SUMMARY OF BIBLE HISTORY - PART I
This summary is a very fast-paced account of Bible History as related in the historical books of the Old and New Testament. The author purposely omitted many details in the preparation of this summary in order to keep the thread of historical development in full view. It is the author's earnest hope that this work would be helpful to someone who wishes to have a reasonably complete overview of Bible History before reading the actual books.
It is best to read this summary with the timeline given under the charts menu. The button below is a link to the Timeline.
PART I – THE OLD TESTAMENT
A. From Adam (Before 9000 B.C.) to Abraham (2100 B.C.)
The book of Genesis records that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. He created the whole world - the seas, the land, the sky - and all its inhabitants: the fishes of the sea, the animals on land as well as the birds of the air. He also created the first man and woman - Adam and Eve - to His own image and likeness, and placed them in a paradise of pleasure, where they lived in a state of happiness. (Gen 1-2)
God gave Adam and Eve dominion over all His creatures on earth, and told them that they could eat the fruit of any tree in paradise, except that of the one that stood in the midst of the garden – “the tree of knowledge of good and evil,” for on the day that they eat of that fruit, they shall die. But a cunning serpent tempted them and said, “No, you shall not die if you eat the fruit; instead, you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.” Adam and Eve listened to the serpent, ate of the fruit, and broke God’s command. Because of their disobedience God banished them from paradise, and condemned them to a life of hardship and eventually to die. But God had mercy on them, and promised to send them a Savior who would one day reconcile them again with Him. (Gen 3)
Cain and Abel were among the first sons of Adam and Eve. Although both offered sacrifices to God, God favored Abel, but not his wicked brother, Cain. Being exceedingly jealous of Abel, Cain killed him. For this sin God cursed him and made him a vagabond and a fugitive upon earth. (Gen 4)
Like Cain, many of the other descendants of Adam and Eve also turned away from God; so much so that in time the wickedness of men filled the earth with sin and vice. Therefore, God resolved to punish the world by a universal Deluge (probably around 2500 B.C.). However, He found one man, Noe, to be pious and just, and wished to spare him and his family from the calamity that was to come. So, God instructed Noe to build an ark, in order to save him and his family, as well as all the animals in it, from the great flood. The rain fell for forty days and forty nights, until the waters rose 15 cubits (approx. 27.5 ft) above the highest mountains. When the waters finally subsided Noe built an altar to thank the Lord who, in turn, blessed him and his sons and promised not to destroy the earth again with flood. (Gen 5-9)
After the flood Noe’s family increased and multiplied, and became as wicked as they were before the Deluge. At the time they spoke just one language. As they had a huge labor force, they thought of building a tower so tall that its top would reach heaven. When God saw what they were doing He confounded their language. Not being able to understand one another, they were forced to abandon the Tower that they were building. The unfinished tower has since been called the Tower of Babel, or Confusion. Because they could not understand one another, Noe’s families spread out in different directions, but they did not abandon their wicked ways. Many lost their faith in the true God, and had degenerated into idol-worshiping nations. But one kept his faith. His name was Abram, which God later changed to Abraham. (Gen 10-11)
A painting by Edward Hicks, 1846
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
Crossing of the Red Sea
A painting by Juan de la Corte (1580-1663)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
