hyrcanus from the priesthood; the latter retaliates by seizing the throne and deposing the first one. Aristobulus regroups with a stronger Sadducean force and this time deposes his brother.

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Stories of warring blood-brothers fill the pages of the Bible from Cain and Abel to Jesus’ prophecy about brother betraying brother in the gospels (Mark 13:12, also Matthew 10:21). Needless to say, the Hasmonean dynasty was no exception, only that the House was now tearing the last of its pillars to total obliteration. The power struggle ripping the family was the same force devastating Judah into civil war and it was beginning to spill over its borders. A seething Hyrcanus turns east to the Nabateans for support and intimidation, winning him the throne. Aristobulus on the other hand appeals to the rising power of Rome.

By 67 B.C., the Romans had ended Greek rule in Syria and were just waiting for an opportunity to break truce with the Hasmoneans and take Palestine. And that time had come. The Romans marched into Judah, orders Hyrcanus off the throne, and reinstates Aristobulus. Four years later, however, Aristobulus lashes out against Rome, so Pompey struts into the Jewish kingdom, overcomes Aristobulus and places Palestine under the governorship of Syria, that is, in the name of Pompey, not exactly Rome’s.

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What made Aristobulus turn against Pompey? Under military rule, Pompey decided to employ an Idumean alongside his Jewish appointee to help the latter in governing Palestine. At this, the original loyalties of Aristobulus and Hyrcanus switched: Aristobulus rebelled while his brother accepted the conditions thus winning him the position of High Priest and ethnarch of Judea. The Idumean appointed as his political adviser was Antipater, surprisingly a friend of Hyrcanus who gained renown over the Jewish kingdom through the success of his advice that pushed Hyrcanus to the Nabateans.

Historians saw Antipater as the power behind the throne in Hyrcanus’ rule; what he truly was, however, was a very skilled diplomat who blazed a successful career in the art of footlicking. He died in 43 B.C. but not without scraping a niche for his son Herod and his generations of successors high above the very people who conquered his nation in 135 B.C. and forced it to accept Judaism.

The apple-polishing abilities of Antipater was nothing less than legendary even during the generations after him as it was kept alive by his sons who honed it to perfection. It was no wonder Jesus would later refer to Herod as a “fox” in Luke 13:32.

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When Herod rose to power in 37 B.C., he had several items in his agenda that were of prime importance. First was to execute Hyrcanus. But being an Idumean immediately barred him from assuming the title High Priest, so he installs a Jewish aristocrat Sadducee named Hananiah of Babylon, known in the Bible for the Greek derivative of his name: Annas. Like Antipater, Annas would go on in history to secure the High Priesthood for himself and his family alone. His would be the last days of the false High Priesthood when in the last half of his life Jesus Christ would be born to take back what he, his family, and the past generations of High Priest appointees had shamelessly bastardized in the name of greed, gold, and glory.

In the fourth chapter of Luke we read how Satan came to tempt Jesus at a time of His physical weakness. When he failed to make Him shed who He was, the Devil “left Him until an opportune time” (verse 13). Usually we see this “opportune time” as when he finally got to nail Him to the cross; yet as we have seen through history, through the silent years when God parched the land of His prophetic messages and revelations, there were numerous instances when the “opportune time” arrived as a chance to crucify the Messiah by mauling and perverting the office of the High Priesthood, Jesus’ most basic identity and expression of His love for His people. Throughout all the accounts we have listed above, we could see how the Devil would not be content in dropping an atom-bomb on his target and getting it over it at one take. This is a sick sadistic entity who found extreme and unnatural delight in inflicting torment and watching it destroy the likeness of the Son of God.

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Some of us following the course of the High Priesthood through time may take that the office had been doomed to fail from the beginning despite the fact that it was ordained by God Himself. The High Priesthood effectively typified the Messiah, His purpose, the sacrifice He was bound to accomplish. This was probably why enemy forces in the spirit realm worked so hard to destroy the office and brought its worse to humiliate and discredit the One True High Priest in the eyes of the people God had chosen for salvation.

