THE INTERTESTAMENTAL PERIOD:
400 Silent Years
A Paper Submitted to Dr. James F. Davis
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for
Liberty Theological Seminary
Sunday, April 10, 2011
TABLE OF CONTENTS
This paper will be a brief history of the Intertestamental Period, from Alexander the Great through the reign of Herod’s sons. Other than fulfilling the requirements of a class, why would one wish to study or understand this period? Is it really relevant to today’s Christian life? These are the first two issues this writer wishes to address.
Many Christians would agree that the two most significant events of human history are the birth and resurrection of Jesus. If that is so, what is to be gained by really studying anything prior to those two events? All possible time should be spent starting in Matthew. What does the Old Testament or the Intertestamental Period have to offer? It’s the “why” they offer. Study of the Old Testament gives us the “why” of how Jesus saw and interpreted many things in his brief life on Earth. The Old Testament books “are the words he read”.1 Jesus was raised in the stories and songs of the Old Testament. The more we understand those stories and songs, the more we add to our understanding of the Savior! What can the Intertestamental Period add?
Two things in general are significant about those years. First, they were the “400 silent years”2 in that there were no prophets of God writing Scripture. This activity stopped with the end of Malachi. With no new scripture, what can this period add? It can add the “why” again!
This is the “why” of the culture of Palestine that would exist during Jesus’s life. During the four
1Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990),p ix.
2John Stevenson Bible Study Website, <http://angelfire.com/nt/theology/jts.html>, (Accessed April 6, 2011).
This is the “why” of the culture of Palestine that would exist during Jesus’s life. During the four hundred years between the last writings of the Old Testament and the birth of Christ “the political, religious, and social atmosphere of Palestine changed significantly”.3 The environment that existed while Jesus walked the Earth came to be in the period between Malachi and Matthew. Just as understanding the Old Testament helps us better understand Jesus the man, understanding the Intertestamental Period helps us better understand the world in which he lived. Some understanding of both the Old Testament and the Intertestamental Period is necessary in any Christian’s study and understanding of the life and ministry of Jesus.
This time in history can be separated into six periods, Grecian, Ptolemaic, Syrian, Maccabean, Hasmonean and Roman. Here is a brief summary of each period as well as its impact on the Jews and Palestine in the time leading up to the birth of Christ.
Alexander the Great, one of history’s most dynamic and aggressive military leaders began the Grecian Period by taking control of Palestine when he defeated the Persians at the battle of Arbela in 331 B.C.4 The Persians had controlled Palestine for over two hundred years after taking it from the Babylonians in 539 B.C. The Persian king Darius was the last ruler
3Got Questions Ministry Website,< http://gotquestions.org/intertestamental-period.html>, (Accessed April 2, 2011).
4Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament, Its Background and Message (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), p13.
mentioned in the Old Testament. The Persian time had been one of Jewish religious independence and relative peace for Jews. Alexander’s military conquest of Palestine was not so much about controlling the Jewish was of life as much as it was about his conquest of the world! With his victory over the Persians, he was now “master of the Middle East”5 with a kingdom that included Egypt, Palestine and Syria and stretched as far as the Indus River in India.
Alexander was raised as the son of the Greek king and tutored by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. He believed deeply in the ideals of Hellenism, thinking it to be the ultimate guide to culture and tradition. While he did allow religious freedom for the Jews he practiced and promoted a Greek lifestyle. Every resident of Palestine would know that to be successful in the Greek-ruled-Palestine, they would need to be more Hellenistic than Jewish in their everyday practices and lifestyle. Alexander’s love of Hellenism and its Greek language would eventually lead to the Hebrew Old Testament’s translation into Greek, knows as the Septuagint, under one of his Hellenistic successors.6 This is the version of the Old Testament commonly used during the life of Christ. Jesus no doubt heard it read in the Temple as a boy. Alexander the Great’s love of Hellenism would also lead to the increasing influence of this lifestyle on Palestine in the years following his death.
