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For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.80-125; R.H.Gundry, pp.31-35; 43-55; 62-74. Further reading: F.F.Bruce, New Testament History, pp.53-64; 128-144.

"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem" (Mt.2:1). The Gospel of Matthew opens with Judea - a Roman province ruled by a puppet king, Herod the Great.


The Roman senate voted to make Herod the king of Judea.  He began his reign in 37 B.C. at the age of twenty-two.  Some three years later he defeated and executed Antigonus, the last ruler of the Hasmonean family, and took his place.  After the Battle of Actium Caesar Augustus extended his kingdom by giving him parts of Palestine previously held by Cleopatra, together with other cities such as Gadara, Hippos, Samaria, Gaza, Anthedon, Joppa and Strato's Tower (which Herod later rebuilt and renamed Caesarea).  Trochonitis, Batanea and Auranitis were added to his kingdom later.

Herod the Great seems to be rather a complex character.  His family life is sad and unfortunate. He sought the favour of the Jews but never gained it.  He was a great builder, and the temple in Jerusalem was his greatest achievement.  Building commenced in 19 B.C. and took 46 years to complete (Jn.2:20).  He erected fortresses at Masada, Machaerus, Herodeion near Jerusalem, Herodeion on the Nabatean border and Alexandreion. His building projects took him even outside Palestine.  He built a palace on the 'upper hill' of Jerusalem. Herod was a cruel ruler. Matthew records the slaughter of the infants, which was seen by Matthew as a fulfilment of prophecy (Mt.2:16-18; cf., Jer.31:15).  His reign, however, was one of peace and prosperity.


After Herod's death in 4 B.C., Augustus divided his kingdom among his three sons.

Archelaus was to govern Judea, Samaria and Idumea as an ethnarch.  He failed in his responsibility and in A.D. 6 he was deposed by the Emperor and replaced by a Roman procurator.  Judea became a Roman province with a procurator.  The legate of Syria was to keep an eye on affairs, and the attachment is seen in Lk.2:1,2.  Pontius Pilate was procurator from A.D. 26-36.  He condemned and crucified Jesus.

Herod Antipas was made tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and was informally called 'king' by his subjects (Mt.14:1,9). He maintained peace for 40 years.  John the Baptist denounced his marriage to Herodias, his brother's wife, and was subsequently beheaded by him (Mt.14:1-12; Mk.6:14-29).  Jesus spoke out against Herod (Lk.13:32).  Pilate referred Jesus to Herod Antipas during his trial at Jerusalem (Lk.23:6-12).  Antipas was a builder like his father. He built Tiberias on Lake Galilee, which became known as Lake Tiberias.  He was a patron of Greek culture.

Herod Philip II (mother: Cleopatra) was made tetrarch of the region east and northeast of the LakeGalilee (4 B.C. - A.D. 34) the least important assignment.  He was loyal to Rome and his administration was wise and able.  Philip was also involved in building projects. He rebuilt Paneas and named it Caesarea.  It became known as Caesarea Philippi (Mk.8:27).  Here Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah (Mt.16:13-16).

Salome, daughter of Herodias and Herod Philip I, was given Jamnia, Azotus and Phasaelis as Herod had willed.  The Emperor also added Ascalon.  Salome danced for the head of John the Baptist (Mt.14:1-12; Mk.6:14-29).

Herod Philip I (mother: Mariamne) did not rule.  He was the first husband of Herodias (Mt.14:3; Mk.6:17). He died c.A.D. 34. [1]


In the first century A.D. Jews lived all over the Roman world.  As F.F.Bruce says: [2]

"At the beginning of the Christian era all Jews throughout the world looked on Palestine and Jerusalem as their home, but the majority of them lived farther afield.  The list of nations in Acts 2:9-11 from which worshippers came to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost... does indicate clearly the wide area of Jewish dispersion (Gk. diaspora)".

Judaism, the Jewish religion, survived at home and overseas and - in the face of opposition - maintained its beliefs and rites.  The three major institutions of the Jewish religion contributed to its survival - the home, the temple and the synagogue.

The home
The home was the primary institution to the Jew.  It had an important role in Jewish teaching and worship.  Males were circumcised on the eighth day.  The Passover was observed in the home.  The Scriptures, and especially sacred parts of it like the Shema, were taught in the home. Verse 7 of Dt.6:4-9 was applied: "These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up" (Dt.6:6-7). 

The temple
The temple was at the heart of national life.  Herod's temple was built on King Solomon's original site.  Sacrifices were offered there daily by the priests, which were divided into 24 divisions.  It had its hours of prayer (Acts 3:1) and private vows and sacrifices were made there (Acts 21:23f.).  The temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 (this date marks the separation of Christianity from Judaism).  A temple-tax was payable annually by Jews (Mt.17:24-27).

The synagogue
One of the reasons for the survival of Judaism is the synagogue.  These were built throughout the world and became centres for worship, education and government.  The origin of the synagogue is obscure, but date to the time of the Exile.  Jesus attended the local synagogue in Nazareth (Lk.4:16).  "Any ten Jewish men banded together for worship and sharing a concern to learn and fulfil God's will as known in the law constituted a synagogue". [3] The synagogue was an organisation of men - women and children sat separate.  The administration and ministry was lay.  A priest was always acknowledged in services, and gave the benediction.