Joseph, Overseer of the Pharao's Granaries
A painting by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
Tribal Allotments of Israel
Picture # 39 of Bible Atlas by Access Foundation
Image source link: Bible Atlas
B. From Abraham to the Conquest of Chanaan (2100 B.C. – 1350 B.C.)
God did not want the true faith and the hope in the promised Redeemer to be lost entirely from the earth, so He chose Abram to be the father of what would be His Chosen People. God changed Abram's name to Abraham and promised him that he would be the father of a great nation. This is how Abraham’s descendants – the Hebrews – was chosen to be the nation, out of all other nations, in whom the true religion was to be preserved. (Gen 12)
To test his loyalty God ordered Abraham to take his only son, Isaac, to Mount Moria, and there to offer him up as a holocaust. Abraham obeyed, and made Isaac carry the wood as they went up the mountain together. Upon reaching the summit, Isaac willingly laid down on the wood to be offered as a burnt sacrifice, but God sent an angel to stop Abraham from killing him. Theologians see in Isaac a figure of our Savior who, in obedience to His Father, carried the wooden cross to Mount Calvary to offer Himself for our redemption. Pleased by Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice even his only son as a burnt offering, God made another special covenant with him saying, “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven … and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (because the Messias will come from his seed or lineage.) (Gen 22)
Isaac became the father of Jacob, whose name was later changed by God to Israel (Gen 32:28-29; 35:10). Jacob (or Israel) in turn had twelve sons who became the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. In Biblical terminology Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and his twelve sons are called the Patriarchs (or Fathers), for they were the men who established the nation of Israel. These are the twelve sons of Jacob: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. Out of the descendants of Levi (the Levites) will come the priests of Israel.
Joseph, who was sold by his brothers to slave traders and brought to Egypt, later became Chief Steward and Vizier of all Egypt. At that time Egypt was a very powerful kingdom (See Map of the Egyptian Empire). The Pharaoh granted him this position of authority because, by his ability to interpret dreams, he predicted the coming of seven years of famine, and saved the country from dreadful hardship. Indeed, the Pharaoh called Joseph “Savior of the World” (Gen 41:45), which made him – just like Isaac – a figure of Christ.
The famine, which also broke out in Chanaan, drove Jacob and his family to Egypt. The kind-hearted Joseph forgave his brothers and invited them to settle there in Egypt with their father (Gen 37-41). It is probable that the Israelites entered Egypt in 1876 B.C.
The Jews prospered and were happy in Egypt. They learned new trades and skills from the Egyptians. But, after Joseph’s death, the Egyptians feared that the Israelites were becoming too numerous and too powerful. So, they persecuted and burdened them with excessive labor. Eventually God talked to Moses, son of a Hebrew slave and adopted child of the Pharaoh’s daughter, at Mount Horeb. There He commissioned him and his brother, Aaron, to lead His Chosen People back to Chanaan. The Pharaoh at first would not let the slaves free, but God sent dreadful plagues to make him change his mind. To overcome the Pharaoh’s obstinacy, God finally sent an angel to slay all the first-born children in the land. The angel killed the first-born of the Egyptians, but not the Israelites. This is because the doors of Israelite homes had been sprinkled with the blood of the paschal lamb which they ate at supper. That the first-born of the Israelites were saved by the blood of the paschal lamb prefigures salvation from death by the Blood of Christ, whom we eat in the Holy Eucharist.
The Pharaoh finally allowed the Hebrew slaves to leave, but regretted it. This happened around 1446 B.C. The Pharaoh gathered his army and pursued the Israelites to the banks of the Red Sea. The Israelites were terrified by the specter of being slaughtered by an angry King. Moses stretched forth his staff, and the sea was divided, with the waters standing like a wall on their left and on their right, allowing the Israelites to cross the sea on foot. When they reached the other side of the sea, the Pharaoh and his troops went hurriedly after them. But Moses stretched forth his staff once more and the waters of the sea returned to their original place, drowning the Pharaoh, his horses and all his men (Ex 1-14).
Under the leadership of Moses and Aaron the Israelites traveled through the desert and, after 45 days since they left Egypt, they arrived at Mount Sinai. How do we know that it only took the Israelites 45 days to reach Mount Sinai? Well, Ex 19:1 said that the Israelites came to the wilderness of Sinai on the third month since they departed Egypt. Now, this does not mean three months after they departed Egypt. The third month starts after two months, so their travel time to Mount Sinai is at most two months or 60 days. However, Ex 12:6 also stated that they actually departed on the 14th day of the first month. Therefore, their total travel time from Egypt to Mount Sinai is only about 45 days.
