A Timeline of Key Events Leading up to the New Testament

As a follow-up to some recent posts about mining good New Testament introductions for some contextual historical information, I here offer a timeline of key events leading up to the time of the New Testament.

There is always a risk in presenting such a timeline: what to leave in, what to leave out? Yet, as I think it is very useful for the student to have some contextual-historical bearings, here is a timeline of twelve major events which bear varying historical significance to the New Testament. Below the chart I give a brief description of each event (with, as it turns out, increasing detail as I go).

A good exercise would be to memorize the timeline and dates and some basic information (please do not take my overly concise and selective, and somewhat staccato’d descriptions as anything but that), and then read more about each event in primary sources.

1. Destruction of Jerusalem: Nebuchadnezzar II lays siege to Jerusalem, leading to the captivity in Babylon.

2. Decree of Cyrus: In 539 BC the neo-Babylonian empire was conquered by the old Persian empire, and a Decree of Cyrus, the king of Persia, in 538 allowed those nations brought into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar II to return home/build the temple. Acts 2:8-11 tells us that some migrated not to the Land of Israel, but to Greece, Asia Minor, Rome, Egypt, and elsewhere, while others stayed in Persia (by the way, Jews in Persia may have been the source of the Persian magicians’ knowledge of Old Testament astrological prophecies about the Messiah); these would all be later called Diaspora Jews. Many did, however, return home (by the time of the NT, ~5-6 Million Jews lived in the dispersion, with 1-2 million in Palestine/the Land of Israel. Yes, these are widely varying numbers and may be too high, we just don’t have any more precise estimates).

3. Temple/Walls Rebuilt: the temple was rebuilt under Zerubbabel by around 515 BC (second temple); during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, the walls around the city were rebuilt.

4. Samaritan Temple: During the re-building of the walls, the Jews met with opposition from a fellow by the name of Sanballat. Sanballat is governor of a place called Samaria (Neh 4:2), and this is the first time Samaritans are mentioned by name in the biblical canon. This represents ongoing strife between these related groups; the Samaritans did eventually build their own temple on Mount Gerizim.

5. The Rise of Alexander the Great: Persian domination of Palestine ended around 330 BC, and as a result of the conquests Phillip the 2nd of Macedon (after whom the imperial city of Philippi was named) and his son, Alexander, Palestine came under Greek control, being somewhat swept up along with many regions in Alexander’s Hellenistic revolution. This is what 1st Maccabees (~104-100 BC) says about Alexander’s impact on the ancient world:

  • 1 Macc. 1:1-4 “After Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came from the land of Kittim, had defeated King Darius of the Persians and the Medes, he succeeded him as king. (He had previously become king of Greece.) He fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth. . . He advanced to the ends of the earth, and plundered many nations. When the earth became quiet before him, he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up. He gathered a very strong army and ruled over countries, nations, and princes, and they became tributary to him.”

Alexander died in 323 BC, in Babylon, of Malaria.

6. Greek Dynasties: after Alexander died, his empire was divided among his generals (the διἀδοχοι), none of whom shared his charisma, vision, or ability. They were: Antipater & Cassander, Lysimachus, Ptolemy I, Antigonus I, and Seleucus. By 280 BC, only three major Greek dynasties remained: The Seleucid dynasty, which controlled Asia Minor to Syria and Persia to the Euphrates river, the Antigonids, who controlled Greece and Thrace, and the Ptolemaic dynasty, headquartered in Alexandria, Egypt (but ruled over Palestine as well).

7. The Old Greek Scriptures: The Greek language came to be spoken almost everywhere after the conquests of Philip II and Alexander, by a process of assimilation. This process caused more-or-less what we know as Attic Greek, to give way to a κοινὴ διάλεκτος, a “common dialect.” This was not only a linguistic assimilation, but a cultural one as well, especially through the Greek gymnasia (places of physical and intellectual training). Architecture and religion at the time both exhibited a move towards syncretism. Many Jews opposed this syncretism, though educated Jews tended to be favourable of the changes. It is thus during the Hellenistic age the Old Testament scriptures (at first, at least the Pentateuch) were translated into the common Greek tongue, under the Ptolemies in Alexandria . It may well have been the then ruler of the Ptolemies, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who instigated the translation (as the 2nd cent. BC letter of Aristeas tells us), or it may have been the Jews themselves who did, sometime around 250-225 BC. The report is that seventy or seventy two elders of Judah were the translators of the project, hence the Latin name, Septuagint. The full Greek title is Ἡ μετάφρασις τῶν Ἑβδομήκοντα, “the translation of the seventy.” The project was not complete until ~ 100 BC.

8. Seleucid Control of Palestine: the Ptolemaic regime ruled Palestine until the Seleucid king Antiochus III (called “The Great”), defeated the Egyptian forces (Alexandria is in Egypt). This occurred around the turn of the 2nd century BC (200-198); the Seleucid empire controlled by far the largest part of Alexander’s kingdom. About 25-years after Palestine came under Seleudic control, Antiochus III’s grandson, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, became ruler of the Seleucid empire.

