I believe the reign of Caligula, emperor of Rome (37-41 AD), is underrated, as far as related events in the New Testament is concerned. Understanding what actually occurred in Jewish history at that time puts the persecution following the death of Stephen and what brought about its end (cf. Acts 9:31) in proper perspective. There was a lot happening during these few years in Jewish history that remind me of the period of Antiochus Epiphanes who desecrated the Temple, which gave rise to the revolt of the Maccabees, cir. 168 BC.
Just before the days of the Maccabees the corruption of the high priesthood had become so prevalent that the Temple duties of the priests had been ignored in favor of spending time in the gymnasium, bowing to Hellenism. In other words, the desire to become like the nations around them was so intensified among the Jews that true worship of God had been virtually abandoned. In fact, to accentuate his displeasure with his people, the Lord allowed or perhaps caused Antiochus IV to sacrifice swine’s flesh upon the brazen altar in the Temple at Jerusalem, thus polluting it and officially ending worship in the House upon which God had placed his name. I like the manner in which this is described in the words of the writer of the second book of the Maccabees:
2 Maccabees 5:19-20 KJVA (19) Nevertheless God did not choose the people for the place’s sake, but the place far the people’s sake. (20) And therefore the place itself, that was partaker with them of the adversity that happened to the nation, did afterward communicate in the benefits sent from the Lord: and as it was forsaken in the wrath of the Almighty, so again, the great Lord being reconciled, it was set up with all glory.
In other words, as the people go, so goes the Temple of God. Therefore the abomination that polluted the Temple occurred long before official deed of Antiochus IV. The religious revolution among the dueling high priests at this time had taken away the hearts of the people from God and caused them to seek to become like the nations around them, thus, ignoring the Covenant they had made with the Lord.
Back to the first century AD, a few years before and extending into the reign of Caligula, Annas, the high priest, had initiated a persecution of Messianic Jews, thus making war against the true worshipers of God, simply because they were so devoted to the Lord. I don’t mean to imply the unbelieving Jews didn’t worship God, but I do mean to say Annas was not among them. Annas’ persecution began with the stoning of Stephen and the expulsion of Hellenist Messianic Jews from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-3), and pursuing them even to cities outside Judea (Acts 9:1-2; 26:11).
I often wonder about our tendency to leave God out of history. It seems to me that the real reason that historical developments take the shape they do can often be explained in the fact that we tend to leave God out of our knowledge, which included our understanding of historical events (cf. Romans 1:28). What I mean is, what do we really understand about Jewish history between the time of Stephen’s death in Acts 7 and the death of Herod Agrippa of Acts 12?
All the Scriptures tell us is that there was a persecution, but it doesn’t say how effective or widespread it was. We are told of evangelistic efforts (Acts 8), Paul’s conversion (Acts 9), Peter’s preaching to Cornelius, a gentile (Acts 10), Peter having to explain himself due to his receiving Cornelius as a believer without circumcising him, and an almost parenthetic remark about the Hellenist believers getting as far as Antioch with the Gospel (Acts 11), and the death of James the Apostle, Peter’s expulsion from Jerusalem and the death of Herod Agrippa (Acts 12). More than this we are not told, and this period covers approximately 10 years! Did anything really important occur that we have to read into the text in order to receive the full impact of what God is saying to us?
Unrest in Egypt began over the Jews’ exemption of having to practice the emperor cult, whereby statues of Caligula were placed within their places of worship. This ensued into riots with the result that many Jews were killed. In probable retaliation, Jews rose up in defiance of the emperor cult in Jamnia, a city in Palestine, near the coast and just south of Lydda and Joppa, and destroyed an imperial altar there. When news of this incident reached Caligula, he decided to erect a statue of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem. Meanwhile, an anti-Jewish backlash among the gentiles began to spread throughout the gentile cities in Palestine. What does all this mean?
What had occurred in history is only implied in the Scriptures with: “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified…” (Acts 9:31). Rome and Jerusalem were brought to the brink of war during Caligula’s reign, and war would have indeed occurred had Caesar placed the images of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem. If we allow for the working of God in the historical developments of this time, what may we conclude?
What I see is, Annas was seeking to wipe out the Jesus movement in Judea and beyond. God retaliated by threatening to wipe out the Jewish nation (cf. Luke 21:20-21), if things persisted as they were. The Jerusalem government left off its persecution of the Messianic believers (Acts 9:31) in order to pursue peace with Rome. This may also imply that Luke wrote his Gospel at this time and presented a copy to Theophilus, the then reigning high priest in Jerusalem (cf. Luke 1:1-4). By the thousands Jewish families flocked to Ptolemias just north of Caesarea, where the Roman legate of Syria, Petronius, was wintering his troops, planning to erect the statues of Caligula in the spring of 39 AD. It is only through his wise efforts to calm the tumultuous situation that Rome and Jerusalem didn’t come to war at this early date. Once the persecution was lifted, so was the Lord’s threat to destroy Jerusalem and the Temple 30 years earlier than it occurred.
What, therefore, do Caligula and Antiochus Epiphanes have in common, as their reigns pertain to the Jews? Both reigned during a time when the Jewish nation was abandoning its God and breaking covenant with him. The first gentile ruler officially desecrated the Temple, while the second planned to do so. Both rulers were involved in the emperor cult that required worship from those they ruled. Many scholars associate Daniel’s prophecy of the abomination of desolation with Antiochus Epiphanes. In reality, however, it has more to do with the corrupt priesthood in Jerusalem during both times in Jewish history. If this is logical, and we allow for the presence of God in history, the corrupt priesthood, responsible for the Jews war with God in the persecution of his disciples, brought about Caligula’s decision to set up images of himself within the Temple compound at Jerusalem. Thus, implying the corrupt authority that boasted itself above the authority of God was an abomination that eventually brought desolation to both Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 AD.
This study has been modified from its original to comply with my present understanding of God’s word.