While in their journey the Israelites grumbled and murmured because they were hungry. They didn’t have enough provisions to eat. But God sent quails for their meat and made manna appear on the ground every morning for their bread to eat. This helped to convince them that God knew how to take care of His chosen people. Upon reaching Mount Sinai God renewed His covenant with them and gave them the Ten Commandments on two tables of stone. In addition God gave them civil, moral and religious laws and precepts, which showed them how they should conduct their lives. But because Moses was often long absent talking to God in the mountain, the Israelites soon forgot God’s blessings and His Commandments. Worse, they fell into idolatry and, led by their priest Aaron, they made for themselves a golden calf to worship as their god (Ex 16-32).
At Moses’ intercession the Israelites were reconciled with God. They made offerings for the construction of the Tabernacle (a meeting tent) and its furnitures. They also built the Ark of the Covenant, which housed the two tablets of stones on which the Ten Commandments were written (Ex 33-40; Lev 1-10). But in punishment for their serious sins God delayed their entry into Chanaan - the Promised Land. The Israelites remained one year waiting in the wilderness of Sinai before they were permitted to move again toward Chanaan. Then they wandered thirty nine more years in the desert before they reached the Promised Land. These thirty eight years were full of murmurings and revolt by the Israelites against God. Yet, God still protected them and sustained them during their long stay in the wilderness. He dropped manna from heaven for bread, sent quails for meat, and let water flow from the rocks for their drink. He also protected them against serpents and foreign invaders. (Num 10-21)
Because of their long sojourn in the desert, many of the older Israelites – including Moses – did not make it to Chanaan (or Palestine). Moses died before they entered Chanaan. The death of Moses is recorded in Deut 34:5. The text shows that Moses saw the Promised Land, but he himself did not get there. Although the authorship of the first five books of the Bible (aka the Pentateuch) is attributed to Moses, it is clear that the last chapter of Deuteronomy, which records his death, was only added by others (possibly by Josue). It is also possible that other parts of the Pentateuch had been edited by others. Still, it is not incorrect to attribute the entire Pentateuch to Moses as its original author.
After Moses died, God chose Josue, of the tribe of Joseph, to lead the huge army of the Chosen People in the task of occupying Palestine. Under his leadership the Israelites crossed the river Jordan and miraculously laid siege to Jericho. The conquest of Jericho was miraculous because the city was heavily fortified by huge walls. The Bible records that the walls collapsed at the sound of the trumpets and the shouting of the Israelites (Josue 6). Of course, the sound of the trumpets and the noise of the Israelites did not physically cause the walls to collapse, but by God’s will and instruction these were the signals for the miracle to begin, and for God’s Power to show its might.
After the fall of Jericho the Israelites conquered western Chanaan, too, but after many battles. When the conquest of Chanaan was complete, the land was divided among the various tribes of Israel (Jos 2-22). See the Map of Chanaan below to see how the Promised Land got allocated among the tribes.
Note that the tribe of Levi does not appear in the map. Although the Levites received cities in different parts of the country, they were not permitted by the Law of Moses to become landowners because, as priests, “the Lord Himself is their inheritance” (Deut. 18:2). Joseph’s name is not in the map either. But Ephraim and Manasseh were both sons of Joseph (Gen. 48:1), so together they constituted the house of Joseph.
With the conquest of Chanaan ends the early history of the Jews. In a sense their history is also a figure of our personal salvation history. For, their deliverance from the bondage of Egypt represents our liberation from the slavery of Satan; their arduous journey in the wilderness corresponds to our difficult pilgrimage in this world; the manna they received in the desert is a figure of the Holy Eucharist, which sustains our souls; and the Promised Land where they settled after many battles signifies Heaven, our final home, which we attain by a series of battles against the world, the flesh and the devil.
