The Muratorian fragment is the earliest known example of a defined list of mostly New Testament books. However, it is damaged and incomplete, but it is usually dated to the late 2nd century. This Muratorian canon fragment has the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, along with 13 letters of Paul. However, its condition makes it impossible to make any definitive statements.
Most Christians agree on all the twenty-seven books that make up the New Testament. Obviously various Christian groups emphasize one or another of these books as more important. All these books of the New Testament were written in Greek, the literary language of the Roman Empire. They are a mixture of gospels, letters, and other writings.
“The Romans also sent them a letter, which read thus.
‘Quintus Memmius and Titus Manius,
Envoys of the Romans,
To the people of the Jews,
With regard to what Lysias the kinsman of the king has granted you,
We also give consent.
But as to the matters which he decided
Those are to be referred to the king,
As soon as you have considered them,
Send someone promptly,
So that we may make proposals appropriate for you.
For we are on our way to Antioch.
Therefore make haste and send some men,
So that we may have your judgment.
The one hundred and forty-eighth year,
All these letters are in the same time frame in 164 BCE after King Antiochus V has taken over as the king. This letter is 2 days after the previous letter. Little is known about these 2 Roman envoys. They were on their way to Antioch. The Romans had some kind of relationship with the Jews as later indicated in 1 Maccabees, chapter 12-15. However, this is the time of Judas and not Jonathan or Simon. These envoys seem concerned about the status of the Jews in the Seleucid Empire. They wanted more information about what was happening.
“Then Ptolemy wrote a report about these things that he sent to King Antiochus. He wanted the king to send him troops in order to turn over to him the cities and the country. He sent other men to Gazara to do away with John. He sent letters to the captains asking them to come to him so that he might give them silver, gold, and gifts. He sent other troops to take possession of Jerusalem and the temple hill. But someone ran ahead and reported to John at Gazara that his father and brothers had perished. He told him.
‘He has sent men to kill you also.’
When John heard this, he was greatly shocked. He seized the men who came to destroy him. Then he killed them. He had found out that they were seeking to destroy him.”
Ptolemy wrote a report to King Antiochus VII telling him what had happened. He wanted some help from the king. Ptolemy then sent men to kill his brother-in-law John. He told the captains that he had gold, silver, and gifts for them. He sent other troops to take over Jerusalem. However, the plot to kill John failed as someone told him what was happening. Instead, he killed the men coming to get him. The story ends here without any resolution. However, it seems that John won out, but it is not clear what happened to Ptolemy.
“Now when Jonathan saw that the time was favorable for him, he chose men and sent them to Rome to confirm and renew the friendship with them. He also sent letters to the same effect to the Spartans and to other places. So they went to Rome. They entered the senate chamber and said.
‘The high priest Jonathan
And the Jewish nation
Have sent us to renew the former friendship
And alliance with them.’
The Romans gave them letters to the people in every place. They asked them to provide for the envoys safe conduct to the land of Judah.”
Jonathan seemed to think that things were quiet enough in Judah for him to send messengers to the Roman Senate, as well as the Spartans. The Spartans were people from Sparta or Lacedaemonians, who were somehow related to the Jews. The Jewish message to the Roman Senate was that they wanted to renew their former friendship and alliance. The alliance that his dead brother had made with Rome was in chapter 8 of this book. All they needed was safe passage.
“Then all the renegade lawless people plotted and said.
Jonathan and his men are living in quiet and confidence.
Now let us bring Bacchides back.
He will capture them all in one night.’
They went and consulted with him. Bacchides started to come with a large force. He secretly sent letters to all his allies in Judea. He told them to seize Jonathan and his men. However, they were unable to do it, because their plan became known. Jonathan’s men seized about fifty of the men of the country who were leaders in this treachery, and killed them.”