The Grecian Period ended with Alexander’s death at age 30 in 323 B.C.
6Spotlight Ministries Website,< http://spotlightministries.org.uk/inter.html>, (Accessed April 3, 2011).
A power struggle among Alexander’s leading generals marked the beginning of this period. Four would emerge as winners of the struggle and become known as the diadochi or successors to the previous king.7 Ptolemy, possibly a half-brother to Alexander through his father Phillip took control of Palestine, as well as Egypt, Phoenicia and Southern Syria.8 The Ptolemaic empire would last in Egypt over 300 years. There would be twelve kings named Ptolemy and one named Cleopatra. This would be a time of religious freedom for Jews but increasing influence from the Hellenistic culture. Jews were allowed to become Roman citizens. Greek became the common language of many Jews, especially those living in Egypt. During this time the Old Testament was translated into Greek, known as the Septuagint.9 This would replace the Hebrew Old Testament as the most commonly used version.
This period was one of relative peace and prosperity for Jews living in Palestine or in Egypt especially those Jews living in Rome or in Alexandria, the major city of culture and center of commerce under the Ptolemies.10 While there were battles with Syria, fought frequently in northern Palestine, life was generally good for Jews. The Ptolemies were builders of commerce, libraries and museums. Garrisons of Greek soldiers, based in Palestine to protect against Syrian conflict, lived comfortably with the Jews. Those Syrian conflicts would lead to the defeat of
7The New Testament, Its Background and Message, p 15.
8John Stevenson Bible Study Website, <http://angelfire.com/nt/theology/jts.html>, (Accessed April 6, 2011).
9The New Testament, Its Background and Message, p 15.
10Thomas V. Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 1998), p179.
Ptolemy V in 198 B.C. in the Battle of Paneas near Mt. Hermon in northern Palestine. With this defeat the Ptolemaic Period would come to an end. While the Ptolemaic empire would continue in Egypt, its rule of Palestine lasted about 125 years.
While the Ptolemies were in control of Palestine there were changes occurring in Syria to the north. In 311 B.C., just after the first Ptolemy began his rule, one of his generals, Seleucus I, moved with the soldiers who supported him to take control of Syria. This began the Syrian or Seleucid period. In the coming years Seleucus I and his successors would build their empire on the northern border of Palestine. This was often the location of conflict as Seleucid leaders from time to time attempted to expand their border south. In the end, in 198 B.C., Antiochus III a descendant of the original Seleucus would defeat Ptolemy V and take control of Palestine.
The Seleucids wanted Palestine for three specific reasons.11 Palestine’s rich timber and minerals were a source of wealth to the government in control. The location of Palestine also served as a natural buffer to invasion from Egypt to the south. The location of Palestine also could serve as a staging area for a Seleucid invasion of Egypt.
Initially, Antiochus III and his leadership were received well by Jews in Palestine. Religious freedom continued, much like the previous period. Syrian kings also supported the
11George Balla, The Four Centuries Between the Testaments (N. Richland Hills, TX: Bibal Press, 1993), p 24.
cultural ideas of Hellenism, but were not aggressive in forcing them on the Jewish population.12
Antiochus III would continue the push to expand his kingdom but with limited success. As he attempted to expand his border west, he was soundly defeated by the powers of Rome in Magnesia in 190 B.C. Roman armies were conquering nearby nations and Antiochus was concerned for his kingdom. He believed his only hope of survival was to stop them before they became too powerful.13 He misjudged their ability and almost lost everything. Romans took much of his land but left him with Palestine. But now he was under the rule and taxation of the Roman authorities. His son, Antiochus IV was also taken from him and sent to Rome as a hostage.
To raise monies to pay the Roman taxes and finance his kingdom he began to heavily tax the people as well as looting temples of both pagans and Jews.14 He would eventually be murdered during the looting of a temple. His son Seleucus would take his place but act much the same and also be murdered. Antiochus IV would take control, having escaped from Rome. This king would greatly accelerate the oppressive treatment of Jews. His behavior would include selling the office of High Priest to the highest bidder. In the end, Jews lost all religious freedom and exercised their religious practices under the threat of death.15 Only pagan gods could be worshiped.