C. The Rule of the Judges (1350 B.C. – 1051 B.C.)
Although Chanaan had been divided among the various tribes of Israel, some pagan tribes remained in their respective territories. When Josue died, the Israelites were left without a leader, and they became vulnerable to their pagan neighbors in and around Chanaan. The association of the Jews with the heathens also led to intermarriages with the Gentiles that in turn resulted into their forgetfulness of their covenant and their subsequent fall into vice and idolatry. As a punishment for their repeated sins of infidelity and immorality, God allowed the Israelites to be subdued from time to time by their enemies. But whenever they repent, God would send them a strong military leader who would rescue them from their enemies and rule over them. Because these military rulers also presided over legal hearings, they were more popularly known as “Judges.” For three hundred years the people of Israel lived under the rule of these Judges. Among the most famous of the judges were Gedeon, Samson, and the pious Samuel. (Jgs 6-8, 13-16; 1 Kgs 1-7) The charming story of Noemi and Ruth (great grandmother of the future King David) also happened during the time of the Judges. (Ruth 1-4)
King Solomon Sacrificing to the Idols
A painting by Sebastien Bourdon (1616-1671)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
D. The Reign of Kings to the End of the Babylonian Captivity (1050 B.C. – 538 B.C.)
Because of increasing attacks by the Philistines from the west and the Ammonites from the east, the Jews wished to unite the various tribes into one kingdom. So, they asked the aging Samuel (the last of the Judges) to appoint a king for them. Under God’s guidance, Samuel chose Saul, who became the first King of Israel. He reigned for 40 years (Acts 13:21) from 1050 B.C. to 1010 B.C. Because of his disobedience, he was later rejected by God and succeeded by David, a mighty warrior. Even as a young lad David had slain the giant Goliath. As a king, he expanded his kingdom by many victorious battles against his enemies (1 Kgs 8-31). Like Saul, David reigned for 40 years (2 Kgs 5:4), from 1010 B.C. to 970 B.C.
David was more than a king. He was also a song writer. Under God’s inspiration, he composed many sacred songs, or psalms, that contained prophecies about the coming Messias (2 Kgs 1-7). For example, he hinted that the Messias would be King and Priest (Ps. 109:4), that he would be the Son of God (Ps 2:7), that he would be betrayed by one whom he trusted (Ps 40:9), that his hands and feet would be pierced (Ps 21:18), and that he would rise from the grave (Ps 15:10). To properly understand the verses in the Psalms, it is important to keep in mind that David was a prototype of Christ. Therefore, although the psalms were often written in the first person, the verses should be read as if Christ was the one speaking, and not David.
David’s son, Solomon, succeeded him to the throne, and reigned also for 40 years (3 Kgs 11:42) from 970 B.C. – 930 B.C. Solomon was a wise and peaceful ruler. His reign was characterized by peace and great prosperity, and his wealth was unsurpassed by that of any other king. He built the Temple in Jerusalem, which David originally wanted to build. The Temple was lavishly decorated with gold from Ophir (a place rich in gold), and was the only temple in the land. The Sanctuary or Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was placed, was the most sacred place in the Temple, and only the high-priest was allowed to enter it once a year. The Jews were not allowed to offer sacrifices anywhere else except in the Temple. This magnificent edifice was the pride of the Jews. But Solomon did not persevere in virtue. He married many pagan wives and later fell into the practice of idolatry himself (3 Kgs 3-11).
After Solomon’s death, his son Roboam (or Rehoboam in the newer Bibles) became king, but the northern tribes rebelled against him and established their own kingdom in the north. Only the tribes of Benjamin and Juda in the south remained faithful to him. Thus, the kingdom of the sons of Jacob had been divided into two. The northern kingdom, called the Kingdom of Israel, was ruled by King Jeroboam, and had its capital in Samaria. The southern kingdom, known as the Kingdom of Juda, continued to be held by King Roboam, and had its capital in Jerusalem (3 Kgs 12).