9. Antiochus Epiphanes IV: when Antiochus became ruler of the Seleucid empire in 175 BC, new pressures were brought on the Jews to conform to the religion and culture of the Greeks. Antiochus deposed Onias III (high priest in Jerusalem) and appointed Jason (a Hellenistic sympathizer, who paid Antiochus a large sum of money) in his place (~175). Three years later (and for another large gift of money) Antiochus appointed Menelaus in the place of Jason (~172). In the late 160’s BC, Antiochus was surprised and outwitted in a battle with the Egyptians by a Roman ambassador in Egypt who thus forced Antiochus out of the region. Jews thought he had been defeated in battle, and so Jason (the previous high priest) removed Menelaus to become high priest again. This enraged Antiochus and led to his famous and heinous acts against the Jews: he plundered the temple and its treasury, took the temple furniture to Antioch (~168), tore down the walls of the temple, and sacrificed pig’s flesh to Zeus/Jupiter on the altar (167)–this latter act is probably what is referred to in the book of Daniel (11:31) as the “abomination of desolation” and picked up as a typification in the prophecies of Jesus about the destruction of the temple.

Bust of Antiochus Epiphanes IV
Altes Museum, Berlin

10. Maccabean Revolt: Antiochus’s actions, and apostasy among some Jews, led to revolt among others of the Jews. In a critical turn, a Jew named Mattathias and his sons killed a Seleucid officer and a Jew in the temple (Mattathias had refused to worship Zeus, the other Jew stepped in and did the act of worship, and Mattathias and his sons killed them both). Mattathias thus fled with his sons to the hill country to organize guerrilla warfare against the Seleucids, and while he was killed, his son Judah, called “the Maccabee,” (the Hammer), with his brothers and a devoutly religious Jewish sect called the Hasideans (Hasidim), revolted against the Seleucids. This became known as the Maccabean revolt. The Hasidim are very likely the forerunners to the Essenes, and the Pharisees, whom we meet in the New Testament.

11. Hasmonean Dynasty: This “Maccabbean” revolt lasted from 167-160 BC, and with Antiochus’ death in 164, the Jews were able to take over the temple again, cleansing it, and rededicating it for use in sacrifices. Judah the Hammer, who was killed in battle in 160 BC, was succeeded by his brother Jonathan, who continued to lead Jewish forces against the remaining Seleucids, and became high priest in 152 BC. His younger brother Simon succeeded him not only as high priest, but as king, and began what we know as the Hasmonean dynasty in 140 BC.

The Jews had independence at this point, and the Hasmonean dynasty overlapped with a series of rulings over the holy land, under John Hyrcanus I, Aristobulus (who forced circumcision and Judaism upon the Idumeans), by Alexander Jannaeus, and his wife Salome Alexandria. Salome ruled as queen from 76-67 BC with her son, Hyrcanus II, being high priest. The Pharisees emerge at this point, and the power of the Hasmonean rule subsequently became divided, as the Hasidim (Pharisees and Essenes) rejected the Hasmonean’s control of the priesthood; some Hasidim withdrew to live in the desert and isolated places, whom we now  know as the Essenes.

12. Roman Rule: In 63 BC, the Roman Republic invaded the Hasmonean empire in the process of her great conquests, and established it as a Roman client state. So, the last Hasmonean king, Antigonus, who continued to rule, did so under the auspices of the Roman general Pompey.

13. Coming to the New Testament: Antipater I the Idumean was called upon by the Julius Caesar (after Caesar defeated Pompey) to be the chief minister of Judea. Here, he established what we know as the Herodian Dynasty, and his son, Herod the Great, later aligned himself closely with Rome, eventually becoming the client king of Judea in 37 BC with the help of a decree from Rome.

During Herod’s “reign” the famous Julio-Claudian dynasty in Rome was instantiated, starting with Augustus in 27 BC, who was followed successively by Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero.

Left to right, top to bottom: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero

As for Herod, he was ruthless. He murdered his “favourite” wife, Mariamme, and allowed two sons he had with her to be tried and put to death by the Romans. He, nevertheless, was a successful ruler, building a harbour for trade of spices in Caesarea, through which he amassed great wealth (his heavy taxation helped). Herod built many magnificent structures, and was by far the most famous builder of the first century BC. Two inscriptions found on the famous Athenian Acropolis thank Herod for his generosity:

  • “The people [erect this monument to] King Herod, Lover of Romans, because of the benefaction and good will [shown] by him”
  • “The people [erect this monument to] King Herod, Devout and a Lover of Caesar, because of his virtue and benefaction”

Herod greatly expanded Zerubbabel’s second-temple, a project begun in 20 B.C. It was the pride of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day, yet would be destroyed in 70 AD, never reaching completion; this is the temple in the setting of the NT narratives

Herod died in 4 B.C., and, not having any of his sons to match his greatness (just as Alexander had no generals to match his), his kingdom would be divided up between his sons Archelaus, Phillip, and Antipas, and later Agrippa II and his son Agrippa the II, grandson and great-grandson of Herod through another son.

With the rise of the Julio-Claudian and Herodian dynasties, we now arrive at the dawn of the common era, new era for the Jews, where some relatively quiet stirrings about a newborn baby in Bethlehem will, in the coming centuries, shape the future of the entire empire.

This is only a very high-level timeline of some select events dating from the Jewish exile in Bablyon to the time of the Herodian dynasty over Jerusalem. I’ve left a lot out I simply could not cover, and I admit and recognize I could have gone into more depth on other things. Part of the challenge with presenting a coherent and concise package is that one simply needs to land on certain issues and take other sources for granted.

In any event, it’s a good start for new students: it’s a lot easier to see what pieces you need to replace, change, move, etc. when you’ve got a basic (even simplistic) structure outlined.

If you have any questions or corrections, etc. please send them my way.

Primary sources: Old and New Testaments; 1 Maccabees; Josephus’s Antiquities.

Secondary sources: the New Testament introductions listed in previous posts; standard encyclopedias.

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