13The Holman Bible Atlas, p 181.
14The Four Centuries Between the Testaments, p 25.
15Ibid, p 27.
Antiochus IV had his supporters in the Jewish community. The Sadducees supported him in an attempt to maintain control of the temple. Pharisees, Zealots and Essenes became powerful forces of opposition. Antiochus IV foolishly underestimated the stubborn commitment of Jews to follow their religion and the stage was set for one of history’s best known rebellions.16
The revolt would occur in 167 B.C. after 31 years of Syrian rule in the small village of Modin, about ten miles north of Jerusalem.17 It would launch perhaps the most well-known period of the Intertestamental years.
To enforce his direction that only pagan gods be worshipped, Antiochus IV sent authorities into the country to enforce the new law and confirm that pagan worship and sacrifices were being observed. When one of his authorities entered the village of Modin, he would meet the resistance that would eventually topple the entire kingdom.
Mattathias Hasmon, an old Jewish priest was on duty at the temple square that day. When he observed a Jew following the order of the authority, he killed both the Jew and the agent of the king. Mattathias and his five sons ran to the hills to hide from the authorities. They
16The New Testament, Its Background and Message, p 18.
joined forces with a “passionately orthodox”18 group of Jews known as the Hasidim and the revolution began.
Mattathias Hasmon is a man worthy of our study and a deeper level of detail in this brief history of the Intertestamental Period. His life is documented in The Apocrypa19, in the second chapter of The First Book of Maccabees. From this writer’s study he is a strong example of a very common, ordinary man used by God in a great way.
Mattathias was the priest of Modin. He had five sons. Modin was a small village separated from the religious center of Jerusalem. It was most likely a quiet and tranquil place to live. But Mattathias was deeply troubled by what he was witnessing among his people. He was open and vocal to those around him on his opinions of how God’s temple was being disgraced and the lives of God’s people ruined by the atmosphere created by Palestine’s current leadership. He grieved for his people and his country as he would a friend who had died, tearing his clothes and wearing grieving garments for all to see.
When the agents of the king came to Modin that day to insure the worship to pagan gods was occurring, they started with Mattathias. They offered him a substantial bribe to lead his people in pagan worship, promising him the friendship of the king for his sons as well if he agreed. In a loud voice, he publicly rebuked them, plainly stating “we will not listen to the message of the king”.20
18The Holman Bible Atlas, p 183.
19Edgar J. Goodspeed, The Apocrypha, An American Translation (New York, NY: Random House, Inc, 1989), p 379.
20Ibid, p 380.
Just after his public rebuke, a Jew wishing the king’s favor stepped into the temple square to obey the king’s agents and offer a pagan sacrifice. Mattathias just couldn’t take it anymore! He killed the Jew involved and the king’s agent as well as “his heart was properly roused to anger”.21 He cried for all who agreed with him to join him as he and his sons took all of their possessions and fled to the mountains.
Just as God had used normal people over and over in the Old Testament up to this point, he used Mattathias. And, Mattathias was over 145 years old at this point. When he would die a year later living in the mountains “all Israel made loud lamentation for him”.22 We should all only hope that when our mission from God is revealed we have the courage and focus to step up to the task as did Mattathias. His actions would inspire an entire nation to stand up for God and their beliefs. His actions that day in the temple square changed the history of Palestine. The timeline of events in the first century world of the New Testament was forever changed by the passionate actions of this one man.
Over the next few years, the band of revolutionaries he founded, familiar with the terrain of the land and supported by the local people, fought a guerrilla war in the region against Seleucid forces and time after time defeated much larger and better equipped opponents. At his death, his oldest son Judas took the leadership position of the rebel force against the king. His bravery and popularity with the local people won him the nickname of Maccabeus, “the Hammer”.23
22Ibid, p 383.
