What Happened Between The Testaments? (Between the Old and New Testaments)
The Old Testament closes with the people of Israel partially restored to their homeland and were living in relative peace under the Persians who allowed them to go home and rebuild their national, political, and religious life as part of their policy. Most of the people were scattered abroad the Roman empire. This is called the dispersion or diaspora. However, the Persian Empire was long been defeated by the Greeks led by Alexander the Great. The Greek influence persisted even during the period of the Romans. By the time Jesus was born Israel was under the power and brutality of the Roman Empire. The four centuries between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament is referred to as the intertestamental period (some refer to it as the 400 silent years due to the gap in the biblical record and the silencing of the prophetic voice).
How did the diaspora affect the religious life of the Jews? Who was Alexander the Great? How far was the Greek’s influence in the world even after Alexander’s death? How about Rome and its influence? What were the literary works produced during this period? What were the social developments that emerged between the testaments?
The diaspora or dispersion refers to the Jews living outside of their homeland while maintaining their religious faith and practices. The dispersion of the Jews which begun during the exile accelerated during the intertestamental period.
The first dispersion occurred in 721 B.C.E. The Assyrians took the northern kingdom of Israel, and the second one was in 586 B.C.E. this time the northern kingdom of Israel was subdued and taken by the Babylonians. Many of those who had been taken to Babylon chose to stay there. They were not part of those who returned to Jerusalem under Ezra and Nehemiah. During the time of Alexander the Great many Jews were compelled to live in Alexandria, the newly built city in Egypt.
Thus most of the Jews were scattered outside of Israel and were cut off from the temple. Their religious life on the study of the Torah centered in the synagogue. In an effort to keep their cultural and religious life, the Jews in dispersion built synagogues for worship, prayer, and study of the Torah or Scriptures on Sabbaths.
Alexander the Great and the Greek Empire
Alexander was the son of Philip II, the king of Macedon, and Olympias. He was born in Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia in July 356 B.C.E. He received education under the philosopher Aristotle. He assumed power as king and inherited a mighty but unstable kingdom after the assassination of his father, Philip. After being installed as king, he immediately dealt with his enemies reestablished Macedonian power within Greece. Then he went on to conquer the Persians by inflicting successive defeats at the battles of Granicus (334 B.C.E.), Issus (333 B.C.E.), Arbela (331 B.C.E.). Because of these defeats, the control of the Holy Land or Israel fell to the Greek empire of Alexander the Great.
As a result of the subjugation, Alexander imposed a new policy of uniting his subject peoples under the Greek language and culture (architecture, names, style of clothing, entertainment). Greek language became the lingua franca or the common language used for business and diplomatic relations. This policy is called Hellenization or Hellenism. Obviously, its purpose was in part political. By imposing a single unifying culture it would be easy to govern an empire that consisted of many and diverse countries and cultures. It gave coherence of ideas and values that lasted until the period of the Roman empire. (For more about Hellenism please click here: https://kapeatkamalayan.com/2018/12/08/hellenism-a-case-of-cultural-diffusion/)
Alexander died in 323 B.C.E. at the age of thirty-three. Since he has no heir, the vast empire was divided among his four generals. Two of them founded dynasties – Ptolemies in Egypt with Alexandria as its capital and the Seleucids in Syria with Antioch as the capital. Thus, rulers of this dynasty used the title Seleucus and several others Anthiocus. These two dynasties are of importance to our study of the background of the New Testament. Israel stood between the two dynasties and has been the subject of rivalry between them. It was ruled first by Ptolemies in 311-198 B.C.E. and then by the Seleucids in 198-164 B.C.E.
Israel’s experience under the Seleucids reached its toughest point when a Seleucid king named Anthiocus IV Epiphanes who was deemed as god manifest, imposed a radical Hellenization which aimed at eradicating the Jewish religion. It attempted to destroy all copies of the Pentateuch or the Torah and required offerings and worship to the Greek god Zeus. His worst acts were the erection of a statue of Zeus and the offering of a swine in the Temple of Jerusalem. This moves apparently was Antiochus’ response to the threats to his empire. These were in two fronts; external, Rome was already an emerging world power and was demanding large amount of money as bribe to keep the Romans from attacking Grecian territories. Another front is internal. The Greek empire is tearing apart due to civil wars caused by ethnic diversity within it.
The Maccabean Revolt
Jewish resistance erupted over the abomination of Antiochus IV Epiphanes led by Mattathias, an elderly priest and his family from the village of Modein or Modin. He refused to the prodding of a royal agent of Antiochus to offer a pagan sacrifice. When another Jew signified his willingness to comply he killed him and the royal agent, destroyed the altar, and fled to the mountains with his five sons and some sympathizers. This was the beginning of the so-called Maccabean Revolt under the leadership of Mattathias’ family (in 167 B.C.E.). The family is also called Hasmoneans, Hasmon, the great-grandfather of Mattathias. They are also known as the Maccabees, taken from the nickname “Maccabeus” or “the Hammer”, a nickname given to Judas, one of Mattathias’s sons.