The presiding officer was the 'ruler' (Lk.13:14).  He was chosen by the 'elders' (cf., 'rulers' in Mk.5:22). [4] One of his tasks was to appoint speakers (Acts 13:15).  Another important official of the synagogue was the hazzan, or attendant, who was a custodian of the property and master of the synagogue school. [5] Synagogues were to be found all over the NT world (see: Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:1,10,17; 18:4; 19:8).  There were many synagogues in the city of Jerusalem (Acts 6:9 mentions the Synagogue of the Freedmen). [6]

A synagogue service included prayer, the reading of the Law [7] and Prophets, and a spoken word.  Services were held every Sabbath and on special occasions.  Other biblical books were used at different times of the year. The Pharisees were very involved in the program of the synagogue.  Most of the scribes were Pharisees.  Besides being a place of worship, education and government, the local synagogue was a social centre of the Jewish community.

The Scriptures
The Jewish experience of God was deeply rooted in history, and this history was recorded in the Scriptures. The Torah, or Law, held a special place in religious teaching. The Septuagint met the need of Greek-speaking Jews.  The Targums, which were paraphrases of parts of the OT in Aramaic, met the need of those who were not at home with Hebrew.  The synagogue had a planned cycle of readings in the Law and Prophets.  The Hebrew canon consisted of 24 books in three sections:

  1. The Law (Torah): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy.

  2. The Prophets (Nebiim): Former prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel (one book), Kings (one book). Latter prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, The Twelve (one book). [8]

  3. The Writings (Kethubim or Hagiographa): Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah (one book), and Chronicles (one book). The Five Megilloth (rolls) were specially connected with Jewish festivals, at which they were read: Song of Songs (Passover); Ruth (Feast of Weeks); Lamentations (Destruction of the Temple); Ecclesiastes (Tabernacles); Esther (Purim).

The Midrash (Heb., exposition, explanation) consisted of doctrinal and homiletical exposition of the Hebrew Scriptures, compiled between 100 B.C. and A.D. 300.  The Midrash has three parts: the Halakah (contains traditional law), Halakic Midrash (a deduction of the traditional law from the written law), and the Haggada (consisting of legends, sermons, and interpretations of the narrative parts of the Bible and concerning ethics and theology rather than law).  The Midrashim contain some of the earliest existing synagogue homilies on the Old Testament.

The Talmud (Heb., instruction, teaching), the authoritative body of Jewish tradition comprising the Mishnah (made up of codified laws) and the Gemara (a commentary on the Mishnah), belongs to the period A.D. 100 - 500, but represents the opinions and decisions of Jewish teachers from about 300 B.C. The Talmud contained paraphrases whereas the Midrashim were commentaries. [9]

The feasts or festivals
In the Jewish year seven feasts were kept: Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Pentecost, the New Year and Day of Atonement, the Feast of Tabernacles (these are found in the law of Moses), the Feast of Dedication and the Feast of Purim (two post- exilic feasts). "Three basic festivals of the Jewish year were the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, celebrated in Jesus' day as practically one festival; the Feast of Weeks; and the Feast of Tabernacles" (F.V.Filson). [10] These were pilgrim events and marked the deliverance from Egypt (Ex.12:1ff.), the giving of the law at Sinai (Ex.19:1ff.) and the wilderness wanderings (Lev.23:42ff.).

Note that Jesus instituted the Breaking of Bread at Passover time; the Holy Spirit was outpoured on the day of Pentecost; and at the Feast of Tabernacles Jesus spoke the words recorded in Jn.7:37,38.  The Feast of Purim was observed on the 14 -15th Adar.  The Feast of Dedication (only seen in Jn.10:22) was observed on the 25th Chislev (for eight days). It is also known as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, and Feast of the Maccabees. It commemorates the rededication of the temple by Judas Maccabee in 165 B.C. after it had been profaned by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of Syria and overlord of Palestine.

Special days
The sabbath day was a day of rest and worship (see Ex.20:8-11; cf., Dt.5:12-15). [11] As a festival day the Sabbath was the nation's most distinctive festival.  The New Year Festival was celebrated on the 1st Tishri (the Feast of Trumpets).  The Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) was held on the 10th Tishri.  It was a solemn day, when atonement was made for the nation's sins.

Gentile converts to Judaism
The monotheism and morality of Judaism attracted many Gentile adherents.  'God-fearers' were baptised and attended the local Jewish synagogue.  Proselytes went further in their commitment to the faith - they were circumcised and kept the Jewish food laws.  Acts 16 indicates the presence of Judaism in Philippi in the absence of a synagogue (see v.13).  The modern city of Athens had a synagogue (Acts 17:17).


1. See the chart of the house of Herod in: E.H.Palmer (Gen.Ed.), The NIV Study Bible, London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1987, p.1413.

2. F.F.Bruce, New Testament History, p.128.

3. F.V.Filson, A New Testament History, London, SCM, 1965, p.44f.

4. The oversight of a synagogue was plural with a leading elder.  In the NT Jairus, Crispus, and Sosthenes are named rulers (Mk.5:35; Acts 18:8,17).

5. M.C.Tenney, p.91.

6. See: J.Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, ET, London, SCM, 1969 for details.

7. In these notes I refer to 'Law' with a capital letter to the first section of the Hebrew Bible (cf., reference to the law of Moses).  Citations will duplicate the form found in the textbooks.

8. 'The Twelve' represents the twelve minor prophets, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. The term 'minor' does not reflect on the quality of the books - only on their length. They all fitted on one scroll.

9. See: N.L.Geisler and W.E.Nix, A General the Bible, revised, Chicago, Moody, 1968, p.502f.

10. F.V.Filson, A New Testament History, p.47.

11. In these notes we differentiate between the seventh day of the week and the feast day by the use of a capital letter, e.g., the Sabbath was held on the sabbath day!

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Copyright 2007 Vernon Ralphs

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