23The New Testament, Its Background and Message, p 18.
The Hammer would win an impressive list of battles. His most impressive win was in 164 B.C., three years after the beginning of the revolt. He recaptured the Jerusalem temple, took out all the pagan artifacts and cleansed the temple.24 In honor of the event, the Festival of Hanukkah was begun. Two hundred years later, Jesus would stand in this very temple and celebrate this event.
Although he would not be as successful in future conflicts, Judas has succeeded in partially restoring Jewish religious freedom and giving the Jews hope of better things to come. Judas was killed in a battle in 160 B.C. and his brother Jonathan took over. He would have many victories as well as having Syrian taxes abolished. He would be put to death by the Syrians in 143 B.C. Simon, the last brother quickly picked up the leadership of the now famous and revered Maccabees.
In 142 B.C. after completely driving the Syrians out of Jerusalem, Simon would reach an agreement with Demetrius II of Syria and the Jewish national autonomy of Palestine was restored! The Maccabees had succeeded in restoring religious freedom and their identity as a nation back to the Jews in Palestine.
Simon died in 134 B.C. ending the Maccabean Period after 33 years. His descendants, the grandsons of the original Mattathias would now become the next group of Jewish leaders.
24The Holman Bible Atlas, p 184.
The Hasmonean Period is named for the family name of the original Maccabees who led and governed Jerusalem in the prior period. Their behavior is so different in this period than their ancestors of the previous time that they are remembered with a different name. The Maccabees were clearly focused on the freedom of the Jews, religiously, politically and socially. The Hasmoneans were more about their personal and political agendas and often more focused on secular and Hellenistic values than their forefathers.25 While Jews maintained religious freedom and much of their cultural traditions during this period it was a time of general unrest in Palestine.
Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus became the Jewish leader upon his father’s death. He was a cruel and self-centered leader who became aligned with wealthy Jews who supported the values of Hellenism. During his reign, we see the continued growth and development of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees were those who had been closely aligned with the Maccabees. Sadducees were now more dominant as they were more aligned with the values of the Hasmoneans, now in power.
Hasmoneans became known for their personal lust for power.26 One person of interest from this period was Antipater, a political operative who became the leader of the wealthy Jews with great influence over the Hasmonean leaders. He was the father of Herod who would later
25The Old Testament, Its Background and Message, p 19.
be approved by the Roman Senate as the first non-Jewish leader of Palestine.27
Eventually the self-centered style of the leadership of this period created a high sense of unrest and chaos in Palestine. The greed of Hyrcanus was only exceeded by that of his brother, Aristobulus II who began a civil war to seize power. The Roman General, Pompey, saw an opportunity in the chaos, invaded, defeated the Hasmoneans and turned Palestine into a Roman province. Officially, this event in 63 B.C. marked the end of the Hasmonean Period as Roman dominance began. In fact, Hasmonean leaders maintained some influence until 37 B.C. with the death of Antigone, the last Hasmonean leader. This period lasted 71 years, more than twice the duration of the Maccabean Period, yet its accomplishments and memorable leaders are a small fraction of the previous period.
While Rome took political and military control of Palestine in 63 B.C. it allowed local Hasmonean leaders to maintain some level of authority over local affairs until 37 B.C. During that interim, things in Rome were changing. Pompey, the Roman general who conquered Palestine died in 48 B.C.28 Shortly after, through military success, Julius Caesar became Rome’s new leader. His power would only last until 44 B.C. when he was murdered. Octavian, his nephew quickly seized control and eventually secured his position as leader with the Roman people by leading a defeat of Antony and Cleopatra near Actium, Greece in 31 B.C.29 His
27Ibid, p 24.
28The Holman Bible Atlas, p 195.
29The New Testament, Its Background and Message, p 21.
victory there was the beginning of a long period of Roman peace and a more quiet way of life for Romans compared to the many years of military expansion and conquest prior to this time.
