The Missing Century, Revisited

Originally at:

by  Philip Jenkins

My last post was a near-despairing attempt to locate a spiritual and/or political crisis that might have produced the amazing story told in Deutero-Zechariah, chapters 9 through 14 of that text. (See earlier posts for a summary).

Groping for an answer, it occurred to me to synthesize what we actually do know about Jewish history in the Ptolemaic era, the third century BC. It really is not much, especially when contrasted with the tumultuous events of the second century. Blessed the tranquil era that has no history – but in this case, are events and conflicts really so rare, or do we just not see them? In my next column, I will explain why I believe the text can indeed be placed within this era, and especially the years between about 210 and 180 BC. (And yes, as I have mentioned, I do know that a strong and reputable body of opinion locates the text significantly earlier than that date, but bear with me for right now).

Our narrative sources are very thin indeed, and we inevitably turn to Josephus’s Antiquities, and specifically Book XII, which covers the era 323-165 BC. Josephus, though, is not writing a connected history, but rather picking up the odds and ends he knows from local traditions. In one standard translation, chapter twelve is divided into eleven sub-chapters, in which the Maccabean Revolt of 168 BC begins in unit six. In other words, roughly half of Josephus’s chapter covers period from 323 through 170 BC, with the next decade taking up the other half.

So what does Josephus tell us about that century and a half? He tells several major stories, with an interesting slant, and even more surprising omissions. The story is supplemented by materials in 2 Maccabees.

Before listing the specifics, let me remark on some general trends:

*For large parts of the late fourth and third centuries, we know basically nothing about events, conflicts or factions, or even whether such struggles were taking place. Actually, that remark hold true for much of the earlier fourth century as well, except for the brief moment when Alexander’s arrival shines a light into the historical darkness).

*Much of what Josephus tells us fits into the realm of legend, usually set outside Palestine altogether, with stories of Jews in Egypt or Asia. Even he clearly knows little about the era.

*In particular, we know virtually nothing from Jewish sources about the years between roughly 310 and 270, which we know to have been a period of strife between the great Hellenistic empires, and these must have impinged on Syrian and Palestinian realities. The celebrated Biblical scholar Bernhard Stade saw this era as the most likely context for Deutero-Zechariah.

*Insofar as we can argue a negative, most of the pre-240 evidence suggests a period of real peace and prosperity. In 259-258, the Ptolemaic official Zenon toured Palestine, and in the words of W. W. Tarn, “The Zeno papyri exhibit a country which might never have heard of battles, with its finance minister seemingly anxious only about his new apple trees.” The best literary monument of these Ptolemaic years is Ecclesiastes, which suggests a stable and peaceful (if very unequal) society.

*In several ways, though, the third century is prefiguring the much better known world of the following century, of the Maccabean and Hasmonean years. This is especially true in terms of the total control of the high priesthood by one clan, the Oniads. We also see family/clan politics through their rivals, the Tobiads. In both cases, families naturally hold their power by alliances with the Ptolemaic court. The Tobiads hold power through their role as imperial tax-collectors, but the empire also entrusted w=them with devolved military powers.

*Internal violence and bloodshed are clearly very much on the political agenda by the end of the century. We see the emergence of warlords who exactly prefigure the Maccabean years.

*One reason we are not seeing catastrophic violence and open revolt is that the Ptolemies have an admirable hands off attitude to their possessions.

*Second century history suggests that we should be seeing the earlier rise of daring thinkers and activists who were developing the kind of ideologies that we associate with the Essenes and the Enochian literature. We simply, though, find no real reference to the kind of religious politics or confrontations that might have produced such responses. Something, so to speak, is clearly going on, but we do not see what it is.

*As in the second century, the Temple and the High Priesthood are clearly central to the exercise of power, and both institutions have become strongly partisan and dynastic. To quote Patrick Tiller, “At the beginning of Ptolemaic rule over Judea the Jerusalem high-priesthood had attained a position of power at the head of what amounted to a temple-state. (“The Sociological Settings of the Components of 1 Enoch,” in Gabriele Boccaccini and John J. Collins, eds., The Early Enoch Literature(Leiden: Brill, 2007), 238). That might contribute to the kind of rhetoric that we see in the Enochian literature, and the radicalism that foreshadows the later Essenes.

*Tiller also stresses the internal division between the High Priests and the gerousia, the aristocratic council, suggesting where we should look for the expression of factional politics. The gerousia appears during this century, and we know that at various times, it was split between pro-Seleucid and pro-Ptolemaic factions. In the early second century, Sirach extols the High Priesthood to an amazing extent, raising the tradition of Aaron even over that of Moses. Others, though, were far more critical of the priesthood and indeed the Temple itself.