The Maccabees went into a guerilla warfare and subdued the Syrians in a fierce, close combat. It also triggered a civil war between the pro and anti-Hellenistic Jews. This struggle persisted even after the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 163 B.C.E. The revolt succeeded in throwing the Syrians out of their stronghold in Jerusalem, then they regained religious freedom, rededicated the temple. and occupied Palestine. Consequently, Hasmonean Dynasty was established in Palestine.
The Period of the Romans
The Hasmonean Dynasty ended when an spreading Roman empire through General Pompey interfered in the clash between Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II, the sons of Janneus, in 63 A.D. Pompey then took the East for Rome and after a three-month siege of the temple area, took Jerusalem as well. A massacre of priests while performing their duties approaching the holy of holies occurred during the siege. Thus, Roman subjugation of Jerusalem began in a sacrilegious manner, something that the Jews could neither forgive nor forget.
Rome ruled Israel indirectly through cooperative and therefore compromising puppet kings and governors such as the Herod the Great and Pontius Pilate. Herod was a shrewd ruler who was able to establish a good relationship with the Jews by rebuilding and enlarging the temple. However, he was also a brutal, cruel man. He ordered his first wife, Merriamne, be killed and later also three of his sons. This was the Herod when who ruled Judah when Jesus was born.
The Romans ruled by force, fear; and intimidation, wounding cultural sensitivities of their subject nations, imposing taxes to the extent of impoverishment of the people, forcing their own brand of Hellenism to hardheaded Jews and meting out cruel penalties for any who oppose their will. The result is heightened racial hatred of Gentiles in Israel including those who collaborate with Rome. Fervent longing for God to return to rule the world from Jerusalem filled the hearts of the people.
Thus, Israel during the birth of Jesus was a nation with intense hopes and fears. The people were tired of pagan subjugation.
Literature during the Intertestamental Period
The following literary works were produced the period between the testaments, during those unhappy years of oppression and internal strife.
The Septuagint. This is the Greek translation of the Old Testament which was said to be the work of 72 scholars done in 72 days. The scholars were convened in Pharos Island near Alexandria and sponsored by Ptolemy Philadelphus (250 B.C.E.). From this tradition, the Latin word 70 or “septuagint” was attached to the translation with the Roman LXX was used as abbreviation.
The purpose was to make the Old Testament accessible for the Jews of the diaspora who no longer spoke their ancestral language and to the entire Hellenistic world.
Apocrypha. The term was derived from a Greek word which means “hidden” it then acquired the meaning “false”. In a technical sense it describes a specific body of writings.
Dead Sea Scrolls. Discovered by an Arab shepherd boy in the spring of 1947 in a cave in the hills near the southwestern Dead Sea. It contained the was has been considered as the “greatest manuscript discovery of modern times.” The fragments of documents found in the cave included Old Testament books, a few books of the Apocrypha, apocalyptic works, books that were purportedly written by ancient heroes of the faith or pseudepigrapha, and several books that were unique to the sect that produced them. The Dead Sea Scrolls also contain several Biblical documents like the Psalms, Deuteronomy and Isaiah.
Social Developments formed during the Intertestamental Period
Diaspora (see above section).
The Sadducees. They are composed of aristocrats and became the temple party. They had vested in the status quo because of their position. Though few in number, they were able to wield disproportionate political power and controlled the high priesthood. They rejected the doctrine of resurrection and any other teachings. They adhere only to the teachings of the Torah.
The Synagogue. It was used to preserve Israel’s religion during the exile. Their faith was threatened with extinction. The synagogue became the center where they practiced the Torah, and concentrated on personal piety and on prayer rather than nationhood. These moves characterized synagogue worship. They brought this new form of religious expression when they returned from exile. It also helped preserved Judaism and paved the way for the Christian gospel.
The Pharisees. They were regarded as the party of the synagogue, the Pharisees attempted to reinterpret the law. They build a protective wall or “hedge” around it to enable Jews to live righteously before God. They were few in numbers yet they enjoyed the support of the people and influenced public opinion if not national policy. They survive the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.
The Essenes. They were a small, separatist group that grew out of the conflict of the Maccabean age. They imposed strict legal compliance but viewed the temple priesthood as corrupt and rejected much of the temple rituals and sacrificial system.
The Zealots. They took their inspiration from the account of the old priest Mattathias, the initiator of the Maccabean revolt. “He burned with zeal for the law” and rallied men to him by crying out,”Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!”(1 Maccabees 2:26-27, NRSV; Numbers 25:6-15). They Zealots followed this tradition, they were loyal to the Torah, passionately resisted compromise with pagan culture, embraced the use of violence to achieve their purpose, and were willing to die as martyrs for their cause.
It was within these contexts that a young man from Nazareth, the carpenter’s son is being prepared to lead the people to a deeper and more meaningful relationship with God- a fulfillment of their desire for the the return of God (as mentioned above) to their beloved nation.
Bartholomew, Craig G. and Goheen, Michael W. The Drama of Scripture. Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004.
Gundry, Robert H. A Survey of the Nw Testament. Third Edition. Manila, Philippines: OMF Literature, Inc., 2002.
Halley, Henry H. Halley’s Bible Handbook. ePub Format. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000.
Zondervan NASB Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999.