The northern tribes abandoned the religion of their fathers and built their own temple in Samaria, where they practiced various forms of idolatry. During this time God sent them holy and enlightened men, called Prophets – such as Elias (or Elijah), Eliseus (or Elisha), Amos and Osee (or Hosea) – to call them to repentance. The Book of Jonas narrates that God also sent the prophet Jonas to preach repentance to the pagans in Nineve. The pagans repented and Nineve was spared from God’s wrath. But the Jews in Israel continued their wicked ways. As punishment for their transgressions, God allowed them to be conquered by a foreign power. King Salmanasar V of Assyria started the attack on the Kingdom of Israel and laid siege to its capital, Samaria. Upon his death his brother, Sargon II, continued the siege, and in 722 B.C. destroyed the northern Kingdom of Israel, and carried the Jews off as captives into Assyria. An episode of this captivity was written in the book of Tobias, but nothing else was heard of the Jews afterwards. They had since disappeared from history as the “lost” tribes of Israel. Some Assyrians moved to Israel and intermarried with the few remaining Jews in northern Palestine, which became the Samaritans – a people of mixed blood, culture and religion (3 Kgs 17-22; 4 Kgs 1-18).
The foregoing discussion is very fast paced and omitted many details. The total length of time that the Kingdom of Israel existed, from the division of Solomon’s kingdom to the fall of the northern Kingdom of Israel, is about 930 – 721 = 209 years. Therefore, there were actually several kings who reigned in the Kingdom of Israel after the reign of King Jeroboam, such as Nadab, Baasa, Ela, etc. One king in particular, Achab, will be remembered for his wickedness (3 Kgs 21-22), and his queen Jezabel for her harlotries and sorcery (4 Kgs 9:22).
Meanwhile in the south the tribes in the Kingdom of Juda maintained an independent but unstable existence. God also sent them holy prophets, – such as Isaias, Jeremias, Baruch, Joel and Micheas, Sophonias, Nahum, Ezechiel and Habacuc, – to warn them of the consequences of their sins and their need for repentance. In the end God also chastised the Kingdom of Juda for its repeated sins. For, after the Babylonians destroyed Nineve and defeated the Assyrians in 612 B.C., the powerful Babylonian army also went to Palestine in 607 B.C. and, under the command of Nebuchodonosor II, King of Babylon, they conquered the Kingdom of Juda and pillaged the city of Jerusalem. Then in 587 B.C. Nebuchodonosor destroyed Jerusalem and its Temple altogether, and carried off most of the Jews into captivity in Babylon (4 Kgs 25:10-21).
As in the Kingdom of Israel, there had been a long line of kings in the Kingdom of Juda until its fall in 587 B.C. There were good and bad kings. King Ozias began as a good king, but later tried to usurp priestly functions and was later punished with leprosy (4 Kgs 15; 2 Par 26). On the other hand, King Ezechias was so pious that his kingdom was blessed with prosperity and even won a battle against the powerful Assyrian army led by Sennacherib (2 Par 29-32). Judith, a beautiful and wealthy widow during the wicked reign of King Manasses, was neither a queen nor a ruler of Juda, but the book of Judith immortalizes her fidelity and heroism, which saved the nation from an earlier destruction by Holofernes, the mighty general of Assyria. The history of Juda had been a series of sinfulness and repentance, with God saving them whenever they repent.