With that general sketch in mind, what does Josephus actually say about the era?

1. Most of Josephus’s third century section focuses on one legendary story praising Ptolemy Philadelphus (283-246 BC) and his excellent relations with Jews. He tells the famous story of the king building up the mighty library of Alexandria, and his librarian seeking out the books of the Jews for collection and translation. He also orders the translation of the Bible into Greek, the Septuagint, a task supposed undertaken by the 72 Jewish elders. But this all happens in the context of larger tale, by which Ptolemy generously frees many thousands of Jews whom the Persians had taken into captivity in Egypt. He also sends rich presents to the Temple, which Josephus describes in ornate detail. This is the story also found in the Letter of Aristeas.

This story reflects the strong affection that at least most of the Ptolemies left in Jewish memory. More particularly, though, it shows how much of what Josephus knows about this era is only incidentally concerned with Palestine, and focuses more on Jews in Egypt. Another substantial section describes the favored place that the Jews had in the new Greek cities of Asia, in which they held the rank of citizens.

2. Josephus also reports the succession of the High Priests in this era, with some personal details. This was a highly dynastic arrangement, as the succession includes

Onias son of Jaddua                c.320-280

Simon I, his son                      c.280-260

Eleazar, Simon’s brother         c.260-245

Manasseh, uncle of Eleazar    c.245-240

Onias II son of Simon             c.240-218

Simon II son of Onias II         c.218-185

Onias III, son of Simon II       185-175

Jason son of Simon II             175-172

Menelaus                                172-162

The title “Simon [Simeon] the Just” may apply to either Simon I or II, with the second now being considered much the more likely.

3. One of the few pieces of internal history we actually hear about occurred probably in the 240s. Reputedly through simple meanness, the high priest Onias II withheld twenty talents in taxes due to the king, Ptolemy III Euergetes (246‑221 B.C.E.), causing the threat of an invasion. Perhaps this was in fact an attempt by Onias to align with the Seleucids rather than the Ptolemies, but it was a very dangerous act that amounted to near-insurrection. This led to a major factional shift, to the family of the great feudal lord Tobias whose estates lay across the Jordan (and who Zenon met on his visit). He was married to a sister of Onias, and their son Joseph now claimed the high priesthood. Joseph undertook a diplomatic mission to Ptolemy, to whom he made an excellent impression, and received the position of tax collector. Around 240, it is possible that Ptolemy III visited Jerusalem and offered sacrifice.

To quote Martin Hengel,

[Joseph] became not only prostates that is, the representative of the Jewish people over against the Ptolemaic kingdom, but he successfully made a bid for the post of general tax-collector for the whole province of Syria and Phoenicia, since he had especially good relations with the royal house. Some Hellenistic cities which wished to offer resistance to the new tax-collector were subjugated by force. He maintained a permanent agent in Alexandria who administered his immense wealth, and, through numerous ‘presents’, maintained his connection with the court. It is obvious that this Joseph was thoroughly Hellenized and also gave his sons a Greek upbringing. His rapid success cannot otherwise be understood. His youngest son Hyrcanus later obtained the supreme command over the family estates in Ammanitis, including the military colony. His brothers on the other hand had great political influence in Jerusalem. Their descendants became the champions of the radical Hellenistic reform after the accession of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 175 B.C.E.

Martin Hengel, “The interpenetration of Judaism and Hellenism in the pre-Maccabean period,” in W. D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein, eds., The Cambridge History of Judaism Volume 2: The Hellenistic Age (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 216

This family saga matters because the Tobiad clan became so central to Jewish affairs in the second century. I use the word saga advisedly: scholars normally characterize the Tobiad family story in Josephus as a novel or romance, and we certainly would not expect impartiality.

In my next post, I will explain why I think these events and divisions help explain the origins of Deutero-Zechariah.


Some major sources on the era include R. S. Bagnall, The Adminstration of the Ptolemaic Posessions outside Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 1976); Günther Hölbl, A History of the Ptolemaic Empire (Psychology Press, 2001). A massive original source is William Linn Westermann and Elizabeth Sayre Hasenoehrl, eds., Zenon Papyri: Business Papers of the Third Century B.C. Dealing with Palestine and Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 1934-1940). In W. D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein, eds.,The Cambridge History of Judaism Volume 2: The Hellenistic Age (Cambridge University Press, 1990), see especially the essay by Martin Hengel, “The Political and Social History of Palestine from Alexander to Antiochus III,” 35-78.

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