Once again, we see the lawless Hellenistic renegade Jews plotting against Jonathan. Jonathan seemed to have been left alone. They wanted to bring back General Bacchides and capture him in one night. This once again emphasizes the civil war aspect of his uprising. After they consulted with General Bacchides, he started out with a large force. He sent letters to his allies to tell them to seize Jonathan. However, the opposite happened. Jonathan seized about 50 men who were against him and killed them.
“Mordecai recorded these things. He sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Artaxerxes, both near and far. He enjoined them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year. These are the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies. This is the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness, and from mourning into a holiday. They should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another, and presents to the poor. Thus the Jews adopted as a custom what they had begun to do, as Mordecai had written to them.”
Mordecai put in a decree for the Jews of the Persian kingdom, a custom that they had already started. This became known as Purim. Each year they should remember what happened to them on the 14th and 15th of Adar. They should exchange food gifts and give to the poor. They were to remember that on this day that they turned from sorrow to gladness and from mourning to feasting. In modern day Judaism, this has become a big holiday eating and drinking for Conservative and Orthodox Jews, much like a Halloween feast. Children dress up and exchange treats. They read the Book of Esther, while booing Haman and cheering Mordecai.
“Moreover in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah. Tobiah sent letters to them. Many in Judah were bound by oath to him, because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah son of Arah. His son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam son of Berechiah. Also they spoke of his good deeds in my presence. They reported my words to him. Tobiah sent letters to intimidate me.”
Tobiah seems to be the main intimidator in this section. Technically, they were still under the power of Samaria since Judah was not an independent province. They were part of the Province Beyond the River. Tobiah had a special relationship to the noble Jews of Jerusalem because of his marriage. Tobiah had married the daughter of the Jewish priest Shecaniah. His son had married the daughter of Meshullam who was one of the main builders of the wall. Thus there was a friendly relationship here. However, Nehemiah was not intimidated by Tobiah, even though some in Jerusalem looked favorably on him.
“Then I came to the governors of the province Beyond the River. I gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent officers of the army and cavalry with me. However, when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel.”
Nehemiah did not bring any returning Jews with him. Instead he had a section of the Persian army with him, including cavalry. Sanballat was the governor of Samaria in the Province Beyond the River. The river referred to was the territory west of the Euphrates River. Sanballat may have been a Moabite. In fact, some archeological digs have found papyrus with his name on it as the governor of Judah. Tobiah was an Ammonite official. Both of them seemed to be opposed to what was going on in Jerusalem, as their names will appear a few more times in this biblical account of Nehemiah.
“At that time, I was the cupbearer to the king. In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served him, I carried the wine. I gave it to the king. I had never been sad in his presence before. So the king said to me. ‘Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart.’ Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king. ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors’ graves, lies waste? Its gates have been destroyed by fire.’ Then the king said to me. ‘What do you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said to the king. ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors’ graves, so that I may rebuild it.’ The king said to me, with the queen sitting beside him. ‘How long will you be gone? When will you return?’ So it pleased the king to send me. I set him a date. Then I said to the king. ‘If it pleases the king, let letters be given to me for the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah. Grant me a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, directing him to give me timber. Then I can make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy.’ The king granted me what I asked. The gracious hand of my God was upon me.”
The cupbearer to the king was an important position with royal power. This is a firsthand account of his conversation with the king, which he seems to know quite well. It does not say how long he had been the cup bearer. Anyway, Nehemiah had a sad face and seemed troubled. The king asked him what was wrong since he had never seemed troubled before this. King Artaxerxes wanted to help him. Then Nehemiah gave him his request. He wanted to go to Judah to repair the graves of his ancestors. The graves were not his main motive. Then the king immediately wanted to know how long he would be gone, as if to say I need you here. Nehemiah gave an unspecified date. He also wanted letters of passage to the Province Beyond the River. On top of that, he wanted the guy in charge of the forests to let him have some wood to build the gates of the temple, the city, and his own home. Notice that someone was in charge of the forests and the wood. They were worried about the environment. The king said fine, because the gracious hand of God was with Nehemiah.