Understanding the New Testament – The impact of the exile

I. An Introduction[1]

(Associated image is the Tel-Dan Stele at the Jerusalem Museum.)

This is the beginning of a series of studies on the historical and cultural background of the New Testament.

One of the key tasks of any good study of the study of the New Testament is a contextualization of the text within its historical context. This includes the political, cultural, social and economic environment within which the text resides – of both the stories themselves and that of the original author and audience.

The study is the first part of an introduction to the historical and political background for the Gospels and Acts with a focus on the exile of Israel. Our objective here is not to present an Old Testament survey, but to define the origin of some of the practices that we find in the Gospels and Acts to help us better understand the impact of key events on Judaism that carried over to the time of Jesus.  For this study, we begin with the question – what did it mean to be an Israelite and what defined Israel at the time of the exile?[2]

During this period that we might call the “pre-exilic” period Jews defined themselves as people of the God YHWH (Adonai, Yahweh, or Jehovah). This definition involved three basic characteristics:

1. Covenants – Israel saw itself as a people in covenant with their God. There were three covenants within this definition, with three leaders or patriarchs who interfaces to God to define the covenant.

    • Abraham – The first was Abraham, who provided the covenant of promise. God had initially covenanted with Abraham and then to his son and grandson. All Israelites, whether native born or incorporated into Israel conquest, conversion, or adoption traced their origins to Abraham. He was their “father” or ancestor.
    • Moses – Moses was God’s agent for redeeming the people from the slavery of Egypt, for establishing a social covenant for them (the Sinai covenant), and for preparing them for entry into the Land. The social covenant involved the Laws provided for right worship and right living with respect to their God.
    • David – David was considered the great king of Israel and God established a covenant of perpetual rule for his descendants, provided they continue to obey God.

2. Land – With respect to the covenants, the land of Israel was promised to their forefathers and received via conquest after the Exodus.

3. Temple – God has chosen to set his abode in the Temple in Jerusalem (the city of God).

Finally, we must add a fourth defining characteristics to Judaism during the Persian period.

4. Exile and Restoration – Israel saw itself not just as a people defined by God, but as a people who had lost all of those things above that

The Exiles

Assyria and the end of the north

The exile of the Jews from the Land began with the rise of power of the Assyrian Empire after the collapse of the Bronze Age. Assyria, to various degrees, was a dominant power in the Middle East from about the 13th century forward, second only to Egypt. It had restored its dominance under Tiglathpilneser III (745-727 BCE) and the conquest of the Israel (the Northern kingdom) began in approximately 740 B.C.E. In 722 B.C.E., nearly ten to twenty years after the initial deportations, the ruling city of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Samaria, was finally taken by Sargon II after a three-year siege started by Shalmaneser V.  These deportations were probably partial exiles, primarily ruling people.

The Jewish scriptures speak of this event and the subsequent exile of Jews in the following passages:

And the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, and the spirit of Tilgathpilneser king of Assyria, and he carried them away, even the Reubenites, and the Gadites, and the half tribe of Manasseh, and brought them unto Halah, and Habor, and Hara, and to the river Gozan, unto this day. (I Chronicles 5:26)

In the days of Pekah king of Israel came Tiglathpileser king of Assyria, and took Ijon, and Abelbethmaachah, and Janoah, and Kedesh, and Hazor, and Gilead, and Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and carried them captive to Assyria. (II Kings 15:29)

Judah survived and continued as a vassal state to the great empires until the rise of Babylon.

Babylon (Neo-Babylonian Empire) and the end of Judah

In 607 BCE, Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, fell to a coalition of Babylonians, Medes, Persians and other groups (including some Assyrian rebels) and the Babylonian Empire became the dominant power in the region.

A new line of kings established the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which lasted from 626 B.C. to 539 B.C. The Neo-Babylonian Empire became the most powerful state in the world after defeating the Assyrians at Nineveh in 612 B.C.

The Neo-Babylonian Empire was a period of cultural renaissance in the Near East. The Babylonians built many beautiful and lavish buildings and preserved statues and artworks from the earlier Babylonian Empire during the reign of king Nebuchadnezzar II.

It was during this period that Judah finally fell under the power of Babylon and the people went into exile. This was not a single event but occurred in stages.

  • 605 B.C.E – After the Battle of Carchemish (the defeat of Pharaoh Necho’s army by the Babylonians), Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem and extracted tribute from King Jehoiakim.
  • 597 B.C.E. – The first exiles of Judeans from Jerusalem were sent to Babylon.
  • 587/586 B.C.E. – The second exile occurred with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.
  • 582/581 B.C.E. – Third exile.

The Fall of Babylon

However, the Neo-Babylonian Empire was short-lived.

In 539 B.C., less than a century after its founding, Cyrus the Great, the legendary king of Persia, conquered Babylon and the region came under Persian control. Under Persian control, many Judeans could return to Jerusalem. However, some stayed, creating a permanent Diaspora community of Jews that lasted for over 2000 years.

While this is all very interesting, the question we must ask here is, what was the impact of this period of exile and how does it affect our understanding of the cultural background of the New Testament?

There are two things that we will encounter in the Gospels and Acts that we can trace to this period.

The first is the rise of a separate subculture that would become the Samaritans. Samaritan trace their roots to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh who survived the exile under the Assyrians. However, Jewish sources see them as a mix of Israelites and other Semitic groups. This can be seen in 2 Kings 17:24.

24 The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns. (2 Kings 17:24 TNIV)

Both groups affirmed the Torah but had slightly different versions of the Torah. In the New Testament, there is an animosity between Jews and Samaritans that is evidenced in our reading of the Gospels. However, when we read the book of Acts, we see that the Samaritans embrace the gospel of Jesus very quickly.

Second, we see the beginnings of foreign communities of Jews in Babylon and Egypt. Jews retained their unique identity but had to define it without the land and without the Temple. What developed was a passion for their God and for the Law that defined the covenant. This became much more important with the return from exile as we will see in the next study.

It is at this point that we must turn our attention to the Persian Empire and its influence on Jewish self-understanding.

[1] Much of this information is derived from online sites such as Wikipedia and the Ancient History Encyclopedia. These were chosen because they provide good synopses of events. The interpretation of these events as they relate to New Testament studies is purely my own for various research I have done.

[2] Depending on how you view this history, Israel’s self-identification may have developed after the rise of the great powers, but it looks back to a time before this, when Israel saw itself as a unique people. This period follows what is historically known as the Bronze Age Collapse. With the Collapse (between c. 1250 – c. 1150 BCE) major cities were destroyed, whole civilizations fell, diplomatic and trade relations were severed, writing systems vanished, and there was widespread devastation and death on a scale never experienced before.

The primary causes advanced for the Bronze Age Collapse are:

  • Natural Catastrophes (earthquakes)
  • Climate Change (which caused drought and famine)
  • Internal Rebellions (class wars)
  • Invasions (primarily by the Sea Peoples)
  • Disruption of Trade Relations/Systems Collapse (political instability)

When the collapse had run its course, the Mediterranean region entered a “dark age” in which iron replaced bronze as the metal of choice, diplomatic and trade relations were nearly non-existent, and art, architecture, and general quality of life all suffered in comparison with the Bronze Age. It is during this period that we see the establishment of the monarchies of Israel with David reign in the 10th century B.C.E.