The Bible is a series of documents many revere as the backbone of their religion. For others, it is a literary masterpiece. For still others, it is nonsense. But our culture makes reference to many of the people mentioned in the Bible, so regardless of one's feelings about its value, it makes good sense to learn to recognize the names of major figures. These 11 Biblical figures are considered by most to be historically real. The list is basically in chronological order.
For important legendary Biblical figures preceding the Exodus, see Legends of the Jews.
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Moses was an early leader of the Hebrews and probably the most important figure in Judaism. He was raised in the court of the Pharaoh in Egypt, but then led the Hebrew people out of Egypt. Moses is said to have talked with God. His story is told in the Biblical book Exodus.
Warrior, musician, poet (author of Psalm 23 - The Lord is My Shepherd), friend of Jonathan, and king, David (1005-965) is familiar from the story of his killing the giant Goliath with his sling during the battle that the Israelites fought against the Philistines. He was from the tribe of Judah, and followed Saul as king of the United Monarchy
. His son Absalom (born to Maacha) rebelled against David and was killed. After causing the death of Bathsheba
's husband, Uriah, David married her. Their son Solomon (968-928) was the last king of the United Monarchy.
Biblical sources: Books of Samuel and Chronicles.
Solomon (ruled 968-928), born in Jerusalem to David and Bathsheba, was the last king of the United Monarchy. He is credited with finishing the First Temple in Jerusalem to house the Ark of the Covenant. The name of Solomon is associated with proverbial wisdom. One example of his wisdom is the story a disputed baby. Solomon suggested to the 2 would-be mothers that he use his sword to divide the baby in half. The real mother was willing to give her baby away. Solomon is also known for meeting with the Queen of Sheba.
Main source for Solomon: The Book of Kings.
Nebuchadnezzar (ruled c. 605 B.C.-562 B.C.) was an important Babylonian king whose Biblical significance lies in his destroying the First Temple in Jerusalem and starting the period of Babylonian Captivity.
Sources for Nebuchadnezzar include various books of the Bible (e.g., Ezekial and Daniel) and Berosus (Hellenistic Babylonian writer).
While in the Babylonian captivity, the Jews looked to prophecies about their release. Contrary to expectation, the non-Jewish king of Persia, Cyrus the great, was the one to conquer the Chaldean (Babylonian) Kingdom (in 538 B.C.), and secure their release and return to their homeland.
Cyrus is mentioned 23 times in the Old Testament. Books mentioning him include Chronicles, Ezra, and Isaiah. The main source on Cyrus is Herodotus.
Maccabees is the name of a priestly Jewish family which ruled Palestine in the second and first centuries B.C.E. and wrested Judea from the rule of the Seleucids and their Greek practices. They are the founders of the Hasmonean dynasty. The Jewish holiday Hanukkah
commemorates the Maccabees' recapture of Jerusalem and reconsecration of the Temple in December 164 B.C.E.
Herod the Great (73 B.C. - 4 B.C.), was king of Judaea
, thanks to Rome. Herod increased the prosperity of the area, including the finishing of the Second Temple, but is portrayed as a tyrant in the New Testament. The Gospels say shortly before he died, Herod ordered the killing of infants in Bethlehem.
8. Herod Antipas and Herodias
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Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, was the ruler of Galilee and Peraea from 4 B.C. - A.D. 39. Herodias was the niece of Herod Antipas who divorced Herod's brother to marry Herod. This marriage violated Jewish custom and John the Baptist is said to have criticized it. Herod and Herodias' daughter (Salome) is said to have asked for the head of John the Baptist in exchange for dancing for an audience. Herod may have had a role in the trial of Jesus.
Sources: Gospels and Jewish Antiquities of Flavius Josephus.
Pontius Pilate has come down in history because of his role in the execution of Jesus. Pilate (Pilatus, in Latin) worked with Jewish leaders to put on trial a man who posed a threat. His actions with respect to Jesus are recorded in the Gospels. Harsher critiques of him can be found in the Jewish historical writers, Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, as well as the Roman historian Tacitus who places himin the context of the name "Chrestus" or "Christus" in his Annals
Pontius Pilate was a Roman Governor of Judaea from about A.D. 26-36. He was recalled after he slaughtered thousands of Samaritan pilgrims. Under Caligula, Pilate may have been sent into exile and he could have committed suicide in about 38.
The religion of Christianity is based on the figure of the resurrected Jesus Christ. Christians believe him to be the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. His story is told mostly in the Gospels, although there are other possible mentions. Non-Christians who accept the historicity of Jesus, generally believe he was a Jew from Galilee, a rabbi/teacher baptized by John the Baptist, and crucified in Jerusalem by the sentence of Pontius Pilate.
Also see Christianity at About.com's Co-Conspirators in the Death of Jesus.
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Paul of Tarsus, in Cilicia, was also known by the Jewish name of Saul. Paul, a name he may have had thanks to his Roman citizenship, was born early in the first century A.D. or late in the last century B.C. He was executed in Rome, under Nero, in about A.D. 67. It is Paul who set the tone for Christianity and gave the Greek name for 'good news', i.e., the gospel.