After their fall in 587 B.C. Juda became part of the Babylonian Empire (See Map of the Babylonian Empire). The Jews then became captives in Babylon for five decades until Babylon itself was conquered by the Persians in 538 B.C. (4 Kgs 14-25). This is known in Bible History as the “Babylonian Captivity.” The Lamentations of Jeremias spoke of the deep sorrow he and other Jews felt due to the destruction of their once great city: Jerusalem. At a more profound level the Lamentations allude as well to the sorrows of our Suffering Savior, and to man’s sad condition when separated from God. The inspiring stories of the three young men in the fiery furnace and of Daniel in the lion’s den, both took place during the time of the Babylonian Captivity (Dan 2-14)
Jewish Exiles Returning to Jerusalem
Illustration from a Bible Card, 1898
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
A painting by Andrea Castagno, 1450
Image source link: WikiArt.org
Martyrdom of the Machabees
A painting by Giustino Menescardi (1720-1776)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
E. From the End of the Babylonian Captivity to the Coming of Christ (538 B.C. – 1 B.C.)
In 538 B.C. Babylon became a part of the Persian Empire. (See Map of the Persian Empire.) Cyrus, King of Persia, gave permission to the Jews to return to their own country, but under the rule of a governor appointed by him. Zorobabel – who happened to be one of Christ’s ancestors (Matt 1:12; Luke 3:27) – was the man appointed by King Cyrus to govern and lead the first group of Jews that would return to Judea. In 537 B.C. more than 40,000 Jews (1 Esd 2:64) returned to their homeland. This was actually only a fraction of the Jews in Babylon who returned to Judea. Many of the Jews became so comfortable with their life in Babylon that they decided to stay there.
The mission of the returning exiles was to rebuild their temple and their city. King Cyrus was kind to them. He did not merely allow them to go back to Palestine, but even returned the vessels of the temple that were stolen by Nebuchodonosor, and provided funds (gold and silver) for the reconstruction of the temple. But it was not until the reign of King Darius I of Persia that the Temple of Jerusalem was completed. The Temple was dedicated in 516 B.C. Although the new temple was less impressive than the original temple built by King Solomon, the Prophet Aggeus prophesied that it would be a more glorious house than the former, because the “Desired of All Nations” (Christ) would one day enter it (Agg 2: 8-10). Another prophet during this time was Zacharias, who prophesied that Christ would one day enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey (Zach 9:9).
King Darius I was succeeded by Xerxes I (also known in the Bible as King Assuerus). At the time there were still many Jews remaining in Babylon. It was exactly during the reign of King Assuerus that the beautiful story recorded in the book of Esther happened. According to the narrative King Assuerus of Persia married the beautiful young maid, Esther, not knowing that she was a Jew. By advice of a jealous prince, Aman, he was about to massacre the Jews in Babylon when Esther came to the rescue. With prayers and fasting Esther boldly revealed her identity to her husband and disclosed the conspiracy unfairly plotted by Aman against the Jews. Under the influence of his good and sincere wife, King Assuerus abandoned the plan to kill the Jews and punished his adviser, Aman, instead. Theologians view Esther’s successful petition before the king as a foreshadowing of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s powerful intercession before her divine Son and God the Father.
Eventually King Artaxerxes I succeeded Assuerus to the throne. Since there was now a temple again in Jerusalem, Esdras, a holy priest and scribe of the Law persuaded and led a new group of exiles to return to Judea. He was given power to appoint judges and magistrates in Jerusalem, but his real desire was to see a Jerusalem free of paganism. He worked to prevent the Jews, many of whom had married pagan wives, from relapsing back to idolatry. He gathered all the books that had been written to form what is now known as the Hebrew Bible, and used this to re-establish readings and Divine services in the Temple. Prophets during this time period were Malachias and Joel.
When his cup-bearer, Nehemias, reported to him the sorry state of Jerusalem’s walls and how vulnerable it was to attack by the surrounding Samaritans, Artaxerxes I commissioned him to rebuild its walls and to fortify the city’s defenses against its enemies (2 Esd 2, 3 & 4). Years afterward, in 332 B.C., the Persians lost their power to Alexander the Great of Macedonia (Greece), so the Jews fell under Greek rule. Fortunately, Alexander the Great was also kind to the Jews, so peace continued in Judea. (See the Map of Alexander the Great's Empire.)