In recognition of his accomplishments in 27 B.C. the Roman Senate named him Rome’s first Emperor and Commander-in-Chief.30 He was given the name Caesar Augustus. This brings us to Luke 2:1, “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken”31 which led to Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus would remain in control of Rome and subsequently Palestine through the birth of Jesus and part of his childhood, his reign ending in A.D. 14. At his death, his son Tiberius would become Emperor and be the leader of Rome though the life of Jesus.32
When the last Hasmonean died in 37 B.C., Palestine needed a new authority and this one would come from Roman authority. Antipater who had worked to influence previous Hasmonean leaders used his political influence to persuade the Roman Senate to elect his son Herod as king of Palestine.
Herod’s rule over Palestine was deeply resented by the Jews. There were three main reasons he was never able to win their loyalty or respect.33 First, he was not a Jew. Jews believed that only a true Jew could sit on the throne of David. Second, he was strongly committed to Hellenism, as were the Romans. He built many grand structures in Jerusalem and
31New American Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006), p1481.
32The New Testament, Its Background and Message, p 22.
33The Four Centuries Between the Testaments, p 42.
Palestine, even elaborately rebuilding the temple. It took more than eighty years. But Herod’s
intention was not to glorify God but himself with this structure.
Lastly the Jews resented Herod for his evilness. He was responsible for the murder of his own wife and children as well as many others who thought him to be their friend. He would kill anyone he felt was a threat to his authority. He put Jesus into that category, ordering the murder of every baby boy in Bethlehem in an attempt to eliminate the threat he perceived. While the Jews had some religious freedoms under his reign it was a time of violence and general unrest in Jerusalem and all of Palestine.
After the first Herod, his five sons would reign in succession after him. Herod the Great, the first Herod, ruled until 4 B.C.34 Herod Archelaus, his oldest son, ruled then until A.D. 6, then was followed by Herod Antipas, Herod Philip, Herod Agrippa I and Herod Agrippa II, whose reign ended in A.D. 94. With the end of the reign of Herod the Great, the Intertestamental Period would end. The death of the last Herod, Agrippa II coincided with the end of New Testament times. From the beginning of the Roman period to the last Herod was 157 years.
34The Holman Bible Atlas, p 207.
While the Intertestamental Period was silent in that there were no new scriptures written by the prophets of God, it was anything but quiet. After the aggressive military conquest by Alexander the Great, Palestine would experience the power struggle of his leading generals. Syrians would move south taking control of Palestine and maintaining oppressive control of the Jews until the Maccabees came from a small village of common people to overthrow the powerful Syrian army, initially inspired by an elderly priest who just could not stand to see God’s people so oppressed. The descendants of the Maccabees would come to power only to lose their authority over Palestine through their own greed and fighting between themselves. The powerful Roman empire would take control of Palestine at that time, dominating Palestine during the birth, life and death of Jesus.
This period was 400 years of movement and change much like the preceeding Old Testament years. We can never be sure of why God chose not to deal with it in scripture but can be sure that understanding it is a requirement of understanding the world into which Jesus was born. The Old Testament gives us the words Jesus read and studying the Intertestamental Period helps us understand the roads he walked.
Balla, George, The Four Centuries Between the Testaments, Bibal Press, 1993.
Brisco, Thomas V., Holman Bible Atlas, B&H Publishing Group, 1998.
Goodspeed, Edgar J., The Apocrypha, An American Translation, Random House, Inc., 1989.
Got Questions Ministry Website, <http://www.gotquestions.org/intertestamental-period.html>.
John Stevenson Bible Study Website, <http://angelfire.com/nt/theology/jts.html>.
Lea, Thomas D. and David Alan Black, The New Testament, Its Background and Message, B&H Publishing Group, 2003.
New American Standard Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006.
Spotlight Ministries Website, <http://spotlightminitsries.org.uk/inter.htm>.
Wright, Christopher J.H., Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, InterVarsity Press, 1992