Alexander the Great wanted to set up a one world, a universal empire. He taught religious syncretism, established Greek as a common language, and set up Greek cities across his empire. This process is called Hellenization and the period Hellenic to distinguish it from the Classical Greek which preceded it and the Greco-Roman which succeeded it. After the death of Alexander, the empire was divided between his four generals of which two are relevant for this narrative: Seleucus, who ruled from Babylonia, and Ptolemy, who ruled from Egypt. Palestine lay on the boundary between these two empires and the Jews were caught in the cross-fire between them.
The Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175 to 164 BCE) followed the tradition of the eastern rulers, also adopted by Alexander, of styling himself as a divine ruler and receive cult and worship. He gained control of Judea but his plan of expanding into Egypt was thwarted by Roman intervention. Rome was not in control of the eastern Mediterranean at that time but they did not want any other regime getting too powerful in the region.
The Jews were divided on far it would be proper for them to submit to the Hellenization process for their own advancement in much the same manner as contemporary people are confronted with the problem of Westernization to gain elite status. In Jerusalem, a majority of the priests and the lay nobility supported the ‘liberal’ Hellenizing group.
The high priest, Jason, built a gymnasium and an ephebate in Jerusalem and got Jerusalem recognized as a Greek city and renamed it as ‘Antioch of Jerusalem.’ It was necessary to gain Greek education through these institutions to be recognized as a citizen. Jews of ‘conservative’ leading families who resisted Hellenization and avoided the gymnasium got disenfranchised. The high priesthood was the main ruler of the Jews at this time and Antiochus had the privilege of appointing the high priest.
Another priest, Menelaus, also promoted Hellenization and tried to bribe Antiochus into getting himself appointed as high priest. This led to a riot and in 167 BCE, Antiochus stationed Greek troops in Jerusalem. Menelaus and his Hellenizing party were put in charge and they passed anti-Judaism laws which forbade circumcision and observing the Torah. The temple was converted into a syncretistic pagan grove and renamed as a shrine to Zeus Olympus.
‘Liberal’ Jews read this development as a way of updating Judaism and making it relevant to the times. Since Yahweh and Zeus were just two different names of the same god, they saw nothing wrong in these changes. Thus, it is not just that Antiochus IV Epiphanes was forcefully imposing Greek religion and culture on the Jews. It was an internal Jewish conflict as well about where to draw the line on Hellenization.
The ‘conservative’ Jews, led by those dislocated from the high priesthood due to their resistance to Hellenization, established alternative communities outside Jerusalem. A powerful reaction against Hellenization came from Mattathias, who allegedly killed a soldier and a priest who came to his village to force the Jews to sacrifice on an altar. This event triggered the Maccabean revolt, named after Judas, the son of Mattathias, who defeated the Greeks in Judea and took over Jerusalem and cleansed its temple in 164 BCE, an event celebrated in the Jewish festival of Hanukah. The descendants of Judas are called the Hasmonean Dynasty and they ruled up to 60 BCE.
Another form of resistance to Hellenization was Apocalypticism, the belief that God and his angels would intervene in history, defeat the Greeks and establish a new Kingdom of Israel. It was around 164 BCE that the Book of Daniel in the OT was actually written though it claims to have been written in Babylon in the 6th century BCE when the Jewish elite had been taken in captivity and exiled there by the Assyrians. The region was later conquered by the Persians under Cyrus, who permitted the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild the temple and walls of Jerusalem. In other words, while Daniel was an expression of Jewish resistance to a Hellenic dominance in the 2nd century BCE, it was written as an expression of Jewish resistance to an Assyrian or Persian dominance in the 6th century BCE. It is much like how Indians in the 19th and 20th centuries read back their own independence struggle against the British to the war between the Marathas and the Mughals in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Daniel is in two halves. The first half describes the adventures of a young and wise Daniel who refuses to worship the Persian god. The second half is a series of visions and prophecies. It narrates the history of the rise of the Persian and Greek empires, the defeat of the former by the latter, the breakup of Alexander’s empire into four kingdoms, and so on, using the metaphor of different beasts. It also refers to the wars between the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Seleucids of Syria, the Roman intervention, the sacrilege at the Jerusalem temple by Antiochus in collaboration with the ‘disloyal’ Jews, the resistance of the ‘wise and loyal’ Jews, and so on. Of course, while these are presented as prophecies for the future, the book has actually been written after those events. It is precisely because these ‘prophecies’ are accurate up to 167 BCE but then err about the subsequent events, such as mentioning the death of Antiochus IV in Judea when he really died in Babylon, and know nothing about other relevant events, like the capture of Jerusalem by the Maccabean army in 164 BCE, that it is deduced that Daniel must have been written sometime before this period. On the death of Antiochus IV, Daniel says that Michael, the greatest angel will arise, swoop down from the heavens with his armies and win the final battle against evil.
This is who apocalyptic literature works. It locates itself in the past and narrates known events as ‘prophecies’ so that the reader, impressed by the foreknowledge of the wise hero of the story, such as Daniel, is convinced that the advices about his own future will also come true. And the advice is not to prepare yourself for war against the enemy who is much stronger than you but to have faith in God and his angels who will intervene on your behalf and save you.
Apocalyptic Judaism is important because early Christianity was basically a sect of this kind. Jesus, Paul and the other apostles were all apocalyptically minded Jews. This kind of thinking continued into the early centuries CE as Hellenic dominance was replaced by the Roman.
In 63 BCE, the Roman general Pompey conquered Judea. The Roman senate appointed Herod the Great as king of the Jews in 37 BCE and ruled through him. On his death in 4 BCE, his kingdom splintered and Judea came under the direct control of Roman procurators. In the first century CE, there were sporadic uprisings by apocalyptic Jewish leaders who believed that God would intervene once they started the war. They set themselves up as prophets announcing the end of the world and sometimes also as Messiah, the king of the Jews. The latter, in particular, would be regarded as an act of treason against Rome because only the Roman senate reserved the legitimate authority to appoint a local king in their realm. This is the overarching context in which we should locate the execution of Jesus who claimed to be Messiah of the Jews.
In 66 CE, the Jews launched a massive revolt against the Romans which was put down in 70 CE when Jerusalem was captured and the temple destroyed. The last remnant of that revolt was crushed at Masada in 74 CE. After the destruction of the second temple (the first was destroyed in 6th century BCE), Judaism ceased to be a sacrificial cult. The rabbis who were teachers and commentators of the law became more important than the temple priests. Rabbinic Judaism started to become dominant from 200 CE onwards. In 132-135 CE, occurred another major Jewish uprising called the Bar Kokhba revolt. That was also suppressed, Jerusalem was leveled and given the Roman name Aelia Capitolina. Thereafter, Jews were forbidden to enter Jerusalem for a long time.
To sum up, Hellenization and religious syncretism were the dominant features of the milieu in which Christianity was born. The Jews responded to this milieu in contradictory ways. Apocalypticism was a major form of resistance. Judea was relatively insignificant in terms of the global scale of this period and the Jews were not an independent people for the most part. But they had a religious ideology that held that the king of Jerusalem would be the king of the world. However, their socio-political reality was exactly the opposite and “its in that maelstrom of Jewish ideology not fitting reality, that Jesus is born.”