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From the time the sons of Aaron were killed for offering illicit fire in the Tabernacle to Annas and Caiaphas holding Jesus in a kangaroo court, the holy altar of God was stained for many centuries by the blood of the very priests, either rightfully chosen or usurpers. Because of this Jesus, the real High Priest, needed to ascend into Heaven and cleanse with His blood (Hebrews 9:14) the spiritual altar—the real heavenly altar, not made by human hands, and the pattern of the earthly copy (verses 11 and 23). Through His death, He ended the role of the false High Priests. Even the gospels recount the events that took place when He gave up His spirit. In Matthew 27:51, the thick veil that concealed the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest was allowed to enter once a year (Hebrews 9:7)—this curtain which was supposed to shield human flesh from the overpowering radiance of God and that became a symbol of intrigue and corruption—“was torn in two from top to bottom,” ending all of the lies that had adulterated the reputation of that which God had once ordained pure.

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In another instance, recorded in Matthew 27:45 and Luke 23:44 was a darkness that swept over the land prevailing upon it for three hours. What happened here was that Jesus died on a Passover making the Sabbath day of that month very special. It was said that the false High Priest Caiaphas, garbed in all his most lavish ceremonial robes (remember what Jesus taught in Luke 20:46 about how these aristocrats love gliding around the market places dressed in their most flowing of robes) was supposed to hold the traditional march around the city—much like how the Angel of Death swept into Egypt on the day of the first Passover. And the lights went out. Here’s what God was saying, as if we haven’t already figured out yet: the real show was not with Caiaphas but on Calvary where the real High Priest hung. The people gathered at the foot of the cross “saw what took place…beat their breasts and went away” (Luke 23:48); those who knew Him stayed and finished the sad and awesome spectacle; and one witnessing Roman centurion was the only one noted to have “praised God” and say, “Surely this was a righteous man” (verse 47). The repossession of the High Priesthood had begun. Because of the yeast of the Sadducees, the High Priesthood was set on a one-way ride to destruction. And it was by then up to the blood of Jesus to save it.

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The sin that stained the High Priesthood from the time of the sons of Aaron to the sons of Annas  was one of those transgressions that had reached up to heaven. In such transgressions there was a need for God Himself to descend and personally apply judgment on the transgressors whose spiritual state by then had become so hopelessly unrepentant and on their way to destruction. Jesus, our High Priest, came to earth to save mankind—yes—by taking back the High Priesthood, the position meant for Him, the role entrusted to be portrayed by man for the same hope that mankind would someday be redeemed from the curse of corruption commanded by sin and death. Through the Priesthood, He would be proving to mankind His power to “sympathize with our weakness” (Hebrews 4:15), to “deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray” (5:2), and intercede for us, as He had shown in His lifestyle when He lived on earth, offering up “prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears” (verse 7). And all these He could do “since He Himself was subject weakness” (verse 2)—since the High Priesthood itself was subject to weakness, as we have studied.

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If Jesus came and experienced the best and the worst of humanity, the entrusting of the High Priesthood was God’s gift to His people, not just to remind ourselves of the hope we have in Him, but for us to experience the joy and exhilaration felt by the Messiah every time He ministers for us. END


1  Max I. Dimont, Jews, God and History [Mentor: New York, 1996], p.85.
2  Stewart C. Easton, The Heritage of the Past: From the Earliest Times to the Close of the Middle Ages (Holt, Rinehart and  Winston: New York, 1961), p.281.
3  Ibid., pp.277–278.
4  Merril C. Tenney, “New Testament Survey” (Manila: OMF Publishers, 1985), p.28.
5  Dimont, p. 88.
6  Dimont, p.89.
7  Tenney, p.30.


  1. Amazing, breath-taking review of the vast confusing history of human power-greed, betrayal, unimaginable blasphemies, sacrilege, defying G_d by the Gentiles, corroding divine devotion among the Jewish faithfuls.

    Good write-up. Thank you for writing this part of history.

  2. Your blog I can't come in. It took me quite some minutes to be directed here. You are not in Switzerland, but I am confused your web address had changed from .com to ch. ??? I don't understand.

    Now I am here, I want to make a copy of your writings that I don't be stuck on screen wishing to be here in 15 minutes.

    Your reader and visitor
    Abigail Moselle

  3. Thanks for bringing this up to my attention, Ms. Moselle. I hope Blogspot will do something about this.

    A number of readers have been very honest in expressing how difficult it is to participate in the comments. So, Blogspot, please help us.

    In copying, Ms. Moselle, try to use the light word processors like Notepad to speed up your task. Only problem with Notepad is that you'll lose all the text formatting I have prepared in this site, plus you may have to re-layout the paragraphs.

    I apologize for the inconvenience, Ms. Moselle, but I know Blogspot will be working on this the soonest. Thanks and God bless you!