After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. there followed a power struggle among his four generals, and the Greek Empire was divided between them. The Kingdom of Juda fell under the control of one of the generals of the empire, who happened to be Ptolemy, the King of Egypt. The Egyptians therefore ruled over Juda for about one hundred twenty-five years, from 323-198 B.C. It was one of the Egyptian kings who later requested the high-priest in Jerusalem to work on a Greek translation of the Holy Scriptures. The result was the Greek Bible, known as the Septuagint (LXX). See History of the Septuagint.
In 198 B.C. the Egyptians lost control of Juda to another one of Alexander’s generals – the Seleucids of Syria. During this time the people of Juda had already repented of the sins of their ancestors that had brought them so much suffering, and they promised never again to fall into idolatry. So, when Antiochus III, King of Syria, forced them to worship idols (168 B.C.), they valiantly resisted the king’s order. Following the example of the seven brothers and their mother (2 Mach 7:1-42), they chose martyrdom rather than disobey God.
Under the leadership of their high-priest Mathathias and his sons, the Jews steadfastly continued their rebellion against the Syrians until they freed Palestine from Syrian rule. They even extended their campaign to recover parts of the former Kingdom of Israel, but their victory was short-lived. In 67 B.C. two brothers struggled for control of the Kingdom of Juda – Hyrcanus (the high-priest) and Aristobolus (the head of the army). Overpowered by his brother, Hyrcanus sought the aid of the Arabs. But the Romans took notice of the situation and intervened. They asked the Arabs to withdraw and, in 63 B.C. under the command of Pompey, they invaded Palestine and annexed it to the Roman province of Syria. (See Syria in the Map of the Roman Empire).
The Romans, now in control of Palestine, gave the Jews much latitude in the practice of their religion and the management of their internal affairs. The Sanhedrin, or the Council, became the supreme religious and judicial court for the Jews. It was presided over by the high priest, and consisted mostly of the “ancients” and the “rabbis” (or lawyers). It had great authority that extended to all Jewish communities throughout the empire. It even had its own soldiers or police, but it could impose the death penalty only by consent of the Roman procurator. But the two groups that had the greatest influence in the life of the Jews under the Roman Rule were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees did not all come from the priestly class, but they were the conservatives who insisted on the strict observance of the Law. Although they helped protect the true religion from pagan influences, they tended to become separatists, aloof, and too legalistic. On the other hand, the Sadducees were more liberal in their conduct and in their views. While they respected Moses and the Law, their own materialism and rationalism shaped their beliefs to the point of heresy. For example, they denied the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body (Acts 23:8), and the fact of God’s providence.
The Jews did not like paying taxes to a foreign power and being subjected to foreign rule. So, riots and rebellion often broke out in Palestine, which were ably suppressed by the powerful Roman army. In a strategic move to control Palestine more effectively the Roman Senate in 40 B.C. appointed a clever but cruel man, Herod, to serve as king of Palestine. This was Herod the Great, the same king who is infamously remembered in history for slaughtering the Holy Innocents during the infancy of Christ. He bribed the Romans to make himself king of Palestine. Although he was a Jew by religion, he was actually not a Hebrew but an Idumaean (a Roman term for an Edomite). Thus, the “sceptre” of Judea was no longer in the hands of the tribe of Juda when Christ came, fulfilling a prophecy made by Jacob before his death (Gen 49:10).
Actually, King Herod was only a “puppet,” because the supreme political power still remained with the Roman governor. But, to empower himself more fully Herod removed all executive authority from the Sanhedrin and transferred them to himself, thus reducing the Sanhedrin into a purely religious body. This was the political and religious climate of Israel when Christ was born, which was around 1 B.C. Although the Jews had returned to the true religion, moral corruption, greed, and political ambition continued to plague them as they did most of humanity. The Jews had long waited for the Messias, but due to their long history of being continually subject to foreign rule, many of them thought of the Messias as someone who would liberate them from foreign domination, rather than someone who would redeem them from sin.